Was decision to expel social work student for Facebook posts draconian or deserved?

We summarise some of the key arguments surrounding Sheffield university's controversial decision

Photo: REX/Alex Segre

This week one story has dominated discussion between social workers on Community Care and social media – Sheffield University’s decision to remove a Christian social work student from his course for sharing anti-gay marriage posts on Facebook.

A university conduct committee reportedly found Felix Ngole’s actions would fall short of the professional standards for social workers set by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Ngole is appealing the decision. He told The Telegraph he’d worked with people in same-sex relationships in the past with “no issue whatsoever” but, if asked, he should be able to express his views.

His supporters accused the university of effectively barring him from training as a social worker for voicing opinions about gay marriage held by millions across the world.

The collision between social media, personal views and professional standards has triggered fierce debate, not least in the context of social work’s value base.

Was the university’s move justified? At time of writing a poll on Community Care, which has received more than 2,000 responses, shows opinion is split 60/40 in favour of the decision. So what are the key arguments?

‘There’s no room in the profession for these views’

Those who backed the university’s move said part of being in the profession is facing your own biases and dealing with them, and that a core value of social work was to challenge discrimination.

One commenter on Facebook said: “They [the university] were right. As a social worker you will deal with every population and community. Before I even consider[ed] becoming a social worker I had to face my biases and deal with them, because we all have them.”

Another said: “[He] has to be removed from the course not least because they clearly don’t understand values and prejudice – something that needs to managed in social work. We all have opinions but one of the skills a social worker needs is the ability to separate personal values from professional values.

“They should have not only kept those views to themselves but recognised that they are not compatible with the job they will be doing. As I said, we all have prejudice but it’s the ability to recognise it and deal with it. It’s where social workers often struggle.”

Another commenter said the decision was “completely right”, adding: “We have fundamental non-judgmental, anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory values as an implicit baseline. There’s no room in the profession for a person who holds these views. Contravenes not only the core values of the profession, but the HCPC standards of proficiency.”

Another Facebook poster said: “Social work and religion should never be mixed. The core business of social work is to empower the disadvantaged and challenge discrimination and support the vulnerable. I feel that social work may not be the calling for this man.”

A ‘draconian’ punishment?

Several people uneasy about the university’s decision pointed to the fact Ngole was a social work student, not a registered social worker. While registered professionals are regulated by the HCPC and bound to its code of conduct, students are not.

One commenter on Community Care said she was a Christian and disagreed with Ngole’s views but felt the university’s decision to remove him from the course was “draconian” given there appeared to be no evidence his opinions would impact service users.

“We all have views and prejudices (to deny this is a very dangerous thing to do), and we have to be self-aware and ensure they do not affect our working relationships with colleagues and service users, and there seems to have been no evidence that Mr Ngole was discriminating against people in same sex unions,” she said.

“These views should not have been publicly aired on social media, but a disciplinary measure rather than expulsion from his course would seem a more appropriate punishment. Social workers have been in trouble before for injudicious use of social media – BASW has some helpful guidelines.

“Of course if Mr Ngole was allowing his opinion to affect his attitude to and treatment of people, serious questions about his suitability for social work would have to be raised.”

Another commenter said: “I just feel that as he’s a student, he should get (one) chance to learn from this before they throw him out.”

One Facebook poster said: “As a Christian I am saddened by those who adhere so strictly to teachings which condemn rather than offer love and understanding, however Felix Ngole is entitled to think what he chooses on the matter. The acid test is his behaviour not his thoughts. Has he ever treated a member of the LGBT community in a discriminatory way?”

Another Facebook commenter said: “A person has just as much “right” to be against something as a person does the right to support it.

“As social workers we need to accept and appreciate everyone’s right to feel how they feel even if it’s not how you feel. We support clients every day in life journeys that we may not necessarily support or agree with but we accept that it’s the other person’s right to choose their own path and their own feelings towards a situation. A person’s perspective is no less real just because it’s not yours.”

Where do you stand on the decision?

 

13 Responses to Was decision to expel social work student for Facebook posts draconian or deserved?

  1. Alex W March 2, 2016 at 10:38 am #

    Trying to restrict the rights of human beings due to their sexual orientation is no acceptable by anyone, and especially not Social Workers. The decision was deserved, they should have known better and not been so naive/immature to post something like that publicly. They clearly demonstrated that they are not the right kind of person to be a Social Worker and I’m glad they were screened out of the profession now rather than later.

