The speech made by Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, to the NSPCC conference on 12 November 2013.
There are really – at heart – just 2 schools of politicians.
Not left and right.
But those who believe in intervention. And those who don’t.
Faced with crises and disasters abroad some of us believe that we should – whenever we can – act decisively. And the interdependence of our world only makes it more important than ever that we seek to promote human flourishing everywhere we can.
Others prefer not to act.
Some – usually on the left – say we have no right to intervene when other nations and other polities organise their affairs differently. It is cultural arrogance.
Others – usually on the right – say intervention is bound to be costly and rarely if ever effective. We should mind our own business.
I disagree with both.
Just as I disagree with the non-interventionists in education policy.
Faced with the extent of inequality in our society, the denial of potential, the myth that we are a meritocracy then I believe we need to intervene – energetically, vigorously, determinedly – to improve our school system. We need to remove those teachers who are underperforming and pay good teachers more, change the leadership where schools are failing and allow good school leaders more freedom to expand, stop making excuses for our failure to keep pace with other nations and start setting higher expectations.
There are some – usually on the left – who argue that inequality is a stubborn socio-economic fact, a consequence of capitalism, and schools cannot make much difference so education reform is a dead end.
There are others – usually on the right – who argue that schools can do little more than sift out the stars and let them shine while preparing the rest to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Reform to make comprehensive schooling successful and opportunity more equal is an exercise in futility.
I disagree – profoundly – with both those views.
Which is why we have acted to make the dream of great comprehensive education a reality.
We have driven change to get more great teachers – and we have the best generation of teachers ever now in our schools. With more top graduates going into the most challenging schools.
We have accelerated reform to liberate schools from suffocating bureaucracy – and now there are more academies and free schools than ever before – outperforming those schools still in bureaucratic hands – and giving poorer children a better chance in life. And we have ensured that all schools are held to account more rigorously than ever before for the difference they make to the lives of the poorest.
The legislative – and administrative – changes we have made in education reform are significant. And it is now my department’s responsibility to make sure that we drive change on the ground more rapidly and more rigorously.
But there is one other area which is my responsibility in government where we have not yet intervened vigorously enough.
The protection of our most vulnerable children.
We have not intervened to rescue those children who have been suffering the most in our society.
My time in politics so far has been punctuated by moments when all of us have been left speechless – because a child’s cries were never heard.
All children who cried out in pain – and we never listened. And never acted.
After each of these children’s deaths there have been – I am sure, sincere – protestations that lessons must be learned, that those in power must act and that such tragedies must never happen again.
But have lessons been learned? Have those of us in power acted in the right way?
I don’t think we have – yet.
I believe that we have not been either systematic, radical or determined enough in our efforts to reform the system of children’s social care in this country.
But that is changing.
And it is my aim to ensure that change is equal to the challenge we all face.
As someone who started their life in care, whose life was transformed because of the skill of social workers and the love of parents who were not my biological mother and father but who are – in every sense – my real mum and dad, this is personal. A child’s opportunity to flourish should not be a matter of chance – it should be the mission which guides all our actions.
And we can make a difference. Just as we are doing with our school reforms.
And just like our school reforms there are three critical areas where we need to change.
We need to improve the professionalism of those who work with children.
We need to break out of bureaucratic ways of working to generate the sort of innovation which delivers dramatically better results.
And we need to be clearer about accountability – what we expect, and who from – so that the most vulnerable get the protection they deserve.
We will ensure that the resources are there to support the most vulnerable children.
Through the pupil premium plus we have increased school funding for children in the care system – from April looked-after children will attract £1,900, more than double the current amount. And we have expanded the numbers of children entitled to the additional funding – no longer must they be in care for 6 months before attracting it; now they will get it from day one. For the first time, schools will be given the premium for adopted children and those who leave care under a special guardianship order or residence order.
Edward Timpson, the Minister for Children and Families, worked extremely hard to get this all agreed and I congratulate him for it. It’s an achievement which underlines this government’s absolute commitment to improving the life chances of vulnerable children; and to closing the attainment gap between poorer children and the rest.
But just as our investment in schools generally can only generate the right results with reform, so our additional investment in the most vulnerable children will only secure the improvement we need if we get the three pillars of reform right.
More great social work
Let me turn to the most important of those first – the people who work with children in need.
