Findings that black, male and 40-plus social workers are overrepresented in fitness to practise processes have raised questions about the impact of discrimination in the sector.
The three groups were not only overrepresented in concerns referred to Social Work England but also in cases that reached the hearings stage.
The findings were based on an analysis of diversity data supplied to the regulator by 94% of registered practitioners from 2021-23, along with fitness to practice referrals received since Social Work England started work in December 2019.
In those, black social workers made up one in three cases referred to a hearing, despite comprising one in six registered practitioners.
Still, Social Work England urged caution when looking at the findings, as the disparities identified did not “necessarily indicate that differences in outcomes are caused by a social worker belonging to a group within a particular characteristic”.
However, more than two-thirds (72%) of practitioners replying to a recent Community Care poll, which amassed 1,049 votes, said discrimination often affected fitness to practise processes.
Only 9% said discrimination played no role, while 12% said it did occasionally.
‘A complex issue’ – Social Work England
During this year’s Community Care Live, Social Work England’s chief executive, Colum Conway, said the regulator would be looking into why such differences were arising and how they could be addressed.
“We haven’t been able to get underneath the cause as yet, but it’s a very complex spectre,” he said. “We’ll certainly do what we can to address why it is that these groups are more likely to end up in a hearing than other groups. Does it go back to the nature of the referral or is it something in our processes that we need to seriously address as well?
“This will be part of the information we feed back into the system, not just here but in education and training and other areas. It’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Conway announced that the next phase of this work would be to delve deeper into the findings, such as breaking them down by geographic areas and specific ethnic groups.
However, he cautioned that that would only be possible if practitioners were as detailed as possible when completing their application to renew their registration this autumn.
“The more complete you can make that process, [the better],” Conway added. “It is individually important for your registration but, for the picture that we are trying to build for those over 100,000 social workers, it is crucial.”
‘I’m wondering whether I’m joining the right profession’
In comments under our article on the issue, the disparity in referral and hearing rates sparked fear and uncertainty, particularly among newly qualified and student social workers who fell within the highlighted demographic groups.
“Reading this is making me worried,” said Andy. “I am 40-plus and black. I am now wondering if I am joining the right profession after reading this report and subsequent reports.”
His worry was echoed by Mike, who also ticked all the boxes in the report.
“I am in the same position as you, Andy. Forty-plus, black, and new to the profession. I’m miles concerned [about] my choice to get into social work. Guess I will have to be guarded as much as possible and hope for the best.”
‘I don’t want to be discriminated against’
Jackie, who has just applied for a training programme to become a social worker, was left contemplating whether she had made the right choice in doing so.
“I innocently want to have a career that affects the lives of families and children [for the better]. I don’t want to be abused or discriminated at or have my career journey be traumatic and full of regrets.”
And while the findings led some students and early career social workers to question their career choice, for some experienced practitioners they were a reason to say goodbye to the profession.
Joseph, who had been through a fitness to practise investigation, said he was looking forward to deregistering this year.
“After my experiences, this data underscores that, with my protected characteristic profile, the risks faced in remaining in the profession far outweigh the benefits. The fitness to practise process is brutal and protracted. I’m fortunate to have regained sanity and better health subsequently.”
“I’m out of here after 25 years too,” said Abdul, who had been referred by someone he didn’t know. “Not worth it. I value my reputation, life and personal time too much.”
‘Prioritise your wellbeing’
One reader, who ticked all the demographics highlighted by Social Work England, had resigned from his employment due to his case being in process for over two years.
“If you are still working during [your fitness to practise investigation], it’s likely psychologically and emotionally very difficult to concentrate on your job – effectively and safely,” he said.
He advised fellow practitioners in similar situations to “stay engaged” and help improve the process whenever possible, but also to prioritise their mental health.
“My immediate advice to anyone directly affected by this process (despite the focused demographics) is to prioritise your wellbeing,” he said.
“Keep calm, assume some self-responsibility and find a friend to confide in. In a high blame culture (public, health and social work, education profession), the complaint issues may not always be about your actions alone.”