Pair pressure, by Sally Gainsbury

15 Mar 07
Two heads are better than one when it comes to leading a major culture change in children's services. Sally Gainsbury meets the joint presidents of the Association of Directors of Children's Services the two Johns to see how they work together

16 March 2007

Two heads are better than one when it comes to leading a major culture change in children's services. Sally Gainsbury meets the joint presidents of the Association of Directors of Children's Services – the two Johns – to see how they work together

In a famous Frost Report sketch, an 'upper class' and towering John Cleese, dressed in bowler hat and buttoned-up suit, explains that he 'gets a feeling of superiority' from 'looking down on' Ronnie Barker's squatter and less smartly dressed character, for he is only 'middle class'. Ronnie Barker, for his part, explains how he 'gets a feeling of superiority' by looking down on the diminutive 'lower class' and scruffily dressed Ronnie Corbett. 'I get a pain in the neck,' is Corbett's retort.

The sketch is evoked by John Freeman, one half of a less famous act: the two Johns who preside over the new Association of Directors of Children's Services. This body emerged in February from the soon-to-be defunct Association of Directors of Social Services. A new adult services organisation will be launched on March 26.

'Essentially, the stereotype is that teachers look down on social workers because they don't have a sharp focus on achievement, they're loose and woolly and wear sandals; that sort of thing. But social workers also criticise teachers because they focus only on achievement,' explains Freeman, who is also the director of children's services at Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council.

He admits that culture clash is a 'huge challenge' for the ADCS, which was created from a merger with the Confederation of Children's Services Managers. It has to represent leaders of both professions following the integration of children's social services with education departments. The prize, of course, is to improve outcomes for children and families – represented here by Corbett. The 2004 Children's Act stated that 'Every Child Matters' and that joint working should eliminate any 'pains in the neck' experienced by the recipients of services, particularly those who fall between the gaps.

Freeman's other half at the ADCS is John Coughlan – director of children's services at Hampshire County Council. The decision to establish a joint presidency was deliberate, explains Coughlan, and in part reflects the distance the profession has to go in terms of integrating services and working cultures.

Freeman is a former science teacher who made his way into children's services via education departments; Coughlan – who has obviously left his sandals at home on the rainy day he meets Public Finance – has spent his life working in children's social care.

'I wanted to be an English teacher,' he says. 'I had a place for a post-graduate certificate in education which I kept on deferring because I was working in children's services and thought that would be good experience before I went into teaching. But it got out of control… I'm not sure if there's still a PGCE course place waiting for me somewhere.'

Twenty-five years later, he is still in children's services, although he has swapped his native West Midlands – where he coincided briefly with Freeman in Dudley in 2001 – for Hampshire.

Coughlan represents something of a large minority in the ADCS. When the 2004 legislation came into force and local authorities looked to reform their social services and education departments, approximately 65% opted to make their director of education the new director of children's services, while their director of social services more often than not became the director of adult services. Hence, only 35% of today's directors of children's services have come through social services departments.

That reflected the pragmatism of human resources management rather than a bias against social work, says Coughlan. Nonetheless, that emphasis made itself felt last year when educationalists raised concerns that the focus on the Every Child Matters inclusion agenda was 'distracting' schools from pushing up standards – measured primarily in terms of GCSE results. Following a Whitehall study, the Department for Education and Skills dismissed that accusation in October.

'The position the DfES and [Education Secretary] Alan Johnson presented is the absolutely right one which we've got to promote now,' says Coughlan. 'There's no point having high standards in education which exclude a swathe of the population of children; and there's no point in devoting all our attention to a narrow group of children with high levels of need if in doing that we sacrifice the opportunities of the majority.'

Despite the two Johns' different backgrounds, it's reassuringly impossible to drive a wedge between them on this. Freeman says: 'The two agendas are not antithetical. If a child is impoverished, it will not achieve well in school. In fact, often one of the first signs that something is wrong at home is that their school work is suffering. The opposite is also true: if a child is doing well in school, they are much less likely to get involved in crime… this is a joint agenda for all services – police, leisure, schools and social workers.'

Agreement at the top aside, Coughlan concedes that there is far to go. 'We've got to a very healthy presentation of the position on that now,' he says. 'But it's going to be a constant issue and we've got to work collectively to address it. The fact that there was a debate is a bit worrying and we're not going to resolve it by just a couple of public announcements; we've still got parts of the system which are in tension with each other.'

A major aim of the association is to dissolve that tension and establish more understanding between the two cultures. 'As an association we want to develop it so that two or three years down the line you don't ask “are you a social worker or teacher?” but “are you a children's services worker?” ' explains Freeman.

In their joint leadership of that professional development, Freeman and Coughlan have inevitably had to establish a few ground rules. 'The ground rules are that we will trust each other's judgement but will stay in very close contact with each other – through Blackberries, phone calls and e-mails,' says Coughlan, who jokes that the joint presidency is another hobby, like his 'fanatical lane swimming'.

Jazz fan Freeman adds: 'Our catch phrase is: “Yes John!”.' By chance, Dudley and Hampshire schools have different half terms; helping both Johns juggle the presidency with full-time jobs and fatherhood.

With so much agreement, what are the clash points between the two men's professional cultures? Asked separately what piece of advice each would give a new director of children's services from the opposite side of the fence, the Johns are impressively co-ordinated.

To ex-directors of education, Coughlan says: 'There is a sense out there – following every child protection scandal such as Climbié and Westminster – that the people who work in child protection are rubbish at what they do; lacking direction, co-ordination and coherence.

'But anybody coming into the senior leadership of child protection and welfare thinking that their strength as a manager or their high-calibre intelligence is going to sort that out are conning themselves. This stuff is terribly tricky, terribly sensitive, and as soon as you think you've got it cornered, it'll bite you.'

Freeman recognises the character trait behind Coughlan's diplomatic phrasing: 'It's easy for an education director to think: “It's only 500 kids! Any

twit can sort that out”,' he says. 'But the needs are complex and you need to understand a lot of background before you jump in. The message for us both is: fools rush in.'

While educationalists have had to learn not to be complacent about the complexities of dealing with society's most vulnerable children, former social care directors have had to learn to engage with a much broader part of their communities, says Freeman. 'Education is a very much bigger and universal service. And we have to find ways of engaging that much larger group of people in an effective way.'

That point is also well taken by Coughlan. For all its user focus, social work often struggles with its 'customer care' – which can all too often be sidelined as a superficial 'presentation' issue in the midst of pressing crisis situations, he says.

That's a criticism Coughlan applies as much to himself in his joint presidency as to his social work colleagues in their daily work: 'I tend to shoot my mouth off a bit too easily.' Luckily, Freeman's more considered style balances him out in this respect, he says. 'John is an excellent control on my loose tendencies. No, he doesn't have to kick me under the table; one look is normally enough.'


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