Sector leaders have pledged “meaningful change” on racism in social work after launching a survey to uncover the extent of the problem.
The survey asks social workers to report on the extent of racism they have witnessed or experienced at work, how far they think it is a problem in social work and their own organisation and what they think should be done about it.
It has been produced by the Anti-Racist Social Work Steering Group, set up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and led by representatives from the principal social workers networks for children and adults, What Works for Children’s Social Care and Social Work England.
In a video to launch the survey, Social Work England executive directive of strategy, policy and engagement Sarah Blackmore said it was designed to tackle a deficit of data on racism in the profession and pledged that it would result in “meaningful change”.
“One of the issues we’ve really been struck by as a new organisation is the lack of data about social work as a profession…and, really starkly, about who social workers are, where they are and the experiences that they have,” she said.
Blackmore noted that there were reports of social workers experiencing differences and disproportionality because of their background, as well as less opportunity and more frequent disciplinary processes for those from black Asian or ethnic minority groups. She said: “We know this anecdotally, but it’s really important that we build can build an evidence-based picture of what is happening in social work in England.”
Blackmore added: “All too often when media headlines die away, the conversation drops off. The great thing for me about this process is that it really feels like it’s not going to happen this time, and that [the] partnership who created this survey will not allow this to happen, and we are really passionate about and committed to ensuring that there is some real, sustained and meaningful change so social workers have the same opportunities.”
Extent and impact of racism
The survey asks social workers how frequently they have experienced or witnessed racism from colleagues or managers, and service users or families, and also to report on levels of racism directed at families from staff. It also asks people what impact racism has had on them or colleagues, including in relation to their health, work absences, disciplinary action, fitness to practise cases or decisions to leave their organisation or the profession as a whole.
In addition, it questions practitioners on whether they would feel comfortable intervening in racism at work, if they believe their team and organisation are doing enough to address it and what, if anything, their organsation has done
It also calls on practitioners to say what they would like to see done profession-wide to address the issue, such as better training or more black, Asian and ethnic minority social workers in leadership roles
Sharon Davidson, co-chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network, said: “This is the first time that I’ve been aware in my career where we are asking people to talk about their experience of racism and to think about that in a very holistic way. It will challenge us as a sector to really understand how we then address those issues. It’s really important that we lead the way as a profession in terms of understanding and doing something about the information that comes forward.”
Knowns and unknowns
Available data has identified:
- Much lower representation of black and ethnic minority professionals at director of children’s services level, compared with the population as a whole and, in particular, the social work front line.
- Higher failure rates among black and ethnic minority staff on the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) compared with white colleagues.
- Much higher than average representation of black social workers among agency staff.
- Lower representation of black and ethnic minority students on fast-track social work training schemes Frontline and Think Ahead, compared with university courses.
However, evidence on the causes and impact of these disparities has been lacking. In addition, there has been a lack of raw data in other areas where, it has long been claimed, black and ethnic minority practitioners have been discriminated against, such as in relation to disciplinary action.
Notably, while in July 2020, Social Work England said that black and ethnic minority practitioners were disproportionately likely to be referred for fitness to practise action, it did not have precise data. The regulator also said it did not have information on what happened to social workers from black and ethnic minority groups within the fitness to practise system.
In an interview with Community Care last month, Social Work England’s head of equality, diversity and inclusion, Ahmina Akhtar, said that obtaining this data was still a work in progress. This was, in part, because the regulator’s data collection requirements for registered social workers did not cover protected characteristics, such as ethnicity.
To address the lack of data, Social Work England has asked registrants to voluntarily add data on equality and inclusion to their online accounts with the regulator, in an initiative launched alongside the racism survey.
The initiatives are among a number to tackle racism in the profession launched in recent months:
- Eighteen councils are implementing a workforce race equality standard (WRES) initiated by the government’s chief social workers for adults and children. This requires them to report on the proportion of black and ethnic minority staff at different levels of the workforce, comparative rates of disciplinary action, fitness to practise referrals and access to funded training, and the percentage of ethnic minority staff experiencing bullying and harassment, either from colleagues or the public.
- A few councils, including Brighton and Hove and Sutton, have appointed anti-racist practice leads to support work to tackle racism in the workforce and in relation to service delivery.
- British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England professional officer Wayne Reid has led a campaign to raise awareness of racism within social work, in a new role as anti-racism visionary, while BASW has also, separately, appointed an anti-racism lead, Shantel Thomas.
- Social workers and students held a day of action on 19 March this year to call for action to tackle racism within the sector.
Sector leaders outside the steering group welcomed the survey and the regulator’s data collection exercise.
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, said: “It is 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.”
She added: “By collecting equality and diversity data, we hope that Social Work England can gain a better insight into where there may be gaps or trends that need addressing.”
Better data ‘must pave way for change’
Maris Stratulis, BASW England’s national director, said: “We have been calling for a formal process of collating more demographic data of protected characteristics for some time.
Stratulis added: “Better data collection must pave the way for meaningful actions to remedy these disparities. This includes ensuring there is no direct or indirect discrimination in regulatory processes and standards.
“We encourage our members to share their views and experiences on equality, diversity and inclusion with the regulator and look forward to working with Social Work England to provide more protections and support for all social workers of colour.”