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You can sit in the bottom and go 'oh woe is me, or you can say, come on, let's get on with it' Gateshead Council has been judged one of the best in the country when it comes to its services for children and young people. GORDON BARR meets the two women leading the way.

Byline: GORDON BARR

I WILL not back poor life choices. It's a philosophy Maggie Atkinson has taken with her throughout her life, instilled in her from her dad at an early age.

These days Maggie is intent on instilling that very same message. She's in a good position to do it too - as current president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services she has, in many respects, the futures of millions of children across the country to deal with.

Maggie is group director learning and children and DCS along with Councilor Catherine Donovan, and young people, has every right to feel proud at present.

The annual performance assessment of services for children and young people have been rated as outstanding by Government inspectors ofsted - with Gateshaed scoring the top mark in every category, with special praise for the leadership team.

Within minutes of sitting down with Maggie and Catherine you relies how passionate and driven these two are about young people.

Maggie, 52 has no children of her own, but has two now-adult stepchildren, while Gateshead born-and-bread Catherine has one child and two stepkids. They see themselves as 'surrogate' mums to all children and young people in Gateshead.

But they are also quick to point out it is not just them, but all the teams at the council and the integration between departments, which has seen Gateshead become the model for other councils to follow. Only three local authorities in the country have received across the board top marks from Ofsted.

"For me it means that all the hard work done by the staff has been recognised nationally," says Catherine. "As a resident of Gateshead who grew up here it is fantastic. If we get it right with our children, then it is our hope for the future."

As president of ADCS, Maggie has a tough job. Following the Baby P scandal late last year in Haringey, childcare and social services have hardly been out of the headlines. In her presidency role, which comes to an end next month, she is the figurehead nationally.

"Frontline social workers deal almost in the same way as frontline police officers with people who would rather you weren't there who will do anything to deflect you from asking questions you want to ask. At the very extreme end you are dealing with the criminal mind. They are rare cases, but they exist," she says.

"For all the tough days as president, it has also been hugely exciting. You begin to feel, whether this is an illusion or a reality, that you are having a policy-driving effect regionally as well as locally and also nationally. hugely exciting. You begin to feel, whether this is an illusion or a reality, that you are having a policy-driving effect regionally as well as locally and also nationally.

"It's been like a second fulltime job. But I couldn't have done it had I not been working for this council. I am surrounded by talent at chief officer and senior officer and senior manager level and in the head teachers in our schools and I am extremely well supported by the elected members and chief executive.

"If I wasn't in that position I would never have put myself forward because you cannot leave the ranch if things are not good. Things here don't fall apart. Gateshead also recognises what I bring back from the national scene gives us a frontfoot."

Maggie grew up one of three children to a pit brickie in Barnsley, Yorkshire. "I went to a school that said your world is your oyster. It was a very ordinary little school in an ordinary little village," she recalls.

"I refused to sit the 11-plus as I didn't want to be told to wear bottle green and be taught by nuns! I went to a comprehensive. If anyone says ' but look where they come from' to me, they get very short shrift. Because that's where I come from. I was brought up in a family where my dad had straight in your face commentary to us."

A keen birdwatcher and musician (Northumbrian pipes), Maggie admits it can be difficult to switch off from her job.

"There are 11 million 0 to 19 years olds in this country, and between us, we have responsibility for them and that includes youngsters who are locked up, troublesome and antisocial and noisy and troubled themselves, and asylum seekers and refugees.

"Both our jobs are the sorts of jobs that would stop you from sleeping.

"You can sit in the bottom of the bucket and go 'oh woe is me, isn't it dreadful' or you can say, 'come on then, let's get on with it'. "Gateshead is a let's get on with it sort of place and it has to be - the North East region has the greatest child poverty outside of London, and we get scant regard from a lot of national attention as it is so far from London. You have to punch above your weight and bat with the big boys otherwise you get nowt. There's no point being a shy bairn."

You could never call this pair shy bairns. They are focused, determined, formidable, yet hugely approachable.

"We have an attitude here in that if there is an issue here, we need to address it and we need to get everybody on board to do that - all departments," says Catherine. All departments - and with children on board too. School councils and the Gateshead youth assembly have a strong voice in the borough, and the Children's Centres have been a huge success.

"Part of our excellence is that we never rest on our laurels," admits Maggie. "We need to build up young people's self esteem. We are a team effort here - the schools, the colleges are involved, elected members are all involved. We have celebration evenings and awards evenings - make access possible to these people to do things they thought they were never able to do."

The pair are always looking to the future. "Hopefully we are making a difference," says Catherine.

"Every child does matter, and every child has a voice."

I refused to sit the 11-plus as I didn't want to be told to wear bottle green and be taught by nuns! I went to a comprehensive. If anyone says 'but look where they come from' to me, they get very short shrift

CAPTION(S):

MESSAGE: Maggie Atkinson, director of children's services at Gateshead Council; FOCUSED: Coun Catherine Donovan from Gateshead Council; THE FUTURE: Every child matters and has a voice; LEADING THE WAY: Maggie Atkinson, director of children's services at Gateshead Council, left, with Coun Catherine Donovan PICTURES: ANDY COMINS www.chroniclelive.co.uk/buyaphoto ref: 01422183
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 6, 2009
Words:1120
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