Rising pressure, expanding remits, high turnover: the DCS role today

Neil Puffett
Monday, July 7, 2014

As detailed analysis reveals a clear link between high turnover of directors of children's services and poorer Ofsted ratings, six current post-holders share their experiences and concerns of one of the toughest jobs in public services.

ADCS president Alan Wood says there is evidence local authorities “panic and keep on changing”, if children’s services’ performance struggles. Image: Alex Deverill
ADCS president Alan Wood says there is evidence local authorities “panic and keep on changing”, if children’s services’ performance struggles. Image: Alex Deverill

Local authorities with high turnover levels among directors of children's services are more likely to perform badly in Ofsted child safeguarding inspections, analysis by CYP Now has found.

Data collated by CYP Now on England's 152 local authorities for the past seven years reveals that a total of 386 DCSs have been in post across the country during the period between July 2008 and July 2014 - an average of 2.5 per authority.

However, the best performing authorities in terms of Ofsted inspections have had, on average, greater stability in the top job in children's services than those deemed to be performing poorly.

The analysis shows that the five authorities that were rated "outstanding" at their most recent inspection up to 31 August 2013 had an average of 2.2 DCS post-holders between 2008 and 2014, while the 61 authorities rated as "good" had an average of 2.3 postholders - both below the national average for that period.

The 67 authorities rated as "adequate" (a grading that was changed to "requires improvement" as of November last year) had an average of 2.6 post-holders in the DCS position.

Authorities judged as "inadequate" - the lowest rating possible - had an average of 2.9 post-holders.

The analysis also found that annual turnover rates among DCSs remain high, with more than one in four (25.7 per cent) leaving their post in the 12 months up to July 2014.

There are also 13 DCSs who are not in place permanently - either working in an interim or acting capacity - as well as one vacant position (in the London Borough of Bexley).

Meanwhile, the number of DCSs with responsibility for directorates or services over and above children's services was 59, one down on 2013, but still significantly up on both 2008 and 2009 when there were only 13.

Inspection link

The correlation between performance and turnover comes on the back of increasing concern about the churn of senior management in recent years.

The apparent link is perceived to be a mixture of two trends. Over the course of the period under study, a number of DCSs have stepped aside following poor Ofsted results or high-profile child protection tragedies (see box overleaf).

However, there are also instances of authorities where DCSs have departed for other reasons, including retirement, where the resultant instability had an impact on performance, which is then reflected in subsequent Ofsted inspections.

One recent example is Knowsley (see box right), which was four years ago rated by Ofsted as "good". But last month, following what inspectors referred to as "a period of leadership instability", the regulator judged children's social care services to be "inadequate".

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, says authorities are often aware of issues within children's services prior to an inspection and can respond by thinking the issue is down to leadership alone.

"There is some evidence that authorities panic and keep on changing," he says.

"In some instances, authorities have removed leaders only to find it difficult to secure better leadership. Messages go around the system very quickly and people won't apply for jobs if they do not feel there is a commitment to leadership."

Wood believes this can lead to instability. "A number of authorities in the past, and perhaps some even now, have found it difficult to attract what they would call 'a good field' and have therefore not appointed," he says.

"I believe they have assumed that it means it is something to do with the field and not themselves.

"If you have had five DCSs in six years, the idea you are going to have lots of people applying when you advertise it again is perhaps not based on the reality of the situation."

Wood is keen to stress that not all leadership turnover is related to failure, with some DCSs moving on to other authorities following success elsewhere, while others have retired after spending a lengthy time in the position. But Wood says the overall statistics gathered by CYP Now point to the need for a public debate around accountability within children's services and how to define leadership.

He says the increasing numbers of "players in the system" with responsibility for governance on issues around children - such as directors of public health, clinical commissioning groups, regional Ofsted directors, school leaders, and independent chairs of local safeguarding children boards - means "the field is becoming a little bit overcrowded in terms of who is accountable and responsible".

