As councils reel from the widespread criticism of safeguarding work that followed the Baby P tragedy, children’s minister Beverley Hughes has written to chief executives criticising the joint directorates.
In the letter, seen by LGC, Ms Hughes told chief executives that “combining the roles is not recommended without very strong justification”.
She called for reassurance that “your DCS [director of children’s services] is able to provide sufficient focus on the wellbeing of all children in your local area”.
Ms Hughes added: “While I recognise that the way you structure your senior management team is a matter for local authority discretion, the complexity and challenge of the combined role means that this should be something to consider carefully.”
With the Department for Children, Schools & Families flexing its muscle on child protection by intervening in nine authorities, and ministers under pressure to improve standards, Ms Hughes’ letter is seen as a threat to structures at the 20-plus English authorities with joint directors.
One chief executive said it “read like” a threat to change the structure of his directorates or be put under the spotlight.
A leading social services expert said the communication was “surprisingly interventionist” and should be taken as a particular warning to councils with poor children’s services annual performance assessments (APAs).
Caroline Abrahams, Local Government Association programme director for children and young people, said the quality of the children’s services leadership team was more important than local structures.
“Local authorities need to be given the responsibility to make things work in their own area, and what matters is that the DCS has to be the accountable senior officer,” she said.
'Political back covering'
Meanwhile, the joint director at one council said the letter smacked of “political back covering”, adding that his authority had no intention of separating the two directorates.
“Authorities should have some flexibility to make their own arrangements work best for them while following national guidance,” he said.
A DCSF spokeswoman said Ms Hughes’ letter, versions of which went to councils with joint directors and those considering moving to the model, was not an instruction to dismantle arrangements.
She said: “The letter was to draw attention to the fact that we are consulting on revised statutory guidance on the role and responsibility of the director of children’s services.”
Also this week, LGC has learned that a forthcoming Performance & Information Research Group Education survey of DCSs has found widespread dissatisfaction with government performance targets: 56% said existing indicators failed to robustly measure their performance.