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Leadership and a duty of optimism...

“Every day the opportunity for leadership stands before you” - Heifetz & Linsky

“Many people over-estimate their leadership skills and under-estimate the importance of practice” - Keith Grint

I found both of the above quotes in the beautifully bound purple and white folder from my National College DCS Leadership Programme in 2009. It is the 10th anniversary of that programme this year, and I was prompted to dig out my folder after spending a day a few weeks ago with ADCS Council of Reference colleagues in the morning, and honoured guests at Rachel Dickinson’s Presidential Reception in the afternoon.

Rachel gave an excellent and impassioned speech setting out the Association’s priorities for the year, as well as reflecting on the strong leadership shown by her immediate predecessor, Stuart Gallimore. Both Stuart and Rachel were part of Cohort 5 of the DCS Leadership Programme and for many directors of children’s services of that era, their cohort became peer friends and colleagues for life.

I first became a DCS in 2005, which equates to the Paleolithic Age in DCS terms, and was in Cohort 1 of the Leadership Programme – very much the Vintage Claret to the Beaujolais Nouveau of Cohort 5. Of the 26 members in my cohort, only three remain as serving DCSs today, emphasising the churn in senior roles within our sector as confirmed by last year’s data on DCS turnover. Next week ADCS will be publishing the DCS data for 2018/19, watch this space.

The amount spent by government in 2009 on our development programmes dwarfs anything they have spent on it before or since. The Department for Education is currently procuring a new leadership programme for aspirant and serving DCSs and it will be interesting to compare it to the National College model of 10 years ago.

Back in 2009, we were each invited to identify the “wicked issue” challenging our leadership. Mine was “the scale of the financial challenge…decision making about which services are de-commissioned in order to avoid unmanageable pressure on demand-led services, particularly child protection and children in care”. Plus ça Change!

Seeing that 10 years later our biggest challenges remain the same could induce pessimism, yet I found reasons for optimism which I will return to later.

The inauguration of a new ADCS President is always a time for optimism and reflection, looking forward as well as looking back. Rachel, Stuart and our new Vice President Jenny Coles will be an excellent leadership team for the Association, continuing its forward momentum supported of course by our members. As our 14th President, Rachel set out an ambitious and aspirational agenda to “reclaim” some of the territory created for DCSs in the Children Act 2004. As Rachel pointed out, it is 15 years since the Children Act 2004, and 30 years since the 1989 Act, received Royal Assent. We could do worse than celebrate that by reminding ourselves, and government, of what those Acts say we can and should do for all children.

Which brings me to optimism. I believe as leaders we have a duty to both project optimism and be optimistic. How could we not, given the privilege we have of working with and for children and young people every day? It is easy to be pessimistic in a time of political and economic uncertainty. As Chair of the ADCS Resources & Sustainability Policy Committee, it is practically my duty to be pessimistic about money, and lord knows, there is enough reason to be. And yet ... I find it cheering that in the 10 years of austerity since identifying my wicked issue, we have professionally managed an increase in demand for children’s social care caused by cuts to preventative services, while maintaining or improving quality overall. All this despite a 50% real-terms cut to local authority budgets, since 2010.

The issue of spending effectively on prevention remains central 10 years later, but as an Association we have now assembled compelling evidence to put to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the Treasury of the extra investment needed. With potentially as much as £18bn new money at play in the next CSR period for public spending, and with our sector leadership, we should be both determined and optimistic we will get a fair share for children this time.

And don’t say “I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking…”

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