“It’s grim up North” I am not sure of the origin of this phrase but on a frosty Wednesday morning I know what it means. I also know that in the Social Work world it is grimmer in the South. I think that it is important not to become cocooned in your own place and space and that it is affirming to look around and see what is going on in other places and spaces. Over the last week or so I have been drawn to what is going on in England and most importantly the impact this has on Social Work.
Looking at it from the outside I feel for those people who use social work services and for those who provide social work services. The never ending debate on social works public persona rumbles on and almost everyone I have spoken to on the subject has an opinion, but that opinion is undoubtedly shaped by two (or more) influential forces, namely the media and the government. When both seem to line up in opposition to social work it is an uncomfortable place for professionals and service users to be.
Let us consider Michael Gove’s recent speech on Child Protection reform. It is disingenuous to suggest that his speech was about Child Protection reform; from my reading of it it seemed more to be about Gove locating social work in the cross hairs and gently squeezing the trigger. Make no mistake his speech was about a root and branch reform of the social work profession, from training and education to direct practice. The focus on social justice and ethical approaches in the provision on support to the vulnerable has long been anathema to politicians such as Gove.
Astonishingly he managed not to mention Eileen Munro’s work on Child Protection or the work of the Social Work reform board. To me this is a clear indication that Gove and his government colleagues have a direction of travel and are not going to be put off, especially not by rigorous academic evidence or the expert knowledge and experience of professionals in the field. Gove did however provide some evidence, from a Times journalist, which reminds me, I must set the Sky to record the outcome of the Levenson inquiry, now who owns the Times??? Who is being investigated for press standards and ethics???
Most worrying seems to be a simplistic linear view that there are a certain number of “problem families” and that social work should become more ready to remove children from these families and that the adoption process should be simplified to allow for a speedier transition from these problem families into the arms of nice middle class adopters. Social Workers need to become more sensitive to squalor and concentrate less on asking intimate personal questions of adopters, after all anything is better than where these kids were, right?
It is packaged up in simple language and simpler terms of reference. Social work is failing the most disadvantaged children. Blame is attributed to the professional and the most vulnerable in our society are played into a political game that seems to have at its heart a desire to erode a fundamental function of social work; asking difficult questions, either of prospective adopters or the systems that people interact with that can, if not checked, disadvantage people who are already vulnerable.
If social workers are not allowed to be reflective, analytical and critical and if students are not encouraged to learn about the complexities of peoples lived experience then that amounts to a reform of the profession on an unprecedented scale. For me it would fundamentally change the nature and scope of what we do. Social Workers operate at the very margins of society, it is vital they have an understanding of why people find themselves there and if social workers find it unpalatable that people are living in such extremes and are willing to challenge it then so much the better. Not just for the profession and for those who use the services but also for those who believe that in a truly democratic country the importance of a unified professional voice that seeks to support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged is vital.
Rotherham is a case in point, you may or may not agree with a decision to remove Eastern European children from a family who are members of UKIP but it seems to me that this was a tragic example of a situation that should have been played out in a confidential manner being played out in public for political gain. I question the morality and the ethics of anyone who would seek political advantage from the experiences of children in foster care. These are the very vulnerable children that Gove wants us to believe he can protect more fully, it seems hypocrisy then to conflate their situation to prove his point. And for those in the press who rushed to get this story out there willingness to see the “story” before the children is indicative of a section of our society that has lost some sense of proportionality.
Gove does his best to ignore some stark facts, we live in terribly austere times, his government has cut jobs and services, his government has a fundamental belief that public service should be reducing, his government also believe that reducing the support provided by the welfare state is desirable as it offsets the economic crisis, particularly if we reduce the availability of welfare benefits through the aggressive use of means testing, his government believe that privatisation of the NHS is something to aspire to. All of this is an unprecedented attack on the safety net that we have always known to be inadequate even in the most financially secure of times.
An active, voluble social work profession is not so much desirable as necessary attacking it and those who use it for political advantage is tragic. It might be grim up North but I fear it is even grimmer in the South