When the Prime Minister took time – and pains – to praise social workers in his speech to the Conservative Party conference he did something both critically important – and brave.
But – and I hope he will forgive me – I don’t think he went far enough.
I think it’s hard to explain just how difficult – how challenging – how important and how inspiring – the role of social workers is.
Social workers spend their time with the children and families in our society who face the gravest difficulties – those who may have been bruised and battered by events and circumstances and yet are in many cases deeply resistant to accepting the help they need.
Social workers have to develop relationships with adults, win their trust and understand their problems, while at the same time thinking hard – and first – about the needs of the children in these homes.
Social workers have to weigh very delicate technical, psychological, social and moral questions in their minds as they work with these families.
Are the problems these families face – the mental health issues, the substance abuse, the domestic violence, the emotional ties between different partners, the alienation from the workplace, the lack of parenting capacity – resolvable? And over what time frame?
And as we work to resolve these problems, are we leaving the children in these homes at risk? Are they at direct risk of abuse from violent adults? Or at risk of sustained neglect which will blight the rest of their lives?
Social workers have to try to use their skills – and training – to get those families’ lives back on track. And that will often mean challenging habits of behaviour in adults which they are reluctant to abandon. It will mean emphasising the importance of delayed gratification, self-discipline, consideration for others and pride in achievement. That is not easy.
Neither is it easy to see through the sometimes manipulative – and sometimes evasive, dishonest or disingenuous – behaviour of some adults as they lie about their drinking, their drug use, their efforts to find work or – most critically – which men have access to their house – and their children.
Social workers have to invest significant time and care in trying to change these difficult lives while also having to battle optimism bias – the trait in human nature to which we are all prone – which leads us to want to believe people when they say they will follow our advice. And which leads us to want to believe that existing relationships can be made to work, if we give them time.
Because succumbing to that optimism bias can mean that the children – who are always our first concern – can be left at risk and in danger when we need to intervene to rescue them from an abusive environment just as determinedly as we would seek to rescue them from the scene of any natural disaster.
Behind that little phrase – the rule of optimism – lie untold hours of suffering: Daniel Pelka on his dirty mattress in his dark, locked room, hungry and alone; the 4-year-old Hamzah Khan shrinking from maternal neglect to the size of a 12-month-old baby, in a house unfit for habitation, his corpse mummifying in his mother’s alcoholic swamp of a bedroom.
Children scrabbling for scraps of food, not turning up at school, or turning up bewildered and bruised, too afraid to speak out, if anybody bothers to speak to them at all. That is what the ‘rule of optimism’ means – closing our eyes to all this. And as long as we continue to close our eyes and look away, collectively, we in government and the public too, then we too fail to stand behind that child.
But the people who do stand by these children – and save them – are social workers.
That is why it is both such a noble – and demanding – vocation.
It requires a level of professionalism every bit as great as that of doctors or barristers, teachers or lecturers.
Which is why we need to ensure that the people we attract to social work are as talented as possible – and why we need to ensure the training we give them is as professional as possible.
That is why I asked Sir Martin Narey – the former chief executive of Barnardo’s – to undertake a thorough review of social work training.
We know there are many, many superb social workers in the field at the moment. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of them at work. I’ve discussed how we should approach some of the most complex family problems with some exceptionally gifted new entrants to the profession working in Hackney. I’ve benefited from the wisdom of current and former directors of children’s services such as Alan Wood, Anne-Marie Carrie and Andrew Christie. And I am particularly indebted to our first Chief Social Worker Isabelle Trowler – whose intelligence, honesty and passion make her a superb leader of the profession. Her appointment follows through on one of the key recommendations from Eileen Munro, whose review of child protection has launched us on this path of reform.
What these great practitioners know – and what I have discovered – is that despite the success of Step Up to Social Work in bringing more able graduates into children’s social work, we are still not recruiting enough great people into social work and we are not training existing social workers well enough.
That is why the launch of the new Frontline programme by the Teach First alumnus Josh MacAlister is so important.
Teach First helped transform perceptions of teaching.
Its recruitment process was explicitly elitist. Only top graduates from the best universities need apply.
And just being clever wasn’t enough. You would be screened to see if you had leadership ability and only if you had the character, as well as the smarts, would you be selected.
The reason for such elitism?
