Category Archives: Gove

Social Work education; is there a future under neoliberalism?

As an ideology, neoliberalism perpetuates the belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but also serves as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, choice and individual responsibility,   purposely ignoring the effects of  inequalities in power, wealth and income and how these shape individuals and families lives. As such, it supports a society which cruelly others those who require support, and is scornful of a critical and politicised social work profession founded on compassion and notions of social justice, equality and respect.

Back in 2013 Michael Gove, then education secretary, claimed too many social workers had been filled with idealistic dogma and theories of society that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”.

More recently Ray Jones argues politicians are stealthily trying to take control of social work, possibly because social workers expose the failings of their ideologically driven policies?

Maybe this is why Government would like to diminish the role of Universities in social work education, to depoliticise the profession and create a beige curriculum.  A painting by numbers programme of training, rather than a vibrant colourful education that prepares social workers to support, and challenge those in power. The extension of neoliberal ideology and discourse into higher education already provides a framework to socialise academia into working in a manner akin to managerialism i.e targets/NSS, where knowledge is viewed as a commodity for customers (students) to purchase and consume.  Packaged as one dimensional capabilities rather than multifaceted knowledge and skills .

(see Grant and Radcliffe, 2015, whose paper on higher education in mental health nursing has many synergies with social work).

Arguably an effective social work profession is a political profession as well, able to critique and analyse, to challenge, rather than accept the status quo.  As Henry Giroux eloquently states

“At a time of increased repression, it is all the more crucial for educators to reject the notion that public and higher education are simply sites for training students for the workforce, and that the culture of education is synonymous with the culture of business. At issue here is the need for educators to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy, while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics.

Pedagogy is always about power, because it cannot be separated from how subjectivities are formed or desires mobilized, how some experiences are legitimated and others are not, or how some knowledge is considered acceptable while other forms are excluded from the curriculum.”

Whilst we have a plethora of educational routes into social work, Frontline;Think Ahead;Step-up;Apprencticeships and HEI’s no one appears to be asking any political leader of any persuasion one very important question as far as I can see.

Given our politicians feel their governments policies and leadership over the last 3 decades has led to continuous improvements, why is society in such need for ever increasing numbers of social workers?

If we can move beyond the divisive  narratives of  ‘broken families’, ‘recruitment and retention’, ‘the demographic time bomb’, ‘austerity’ and ‘we can’t afford X’,  and consider addressing the structural issues that impact on individuals lives, such as housing, benefit reforms, energy prices, the environment, job insecurity, food insecurity, low wages, affordable higher education etc, we might then be able to formulate a different ideology, a different discourse, one that unites us for the good of all.

 

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Grenfell Tower represents the culmination of Thatcher and all who follow in her neoliberal footsteps ….. Time for change

Commentator, after commentator have made political links to the manmade tragedy that befell the innocent residents of Grenfell Tower. Within such commentaries the authors refer to the ideology of ‘neoliberalism’, which whilst well known to economists, politicians, Guardian readers and academics (like me!) is rarely thought about in wider society. Yet its impact on society over the last 40 years is immense, and for me Grenfell Tower represents all that is wrong with this insidious ideology that does more harm than good.

But, what it is?

Firstly, I think it is important to be aware of the power of  ideology, and neoliberalism, because it provides government with  a  framework which shapes its ideas, ideals, values and beliefs about the world, what motivates individuals, and provides a guide on how life should be lived, how society should be structured and our role in society.

In short it determines the nature and limits of that state, what matters and whom.

An example of the power of ideology can be seen in religion. Religious values and beliefs  shapes its organisation and provides motivation for the actions of its leaders and believers. As we know all to well religious ideology can lead to intolerable acts of violence, whether it be the Christianity of the  Klu Klux Klan or the Islam of ISIS.

Just as religious ideology can be a strong motivator in shaping thoughts and actions, so to is the  political ideology of neoliberalism.

There are a number of strands to neoliberalism which are, arguably, as relevant as the cladding on Grenfell Tower in understanding why so many lives have been destroyed. In political terms neoliberalism depends on, firstly, stigmatising those who require support and then disinvesting in the public services that provide their support to promote open unregulated markets and the transfer public services into the free market.

