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Leadership – is it time to decrease an ever-decreasing circle?

I thought it would be timely to write about leadership given a number of live conversations underway regarding qualifications required, in the main, for those who dare to enter into the realms of leadership in social care. Within this context, leadership vacancies across children’s services remain among the most difficult to fill nationally, with the circle of talent ever-decreasing and at a time when the ‘Wicked Issues’ (Grint, 2005) facing the sector are multifarious and in terms of complexity, unprecedented.

According to recent research published by Community Care only 50% of directors of children’s services (DCS) roles are occupied by social workers. However, is this any surprise given the tenets of the Children’s Act 2004, which resulted in the merging of previous social services and education departments, with many of the new DCS posts occupied initially by education professionals? To answer the exam question regarding the minimum qualification required for a DCS, one first needs to understand the nature of the role I would posit.

The role is about leading a system that enables children to achieve their full potential, whilst being afforded protection to reduce the risk of impairment of health and/ or development and/ or significant harm. It’s about having a critical understanding of the ‘authorising environment’ (Moore, 1995) alongside a strong political antennae, to ensure the conditions for social work to thrive are in place; commissioning prowess, to ensure sufficiency of provision to meet the ever augmenting plethora of demands throughout the child journey; the ability to mobilise response across multi-agency disciplines, through fostering respectful and productive relationships; and getting the balance right regarding the time one spends, to quote Hefeitz (2002), between the ‘balcony’ and ‘dancefloor’. What matters most is our ability secure good outcomes for children and young people by working with partners to shape multiple systems that impact on the lives of children and their families right across the public sector e.g. schools and health.

The DCS needs to be professionally multilingual. This means being at ease with discourse pertaining to ‘Section 47’ investigations one minute, ‘Progress 8’ another and potential pathways for children with a diagnosis of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder the next. Not to mention advocating strongly for the services children and families rely on in challenging budget negotiations.

Most professionals acquire qualifications very early on in their careers, which they seldom rely on at the most senior level. Those who progress to become great leaders in any sector are, in my experience, characterised by their thirst for learning and continuous professional development. They are authentic, aware of their own limitations and possess the humility to defer to others with greater technical expertise.

They are passionate and through voluntarily transcending professional disciplines, have developed experience which over time gives them the credibility to lead. They also possess emotional intelligence and exhibit empathy with their workforce, particularly when ‘the going gets tough’.

I do concur with proponents of a system mandatorily led by social work qualified professionals, who assert that DCS post-holders should understand practice of social work and know what good practice looks like. I believe this attribute should be a prerequisite for anyone wanting to serve as a DCS. As a systems leader one needs to ‘get it’ and put the conditions in place, through a distributed leadership model for high quality frontline practice to thrive.

This can be achieved by spending quality time with practitioners and ‘dancefloor’ activity, which includes direct observation of practice, so that one has a contemporary understanding of the challenges faced by practitioners on the ground.

Given the above in sum, it is my view that experience, behaviours and resilience, complemented by continuous professional development, are integral to what is required to become a successful DCS, rather than any particular professional qualification. The alternative view, if mandated, would only result in decreasing an ever-decreasing circle, at a time the sector can ill-afford.

My assertion is borne out by the many DCS colleagues across the country, with a diverse range of backgrounds, who lead effective child protection systems and of whom there are too many to mention.

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