Because teaching is important – and difficult work. It’s not easy holding the attention of 30 hormonal teenagers for an hour while you take them through differential calculus.
We need very impressive people to do that work. And those of us who are parents want to know that our children are being taught by the best possible candidates.
Because Teach First made it clear that only the best could cut it as one of their teachers, they attracted a huge number of applicants. To make it on the course was a special badge of excellence. A signal of prestige.
And soon the halo which Teach First generated over its recruits spread across the teaching profession. Education was where top people were going. So more top people – whether through Teach First or by other means – went into education.
Which is why we now have more people with firsts or upper seconds entering teaching than ever before – and why Ofsted have recorded an increase in the number of good and outstanding lessons in our classrooms under this government.
What Teach First has done for teachers over the last 10 years, Frontline now aims to do for social work.
It’s an extremely demanding and competitive course – with a highly selective application process – because as I’ve underlined today, it’s a uniquely demanding job being a social worker.
It requires both intellectual abilities, and a level of emotional intelligence, or common sense, which are out of the ordinary.
I’m delighted that because Frontline has set such a high bar, it has reinforced the prestige which should attach to social work – and since its launch just 6 weeks ago over 4,000 people have started the application process.
Those who win a place will benefit enormously from the experience of the superb social workers in whose teams they will be placed.
But as well as recruiting the best people, we also need to ensure social work training is as rigorous as any profession’s.
Despite the existence of some very impressive courses, that isn’t the case at the moment.
The intellectual demands are not always as high as they should be.
Theories of society predominate over an effective understanding of child development, the cognitive damage that accrues through neglect and appropriate thresholds for taking children into care.
And there isn’t enough stress on high-quality practice.
Barristers need to show not just a knowledge of law but advocacy skills, surgeons not just an understanding of anatomy but technical mastery. Children’s social workers often join the profession having assembled a portfolio of work which does not include the practical experience or knowledge necessary to help families and protect children.
Sir Martin Narey’s report will confirm that we already produce some fine social workers. But it will say more about the need for improvement, about varying educational standards at universities, and a failure to be clear about what our social workers need to know and understand when they emerge into this most challenging of careers.
I expect – as ever – that in the reporting the criticism will attract more attention than the praise.
I hope what I have said today will help set things in context – by helping to explain just what a demanding job social work is and just how impressive the profession’s leaders are.
But it is the mark of a mature profession that instead of rejecting criticism, it embraces challenge. The medical profession has retained public respect and prestige because it has recognised the need to improve its practice at critical moments – embracing a more rigorous approach to evidence through the widespread adoption of randomised control trials and taking a firm line with those who do not adhere to the highest professional standards.
I am sure that if – as I hope and expect – social workers recognise the rigour and helpfulness of Sir Martin’s work the profession will only grow in public respect. A defensive or dismissive reaction will only, I fear, make it more difficult for all of us to achieve the change we need in child protection.
There is another area in which social work training deserves to be challenged.
In too many cases, social work training involves idealistic students being told that the individuals with whom they will work have been disempowered by society. They will be encouraged to see these individuals as victims of social injustice whose fate is overwhelmingly decreed by the economic forces and inherent inequalities which scar our society.
This analysis is, sadly, as widespread as it is pernicious. It robs individuals of the power of agency and breaks the link between an individual’s actions and the consequences. It risks explaining away substance abuse, domestic violence and personal irresponsibility, rather than doing away with them.
Social workers overly influenced by this analysis not only rob families of a proper sense of responsibility, they also abdicate their own. They see their job as securing the family’s access to services provided by others, rather than helping them to change their own approach to life. Instead of working with individuals to get them to recognise harmful patterns of behaviour, and improve their own lives, some social workers acquiesce in or make excuses for these wrong choices.
But the best social workers in England today don’t just reject this approach instinctively – they have taken it apart intellectually.
The London Borough of Hackney – although a proud part of our capital city – has every social – and economic – problem you could think of in modern Britain concentrated in its few square miles.
It also has some of the best – and most innovative social workers.
And they have developed an approach towards their practice which explicitly rejects the idea of their families as passive and powerless victims of circumstance or social workers as dispensers of other agencies’ services.
