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EARLIER this month a National Conference on Social Care heard pious words from experts and government ministers about the safety of children and what a great job the government is doing.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, vulnerable children are going to be at greater risk of abuse than ever before, thanks to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s obsession with dismantling the state education system and new attempts to privatise child protection services in local authorities.
This is the unintended consequence of a combination of recent policies driven by Gove’s obsessive free-market philosophy.
Years of underfunding education services has created a hotch-potch of academy, faith and free schools separated from local authority supervision and allowing rich parents the choice to select a decent education for their children.
Not only has this created inequalities within communities, but teachers are being lured into new schools paying higher salaries — leaving state schools to struggle with staff shortages and harming the chances of working-class pupils.
But this is made worse by new plans to privatise child protection services. The combined plans, separating more schools from local authority supervision and privatising child protection, will leave a gaping hole in the welfare safety net designed to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
The child protection system works when there are common structures, procedures and lines of communication between all those in health, education, police and social care who are responsible for children’s safety.
Fragmentation of these organisations and the undermining of national and local policies creates confusion, gaps and obscurity — the last thing needed in an already complex and murky area of work.
However even in the privileged private schools, children are far from safe.
Ofsted’s latest annual report says it has “major concerns” about the safety of thousands of pupils in private schools that have failed to abide by rules designed to protect children in their care from abuse.
Inspections of independent schools in the past year revealed that a high proportion of fee-charging schools are failing on safeguarding procedures and many are providing inadequate levels of education.
State schools outperformed private schools on several educational measures, according to inspectors.
“It is a major concern that about a third of non-association independent schools do not fully meet the requirements for safeguarding pupils.” Failure to comply with safeguarding procedures means the schools are not properly vetting staff who are in contact with children or training staff to identify signs of abuse and support vulnerable children properly.
This is graphically illustrated by the stream of child sexual abuse cases being brought to court, such as the case involving paedophile attacks at the exclusive Chetham school of music in Manchester.
Inspectors from Manchester City Council’s social services department were called to Chetham’s school of music to carry out urgent reviews of child protection procedures at the £31,000-a-year private institution following a number of serious allegations of sex abuse by teachers past and present.
Council inspectors concluded that the local authority “is not confident about the overall effectiveness of the leadership and governance of safeguarding arrangements in the school.”
They warned: “Arrangements are present to promote a culture and climate of effective safeguarding at Chetham’s school of music but the arrangements are not routinely and reliably implemented, robustly applied, monitored or evaluated by the senior leadership team, governors and Feoffees” (trustees of the charity which runs the school).
The school had taken disciplinary action or issued a suspension against four staff because of concerns about their suitability to work with children between 1999 and 2013, but these incidents were not always properly referred to the local authority as required within good time. This adds to the suspicion that there was a cover-up and suspected paedophiles were let loose to work in other schools.
Worse still, in recent years national guidance for multi-agency investigation of child abuse has been watered down.
Each local safeguarding children board now has to invent its own system of recording and tracking vulnerable children, which is leading to chaotic work across authority boundaries.
The previous national document Working Together formed the basis of legal proceedings, family law, disciplinary hearings, professional training programmes and professional practice.
All agencies had a copy and it was universally applicable. Everyone knew where they stood.
The guidance was geared towards helping and supporting struggling parents, often survivors of abuse themselves or marginalised by a capitalist system that blames the unemployed and poor instead of seeing them as the natural consequence of neoliberal economics.
Now the guidance focuses on persecution and punishment forcing social workers to police the poor, rather than helping families change. Gove’s current plans, if they come to fruition, will ensure that more tragedies, heartbreak and neglect of disadvantaged children from the poorest and most deprived neighbourhoods will continue.
A generation of children will pay a terrible price for Gove’s obsession if he is allowed to get away with it.
nSteven Walker is a former principal lecturer in social work and co-author of Safeguarding Children and Young People — a Guide to Integrated Practice (Russell House Publishers.)
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