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Leo Jones

Reflections on my year as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services: The need to Stop, Collaborate and Listen

This blogpost is part two in a series of three. Leo spent a year as a Deputy Director of Children’s Services before returning to work for iMPOWER in June 2018

Working at a senior level in local government showed me that the need for coordination, integration and collaboration across the council is more important than ever. The yearly reductions in funding, and the annual Medium-Term Financial Planning cycle, can risk exacerbating siloed working. There is a real risk of individual departments hunkering down to work out how to make their own individual savings targets and of them proposing activities that may have negative effects elsewhere. What used to appear to be the role and remit solely of one director or directorate can often have a significant impact across the broader council.

Having responsibilities for schools meant I needed cross-council intelligence and support to ensure we were fulfilling our legal and public responsibilities and speaking as ‘one council’ with school colleagues. But the reduction in our capacity meant that it could be a challenge to liaise with all the other key departments to paint a full picture of the situation in local schools. We needed to work with the Assets team (to understand the state of the buildings), Finance (to understand schools’ budgetary concerns), HR (to understand any performance issues) and Health & Safety (to understand how to comply with relevant legislation), as well as with key children’s teams such as SEND, Admissions and Education Welfare. Only by working in this way could we develop a single view.

Another great example of where such collaboration is needed is in regeneration and housing growth. I was working in the South East, where we were dealing with the proposal to create a million homes along the Oxford to Cambridge corridor. Just planning the build of thousands of houses can feel like an epic project on its own, but it leads to so many other considerations and activities:

  • How do we ensure there are sufficient school places to meet the rising population numbers these homes will create?
  • What other services will be needed – particularly for families moving in to our borders without support networks?
  • What additional infrastructure will be needed?
  • Who will pay for the gap in funding that inevitably arises?
  • And of course, as regeneration leads to more jobs, what are the skills we will need to grow to ensure our current and future generations can meet the rise in employment opportunities?

None of these questions fall under the remit of a single area of a council – but the tendency can be to work through each of these issues in isolation, partly due to the intensity of everyone’s ‘day job’. Trying to answer each question individually and then squeeze them all into a common strategic narrative is complex, but the reality is that finding the time and thinking capacity to knit these issues together from the start is a real challenge.

In Children’s Services, the scale of proposed housing growth made planning for the number of school places much more complex. It was much easier to plan for larger housing developments; smaller developments wouldn’t bring the level of government investment needed for required infrastructure. The planning team worked hard on their plan and did then engage with us to consider what land was needed for school places. Ideally, we would have started planning everything together, so that we could consider together what size of development we would want to support. But time and capacity means this often isn’t the case. There needs to be a more systematic change in mindset to think this way whenever there is a consideration of a new strategy by part of the council.

Do you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts

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