Their approach – Reclaiming Social Work – insists on the social worker co-operating closely with families in need, providing both the challenge and the support required to change behaviour. Social workers are trained in the use of the therapies proven to improve behaviour. Families are set expectations of improved behaviour. And social workers are trained in the analysis of risk so they know when children need enhanced protection, or removal from danger.
Reclaiming Social Work involves much more as well. It replaces the existing model of one social worker to each family with a team approach. Counter-intuitively, that actually creates greater continuity – because it means no child’s safety is dependent on just 1 person. Clear lines of case responsibility are, of course, vital; but the team approach encourages professionals to work closely together, within a culture of high regard and aspiration for children.
It also involves holding social workers to the highest professional standards with close and rigorous management. It’s why, in Hackney, up to a third of those who were in place when the current DCS introduced Reclaiming Social Work have had to move on.
A formal evaluation of Reclaiming Social Work has just reported. It found better management, greater consistency, and more emotional and administrative support for social workers who were enabled to spend more time with families. Children were seeing 2 to 3 times more of their social worker than in comparable social work units operating under the traditional, linear model. Families themselves reported much higher satisfaction with their social workers.
I am determined to spread this rigour throughout the children’s social care profession.
Hackney’s success in pioneering a whole new – and highly successful – model of social work brings me to the second critical change we need to make. Just as school reform required not just more great teachers but more space for innovation so improving child protection will require not just better trained social workers but also more freedom for social workers – and their managers – to innovate.
Reforming structures for higher standards
To talk of innovation in children’s social care might seem odd. Surely the qualities we associate with innovation – risk-taking, new thinking, diversity of provision – work against what our instinctive attitude towards child protection would be – playing safe, ticking the boxes, insisting on compliance with the rules.
But ticking the boxes hasn’t kept our children as safe as they should be. Our child protection system has its strengths, but the tragic cases I cited earlier are powerful reminders of a terrible truth – our child protection system is still failing too many children.
Ofsted inspections confirm that we are not providing the quality of child protection we need to.
In its last inspection framework, a third of those LAs inspected were found inadequate for their child protection services; not a single council was outstanding.
The reasons why are – in a complex and sensitive area – inevitably complex and sensitive.
I accept that decisions made by politicians – of all parties – have contributed to our problems.
The way politicians in the past have reacted to failures within the system has encouraged a defensive approach based on compliance with the minimum demands of bureaucracy, rather than a pursuit of excellence.
There is a temptation to see adequacy as enough – and the impression that creates of social work is unattractive to the idealists we need in the profession.
That needs to change.
We have to ensure social work follows where teaching has led – by providing room for people to innovate, improve, influence others to change and spur emulation.
The greater freedoms enjoyed by teachers in academies and free schools have generated new curricula, new approaches to classroom management and new pedagogies. These have improved results for children in academies and free schools, which are doing better than other schools. But far from losing out through innovation, and competition, the rest of the education sector has been spurred to improve and catch up. And we now have not just a greater emphasis than ever before on the question of how we raise education standards, we also have a debate about education increasingly owned and driven by teachers.
That is what I want to see in social work. Room for the profession to innovate, try new ways of working, think afresh about practice and what constitutes success. I want to see existing social workers holding their peers to account, questioning the validity of what is currently considered adequate practice.
That should involve social workers asking some tough questions of the profession.
Do we intervene early enough and focus our attention on the right families?
Is the model of a single social worker owning a case increasingly inadequate when multidisciplinary teams have been shown to achieve so much?
Do we have enough people in place ready to foster, adopt and provide permanency for children in care? If not, why not?
Are our decisions informed by rigorous assessment of the evidence? Are the assessment tools we use constantly being reviewed to see how we can make them better? Is our practice capable of being evaluated so poor ways of working can be discarded and innovation can spread?
Do social workers in the field contribute to building a more rigorous base of evidence for academics to draw on? Can we construct career paths for excellent social workers which allow them to stay in the field, and lead by example, rather than having to go into management?
For these questions to be asked – and acted on – we need to rethink how we organise children’s social services.
Why must all child protection services be delivered in-house?
Why aren’t there more independent social work practices which local authorities can draw on as they need?
Should social workers automatically be managed and led by other social workers? Especially when some of the most visionary leaders in social work and child protection – such as Sir Martin Narey and Peter Wanless – come from a range of backgrounds?
