Who wouldn't want to be a DCS?

As directors of children’s services gather at the National Children and Adult Services Conference, Philip Emms and Jane Parfrement reflect on the achievements of the aspirant DCS programme

Who wants to be a DCS?

With its plethora of statutory responsibilities, the constant apprehension of an Ofsted inspection and, of course, the immeasurable challenge of being responsible for the wellbeing and safety of thousands of children and young people, the role of a DCS is one of the most challenging in local government. This soul-searching question underpins the Aspirant DCS programme, led by The Staff College in consortium with GatenbySanderson, the Institute of Public Care and Skills for Care, to inspire and galvanise a new generation of future leaders.

The aspirant programme has been delivered in various forms for many years, fully funded by the Department of Education, to develop the future leaders of children's services and equip them with the skills required to become a DCS. While the programme offers no guarantee that participants will be appointed to a DCS position there is a high correlation, with 48% of serving DCS having completed the programme. Since 2020, 11% of individuals who completed or are currently completing the programme have already been appointed as a DCS. Feedback from the programme suggests that through applied and reflective learning, participants can accelerate their understanding of the role and better prepare themselves to undertake what is one of the most important roles in local government.

Another challenge the programme aims to address is to achieve more representative leadership and reflect the complex and diverse communities local authorities serve. From ADCS 2022 diversity data, of 131 responses from serving DCS, only 6% identified as being black and global majority. This brings into sharp focus the need for the programme to support the sector to develop diverse talent.

In delivering the aspirant programme, we approach diversity and inclusion in all its forms, particularly focusing on protected characteristics, but also on socio-economic factors, professional backgrounds, and geographical distribution. The initiatives we have undertaken over the past four years have resulted in greater diversity with the number of black and global majority participants increasing from 10% to 34%, those who identify as LGBQT+ representing 11% of the cohort and those declaring a disability 5%.

In terms of professional backgrounds, serving DCS from non-social care are under-represented, the majority having a background in social work.

In our experience, councils tend to lean towards social work during appointment processes. However, this single-minded approach can overlook the critical role the DCS plays in terms of whole system leadership. We have sought to build participant cohorts that reflect the breadth of professional backgrounds providing services to or support for children, young people and families.

The proportion of participants who come from a non-social work background has averaged 24% since 2020 and peaked at over 50% in year three, ensuring candidates from alternative disciplines are well placed to succeed as a DCS.

It is this breadth of experience, both professional and life experience, that we believe will establish a group of aspiring DCS who are equipped to be the leaders of the future.

The delivery of the programme is a blend of face-to- face and virtual learning and aims to provide the right environment for growth into the role of a DCS. The programme consists of eight taught days, along with learning visits, action learning and leadership challenge activities, all planned to support the participant's role and create space for reflective learning. Being given the time by their employers to benefit is critical, and our evaluations show that participants feel they benefit and take out much more than they put in.

The programme is organic, recognising one size will not fit all. It empowers participants to develop their own individual leadership approach to take with them on their journey to becoming a director.

While we cannot make any direct connection between the programme and improved Ofsted outcomes – there are far too many factors at play to substantiate this – we believe the programme ensures the future leaders of children's services are better placed to deliver great outcomes for our communities. As well as looking at historical performance and the number of serving DCS who have completed the programme, we also assess the progress individuals experience post-programme completion and how prepared they feel to become a DCS. Eighty-nine per cent of participants who completed in the last three years indicate they feel equipped to cope with the demands of the role.

The children's services sector continues to face headwinds and challenges, many of which are beyond its control. We cannot let those challenges mask the great work that continues across the country and the role of system leadership undertaken by the director of children's services.

Likewise, we cannot let short-term demands lead to a myopic approach to talent development and ensure the sector continues to invest in tomorrow's leaders. So, let's come full circle to our original question, who wants to be a DCS, or should we really be asking, who wouldn't want to be a DCS?

  • For those wishing to express an interest in completing the aspirant DCS programme, please email:

Philip Emms is principal consultant at GatenbySanderson and Jane Parfrement is chief executive of The Staff College

X – @GatenbyS X – @staff-college


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