Survey finds widespread lack of confidence about social work role in radicalisation cases

The Community Care poll also found almost 70% of social workers had no, or limited, awareness of how to refer those at risk of radicalisation

Photo: iQoncept/Fotolia

Many social workers lack confidence in identifying extremism and have not received any training on the Prevent duty, the core component of the government’s counter-radicalisation agenda for the public sector, according to a Community Care survey.

The snapshot Community Care poll of 507 social workers across children’s, adult and mental health services and others practising in the sector, found that 54% were either ‘slightly’ or ‘extremely’ unconfident in their knowledge of the correct intervention in a case of radicalisation. Just under 30% were ‘slightly’ or ‘extremely’ confident.

More than 40% were unconfident about being able to assess an individual’s vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, while 36% were confident.

Social workers can learn more about how the government’s counter-radicalisation agenda could affect their practice by visiting Community Care Inform’s new knowledge and practice hub on radicalisation and extremism.

Strikingly, three-quarters of social workers surveyed were not clear about their local area’s threshold for intervention in a radicalisation case, and nearly 70% were not at all, or not very, aware of the process of referring people at risk of radicalisation to their local Channel panel – which is where all suspected radicalisation cases should be referred to.

Training not provided

More than two-thirds (69%) said they had not been offered training on the Prevent duty and how it affects social work practice. This contradicts Prevent duty guidance, which says: “All specified authorities subject to the duty will need to ensure they provide appropriate training for staff involved.”

The guidance also says: “Frontline staff who engage with the public should understand what radicalisation means and why people may be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism as a consequence of it…Staff need to know what measures are available to prevent people from becoming drawn into terrorism and how to challenge the extremist ideology that can be associated with it.”

The Prevent duty requires workers in a range of public bodies and registered settings to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

A quarter of the social workers surveyed said the number of cases in their team where radicalisation was a concern had increased in the past year.

The Prevent duty came into force in July this year, so social workers have not had long to grapple with what it means in practice, and Nushra Mansuri, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, explained: “My hunch would be, with all the other pressures on social workers, this would not necessarily be high up on council and NHS partnership agendas, hence the [lack] of training and awareness and consequently, [there is] uncertainty amongst social workers.”

Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, said councils had organised training but the process could take months.

“Those areas without long established programmes will have to provide training over several months to ensure all their staff have the opportunity of attending a session – so not all staff can be offered training immediately,” Blackburn said.

He added: “There is also a cost to councils in delivering this training, and the money available from the Home Office to reimburse councils for the costs of training staff and other activities will not necessarily cover this.”

Local focus required

Joan Beck, joint chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) workforce development network, said the findings “call into question the focus of that training and the appreciation of radicalisation being possible with the people we work with”.

She added: “Many safeguarding boards are asking for more information with regard to Prevent. Adass will bring the findings of this survey to the attention of directors and safeguarding chairs so that they can reassure themselves of the emphasis of their own local work and communication of the take-up and emphasis of this agenda in their own localities.”

There is also the risk the duty is confusing for social workers, and can contradict their professional values, Mansuri said: “I think that it does create a level of real tension for social workers as they grapple with the complexities of the Prevent agenda. Are we saying that children deemed to be at risk of radicalisation should be subject to a child protection plan? Working Together [child safeguarding guidance] does not suggest this but it appears to me that since this new duty was introduced earlier this year, it has not been fully thought through in terms of what it means in relation to safeguarding and child protection.”

She added: “Social work is after all an ethical and human rights profession and not all will see this agenda as compatible with the social work task.”

Political agenda

David Jones, chair of the Association of Independent LSCB (Local Safeguarding Children Board) Chairs, agreed: “I think [radicalisation] feels very different because of the high political dimension and I don’t think that should be minimised or argued away. Social work has a strong value base of not judging people because of their politics, [and] not intervening for political reasons.”

He added: “Somehow this area of work appears to challenge that, it appears to be saying [that] on the basis of people’s opinions you need to intervene. I can understand that that feels very uncomfortable for social workers… It doesn’t sit easily with other areas of their work, I think it is an area they have to engage with but it requires attention and people have to be won over with good arguments.”

Jones also said it was difficult for social workers to learn about and understand this area of practice at a time when so many other areas of their work has been changing: “Everyone says, ‘What’s more important?’ New child sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, Prevent, different ways of working with adoption and fostering and all of this is in the context of growing workforce pressures.”

Social work contribution important

Social workers do, however, have an important contribution to make to this area, said Jenny Coles, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services families, communities and young people committee.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to preventing radicalisation; it can take many shapes and forms and each locality faces its own challenges. So spotting those at risk is far from straightforward and finding a way to reach out to them can be difficult,” she said.

Coles added: “We recognise that our learning of this issue continues to rapidly unfold and going forward local authorities must continue to work with their safeguarding partners and the local community, to develop the range of materials available to practitioners and the wider public so that we are able to safeguard the most vulnerable.”

Social workers are not expected to put in place interventions of their own, assured the LGA’s Blackburn, and a referral to a Channel Panel should mean a range of partners will consider what needs to be done.

“Following the announcement in the Spending Review that there will be more funding available for counter-terrorism activity, the government must ensure that councils’ work to prevent people being drawn into terrorism is properly funded,” he said.

Case Examples

As part of the survey, social workers shared details of some of the cases they had faced where radicalisation was a concern:

“A 13 year old boy who was looking up bomb making online and was reported by school to have potential bomb making equipment in his locker. He had an active interest in conspiracy theories, magic and animal rights.”

“[Temporary] child protection case where the father of a 14 year old girl was a neo-Nazi right-wing extremist. I had to manage the risk of how his lifestyle impacted on his daughter. For example, they were both targets of hate crime and his daughter was badly bullied at school. I also had to minimise the risk that she could be radicalised.”

“A family of 5 children were referred due to one of the female siblings having spoken in school about having watched footage of people playing football with beheaded heads. There were concerns that the children were being exposed to radicalist materials.”

“Police had arrested an 18-year-old male for daubing churches and mosques with threatening graffiti, following the stabbing of Lee Rigby. A subsequent police raid on the family home (in the loft) discovered high-risk information on his computer, based on Lee Rigby’s murder, and the case of Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian island mass murderer). An investigation commenced under the Prevent strategy, but then passed to my team for safeguarding. Frankly, the issues of risk had nothing to do with ‘health & social care’; but the police withdrew. After a great deal of challenging and research by me demanding a key multi-agency response, this eventually took place. This case was characterised by almost every serious case review finding: poor co-ordination and planning.”

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