Social work bosses 'merry-go-round' puts children at greater risk

One in three authorities has lost its director of children's services in the past year. Paul Gallagher considers the impact of this rapid turnover

Vulnerable children are being put at further risk because of a "management merry-go-round" at councils across England that has seen one in three director of children's services (DCS) leave their job in the past year.

The role has been compared to that of a Premier League football manager, with directors ruthlessly removed if they do not get speedy results. Of the 152 DCSs at local authorities, 52 left their position between July last year and July 2013. Nine more have left since then.

Thirteen authorities have had four directors in the past five years, including Birmingham, Doncaster and Haringey – all heavily criticised for inadequate child protection. The IoS revealed last week that Haringey's Local Safeguarding Children Board has launched yet another serious case review after a toddler was taken into care and a couple charged with child abuse.

Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), said yesterday that he was "concerned" about the instability, and warned that the £2.7bn in funding cuts has put "phenomenal pressure" on directors. "Twin hatters", responsible for both children and adult services, can now be found at 58 councils that have merged departments in recent years.

Mr Webb, a "twin hatter" as director of people at Stockport Council, said the high turnover was attributed to a combination of directors moving from authority to authority, restructuring, and retirement.

"The pressures being created due to rapidly reducing budgets across authorities – funding streams have been cut by 30 per cent – are phenomenal. The role of DCS is a complex one. You start working with a range of direct employees as well as partner agencies such as police, schools and others. An enormous amount of work is built up through trust, and that turnover puts relationships under great stress. On top of that, the skills you need as DCS are acquired over time."

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, said: "Too much leadership volatility in social care is counter-productive – that goes without saying. One in three local authorities has had a change in their director of children's services last year alone. The combination of unstable communities and political and managerial instability in our social care services is a dangerous mix."

The number of children in England on the at-risk register has jumped from 29,200 in 2008 to almost 45,000 today. Mr Webb said it was important to remember that the number of child murders has fallen 30 per cent since 1981 "from a small number to an even smaller number" and that, of the 45,000 children deemed at risk, "most of the plans last less than two years and most of them involve successful completion".

The Children's Act 2004 introduced the role of DCS, which combines responsibility for education and children's services at councils. It became a statutory post in 2007. Before then, some authorities had separate heads for the two services, while some combined the responsibilities. Many believe combining the role was a mistake as it enabled people to become director of children's services with solely an education background, some of whom have found the high-profile job too much. Only 25 authorities have had the same DCS since 2008.

Haringey Liberal Democrat councillor Rachel Allison, a member of its corporate parenting committee, believes the high turnover is also due to "a lack of accountability".

She said: "It is a Russian roulette mentality: how long can you hang around for before the bullet hits you? The merging of the roles in education and children's services in 2007 was a mistake because it meant you did not need any sort of background in social services to get the job. It is a massive responsibility to look after both areas and the workload is enormous and I just don't know how you can do it effectively. To reduce turnover and reintroduce stability you have to hive off the two areas again and return to the pre-2007 era of roles and responsibilities."

Ms Allison also observed that the "ludicrous" turnover is not only at DCS level. She points to the high turnover of council chief executives and former DCSs in charge of children's safeguarding boards as further problems that need addressing. "It is a management merry-go-round that has to stop," she added.

Peter Lewis, who replaced Sharon Shoesmith at Haringey after the Baby P scandal became public, is currently interim director at Somerset. According to his LinkedIn profile, Mr Lewis works for a company called StubbsStorey Ltd, providing interim DCS services to "a local authority".

Labour's Shadow Children's minister Steve McCabe said last night: "There are too many reorganisations by incoming directors and senior staff who barely stay five minutes. Local authorities need to have a concerted commitment to create some stability.

"They also need to put much more effort into strengthening the skills and capacity of front-line managers who are supposed to support the staff who are dealing with parents and children. In too many authorities, these people are so fragile and insecure themselves that they cannot offer the support and supervision required.

"The level of cuts being imposed on local authorities is making the situation 10 times worse. It is extremely hard to try and encourage stability and retain staff in a cuts-driven environment."

Clash of the directors

Sharon Shoesmith, who reportedly won more than £600,000 compensation after being controversially sacked as director of children's services (DCS) at Haringey in November 2008 following the death of Baby Peter, describes the role as "close to impossible". She warned that nobody should become a DCS until they are in their mid-fifties. "I'd probably say don't become a DCS until you are 55 and don't stay more than two or three years. Go into it with an agreement right from the start that if a child dies, you'll walk but you'll get your pension," she told Children & Young People Now magazine last month.

"You look at politicians who for one reason or other have had to resign and they come back. It's the role they resign from," she was reported as saying. "But when you're a DCS, it's personal. You suddenly have no past worthy of mention and no future. It's almost as if you are tainted as a murderer."

Peter Lewis, her replacement at Haringey, responded in a letter to the magazine last week. "I was gobsmacked by that level of bitter cynicism," he said. "The cynical view of the world expounded by that former DCS is not mine, nor that of most of the DCSs I know. It is a cynicism that helps no one: not serving DCSs, aspiring DCSs, the children's workforce at large – and definitely not the children we serve. It is a privilege to do what we do. Like most of the colleagues I work with, we do it for the children and not ourselves."

Paul Gallagher

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