Now Michael Gove has his supporters and he has his detractors. But that is not surprising when your job title is secretary of state for education. Because education is one of those areas of political life, along with health, that really gets the pulse pumping for many. They are both hugely important issues that affect the lives of millions and are central to our sense of fairness and aspiration, and people feel very emotionally attached to their school and their hospital.
It is why passions are running high on the current NHS and Social Care Bill which certainly has its vociferous opponents and supporters alike. And similarly, Michael Gove's Free Schools programme has passionate backers and detractors with both sides claiming that the other will damage education. But that is politics for you and no doubt Michael Gove will be enjoying the cut-and-thrust of the heated debate.
But Michael Gove is not just responsible for schools. He is also responsible for children's services and last week he gave a speech on the future of adoption. What he said might not have generated quite as much excitement (or anger) as free schools. And it certainly didn't attract as many column inches, but in terms of the impact on aspiration and fairness it was at least as important.
The simple fact is that at on any given day there are about 89,000 children who are formally being looked after by their local authority because their parents are unable to. Of these, about 75,000 children are being looked after outside of their home. For some, this will be because their parents are temporarily unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment, perhaps because of illness. But for others there are more profound and long-standing problems. Parents who hurt their children or who fail to protect them from a partner. Parents who fail to help their children to thrive, show them little love, or humiliate them. And parents who simply do not seem to understand what their children need in order to grow and develop.
Over the years there has been a debate about when the local authority should intervene. There has been a strong sense that parents should be given every chance to succeed and thereby keep the birth family together. But there is a flip-side to this as the longer a child stays in a damaging environment the greater the long term harm is likely to be, to their emotional health, to their educational attainment and to their life-chances. It really is a tough choice. A choice that has to be made by dedicated social workers day-in and day-out.
But in his speech, Michael Gove said something very important. He challenged head on the belief that taking children from damaging home situations into care was itself damaging:
Children and young people do not encounter disadvantage because they have been in care. They are in care because they have had to be rescued from disadvantage.
And he added:
Better to take children into care than allow them to be abused. So let me underline this. We in government will back social workers who take children into care.
We do not regard more children being taken into care as a problem with social work which the profession must address. It is a problem with parenting, which our whole society must address.
As a foster carer myself I strongly welcome this clear and unambiguous statement. It is great to hear him say that care is a positive outcome for some children. And that the undoubted disadvantages that many children in care face are not the result of being in care but rather the result of the very experiences that brought them into care in the first place. This is certainly not a charter for the unwarranted 'snatching' of children from their parents. Rather it is a powerful re-assertion that the rights of children to be safe, loved and nurtured override the rights of their parents.
Over the years, my wife and I have cared for significant numbers of children where we strongly felt that the rights of parents had come first, when decisions over whether to take children into care were being made. Children were left with birth parents for far too long as support packages were tried, failed and tried again. Excuses were made, and often lawyers for the parents successfully argued for more time to get things right.
The result was prolonged suffering and damage to the children. Children who often suffered at school as they were either very quiet or 'out of control', or smelled, or looked dirty and unkempt. Children who found forming relationships difficult and often put themselves at great risk. So it is good to hear that the government is committed to working to tip the balance in decision-making in favour of the children.
But Michael Gove said something else important. He talked about the importance of achieving permanence for children in care. For most children in care, if they can't go home then what they want more than anything is a permanent home. They don't want to get moved from family to family but want to know that this is my home where I will be staying. It is incredibly unsettling with many children worrying that if they 'step out of line' then they will be asked to move. So they don't feel that they have unconditional love but conditional love. What a horrible situation to be in.
Permanence can take many forms, from a permanent foster placement, to special guardianships and, of course, adoption. Michael Gove was right to highlight the need to speed up decision making so that decisions on permanence can be taken more quickly. At the moment decisions can take years. In fact it took us 18 months to adopt our daughter, who we were already fostering, and that was using a fast-track process!
And he is right to say that the assessment process for prospective adopters is very long, feels inefficient and is incredibly intrusive with assessment forms regularly running to over 100 pages. Performance is variable across the country with some areas having a relatively quick and fluid process, whilst in other areas it seems that getting adopted is all but impossible.
So it is great news that Michael Gove is establishing an Action Plan on Adoption that will look at shortening the process and establish benchmarks for success. But he must also be careful that in trying to rightly speed up the process that he doesn't allow compromises to be made. More bureaucracy is certainly no substitute for proper assessment, but simply pushing to reduce bureaucracy should not risk the quality of the assessments themselves.
It might not have excited the leader writers of the national media as it doesn't challenge the educational establishment and upset some teachers. But that does not make Michael Gove's speech on fostering and adoption any less important. Reform and the cutting of bureaucracy have been promised before of course. But on face value, if you are a child who is suffering in damaging home environments, or a child in care desperate for permanence, then its implications are potentially both profound and welcome. And with the numbers of children in care rising, and the number of children being adopted falling, it cannot come a moment too soon.
For advice on any child protection issue contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.
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