Why it matters who controls the curriculum in social work education ….

Change is the life blood of social work. Supporting people to adopt changes which might improve lives is fundamental to social work. Change is also fundamental in government, although , in my experience over the the last 5 years it does not always deliver improvement in a way which is helpful to social work, or those who require services.

Far too often, it feels to me, governments drive for change is ideological and rooted in making changes which ignore issues related to failure in government, especially in respect of their unshakable belief in neo-liberal ideology as the foundation of everything.

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 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 equality and respect.

It appears to me our current government would prefer potential social workers to be ignorant of the political and structural forces which impact on individuals lives. Back in 2013 Michael Gove, then education secretary, claimed too many social workers had been filled with “idealistic” dogma that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”.

For example Gove and Co would seemingly prefer the consequences of government policy on those who require social work services in areas such as  housing, benefits sanctions and  zero hours contracts were ignored , ensuring the increasing levels of  poverty and insecurity individuals experience is accompanied by a culture of blame,   leading social workers to deliver individualised solutions to what are structural issues.

The Children and Social Work Bill is the latest ‘change’ causing many in the profession concern. Whilst some, such as Andy Elvin from Frontline, see the Bill as a positive step forward, many others within the profession highlight real issues, yet government appears set on ignoring these  concerns.  As a social work educator I have serious concerns, yes, around the potential privatisation of  children’s services, but also around who will provide social work education and what a future curriculum might look like.

It appears to me Government would like to ‘strip’ ‘idealistic dogma’  out of higher education as well. Instead preferring a depoliticised social work curriculum, a painting by numbers programme of training, rather than an education that prepares potential social workers to support, and challenge, change at an individual and structural level.

I believe a depoliticised education and social work profession, along with an ideologically driven clauses within the Bill would be a disaster for the children it seeks to protect.

A strong social work profession needs an educational system underpinned by critique and analysis, challenge rather than acceptance of the political 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.”

Will the proposed changes improve life outcomes for children?  No one knows. I just hope the next reading of the Bill on the 18th October  is not reduced to ideological dogma because none of us who  debate the Bill will have to live with the direct consequences of the decisions made, nor any potentially negative consequences that might flow from this Bill if passed in its current form. ….

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

(Turn and face the strange)
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
(Turn and face the strange)
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it

(Changes, David Bowie)


More tests for 7 yr olds: do standardised tests, targets and league tables really improve learning?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34707629 As Nicky Morgan indicates there could be tougher tests for 7 year olds, I wonder, do standardised tests really improve actual learning?

An interesting article , about the education system in Finland, caught my eye a while ago and got me thinking. Apparently Finland’s education system is the best in the world, although this has not always been the case. Following failure in the 1970’s the whole system was reformed, and the reforms seemed to have worked, and even cost less than when the education system was failing.

So what did they do? Introduce additional tests, targets, performance indicators, outcomes, privatise the system to increase competition and consumer choice to drive up educational standards? Well, no, just the opposite really.

Firstly, there are no league tables in Finland, the main driver of education policy is a vision focused on ensuring all children have access to the same opportunities to learn in a good school, wherever the child lives and regardless of the childs economic background. Cooperation between schools rather than competition underpins this ethos, as does a belief in the ability of individual schools to achieve this without centralised targets from government or regulation. Teachers are valued as professionals and as such are trusted to assess children in their classroom using independent tests they create themselves. If they do not feel it is beneficial to the childs well-being they do not test the child. Inclusion in tests are determined by whether it positively affects the students learning, not whether it increases students scores or meets a performance indicator.

The bit that really caught my imaginaton when reading was when the interviewer asked about the accountability of the teachers and those who run the school.

‘Salberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish” later on suggesting “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted”

Whether this is true or not I do not know as I do not speak Finnish, however, it is an interesting notion that by acting responsibly accountability is not an issue. In Finland teaching professionals are afforded prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility, which they evidently fulfil with gusto. So the question of ‘accountability’ seldom arises. If it does it is dealt with by the head locally.