It is difficult for a social worker to get promoted unless it is into an office-based management position – something which the Hackney model so intelligently changed. But this design means we have a tier of managers in social services who are not trained in commissioning and strategic management skills. Yet we expect them to run these extremely complex organisations; while allowing their expertise on the front line to go to waste.
No wonder sometimes social workers get it wrong – barely out of training, barely supported, and left holding the cases of the most vulnerable families in the country, under a management system which isn’t strong or stable enough. This is wrong, and it isn’t a question of cuts or increased referrals and the myriad other reasons we hear – it’s a question of management and structures.
For innovation to take place, the current monolithic model of providing child protection has to change.
That is why I welcome the innovative approach to child protection taken by the NSPCC, which draws on best, evidence-based practice from around the world to introduce – and closely evaluate – services such as Baby Steps, Caring Dads and ‘assessing the risk, protecting the child’. It is refreshing to see a charity invest so heavily in programmes which can make a real difference on the frontline in tackling abuse and neglect.
The same belief in innovation underpins our approach to the most underperforming local authorities – such as Doncaster – where we are doing what we did to the lowest-performing schools in the academy programme – providing the best leadership and new ways of working through a new trust. I confidently expect that the improvements we will see in Doncaster means this model will grow.
I also want to see more of the best in the profession – such as those who run the social work practice in Staffordshire – given more freedom to expand and spread good practice.
And, of course, I want to see a bigger role for the best people in the voluntary sector – like voluntary adoption agencies – who can complement the good work already done by the best local authorities while improving provision in our poorest areas. And we are legislating – through the Children and Families Bill going through the Lords – to facilitate this.
Also, from today, all local authorities have the freedom to delegate their functions for children in care and care leavers to third parties – a first step towards freeing up innovative and ambitious local authorities to deliver greater diversity and excellence of provision.
Over the coming months, we will examine the case for extending these freedoms to more areas of children’s social care services. Already innovative local authorities – such as Staffordshire and Richmond and Kingston upon Thames – are developing plans to reshape their children’s services in this way, to bring a fresh impetus to reform in a sector which has, for too long, been closed to voluntary sector and other providers.
And, in order to ensure that innovation is focused on improving provision for children in need – not just above every other consideration, but as our only consideration – Edward Timpson and I have asked a visionary social entrepreneur and progressive thinker to help lead our new innovation programme, which we announced just a couple of weeks ago.
Clive Cowdery, a great innovator, successful entrepreneur, the founder of the Resolution Foundation and one of the most passionate advocates of improving outcomes for children in care in Britain today, will work with the Department for Education over the next 18 months to ensure we get the very best out of the profession.
Clive is working with us because we both know we need change and improvement and we both believe that can only come from those dedicated professionally to helping children. This is not an area where we need commercial imperatives and ethics, we need public service imperatives and ethics – but we need to ensure we improve what we are doing, radically and urgently.
Where should the buck stop?
And that brings me to the third pillar of reform – accountability.
We will only know if we are doing the right thing if we have hard, rigorous, evidence that outcomes are improving for children.
Are the interventions we use working?
Are families ending substance abuse, re-engaging with work, improving their parenting, ending domestic violence?
Are child protection case conferences run in a timely and efficient fashion with every participant present, prepared and involved?
Are children taken into care spending less time waiting to be adopted? Are we recruiting more adoptive parents? Are more children being adopted more quickly with every month that passes?
And – critically – are fewer children living in squalor, facing neglect, enduring abuse and dying at the hands of adults?
We can never promise that these evils will end. Man’s fallen nature makes that impossible. But we can expect that over time – even as we face setbacks and reversals, tragedies and malice – we can make more children safe.
In meeting these ambitions – in holding the system of child protection to account – it is critically important that we avoid the easy and counter-productive temptation to load more and more responsibility on to the shoulders of social workers and social workers alone.
That means not just sharper, but more intelligent accountability.
We have worked hard to make the way in which we hold schools to account fairer and more intelligent. Our new approach to accountability for secondary schools will reward schools that value and encourage every child, particularly the lowest achievers and the most vulnerable.
And we are working to make the system of accountability in child protection fairer – and more intelligent.
That is why, for example, I have insisted on the publication – in full – of serious case reviews.
Under the last government, too few SCRs were published in full; too many were left unreadable by excessive redactions.
