Let’s talk about difference and inequality

By Sarah Newman | 14 July 2020

For some children, where their first language isn’t English and who may be living in families where English is not spoken at home, learning from home has been particularly difficult during the pandemic crisis. This is due to non-English speaking parents being less able to help their children with schoolwork at home when contact with a teacher isn’t as readily available.

In the bi-borough  - Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) and Westminster City Council, some of our families from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups live with multiple generations and are living in overcrowded housing. Many such families have expressed anxiety about their health, as well as their children’s schooling.

During the pandemic, some children will have had direct teaching online or in school, while others will have been asked to work independently. Some parents will have maintained structure and regular hours of support, but this won’t have been possible for everyone, and we are aware of a gap widening between children in those cases.

We have been very worried about all our disadvantaged children in all of our communities and the impact of lockdown measures on their routines and ability to learn at home.

There are other groups, within BAME communities, but also cross-cutting all of our communities, who have raised concerns and worries.

For example, many single parents have expressed the worry that if they get unwell they don’t know who will take care of their children. The access to help that many families might get at school, at GP surgeries, in community settings, has been reduced.

A number of families who have come to us in crisis have had teenagers in the house as well as young children, and it is evident that lockdown is a very difficult situation to manage the competing needs of children of different ages.

If parenting capacity is somewhat limited, maybe due to already existing mental health issues, history of trauma, or less than ideal physical surroundings, this can escalate to crisis situations, and we have had some teenagers at risk of being thrown out of home.

In most cases we have managed to work with families to help them find solutions to this without needing to take children into care. We have delivered interventions in a blended way – some virtual, some face-to-face – and families have commented on the benefits of having different ways of engaging with us.

John Burnham, a systemic writer and practitioner, developed a concept known as ‘social graces’ in the early 1990s to help identify and name aspects of social difference between people: practitioner and supervisor, practitioner and family. The term is a mnemonic referring to: gender, geography, race, religion, ability, age, culture, class, ethnicity, education, sexuality, and spirituality. Other factors and variables have been added to this in recent years.

The systemic practice model helps practitioners understand power and how people perceive it. Most families we work with perceive themselves as ‘powerless’ and social workers as ‘powerful’.

The ‘social graces’ give our staff a framework to understand and to acknowledge this. It has been helpful during this period, particularly in relation to school attendance, using the ‘graces’ to understand a family’s logic in relation to their decision-making and for us to understand how we can engage with their rationale and influence it rather than situations becoming oppositional.

This allows us to respect the knowledge and expertise that the family and their community bring so that we can invite conversations about power, difference and inequality. We are explicit in acknowledging our position of privilege and are prepared to scrutinise our own values to address inequality transparently – which affords better opportunity to work collaboratively.

In each of these markers of social difference, there is power – someone is almost always in a more powerful position than the other. Being explicit about this power difference helps us to act more ethically and deliver our interventions more sensitively and thoughtfully. This ensures the scene was set for the more challenging and overt conversations around both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that continue to take place around the world. We need to be careful that our services don’t serve to reinforce the disparities already facing families because of COVID-19.

I think the approach is relevant to all the services we deliver in the councils and our Centre for Systemic Social Work Practice is currently adapting the learnings of ‘social graces’ for departments across RBKC.

Sarah Newman is executive director of children’s services for the bi-borough – Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) and Westminster City Council

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