"While all this is taking place, the question is being asked by the recent report from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) whether local authorities shouldn't be forced to have a statutory DCS role if they have a different way of dealing with it. It is important that discussion becomes more public.

"How do you get accountability centralised so that you are clear who is responsible for what?"

Shared concerns

Others share Woods' concerns that the pressures involved with the role, and the implications of perceived failure, are narrowing the pool of those prepared to take on the job, making it more difficult for councils with vacancies to recruit the most talented and able people.

Eleni Ioannides, currently interim DCS in Warrington, says the "vilification" that DCSs can face following a poor Ofsted report means "the stakes are very high, both personally and professionally".

"I have spoken to some people who have changed their minds about becoming DCSs, who might otherwise have considered it," she says. "All authorities want to appoint the best people around, not necessarily the people who have an appetite for risk.

"It is disappointing because it is still the best job."

John Wilson, the 56-year-old DCS at Wakefield Council, says younger candidates could be deterred by the risks involved.

"If I were 40 and had a young family and a mortgage, I probably wouldn't be doing this job, as the risk-to-reward ratio isn't very good," he says.

"If you lose your job because something goes wrong on your watch, in children's services it is a small world, so your earning potential would be severely compromised."

The ADCS has previously called for the use of "narrative judgments" rather than single word ratings by Ofsted as a way of adding context to inspections and offering insight into what is working well and needs improving in a more constructive way.

This received some support recently from London School of Economics professor Eileen Munro in her review of Ofsted's first tranche of judgments under the new single inspection framework.

Former ADCS president Andrew Webb warned the National Children and Adult Services conference in Harrogate last October, that overly critical Ofsted judgments can destabilise services by creating an environment in which it is harder to recruit and retain staff.

But Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector, believes that local authorities should be more protective of DCSs.

Launching Ofsted's annual report on social care last October, Wilshaw said that while "incompetent and ineffective" leadership should be addressed quickly, those in leadership positions who have "capacity and potential", should be recognised and nurtured. And appearing before the education select committee in January, he said it was "ridiculous" that one third of DCSs left their job in 2013.

Amanda Kelly is head of children's services at private sector consultancy Impower, which is working to improve children's services in both Doncaster and Sandwell. She says the changes of leadership that often go hand in hand with a poor Ofsted rating are symptomatic of a "football manager syndrome that seems to pervade the political leadership of some authorities, where a poor rating from Ofsted necessitates someone - usually the DCS - either falling or being pushed on their sword".

"In my experience, there is still a lack of understanding in some quarters, in particular with local and national politicians, about how long real and sustainable change takes to embed and deliver results," she adds.

"While it is sometimes the right call to refresh the leadership, it is also important to give people enough time to make a difference.

"Each time someone new comes in they bring new ideas, a fresh approach - the need to make their mark," she adds.

"You can imagine the confusion for staff working in those authorities."

Kelly says the single most important thing that any authority can do if it is seeking to overcome a poor Ofsted judgment is to agree and stick to an improvement programme that is "politically aligned" and "realistic in terms of timescales".

"That will ensure consistency and should, hopefully, be able to weather any leadership changes."

Turnover rate

The data compiled by CYP Now shows that the annual turnover rate among DCSs remained high in the 12 months up to July 2014 - with 39 people leaving their post, a turnover rate of more than one in four (25.7 per cent).

The figure is a welcome fall on the 2012/13 rate of 34.2 per cent, but still at a level that makes it hard to achieve organisational stability and consistency.

The chief executives group Solace is concerned that the level of turnover, combined with the additional responsibilities many DCSs now hold, calls into question the need for the role in some areas. The organisation suggests that removing the statutory requirement for the role - introduced through the Children Act 2004 - would allow local authorities greater scope to work across areas including health, social care and the troubled families agenda, enabling "shared budgets, shared commissioning and shared outcomes".

Andy Hollingsworth, senior policy officer at Solace, says the turnover rate of DCSs is "fast becoming a national emergency", but adds that allowing authorities greater flexibility over whether they appoint a DCS could help.

