Baby P: can training prevent another?
Anyone put in charge of improving the leadership of children's services would feel apprehensive after the hysteria over Baby P's death in Haringey.
They might be doubly worried if their background was in schools rather than social care, as this was one of the reasons for the vilification of Sharon Shoesmith, children's services director in the north London borough.
Yet that is the challenge faced by Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College of School Leadership, who has taken personal responsibility for starting an intensive training scheme for children's services directors by the autumn.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said this month that such training would also help potential directors "gain experience in areas outside their own specialism before they are appointed".
Like Ms Shoesmith, about 70 per cent of directors of children's services (DCS) have an education background. In that light, it might seem illogical to put a schools quango, such as the NCSL, in charge of shaking them out of their comfort zones. However, Mr Munby, who was previously a teacher and Knowsley's education director, insists that his college can do it.
He said the panel of experts who will develop the training programme include those with a social care background, such as Dame Jo Williams, chief executive of Mencap, who spent a decade as a social services director.
Mr Munby "It's time to stop saying 'Are you education or are you social care?' and say 'Are you a DCS?'".
The training, leading to a new professional qualification like that for headteachers, will involve a short residential course but will focus mainly on on-the-job training.
Mr Munby said that the need for such a course had been apparent before the Baby P furore in November. Discussions with the Government had started early last autumn.
"It's fair to say that when the role of DCS was created, people were asked to just get on with it," he said. "There was no programme for leadership, as there was for school leaders, and that's an issue that needs to be addressed."
Mr Munby said the new course would not be as crude as immersion in social services for those with an education background and vice-versa.
"It will be personalised to meet the needs of the individual DCS," he said, "so that could mean looking more at social care or education. But the job is wider than that and there are a lot more areas where someone might need development, everything from youth work and health to political leadership
Will former teachers who become directors of children's services be packed off to spend time with front-line social workers? "My guess is that most DCSs are doing that already," he said.
A bitter irony of the Baby P case is that the changes which caused children's social care to be overseen in many authorities by those without a social care background came as a result of a previous child death. The decision to make all authorities merge education and social services into children's services departments with a single director was a direct result of the inquiry into the abuse and murder of eight-year- old Victoria Climbie in 2000.
But Mr Munby believes it is possible for one person to do the job, providing they are supported by a strong team. He will be phoning dozens of children's services directors over the next three months to find out what help they need. He also sees the course as a way of training those with the potential to do the job next.
"It is a time of worry for many DCSs. That's understandable given the media attention Haringey had," he said. "But I believe we can make it an attractive role.
"It should be, as it is crucial to the protection of children."
Comment, Roger Pope, page 37
The expansion of the role of the NCSL will not distract from its core work of training headteachers, it chief executive has insisted.
Steve Munby said new training for directors of children's services might give the college a greater appreciation of the role schools can play in providing extended services, but he emphasised that it "would not step back from its core remit".
The college also faces the challenge of recruiting national leaders of education, who are outstanding headteachers to help struggling schools. So far it has found about 200, but it has been set the target of recruiting 500 by 2012.
The college's future looks safer than it was at the last general election, when the Conservatives suggested they would merge it with the Training and Development Agency for schools and the General Teaching Council. A Tory spokesman this week confirmed that a merger was no longer party policy.