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?