    • Emanuele Ciriachi March 4, 2016 at 9:50 pm #

      What are you even talking about? Defining marriage around procreation has NOTHING to do about “discrimination” for “sexual orientation” – in fact, the restriction is about sex, not sexual orientation, for the reasons everyone can figure out by themselves.

      Stating that only people that shares your arbitrary definition of a social contract is allowed to be a Social Worker is fascist, is bigoted, is intolerant! What kind of intellectually bankrupt society could come up with views like these?!

  2. Lorna Fitzpatrick March 2, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    When I completed my CQSW many years ago, the whole cohort spent time reflecting on their ‘journey’.
    One of my peers talked about how, at the start of the course, his Christian beliefs meant that he held anti-gay views. He talked movingly about how the course had challenged him and how he had changed his views.
    Isn’t social work about seeking to make changes?
    I believe that this student should be offered an opportunity to reflect on what he did and how it may impact on his practice. He should be supported to understand his actions and his beliefs. There should be open and honest discussion with the whole cohort, not just him.
    I would rather work with a student who openly holds biased views – they can be challenged and supported. Much more dangerous are the ones who keep quiet.

    • Ellen madora March 2, 2016 at 10:58 pm #

      I totally agree. I grew in many ways. Positively by the end of my training. That’s why I needed training. Instead of just walking onto a ward. Unfortunately have not read his actual post. Or the point he was making to his peers and friends.

  3. J Keighley March 2, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    I am an active Christian who attends church weekly, I am also a 2nd year Social Work student in Wales. There are number of points I want to raise. Firstly in Wales the Codes of Conduct are governed by the Care Council and as a student social worker I am registered and am bound by the codes of practice and its standards. Secondly I have my own opinions but I am in agreement with the article when its states that a social worker needs to keep them separate. From a religious point of view Jesus said love everyone not pick and choose, and to openly criticise on Facebook is contrary to that. I know the arguements of some Christian groups, but ultimately it comes down to how would you like to be treated. Thirdly the codes of practice are there to protect members of the public and social workers and create a level of professionalism whilst using and applying social work values. In Wales the code covers how social workers act and behave outside of work as well as inside work. I feel it is black and white you either follow the codes to practice, if you dont adhere to the codes you have registered to that a future in social work needs to be re-evaulated.

    I read a comment that social work and religion should never mix, I disagree with that as some of the skills and experience that have enable me to do social work were gained through being actively involved in Christianity. True Christianity is just the same as social work encouraging equality, anti oppression, anti discriminatory practice and to empower people/indivduals to be independant and educated to improve their situations. The list could go on. The only thing that stops Social Work and religion working together is people not understanding the basics of Christianity.

    Regards
    J

    • john stephenson March 2, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

      Article 10 H.R.C. might be a useful starting point.

    • Emanuele Ciriachi March 4, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      Hi J,

      I am also an active Christian (Catholic) that goes to church weekly – and I completely and stand with Felix Ngole.

      Not just because I also oppose that travesty that is same-sex “marriage”, but because it is illiberal and anti-democratic to expel someone from a University – that should welcome diversity of views and discussion – for the reason(I quote directly) that:

      ‘he may have caused offence to some individuals by voicing his opinion’.

      There is a fundamental difference between offending someone and taking offense. Otherwise who decides what is offensive and what is not? If people that support SSM are offended by those that oppose it, the same happens in reverse.

      Felix Ngole’s treatment is unfair, illiberal, intolerant and bigoted – regardless of your religion, your political views or how you think social contracts should be organised by the State.

  4. Snowha March 2, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    I wonder if there is extra information that would clarify this incident. Such as the tone of sentiments expressed (eg on a spectrum of “i dont get it” to inciting violence). What was his response to being investigated (the same: “i dont get it” to “this is the only way”).
    I hold very different views to this man but I feel I agree with the sentiments above that as someone still in training there may be benefit to treating it as a disciplinary matter to be worked on rather than cast out immediately.
    However if his comments and reaction was on the more extreme end of the scale, I would view it as less likely that this persons values could be aligned with the profession.

  5. Martin March 2, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

    In my mind, it was definitely the right decision to make. The issue of same-sex marriage is less concerning, with my bigger concern being that the individual involved sought to quote Leviticus as his reasoning for holding his anti-gay views.

