De-colonising social work: Changing perspectives (SWEARN)
This paper is a brief analysis of the discussions on de-colonising social work, held by a UK based network committed to anti-racist social work practice: the Social Work Education Anti-Racist Network (SWEARN). The debates took place during 2020-2022, a period when a global pandemic took grip of the UK and profession suffered losses, learned new ways of working and felt isolated from service users and students. Dependence on technology and social media intensified, brought new challenges but also eased communication across the world.
The developments below were partly triggered by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which itself reignited interest in racism arguably because of the traumatising effect of Covid-19. The work of SWEARN, however, is on-going as members hold responsibilities as academic and professional leaders based in universities, policy making bodies and provider organisations across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The thread which holds the group is a shared commitment to global understandings of anti-racist practice framed within professional standards and principles of social justice along with the idea that social work can be improved by the inclusion of decolonising principles, practices, policies and procedures.
SWEARN is an established but unregulated network of people holding strategic positions, who meet regularly at action-based meetings with the ultimate aim to improve the experiences of service users, carers and experts by experience, principally through a critique of policy and procedure.
The national debate created by BLM during 2020-2022 led to an appreciation that the time was right for intensive change, particularly in areas where influence was limited. Initiatives took place across the four countries of the UK which, at many levels, work unilaterally as regional governments but lack the critical mass and population numbers to sustain anti-racist practice. Coalitions and collaborations gathered to enable capacity and strength across geographic boundaries, informed by colleagues working across the globe.
In the interests of efficiency there was agreement that the short-term focus would be on barriers and equality gaps in relation to under-represented voices underpinned by relevant theories, models and research methods.
SWEARN enabled the sharing of good practice and a log of activity which included, for example, the employment of equality, diversity and inclusion leads in local government and race equality student advocates in higher education. Members contributed to cross organisational developments such as the zero-tolerance statement on anti-racism led by the British Association of Social Workers and the Workforce Race Equality Standard in Social Care (WRES - SC). Colleagues in Scotland joined ranks to influence developments and planned events such as an international conference on anti-racist practice.
This paper is a tribute to social work academics and practitioners committed to gaining and building connections to maintain a focus anti-racism particularly during times of crisis and challenge.
Black Lives Matter
With BLM in the background SWEARN sought to influence the strategic aims of employer organisations underpinned by theories relating to anti-racism, black perspectives, intersectionality, whiteness and white privilege.
Anti-racist practice is rooted in universal principles of racial equality and social justice (Bhatti-Sinclair, 2011). Black perspectives in social work stem from the shared experience of racism and powerlessness both past and present (Naik, 1995).
BLM offered an opportunity to revisit and re-define anti-racist social work in a legitimate manner and, more widely, re-energise the public sector into recruiting equality officers and collecting data on racism. However, closer scrutiny highlighted a continuing tendency for local and national government to promote moral positioning rather than whole systems change. Moral positioning can be linked to gesture politics, defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘any action by a person or organisation done for political reasons and intended to attract public attention rather than having little real effect’. Although the energy and enthusiasm of the BLM movement continues (Samuels and Olorunnipa, The Guardian Newspaper, 25 May 2022) overt campaigning has diminished along with the threat of the pandemic.
The work on de-colonising social work practice has impacted on educational partnerships between universities and local authorities. There is a demonstratable commitment to the learning journey of the social work student from the point of entry to a well organised and delivered newly qualified year in supervised and assessed practice. Social work graduates see the newly qualified year as gateway to status and income and many, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, believe that their experience of poverty will end at this point. However, the experience of black and overseas students suggests that the bar to enter the profession is higher for them than for other graduates.
Entry into the profession does guarantee long term success as early career social workers face a cliff edge when management support falls away and the realities of practice became real. The retention of experienced professionals remains a significant concern for all employers leading to an increasing number recruiting social workers from overseas countries. This is ethically dubious as such opportunities are, in the main, taken up by professionals from poorer areas of the world with the ultimate result that the countries of origin lose them and their skills.
A sustainable workforce strategy should focus on recruiting British workers from black and minority ethnic groups but this would require institutional commitment on meeting equality gaps and hearing under-represented voices. In a post pandemic era strategic attention is diverted to the crisis facing the public sector and the poorest in society. Students are rarely seen as poor but in social work they are amongst the poorest groups, particularly if they are not in receipt of higher education subsidies, Government bursaries and/or are from overseas backgrounds.
The UK is hierarchical in that the four governments control the development of public sector policy although Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold some powers through their regional assemblies. In historical terms the awareness of the part played by the English in the suppression of the Scottish identity and the Welsh language is embedded in British culture. Differential access to resources and overwhelming differences in population numbers means that the power is held in London, the national capital.
