Diversity matters

By Rachael Wardell

| 28 September 2018

Directors of children's services (DCSs) are all kinds of different characters, but if you're at all like me, one of the things you'll cherish is the opportunity to spend time among children, young people and the wider communities in the area you serve. And one of the things you'll enjoy about that is the diversity of the people you spend time with.

People differ from each other in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this blog, I'm thinking particularly of racial and ethnic diversity. As a nation, our increasing diversity is a generational thing as today's generation of children at school are far more diverse than previous generations. In my borough of Merton, 37 per cent of the population are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background; by contrast in our schools that's 68 per cent (which is nevertheless lower than the London average). That varies widely across the country, of course (the figure is about 30 per cent across England, I think), but everywhere it's changing.

Increasing diversity is a good thing, bringing with it a richer life experience, diminishing discrimination, opening up new perspectives for all of us, increasing our understanding of the world and helping us to generate new ideas. But do our children and young people see themselves reflected in the professionals who impact so profoundly on their lives?

Quite often the staff in the ‘people' services in a council are more diverse in background than those in other departments, and may be as diverse (or more diverse) than their local community, but it's fair to say that as we move up the organisational hierarchies the picture changes. In June this year, we dedicated an hour at the ADCS Workforce Development Policy Committee to diversity in our workforce and in children's services leadership. We heard from Meera Spillett about our Leadership Imbalance (Black and Asian leaders missing in action) and considered The Staff College's Cultural Competence toolkit for promoting leadership and organisational change, issued in the ADCS Bulletin in February of this year. In the discussion we had to confront the uncomfortable truth that our organisations and our own unconscious biases can create obstacles to BAME advancement. A month later this was somewhat evident as DCS and AD colleagues met in Manchester for the ADCS Annual Conference. It was a great event, no question, but if you looked around the room with an eye to diversity, you would certainly have noticed that we're nowhere close to 30 per cent BAME representation.

Representation matters because "you can't be what you can't see". We are more likely to aspire to progress to roles where we can see that people like us have already succeeded, so in August I wrote to ADCS regional chairs to promote the idea of taking a closer look at cultural competence and what it means for our workforce and our leadership.

More recently, Ian Thomas (formerly DCS at Rotherham, now chief executive at Lewisham) writing in the Municipal Journal made two practical and readily implementable suggestions to increase BAME leadership in local government: increase the diversity of appointment panels and offer mentoring for aspiring BAME leaders.

I'd like to encourage my DCS and AD colleagues to consider putting these suggestions into practice.

Linked to this, The Staff College is seeking to better understand the longer term outcomes for participants in previous cohorts of the Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI) programme and to further strengthen it as a result of this learning. There's an event for BALI alumni on 11 October, which I hope will be well attended. I'd like to think that the steps we are taking will increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our workforce and our leaders over the coming years, so that all of our children and young people will see, and know, that they can be.

Rachael Wardell is director of children, young people and families in Merton. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website

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