Yesterday morning social workers woke to the news that Michael Gove is no longer secretary of state at the Department for Education. The opinion-dividing minister has been replaced by Nicky Morgan as part of David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle.
Gove was, from the outset, a controversial figure for social workers, his approach today described as “dogmatic” and “frustrating”.
Such was his influence and presence within the sector that Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association Of Social Workers, describes him as an almost-recognisable “brand”. It had become common to refer to things as “Goveian”, she says, admitting: “A lot of social workers will not be sorry to see him go. They found him very frustrating to work with.”
With his tenure as one of the more transformative and publicly recognised ministers in his sector now over, we look back at his more high profile and divisive policies and actions.
The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced several reforms to the adoption process. The act repealed the requirement for councils to give consideration to children’s racial, religious, cultural or linguistic background when matching them with adopters.
The reforms were designed to speed up the process of placing children with families, and enabled prospective adopters to search the adoption register themselves. They also included the much-criticised adoption score cards for local authorities.
Adoption reform was a deeply personal matter for Gove, himself an adoptee, but his approach was not popular with social workers. Mansuri believes he did not engage well with, and listen to, the sector and ran his reforms in a “dogmatic” way. “He already had a clear vision, even when some of us would differ,” she says.
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, says: “Although the reforms to the adoption system were long overdue, when Michael Gove first came into office his belief in a hierarchy of care that placed adoption at the top and residential care at the bottom was transparent and unhelpful.
“The effects of this belief on national policy seem to have diminished to some extent with important policy gains being made for children in foster care and renewed attention given to reforms in residential care after the Rochdale scandal.”
Gove’s passion for adoption was welcome, Mansuri adds, but meant other issues did not receive the same level of attention.
Outsourcing child protection services
The Department for Education came under fire for plans that – following consultation – would open up child protection services to the marketplace, including private and profit-making companies like G4S and Serco.
The controversial policies alone are enough for some to cheer his departure. Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s London, has a message for Gove’s replacement, Nicky Morgan: “I hope this will now be a time for review and reflection and that some of the potentially damaging plans Gove had will not be pursued.”
These plans were “not sensible in building strong local partnerships with local leadership to protect children”, Jones says.
Family courts reform
The Children and Families Act 2014 also sought to speed up the process for children who may need to be taken into care by bringing in 26-week time limits for courts to decide whether a child needs to be taken into care.
This was, according to Gove, part of his drive to improve the efficiency of child protection services and reduce delay. The deadline proved unpopular among social workers, however, with many likening it to former prime minister Tony Blair’s adoption targets.
Munro Review of Child Protection
One of Gove’s earliest, and most welcomed, moves – along with former children’s minister Tim Loughton – was to commission qualified social worker professor Eileen Munro to conduct a review of the child protection system in England.
It was celebrated as a great success by social workers upon its publication in 2011, but scant progress has been made since.
A Community Care investigation looking at Munro progress found changes weren’t easily visible, with one social worker complaining: “nothing has changed and nothing will change”.
Helga Pile, national officer for social work at Unison, says: “The cuts to local government finances presided over by his government have left the ‘early help’ services championed by the report he commissioned from professor Eileen Munro in tatters.”
The Department for Education under Gove’s leadership backed Frontline, a fast-track social work training programme to encourage the top graduates into the profession.
The programme received a remarkable response, garnering 25 applicants for each of its first set of training places in its first year.
However, it failed to convince current social workers of its merits – 55% believed it would not improve quality and almost 80% that the scheme would not help with current staffing issues.
Martin Narey’s review of social work education
‘Making the education of social workers consistently effective’ was a report commissioned by Gove to review the education and training of children’s social workers. Controversially, the report recommended separate Undergraduate degrees for children’s social care.
Jones says the move “ignores the requirement that those working with children are aware of the impact of drug and alcohol, domestic violence and mental health issues for parents”.