Interview: Nick Wilson, director of children's services, Surrey Council Council

Surrey's new director of children's services Nick Wilson talks to CYP Now about his attempts to cope with the coalition's ever-shifting policy landscape and the county's journey since its damning 2008 joint area review.

Little over a month into his new role as director of children's services in Surrey, Nick Wilson seems at home navigating the massive shifts in policy being thrown at him by the coalition.

Having acted as his predecessor's deputy for more than four years it may be unsurprising that through a period where policy changes, reviews and U-turns seem to be the daily bread of government, Wilson appears to be focused and excited by the challenge.

With jobs at two London councils under his belt before his move to Surrey in 2001 he has had experience of government reforms on local authority work, but not, he says, on the scale of the past year.

Reforming zeal

"The coalition government is not wasting time," he says. "It has a reforming zeal about it that I don't think I have seen in my experience in local government. The interesting cumulative effect of their reviews, policy and legislative changes is the number of impacts on the lives of children, young people and their families.
"To me, we are entering a period where there are many questions being posed by the coalition. We have answered some of them and we have started a process of change with our service offers, but there are still more questions. The number and extent of those questions mean that in a time of financial constraint we are having to invest more in research and development, more around policy analysis, and more around communicating to our community and staff about how we are going to change our services."

The county council has just completed a policy paper that examines how changing government strategies will impact upon the role and responsibilities of local members and council officers.

"We wanted to stocktake the amount of decision-making the council is going to have to undertake over the next six to nine months because every piece of new legislation means we have to configure our services differently. We have got to do that against a backdrop of a difficult financial settlement over the next four years," Wilson says. "This will mean further targeting of our most vulnerable children and a reduction in some of our universal services, especially youth services."

Wilson's path to children's services was somewhat unconventional. He joined Surrey County Council as head of environment and economy in 2001 after a stint at both Haringey and Tower Hamlets councils in the environmental health departments and as a policy adviser to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

In 2002 he took up the post of Surrey's head of community services before being made director of schools and learning in 2006. Wilson's experience with the county's schools is holding him in good stead for the overhaul in education policy that is already having an impact.

"We are hosting a conference for all of our 305 primary head teachers because they want to make sure the local authority is not going to disappear from the scene and is going to be supportive and indeed offer support services to primary schools," Wilson says.

"They also want to make sure that we can help them in their new leadership role as leaders of local education and leaders of their community. We have entered a paradigm shift relationship with primary heads because we have invited them to draw up a new primary strategy for Surrey, which has now morphed into a plan for the children of Surrey; so it is not only a new relationship with central government that we are dealing with."

Picture of improvement

Wilson is one of the few senior officers remaining at the authority who experienced the turbulent period following the damning joint area review in 2008, which led to a notice of improvement from government. But having now been recognised by Ofsted for making improvements to its safeguarding work, Wilson is confident the picture will continue to look brighter for Surrey.

"We had to deconstruct what was going on and reconstruct services that had clear lines of accountability and also had clear lines of funding and balanced budgets at the end," he says. "We had to build back the confidence and motivation of our staff and have succeeded in removing the improvement notice and ensuring children are safe in our county."

But like his predecessor Andy Roberts, Wilson has reservations about whether the inspection process has contributed to the improvements that have been made.

"Our Ofsted experience in the school community has always been quite positive because we have many schools rated as outstanding," he says.

"Ofsted's contribution to development when you are outstanding can be very reinforcing because you are building on a success. When you are failing or inadequate you have nothing to build on from Ofsted, the recommendations are just taking you to adequate; there is nothing to build on from failure."

But looking to the future, Wilson holds more hope in the work his colleagues across the country are undertaking. "The work that Association of Directors of Children's Services is doing on sector-led improvement and peer support will be a very strong mechanism to ensure the talents that are in our organisation can work with other people to support and assist them and also focus on areas like child protection procedure.

"Every director of children's services requires oversight and quality assurance."

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