Black and ethnic minority children’s social workers face disproportionately high rates of failure in the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), Skills for Care figures have revealed.
In 2018-19, they accounted for 53% of ASYE fails, despite making up just 26% of those registered under the programme; white social workers accounted for 47% of fails and 60% of registrants, Skills for Care’s annual report on the 2020-21 programme said.
The figures, which Skills for Care dubbed “very concerning”, provide evidence for longstanding concerns that black and ethnic minority practitioners are disadvantaged through the ASYE process.
In its report, it said its visits to employers during 2020-21, as part of its oversight of the programme, identified examples of good practice in ensuring an inclusive ASYE, including having a focus on recruiting men from ethnically diverse backgrounds and carrying out risk assessments for staff from black and ethnic minority groups.
Less attention on social workers’ lived experience
However, the report added: “Most programmes, however, appear more reactive, offering robust responses when a problem is identified, but not monitoring experience or delving deeply into the causes…There is a sense that the focus is on equipping NQSWs with the skills and knowledge to work inclusively with service users. While this is clearly vitally important, there appears to be less attention given to the lived experience of social workers from BAME backgrounds going through the ASYE and to pre-empting disadvantages where these may occur. ”
The workforce development body, which the Department for Education funds to support employers in delivering in the programme and oversee the quality assurance process, said: “This is a serious finding, and most employers acknowledge that there is work for them to do in embedding proactive approaches to overcoming inequalities and addressing systemic racism.”
NQSWs from black and ethnic minority groups gave a mixed picture of their experience of the programme in 2020-21. Some were positive about the appreciation of their cultural knowledge and language skills, but others questioned caseload allocations and “mistaken assumptions that because a worker is from a particular ethnic community, they are the “go to” expert”.
At least one raised concerns about not feeling able to make complaints about experiencing racism from either service users or within the workplace because of implications for their assessment outcome.
‘Wider challenge in addressing anti-racist practice’
“This is indicative of the wider challenge in addressing anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice across the whole workforce. It should not therefore be seen merely as a problem within ASYE programme activity.”
The report called on employers to:
- Ensure that NQSWs and supervisors have the necessary training and support to enable them to call out racist practices.
- Ensure that NQSWs from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are linked into peer support groups if this is their choice.
- Encourage “hard to have” conversations, where individuals are not afraid to say the wrong thing and learn from the ensuing dialogue, take place at the outset of the ASYE and keep them on supervision and team meeting agendas throughout.
- Consider how to capture and analyse data around ethnicity, recruitment, achievement and attrition, and incorporate this, along with feedback from NQSWs, into the quality assurance process.
- Ask how the ASYE programme can develop an ethos of allyship, and what more action you can take to tackle conscious and unconscious biases that result in black and ethnic minority NQSWs having worse outcomes than white colleagues on the programme.
Skills for Care said it would be undertaking more detailed analysis of the issue in its oversight of the 2021-22 programme.
Its head of regulated professional workforce, Graham Woodham, said: “We are currently undertaking a further detailed analysis of the protected characteristics data we have for NQSWs and will be developing an action plan over the next few weeks. We have already begun to have some of the difficult, ‘awkward’ conversations about racial inequalities with ASYE programmes.”
‘Diversity matters because representation matters’
Social Workers Union general secretary John McGowan said the findings on the failure rates in 2018-19 were “extremely alarming” and required further analysis and assessment.
Association of Directors of Children’s Services vice president Steve Crocker said: “That BAME NQSWs experience disproportionally higher failure rates than their white counterparts is a serious and worrying finding that employers will be seeking to address. Diversity in the workplace matters because representation matters, this is true for both direct work with families and at a senior level. It is also important for children and young people to see that they too can aspire to a career in children’s services by seeing themselves reflected in the professionals who have such an important impact on their lives.
“We must therefore do all we can to not only encourage diversity within our workforce but also to create a culture that allows everyone to reach their full potential.”
He said this continued to be a focus for the ADCS’s workforce committee, which promoted use of The Staff College’s cultural competence toolkit to improve diversity.
Last year’s ASYE was severely affected by Covid-19 and Skills for Care said this was likely to have accounted for a 10% drop in staff being registered on the programme, compared with 2019-20.
While employers mostly conformed to the ASYE framework in delivering their programmes, Skills for Care found that “several of the organisations we visited have been challenged to fully maintain previous standards and meet the needs of the NQSWs, especially those who started their employment in the middle of a lockdown”.
NQSWs reported that, in some cases, a failure to prioritise the ASYE had led to them facing increased and more complex caseloads – beyond recommended levels – less supervision, fewer learning opportunities and less priority being given to ASYE reviews.
The biggest issue faced by NQSWs was isolation, while Skills for Care also found graduates lost confidence in their abilities to perform the role and worried about being a burden on their colleagues, as they lost out on opportunities to assimilate knowledge informally in the office environment.
However, the report found that employers had worked hard to prioritise NQSWs’ wellbeing – including through relaxation sessions, effective use of social media and online celebration events – and to ensure they did not miss out by starting their career during a pandemic.
In some cases, working from home had also provided learning opportunities, such as attendance at court proceedings and being able to shadow a wider range of multi-agency meetings.
Variation in support
On the impact of Covid-19, Crocker, for the ADCS, said: “This year has been particularly difficult for those entering the workforce and employers have been working hard, putting in place measures to help with their development and wellbeing. Being in a team environment can be an essential part of an NQSW’s learning and so in the absence of this it is encouraging to see examples where employers have replicated this informal learning experience, such as through buddying.
“However, we recognise there has inevitably been variation across the country. This is in part because the programme is employer-led and therefore the approaches taken are largely informed by the local context.”