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Leadership in children’s services

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Four key public sector leaders recently apologised – via the media - for failing to protect the children in their care. Looking on, we may sense their discomfort and sympathise with them. 

How often do we see the leaders of other major organisations publicly apologise for the death of somebody for whom they are responsible? 

So, is there a crisis in leadership for children? And how about us: are we - in failing to be shocked - normalising the corporate neglect of children? In accepting this state of affairs, we perhaps ignore our own complicity.

A major event took place recently which highlighted this for me. The event sought to commission a leadership development programme for senior leaders of services affecting children. The leader of the leadership agency in question was absent. So was leadership. 

I see little of the fundamental mindset shift that is needed

During the event, the outline programme was displayed and those who will design and deliver it have now been commissioned. The programme contains much of the - no doubt – valuable, standard fare of any senior leadership programme. It also contains the specialist knowledge which, it is argued, will raise the standard of leadership in the profession. 

But will it? The content was disturbingly familiar: safe, theoretical, academic. In discussion, it emerged that the content had been agreed more 12 months before the event.

Yet at no point did anyone identify the need for the change in leadership mindset and the kind of programme required to enable this. In fact, it was more about “honing” the present than about a radical change of mindset. Nobody challenged the organisation about its record in delivering leadership that is genuinely child-centred. 

Why do I say radical? Because after a career of nearly 33 years working in leadership with children, I see little of the fundamental mindset shift that is needed. And the leadership programme alluded to above conveys – in its content and very manner of delivery – the old paradigm. 

The widespread low level disaffection of children with their school experience is testimony of the pandemic nature of this failing

A leadership paradigm is manifested in the ways and attitudes of all at any and every level of the organisation.  Those individuals who assume a particular responsibility for leading the organisation implicitly recognise their role in nurturing and changing this paradigm.

There are many models of leadership paradigm.  Let us contrast two different leadership paradigms.  The contrast is stark.  The leadership mind embraces responsibility – if not alignment with - the organisation’s attitude. 

As we consider the right hand column – the mindset of those who demonstrate a child-centred leadership, it is clear, how rarely services for children demonstrate this mindset.  However, it shows much more. 

Professional centred leadersChild centred leaders

DIRECTIVE

We need to show we lead; we must decide

RESPONSIVE:

Children and parents genuinely decide

INDEPENDENT

We have the expertise to do this, it’s what we’re trained for

INTERDEPENDENT

We need to engage the very best expertise, wherever that might be

EXPERT KNOWLEDGE

We know best; we’re the people who deliver

We’ve been trained for this..

BOTTOM UP KNOWLEDGE

We need to listen and respond to children

DICTATES TO CHILDREN

Children have to do what we tell them

NEGOTIATES WITH CHILDREN

Children’s views are valid and important

POLICY DRIVEN

We have a policy and a plan to…

OUTCOME DRIVEN

We learn what works by delivering…

CONTROLLED, SUPERVISED, FIXED

Does it conform to our plans and policies?

FLEXIBLE, ORGANIC

Do families / children tell us it’s working

SATISFIES BUREAUCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITIES

We must have evidence for the system and the inspectors

SATISFIES THE REAL NEEDS OF FAMILIES AND CHILDREN

We need to know what children and families think of it

SLOW, CUMBERSOME, APPARENTLY INCLUSIVE

Has everybody approved this?

FAST, DELAYERED, AGILE

Why have we not done this already?

FEARS SUCCESS CHALLENGING

That can’t be working; they must have tampered with the data

FEARS FAILING CHILDREN

We cannot afford to fail children in any way

PROFESSIONALS DELIVER

We’ve been trained to do this… this is our job

PARENTS/RELATIVES/VOLUNTEERS DELIVER

Ordinary people can do…. Can learn to

 

Comparing children’s services in the light of the child-centred paradigm shows that there is indeed a crisis in leadership for children. The deaths of children and the reported failures of services to perform in some cases the most basic of protection illustrates this. The widespread low level disaffection of children with their school experience is testimony of the pandemic nature of this failing.

But this also shows much more. We are all complicit in the crisis – because of our own thinking about public sector provision. 

Public sector service is built upon the assumption of provider-centred decision-making – the left hand column. If, after all, a key dimension of public sector provision is rationing – sharing the limited resources of the public chest in an agreed manner – then surely you cannot place the user at the centre of decision-making?  And are we, therefore, complicit?

However, one thing is certain. Unless all the leadership mindset across organisations moves from column one and shifts radically towards column two, we shall see a lot more failed children.  And, by the way, a lot more senior leaders learning to apologise. 

If that is not a crisis, what is? 

Mark Fowler, chief exec, rezolvPS Ltd and a former deputy director of Ceredigion CC

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