It was encouraging to listen to some of the stories told by colleagues from children’s services at the recent ADCS Annual Conference. It was particularly inspiring to talk to over 30 Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs) about their continued commitment to improving the lives of children and young people across the country, despite the challenges of rising demand and continuing austerity. There is clearly still a great deal of passion for making a difference despite the difficult circumstances.
Looking back on the conference, a particular highlight was hearing Andi Brierley’s story as he reflected on his chaotic upbringing, frequent changes of home and a turbulent adolescence. But what followed for Andi was a move into volunteering and subsequent employment in the youth justice system in Leeds, seeking to inspire young people around a future that may often feel out of reach. It was inspirational to hear how Andi had turned his life around and how he is now making a real difference for young people in relation to their own life choices. It was also clear that there are numerous other individuals out there who could make invaluable contributions to society, but that the barriers to their involvement (such as negotiating the stringent Disclosure and Barring Service checking process) remain significant.
Something else which stood out to me is the way that the role of a DCS is changing. The focus of recent children’s services conferences has changed from safeguarding challenges and Ofsted inspections to SEND and inclusion pressures. Numerous DCSs told me that over half their time is now spent on matters related to SEND. ADCS President Rachel Dickinson’s focus on inclusivity over specialist provision, curriculum and exclusion resonated strongly with me – particularly as IMPOWER’s recent ranking of councils in relation to high needs (using the IMPOWER INDEX) has shown that children with additional needs are disproportionately likely to receive fixed or permanent exclusions from school.
However, there was a feeling from some at the conference – which was verbalised in a number of speeches – that local authorities are unable to influence some of the challenges they face, particularly in relation to rising spend on high needs. This is untrue. Many sector leaders are bucking declines in inclusion through the support and challenge they are providing to schools and other partners.
It is clear that the leadership role of a DCS has changed over recent years, from one where they have direct control over many services to one where influence is key. But while they lack control over some key levers, not least funding, no-one should underestimate the huge impact they can continue to have by mobilising partners and parents around them, in order to create an inclusive ambition Stakeholders across the system need to agree what success looks like so that they can envisage and articulate what the end point is that they are all working towards. to deliver the best outcomes possible for children.