Race Equality and Diversity: Social Work Teaching at Middlesex University
Middlesex University is an international university with a clear vision for its teaching and research to change lives locally, nationally and globally. Promoting diversity and social mobility are at the core of the university’s activities in accordance with the Widening Participation agenda; a key strand of the UK government’s Higher Education (HE) policy, which aims to increase the participation of groups that are under-represented in HE.
The University’s survey data from 2019/20 suggests that 9% of its students have a disability, 47% are over the age of 21 years on starting their course, 58% are female and 69% describe themselves as being from a BAME (the term used in the survey), background. For staff, 4% declared a disability, with 29% from a BAME background.
The writers of this paper acknowledge the debates around the term ‘BAME’ (Banton, 1987 & Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities 2021). The term will only be used in this paper when necessary i.e. because it was used in a third party document; otherwise the term ‘People [or students] of colour’ (POC/SOC), will be used.
The social work team at Middlesex is proud of the diversity of its students, and see it as something which enhances students’ learning. However, the light that the darkness of George Floyd’s murder has ironically shed on all areas of life, has meant that the staff - as have all individuals in society, have had to re-examine their attitudes about, and behaviour towards, POC, and to critically reflect on how and how much, POC are reflected in the curriculum.
The team considered how far the curriculum promoted anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice, two of the pillars of social work (Keating, 2000 and BASW Code of Ethics2021). This paper will share some examples of adaptations made to the curriculum that have created more opportunities for SOC to be able to share their experiences with staff and peers. It was a key strategic aim for the team that the changes to the curriculum were not tokenistic, but rather were changes based on genuine reflection on how far students could see themselves and the wider world, in the curriculum.
Two colleagues, set up a curriculum review working group open to all students on one of the MA Social Work programmes. Student engagement in this was limited however, perhaps due to the accelerated nature of the programme and the competing demands on student time. Interestingly, several students also reported that as they did not identify as being a POC nor did they self-identify with diversity or difference, hence they felt it was inappropriate to have a voice on such issues.
Developing a Difference and Diversity Repository
The lack of engagement with the process of review raised questions around how some students saw themselves and their personal and professional relationship to diversity and difference and how this might impact on anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive and anti-racist practice. The team felt strongly that the responsibility and ownership of diversity and difference should not fall to SOC or to those who identified as belonging to a minoritised group. It was felt that the programme and students generally would benefit from more overtly addressing content that addressed power, privilege and from engaging with ideas of allyship (Reason et al, 2005).
We began by developing additional asynchronous teaching that specifically addressed:
- Power and privilege during the initial ‘readiness for direct practice’ teaching period of four weeks
- Tasks including reflective posts, where students were required to reflect on the teaching content and engage in social analysis through the response to two other posts from their peers. This level of reflection and analysis are central to critical social work education (Gates et al, 2021).
- The history of colonialism in the context of mental health services and a subsequent lecture on anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice.
- A shifted focus to further support allegiance with oppressed and disadvantaged communities and strengthened the concept of allyship to social justice and social work practice (Gibson, 2014).
Another new feature brought into the curriculum has been a ‘Diversity and Difference Repository’. The strategy was to offer students the opportunity to engage in dialogue on how content related to ideas of social justice, systemic oppression and economic disadvantage and consequently underpinned the development of anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive and anti-racist practices. The context was structured to offer reflection on key themes such as:
- Power and Privilege
- Race and Ethnicity
The repository included:
- Research articles
- opinion pieces by international authors
The resource has been well-received by students and staff alike and has brought about richer conversations with students about systemic discrimination and oppression, and about the role of the social work profession in addressing inequality in a stratified way. The team intends to evaluate students’ awareness of these concepts, particularly of allyship, considering many of the white students initially thought that as they were not SOC, they had little to contribute.
The team is aware that for social justice to truly be experienced, it requires everyone from all backgrounds to recognise and accept they have a part to play in implementing it. The Ally Model ‘…provides an approach to social justice built on social identity’ (Gibson, 2014, p.199), and will be key in addressing how the team works with its students. Soon, short videos featuring the teaching team will be created which will offer perspectives on what identity, privilege and allyship mean to them. The videos are intended to help students reflect on their own position on these topics and how that position relates to diversity and difference. It is hoped this will contribute to students developing an understanding of being, and perhaps seeing themselves as, an ally – members of a dominant social group working to break down systems that oppress minoritized groups (Reason et al, 2005).