Unrealistic expectations

"The single line of accountability results in unrealistic expectations in the role and helps to drive the turnover rate," he says.

"In reality, there are lots of different models out there, but in other areas of local government it is up to the local authority to choose the best arrangement for that place. What works in Birmingham won't necessarily work in Rutland. It depends on the place.

"In some places it might be best to have a DCS, but local authorities need that discretion."

David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said DCSs appear to face as much pressure to perform as top-level football managers.

"The Premier League analogy is an interesting one," he says.

"If you get into a situation where people are managing incredibly complex organisations and are facing far more difficult challenges than most areas of business, and are having a very short period of time to demonstrate progress, you will have a very high attrition rate.

"High management turnover is often a sign of trouble in any organisation.

"It is well known across the public and private sector that frequent changes of direction and management objectives don't help organisations to be high-performing."

Simmonds says the high turnover levels are a result of a combination of the impact of Ofsted inspections alongside ongoing challenges in the sector.

"It is a concern that councils have been raising with government through the (now defunct) Children's Improvement Board, and directly with ministers.

"It is not just a problem at top managerial levels. We see it in middle management too."

Cultural shift

He wants to see a range of changes, including better sharing of the expertise of the most senior people - to help newcomers to the role learn from their experience. He also advocates a culture shift in the way DCSs are treated when things go wrong.

"Accountability should not mean that directors always resign, unless it is a personal failure that has led to the problems," he says.

Finally, he wants to see an inspection framework that, while maintaining rigour, is "less destructive in the approach it takes".

"The issue of leaving councils five years between inspections, as is likely to be the case, makes it immensely difficult for leaders in areas that are struggling to demonstrate the progress they are making."



Ofsted last month made the stark warning that children in Knowsley are being left at risk of harm due to serious failures within children's social care at the authority.

The report came four years after the last Ofsted safeguarding inspection at the authority, published in March 2010, rated safeguarding and looked-after children services as "good".

However, the intervening period was categorised by instability. In April 2012, former director of children's services Damien Allen stood down after seven years in the role.

The post remained vacant for nearly a year until Eleni Ioannides was appointed in March 2013 as a part-time interim director of people services. A permanent replacement - Paul Boyce - took over the role in October 2013. Ofsted's report cites a "legacy of turnover and short-term appointments" in the senior management group over the past two years as leading to a loss of focus on the maintenance and development of services in response to need. The result was that Ofsted judged the authority's children's services to be "inadequate".

The report states: "The recent permanent appointments to the director of people post and to other key senior management positions brings stability and permanency in the most senior positions.

"However, the secure systems needed to ensure that leaders have a comprehensive knowledge of how well children and young people are helped, cared for and protected are not yet in place."



Eleni Ioannides, interim director of children's services, Warrington Council

After retiring from her position as DCS in Bury in April 2011, Eleni Ioannides has since spent time in two interim roles - firstly as interim director of people in Knowsley, and currently as interim director of families and wellbeing in Warrington (until August).

Knowsley had been without a permanent DCS for some time and the previous DCS in Warrington, Kath O'Dwyer, left to take up a position with Ofsted as national director of improvement in social care.

"When I retired I wasn't quite ready to hang up my boots," Ioannides says. "As these opportunities arise it is nice for me to do short-term pieces of work and then take a break."

Ioannides acknowledges that the main difference between an interim role and permanent position lies in the amount of time available to make a difference.

"You are not able to implement grand schemes or large-scale transformations," she says. "On the other hand, it is a nice challenge for me to have to walk in, assess somewhere really quickly and try and make a difference. There's always a concern that a place might get unsettled by the loss of a director. There's always the fact that they would have had their own unique style that people are used to and you can end up upsetting the balance of things if you are not careful."

