A bridge between divergent worlds
Liz Railton admits that she felt "very daunted" when she moved into her dual role leading education and social services in 2003. Essex's first director of children's services began her career as a social worker and joined the local authority from Cambridgeshire, where she had been director of social services. Her only real experience of the educational world was as the mother of two boys and through professional contacts with education colleagues at the council.
"At first I was well out of my comfort zone," she recalls with a laugh. But she is clearly not the kind of woman to be daunted for long.
"There was an expectation on the education side that I should be speaking the language and be the kind of chief technician that they had had before,"
she says. "There was a worry and a suspicion that if I didn't fall into this traditional role, then what was the point? This manifested itself as an uncertainty about whether the education agenda would have its place in the spotlight - or would I champion the service that I knew more about?"
Of the 115 directors of children's services already appointed, only about a quarter come, like Ms Railton, from social care backgrounds. Indeed, most are former chief education officers. But Ms Railton was convinced that as long as she had competent educationists around her, her role would be a rather different one:
"I felt that I had come with a broader, less technically-based remit, to lead an agenda around improving the lives of children," she says.
While still in Cambridge, she had begun to feel that the separation of education and social care was "an artificial divide - especially given the changing nature of councils and their relationships with schools".
Essex was already thinking along the same lines and had moved to bring the leadership of education and social care together early in 2003, even before the Government's green paper "Every Child Matters" made this an imperative.
But Ms Railton's approach could show newcomers to the job that the brief is far broader than simply the adding together of two previous roles. "It's about animating a whole range of people in different agencies - including voluntary and private organisations - to work together to make improvements for young people," she says.
A major task in bringing two services together is the different languages they speak. Ms Railton says she has found the language of education "not that accessible", with its talk of key stages, floor targets and five A*-C grades, not to mention the jargon around continuing professional development and teacher training.
Social care also has its own jargon, she concedes, "around levels of need - vulnerable children, complex needs and so on - whereas if you're in a school, a child with a problem is a child with a problem".
Both sides tend to make assumptions or even caricature the way the other works, she says. "Those in social care may say schools are only interested in narrow educational achievement, while schools say social workers are never there when you want them or that they are only interested in extreme cases."
But there is much to be gained from both services working together, especially for "vulnerable" children.
Here Ms Railton seizes pencil and paper and passionately scribbles a diagram of a pyramid to illustrate the children who are half-way between those with acute or complex needs at the tip, and the majority of children at the base, who get the support they need from the universal education service.
"Where I see my role is in trying to fill that gap - where there are significant numbers of children not much resourced and not well organised,"
Extended schools and children's centres are part of the way forward for Essex. So too are "local delivery groups" (a new kind of children's services jargon?). These are local clusters of schools which will operate in conjunction with new children and young people strategic partnerships (CYPSPs), drawing advice and help from a range of local organisations.
So a child showing early signs of anti-social behaviour could be referred by a school for a bit of extra support - perhaps advice from an educational welfare officer or local police officer, or for peer mentoring or help from a local parents' group - before the problem becomes intractable.
"Within a service you can get very trapped in your own immediate issues,"
says Ms Railton. "When you talk to other people you start to realise that they hold different bits of the jigsaw."