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Improving social work's engagement with LGBTQ+ people and issues

Our executive director Sarah and student Omar discuss how we can work together to enhance understanding and the experiences of LGBTQ+ people.

Improving social work’s engagement with LGBTQ+ people and issues

2/11/2021 10:00:00 AM

Omar Mohamed, BA Social Work Student, University of Birmingham

In these difficult times, it’s clear that the social work sector needs to come together to actively develop its approach to working and engaging with oppressed groups, including LGBTQ+ people. Following a successful discussion with Social Work England addressing issues of racism, some social work student friends and I were discussing about other ways to help improve the profession, including development of knowledge about LGBTQ+ issues and homo/transphobia within the profession.

Recent research suggests that qualifying social work students still feel that they are not prepared to work competently with LGBTQ+ people. More importantly, there is a lack of understanding of how social workers should practise with LGBTQ+ people. As a result of these challenges, and a desire to improve LGBTQ+ people’s experience of social work, I decided to gather a group of people with lived experience, social workers, students, and academics with a broad range of experiences, and gender and sexual identities to discuss the relatively poor engagement with LGBTQ+ people in both education and practice with Social Work England. A central concern for this meeting was to ensure the safeguarding and promotion of the rights of people who use social work services – this required some careful consideration.

As social work is committed to anti-oppressive values, as highlighted in the professional standards, there is a need for Social Work England to improve, develop and enhance the social work profession’s engagement with LGBTQ+ people. This was a key aim of our first meeting and the focus of the following recommendations:

  • Education and training guidance for working with LGBTQ+ people: through collaborating with people with lived experiences, academic research, and the existing knowledge base.
  • Improved education and training about LGBTQ+ issues: to ensure that future social workers are well equipped, competent, and confident to work with all LGBTQ+ people.
  • Improving the knowledge base about LGBTQ+ issues: to address the gaps in the social work knowledge base, and how the profession can encourage acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ+ identities in practice
  • Professional standards: and ‘practice standards’ specifically about respecting sexuality and gender diversity/reassignment in practice in line with the professional standards.
  • Encourage employers to offer training in practice: on LGBTQ+ issues for social work practitioners through their engagement with organisations.
  • Targeted continuing professional development (CPD): As part of the CPD requirement (professional standard 4), social workers should be required to evidence how they are developing their professional learning, knowledge and competence with oppressed groups, including (but not limited to) LGBTQ+ matters, anti-racism, disability and anti-poverty.
  • Monitor equality and diversity data within fitness to practise processes: to identify whether the referrals and outcomes are oppressively linked to particular groups, and using the data to affect change.
  • Continued consultation with LGBTQ+ and other oppressed groups: to routinely listen, engage and learn from a broad range of people with lived experience of oppression, discrimination and inequality, in line with professional social work values.

To improve and develop a profession that more effectively supports LGBTQ+ people, it’s important to continually reflect. In our meeting with Social Work England, we also discussed:

  • experiences of homo/transphobia on social work courses and in practice;
  • concerns about a hierarchy of oppression and reflected current debates and theories (including some of the disagreements); and
  • whether social work should still be regarded as a social justice profession (given that it appears to be conflicted about responding to issues of social justice for people experiencing discrimination).

When discussing social work education, we suggested it was necessary to improve the curriculum to use an intersectional lens to explore and analyse LGBTQ+ topics and issues. We described concerns about the lack of coverage of LGBTQ+ matters in social work literature, but also about the limited attention on gender and sexual identities.

We also discussed the lack of confidence in practitioners to respond and support the whole range of LGBTQ+ identities. This included improving social worker’s sense of their competence to undertake difficult conversations around gender and sexual identities. We were also concerned that recording systems for social workers remain overtly cis/heteronormative, often overlooking issues of gender and sexual diversity.

These meetings have been a positive experience for me – we created spaces for those from a range of backgrounds and who have an interest in social work to come together and represent a wider group of people to try and make change. The strength of these difficult discussions comes from us working together to ensure the true values of social work shine through in current and future practice.

I would like to thank all those that participated in this project, in both the wider group and smaller group meetings, and those that shared their views. I would also like to thank Social Work England for their attention to this topic. I remain hopeful that Social Work England will continue to engage with oppressed groups to amplify lesser heard voices in social work education and practice.

Sarah Blackmore, executive director of strategy, policy and engagement at Social Work England

From the beginning of our journey as the specialist regulator for social workers in England, we’ve committed to engaging with everyone who has an interest in social work, including those with lived experience, social workers, social work students, academics, employers, and organisations.

With its values and principles of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice, social work is uniquely placed to lead the way in ensuring equality in all aspects of society. As the specialist regulator for social workers, we understand that we also have a key role to play in leading the way on this, and leading by example. We welcome conversations and discussions with everyone who wants to discuss social work practice, and thank them for continuing to share their experiences and recommendations to create a profession that supports everyone in society, when they need that support the most.

Myself and a number of Social Work England colleagues recently met with Omar and a group of 7 people representing different roles, experiences, and gender/sexual identities. Having done some collaborative work to develop a set of recommendations to us about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and specifically within the social work education sector, we had an extremely valuable discussion about current training and practice, and how this can be developed to create a more understanding, anti-oppressive profession.

I want to thank the group for sharing their personal experiences and their concerns around the lack of LGBTQ+ awareness taught as part of social work courses, to ensure our future social workers live by the inclusive values of social work practice. I thank the group for sharing their experiences with me, which highlight the need for these important conversations to continue and for us to commit to working with the sector to ensure support of all people, no matter how they identify.

The recommendations that were shared with us highlight the need to address perceived gaps within social work education and training, that will inevitably create more inclusive and understanding practice. We continue to have conversations across the sector and recognise the importance in these reflections and recommendations. Once again, I want thank everyone for taking the time to share this with us. I, and the whole organisation, appreciate the energy and bravery it takes to challenge perceptions and to try and affect change. The recommendations shared by this particular group have highlighted the need to continue these conversations and play a part in the wider social work journey – that of a person taking a social work course and becoming the best social workers they can be. We will reflect on the tools and prominence we have as the regulator of these courses, and of the sector as a whole, to look at how we can create a more understanding, accepting, and knowledgeable sector firmly rooted in our professional standards and which reflect the social justice values of social work.

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