Bridging the Gap
Liverpool Hope University is readying to launch a forward-thinking expansion to its BA Social Work degree, with a programme designed to get more social workers from Black and Global Majority groups employed in the profession. It's called Bridging the Gap - and it's a route into social work for a huge range of communities that aren't adequately represented in Liverpool's social work teams. That includes Black, Asian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali, Black African and Black Caribbean communities - and a whole lot more besides. It's open to anyone living in the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, which incorporates the councils of Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. And here, in an extensive FAQ, we bring you everything you need to know about Bridging the Gap, including those all-important details about how to actually apply for it.
A career in social work is about so much more than just working with children - and this Liverpool Hope University graduate is living proof of that fact.
Merfat Musleh completed a BA in Social Work at Hope, graduating in 2020.
Rather than working for a local authority, which can be a common career pathway for a social worker, Merfat has opted to work in the third sector.
For Merfat, being embedded in a charity has equipped her to really affect change and make a difference. And her work with the charity Savera UK is vitally important.
Savera UK is a specialist organisation with a national remit and which campaigns to eliminate ‘honour’-based abuse (HBA) and harmful practices, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
It also provides confidential, life-saving services to those at risk - regardless of age, culture, sexuality or gender – and works with key partners to conduct research, deliver training, raise awareness and provide one-to-one support to those at risk.
Merfat, a specialist HBA Support Worker, was kept particularly busy during the pandemic, when Savera UK experienced a spike in calls for help.
And Merfat has urged other social work graduates to consider operating in the third sector, too.
The 25-year-old adds: “I didn’t start working for a local authority - and there’s a reason for that. At Hope we were taught about all the different definitions of social work.
“And that fed into my passion because I knew I wanted to do something more direct than, say, the procedural-based environment of social services. I wanted more flexibility in how I’m able to support someone, using my own creativity.
“And I’d argue we need more trained social workers operating in the third sector. I’m in the minority, yet it fits perfectly into the category of what a social worker really is - it’s safeguarding while also being an advocate for our clients. Crucially, it’s also about social justice and equality.”
Harmful practices and HBA cover a wide range of behaviours deemed to be ‘dishonourable’ in the eyes of perpetrators, from simply dressing outside family or cultural norms to refusing a marriage.
Savera UK says those who practice HBA and other harmful traditions believe what they are doing is right and often do not consider the practices as harmful or abusive. The perpetrator’s concern centres on how they will be seen by their extended family or the wider community if they do not protect the practice and adhere to the believed cultural norms.
The consequences for those at risk can be grave - including physical and physiological trauma, abandonment and even death.
There are an estimated 12 ‘honour’ killings a year in the UK and last year 141 of the referrals received by Savera UK were relating to victims of - or those at risk of - HBA and harmful practices
The most recent stats from Merseyside Police – where Savera UK is headquartered - show that in the 12 months between April 2020 and March 2021, a total of 30 incidents of ‘honour’-based abuse were reported to the force. Fewer incidents of Forced Marriage and FGM were reported.
But Savera UK says the figures represent an ‘under-reporting’ of ‘honour’-based abuse and other harmful practices – and it remains an issue for the region.
Savera UK says that while these numbers provide part of the picture locally, the true amounts of those at risk of ‘honour’-based abuse is not known due to the hidden nature of these crimes.
Merfat, whose family is from Yemen, says there are concerns that the wreckage wrought by the Covid-19 crisis may ultimately increase the number of recorded fatalities.
She says that one way to improve support for those at risk or under threat is to improve the way ‘honour’-based abuse cases are risk assessed by authorities – even if it requires changes to the law itself.
Merfat reveals: “One of our biggest challenges as an organisation is actually being able to define ‘honour’-based abuse and having a uniform definition that all associated professionals follow.
“What often happens is that we have cases labelled domestic abuse or violence, without taking into consideration the complex nature of families where culture and ‘honour’ is a major factor, bringing pressure and duress by close, extended family and the wider community.
“Fundamentally, it’s about people understanding what ‘honour’-based abuse really is.
“We need to ask - does the current Domestic Abuse Act, which became law in April 2021, really take into consideration the complex needs of migrant women and ‘honour’-based abuse? How are we able to really ensure that our clients are properly protected?
“Because if the cases we deal with are treated as ‘domestic abuse’, we feel this doesn’t go far enough in terms of the underlying problems.”
In terms of practical interventions, Savera UK offers one-to-one emotional support to victims and those at risk, as well as advocacy support, in conjunction with agencies like the police and social services.
Dedicated Lawal Oriola is a social worker specialising in helping adults in the community, and has been working for Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council since the beginning of 2020.
But the 37-year-old, a graduate of Liverpool Hope University, says he’s in the minority when it comes to social work professionals - because he’s a man.
In fact, there’s a stark shortage of male social workers across the UK.
A Government report on the Children and Family social work workforce, published in February this year, found 86% of those employed were female.
And Lawal, from Bolton, Greater Manchester, wants to see other males follow his route into a career that he says is rewarding as it is demanding.
He explains: “The lack of male social workers in the profession is very noticeable and it does concern me.
“Of course, there’s an argument to say that it shouldn’t matter how a social worker identifies in terms of gender, because they can still provide the same care.
“But I believe it’s much more complicated than that.
“The idea of social work within the community is that people expect a female. When they see a male social worker, they’re often surprised.
“That’s because, historically speaking, social workers were traditionally female and so this preconceived idea still exists.
“But I believe that, more than ever before, we need a gender balance going forward. We’re living in a changing world. And we need a diverse range of people going into social work, whether you’re male, female, trans or non-binary - or however you identify.
“In my experience, a lot of the younger male service users can respond well to a male, ‘brotherly’ type figure in a social worker. If they don’t have a good relationship with their mum or their sister, they might be looking for a male role model.
“And there will be things a teenage boy will be more comfortable saying to a male social worker - and vice versa - whether that’s problems in terms of sexuality or intimacy or mental health issues. And that’s really important - because a high level of openness leads to a social worker being better equipped to provide care.
“In my view, social work has to be representative.”
According to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), there were 74,751 registered female social workers in England in 2019, compared with just 16,173 males.
Lawal’s own journey into social work began in his home city of Lagos, Nigeria, before he moved to Finland and studied for a BA in Social Work at the Laurea University of Applied Sciences, graduating in 2009.
Living in Helsinki, he worked with adults with intellectual disabilities - typically as a result of brain injury or brain damage - until 2014.
And after going on to become a support worker in England, he ultimately studied for a Master’s in Social Work at Liverpool Hope University, graduating in 2019.
Before joining the Council, he also worked for the charity Together for Mental Wellbeing.
His roles there were as an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate (IMCA), someone who is appointed on a person’s behalf if they lack the capacity to make certain decisions, and a Relevant Person’s Representative, who provides representation and support to people in a hospital or care home and who lack the mental capacity to agree to the care being provided to them.
Speaking about his own motivations for being a social worker, Lawal reveals: “I’ve always harboured an ambition to help the most vulnerable people in society. It’s something that’s been with me from my time in Nigeria, where widespread social work is somewhat lacking.
“I wanted to have that chance to support people in lots of different ways, too. I’ve been an advocate, I’ve been a carer, I’ve been a support worker, and this wide range of roles has given me a real insight into the lives of people who need that help.
“If you are thinking about a career in social work, it’s good to have a depth of experience.”