Ask the Experts: Leading a service in the spotlight

Our panel offers advice on DCS survival, nurturing interest in politics, boosting language skills and allaying parents' sex education fears.

Q: How can I ensure I am not the next director of children's services dismissed for poor performance?

Peter Lewis: You cannot. You can do the job you signed up for - leading the service, championing children, setting standards locally and ensuring high-level performance by all staff you are responsible for.

Ofsted determines how good we are with a framework for inspection and a well-documented set of standards. The inspection process is usually transparent. There is discussion at the end and the opportunity to appeal.

However, what has happened to some directors of children's services who have been dismissed hasn't been transparent, consistent or agreed - especially when senior politicians have got involved.

When real and avoidable mistakes are made, there has to be accountability. What you have to do is what you were trained for - think the unthinkable, anticipate the worst outcomes and work to avoid them. Lead the sector locally and give it your best. But until ministers set a standard by which we can be measured, we are always going to be vulnerable.

Peter Lewis is a freelance providing interim local authority children's services leadership, and a former DCS in Haringey

Q: The general election has generated a lot of interest in politics among the young people who attend our youth project. How can we nurture this?

Tracie Trimmer-Platman: In many ways this election is one of the most exciting we've had not least because there have been more opportunities for young people to become engaged through relevant broadcasts, events and social media.

It is important to discuss and examine the issues with young people and help them see that politics affects them, their families and their future.

Nurture political activity and motivation by creating opportunities for young people to take part in decision-making within your own organisation and involve them in management and governance. Foster positive relationships with local politicians by encouraging visits.

Most local authorities have youth panels and even young mayors - invite them to your project to explain what they do and how the young people you work with can get involved. The British Youth Council ( is a great source of inspiration and advice.

Tracie Trimmer-Platman is senior lecturer in youth and community work at the University of East London

Q: How do I use conversation to improve young children's language skills?

June O'Sullivan: Children are born with the innate ability to communicate and it's the job of parents, families and practitioners to nurture this. Children need to be surrounded by language if they are to be competent speakers.

When learning to speak, children respond to rhythm and pitch. Most children will say their first actual words around their first birthday but close family and practitioners will recognise the patterns of words for several months before. During their second year, children's language explodes as they start to use more words alongside gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication.

Adults can tune into this and support it. Conversation is the best and most natural way to boost language development and model good use of language. Make a conscious effort to use new words to help children describe different situations, circumstances and feelings. Children absorb new words through conversation. They need to hear them and play with them so they become part of their vocabulary.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of the childcare charity and social enterprise, the London Early Years Foundation

Q: The youth club I manage recently ran a session on sexual health. The young people enjoyed it but we've had a complaint from a parent who has accused us of promoting sexual activity. How should we deal with this?

Jeanie Lynch: Many parents are confused about the content of sex and relationships education both in schools and in other settings, mistakenly believing it only focuses on sexual activity.

Your youth service should have a sexual health policy which sets out content such as healthy relationships, equality, consent and respect as part of a balanced programme to support young people's overall health and wellbeing. It should have an ethos of working in partnership with parents while maintaining confidentiality as per the Fraser guidelines on sexual health, confidentiality and under-16s.

Invite parents to come and meet you to discuss their concerns about the session and so you can explain how it fits in with wider policy. Reassure them you are delivering the content in a well-balanced way, which promotes respect.

Jeanie Lynch works for Barnardo's and has 25 years' experience of working with vulnerable children and families

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