We have a real opportunity here to lift social work out of the trough

Children's minister Edward Timpson lays out his vision for a reformed care system

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The Independent Online

We've heard a lot this week about the harrowing events that happened in Oxford, where a gang of men subjected vulnerable girls and teenagers to years of violent, drug-fuelled, sexual abuse. The cases of child sexual exploitation coming to court around the country show the criminal justice system catching up with crimes which went unpunished for far too long. At the same time our reforms to the care homes system - tougher inspection, better data, higher staff qualifications and an emphasis on personal accountability at senior officer level within local authorities - are challenging the 'out of sight out of mind' culture which it’s clear has betrayed some young people in residential care.

It’s my ambition as children's minister to ensure that where the state is the parent, the children in its care receive all the protection and support we would offer our own children. That’s why we are committed to root and branch reform of social worker training and a drive to attract the highest calibre graduates into the profession - to which we have seen an extraordinary response. I want to do for social work what Teach First did for teaching.

Growing up, I saw my family welcome child after child damaged by chaotic backgrounds into our home. I grew up with over 80 foster children, two of whom we adopted. I’ve seen babies addicted to heroin go into spasms. I’ve watched as an abused and angry little boy shattered every pane of glass in my dad’s prized greenhouse, because he didn’t know how else to let his anger out.  But I also saw how love, stability and routine helped these children settle and thrive. 

Many of them could have been spared immense suffering and long-term damage if they’d received consistent and reliable help from social workers earlier. In my decade as a barrister in the family courts I saw case after case where, when the papers landed on my desk, the damage to the child had often already been done; all that was left to the adults now was to try to make the best of a bad job. Cases of appalling abuse were being managed in the interests of adults, with bureaucratic delay or misplaced concern for the rights of parents trumping the need of a child for swift and decisive early intervention. It's why as a minister now I spend so much time working on reform of the adoption system, and one of the reasons I’m proud to be taking the Children and Families Bill through Parliament.

We need to put the child's needs at the heart of everything we do. That is what you or I would do as a parent; that’s what all children's social workers should be doing. I don’t want to read any more reports about how children were failed by the system because of a social worker's misplaced belief that if the parents were given one more chance, they might improve - or conversely by a courts' refusal to accept the advice of social workers because they have no faith in their competence.

If you put the child at the heart of the question, complex decisions suddenly become simpler. Every decision by every professional involved in children's care - lawyer, social worker, teacher, police officer - should have this thought foremost: – ‘what does a child need in these circumstances?' It was the failure to ask that question first that led I believe to some of the appalling oversights and professional errors we are seeing revealed in Oxford, Rochdale and elsewhere.  If it was your child, what would you do? It isn't a difficult question to remember to ask.

This week we announced the appointment of a new Chief Social Worker for Children. Isabelle Trowler represents social work at its best. She transformed social work services in Hackney and is one of the leading innovators in the profession. She is dedicated to challenging frontline professionals and social work educators (and probably to challenging me, too), and also to raising the status of the profession. She has helped develop the curriculum for Frontline, and will work with Josh MacAlister, its chief executive, to ensure we get the very best people, with great analytical skills and an appetite for innovation into frontline practice. I am delighted to see that the early signs are looking very positive, with Frontline receiving an incredible 260 inquiries within just a few hours of its launch.

With the basic social work training review being conducted by Sir Martin Narey also reporting to me this summer, we have a real opportunity here to lift social work out of the trough - where the public mistrusts and misunderstands it, and the profession in response turns defensive and demoralised. It isn't just a question of better training - systems need to change too, as Isabelle recognised in Hackney. I have pictures of my children all around my office and when I have to make decisions about the care system, I look at them and ask: what would I want if this was you? Simple, really. The best.