Programme prepares the future leaders of children’s services

Fiona Simpson
Tuesday, June 29, 2021

On average, a third of all councils change their director of children’s services each year. Now, a new training programme aims to help aspiring leaders understand the realities of the role so they are better prepared.

Jo Davidson, director, the Staff College: “We’re helping people to better understand what the reality of being a director is”
Jo Davidson, director, the Staff College: “We’re helping people to better understand what the reality of being a director is”

In most years, around a third of director of children’s services (DCS) posts will change hands, with the average tenure of a DCS lasting just 30 months, according to data collected by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

However, perhaps due to the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the last 12 months saw the lowest recorded turnover of directors of children’s services (DCS) with just 37 of 151 local authorities experiencing a change in leadership of their children’s services departments compared with 57 changes the previous year (see graphics).

In a bid to combat challenges around recruitment and retention of DCSs, including issues around lack of diversity, the Department for Education ploughed £3m into the Staff College’s Upon programme for aspiring DCSs.

With the first intake of the programme having just completed the training, experts discuss its aims, what it covers and whether such schemes are the answer to improving DCS retention.

What is Upon?

The programme, which began in November last year, has been developed in response to a combination of high turnover and short tenures of DCSs within local authorities.

The first round of the programme, which finished last month (June), worked with 19 aspirant directors to develop leadership skills, increase knowledge across all areas of local government and provide a support network for those looking to take the next step to becoming a DCS.

The programme, led by a consortium formed between The Staff College, Institute of Public Care, Skills for Care and consultancy GatenbySanderson, aims to “help people who are thinking about becoming a director and who are already in reasonably senior leadership positions consider whether or not being a DCS is for them – either at the current time or in the longer-term as well”, says Jo Davidson, director of the Staff College.

“We’re helping people to better understand what the reality of being a director is to assist in doing that,” she adds.

The first phase of the programme, which was initially designed as a blend of online lessons and face-to-face learning, was forced to become wholly virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, it is hoped the second phase, for which applications are now open, will incorporate face-to-face learning and expand to two cohorts of around 50 aspiring directors.

The programme is open to those with “a strong moral purpose and passion to champion children and young people and their outcomes”, according to Upon’s website.

Applicants must have at least three years’ effective senior strategic leadership and management experience in local government children’s services or related fields and sectors and be ready to make the move to DCS within the next three years, it states.

What is covered?

Davidson explains that the scheme has also been designed to “help build people’s leadership skills, behaviour and knowledge so that for those people who do decide that they want to be a director they are better able to start the role well and be successful in those roles”.

She says that as a DCS “no matter how prepared you are, it’s a very different role from anything people have previously experienced” due to the responsibility for the outcomes of all vulnerable children in a local authority area coupled with the need to work with all aspects of local government and have a firm grasp of the political landscape.

“We had practical stuff from current successful practitioners about the role and what it’s really like to be a director and the sorts of conundrums you might face and how to get through that,” Davidson says.

“We tried to find a blend between that and the more theoretical aspects of leadership and how people become much more confident about themselves as leaders as well as what the role may bring.”

The course also offers a free to access repository of resources to boost aspirant DCSs’ knowledge.

Why is Upon needed?

Rachael Wardell, executive director for children and families at Surrey County Council and chair of the ADCS’s workforce development policy committee, took part in a predecessor programme to the Upon scheme. The experience helped “fill in the gaps” in knowledge, ensure “you are ready” and have “the temperament and interest in the role”, she explains.

“The pressures of the job are very real and I think that is part of what may be off-putting for those who consider the role and decide it’s not for them,” she says, adding that the high turnover of DCSs is often down to “the quite punishing climate in which they work”.

“For example, many DCSs don’t survive an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgment or they may not survive a very high profile incident of child harm,” she says.

“People are conscious that it can be a very tough environment to work in and that does stop some from applying - it does cause people to move on or do other things when they’ve been in the role for a while.”

Of the 19 people in Upon’s first cohort, 14 had a background in children’s social care, three in education, one in adult’s social care, one in commissioning and one in inclusion.

Wardell adds that it is “impossible” for a new DCS to have knowledge of all aspects of the role.

“It becomes really important to have a development input that rounds you as a leader and what it means to be part of a local authority as a corporate organisation,” she says.

Value of peer support

Another key element of the programme is providing necessary support for aspirant DCSs and those new to the role because “it can be a lonely job”, Davidson says, adding new DCSs are automatically enrolled on the Staff College’s new directors programme which provides wraparound support for the first year in post.

Mark Blackman, corporate director for education and learning at Dorset Council, who took part in the first year of Upon, explains why this support is so important. “One of the great things about the programme was the access to other professionals either doing the same roles or parallel roles in different parts of the business,” he says.

“You know there are others you can pick up the phone to and say ‘I don’t know what to do next, what do you think?’”

Blackman adds that the course will hopefully decrease high DCS turnover by giving aspirant DCSs the opportunity to establish if the role is right for them.

He says: “I think there are people who have used it to say ‘I’m happy where I am’ or ‘I want to move particular things on in my current circumstance’ or ‘I know I’m on a journey to get there and now is not the moment’.

“That gives you the people that have the bravery and have thought it through in its widest sense and have the knowledge and experience to do it well.”

While the pandemic has demonstrated the “commitment and loyalty” of children’s services leaders, Wardell questions whether the fall in DCS turnover demonstrates “that the whole system has stabilised consistently or whether that’s an anomaly for the pandemic years and we’ll see it rising again”.

However, positive feedback from the Upon programme’s first cohort suggests a vital combination of knowledge, support and increased awareness of the pressures of the role could be a formula to boost retention and recruitment in what both Davidson and Wardell describe as “the best job in local government”.


According to the ADCS’s most recent DCS Update, 80 per cent of current DCSs identify as white British and none currently identify as disabled.

Rachael Wardell, executive director for children and families at Surrey County Council, says that it is “really important” for programmes like Upon to ensure people from different ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities “are welcomed into the scheme and make applications for senior level positions”.

“If you think about how difficult and challenging the roles are, if you add on to that challenge some of the disadvantage, discrimination and obstruction, you can see that’s an extra pressure pushing them away. What we’d want is a programme in Upon that draws them in and encourages and enables them because we want diverse leaders and for them to have an opportunity to shine,” Wardell adds.

While the first cohort of the Upon programme mirrored these statistics with 14 participants identifying as British, three as Irish and two as African while none identified as disabled, Staff College director Jo Davidson says the college is working to improve diversity on the programme.

The application process for the second round of the programme has been changed to “remove barriers” for those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, she says.

“We know from all the data that the progression for people from black or global majority backgrounds is much slower than it is for people from white communities, therefore, they’re not as prevalent in those senior leadership positions,” she explains.

“By looking at people that appeared to be closer to becoming a director we were obviously then looking at a much more white-focused group of people.”

Improvements such as a greater focus on transferable skills during the application process and an increase of “non-white” materials included in the course have been made in a bid to attract a more diverse cohort, she adds, explaining that programmes like Upon “absolutely have a role to play in developing leaders’ thinking and behaviours and actual actions in relation to diversity”.

“We are making sure that we have a really diverse development team, diverse contributors and diverse content as well,” Davidson says.

“With our programme content, we’ve looked very carefully at it and are continuing to develop the type of content that ensures we are not looking at Eurocentric, white, often male models of thinking,” she adds.

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