After improvements in local government training and recruitment, why aren’t there more BME social workers?
Like many readers, my heart leapt when I saw that Stephen Lawrence’s killers had been found guilty. The family’s campaign for justice, and the McPherson Inquiry they prompted, have changed forever how we treat racism.
We should welcome that progress. But a serious look at social work suggests we still have a long way to go before we have a level playing field for black and minority social workers – let alone service users.
Equality is at the heart of social work practice; it is embedded in the GSCC Code of Practice, and in the training of social workers, as well as in the primary legislation that guides social work, including the Children Act 1989, Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998.
It is widely accepted that good practice is more likely if the workforce itself is reflective of the service users or wider population, and is treated in employment in ways that demonstrate a commitment to equality.
Selection and training of social workers
The disadvantage faced by BME pupils prior to reaching HE is well recorded. Ethnic minority students experience less favourable outcomes in respect of offers, attrition and progression rates (including drop out and deferrals).
Just one British black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. As David Lammy writes: “That is not a misprint: one student. Merton College, Oxford, has not admitted a single black student for five years. At Robinson College, Cambridge, a white applicant is four times more likely to be successful than a black applicant.”
The Ethnicity, Gender and Degree Attainment Project concluded that race was a significant contributor to degree attainment, a finding confirmed by King’s College London’s report Variations in Progression of Social Work Students in England.
The employment and treatment of social workers
The NHS has long recognised the significance of race in employment, with comprehensive data suggesting there is systematic discrimination in shortlisting, appointment, promotion, treatment and (inevitably, therefore) occupational and grading stratification.
There is no similar data for social workers, even though local authorities have been required, as part of their statutory equality duty, to monitor some aspects of equality within employment.
One source of data is the Local Government Earnings Survey 2010/11, which found that 8.2% of the local government workforce in England and Wales were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, but only 2% of top earners. While some councils are working hard to improve matters, the majority are not. Anecdotally, the number of senior social work managers from BME backgrounds is relatively small.
As a trade union official, I request figures from time to time from the equality monitoring data for individual councils. The limited local data I have had access to shows three trends.
Firstly, there is an “ethnic employment pyramid that concentrates BME staff in lower grades. In the NHS, BME staff are screened out at the shortlisting and interview stages of recruitment and the limited data I have suggests a similar pattern in social work.
Secondly, where BME staff were investigated under disciplinary procedures they were more likely than other staff to proceed to a hearing, receive a first written warning, receive a final written warning or to be dismissed.
Thirdly, BME staff are disproportionately more likely to be referred to the General Social Care Council (GSCC) than other staff. It is not possible to draw precise conclusions as to why this is, since until recently there was no systematic analysis of whether ethnic origin is a factor in GSCC conduct proceedings.
Justice at last for the Lawrence family is brilliant, and we have made real progress in this country in the past two decades on the workplace treatment of BME staff. But we still have a long way to go.