Social work fast-track schemes: what we do and don’t know

Fast-track training schemes will produce a quarter of all new children's social workers by 2018 but what's the impact of such rapid expansion?

tube station mind the gap
Photo: Image Broker/ RexShutterstock

By Judy Cooper, Rachel Schraer and Andy McNicoll

David Cameron’s government is changing the face of social work education. Fast-track social work schemes will get £100m to expand so they can produce 25% of all new children’s social workers by 2018. At the moment the programmes account for less than 10% of all social work trainees.

Fast-track programmes split opinion. Ministers praise them as offering “exemplary” training that produces trainees ready for social work practice. Social work leaders voice concerns that the government is creating a ‘two tier’ social work education system and ploughing in funding to programmes that have yet to be fully evaluated.

Amid all the noise, what are these programmes and how do the claims being made about them stack up?

What are fast-track programmes?

Step Up to Social Work

This graduate recruitment scheme started in 2010. It targets career switchers who don’t have a background in social care but do have some experience of working with children and young people.

  • The minimum entry requirement is a 2:1 degree or a 2:2 plus a higher level qualification.
  • Trainees complete a post-graduate diploma (and social work qualification) over 14 months.
  • Candidates receive a grant (around £19,000) and have their tuition fees paid.
  • The curriculum is devised by regional partnerships of councils and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).


Frontline started training social workers in 2014. It is inspired by the Teach First fast-track scheme for teachers. The scheme targets ‘high flying’ graduates, particularly those from Russell Group universities, and trains them as children’s social workers.

  • Minimum entry requirement is a 2:1 degree, not in social work.
  • The programme lasts two years.
  • In the first year trainees complete a five week intensive summer institute, followed by a year-long placement in a local authority alongside academic sessions.
  • At the end of the first year trainees get a post-graduate diploma in social work. This allows them to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
  • In the second year Frontline trainees work as a qualified social worker in children’s services and continue studying towards a master’s degree as well as completing a leadership development programme.
  • In the first year trainees receive a bursary of around £19,000.
  • In the second year they are paid a salary by their ‘host’ council (approximately £24,000).
  • The curriculum and training is designed and delivered by The Frontline Academy. This is made up of the University of Bedfordshire, the Institute of Family Therapy and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

Think Ahead

Widely seen as the ‘adult social work’ equivalent of Frontline, Think Ahead will start training social workers to work in adult mental health services in July. The programme targets high performing graduates and has had more than 2,000 applications for 100 places available in its first cohort.

  • Minimum entry requirement is a 2:1 degree qualification not in social work.
  • In the first year trainees undertake a six week summer intensive course followed by a placement in a local authority or NHS Trust.
  • At the end of the first year trainees receive a postgraduate diploma in social work, enabling them to register with the HCPC.
  • In the second year they work as a qualified social worker in a mental health setting, alongside completing academic study towards a master’s degree in social work.
  • Like Frontline, trainees on Think Ahead also receive leadership training.
  • In the first year trainees receive a bursary (approx. £16,000 + London weighting). In the second year they receive a social worker salary (typically £21,000 + London weighting).
  • The curriculum and training is designed by the University of York, which successfully bid to become Think Ahead’s academic partner.

How are the schemes funded?

Step up to Social Work

  • Fully-funded by the Department for Education (DfE).
  • The DfE tenders out contracts to run Step up programmes on a regional basis, with partnerships of universities and local authorities bidding for the cash.


  • Mix of DfE funding and investment from private and voluntary sector ‘partners’
  • The programme also benefits from ‘pro bono’ support from a range of firms including:
    • The Boston Consulting Group
    • The Alexander Partnership a ‘leading provider of executive coaching’
    • The AMV BBDO advertising agency
    • The legal firm Baker and McKenzie

The DfE says £35m was invested in Step Up and Frontline between 2010 and 2015 and £100m will be invested over the next four years. However, the Department has refused to provide a breakdown of how the funding was split between the two programmes.

