The statement issued this week by the Frontline chief executive, Josh MacAlister, on the organisation’s approach to race was notable for its contrite tone.
The fast-track children’s social work training provider is no stranger to criticism but has tended to respond with a confident defence of its record.
But in launching its ‘Racial Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan’ this week, MacAlister said there were a number of areas in which the organisation needed to do better on issues of race.
“Following the recent murders of Black men and women in America and the subsequent protest, debate and reflection they have prompted here in the UK about racism, we have been thinking hard about what more we can do at Frontline,” MacAlister wrote.
He said that, based on feedback from current and previous participants and staff, “[too] many Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our community don’t feel supported well enough, heard or represented. We want this to change.”
That feedback, people involved with Frontline have told Community Care, has stemmed both from the organisation’s initial response to George Floyd’s killing on a Minneapolis street on 25 May, and from its broader handling of issues around race over time.
But the conversation around race in social work is far from just about Frontline; the sector’s leadership and key organisations are facing questions about their approach to tackling racism and responding to the needs of people from Black Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, including the social workers they employ, train or regulate.
‘We need to address what’s been going on’
On 2 June, Frontline – similarly to many other employers from all sectors – issued a public statement via its social media channels saying that it recognised that there was more it could do to stand against racism and inequality, and telling Black employees and participants that “Frontline is standing with you”.
It also made a number of commitments – including to provide a safe space for Black participants to engage in difficult conversations and to listen, learn and adapt practice.
However, on Instagram, a number of recent participants pushed back on the statement. One said they felt it was “continually down to black participants to highlight issues of race” while another expressed anger that a message they had sent around the recent murders and Black Lives Matter protests had not received a response.
A participant who Community Care subsequently spoke to said they and others who had sent similar messages had eventually received identical, apparently copied-and-pasted replies. “It was like, listen – we just need to appease everyone now, that’s how it came across,” the participant said.
Away from social media, another member of the current 2019 cohort said there had been dismay from Black participants at a study day on 1 June – the day before Frontline’s statement – when the lecturer had attempted to deliver the session with no mention of recent events.
“They were ready to run the programme as normal until a [fellow trainee] said, ‘We need to address what’s been going on – I’m finding it hard to focus,” they said. The sense that things were not being taken sufficiently seriously grew when the academic staff member suggested a quick breakout would be enough to deal with the subject, the participant added.
‘I don’t think they gave due thought to race’
Over recent months, a number of Frontline trainees, and people who have worked for the organisation, have contacted Community Care with similar reports. While these represent the views of a relatively small number of people, they fall within a few broad categories that resonate strongly with the priorities Frontline has set for its action plan, based on feedback it has received from its participants and staff.
The first of these is that the two-year training programme has had too little focus on race and racism generally, and anti-oppressive practice in particular.
“I just don’t think they give it due thought,” said one recent participant. “We went through a whole summer institute [the programme’s intensive five-week crash-course in social work], a whole year of training and on the last day we had one lecture on power and privilege, including one section of race.”
Frontline’s commitments on programme content
- Reviewing recommended readings and source material to include greater racial diversity
- Introducing more explicit teaching on anti-racism into the programme for the 2020 cohort and recall days for the 2019 cohort.
- Introducing greater support and training for teaching staff on how to discuss race and promote anti-racism.
- Introducing a way for current and former participants from Black, Asian, minority ethnic backgrounds to advise on programme content.
The second issue interviewees raised is Frontline’s relative lack of racial diversity among participants, a point that has long dogged it and fellow fast-track programmes Step Up to Social Work and Think Ahead.
While the proportion of BAME participants for Frontline’s 2020 cohort is 22%, up from 15% in 2017 and equivalent to the proportion of BAME social workers in the children’s workforce, the figure for university postgraduate courses in 2018, and students admitted to undergraduate courses in 2019, was 36%.
Moreover, as MacAlister said in a video statement accompanying the launch of the action plan, while 14% of the population were from BAME groups this was the case for 28% of children with social workers. “Just looking at the facts we can see we have got some major racial disparities in the child protection and children’s social care system that we need to think about,” he said.
But as well as the statistics, there are concerns about the impact the relative lack of diversity has had on BAME participants.
