“Social workers are well placed to challenge the inequalities that exist within society”

Social Work Today speaks to Ahmina Akhtar, Social Work England’s new head of equality, diversity and inclusion, about how the regulator is confronting charges of racial inequality in fitness to practice hearings and its ambitions for seeing diversity as a broad spectrum.

08/07/21

“Social workers are well placed to challenge the inequalities that exist within society”

The year 2020 saw momentous changes across society due to the pandemic, but it will also be remembered for the tragic murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe which brought racial injustices in all areas to the forefront of conversations.

“This has all happened during COVID and I think because people have had more time to reflect and think about the impact, I’d like to think they have been able to think about what more they can do,” says Ahmina Akhtar, the new head of head of equality, diversity and inclusion for the specialist social work regulator in England.

“I think we recognise that too often when the media headlines die away, sometimes these conversations end. I think there has been a real commitment across social work, and more broadly within society, to really think about making sure that it is impactful.”

Social Work England’s own issues with diversity were highlighted in reports over the Summer with Freedom of Information (FoI) requests showing that Black, Asian and ethnic minority social workers were disproportionately subject to fitness to practise investigations. Additionally, it was found that the panels ultimately making the decisions on social workers’ fitness to practise were, on average, less ethnically diverse than the social work workforce generally.

Akhtar, who was Social Work England’s Regional Engagement Lead for Yorkshire and the Humber at the time of the reports, said she was initially taken by surprise that many inferred there was potentially a race issue within Social Work England.

“I always felt there was a really inclusive environment to Social Work England,” Akhtar said, adding: “it’s been made clear that, in terms of ethnic diversity, that’s an area that Social Work England want to improve on.”

Coming into the role on the back of these reports, Akhtar says there is a lot to do but that results will likely take some time to be realised.

“We’ve released our statement of intent and started to really look at how we can create an action plan that explores how we’re going to achieve the objectives that we’ve highlighted and really be able to ensure that we get a positive outcome.”

“Some of those goals are quite long term and they will take some time for us to see the fruits of that labour. One of my favourite phrases at the moment is: you won’t taste the fruit the day you plant the seed. You have to do the work and it will take time for it to come into fruition.”

Akhtar herself is no stranger to racial inequality, with her commitment to social justice issues being formed by her own upbringing in Lancashire.

“I had a turbulent upbringing in terms of my own home life – but also [the area] was quite segregated. I experienced quite a lot of racism when I was young, and I was quite angry as a child, if I’m honest. I laugh about it now because I manage it really well, but I think when I was young I just wasn’t really sure how to manage it and then I struggled at school.

“I went to a youth centre and then got into supporting young people. I did mentoring, did a lot of work on my own emotional awareness, and supporting other people – I really got a buzz from it and liked doing something meaningful.

“I thought I could potentially do youth work or counselling, but actually it was social work that struck me because I started having conversations with people about the social justice element of social work and I really love that – it’s always been my drive.

Ahmina qualified as a social worker in 2008, completed an MA in Integrated Practice in 2017 and is also a qualified trainer and coach. Before joining Social Work England, her last role was as Senior Practitioner at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Ahmina previously worked for Changing Faces and was pivotal in setting up the first localised support centre outside of London, and establishing clinics throughout Yorkshire and the Humber to offer support to people affected by disfigurement.

“Social work is one of those professions that’s always been aligned with social justice and that’s what really draws me to want to be a social worker. I think we are well placed to be able to challenge the inequalities that exist within society as a profession.”

Akhtar says that getting robust data to inform the organisation’s action plan for equality, diversity and inclusion was at the very top of her agenda when she started the role in May.

“One of the things we’ve acknowledged as a young organisation is the fact there’s a significant lack of data across the board, not just in regard to [equality, diversity and inclusion]. Because the adults and children’s work force are quite separate, and we’ve got different organisations working in different ways, the data tends to be quite fragmented. I think it feels really important to be able to build a picture of social work more broadly.”

“There’s always a debate about whether we need any more data. I’m conscious of it because people say: ‘there’s enough data why do we need any more?’ but a lot of the data we’ve got is anecdotal.

“We are aware that the anecdotal information is showing particular patterns at the moment but we want to make sure that we’re evidence based, so data collection is a real high priority for us.

With this in mind, Social Work England has launched two surveys to help the sector get a better understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion and the impact of racism.

The first survey asks social workers to help the regulator build a more accurate picture of the workforce by completing new questions on their online registration accounts. The second is a collaboration of organisations – including the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care and the Principal Social Workers Networks – which is urging social workers to complete a major anti-racism survey about their views and experiences.

“This is the first survey that’s focused on racism in the way that this has, the impact of it and asking the individuals about what they would like to see done.

“The survey asks quite a lot of questions around experiences, of racism, and it asks for all social workers of all backgrounds to complete this information, and I think that’s going to really help us to capture the data. It also asks about the impact of those experiences and potentially what we can do to support that, and that will then help to inform an action plan.”

The regulator stresses that the request for this information is voluntary. It says the data will help to continue to provide services “lawfully and respectfully”, and that the survey will be a permanent feature in all social workers’ online accounts for them to update their equality and diversity data at any time.

Akhtar is keen to ensure, however, that she sees the focus of her role through a “broad spectrum”.

“It’s important to think about how not all diversity is visible. So really consciously thinking about how we work with colleagues where they might have a disability but haven’t openly disclosed that, or thinking about neurodiversity. It feels really important to make sure we’re looking at [equality, diversity and inclusion] through a broad spectrum.”

Akhtar says that one of her ambitions for the role is to look at the intersectionality between race and class.

“As someone who grew up in a very deprived area, I felt like race was often acknowledged, but class isn’t in the same way. I think for a lot of people class really impacts on their sense of identity. Socioeconomic status, as well as protected characteristics, which is something we like to look at in terms of data going forward.”

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