Comment: Gove’s disgraceful attack on social workers is meant to soften us up for the private sector

By Bridget Robb

When assessing Michael Gove's outer demeanour, few would liken him to Gordon Gekko, infamous villain of 1980s paean to greed Wall Street.

Yet when it comes to systematically dismantling entire professions, he is a ruthless and slick as any City shark. He's successfully savaged teachers, and now he's circling around social workers.

As any good corporate raider knows, a successful takeover requires manipulating the target’s worth. Trashing reputations drives down share prices and results in little resistance when you then mount your attack.

When it comes to our public services, Gove's tactics are simple, yet done so skilfully that your average citizen is unaware that they are being bombarded with very sophisticated propaganda.

Let’s look at Gove's spin operation in this week alone.

On Monday, children's minister Edward Timpson delivered a speech to the Association of Independent LSCB chairs in which he sympathised with their often controversial positions "it might feel like media attention makes discussion of child protection impossible: that calm debate suffers under the intense glare of a media frenzy".

These soothing sentiments from the minister were then immediately followed by an anti-social worker media frenzy, carefully crafted by his own department and run over several days.

The very next day, press were alerted to a "major speech on children's social care in England" from Gove. He opened by likening child protection social work to a battle between those on the left and those on the right, despite saying that wasn't what he was doing.

Besides being secretary of state, Gove was quick to assert his credentials in child protection, saying, "As someone who started their life in care…this is personal".

Other disclaimers were used to good effect, with the school-masterly "it is the mark of a mature profession that instead of rejecting criticism, it embraces challenge", ie –  if the profession disagrees with me, then it is proof of its immaturity, a criticism often levelled at a profession that is barely 40 years in existence.

Gove may have been adopted but he has never been a social worker. What he has been, however, is a journalist at The Times. He may not know much about social work but he understands very well how the press works.

While the speech was undoubtedly lengthy and did contain some words of praise for this most "noble" of professions, its real agenda was buried within the rhetoric, "idealistic" students being encouraged by leftist academics to view the people they work with as "victims of social injustice" who are to be pandered to.

Any social worker doing the job knows that it's a career in which many people work long days in stressful situations trying against the odds to bring about real changes in people's lives – often making huge demands on reluctant people.

Gove then aimed his sights at council directors of social services, explaining he had been forced to introduce controversial adoption league tables 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".

Thank heavens then for the plucky private sector, which holds all the answers to this current malaise. Referring to the "marketplace" of residential children's homes, Gove explained: "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."

He was equally fulsome in his praise for new social worker training initiative Frontline, which itself is co-founded by city financier charity Ark.

The reason that the social work profession has reacted with such ire to this particular Govian speech is not that social workers cannot take criticism – far from it given the constant pummelling from politicians – but because it is so utterly dishonest.

Gove cannot ignore the social impact of the austerity agenda. It has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the reality of families who have no money, no food, and often very little hope of improving their circumstances.

Members of the British Association of Social Workers do not contact us to say they're worried that they have absorbed a left-wing bias, but that they have more children on their books than they can possibly hope to deal with.

The Department for Education (DfE) began the week with a pledge of support for Independent Chairs of Local Safeguarding Children's Boards. They must have meant everyone apart from professor Nick Frost, independent chairman of the Bradford Safeguarding Children Board, which published the Hamzah Khan serious case review.

The DfE made sure Frost was hung out to dry by briefing Sky News that the contents of the Hamzah Khan serious case review was "rubbish" -while the conference was actually taking place and being televised live by all the major media outlets. This was followed by an announcement from the minister that he had a series of hard-hitting questions that he wanted Bradford to answer, as the serious case review had failed to do so.

What possible chance did Bradford LSCB have of getting a fair hearing after that? As any government press officer will tell you, these things do not just happen by accident. They are orchestrated and timed for maximum media impact.

The DfE had sight of that document well in advance. Of course, any missing information should be addressed, but making it known via the Sky News ticker during a live press conference is not how such a request should be communicated.

Today, the DfE has Birmingham City Council in its sights, threatening to take services away from them if they do not improve. Again, nothing that isn't already known. So why today? How strange that BBC Radio 4 is running a documentary about Birmingham's failing services this very evening. Coincidence? I think not.

So bravo then to the DfE press office; a great week for them and a lousy one for demoralised social workers.

Greed is not good when applied to child protection. Buy shares in the Post Office if you choose, but please don't buy into this dangerous attack on the social work profession.

Every child death is a tragedy, but thousands of children in the UK are made safe every day by supposedly incompetent social workers. When was the last time we saw a media feeding frenzy about a child who didn't become the next Baby Peter because skilled social workers made the right call?

Bridget Robb is the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and a  former frontline local authority social worker herself. Her interest in social work education led Bridget to become a practice teacher and training manager, going on to lecture at Coventry University, and becoming head of the social work department at Oxford Brookes University. She represented BASW on the Social Work Task Force in England.

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