Michael Gove has taken aim at social workers and called for a major rethink of how they approach their work. According to the education secretary, social workers are often trained to see those they work with as victims of social injustice. For him, this approach needs to be changed. But his words have led many to ask how this change is to come about if cuts continue to be made to social services.
No one could claim that we have got child protection right in the UK yet. Around one child is killed by those supposed to looking after them every week and far more continue to live in appalling circumstances of abuse and neglect. Up to one in four children and young people report experiencing significant harm, only a tiny minority of whom come to the attention of child protection authorities.
It isn’t even that children don’t tell anyone. Recent research by the NSPCC found that 80% of a group of 60 children and young adults did report the maltreatment they had experienced to someone – a teacher, a friend or a parent. Rarely was anything done about it. So we know we have a massive problem.
But every single day there are children whose lives are made significantly better because of our systems and interventions and assessments of children. Of course we don’t know how many lives are improved. Like any other public health intervention, success is a non-event that goes unreported in the media. When we are just beginning to turn the tide on mistreatment, it seems ridiculous to strip the country of the necessary resource to continue to make those interventions. Yet that is exactly what appears to be happening.
Gove is quite right to point out that some of our services are a shambles and that mistakes have been made. Adopted himself, he speaks from a position of having experienced success in the system.
Ofsted reports that some 20 local authorities’ children’s services are performing inadequately. That is 20 too many and Gove has been trying to make it easier to intervene where there are these failures.
Gove emphasised that efforts to address inadequacies in the child protection system have “not been radical, systematic or determined enough”.
But some have interpreted his swipe at social workers – many of whom he said were not up to the job – as a timely event to divert attention from the government’s swingeing cuts to the services and resources that are used to tackle the mistreatment of children.
And critics have pointed out it was not a coincidence to make these pronouncements on the eve of the serious case review from Bradford on the death of Hamzah Khan.
To date, only Doncaster has been taken out of council control but Gove’s speech last week gives licence for more to be handed over to the independent sector. He described this as “a first step towards freeing up innovative and ambitious local authorities to deliver greater diversity and excellence of provision”.
Child protection in Birmingham is now under the spotlight as well in the wake of this case. Gove spoke of the “pernicious” mistakes made by some social workers in not seeing the effects of harmful adult behaviours on children or of making excuses for these.
In a counter-attack, Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers suggested that the speech was carefully crafted to induce a media frenzy about social workers and their left-wing bias. She points out that the reality for most people who need help with food and money isn’t ideology, it is the social impact of the austerity agenda.
In a letter to the Guardian, social work academics reinforce this. “The main problem facing the social work profession at present is not dogma, but reduced funding, low political priority, excessive caseloads and growing client demand,” they said.
When there were failures in Hackney, there was a complete overhaul of the system, which led to significant improvements. However, this turnaround took huge investment. There is no doubt that similar reconstructions are needed elsewhere but this does not necessarily need to be done by the private sector. More importantly, there is no indication of where the money for this reform will come.
If Gove wants to see improvements in social care and failing services reformed, he ought to think about how this will be paid for, rather than singling out social workers for criticism.