David Cameron’s premiership began and ended with landmark child protection reforms but his government’s approach to the social work profession changed markedly over his time in office.
Back in 2010, just a month after Cameron and Nick Clegg unveiled their coalition agreement in the Downing Street rose garden, the government announced it had commissioned Professor Eileen Munro to review child protection.
Munro was tasked with identifying the barriers facing social workers in practice, with ministers keen to free up practitioners from “unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation” to make sure they spent more time with children and families.
The project was strongly backed by Cameron’s first appointment to the children’s minister role – Tim Loughton. Popular in the sector, Loughton’s two years in post were characterised by regular shows of support for the professionalism of social workers and backing for the reform package set out by the Social Work Reform Board led by Dame Moira Gibb.
In February 2011 Loughton said it was “essential” that Munro’s work was complementary to that of the reform board. He said Gibb’s team’s “valuable work” in reforming the training and professional support for social workers should continue, and later announced funding for the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment – a key reform board recommendation.
This endorsement of the reform board programme was rarely heard after Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle in September 2012 saw Loughton replaced as children’s minister.
Tougher line on social work training
Loughton’s successor in the role, who remains in post, was Edward Timpson. A former family lawyer whose parents fostered more than 80 children over a three-year period, Timpson began his time in office by taking a stronger line on social work training.
In an early speech he called for training to be overhauled to ensure social workers coming through the system were “match fit”. He wanted the profession to attract “the brightest and best”.
This signalled a tougher line from the Department for Education to social work educators and practitioners – those deemed up to scratch would be backed but there would be no tolerance of poor performance.
This was driven home a year later when Michael Gove, then education secretary, vowed to strip the “dogma” out of social work education that, in his view, taught practitioners to view children and families they worked with as victims of inequality.
Months earlier Gove had unveiled two landmark changes that have proved hugely influential in Cameron’s legacy for the profession.
Firstly, he appointed Isabelle Trowler, a social worker who had helped transform services in Hackney, as chief social worker for children.
The appointment of a chief social worker role had been recommended by Munro in her child protection review, but she’d called for one chief social worker to work across the profession. The government decided to split the role into separate adults and children’s posts, in a move MPs’ have since claimed “exacerbated” a split in the profession.
Alongside Trowler’s appointment, the government announced its backing for Frontline – a fast-track training scheme for children’s social workers targeted at encouraging the “highest performing” graduates into the profession. It marked the start of moves from government to shift more social work training into work-based settings.
The announcement came with qualified support for the profession, with Gove saying: “good social workers literally save lives; the bad can leave them in ruins.”
Growing interest in the profession
The changes hinted at a growing government interest in social work, at least those practitioners working with children and families. This was confirmed when, in light of the Conservatives’ general election victory in 2015, Cameron made reform of children’s social care a core plank of a ‘life chances’ agenda he envisioned as a key legacy of his second term in office.
In a series of speeches, he announced the creation of a child protection taskforce, pledged to strip failing councils of their children’s services as part of a “zero tolerance of state failure”, and promised to “accelerate our current reforms to children’s social work”.
The reforms in question had been developing over the previous year to 18 months. They included a new accreditation assessment for children’s social workers designed to ensure practitioners had the required knowledge and skills, an innovation fund – initially worth £11m – to test new ways of working in children’s services, and a growing interest in Frontline as a training model. Legislation was also amended to allow third party providers to take on children’s services.
Cameron made good on his pledge to accelerate the reforms. Earlier this year the government announced every children’s social worker would be be accredited by 2020. It revealed plans to set up a government-controlled regulator and professional standards body to oversee the scheme. Fast-track training routes for children’s social workers were awarded £100m in government funding in order to produce a quarter of new children’s social workers by 2018. The Innovation Fund grew to a £200m project.
New legislation underpinning many of the changes, the Children and Social Work Bill, was announced in the Queen’s speech. While the legislation contains strengthened rights for care leavers that have been widely welcomed, it also includes a controversial clause giving ministers powers to exempt councils from certain children’s social care statutory duties. It is, the government says, the natural progression of its innovation drive.
The bill, and the wider reforms, are a markedly different change programme from the once-championed Social Work Reform Board approach.
The government’s commitment to cutting red tape for social workers remains as strong as it did when it commissioned Munro’s review back in 2010 (a review that was widely welcomed and remains valued by the profession). The first evaluation of Frontline found it has produced high quality trainees. Ministers still praise social workers, at least the ones they think are up to scratch.
But trust in professional-led reform has been lost. Meaningful consultation with the profession is rare. Instead the advice of a select group of favoured advisers is relied on and a more interventionist approach preferred.
One change perhaps sums up this shift more than any other. At the start of Cameron’s tenure as prime minister, plans were being made for social work to get its first professional college, The College of Social Work. It would be an independent body backed by government seed funding. As he leaves Downing Street, plans are afoot to set up a new social work body but this time controlled by, and accountable to, ministers.
There is more to the story behind The College’s closure than the government’s refusal to keep funding it but the organisation’s failure to secure enough members, after £8m of public investment, rocked Whitehall’s confidence in the sector’s ability to reform itself.
Cameron has left children’s social workers with a dilemma: his reform programme promises more direct investment in the profession than has been seen for some time – you just aren’t trusted enough to shape the direction of travel.