    If we unpack what Leviticus says, it isn’t actually something that states that marriage is between one man and one woman. What it says is that gay people are abominable, and that the punishment for being gay is that they should be put to death. Therefore, when he states that he is being discriminated against for expressing his views on marriage, that isn’t accurate. The bit of doctrine that he quotes for holding this view goes far beyond telling somebody that he disagrees with same-sex marriage. He’s quoting a passage which states that, according to the faith be puts into the bible, he believes that the death sentence is morally required under the word of God. That is a viewpoint that is seriously incompatible for social work, and it is justifiable that somebody who uses this passage within discussions to justify anti-gay views should not be allowed to practice within social work. It goes far beyond marriage, so either the passage he quoted isn’t relevant to the point he’s trying to make or he believes in that passage.

    He might have encountered same-sex couples and had ‘no issues’ with them, but he clearly has no grasp of his own biases if he thinks expressing views ‘if asked’ is a good boundary to have. LGBT people will be conscious of discrimination anyway and may ask for such views to seek emotional comfort and security in their social worker. If he was in that situation, it would be damaging to a service user for him to then start expressing biblical passages which call for gay people to be executed.

  6. Ian March 2, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    Whilst I couldn’t disagree more with the student’s views, he is entitled to hold them and as mentioned in the article, his holding of them wouldn’t necessarily negatively impact his ability to work with people that have views that oppose his.

  7. Sophie March 3, 2016 at 8:20 pm #

    I strongly disagree with the students views – I am a firm supporter of the right to the gay community to marry. Truth be told, I couldn’t care less about anyone’s sexuality – love is love.

    That said, he is entitled to hold a view, and as long as that view doesn’t affect his behaviour towards clients then he is still entitled to hold it.

    If his behaviour was discriminatory, then expulsion is justified. However, policing his thoughts and personal (and religious) beliefs seems a little oppressive to me.

    In addition, I think it’s naive to think that as individuals, we don’t have our own prejudices – but good practice dictates that we treat each situation and client with the same respect.

    The fact that people on social media are commenting such strong, and in some cases, vile responses in regards to this student, I think reflects poorly on them as practitioners and social work students/professionals.

    As for not publishing it on Facebook, yes it probably wasn’t wise. But I should then probably sensor myself for the incredibly left wing political posts I make – they could offend too. But I happen to think that I as a human being have the right to religious and political freedom.

    Again let me reiterate – I DONT AGREE WITH THE STUDENTS VIEWS IN ANY WAY – but, I support his right to hold those views as long as they do not interfere with his practice.

  8. Chaz March 4, 2016 at 12:23 am #

    A person has a fundamental right to believe what they wish. This obviously includes to have a God or not have a God.

    Since when has being a social worker suddenly turned us into some kind of smooth patch policy drone, unable to express personal thoughts unless it meets the agreement of the hallowed Values?

    Since when are we supposed to be homogeneous Stepford citizens that blithely bow before the altar of smug superiority?

    Hey guess what social work chums safe in the knowledge that your personal values intertwine seamlessly with your work life? Not every one thinks like you. Some people’s personal beliefs will actually down right offend you if you bother to listen to them.

    And that’s OK.

    I’m pretty sure some of my colleagues have some pretty strange beliefs, even the ones that don’t have a religion to keep them warm at night. But I’ve not seen one of them allow their personal beliefs to interfere with the work at hand.

    Diversity includes the things you don’t agree with. If it doesn’t then… it’s meaningless isn’t it. Because then it all becomes about who sets the agenda of what is acceptable… and you don’t need to go too far back in time to see how that can go badly wrong.

    As much as I can’t stand a hate filled rant, increasingly thinking around social work and the expectations on those that undertake the work is becoming more precious and more stifling almost by the week.

    There has to be a line drawn before we are expected to be dystopian clip board wielding beige automatons with only the thought of DUTY and RIGHTEOUSNESS to protect us from the dangers of free thought.

  9. Kelli March 8, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

    In my opinion, this is a difficult one to decide on. I strongly disagree with this students views but I don’t think he should of been required to leave the course. Of course I would be naive to say personal values do not in some way impact on our practice, but to the extent we practice discriminatory? I don’t think so!

    Before I qualified we had heated debates over personal and professional values – and these debates were there for us to challenge ourselves and others.

    One I hear regularly is how can a social worker vote conservative in an election? We are a diverse profession and should challenge views that conflict with our professional values whether that be internally or externally but not automatically exclude things / people / views that sit uncomfortably