The same participant who raised concerns about the programme content described an exercise to illustrate privilege, at their summer institute, in which people were asked to step forwards if they had enjoyed certain advantages and then backwards if they had faced disadvantages – including around race.
“It was an uncomfortable experience on its own – but it was what they did afterwards, when they said, ‘Someone at the front, go to the back of the room and see what you can learn from them’,” the participant said. “It was almost like you were being used as, ‘let these poor underprivileged people share their experience’ – it was a step way too far for me.”
They added that their cohort’s relative lack of diversity often led to BAME students feeling pressure in discussions to “give the whole perspective of every single person of every race other than white”.
Frontline’s commitments on participant diversity
- Introducing regional recruitment targets to ensure participants better reflect the local communities they serve.
‘It was there you go, we’ve ticked that off’
People we spoke to also said that specific incidents of racism had not been tackled robustly enough. Several mentioned an evening event at the most recent summer institute in 2019, during which one white participant made a racist comment to a Black peer.
Later that evening, interviewees said, another white participant made a derogatory joke about Africa over a karaoke mic when the Toto song of that name came on, causing widespread offence and leading to complaints being made.
Despite Frontline staff being present this behaviour went unchallenged by them on the night, Black participants said. Some added that while Frontline did arrange ad-hoc sessions to discuss racism, these felt perfunctory. “[It was] there you go, that will do, we’ve ticked that off,” said one.
Participants also linked this to programme content scheduled in response to the incident. Some felt a further opportunity to address the issue – a screening of the film The Hate U Give about the police shooting of a young Black man – was squandered due to it being shown in the evening and billed as an optional session, which few white participants attended.
This contrasted, they said, with I, Daniel Blake – a film focusing on poverty – being screened during a mandatory morning session. “You think, hold on, we can give away a whole morning for [one issue] but can’t do the same for the structural racism affecting our lives on a daily basis,” one participant said.
Beyond the academic sphere, two participants from different cohorts said their consultant social worker – a role based in host local authorities, but recruited by Frontline, in charge of a four-person ‘unit’ of trainees – behaved in a racially discriminatory way, or had let racism from other professionals go unchallenged.
Participants, who requested further details be withheld in case their identities were revealed, said complaints had been passed up the chain but were not dealt with in a proactive or timely manner.
Frontline’s commitments on supporting participants and responding to racism
- Creating content for the consultant social worker (CSW) training programme to support CSWs talk with greater confidence about race and racism.
- Setting an expectation for more open dialogue on race and of anti-racism for those starting programmes this summer.
- In addition to formal processes, introducing a safe, informal system for those on our programmes and employees to raise any experiences of discriminatory behaviour.
- Extending its wellbeing offer to explicitly cover those who have experienced trauma associated with racism and other types of discrimination.
Staff and leadership diversity
Finally, Community Care heard concerns about the lack of racial diversity among Frontline’s staffing and leadership, a point MacAlister also drew attention to in his statement.
“As a senior leadership team, we need to educate ourselves, listen and seek out other voices. I know you want to see more diversity at the top of your organisation.
“We will do more to invite greater input from Black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues to join leadership meetings and create ways for them to actively contribute to the leadership of the organisation. I remain committed to hiring Black, Asian or minority ethnic people onto the senior team.”
Frontline’s commitments on staffing
- Invest more in attracting BAME background candidates and ensure that at least one makes it to the shortlist stage for roles with Frontline.
- Introduce sessions for all employees to better understand microaggressions, stereotypes and how to actively be anti-racist.
- Provide mentorship or coaching for BAME employees who want to progress to more senior positions either within or outside of Frontline.
People we spoke to for this article stressed that efforts to improve diversity among staff – as well as among trainees – needed to go beyond setting targets, which could be seen as tokenistic, and encompass a systematic change in approach. “It’s about making it an organisation Black and minority ethnic people actively want to come to,” said one.
Their comments were echoed by Claudia Bernard, a professor of social work at Goldsmiths, University of London and specialist in equality and diversity issues in social work education. “It is encouraging that Frontline has set out its racial diversity and inclusion action plan – but as we know, the real work starts when organisations begin to translate good intentions into concrete actions if they are to become truly anti-racist providers,” she said. “Failing that, the statement of commitment is simply performative.”