And believe it or not but all of this has been achieved by not privatising education, that’s right not privatising education. There are no private schools in Finland, only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland but even these are publicly funded. None are allowed to charge fees, and there are no private universities either. The focus in public sector provision of education is on equity and shared responsibility, not choice and competition. Hmm can we learn anything from this?

At present public trust and confidence in the public sector must be at an all time low, however, to regain trust we need to see real change, a change in direction that is new and imaginative. One of Finlands key success factors has been a recognition that learning from past experiences can build a better future. Can we do the same?

Social workers to learn how to earn ‘public trust’ from Politicians … Really!

Politicians to lead task force that will guide social workers in earning back public trust …… Really!

Forgive me, I almost choked on my coffee whilst reading a piece entitled ‘Social work needs to earn back public trust‘ on the Guardians Social Care Network.

The government has set up a task force to guide the social work profession on how to earn public trust. A stellar line up of politicians which include Michael Gove, Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, those well-known advocates of social work and those they work with. When did Politicians earn the right to pontificate on how a profession might earn public trust I wonder? I must have missed this whilst reading about the numerous promises this government has reneged on since the general election, and which clearly must have enhanced the publics trust in them …..

I am a tad perturbed the government seems to have ditched the comprehensive Munro Review, which provided a very balanced approach to reform that focused not just on social workers and their education but also the political and organisational contexts which also shape social work practice, and arguably go some way to explaining the current problems that bedevil the profession.

The piece suggests the new task force will focus on robust assessment of qualifying social workers involving employers, academics and those who use services …. ummm sorry to mention this, but I do not know of a qualifying social work programme that does not already do this. Social work programmes across the land expect students to pass a number of academic theory assignments and law based exams alongside practice based assessments which involve numerous observations of practice and a plethora of meetings and reports provided by employers, those who use services and academics commenting on the student’s performance and fitness for practice over a 2 or 3 year period.

The article goes onto suggest the social work profession needs to ask itself ‘why the college failed’ and ‘why the public mood’ supports changes in the law where social workers can be prosecuted for wilful neglect. In response to the first question, from my perspective, the reason I did not join the college is that I felt it represented the voice of the government not social workers. To the second comment I would hazard a guess that 30 years of inaccurate reporting in the media, oft-repeated by politicians, and flawed serious case reviews have played a part in the general publics perception of the profession.

Just read the book by Prof Ray Jones which looks at why politicians and the media were so keen to blame and vilify social workers and Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s then children’s services in the case of Baby P, to gain some insight into why the profession is held in such low esteem by the public, aided and abetted by the media and government I would suggest.

I was surprised the piece did not mention the problems with inadequate IT systems, how social work now operates in a call centre environment where workers hot desk and have limited contact with their peers, or how workers work in their cars, making phone calls in lay-bys on their mobiles because they cannot access secure office space. Nor does it mention the failing court system, or the outmoded model of fostering and adoption which is no longer fit for purpose and in many cases just adds to the trauma of already traumatised children’s lives, it fails to mention the knock on effect of welfare reform, the lack of affordable good quality housing or the deterioration in mental health support services to both adults and children, it does not dig deep into the effect on frontline service provision of high levels of stress related sickness and social work vacancies, or the impact of temporary agency workers in providing important continuity when working with children and families.

I have worked with hundreds of hard-working social work students, many of whom are accruing debts of up to £40,000 to become a social worker in children and family services. Despite public and government distrust, and potential imprisonment, they are committed to being the best social workers they can possibly be …. because of this I believe in social work. Time for another coffee I think …..

Kids Company:Is government creating a narrative that diverts attention from the real issues?


On the way into work this morning i listened to Camila Batmanghelidjh give her version of events leading up to the recent headline, she was rather magnificent …. whom to believe?

You decide


Can this government ever be transparent and demonstrate integrity ….?

Compassion is the real loser in this election……

Our newly re-elected government will continue to ensure the nation turns inward on its self, with one group blaming another for all manner of ills …….