Think Ahead

  • Mix of Department of Health (DH) funding and investment from private and voluntary sector ‘partners’
  • The DH invested £1.6m in developing the scheme and funding will increase once the first cohort starts this year.
  • Like Frontline, the programme benefits from ‘pro bono’ support from a range of firms including:
    • Global consultancy firm Deloitte
    • Dragon Rouge, a ‘design and innovation’ agency
    • Q5, an ‘organisational change consultancy’

Why is the government expanding fast-track training?

The Department for Education (DfE) has given various reasons for this – to be found in Education secretary Nicky Morgan’s speech, the departmental ‘vision’ statement and a memorandum on the reforms given to the Parliamentary Education Committee last month.

They include:

  • Current university education produces too many poor graduates

In the vision statement the DfE points to the recommendations of two reviews of social work education, by Sir Martin Narey and Professor David Croisdale-Appleby, which concluded that initial social work education was not consistent in adequately preparing trainee social workers for the highly skilled task ahead of them.

michael gove

Photo: Mark Thomas/ RexShutterstock

Signs of the DfE’s dissatisfaction with university programmes have been there for some time. Back in 2013, Michael Gove – then education secretary – delivered a scathing criticism of social work education and pledged to strip out the “dogma” that saw graduates being encouraged to see people they worked with as “victims of social injustice” and inequalities.

  • More specialist training is needed.

The vision document states that too often in the past reform of social work education has been solely focused on the initial and generic qualification of social workers.

“This is not sufficient to bring the social work profession to its full potential. We need instead an end-to-end practice-focused national career pathway which develops talent from practitioner to practice leader,” it adds.

It again points to the Narey report which advocated greater specialisation of social work courses.

  • We need better and smarter social work students.

The DfE claims that change can only be delivered by ‘the best and brightest’ graduates. The memorandum to the education committee points out that of the first cohort of participants on Frontline, a third had first-class honours degrees and of those who graduated, the majority did so with distinctions or commendations.

While 80% of the first two Step Up cohorts gained posts as social workers the DfE claims only 61% of those on traditional post-graduate degrees did so (although in fact this figure is 73% in a recent Skills for Care report).

  • Employers need to be more involved in the education of social workers.

Fast-track programmes ‘have the needs of employers and the realities of statutory child and family social work in mind’, according to the DfE. It provides figures showing local authority participation in Step Up has grown from 42 in 2010 to 103 in 2016 and three cohorts have delivered over 670 successful graduates.

The 2013 evaluation of the programme showed it was valued by local authorities and generally believed to have generated a group of highly capable and committed new entrants to the social work profession.

question mark


Reasons for concerns

However, it’s fair to say there is increasing disquiet within the sector at such a rapid expansion of fast-track training schemes. While much of this comes from the traditional universities, who see themselves as under attack, there are legitimate questions that have yet to be addressed.

They include:

  • What is lost as a result of ‘fast-track’ training?

The independent evaluation of Step Up to Social Work, by DeMontfort University, published in 2013, found concerns about the capacity of the programme to provide a truly generic qualification, given the time available and the explicit ‘child and family’ focus of the course.

Professor Croisdale-Appleby, while agreeing fast-track routes were a useful addition to social work education, recommended more research to ensure they avoid the trap of ‘equipping students with a bag of frequently-used tools rather than a comprehensive diagnositic toolkit’.

In a briefing paper prepared for the former College of Social Work and seen by Community Care, emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia, June Thoburn points out that fast-track training courses are getting shorter and shorter.

Step Up was initially a master’s level course compressed into 18 months but is now a post-graduate diploma course, without a dissertation, completed in 14 months.

‘What is missing is often the theoretical underpinning to the work.’ Fast-track schemes, with their focus on skills and based within workplaces, rather than lecture halls, are far closer to an apprenticeship style of education, she adds.

  • Will this simply exacerbate retention issues?

A particular criticism of Frontline has been that it targets ambitious graduates. Even Sir Martin Narey, in his review, deplored its strategy of advertising itself as a route into the civil service and a  fast-track into management.

The evaluation of Step Up recorded concerns among employers that such high calibre graduates would soon be lured away from frontline practice which is where they are needed most.

