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Is social work training too idealistic – Narey and Gove re-open debate

Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove leapt on one aspect of Sir Martin Narey’s report into the future of children’s social work training to repeat previous assertions that social work training placed too much emphasis on “inequality, empowerment and anti-oppressive practice”.

The comments follow a speech in November in which Mr Gove told an NSPCC conference: "In too many cases, social work training involves idealistic students being told that the individuals with whom they will work have been disempowered by society."

Mr Narey’s assessment of the issue in his 12 February report, 'Making the Education of Social Workers Consistently Effective',  were more nuanced than the Secretary of State might like but nonetheless offered enough encouragement for the minister’s long-held perspective on the topic.

Narey wrote: “I am not ignoring the reality that many families in which parenting is inadequate struggle with disadvantage, poverty and social isolation. Those at the bottom of an unequal society face day to day challenges, including coping with cramped living conditions, limited income and often grinding debt, which can significantly undermine their ability to cope and to provide children with the safety and security on which they thrive.

“On the other hand, many families of modest income provide loving and safe homes for their children and it is vital – I would argue – not to seek to persuade students that poor parenting or neglect are necessary consequences of disadvantage. There may be a partial correlation between disadvantage and poor parenting but there is not a causal link.”

One academic offered a withering critique of the Narey/Gove analysis, however. Dr Gurnam Singh, Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University, said: “If one were to believe that the ruling classes in our society really did care for the welfare of poor children and families , then one might be persuaded by Gove and Narey¹s arguments that social workers in training need to learn more about child development and less about anti-oppressive political theory.

"However, given their contempt with structural explanations for child abuse and neglect and a preference for a psychological discourse of dysfunctional families, it is crystal clear to me that their objections are politically motivated. Indeed, the whole polemical tenor of Narey¹s report renders it less as an objective analysis of the state of social work education and more a statement of personal opinions.

"If this were a student dissertation, certainly his failure to explain or justify his methodology with any sense of academic rigour and his almost one sided and selective use of quotes would certainly lead to a fail mark. Yes, Michael Gove, that champion for academic excellence, seems to be pretty happy; perhaps this further betrays their true intentions for social work.”

See Narey report in full

Read Narey's 18 recommendations