This has resulted not only in the deregulation and privatisation of publicly owned assets, such as housing, but also the transfer of responsibility for those requiring public services away from government, so that when, as in this case, there is a failure in the system,  holding someone to account is almost impossible due to a diffused chain of responsibility government has put between it, and the individual,  by creating a host of intermediary layers of officials and organisations , such as management companies, contractors and sub-contractors.

A key tenet of neoliberalism is the role of free market in delivering everything from baked beans to iPhone to cancer care. The free market is highly valued by neoliberals because it is viewed as a more efficient system in providing goods and services and promotes individual liberty by empowering society through consumer choice.

In the case of Grenfell Tower, the extremes and limitations of these beliefs are starkly revealed. Not least in Brandon Lewis’s comments regarding regulation to enforce the installation of sprinkler systems in tower blocks.

Mr Lewis, recently promoted to immigration minister by Theresa May, had declined in 2014 to force building developers to fit sprinklers. The coroner’s report into the 6 deaths after a fire in a block of flats at Lakanal House had recommended regulations be updated, and called for developers refurbishing high-rise blocks to be encouraged to install sprinkler systems. But five years later, Mr Lewis told MPs:

“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

He said the Tory government had committed to being the first to reduce regulations nationwide, pledging a one-in-two-out rule. He added:

“The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”

Even after the controversy when these comments were publicised  Micheal Gove’  still held to the neoliberal ideological line when interviewed in respect of Grenfell Tower, suggesting that it is a matter for “debate” that government should regulate so that people could have safe housing conditions.

Whilst some might find such comments incredulous, these responses are wholly consistent with neoliberal ideology, which promotes the commodification of everything from  housing to education to health, to social care and more worryingly clearly includes ‘risk’.      This combined with limited regulation of the free market and an unshakable belief that all consumers can exercise free choice  to control, or eliminate,  risk is concerning.

Those in power do not seem able, or willing, to recognise there are  flaws within the neoliberal  ideology they so zealously adhere to, that authentic consumer choice is often a facade in important areas of life, such as housing and health and social care, that individuals cannot always eliminate risk because of the governments hand in creating structural inequality, which restricts the individual autonomy and consumer choice they purport to support, unless, of course you are very wealthy.

The powerlessness of the residents of Grenfell Tower to exercise autonomy and choice is seen in their inability to challenge decisions around whether a sprinkler system should have been installed and this exposes the interplay  between the structural and personal realms of life. Peter Weatherby QC is one of Britains top lawyers, and he suggests a key action of government had been overlooked in this tragedy, the swingeing cuts to legal aid. Residents of Grenfell Tower had sought to challenge  decisions being made, and residents did try to get a lawyer, however,  they could not get a lawyer because of cuts to legal aid, according to campaigner Pilgrim Tucker, speaking on BBC Newsnight

“These are poor residents – or they’re ordinary residents. They’re not 
the wealthy. They’re not the Camerons. They can’t afford private 
schools, they can’t afford lawyers. They tried to get lawyers but,
because of the legal aid cuts, they couldn’t get lawyers. ”

Other lawyers have also pointed out the role of legal aid cuts in this tragedy.

However, again, this is consistent with neoliberal ideology, why should the state fund legal aid?

This is actually structural abuse, which is defined as ‘the process by which an individual is dealt with unfairly by a system of harm in ways that the person cannot protect themselves against, cannot deal with, cannot break out of, cannot mobilise against, cannot seek justice for, cannot redress, cannot avoid, cannot reverse and cannot change’

I think this sums up the plight of the residents of Grenfell Tower pre and post fire!

Albert Camus wrote “We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust….. ”, going onto suggest mending a broken world is ‘steadfast, often unglamorous work – it is the work of choosing kindness over fear, again and again…’

To mend the broken in this society,  those marginalised through poverty and  homelessness, or through age and fragility, to ensure we never subject anyone to the horrors of those lives ruined in Grenfell Tower we all need to be more aware of the ideology that underpins our current system of government and decide if it is fit for purpose, and where we find it lacking, find new ways of governing.

Replacing Theresa May with Boris Johnson or Micheal Gove or A.N . Other will not mend our broken society because politicians all seem to adhere to the same ideology – neoliberalism.  Nothing will change until this insidious ideology is revealed and challenged by us the people, and we hold our politicians to account for their actions.

Let the fate of the individuals of Grenfell Tower be a lesson to us all, and lets ensure their tragedy is never forgotten. We need real change for all our futures.