Training at the top

Directors of children's services face unique challenges, shouldering wider responsibilities at a time of structural change. Charlotte Goddard looks at the training for aspirant leaders

Tough times require strong, competent and confident leaders. Now more than ever, directors of children’s services (DCSs) need the training and professional development to help them bring excellence to the whole sector, while around them services undergo structural change and struggle with stretched resources.

Training programmes for senior management roles are being adapted to help directors meet these new challenges.

In terms of provision, the leadership programme for DCSs and those who aspire to the role has been run by the National College for School Leadership since 2009. But it has now been taken over by the Children’s Improvement Board, a sector-led group of agencies with a principal interest in children’s services that reports directly to the Department for Education.

The Virtual Staff College, which is the professional development arm of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, is managing provision on behalf of the board.

Revamped programmes

Alix Morgan, director of programmes at the Virtual Staff College, has been seconded from the National College to ease the transition. She is working on a major revamp of the programmes for leaders and those wanting to step up into the role. So far, 120 serving DCSs and more than 75 aspirant DCSs have participated in the programmes since 2009. Morgan says: "The first three cohorts have all graduated, while some from cohorts four and five are still going. We will relaunch the leadership development programme offer in April, when it will look considerably different."

The programme for senior managers who aspire to the role of DCS is also relaunching. This will start taking applications from March 2012 (see box). Morgan says that graduates of the aspirant programme, some of whom have since become DCSs, also need new content.

Anton Florek, chief executive of the Virtual Staff College, says the new programmes will reflect the broadening role of directors of children’s services.

"Two or three years ago every DCS was a ‘pure’ DCS, solely with responsibility for children," he says. "Now a number are twin-hatters, meaning that some look after adult services as well. The move to academies is also a challenge, as relationships are now different between schools and local authorities, and with children’s health and wellbeing boards, relationships will be different to in the past. There are also challenges on budgets and service reshaping.

"A lot of what we are doing is to be on top of changes and prepare aspirants for a radically changing landscape, where their corporate role is different."

Until now the leadership programme, which takes 12 months to complete, has operated a cohort system, with groups of children’s services directors undertaking residentials and seminars at the same time.

Over the next six to eight weeks however, the Virtual Staff College will be consulting with DCSs over the new design, and early next year every DCS will be given the opportunity to register for elements of the
new programme that best meet their learning needs. Meanwhile, the third cohort of the Aspirant DCS programme will be launched in June 2012.

Gerald Meehan works across two local authorities, as strategic director for children and enterprise directorate for Halton Borough Council and strategic director of children and young people’s services for Chester and Cheshire West. His situation illustrates how the DCS role is becoming more varied and seemingly more demanding. His role covers the economy, job creation and qualifications as well as children’s services.

He says what he most appreciated about the leadership programme training was "having a range of people at the top of their game coming to talk to us".

These included a senior policeman who had worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, who spoke on how he managed a range of intractable problems, and consultant and poet David Whyte on balancing personal and professional lives. "I found that particularly helpful. You have got to have the time to devote to your profession and give it the best, but balance that with the pressures of your personal life," explains Meehan.

"We were offered a range of structural thinking to help in our day-to-day job. You can get that perspective elsewhere, for example on a MBA, but this was customised to councils and their partners and focused on children and young people."

Hugh Disley, head of service, early intervention and family support at Warwickshire County Council, was part of the first cohort on the programme for aspirant directors of children’s services. He says: "To me, there has been a significant impact. The leadership learning has affected how I am influencing the county council in a way I wasn’t at the beginning of the programme."

Increased diversity

Disley says the delivery of the programme, which includes residentials and "learning action sets", where groups of seven or so come together, is "spot on". But he says that in the future, the content needs to take into account the increased diversity of children’s services.

He adds that, whereas able and ambitious senior managers have until now aspired to have oversight of children’s services in an area, the reality is that those roles are changing.

Indeed, his own local authority has moved to a "people" group in which his job includes adults as well as children. "Things are moving so fast, but there is still a need for leadership skills."

In addition to the leadership programme, every newly appointed and acting DCS is offered an experienced current or recently retired DCS as a mentor. Since September 2009, 40 newly appointed DCSs have been contacted and of these 33 have taken up the offer, while seven acting DCSs have received mentoring.

At the Virtual Staff College, Florek has been contacting DCSs when they are appointed to the post to discuss their needs with a view to sourcing a mentor.

"We have a list of registered mentors, all of whom have been through an accreditation process, and completed an induction seminar and two support seminars," he says.

"We offer three pen portraits of potential mentors and they choose one; over 12 months they have eight meetings with that mentor."

All mentors are paid a fee, which goes to their employing local authority if they are still working. The scheme, called Mentor Plus, initially saw most newly appointed DCSs seek a mentor with a different background from themselves: such as education if they had a social work background or social work if they hailed from education.

However, since September 2010 new DCSs, who often now have more varied backgrounds, have tended to prefer mentors with significant corporate experience, used to managing the political context, and still in post rather than retired.

A number of residential seminars, run by the Virtual Staff College, also seek to make sense of this rapidly changing landscape. These are open to alumni of the leadership programme and focus on current issues such as social care mutuals and other new models of delivering services.

"As DCSs complete the leadership programme, there has been strong feedback about maintaining a learning community," says Florek. In future, these seminars will be built into the new leadership programme, rather than being add-ons.

The Children’s Improvement Board meanwhile is developing a peer challenge programme, in which senior children’s services managers will be asked to give up to five days in order to "robustly" review some aspect of another council’s children’s services.

What this challenge actually involves will vary across the country. Oonagh Aitken, who is leading this programme, says: "We expect a fair bit of activity between January and April next year."

The challenge teams do not have to have any specific training, although Aitken suggests it would be helpful if someone has been through the leadership or aspirant programme, or has had training on peer reviewing. A group of authorities in Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Brighton and Hove have already reviewed each others’ services.

If there is one central thread that runs across all the training on offer for senior children’s services professionals, it is the value of sharing experience, whether through seminars, mentoring, or peer review.
"There is comfort in being brought together with peers going through radical change," says Morgan.
Florek adds: "We have created a greater sense of community and a learning environment. If we are serious about sector-led improvements, how we develop and sustain leadership is very important."



DCS Leadership Programme

Twelve-month programme delivered by the Virtual Staff College. It covers aspects of leadership including leadership of safeguarding and social care, commissioning, leading in political and corporate environments, integrated and partnership working, and raising standards of education. It will be relaunched in 2012. DCSs can register early next year.

Aspirant DCS Programme

Open to individuals who aspire to the role of DCS, or chief officers with responsibility for children’s services, and who have worked in some aspect of children’s services at assistant director level or equivalent. The 12- to 18-month programme includes residential activity and work-based experiences. The next registration round is due to start in March 2012. Contact

Mentor Plus scheme

Launched in 2009 and run by the Virtual Staff College. This programme is open to all newly appointed DCSs and acting DCSs following their appointment. Recipients are offered a choice of three experienced mentors. They receive eight mentoring sessions over 12 months, focused on their identified priorities.

Peer challenge

The details of this regionally led programme, being developed by the Children’s Improvement Board, are still being thrashed out. But what every scheme will have in common is the idea of "gifted time" from one local authority to another, and the idea of a "robust challenge" to an aspect of another council’s children’s services, to be decided by the host council.

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year