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Jo Olsson

Job title: Chief Officer for Children’s Services

Area of work: Children's Services

Our valued Chief Officer for Children’s Services, Jo Olsson, will be retiring in January 2021. We took the opportunity to speak to Jo about her time with Devon, and the challenges and opportunities for our future leader of Children’s Services. 

“The Director of Children’s Services is a big job with overall responsibility for Devon’s vulnerable children, however there’s a really strong and effective team of colleagues in Children’s Services, in the Council and in the Devon Children and Families Partnership to support you. People often stay in Devon for quite a long time, and so there is a depth of richness to relationships. It’s a great place to be Chief Officer for Children’s Services.

“The support of corporate and political colleagues is vital. In Devon, these are good people who work incredibly hard to do a great job. We don’t always get things right; we make mistakes but we level, we pick ourselves up and we get back on track.

“A big challenge has been our Ofsted inspection outcome of inadequate, which was sorely disappointing. We have taken it on the chin; absolutely accepted it and cracked on with the response. We’ve responded with energy, commitment and a lot of hard work to get ourselves well-placed for our first monitoring visit in September.

“Our response has been strong and effective and that’s been recognised by the Commissioner and our Improvement Partnership. Our work on Children’s Services has been reset and our priorities are aligned for the year in terms of how we progress and improve.

“Children’s Services can’t work in any other way but in partnership and that is how all services are constructed. Every bit of the system has to work together to support change for children and families.

“Devon’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19) and the strength of the partnership with schools for our Devon children is a great example of the whole system working together to meet needs. Throughout lockdown we had a high percentage of vulnerable children attending schools, which was consistently above the national average. But we also had an amazing safeguarding response from schools and our Early Help system, supporting the families, in practical ways and emotionally as well. Our relationships are known and trusted and that partnership makes a big difference to our children’s safety.

“In Devon, I think our response to COVID-19 has been outstanding and being part of the national best practice working group is the result of that. I feel very proud. It’s built on a strong effective partnership, a deep history and a willingness to share resources and deploy them to best effect to meet the needs of children and families. I think parents in Devon feel reasonably confident about returning their children to school, which is a major contribution to safeguarding them.

“We know that some children in lockdown will have had very adverse experiences that have caused significant harm and we know that for many more children and young people, their education, social connectedness, emotional health and well-being and mental health will have been adversely affected, so we are anticipating a significant rise in demand for services in the autumn. A longer-term challenge is in responding to a new landscape for families where there is increased poverty because of the impact on the economy in Devon – and we don’t know how that will unfold for future years. We are anticipating a very significant economic shock and we know that this will have an impact on children, however our own Early Help system is recognised by Ofsted as strong and effective, which gives us confidence that we will be able to flex and respond to the changing pattern of need.

“We’ve got the infrastructure and the processes in place to be able to respond and we are looking to re-shape the roles we’ve got in Devon. Through our four locality directors we are asking: how can they join effectively to help families through the next phase, how can we do things differently, how do we reshape a role so that it actually helps negate some of the shock that we anticipate?

“Early Help is an absolute passion of mine. If you get it right at the beginning – you get help in early and then families don’t need that higher end intervention. Families are given a chance to sort out their own problems, with the right kind of support at the right time. I think the transformational change in partnership and in early help have been my biggest achievement since joining Devon County Council in 2016.

“At a personal level, my working life has been spent in London. There’s a kind of wholesome healthiness in the Devon landscape and the environment that’s very good for you; it’s good for your heart; it’s good for your soul, it’s good for you mentally and emotionally! That’s been a real joy.

“At a professional level, coming from London – I had to translate what I had learned onto a big county footprint and that has been a learning curve for me. I didn’t come to Devon knowing I could do that; having the opportunity to keep learning and keep growing through work has been fabulous.

“Since the beginning, I’ve had amazing support from Devon County Council politically and corporately; the support is second-to-none. This has been the most benevolent and benign, corporate and political environment that I have ever encountered in all my 40 years!

“The joy, the reward and the gift of the role of Director of Children’s Services is knowing that what you do changes children’s lives.

“The Chief Officer role really is the best job in the world because you have all the opportunities to influence, to shape and to change lives for the better.”

Our Chief Executive, Phil Norrey believes:

“All children in Devon deserve to have the best possible start in life, to be happy and healthy and to have opportunities to develop and flourish. As a key member of our Leadership Group, the Chief Officer for Children’s Services holds a pivotal role in ensuring that the voice of the child is heard and listened to as we shape and deliver our services.

“Working together with a wide range of partners, the Chief Officer for Children’s Services is at the heart of connecting those who can make a real difference to the lives of children and young people, and their families, across the county. There are many challenges, but there are also many opportunities to strengthen our partnership working to ensure the right support is in the right place at the right time.”