Somerset row shows DCSs need greater authority

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It is rare for the sacking of a director of children's services (DCS) to be played out in public, but that has been the case in Somerset over the past week.

The issues highlighted by the departure of Peter Lewis as Somerset interim DCS illustrate the difficult task facing senior managers at struggling authorities, and highlight why improvement in children's services is not solely dependent on tackling problems in social work practice or child protection systems.

According to Lewis, the pace of progress was checked by an unwieldy IT system and a lack of cross-authority support. Councils are large organisations, but their constituent parts do not work in isolation.

Those who think differently should bear in mind that what happens in children's services today can have a major impact – positive and negative – on those they serve, who will be the adults and parents of tomorrow.

For this reason, it is vital for local authorities, particularly those in the last chance saloon of an "inadequate" Ofsted rating, to take a joined-up approach to improving children's services. Crucial to this should be giving DCSs a greater say on shaping the systems and procedures their staff work with, so that they are confident these are fit for purpose. After all, if DCSs are expected to pay with their job for failing to improve, they should at least be given tools that give them the best chance of succeeding – not primarily to save their careers, but to ensure the best outcomes for children.

The more authorities that fail to understand this and get it right, the stronger the arguments grow for children's services to operate independently of local authorities, whether as a trust or in some other form.


Though hard to quantify in improved outcomes for care leavers today, those involved in the New Belongings project are in little doubt that the work they undertook as part of the initiative will bring improvements for future generations of looked-after children.

More than 10,000 young people leave care every year, many still in their teens. Most care leaving services have small teams and are run on limited resources, so face an uphill struggle to ensure sufficient support is put in place to meet even the basic needs of care leavers.

Although the amount of money given to the nine councils that piloted New Belongings was small - less than £10,000 each - what it enabled them to do was undertake proper consultation with care leavers about what improvements were needed with services, and give professionals dedicated time to work with young people to find better ways of working.

Considering the long-term consequences of poor transition – care leavers are still more likely to end up in prison than go to university – surely it is worth the government investing a few million pounds in the project so all authorities can take it on.

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