How to be a ‘culturally competent’ social worker – what the research says

Research findings indicate that developing trusting relationships with families and having an awareness of local demogrpahics are key to supporting learning disabled people from minority ethnic communities, says Jill Manthorpe.

People with learning disabilities or difficulties from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities were highlighted as a priority group in the Valuing People White Paper in 2001, yet many still need better access to good social care support.

Research findings

People who often have the greatest need for support – for example, one-parent families living in poverty, people from certain minority ethnic communities – have the greatest difficulty in accessing it, a recently published scoping review of prevention and social care for adults with learning disabilities noted (Emerson et al, 2011). Both practitioners and service commissioners may find the newly-revised version of a framework document indicating ways of assessing local circumstances useful in responding to these imperatives. The framework was first produced in 2004 by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, and has been updated to set it in the context of the new commissioning landscape.

Linked to the framework report is a major document by Poxton and his colleagues (2012) that uses a variety of data and consultation reports to describe current experiences and needs. It is accompanied by two documents directed to practitioners: Reaching Out – Guidance for Culturally Competent Practice (Cole and Burke, 2012), and Reaching out – Guidance for Culturally Competent Planning (Burke and Cole, 2012).

The latter is directed at planning with individuals and their families, including support planning around personalisation. The authors caution that practitioners should not assume that people from the same ‘minority community’ share the same beliefs or aspirations, or the same social circumstances. Person-centred approaches are central to an effective response to meet people’s needs but these also need to be ‘family-focused’. A variety of suggestions about person-centred planning is provided.

Tips for professionals

The other report offering practice guidance draws on research and experience in setting out some essential tips when working with families from BME communities. This report acknowledges that progress in improving services and access to services has been made in many areas, but found that many families from BME communities still report that too many staff from statutory agencies:

  • do not follow up the action they have agreed and effectively lack professional ownership;
  • are reactive rather than planning ahead with the family;
  • do not ensure that families have the right information to pursue matters themselves, effectively keeping people disempowered;
  • move on too quickly to enable a proper degree of mutual trust and understanding to be developed.

The authors conclude: “If staff turnover is high, organisations need to consider how they ensure continuity of knowledge, trust and understanding by other means.” (Cole and Burke, 2012, p11).

The framework also draws attention to population trends in the UK, such as increases in the numbers of people from so-called ‘newly-arrived communities’. This may be changing what is required to be culturally competent. People may have cultural and other needs that are unknown to statutory agencies. It argues that because local studies and practice reports are beginning to show that there are people with learning disabilities in these newly-arrived communities, local agencies need to be in a position to offer them support.

However, we are beginning to have better information about people from newly-arrived communities. For example, the new Census data offer reliable national overviews of two groups in England and Wales (as well as all other groups). For the first time, the 2011 Census contained tick boxes enabling people to describe themselves as Gypsy or Irish Traveller, and Arab (Office for National Statistics, 2012) and these data are now reported.

Of course, this population is not all ‘newly-arrived’ but it has been very hard to estimate population numbers. Being of Gypsy or Irish Traveller ethnicity was selected by 58,000 people (0.1% of the population), making it the smallest ethnic category (with a tick box) in 2011.

While not all people describing themselves as Arab are newly arrived in England and Wales either, again we have not known much about this group. ‘Arab’ was the classification selected by 240,000 people (0.4% of the population). This level of detail is needed to update planning and for auditing purposes, especially when it is broken down to locality level. Social workers who have to write or contribute to joint strategic needs assessments (JSNAs) need to be aware of local demographics and their changes.

The impact on practice

Three potential implications for social work practice could be drawn from these studies and reports:

  • Practitioners who have not had much experience or access to training may benefit from the practice guide reported in this review; social workers may find it something that they can recommend;
  • Data emerging from the Census 2011 will provide high-level detail about local populations that will help providers to see if their services are being accessed by all local communities;
  • Taking a ‘family focus’ may be hard to do when services are split between children and adults, so people working in transition teams may be able to help their colleagues in modelling good practice.

Questions for social work practice could include:

  • How can social workers work with newly-transferred public health colleagues in local authorities to prevent people with learning disabilities experiencing excess disabilities, and to ensure that access problems are identified and then minimised?
  • How can joint strategic needs assessments (JSNAs) be used to promote good practice in commissioning and monitoring, and not just used as data for their own sake?

References and resources

Burke, C. and Cole, A. (2012), Reaching out – Guidance for culturally competent planning, London, Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities
Cole, A. and Burke, C. (2012), Reaching Out – Guidance for culturally competent practice, London, Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities
Emerson, E., Hatton, C. and Robertson, J. (2011), Prevention and social care for adults with learning disabilities, London, NIHR School for Social Care Research
Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities/Department of Health (2012), Learning difficulties and ethnicity – updating a framework for action, London, Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2012), Ethnicity and national identity in England and Wales, London, ONS
Poxton, R., Taylor, J., Brenner, D., Cole, A. and Burke, C. (2012), Reaching out to people with learning disabilities and their families from black and minority ethnic communities, London, Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

Jill Manthorpe is director of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London and associate director of the NIHR School for Social Care Research.

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