Rarely does a teacher have to deliver a lecture knowing they are being watched not only by their students, but by a prominent Lord, the BBC, Ofsted and most of the social work sector. But this has been the reality for Bedfordshire University professor Donald Forrester, the lead academic for the fast-track social worker training scheme Frontline.
Controversy has dogged the graduate programme since it was announced and the scrutiny isn’t letting up now that Frontline has started its five-week residential summer institute, which is designed to get students ready to start their first placement.
“I’ve never been in a position before of teaching with this level of scrutiny, this sense of being so completely open and transparent – we are being held to a very high standard,” says Forrester. “In the first year we will make mistakes, and we will learn from them.”
I said ‘this can’t work’ and now I’m leading it.”
Forrester can understand social work academics’ wariness. He was himself sceptical of Frontline at first. “We’re trying something new – so new that when I first heard about it as a social work academic, I said: ‘This can’t work.’ And now I’m leading it,” he says.
He describes the criticisms the programme has faced as being, at times, like a game of ‘whack-a-mole’: “You bash one criticism on the head and then another one comes up.”
Concerns have included students only undertaking a five-week training period before going into a local authority placement and the targeting of graduates who may have their sights set on the civil service fast stream rather than being dedicated to working with service users long-term.
This is a criticism that has been levelled at Teach First, a similar training scheme for teachers which some feared would result in graduates using the scheme to become a teacher before moving onto a more lucrative career. But as an early detractor of the Frontline programme, Forrester is well placed to identify with these critics and respond.
Five weeks’ training and then out to practice…that could be a disaster.”
“When people first say to you ‘five weeks’ training and then out to practice’ you think, that could be a disaster. That could be a terrible thing to do. But the intensity of the teaching experience is such that they get a broadly similar amount of teaching as they would in a two-year masters course.”
Forrester feels the Frontline programme is unique in the level of support it provides participants after their initial training. They will receive 17 placement visits from their tutors, attend 22 recall days during which they return for ‘top-up’ training and are assigned an experienced consultant social worker to work with them on their cases.
Even David Cameron has weighed in on Frontline, wishing the cohort luck via video
Learning in practice
“When I stopped thinking of it as five weeks’ training and started thinking of it as learning to be a social worker in practice I realised, that’s how I learned to be a social worker”, says Forrester. “I got really good academic teaching and it didn’t really help me be a social worker that much. What really helped me was my placements and my practice learning experiences.”
“I think I would have been a better social worker if I’d done the Frontline course. A lot of the course is an attempt by me and the others putting it together to give people the sort of training they often wish that they’d had themselves.”
Like some academics now, Forrester had feared the participants would be “a bunch of management consultant wannabes and wouldn’t be suitable for social work”.
“I was quite anxious about what they’d be like and so it was great to see that they have really good social work values,” he says. “They are really committed to helping people and to social justice. We’re bringing good people in who weren’t otherwise going to go into social work.
My biggest fear was that they would be a bunch of management consultant wannabes.”
“The vast majority of them weren’t going to do social work – they were going into psychology or international development or research – so the fact that we’re bringing in really good people who weren’t otherwise going to go into social work is exciting, it’s one of the core things we want to achieve.”
Frontline in context
Forrester acknowledges that Frontline will always sit alongside other models of teaching social work.
“We need lots of different approaches,” he says. “I’m always reluctant to set us up as completely different from other courses because there’s an awful lot that every social work course will do - human growth and development, social theories, fundamental social work values.
“But we have a particular heavy emphasis on teaching some core evidence-based ways of helping people.
“It’s very unusual to be able to say that the practice and the teaching both share a common vision of what good practice is.”
Practice and teaching share a common vision.”
It’s early days, but Forrester says the feedback he has heard so far has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Forrester: “With innovative approaches you rarely get it right straight away. I can already tell you things that we would do differently.
“What we’re seeing is not just that the students are enjoying the teaching but that the consultant social workers are saying the training they’ve received has been really helpful.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of directors who’ve said how great it is having people come back into the authority with all these ideas for good practice, and some are embarking on change development programmes related to things that are happening in Frontline.”