‘We can and must do more to confront racism head on
In a response to this article, Frontline’s deliver director, Lisa Hackett, said the organisation “can, and must do more to confront racism head on”.
“We have been making efforts over recent years to improve our racial diversity and inclusion internally as an organisation and across all areas of our programmes. This includes increasing the amount of support available to participants and implementing processes to remove any bias from our recruitment and selection. We have made progress in some areas, and our 2020 cohort is the most diverse yet with an increase in the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic participants to 22% in line with the profession.
“In other areas we have made less progress, and we’re working to do better. Specifically, we have not been explicit enough in talking about race, or been good enough at creating space for and supporting participants, CSWs and staff to open up conversations.
“These conversations can be hard, and uncomfortable. We know that white privilege is damaging and pervasive and that as a result people make comments based on assumptions rooted in racism. Rather than pretend this won’t happen, its essential that when it does, we create a space and environment that is protective, responsive, restorative and educative. On occasions where issues have arisen, we have responded, taken action and facilitated discussion. We are clear that such behaviour is not acceptable.”
Hackett said the action plan was designed “to make our workplaces, programmes and communities inclusive”, and that it was committed “to working alongside our partners and the wider profession to be part of the solution” to the “major racial disparities” in children’s social care.
Hard questions for the sector
While the issues reported to us relate specifically to Frontline, it is worth stressing that the issues relating to CSWs occurred in local authority settings, and that organisations across social work are having to review their approach to race and how they support staff and service users from BAME groups.
Moreover, the criticisms of Frontline, and its response to them, come with a wider spotlight being shone on race in UK social work in the light of George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter protests that have followed. Here is how some of the key organisations are responding:
PCFSW Network: ‘Quality markers needed to tackle systemic racism’
In response to this article, Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network chair Claudia Megele said: “Recognising the need for more systemic and wider action, we have organised an anti-racist sub-group and are working in collaboration with the Department for Education and Social Work England to discuss key issues and actions we would like to drive forward.”
“We recognise that racism and inequality impact all spheres of life including but not limited to social work education and training; the National Assessment and Accreditation System; practice; leadership and workforce development.
“We believe that change should go beyond tokenistic actions such as nominating a representative of black, Asian or other minority groups on various boards or management organisations; although these are necessary actions, they are hardly sufficient. There is need for a change in our thinking and approach to address the systemic, institutional and structural racism and inequality that beset out society and therefore, we propose the adoption of quality markers that address systems of power that support continuity of status quo and in order to ensure fundamental and sustainable change institutional and structural priorities to issues of race and inequality in society.”
The PCFSW has also published a separate statement in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Think Ahead: ‘Doing everything we can to be true to our anti-racist values’
Frontline’s fellow fast-track provider, Think Ahead, has also faced questions about its level of racial diversity: self-reported figures for its 2017 cohort showed that 16% of its 2017 cohort were from BAME groups, well below the proportion for university postgraduate courses.
Its chief executive officer, Ella Joseph, said: “We recently committed to reviewing our work, including by listening to and learning from people who are involved in our programme, and this process is well underway. For example, we’ve held meetings with our participant diversity and inclusion groups, and have started changing things in light of the constructive feedback we got – including in the texts we refer to across our curriculum.
“Over the summer, we will be doing similar reviews with our alumni and our service user and carer reference group. Discussions and formal training sessions continue for our head office staff – all of whom are committed to doing everything we can to make Think Ahead true to its anti-racist values.”
ADCS: ‘There are not enough BAME directors’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) declined to comment for this piece – pointing out that Frontline had set out its stall for improvement – but directed us to a statement on racism and discrimination made on 16 June by its president, Jenny Coles.
“It’s important [our workforce] reflects our local communities and that the children we work with see that a career in children’s services is not beyond their reach, yet there are not enough black and ethnic minority directors across the country,” Coles said, alluding to a recent ADCS report showing that 94% of DCSs identify as white British, compared with 78% of the statutory children’s social work workforce.
“Supporting anyone who is working in children’s services to progress to senior and leadership roles, if they want to, continues to be a priority for local authorities and the Association. We each have a responsibility to stand up for change and to challenge ourselves and each other to do more if we are to achieve a fairer, more tolerant and equal society,” she added.