The re-election of a more mediocre government is hard to imagine. The Tories must be laughing all the way to their banker mates tonight as voters have fallen for their well worn mantra around  welfare reform again, when really the issue goes to the very heart of society. This election result tells us much about  what we believe in and who we value.

Our newly re-elected government will continue to ensure the nation turns inward on its self, with one group blaming another for all manner of ills, as it did with the failure of an under-regulated financial sector by transforming its failure into a ‘witch hunt’ against anyone in receipt of ‘welfare’.

The re-elected government will continue to develop policy based on stereotypes of those most marginalised to address the problems caused by those most powerful, and voters seemingly appear all to ready to believe government rhetoric of a world where everyone is either a’ skiver or a striver’.

Compassion is the real loser in this election.

Go on diet or lose your benefits. Is tackling obesity really that easy?

The Times recently reported Mr Cameron suggests obese people in receipt of benefits will lose them if they do not go on a diet.  Is this really the best way to tackle the issue of obesity?

That obesity is a world wide issue suggests to me threatening to take away someone’s benefits might be an over simplification of this issue and is actually an ideological tactic to attract voters.

Lets not get distracted from the primary issue here,  the role of an active state in society.  By narrowing the focus on obesity and healthy eating we risk reducing the debate to stigmatizing those who are obese and focus too much on individual responsibility. For once could the debate also include corporate responsibility.

Just look at the food labelling debacle, which has been dragging on for over two decades The coalition government announced in October 2012 that a consistent system of food labelling is set to be launched this year, however, it is not quite a done deal with food producers still holding back. Cadbury, amongst others, have spurned the ‘traffic light’ system suggesting it focuses too much on the negative ingredients in their food. Really!

But it is not just about food labelling, more importantly it is also about the food production process. For example research suggests high salt intake is associated with significantly increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, so to reduce risk just reduce salt in take, easy. However, the same research also suggests high levels of salt intake is related to food production processes, rather than individuals adding salt to their diet, and the biggest barrier to reducing significant salt intake for individuals is the historical reluctance of the food industry to reduce the levels of salt used in food production. The seriousness of this issue must not get lost in tabloid headlines about ‘obese’ people.

Health campaigners suggest clearer food labelling could save lives, and have been campaigning for 20 years on this issue against a food industry which has spent over 1 billion in Europe to resist the introduction of understandable food labelling. Why would any one resist implementing something that could save lives? Profit of course. How could successive governments in the UK stand by and allow this to continue for so long?

Any talk of government taking an interventionist approach is met with cries of ‘nanny state’ from the Tory right who use this as a pejorative term to describe excessive state action. Those who support free markets object to the use of state power in this way perceiving such an approach as restricting individual choice. However, real choice can only be effective if we have all the relevant information to make those choices, this is where a consistent and understandable food labelling system would support real choice for consumers.  Arguably Cameron is facilitating a discourse of individual solutions to what is essentially a structural issue.  The negative consequence of a system reliant on promoting individualism, and the privatisation of responsibility, is that it falls most heavily on those already occupying positions of structural disadvantage.

Governments role on this issue is ideological. Whilst for some intervention from government represents the worst excesses of the ‘nanny state’, to others it represents an ‘active state’ coordinating an approach to promote public health for its citizens, rather than protecting big industry from taking responsibility for its actions. Strategies that might be developed include easily understood food labelling, then the consumer can make an informed choice and if we choose to abandon food rich in fat and high in sugar producers can provide what we do want to eat. Even better remove excessive sugar and salt from food production, that would provide the greatest benefit to public health. We need intervention because we can not trust the food industry, the average consumer can not fight against such unethical practices on their own. A rise in the cost of food is an interesting argument presented by the food industry as an argument against healthier food production. Presumably the real cost of poor quality food should include the cost to the NHS in diet related illness, but of course the food companies do not pay for this, this is displaced onto the individual consumer via the taxes we pay to fund our health care system.

Regulating the food industry is about changing a business culture from one of making a profit, at any price, to one of honesty and accountability. The regulation of the food industry must not be overshadowed by obesity and the healthy eating debate because there are much bigger issues at stake here, not least the accountability of the food industry and the role government should have, if any, in regulating the food industry to protect the health of the nation.

