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Increased workload and ‘blame culture’ among reasons for high DCS turnover, report says

The average tenure for a director of children’s services is currently around three years, according to new research by The Staff College.

20/02/23

Increased workload and ‘blame culture’ among reasons for high DCS turnover, report says

High turnover in director positions is having a direct impact on the ability to improve children’s services, new research says.

The Staff College, which organises professional development opportunities for those in principal and senior leadership positions in local authority children’s services, says the Director of Children’s Services (DCS) role is one of the hardest chief officer roles to fill and retain, yet is a critical leadership role responsible for supporting and protecting vulnerable children.

Some of the key reasons cited for the high level of position churn include increased workloads, along with a lack of a coherent policy focus on children. In addition, an ‘overload’ of external inspections by various bodies resulted in a ‘blame culture’.

The findings were issued in a report entitled ‘Leading For Longer’, which was commissioned on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE) funded upon Consortium. The report highlights that the current average tenure for a Director of Children’s Services (DCS) means it is essential for organisations to have a plan in place for leadership transitions. This issue is compounded by the emergence of the ‘accidental DCS’ – individuals who did not plan to become a DCS but end up in the role – as well as a lack of ethnic diversity among those in leadership positions.

Respondents to the research also cited increased workload due to central government silo-working, with communications from a range of government departments resulting in a lack of coherent policy focus on children. The report goes on to state that this issue is exacerbated by those working in a local authority where there is a lack of support for children’s services.

Jane Parfrement, Chief Executive of The Staff College, said that the role of DCS is challenging and incredibly rewarding, but that the motivation to do the right thing for children and make a difference is what drives those in the roles.

“The ability to recruit and retain a high quality DCS who brings stability and effective leadership is one of the single biggest determinants in whether a local authority’s children’s service thrives.

“However, what [the report] also suggests is that the most significant single factor that impacts on firstly whether someone would choose a particular local authority and then whether they can stay and succeed is not the external issues but internal ones. This is good news because it is something that those within the local authority can control.

“The culture and the behaviour within many local authorities is a positive one where those leading children’s services feel valued, supported and constructively challenged however what this report also highlights is that for a number, possibly many, this is not the case.

“The message from this report to Chief Executives and elected political leaders is clear – if you want to recruit, retain and enable a DCS to succeed they need your support and they need to feel they are working within a council where the culture is a healthy enabling and open one and where diversity of leadership is welcomed and celebrated.”

Outlines for improvements have been made which is hoped will create a more diverse and qualified pool of leaders to draw upon when it comes to succession planning and increase post retention rates for directors in these roles. These include better support from local corporate and political colleagues, strengthened training, better policy implementation from central government, and a greater certainty of budgets.

Commenting on the report, Rachael Wardell, Chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) Workforce Development Policy Committee, said that those in the role fulfil a wide range of duties and responsibilities and are the ‘critical single point of accountability’ for children in their local areas.

“The government’s response to the Care Review commits to a review of the role of the DCS, providing the chance to strengthen the role and improve understanding and support for it. There are a variety of routes to being appointed to this position and no one comes into the role knowing everything they need to know.

“What matters most to a person’s ability to do the job is having a strategic vision for, and relentless focus on, securing the very best outcomes for children, alongside a senior leadership team who bring the necessary expertise. Those of us doing the job are aware of the huge responsibility it brings, and the opportunities it provides to make a difference to children and their families.

“There are a number of important messages in this report, including for central government departments in terms of the workload burdens that they themselves are generating and the need for a joined up national policy focus on children.”

The report emphasises the value of coaching and mentoring support for DCSs in the early stages of the role and ongoing support.

“I’m sure all local authorities would like to make more time and space for shadowing, and similar opportunities, to support aspiring leaders to experience the DCS role, but the financial and workforce pressures we currently face make this challenging,” Ms Wardell said.

Commenting on the lack of diversity in senior positions in children’s services, Ms Wardell added: “We do not have enough directors from Black or minoritised backgrounds across the country, and there is more work to do on this. Diversity and inclusion, in all its forms, continues to be a focus for all local authorities, and for the Association.”

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