Last Friday Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research on ’the failure of our current child protection system’. I guess it‘s never too early in a speech for rhetoric and Mr Gove was setting out his stall early. As the title of the speech says, in his view we are ‘failing’.
Mr Gove's opening gambit in the actual speech was an admission (his words) that the 'state is currently failing in its duty to keep our children safe'. Hearing this I was thinking, ‘Hallelujah! He’s going to talk about the mistake of capping council tax'. But you can imagine my surprise when his admission was actually a preamble to attacking social work!
With barely a pause Mr Gove was invoking the 'instantly negative towards social worker' names of Victoria Climbie, Peter Connelly and Khyra Ishaq. In doing this Mr Gove not only continued to set the tone of the speech, but made it clear that he was not talking to social workers or attempting to engage us. It was of course a speech attacking us.
In further admissions Mr Gove goes on to say that ‘we’ are not asking the 'tough questions' or 'taking the necessary actions' to safeguard the emotional and physical wellbeing of children. For me this raises a question I have asked myself many times, how is this type of criticism measured?
Clearly even one child death is too many, but if the bar for our profession is set at the standard of perfection then we are eternally doomed to viewed as a profession in crisis. Our failures are easy to quantify, but it seems that no one yet has found a way of measuring our successes. Without success to measure against failure how do you quantify whether we are successful or not?
This illustrates part of the problem with debating child protection and social work. To counter the arguments made against us you have to make a case that there will be emotional and physical harm of children. This is because the reality of the situation is there will be child deaths and we cannot ensure the wellbeing of every child. That is not in anyway to excuse any failings on the part of social workers. But what I seek to do is reframe the debate by not accepting that what social workers do can be so easily (lazily?) defined by politicians.
In my view, we should always be reviewing what has gone wrong and also what has gone right, and this should lead to services evolving. But the constant redefinition and rewriting of what do is counter productive, as is the constant feeling of working in a profession in crisis. The failings of individuals in cases do not always mean that the whole system is wrong. We should not look to change a system to try and ensure that it is foolproof against an individual failing, or at least that's not all we should do. We should also be asking ourselves what is the cause of individual failure, why did a social worker miss something crucial, or worse case scenario why did a social worker look the other way?
I do not have the answer to the problem of individual failings, but one thing that does not help is the relentless criticism of our profession. It undermines the professional confidence of social workers, and I believe that frequently social workers are effectively paralysed with fear of doing the wrong thing.
Mr Gove continues with the observation that ‘we’ are ‘pre-occupied by the much smaller risk of strangers causing harm and in so doing have established an intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy which creates a false feeling of security for parents while alienating volunteers and eroding personal responsibility.’
I quite simply do not recognise or accept this, even the most naive amongst us do not subscribe the outdated ‘stranger danger’ approach to social work. I really have no idea what he has based this observation on.
Mr Gove continues to attack social work and its leadership in this way. I could critique each and every point, but I think we have already established this is not a speech intended to get us onside.
Mr Gove moves on to his belief that more children should be taken into care and at an earlier stage of our involvement when children are at risk. He forms these views from Lord Carlile’s report into Doncaster and the ‘Education Select Committee's recommendation in its report last week on child protection‘. He backs this up with a number of other reports and personal accounts of children in ‘piss soaked vests’. Is it even worth pointing out current exisiting legislation?
And then Mr Gove takes the role of ‘good cop’, having already been ‘bad cop’ earlier in the speech. Mr Gove finds it ‘understandable’ why we do not challenge parents/cares and offers an excuse as to why we may become desensitised to the situations before us. He wants to support those amongst who dare to take a child into care and he wants to improve the care system and the outcomes for those within it. Is this Mr Gove’s arm I feel around me, is he comforting me?
But then we are back to bad cop. Not just bad cop, but bad cop who spends his days reading the newspapers and watching the news. He talks of ‘powerful strangers who hide their abuse behind a cloak of celebrity or in the dark recesses of the corridors of power‘. Apparently we’ve all been looking for danger in the wrong places! It’s not celebrities and politicians who abuse children, oh no it parents/carers as well! Mr Gove talks like an excited school boy that has just discovered how to make a bottle rocket. Can this really be the first he has heard this, does he really think that as a profession statistically children are most at risk from they know?
So with the problems outlined Mr Gove seeks to offer some answers. In one of these he has my support. He talks about the number of different agencies and the problem of Data Protection. Mr Gove I support you in this. Early on in my career I was asked would I rather be accused of a Data Protection offence or accused of not preventing a child death. Emotive I grant you, but I do consider this is in my day to day dealings with other agencies. I am not advocating playing fast and loose with Data Protection, but I am advocating finding ways of sharing information to safeguard children.
Mr Gove also wants to learn from education, he is of course referring to Frontline. My thoughts on this are well documented in my blog, but essentially I feel that it defines a problem which does really exist and then solves it.
In his conclusion Mr Gove says that he hopes to have started a debate and of course he has. But the danger is that our already maligned profession is further attacked and social workers are even more demoralised.
Well Mr Gove, that comforting arm you put round my shoulder, stupidly I thought it might have had a fist full of dollars. But it appears it was just a fist, and once again my nose has been bloodied.