However, she adds that the experience gained from moving from one authority to another can be very valuable: "One of the really positive things is that the more places I work, the more I am learning things about how different places operate. Everywhere has something really good going on. At each place I work, I think I'm better than I was at the previous one.

"I'm probably a better DCS now than I was before."



Jon Stonehouse, director of children's services, education and skills, City of York Council

Jon Stonehouse spent 25 years working with children and young people in a variety of organisations.

Starting as a careers adviser in a local authority, he worked his way up to deputy DCS in Salford, prior to being appointed in York four months ago.

"As my career has progressed over the past 10 years I have always aspired to being a DCS," he says.

"I have wanted to lead the children and young people system in a local authority and I think it is a fantastic opportunity to have a real influence right across services to children and young people and have an impact on improving children and young people's lives - by looking at how the whole system works. It is a fantastic job."

Four months in, Stonehouse says the role is "living up to expectations", but is "certainly not easy".

"Every day is incredibly different," he says. "There are days when I feel I'm getting to grips with things and others when I don't, but overall it feels really good."

But, for now, he is not keen to take on greater responsibility within the City of York Council.

"The situation local authorities find themselves in certainly means that the DCS takes on a broader set of responsibilities than perhaps was envisaged 10 years ago and I believe that will continue," he says.

"My own personal view is I hope it doesn't change radically in York during the next couple of years because it feels like a big job already.

"Over the past 10 years, the role has evolved and different local authorities have changed it to suit their circumstances and I believe that will continue for the foreseeable future."



John Wilson, corporate director, children and young people, Wakefield Council

Although complex decisions around children's services commissioning could well be argued to be akin to rocket science, John Wilson is glad that they do not represent it in the truest sense.

The former scientist for British Aerospace, who worked on guidance systems for rockets, found the job "incredibly dull" and returned to university to train as a teacher.

He went on to become a head teacher before moving into children's services and taking the role of assistant director of East Riding Council's children and young people's services in 2009.

Wilson, now aged 56, says he would not have taken the role on at a younger age in today's climate due to the risk involved. He says councils face challenges appointing senior staff because the "risk of failure at a personal level is significant given the nature of work you are doing".

He says changes to the regulatory framework, media-fuelled greater expectations of what should be achieved and a "blame culture" when things go wrong makes the job more difficult than ever.

"I think that pernicious culture shift makes the role more challenging," he says.

"There is less leeway in gaining support for courses of action where you can't guarantee a child's safety.

"Developing new ways of doing things that are not tried and tested becomes more difficult."

He adds: "If I were 40 I wouldn't be doing what I am now. If I had a young family and a mortgage, I probably wouldn't be doing this job as the risk-to-reward ratio isn't very good.

"If you lose your job because something goes wrong on your watch - in children's services it is a small world - your earning potential would be severely compromised."



Rachael Wardell, corporate director (communities), West Berkshire Council

Rachael Wardell, who is responsible for adult social care and housing in addition to children's services, says combined directorates represent a massive challenge for people to take on.

"It is really two jobs," she says. "I think that's the only honest way to understand and deal with it.

"It is a huge remit. There is so much to do because the policy areas are so volatile at the moment.

"You can work in an integrated way and there are some genuine benefits to having both roles, but there isn't a way to create efficiencies (across children's and adults services)."

Wardell, who first became involved with children's services in 2002 when she worked for Ofsted in early years, does not believe that the increasing trend for so-called "twin hatters" has caused the high levels of turnover recorded in recent years.

She believes the turnover is more down to bad publicity.

"I think there is definitely a role for inspection but the demands are probably more than the sector can handle, and outcomes of inspections and the impact on services can be very damaging," she says.

"I don't think all of that is Ofsted's fault but their model needs further work."

She also highlights the importance of those who are new to the role being able to turn to experienced hands.

"My neighbouring DCS is John Coughlan (DCS in Hampshire and, also, the Isle of Wight)," Wardell says.

"He has been there since the start and has been hugely supportive.

"I think it is important there are people who have been around that long - they hold the collective memory for those who are newer to the job."