All most of us want is honesty and transparency, and maybe even an ethical approach in business where our health is put before profit, is that too much to ask?

Rotherham: We need structural and culture change to improve professional practice ………

Di Galpin

Not only were the children of Rotherham sexually exploited, they were abused by the system that was meant to protect them. Structural abuse 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 adequately sums up the experience of those children who were systematically sexually exploited by their abusers and those same children who were systematically emotionally abused by the individuals and system that was meant to protect them.

The independent inquiry by Alexis Jay should give us all food for thought. Those who had the power to step in and protect those most vulnerable will have to consider engaging in some serious, and brutally honest, professional…

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Food poverty is the price we pay to maintain inequality ………..

“Food poverty, indeed all poverty, is the price some pay to maintain an economic approach that widens the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society”.

As Justin Welby expresses his shock at food poverty in the UK, ministers seek to shift the focus away from government failure.

Many of those who govern this country are woefully out of touch and too quick to blame individuals for their descent into impoverishment, rather than look at their own role in the rising tide of inequality which threatens us all.

It is easy for ministers to imply the growth in food bank usage is due to individual moral defect even when their own research, conducted by DEFRA, suggests turning to a food bank is the strategy of last resort once all other possible strategies have been exhausted by those unable to feed their families.

The response from some in government is not new. We have had Ian Duncan Smith’s tall tale of ‘feckless layabouts’,  characterture villains of the ‘B’ movie variety designed to simplify issues which require significant structural change in approach to education, housing, employment, income and taxation.

Then there are Mr Cameron’s ‘troubled families’. Another stereotype beloved of successive governments to blame the woes of their world upon. Sadly, for government, locating problems with individuals is a doomed simplistic approach, as the trouble families programme is discovering. Troubled families are actually people whose lives are out of control due to multiple inter-related problems none of us could cope with easily i.e. poor mental and physical health, poor education, low incomes, rent arrears and poor housing. However, if we look beyond the labels of troubled families and feckless layabouts research suggests many others in society today are also struggling to attain a basic level of control over their lives. Concerns over how to feed the family and heat the home this winter will be the focus of many parents’ efforts. Add to this that many of those homes are damp and in poor condition with families experiencing increased financial insecurity, related to zero hours contracts, and it is apparent that our elected political elite are failing us as a nation when they resort to simplistically blaming individuals.

Food poverty, indeed all poverty, is the price some pay to maintain an economic approach that widens the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society.

That inequality thrives within a free market economic system is not really debatable if we accept Thomas Piketty’s analysis in ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’. However, whether inequality matters is debatable, and this is a debate we are yet to have openly in this country.

Economist Friedrich Hayek (beloved of Mrs Thatcher) compared the free market to a game in which there is no point in calling an outcome just or unjust. In this context the Food Bank co-exists on the high street with the designer shop without shame. The problem is whether we play the game or not, it is being played with us. Whatever we do or abstain from doing, our withdrawal will change nothing. In essences many in society today are engaged in a game made up of make believe free players where the appearance of freedom masks the dynamic and unpredictable process by which sudden economic change, and ultimately disadvantage, may visit upon a citizen at anytime.

With a general election looming it is time to raise the level of debate and decide are we happy to live in an unequal society and are we happy to continue to blame individuals for their own misfortune? If we are happy with ‘B’ movie villains and solutions we had better hope no such misfortune ever befalls us, lest we become those characterture villains so beloved of tabloid headlines and government ministers.

Profiting from care is the real crisis in the care industry..…..

The BBC reported today on a ‘crisis in home care‘ suggesting the care industry is constrained by budgetary issues. All very interesting but probably not telling many who use health and social care services anything new. Arguably, a central problem in todays care sector is that it is now perceived by government as a product to bought and sold, and more importantly profited from much like baked beans and ipads, only less regulated!

There is no one answer to this issue but a series that could make a positive difference if taken together.

