Eighteen councils have been chosen to pilot an equality standard designed to tackle “institutional racism” in social work, from April of this year.
The chief social workers for adults, who are overseeing the pilot, said the authorities would be helping the sector “better understand the reality of being a non-white employee in social care, both through data and the sharing of personal experience”.
The authorities piloting the workforce race equality standard (WRES) – an initiative that has already been implemented in the NHS – are a mixture of London boroughs (seven), city-based authorities (six) and counties (five), and the standard will apply across adults’ and children’s services.
In a blog post announcing the chosen councils, joint chief social worker Mark Harvey and the chiefs’ policy advisor, Nimal Jude, looked back to a 2017 report by the Adult Principal Social Worker Network that found very low levels of Black and ethnic minority people in leadership roles in the sector.
Harvey and Jude said: “The report as good as stated that institutional racism was present and staring us in the face. Surely a call to action would follow and change would happen. Even if it took a few years, surely the journey would start? Sadly, the pace and visible action has, if we are honest, hardly set the world on fire.”
While the idea of a WRES for local authority social care employers emerged in 2019, Harvey and Jude said the sharpened focus on race within the profession following the killing of George Floyd “highlighted the need to progress this work now more than ever”.
They said the methodology for the WRES would be tested over the year-long pilot, during which the authorities involved would produce local action plans and facilitate a national report.
While Black and ethnic minority practitioners are well-represented in the profession – accounting for 25% of adults’ services practitioners, 22% of children’s social workers and 18% of NHS mental health practitioners in England, compared with population representation of 14% – there are concerns that representation in some areas is not reflective of the communities served by the profession.
In addition, the proportion of Black and ethnic minority practitioners in senior levels of management is far lower than at the front line, while concerns have also been raised about the disproportionate representation of Black social workers in agency work, including in relation to how they have been treated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Representational issues have also been raised among the student population, with significant inequalities between different training routes, ranging from 36% on university postgraduate and undergraduate courses to 22% and 17%, respectively, on the latest cohorts of fast-track providers Frontline and Think Ahead, though these are their highest rates yet.
Fitness to practise has also come under the spotlight with Social Work England saying Black and ethnic minority social workers are disproportionately subject to investigations, though it does not have data as yet on what happens to them once they are within the system.
In the NHS, all commissioners and providers – including independent organisations – are required to implement the WRES through the NHS standard contract. An annual report is published on the NHS WRES, containing data and trends on Black and ethnic minority representation in the workforce, at senior level and on NHS boards, and the relative likelihood of staff from minority groups being shortlisted for roles, being subject to disciplinary procedures and accessing non-mandatory training, compared with white staff.