Over a career in children's services spanning nearly 40 years, Carol Iddon has, since 2003, been working at Action for Children, formerly named NCH. Since taking over as managing director of Action for Children in October 2015, she has overseen the integration into its network of dozens of children's centres formerly operated by 4Children, and resolved a dispute with employees whose union threatened industrial action last March.
At the end of 2016, Action for Children signed an agreement with unions that ended a dispute over workers' pay and conditions. How crucial are good employment relations?
We got to a particularly challenging place, but that is way behind us now. We have developed a partnership agreement with the unions and staff are starting to feel more confident.
Union membership isn't high - I'd like to see it higher. I've always been a union member and used to be a shop steward. I'm a strong advocate for membership and I've tried to encourage that.
People have put themselves forward as ambassadors and they are taking that [message] out to their respective areas. We've worked really hard to demonstrate a more inclusive staff relationship organisation.
Are the services transferred to Action for Children from 4Children viable?
We'd been talking to 4Children for some time. There were good fits for us: where we took services on, it was in line with our local infrastructure and they have bedded in well.
Children's centres were not the biggest risk [with the deal] - moving into nursery provision is a new area for us. It is more about getting children school-ready, which fits nicely with our values and strategy.
It may not mean we keep the model as it is, as it is still quite traditional. We want to support parents' ability to work and provide a more flexible offer, and focus more on encouraging early education for poor families.
But councils are cutting funding for children's centres with many closing. Can that trend be stopped and, if so, how?
We're working with authorities on different centre models and delivery. Councils are thinking differently about how they provide support for families - working in a more integrated way and using funding more innovatively.
We're having quite innovative conversations with councils and the NHS about integrating health visiting into an early intervention approach.
There has been a vacuum while awaiting the [as yet unpublished] children's centres consultation. The government has not shown good leadership on this. Policy is lagging behind: some children's centres are being put at risk because councils are doing what they need to do.
But with early help budgets reducing, is it harder to make the case for investing in it?
Whenever we meet ministers, we talk to them about the impact of early help. Councils are acutely aware that cuts to spending will have consequences in the long run. It is an issue we will keep championing.
One solution would be to guarantee funding through ringfencing. I think the reduction of ringfence funding [for early intervention] was a mistake.
There are difficult choices for councils to make.
The family that can't get early support you're going to see a safeguarding risk, or repeat referrals. Unless we can support parents and get in there early, numbers will go up.
The reality is that if families are under pressure, then they will crack in different ways if they don't get support.
Families need support to grow and build on their strengths and tackle weaknesses. Social workers need time - and councils need enough social workers - to do that. It is much harder with high social work caseloads.
What do you think Action for Children needs to do to adapt to the reducation in local authority funding?
For the charity sector, we're seeing contracting work diminishing but demand increasing. How can we continue to meet that? We must increase our voluntary income and work differently with large business to deliver their corporate social responsibilities.
We also need better collaboration between children's charities. We need less competition but a more collaborative approach; going to local authorities and saying ‘we can deliver for you'. We could develop a transition service by working with adult providers with children with disabilities.
As a charity, we have to be more business-minded, but retain our charity heart.
You have been managing director for just over a year - what are the role's main challenges?
It is much harder to maintain a connection with our service users - I have to try very hard to ensure I go out and visit services.
2016 was a challenging year, but we managed to turn it around. I see relationships and our workforce as our biggest resource. They deserve to be recognised and valued.
CAROL IDDON CV
- Oct 15 - present: Managing director operations, Action for Children
- July 03 - Sept 15: Various director positions, AfC
- Oct 02 - June 03: Operations manager, looked-after children, Halton Council
- June 01 - Sept 02: Acting operations director, Halton Council
- April 98 - June 01: Manager, quality assurance, Halton Council
- Nov 91 - March 98: Child protection co-ordinator, Cheshire Council
- 1978 to 1990: Various positions in children's services