Ashley Ayre, strategic director, people and communities, Bath and North East Somerset

Ashley Ayre has responsibility for children's services, adult services, and public health. Before now he also had responsibility for housing and opted to decline responsibility for waste collection.

But despite his full plate, Ayre says there are advantages to taking on a number of responsibilities.

"The brilliant thing is you can look across the entire life journey of people," he says.

"You have to stop thinking about artificial boundaries like 16, 18, 21 or 24, and think in a slightly different way. It is not just about the child or young person, but where they are going to go as an adult."

He says the situation has helped the authority implement special educational needs reforms, because everything is in one department, which is "very integrated", when it comes to commissioning. "When we were recommissioning services for substance misuse and alcohol we did an integrated commissioning exercise," Ayre adds.

"It has enabled us to create completely integrated services, as you don't have artificial cut-offs. That's one of the benefits."

But having been in post for eight years, Ayre feels there are clear disadvantages to having such a large remit.

"There isn't as much time as I used to have," he says."One of the things I always loved was getting out and visiting in schools. I have had less time to do that."

He also says delegation is vital: "When you have got more than one function, it is challenging being able to keep your eye on all of those factors.

"You have got to have really good secondand third-tier management.

"The senior leadership has got to be really good quality. It requires strong relationships and a degree of trust and proper delegation."



Gerald Meehan, strategic director of children's services, Cheshire West, Chester and Halton

The tri-borough arrangement in west London, the merged services of Kingston and Richmond in Surrey, and Hampshire taking over control of Isle of Wight's children's services have received a great deal of publicity as examples of areas merging their services. But it was actually Cheshire West, Chester and Halton that led the way with this particular trend in early 2011.

Gerald Meehan, who was originally DCS in Halton, says the move came about because the councils recognised they needed to reduce management costs but did not want to lose the specialism of a standalone children's services directorate.

"We now have a streamlined management structure but have kept the specialism," Meehan says.

"We offer a different model to authorities that have given directors control of both children and adults services."

As a result, Meehan says, some services are shared - including a joint commissioning unit, a shared virtual school head teacher and a shared safeguarding unit - while performance in both authorities has improved.

It can also make it easier to address certain problems.

"Where we have issues in one council, I am able to call on a much wider staff group and a greater expertise than if we were on our own in Halton," he says.

"We have also got the benefit of economies of scale."

But the arrangement does have its downsides as well. The volume of work is hard enough in one council," Meehan says.

"It means I have to be extremely efficient and disciplined. If something doesn't add value I don't get involved in it. I don't have time to focus on some of the less important stuff."



December 2008: Then Children's Secretary Ed Balls removed Sharon Shoesmith from her £133,000-a-year post as Haringey Council's director of children's services following publication of the serious case review into the death of toddler Peter Connelly. She was then dismissed by the authority after a report from regulator Ofsted exposed how her department had failed to protect the 17-month-old boy. Although Shoesmith later agreed a six-figure compensation payout from the council, she has never worked again as a DCS.

December 2009: Jill Baker was in charge in Salford at the time two-year-old Demi Leigh Mahon was beaten to death by her babysitter. A serious case review found concerns raised about her welfare were not followed up properly by social workers. Baker was suspended in September after a critical Ofsted report and was later sacked.

September 2011: The director of children's services at Peterborough City Council, John Richards, resigned over a highly critical Ofsted report on the department.

July 2012: Duncan Clark resigned from his post as director of learning and children's services at Kingston upon Thames Council, after the authority's safeguarding services were rated as "inadequate".

October 2012: Rochdale Council's head of children's services, Steve Garner, resigned a week after a damning report into the care of victims of the town's child sex grooming scandal.

April 2013: Helen Smith, director of children's services in Sandwell, resigned two months after an inspection by Ofsted rated child protection services at the authority as "inadequate".

March 2014: Julia Morrison stood down as DCS in Cumbria after three years, following critical Ofsted reports.


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