However, given the early stages of most of the schemes, the only place we can look for comparable evidence is Teach First, a similar fast-track training scheme for teachers. The Institute of Education (IoD) at the University of London did a study, published in 2013, which found a higher turnover of staff in those schools where Teach First graduates were placed (as much as 10%).

  • What will this mean for diversity of the workforce?

The evaluation of Step Up voiced a concern as to the lack of diversity among graduates.

It found 12% (154) of all white candidates were offered and accepted places on the programme but none of the 132 black British African candidates proceeded beyond the assessment centre with similar patterns in other non-white ethnic categories.

However, it is important to note the evaluation also pointed out there was a similar, although not so extreme pattern, to be found on admission to post-graduate social work degrees generally.

dismissal removal loss

Photo: Image Broker/RexShutterstock

It is not just ethnic diversity that has been brought up but class diversity.

Frontline is unashamed about targeting graduates from Russell Group universities (research-intensive, world class group of universities which include Oxford and Cambridge) and its first cohort boasted 79% such graduates.

A report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found the proportion of state-educated children and those from less advantaged social groups attending Russell Group universities has declined over the years since 2002/03. Almost half of the new places created at Russell Group institutions over the past decade have gone to privately educated individuals with numbers rising by 8%.

Frontline claims it does have a diverse intake. It states that while the large majority of social workers in Britain are female (82%) a quarter of all Frontline participants are men. Meanwhile 16% of its intake are from ethnic minorities and 15% indicated they had received free school meals, equivalent to the current national average.

Lord Adonis, the chairman of Frontline, also believes that getting more Oxbridge graduates into the public service instead of banking or law – particularly teaching and social work – will promote social mobility and social protection.

Frontline argues that its rigorous selection process means those recruited are screened for their emotional intelligence and empathy. However, as yet they have not opened up these selection processes to wider scrutiny so we await the evaluation.

  • Where is the evidence base that fast-track programmes work?

In his review on social work education, commissioned by the Department for Health, Professor David Croisdale-Appleby pointed out that the international trend is for longer social work courses, ‘a move which has been well evidenced in social work education literature’.

I am unclear where the pedagogical research is to be found which would validate the different direction of travel in England towards shorter courses.”

Of the three fast-track schemes to be implemented, only Step Up has been independently evaluated and that was at the end of the first cohort. The evaluation was positive – particularly in relation to recruitment methods, partnership working between local authorities and universities and creating students better able to handle the rigours of frontline social work. However, it recommended the programme should not replace traditional teaching methods but feed in success and innovation to improve traditional routes.

The evaluation of Frontline is due next month with another study on the cost-effectiveness of different routes into social work due at the same time. Think Ahead is currently tendering for an evaluation.

The DfE, often cites the success of Teach First, which Frontline is based on, as a justifier for expansion. Teach First was launched in 2002. However, the only independent evaluation of the programme, completed by Durham University, was not cleared for public release.

The IoE study found on average Teach First graduates helped achieve school-wide gains in GCSE equivalent to an extra grade per pupil in one of their eight best subjects. This was less than claimed by the programme’s own evaluation but still a positive outcome.

Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

  • Sustainability of funding for fast-track courses and inequality of social work education funding

While the cost evaluation of routes into social work will hopefully help illuminate this issue we have come up with a crude cost comparison between all the different routes into social work which shows the cost of educating 1000 students (approximately one in four NQSWs in children’s social work) in each different entry route to social work. Figures are as accurate as we can make them based on the fragmented information available in this area. They do not include teaching costs or administration costs for ease of comparison.

Undergraduate Postgraduate Step Up to Social Work Frontline
Bursary costs £5.3m £3.7m £19m £19m
Placement costs £4m (£20 per day x 200 days) £4m (£20 per day x 200 days) £1.75m (placement fee of £1750 per student) £4.5m (placement fee of £4500 per student)
Total cost £9.3m £7.7m £20.75m £23.5m


This is based on the current available information as to the money paid out to each student as in this table of information.

