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Expert's Corner: Interview with Anne Coyle

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Executive Senior Manager Anne Coyle talks to Children First Editor Clare Jerrom on why relationships, resilience, team work and humour are all vital components of service improvement.

Looking after yourself is key to a lengthy career within social services, particularly in the stressful arena of service improvement, a senior manager in change management has warned.

It is imperative that senior managers working within service improvement spend time looking after themselves in a bid to prevent burnout, says Anne Coyle, who has 25 years social work experience.

“I do believe that there is longevity in a career like this. The problem is some people are too exhausted by the time they get to the top,” she says.

Anne admits her drug of choice is sport. In fact, ‘sport’ doesn’t really do her hobbies justice considering her spare time is spent swimming, hill walking, running marathons, undertaking Triathlons and teaching Spin Cycling classes.

“Some colleagues perhaps at times over-indulge, work 24/7 or can be anxious to take some head space - you can understand how these jobs do it to you,” she explains. “Keeping the right home/work life balance is also vital and isn’t easy to do in a profession that can gobble you up, but if you don’t have a balance how can you trust your own judgement and be the best you can be?”

Child Sexual Exploitation is not a recent phenomenon

Anne Coyle is an Executive Senior Manager with a background in Child Protection and Safeguarding Services and she actually started her social work career in residential care aged just 21 when she caught a bus from Glasgow to begin work at a large residential institution in Surrey caring for children with severe epilepsy. Here, children and their belongings were identified by numbers rather than names, and children with very severe epilepsy could be identified from the yellow helmets they had to wear to protect their heads when an unexpected seizure happened.

Anne’s role was to look after the children, who she recalled slept in dormitories with very little privacy.  The role as a house parent included working split shifts, early mornings, late afternoons and into the evening when the children were settled to bed. “I remember at that time being very aware of the levels of abuse and vulnerability that these children had experienced. I was really worried about so many of them,” explains Anne.

From there, Anne began work at a Barnardo’s children’s home of education in Middlesex that specialised in young women who were difficult to place. “Child Sexual Exploitation is thought of as a recent phenomenon, but it has always been around and under-estimated. Young women were basically being judged for having experienced years of trauma and sexual abuse,” said Anne.

After two years travelling in New Zealand, where she gained experience in Family Group Conferences, Anne returned to the UK and considered qualifying as a psychotherapist. However, in the end she chose not to, and went on the DipSW course instead to gain a social work qualification.

It was this bedrock foundation in residential care - alongside her childhood being raised by a strong, proud and resilient mother, a single parent of five living in poverty in Glasgow and who survived mainly due to her Catholic faith and her motto “speak properly otherwise you’ll never get anywhere in life” - that ignited her passion for social work and child protection.

Children’s social care 'lost the plot'

However, despite going into management roles very early in her career, Anne insists it wasn’t a conscious decision to move away from frontline work into the realms of management, and more a gentle push from others suggesting she should go for various roles. After three years at Swindon Council as Team Manager of the Family Support and Assessment Service where they piloted Family Groups Conferences, Anne moved to the NSPCC to be a children’s services manager in Bristol. It was during her time there that Anne reshaped the schools projects and re-positioned them into the schools that needed their help the most, specifically focused on those areas affected by the impact of poverty.

In 2004, Anne became Team Manager for Child Protection and Community Social Work Services in South Gloucestershire County Council where she stayed for almost 10 years. During this time Anne was the lead manager for the development of integrated working and co-location of multi-agency teams across South Gloucestershire and deputy chair of the county’s At Risk of Care panel for the north division. Anne was lead manager for the initial development of the First Response county wide service (MASH) and successfully managed the overall social work service, a large team of 30 plus staff and associated performance levels.

While at South Gloucestershire, Anne developed the ‘integrated working’ strategy, after being requested to put forward the team as the social work service that would pilot the multi-agency integrated working project. The success of the pilot project a number of years ago now sees the rest of the children services within South Gloucestershire co-located and continuing to striving towards integrated working.

“During this period I worked with a handful of really brilliant people. One of my ex-managers, Verity, took me under her wing and pushed me forward and told me to always believe in my professional judgement, keep focused on child-centred practice, do the basics well and be relentless,” she said.

“When children’s services started to smarten up and become more process driven, some colleagues became more and more corporate in their outlook, which is not a bad thing per se, so long as one holds onto the child’s experience within the corporate world. I absolutely believe in using data for qualitative and quantitative purposes, but for a while I do think at times children’s social care lost the plot a little and somehow the stats and figures so readily talked about became almost childless. Thankfully, things have moved on since then,” adds Anne.

‘I thought I’d committed career suicide’

Anne talks of her experiences as being the manager who “kept things ticking over” and was always heading the service which offered to pilot new things, however she wanted to test her skill base and discover where she excelled. A director in children’s services Sheila Smith gave a talk at an event organised by the ADCS and Anne said she felt as though “someone had turned out the lights, and she was only talking to me” as her messages really hit home.

