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BASW comments on successful Court of Appeal case against removal of student from social work MA course following anti-homosexuality public social media posts

An important court of appeal judgement this week raises issues about how standards of anti-discriminatory practice can be upheld in social work education.

Sheffield University expelled Felix Ngole from a social work qualifying programme in 2016 following social media posts expressing views about homosexuality being sinful and the use of other derogatory comments, based on his Christian beliefs.  Ngole lost his first legal challenge against expulsion in 2017 when the deputy high court judge ruled the expulsion was lawful and stated:

“Public religious speech has to be looked at in a regulated context from the perspective of a public readership. Social workers have considerable power over the lives of vulnerable service users and trust is a precious professional commodity."

This ruling was overturned this week by the court of appeal which found that the university had taken an ‘untenable’ position that any traceable ‘expression of disapproval of same-sex relations on public social media…was a breach of professional guidelines”.

The three appeal judges also ruled this week that the University’s action amounted to a restriction on Ngole’s freedom of expression and went beyond HCPC guidance which were the foundation of the university’s fitness to practice procedures’.

BASW Chief Executive Ruth Allen’s statement on this ruling:

"This is a concerning judgement. People are protected in equality legislation from being discriminated against on grounds of religion and belief and on grounds of sexual orientation. As a profession we must comply not only with equality and related legislation (such as the Human Rights Act), we must be seen to comply. We must not undermine public trust in social work as individuals nor as part of a profession by publicly expressing views that undermine our ability to be trusted to protect the rights of others. 

"Our duty as social workers to uphold the rights of others is paramount and is at the heart of our values and ethics. Because social work often touches complex, personal and sensitive issues, authentic social work requires deep examination of personal views and their influence on practice. This is essential to building trusting working relationships.  

"In my view, the issue in this case is not about the views Felix Ngole held per se, but about whether as a social worker in training and when qualified he would uphold the rights of others  (in this case, gay people), be reflective on his views and their ethical meaning and impact on others, and hold himself accountable for doing that in all public senses. 

"Social media is often an open, public broadcast medium. These days it is core to our professionalism that we are accountable there as much as in a press article or in public speech.  A homophobic expression in social media is an unacceptable professional act in that it is counter to equalities law and likely to raise fear and mistrust not only of that particular social worker/social work student, but of social workers more generally. It is a direct hostile act towards people who often experience discrimination and persecution – which is part of why they are covered by equality legislation in the first place.

"Social workers have a right to a private life and to hold a wide range of views and beliefs.  Social workers are also allowed to make good on their mistakes, to change their views and to wrestle with conflicts in personal beliefs and ethics and their professional responsibilities.  Being social workers is not about everyone being ‘the same’ or it being ‘easy’ to live up to ethics and values expected.   

"But if a social worker persists in expressing views which undermine anti-discriminatory practice and stoke institutional prejudices, then they undermine our work, people’s trust in us and our ethic of supporting an inclusive society.

"The issue of whether Felix Ngole should have been expelled from the University per se might be a different matter to whether he should have been expelled from a professional qualifying course in social work.  On the latter, social work educators need to be able to test and make considered judgements about whether students will uphold the human rights and equalities imperatives demanded of our profession.

"The court of appeal judgement suggests that the university did not make its argument well enough, did not follow procedures fully and did not interpret guidance and standards appropriately. The inadequacy of regulatory standards in guiding educators on social media issues is raised. 

"In a digital age when views can be widely broadcast with ease and in social media contexts which often stoke controversy and feed extreme and antagonistic views, students, practitioners, educators and managers need better guidance to protect the profession but most importantly, to protect the diverse and often socially marginalised people we serve. And professional educators need to be supported to make confident, legally sound judgements about the fitness to practice of future social workers.  

"Social Work England will not be regulating social work students, but its educational and professional fitness to practice standards need to support clarity and confidence in the educational sector".

A Community Care article published 5th July covers the main elements of the story and provides a link to the ruling.

Further information