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Continuing the leadership theme

Earlier this week I attended a development day on Ethical Leadership in Public Services, run by The Staff College. There were very good inputs from all three speakers - Kathryn Perera (NHS Horizons), Sherry Malik (NSPCC) and Martin Kalungu-Banda – I was left thinking about Martin’s emphasis on what he sees as the three most critical challenges of our time (clip starts at 8:00) - the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual divide.

Whilst each are important in their own right, the one that we DCSs probably pay most direct attention to is the ‘spiritual divide’ (mental ill-health), both the perennial problem of securing sufficient CAMHS provision for our most vulnerable children and young people, and our request to colleagues in adult mental health services to ‘Think Family’ when it comes to their practice and to ‘see the child’ whenever they are working to support an adult with mental health issues who is a parent too. The impacts of poverty and inequality (the social divide) are well-evidenced in research and felt throughout our work as well. And even though we may usually leave worries about climate change (the ecological divide) to other council departments, if we act on Martin’s exhortation to “listen to those not yet born”, it follows that as children’s outcomes matter to us, then our children’s children’s outcomes should matter too, and so on. If this is the context, what kind of leaders do we need? Leaders who can prioritise how many fingers we need in each of the many pies – and how deeply we need to poke at them!

This week ADCS published its latest DCS data; covering turnover, use of interims, longevity in post, twin hat arrangements and diversity, to name a few. I am pleased to see there has been a drop in turnover compared with last year’s volatility, but it’s still the case that the average length of time a ‘permanent’ DCS is in post is 37 months. Given what we know about how long it takes to really embed sustainable change, this is still much more churn than we would like to see.

This begs the question of what can we, and central government, do to create an environment which encourages people with the ambition and capability to become leaders to take on the role, and to support DCSs to stay? In the ADCS position paper “Building a Workforce that Works for all Children” we pressed home the point that in a context where senior leaders must find solutions to complex problems with diminishing resources, it is vital that [we] have the tools and support to meet these demands. This requires investment in systems leadership programmes for aspiring and existing DCSs. To their credit, the DfE is listening. They are currently in discussion with DCSs and others about what a programme for aspiring DCSs should cover seeking input across four main areas. Here are my preliminary thoughts:

Skills and capacities

DCSs are system leaders and champions for children. We can’t acquire every skill that’s deployed across the children’s workforce, nor can we know everything there is to know about such a wide remit. So, capacities are more immediately important than skills; capacity to learn from those around us in complementary roles, capacity to search a range of sources, judge their utility and assimilate detail quickly; capacity to recognise quality in outputs we may never have had a direct hand in producing ourselves. For everything else, there’s a masterclass. (Or there should be!)

Support and networks

Other DCSs are the primary source of help and support for new DCSs, DCSs taking on a new local authority or facing a challenging situation. We’re lucky to be able to scramble about on the shoulders of giants. I benefitted from an experienced mentor when I first became a director, as I know many of my colleagues will have, and many do today through the ADCS DCS Mentoring Scheme. Peers from my aspirant DCS programme were learning and growing alongside me when I was new in role and as an established DCS I have still needed the wisdom and collective resilience of the regional and wider networks I’ve been part of. DCS development needs to combine cohort building for solidarity with mixing /integrating networks so that new connections are made.

Motivations, talent attraction and diversity

Some DCSs come decades-steeped in children’s services, often via teaching or social work, others are more recent arrivals in the sector, but regardless of background, all of the memorably good DCSs I have met have been fiercely committed to making things better for children across all domains of their lives. The very best centre that work in family and community. What encouraged me to be a DCS was seeing other DCSs in action, thinking ‘that’s what I’d like to do’ and also ‘that’s how I want to do it!’ We mustn’t shrink the role to encourage others to step up, but rather promote the joy of a job with such breadth and the scope to impact positively on so many lives.

Working in partnership

In local government, multi-agency teams bring the best of social work, education, policing, health and other disciplines together. Safeguarding boards and partnerships promote multi-disciplinary training locally. I’ve delivered DCS input into training at the College of Policing, and heard from voluntary sector and health leaders in training for aspiring and current DCSs. Central government could take lessons in collaboration from us. In particular, DCSs would like to see the impact of DfE in child and family centred action from the MoJ, Home Office or DWP – then we’ll know we have something to learn from central government on this issue.

Whether you share my views or disagree, if you would like to input to the DfE’s design of leadership programmes for aspiring DCSs but can’t make it to the workshops they have established for this consultation, Louisa Ellisdon at DfE is happy to take input by e-mail. You can contact her on:

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