“She was talking about the challenges and struggles of women in management and she said ‘if it feels scary, embrace it, do it,’” explains Anne. When she got home, Anne wrote her letter of resignation. It then hit her that she was a single parent to two children with a mortgage to pay and had a sinking feeling of ‘what will I do if this doesn’t work out?’

However, the move paid off and in her resignation period, she was offered work at Herefordshire Council as Head of Field Work Services (Safeguarding and Family Support) reporting to the assistant director.

“Sadly they were in the aftermath of a failed inspection and in a situation, that they had never found themselves before and less than half of the staff were permanent members with the majority of roles made up with agency staff,” says Anne. “There were many ‘oh my god there’s so much work to do,’ moments so I wrote to the DCS saying that I wanted to meet her to discuss whether I was going to leave or grab the bull by the horns and be allowed to realign services. At the time, I was the only permanent head in post within the leadership team.”

“I got in on Monday morning with a knot in my stomach wondering what I was about to face, I had some colleagues warning me that this wasn’t necessarily a wise thing to do. I got in the boarding room and all the heads of service were there. I told them that I was really concerned at the lack of robust information and a real lack of understanding about the daily lived experiences for the children that we were all responsible for. Thankfully the outcome was a really constructive collaborative problem-solving session that resulted in the realignment of the service and the adoption of a strengths-based approach to improvement. I am eternally grateful to my DCS for believing in my judgement.”

“Never once did I feel scared that I’d left the job I’d been in for 10 years, I thought I could always do locum social work. At times I thought I’d committed career suicide. But all I kept hearing was Verity’s voice in my head saying ‘Go on girl!’” said Anne. “We turned around the Child Protection Service from an OFSTED grading of ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Requires Improvement’ within nine months of me being in post, something I am very proud of, as this isn’t simply about inspection gradings, but the turnaround for children and how a service grows from strength to strength.”

Resilience is key

Anne states that although on leaving South Gloucestershire she wanted to find her key areas of strength, she has never had a moment of clarity where she realised that ‘service improvement’ was her thing. It was more a question of ‘why don’t other people see this?’

“Managers need to think strategically and operationally. I’ve always been trained that if it doesn’t make a difference to a child, why keep doing it?” she said.

In terms of service improvement, Anne says it is relationships that make a change rather than a ‘proven recipe’. She states that as a leader you have to “get under the skin of the authority at a rapid pace in a non-aggressive way and understand your demographics and strengths”. She is also a massive advocate of teamwork. “You just can’t do this stuff alone and neither should you,” she says.

Resilience is needed in abundance and it is important to be brave, she adds, warning that there is a “big difference between courageous and aggressive”. Going into a struggling authority can provoke a number of emotions; some staff embrace the opportunity to improve services while others are more cautious. “I’ve experienced resistance, of course, I have. Change isn’t easy but it’s about how this is done that leaves resilience and strength behind you that is not based on maverick leadership or short-term fixes. The key is how you manage it. I am an engaging person and I believe that humour is unbelievably important, although not at anyone’s expense. Being human and having a systematic brain is important – not just coming up with a plan that looks good, but one that is understood and owned up, down and across the system” said Anne.

You cannot underestimate the impact of good leadership

Following her stint at Herefordshire, Anne has gone on to carry out service improvement work at Rutland, Manchester and Somerset. One of her roles at Somerset was to overhaul their professional approach to Child Sexual Exploitation within children’s social care across the Somerset partnership agencies.

CSE, she says, is massively complex area and the power of social media is enormous in protecting children but also in terms of the access it provides to those who want to harm children that they just didn’t have before.

“I really believe that there is an enormous need to equip parents and carers with the information to answer their children’s difficult questions. The whole multi-agency systematic preventative response is key, and there is a massive opportunity to “get a lot of bang for your buck” by dealing with CSE in PSHE lessons – although you have to be brave enough to be tackling CSE with children at a much younger age, potentially year 6 (age 11),” she warns.

“My main message is that if you get the leadership right, you simply cannot underestimate the impact this has on resilient, child centred outcome-focused frontline services. Leadership is about knowing yourself well, knowing your strengths and weakness, building a team and above all else doing the basics well. Integrity, honesty, ambition, strength and accountability are all key components,” Anne adds.

It’s a ‘small world’ in children’s services senior management which, she says, can at times seem a ‘little isolating’. However, when she had the ‘boardroom experience’ at Herefordshire, the PA said to her afterwards, “You’ll be a DCS in five years’ time.” Anne dismissed it at the time.

“It no longer feels like a daft idea and, in time, I’d definitely welcome it,” she concluded.

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