Modern day colonialism is also evidenced by Northern Ireland which, due to disagreement amongst political parties, continues to be governed by Downing Street. The Northern Irish experience remains centre stage in the post-Brexit negotiations with a real possibility of a merger with the Republic of Ireland. The loss of Northern Ireland may lead to the dismantling of the British Isles if taken further by a vote for an independent Scotland (Savage, 15 May 2022). Public opinion is critical to such developments and has roots in historical differences between the four countries.
SWEARN members discussed colonialism with a heightened awareness that as citizens of the UK we have part to play in the history and modern-day impact of colonial power and, therefore, the notion of de-colonisation requires a complex and nuanced response to the past and the present.
Second or third generation citizenship, particularly of England, requires personal scrutiny of possible complicity in oppressive histories bearing in mind that colonisation is a process based on exchange, trade, sexual relationships, inter-marriage, power and privilege. Divide and rule and strategic alliances continue to be considered critical to success and the colonised can also be the colonisers benefitting from colonisation.
In common with all human experience colonising discourses are rooted in the distortion of the reality of the experience of the colonised, reinforced by knowledge, power and privilege. Discussions on colonial experiences must be beyond colour, ethnicity or other racial identification and, in the context of the UK, parallel with cultural heritage from across the globe. Intersectionality means that individuals can identify as different at a number of levels including working class, older, disabled and/or LGBTQI+. Racial hierarchies can include established immigrants who are seen as better educated, wealthier, embedded in society and valued by employers.
Social work’s employment practices require ethnic monitoring but, within such organisations, discrimination can be greater and deeper for newly arrived immigrants or refugees suggesting a hierarchy of acceptability based on citizenship and the capacity to relate in a culturally appropriate manner. Within higher education international students are tested more than home students in admissions processes whilst receiving little in the way of public funding. The poverty-based qualifying experience can end with some employers blocking access to newly qualified social worker routes because of visa restrictions.
The debate on gathering evidence of racism remains live amongst those who question meanings and seek concrete answers to complex questions. Others suggest that research is held by the majority elite and tends to re-formulate knowledge rooted in white privilege. Action-based practice develops cross sector change, however, learning about sensitive and highly charged areas of practice is essential for social workers who fear accusations of racism and, as a result, demonstrate a general lack of professional curiosity about cultural diversity.
Change and development
Strategic approaches to addressing discriminatory barriers gaps led to many examples of good practice by social work organisations, including the recruitment of equality officers. Academic leaders also examined curricula content for bias and prejudice alongside applicability and relevance to the socio-economic profile of increasingly diverse and global student body.
An important aim of social work education is to ensure that the profession is valued in the same way as medicine or law in the UK. This is a key driver for members of SWEARN who are acutely aware of the lack of investment in public sector services and the increasingly competitive resource base of higher education. Although organisations such as the National Institute of Health Research is targeting social work, there is continuing focus on an elite group of universities who dominate the sector. Social work rarely attracts the same funding as other subjects and the top universities tend not to educate social workers or employ social work academics. Although the staffing figures are difficult to verify the number of Black professors in English universities number fewer than 10 in 79 universities delivering social work programmes in England.
More positively, most social work students benefit from an overwhelming commitment to high educational standards and availability of good resources, libraries and study materials with a focus on student led assessments and, for one university, digital skills and environmental issues. The learning journey is perceived as an empowering process which includes close collaboration between academics, service users and professionals on teaching, assessment, research and development.
The pandemic curtailed significant developments but also offered greater opportunities to react to triggers such as BLM. The 2020-2022 period will not be seen as progressive or transformative, partly because it is tinged with sadness at the disproportionate loss of social workers who steadfastly pursued their daily duties to the end. The Covid-19 student generation, some of whom are about to graduate in 2022, are likely to remember their studies as distanced and isolated from their peers and educators. However, within such a crisis-based environment the profession continued to function, using all available openings to pursue anti-racist practice, whilst retaining its strategic commitment to staffing, academic curriculum, data gathering and workforce needs within the overarching aim of remaining current and relevant.
SWEARN members demonstrated the value of networking and collaboration in the pursuance of principles at a time of heightened emotional distress. The group has raised awareness of colonisation, challenged organisational practices and demonstrated the importance of reflecting on what the concept means for individual, institutional and societal change.
Bhatti-Sinclair, K. (2011) Anti-Racist Practice in Social Work, Palgrave Macmillan.
Naik, D. (March 1995), An Examination of Social Work Education, Setting the Context for Change, Northern Curriculum Development Project, CCETSW.
Savage, M. (15 May 2022) The Guardian Newspaper, Scottish support for monarchy falls to 45%, poll reveals - Widening rift on retaining the royals is revealed ahead of Queen’s platinum jubilee, theguardian.com
Samuels, R. and Olorunnipa, T., (25 May 2022), The Guardian Newspaper, What would George Floyd’s life have looked like without the crushing weight of racism? theguardian.com