Interprofessional Learning- Black Lives Matters teaching and discussion forums
Two live virtual sessions entitled ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) were also added to the curriculum. The sessions were included as part of the Faculty’s Interprofessional Learning sessions, which see students from across the Faculty participate in virtual sessions on different topics that intersect with the subject areas of the Faculty (nursing, midwifery, social work and education). The insertion of the BLM sessions was due to the felt need for students to have a forum to speak as they wished about their own experiences of day to day and professional life as part of a racialized group/community. Cane (2021) in his study with social work students on ‘racially disruptive teaching pedagogies’, wrote that there was “…need for additional and brave reflective spaces that disrupt racial segregation and foster a better understanding about race…” (p.1) It was hoped the IPL sessions would do just that. They were a powerful opportunity for SOC, giving them the opportunity to speak on their terms about their experiences of being visibly different in predominantly white spaces.
There was appetite from students for the sessions, with attendance significantly higher at over one hundred, than would usually be expected. There were likely many different reasons for the increased interest – the rare opportunity for SOC to share their experiences was probably a factor. The Middlesex context was also important - specifically the fact that many of the students could identify with the concerns that had been expressed about the unusually high number of Covid-19 deaths of people within the British Black and minority ethnic population (Platt and Warwick, 2020). With many of the attendees being student nurses, this was a phenomenon very close to their practice concerns, especially as one Black nursing student in his first year of mental health nursing sadly passed away with Covid-19.
The BLM sessions presented an opportunity to share some startling statistics on the racial disparities between ‘BAME’ and White people in education, health and social work. For example, BAME families are more likely to live in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities (Barnard and Turner, 2011 and Bernard, 2019) and BAME staff are disproportionately represented in NHS disciplinary proceedings (Archibong et al, 2019).
Employers are an important source of placements for the Faculty’s students – many of whom once they have completed their studies, go on to work with these employers in qualified roles. In fact, some of the guests who attended the IPL sessions were Middlesex alumni, having studied the very same courses as some of the attendees. This made the sessions even more impactful with the discussions encompassing qualified staff from across England, and with some of those staff being Middlesex graduates. This is also an example of the University’s strategy as mentioned at the start of this paper, in action – creating communities of practice intended to bring together staff, students and employers/practitioners to collaborate and drawing on different perspectives and skills to generate improvements in social justice and cultural competence.
Although Middlesex has a diverse study body, the racialised nature of higher education in the UK and the disparities that arise are still present. One such disparity is the ‘degree awarding gap’- the difference in the number of white and BAME students awarded a good degree (a first or upper-second), which was 9.9% in 2019/20 according to Advance HE, a British charity working with institutions across the world to improve higher education. This UK-wide gap is present even after controlling for individual, course-specific and institutional characteristics. The figure for Middlesex is 9% (Office for Students, 2021).
In the UK, SOC have reported experiences of being ‘othered’ by White people as noted in the ‘I too am Oxford’ project, inspired by the 2014 ‘I, too, am Harvard’ initiative, a platform for Black and Asian students to share their feelings of being ‘othered’ by the majority White students. While Middlesex is ethnically diverse, the same cannot always be said for the organisations and wider communities in which students work and/or live. The students’ experiences shared during the sessions of being ‘othered’ by White people, feeling ‘less than’ and wondering if they were capable, were sad, shocking (to some) and sadly, plentiful. To continue to give those students a voice, below are some extracts of what they said:
“I feel like at workplaces black people are given complex cases with minimum support only to prove a point/exposing them to failure”.
“Fear has covered many of us”.
“I am student on placement and because I am African woman with an accent, I was told that I don't know how to communicate by a white person. It has shocked me as I am in my final year. If I was not communicating well, how did I pass all previous placements?”
It became apparent, that the SOC not only valued, but needed a space where they could safely talk about their experiences. Initially, students were reluctant to talk, but as one student started, it appeared to empower others which led to more and more being shared. Students seemed to find some comfort and security in knowing that they were not alone in what they were going through and what they felt. This reflects the findings of Arday et al (2021), who found that classroom discussions on race are a method to support minority ethnic students with their day-to-day struggles with institutional racism.
Some of the feedback at the end of the sessions also confirmed the usefulness of the space to talk:
“This was a fantastic session today and it feels like people were just waiting for an opportunity to speak out. It's like the elephant in the room…”
“We should have more of this session because it’s an ongoing issue with minority groups”
The curriculum planning and delivery changes above demonstrate how some of the action that has been taken by social work academics at Middlesex University, stimulated debate about the everyday experiences of racism experienced by students and service users, leading to new approaches to practice. The concept of allyship (Reason, 2005) has been a key concept in the work undertaken and ongoing in the curriculum. Relevant upcoming work to be undertaken by colleagues within the team includes, research with Black and mixed-race boys and diversion from youth custody approaches, plus a mentorship programme where Black and Asian students are connected to social work practitioners and managers from among the team’s stakeholder group.
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Arday, J., Belluigi, D.Z., and Thomas, D. (2021.) Attempting to break the chain: Reimaging inclusive pedagogy and decolonising the curriculum within the academy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 53, 3, 298–313
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