It was just about two years ago that I took up the role of director of children's services (DCS) at Staffordshire County Council.
This was not my first chief officer role; in fact it was the fourth, but my first within children's services. Whilst I realised that my decision was not without risk, both for the organisation and for me personally, I wanted to try and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children and families in my county.
But, if I am honest, it was with trepidation that I attended my first meeting of the regional ADCS group. How would this band of professionals view my appointment? Would I be able to contribute anything to the regional debates or would I be a bystander?
Well, two years in and as Vice-Chair of the ADCS West Midlands region (WMADCS), I can categorically state that my fears were unfounded. Although there has been some churn within the group, I have drawn great strength from the mutual support provided and excitement from their determination to improve outcomes for children and young people across the whole of the region.
In autumn 2016, the WMADCS group came together at Warwick University. This valuable time away gave us an opportunity to focus on our regional priorities for improvement, through a candid assessment of current performance, and to reflect on how effective we had been as a group thus far. There was agreement that we had created too many diverse priorities and that our oversight could be more effective. There was no doubting our ambition for the region but we needed to focus our vision on a small number of key priorities that would make a real difference and have an improved impact.
We agreed to concentrate on workforce and leadership; quality of practice; and education, skills and economy. Underpinned by: shared principles regarding managing risk and demand; improved commissioning; and effective governance whilst not losing the tools that have been effective, such as our agency workers protocol, self-evaluation and peer challenge.
A lead DCS was identified for each work stream alongside a lead chief executive officer and lead member. The work streams have driven the focus of the group ever since, aided by a small but effective support team.
So, where are we now? Has anything changed for the better? We have successfully secured an additional £3.5m through the MHCLG's Controlling Migration Fund and £1.5m from the DfE's Innovation Fund for ‘Future Social'. This is a regional initiative to create a stable and skilled workforce for the benefit of the whole region, involving one teaching partnership. We also continue to work on our Regional Improvement Alliance.
Our regional and national relationships have strengthened on the back of our improving reputation and appetite for innovation. Our Ofsted inspection outcomes have improved and educational attainment is heading in the right direction. We know that we still have a long way to go but it has been apparent that we are far stronger when we act collectively.
At a time when our services are under the cosh: more children and families in our systems; more savings required at a time of increasing demand; and difficulties in recruiting staff, the WMADCS group now provides a ‘safe space' to share our individual concerns. It offers mutual support but also creates an environment to receive honest feedback when pressing concerns arise.
So, in the last two years I have moved from being a novice DCS to becoming part of the WMADCS establishment. I am grateful to my regional colleagues for their welcoming approach and heartened by the shared determination across 14 DCSs to ensure that children, young people and families across the region get the best shot at living as happy and safe lives as possible.
Helen Riley is deputy chief executive and director of families and communities, Staffordshire County Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website