Firstly a change of discourse on care. Could it be possible the promotion of care as a ‘product’ is part of the reason we keep going around in circles on this issue? The commodification of care emerged under Margaret Thatcher out of the community care reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Such an approach is now so firmly embedded within the health and social care sector it is difficult for anyone to conceptualize care as anything other than a product where “value” is equated to cost rather than any sense of ethical practice or notions of compassion for one another.

Secondly, we also have to ask are we recruiting the right people into the care sector, whether as carers, leaders or managers? Clearly there are many good carers/leaders/managers out there, but we need a lot more, however, this has to be based on suitability not availability. On the ‘frontline’ care providers, whether public or private, have had real difficulty in attracting people into the workforce. This is not surprising when you consider how government and wider society undervalue such work. Caring for people is a demanding, and rewarding job, but, carries little status and is seen as something ‘anyone’ can do.

Believe me it is not. From my professional experience I’d say the best front line carers are those who have a deeply ingrained respect for others, and who genuinely like people. This is not something that can be taught, but they are the characteristics that provide the foundation to developing a professional, and caring, workforce.

Recruitment of the right people will only occur however, if we address a third issue, the provision of high quality support and training for carers combined with decent pay and working conditions. These are central to turning the system around.

However, already I hear the cry ‘we can’t afford to’. Arguably, we cannot afford not to if we really want change.

Where our vision of care does not extend beyond a discourse of free markets and cost, a strong philosophical, moral, and ethical framework will be required to guide the provision of care. For care to become more than a commodity reform is required at a structural and individual level, founded on a new discourse that emphasises dignity over price, compassion over cost. We are at a moment in history where society is questioning our whole economic system. Whilst it has brought much in terms of material resources for some, the cost at a moral, ethical and philosophical level in the “care industry” leaves a lot to be desired, maybe it is time to say care is too valuable to be classed as a commodity to be profited from.

Benefit cheats: The biggest potential victim of austerity is our ability to be compassionate

I wonder if those who view people in receipt of benefits as inferior to themselves are fans of John Locke? Locke’s views on those receiving benefits could be guiding government policy today. In a memorandum to the Board of Trade, written in 1697, he talks about the rising number of poor and the unacceptable cost of poor relief, suggesting the rise was not due to adverse structural factors but was the result of the characteristics of the poor and failings in their behaviour.

It’s worth repeating his quote, it could almost appear as an editorial piece in some of our daily papers today

If the causes of this evil be looked into, it will be found to have proceeded neither from the scarcity of provisions, nor from want of employment for the poor. The growth of the poor must therefore have some other cause; and it can be nothing else but the relaxation of discipline, and corruption of manners: virtue and industry being as constant companions on the one side as vice and idleness on the other’ (Locke, 1697).

For Locke, and those of a like mind, since poverty and reliance on welfare stem from the personal failings of the individual it is obvious to correct the situation the focus needs to be on ‘correcting’ that individual.

A first step to addressing this issue requires those who pay taxes to turn against those entitled to benefits. This is easily achieved when we accept unquestioningly spurious facts and figures presented in a manner which aims to diminish our compassion for others. An excellent piece by Sky News highlights how easy this is for government. Soon we will all receive a personal tax summary which provides a breakdown of how our taxes are spent. However, the article suggests when individuals see the breakdown it is highly likely their collective eyebrows will be raised at the amount spent on welfare

The problem is there is no definition of what ‘welfare’ means accompanying this chart. Given the continual drip drip drip in the popular media and from some in government, and outside of government, there is a massive assumption welfare equates to those on benefits and that they are obviously cheats. Therefore all our taxes are going to fund welfare for people who do not deserve welfare, the unemployed for example. However, this research suggests unemployment benefits account for only 0.7% of the governments total spending bill. Whilst state pensions account for 15.2% of welfare spending, 5.5% is spent on disabilities and 2.4% on child benefit. Also included under welfare is social work and social care.

I’m not sure whom from the groups mentioned society would determine as undeserving. However, I do know we must stop and ask more questions because unthinking acceptance will diminishing all of our capacity to express compassion and a society devoid of compassion would be a very bleak place indeed.