This was as shortsighted and counterproductive as keeping secret the contents of an aircraft’s black box after an aviation disaster.
It is only if we can all see – and study – what went wrong that we can begin to put things right.
We have assembled a panel to review SCRs and advise on initiation and publication – a panel composed of a top family law barrister, a writer with a lifelong interest in children’s welfare, a respected figure from the voluntary sector working in child protection and an expert in aviation safety – to ensure that we get the maximum level of transparency and the greatest level of learning from serious case reviews.
Reading serious case reviews is a depressing task. The same evils visited on very similar children, the same mistakes made by professionals under similar pressures. But as we now enter a period of greater transparency there is now a chance for us all to learn from the accounts now being published of the mistakes made in the past.
There are a multitude of lessons to be drawn – from the importance of proper record-keeping at case conferences, to the problems generated by large individual caseloads and high social worker turnover.
But one of the most important lessons I have drawn is that the focus which sometimes gets directed on the role – and decisions – of social workers leads us away from the critical role – and often the terrible failures – of other professionals.
Whether it’s the police, or doctors, or local government lawyers, or the impact of poor judicial decision making, it is important that we hold other professionals, and other institutions to account for child protection just as much as we do social workers.
Critically, in local government, we need to ask tougher questions of council chief executives and political leaders rather than zeroing in on just social work practitioners and directors of children’s services. Social workers do not operate in a vacuum. Ultimate responsibility for child protection should rest with the chief executives on six-figure salaries, and their political leaders, who may not concentrate on vital questions of child protection because these issues do not influence their job prospects or move votes.
We have changed the rules so that chief executives now appoint the chairs of the local safeguarding childrens’ boards, and through the new Ofsted inspections they will be held to account for the people they appoint. This is a vital role, which I expect LA chief executives to take seriously and to fund properly.
I have been criticised for setting standards and timetables for local councils for adoption. But I have had to because the leadership was not there at the local level. And there is still an insufficient sense of urgency among too many local government leaders.
I am delighted that we are now seeing a record number of children being adopted; in the latest figures, a 15% increase on the year before. But there is more – much more – to do.
As there is in helping improve conditions for children in residential care.
Earlier in the autumn we published a comprehensive set of data on the children’s homes market: where these homes are, who owns them, which local authorities have sold them all off and now find themselves sending vulnerable teenagers hundreds of miles from home to unsafe areas.
Again, some in local government, and elsewhere, objected to this tougher accountability system – but the terrible stories of vulnerable children in residential care not being adequately protected from exploitation – like Rochdale and Oxford – meant we needed to change.
Recent decades have seen a rapid increase in the number of voluntary and private organisations providing children’s homes across England. In 2000, 61% of residential places were provided by local authorities – by 2006, that had shrunk to just 35%.
Today, 78% of children’s homes are run by the private or voluntary sectors. But while there are outstanding examples of high-quality services in residential care, it is a sector characterised too often by low-qualified staff, a lack of innovation and poor outcomes for children.
So we are shining a new light on the market and changing rules to toughen up standards in the sector. We are working with competition experts and economic regulators, as well as private and local authority providers, to improve the commissioning system in this market.
This is an area ripe for innovation – for both commissioners and providers to aim higher, to emulate the very best of national and international practice and reshape residential care in this country to put the safety and care of children above all other considerations.
I have also been criticised for my impatience with the judicial system – and my frustration at the way the courts have made it more difficult than it needs to be for social workers to ensure children are taken into care.
I am delighted that latest figures show average case duration down from 55 to 41 weeks in 2 years, with the numbers being delivered within our target of 26 weeks up from 12% to nearly 30%. It’s a tough target but it can be delivered.
Judges need to be held to account for inefficiencies and errors just as much as any other public servant. I am glad that there are welcome signs that the judiciary are working in new ways, and I applaud the leadership Sir James Munby has shown in this area. A wig and gown should be signs that you serve the public, not a way of shielding yourself from accountability.
So, improving social work practice; encouraging innovation; and sharper and more structured accountability.
Those are the 3 principles that are guiding our reforms – reforms that will ultimately create a brighter future for those who need government most – our most vulnerable.
And for those of us privileged to be able to serve in government, making sure the system changes so the most vulnerable are better protected is what our time in office is for.