The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, gave a speech about adoption last week. In it, he applauded adopters for being the ‘very best of Britain’, and vowed to overhaul the adoption system by removing barriers to prospective adopters.  

The speech was supposed to come down firmly on the side of adopters, encourage prospective adopters to come forward and usher in a ‘modern and responsive’ approach to adoption.  

But for all its warm words, it landed awkwardly with the adoption sector. Here’s my take on why. 

What’s good  

Clearing barriers and closing the adopter sufficiency gap. It’s high time children stopped waiting in care for lack of a permanent home. Just that, really.  

Recognising the role of adopters. We’re long past overdue for a system which sees people coming forward to adopt as unique individuals with something to offer, rather than as commodities to be measured against an ideal parent blueprint. We need an adopter preparation and approval process which meets people where they are, and provides them with the insights, training and support they need to bring up a traumatised child. I’d like to see the days of prospective adopters being treated as supplicants or competitors firmly behind us. 

Outcomes focus. The Education Secretary threw the focus firmly on end results, rather than processes, saying we’re not obsessed about outcomes enough”. He applied this not only to adopter recruitment but also to schools, recognising that poor starts in life lead to unequal education achievement, and recommitting to the role of Virtual School Heads. Critics will argue that the processes are there to maintain standards and safeguard everyone – and they’re right – but we do all too often see the ends failing to justify the means. 

Wider permanence context: Williamson acknowledged upfront that adoption is not the right plan for all children and repeated his intention for his forthcoming Social Care Review to establish a system that works for all children. A glance at social media shows that this hasn’t worked, with accusations of government favouring adoption over other forms of permanence, but at least there was an attempt at providing a rounded context.  

What’s not 

Snobbery narrative: Attacking your own troops is rarely a good tactic. The snobbery narrative in the Education Secretary’s speech soured the positive intention to clear barriers to adopter recruitment. This was always going to be a hard message for a right-wing politician to convey to the left-dominated social work sector, but was presumably intended to be a rallying cry for disenfranchised groups who feel they aren’t wanted as adopters. In fact it looks like an attempt to shift blame from government onto social workers. While there are undoubtedly problems with narrow recruitment criteria, bias, and bureaucratic processes in adoption, a lot of this arises from insufficient resources and a sense from adoption agencies that they can’t afford to put a foot wrong.  

Overclaiming: Leadership on ‘overhauling the adoption system’ is needed and welcome. But let’s not kid ourselves. Meeting adopter recruitment targets is not overhauling the system. That would look more like (deep breath): meeting adopter recruitment targets; clearing court backlogs; providing a full clinical assessment of needs for every child - and following that up with a written, funded and regularly reviewed support plan; providing training in trauma, attachment and FASD for education and health professionals; ensuring ongoing resources and support for adoptive parents at every stage of the journey; and embedding the voice of adopters and adopted people in policy and practice decision making. Now that’s an overhaul I could really get behind. 

All you need is love: Yes, adopters love their children beyond measure. But that’s not enough to overcome early childhood trauma, and in many tragic cases, love was not enough for the first families to overcome their own complex problems and keep their children safe at home. Love is a fundamental need for every child and core to their healthy development, but the Secretary of State needs to demonstrate government’s understanding that love alone cannot heal the devastation caused by abuse and neglect.   

So what have we learned from the Education Secretary’s adoption speech? 

The adoption agencies have heard a very clear message to make adopter recruitment more inclusive, and prospective adopters might have heard that they are welcome and valued. Those would both be good outcomes.  

But social workers, who include some of the most professionally selfless people I know, have heard that their snobbishness is keeping children in care. Adoptive families are still in the dark about whether the Adoption Support Fund will be extended beyond next spring, and we didn’t hear any tangible commitment to providing ongoing support for adopters and other families raising children who can’t live with their birth families.   

Having a minister who not only has personal experience and some understanding of early childhood trauma (his parents were foster carers) but is prepared to speak up in favour of adoption, is a good thing for the sector. We haven’t always had one. But a true adoption system overhaul will require leadership right across the sector, interest in resolving baked-in tensions between standards and resources, and a long-term commitment to provide the support adopted children and their families need, well beyond the closing of the recruitment gap