The former director of children’s services, brought in when it was rated among the bottom six per cent in the country, saw its Ofsted ranking rise in just three years to within the top 16.
The recognition, for services to Local Government and to Children’s Services, is humbling, he said. It is an honour not just for himself but for all those whose worked tirelessly towards transformation, and for those who invested in him along the way.
“It was a shock to the system - receiving the letter,” said the 49-year-old from Sheffield, now chief executive designate for the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. “Then of course, a sense of pride. When individuals are recognised in this way, it represents the hard work of many.
“I’m humbled and appreciative of all the support I’ve had, the stewardship and tutelage. This is a huge credit to the victims and survivors of CSE, who showed such bravery.
“You are only as good as the people around you. I was brought in to turn around children’s services - but nobody can do that by themselves.”
Mr Thomas, who left Sheffield’s Newfield Comprehensive school at the age of 16 with three O Levels, went on to work for voluntary groups including the NSPCC and Shelter, before moving into local government in Trafford and Derbyshire.
He was brought in to Rotherham as strategic director of Children and Young People’s Services after the department was judged to be failing in most areas by Ofsted in the wake of the Jay Report, which laid bare how at least 1,400 children were raped, trafficked and sexually exploited in the town.
“Those were very dark days,” he said. “There was no trust in the system. We had the media camped outside, from as far afield as America. We were reeling, on the back of the Ofsted judgement. Our workers were being spat at on the street, and vilified on every front.
“That was day one, but after three years it was a very different place.”
He had been tasked with three goals - sorting out the quality of services in light of damning inspection reports, working to bring the perpetrators of CSE to justice, and ensuring traumatised victims and survivors had a support network and access to services.
Three years on, services were rated as good, with almost all its powers returned. With the work of police and “tremendous fortitude” of victims, more than 30 criminals had been locked up for a total of over 400 years.
“Rotherham failed its children,” he said. “But the town had come a long way. And everybody should be proud of that.”
There have been many people over three decades who have lent their trust and belief in him, he adds, and upon whose guidance he is still reliant.
Carol Hassan and Mike Cooney in Trafford, he lists, Bruce Buckley, Nick Hodgson and the late councillor Mike Longden from Derbyshire.
There have been formal mentors, such as Sir Alan Wood and Malcolm Newsam CBE. More recently, he adds, his mentor and Doncaster council’s chief executive Jo Miller.
And alongside that, he adds, is a recognition of the efforts of people from Rotherham, and of the victims and survivors who spoke up and worked with partners.
Of the staff who had worked for the department when it was judged as failing, he added, 75 per cent were still there when it was deemed to be transformed.
“They had all the talent in the world, they just needed a chance to do a great job,” he said. “What we did, as a team, was create that chance.”