Such a cost comparison is overly simplistic but illustrates the point that many academics make which is that any academic outcomes between the different routes are not valid given the funding differential between the two and the difference in the quality of practice placement opportunities provided on the fast-track schemes.

Thoburn adds: “The reduction in social work bursaries has had an impact as many social work students now need to find part-time work which they do on top of what is already a stressful degree.”

This is backed up by Andrew Hollingworth, president of the Salford Student Social Work Network (SSWN) who told Community Care they were investigating setting up a foodbank for students.

We hear from our MA and BA members, especially those with families, who are struggling to focus on essays while unable to meet their rent.

“The underfunding of traditional social work programmes is preventing a certain demographic from progressing into the profession. This is a profound loss of for social work,” he says.

While the funding for fast-track schemes has increased, the overall budget for social work degree students, paid by the Department for Health, has dropped over the last few years from £114.9m in 2012/13 to £81.2m in 2014/15.

The government is now considering scrapping social work bursaries altogether.

If that happens it seems likely fewer and fewer universities will want to offer social work education courses as HEI’s look to protect their own finances by offering more profitable courses that attract high quality students.

Thoburn states that already many universities, who had well-respected social work degrees and qualifications, have closed down their social work courses.

However, it is useful to note that universities are heavily involved in all of the fast-track schemes – the University of Bedfordshire in the case of Frontline, various universities including the University of Salford in the case of Step Up and the University of York in the case of Think Ahead.

Instead of competing to attract students, universities may well end up competing in tenders to provide contracts for fast-track programmes or education programmes commissioned by employers.

  • The impact on social work research

Any move away from Higher Education Institutions as the main providers of social work education is likely to have a knock-on impact on the amount of social work research that is completed.

open book research

Photo: Design Pics Inc/ Rex Shutterstock

Professor Croisdale-Appleby questioned where innovation would come from if social work education was refocused on training rather than education.

“Also, it is the research-intensive universities which originate most of the social work research and provide the environments in which good research is encouraged and supported. If the number of students from such universities declines, this loss of research focus will mean the profession will lose its generative capability for evidence-based change to practice.

It could become a profession built on ‘know how’ rather than ‘know why': the essential difference between training and education.”

He also pointed out that a by far bigger issue than recruitment of social workers is their retention and neglecting the evidence base for good practice was likely to exacerbate than remedy this problem.
He recommended evaluations of different routes should demonstrate the evidence they are able to equip students for a career, not just a first job in social work.

Thoburn agrees and says fewer university social work degrees will inevitably lead to a loss of capacity among researchers who have practiced as social workers.

“Equally seriously for the future of evidence informed practice, this may mean that fewer social work students will be taught by research-active social work educators, and there will be fewer qualified social worker academics to supervise social workers registered for PhDs as a precursor to becoming HEI social work educators and researchers.”

Wait and see

Many academics feel the expansion of fast-track training routes should wait on rigorous evaluation and impact assessments to prevent an array of unintended consequences.

But the DfE, in particular, appears in a hurry with the deadline for most of its reforms pegged to happen before the end of this parliament in 2020. Which means the answers to most of these concerns and questions will be answered by: “wait and see”.

13 Responses to Social work fast-track schemes: what we do and don’t know

  1. Nanbar February 3, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

    Ironically I am a graduate of a Russell Group University- Manchester, and of a fast track post graduate diploma completed in the late 1980’s. I am also a working class Black woman of colour. I was offered in the late 80s an interview for a Master’s in Scotland , but couldn’t afford the rail fare and was interviewed for a Masters in Social Work at Oxford, but clearly with my northern accent at that time was not what they were looking for. I am really angry not at the desire to improve social work, but rather, the lack of appreciation in terms of colleagues from whatever discipline and ethnicity who are currently working in social care.
    The structure of local authorities, management of the workforce and continued political meddling is not addressed. Rightly or wrongly I believe that Frontline and organisations like it have an ideological and political motivation which in the long term will lead to the privatisation of children’s social care ( apologies to colleagues in adults, not forgetting you, but my field is childcare).Not for nothing is the DofE trying to get everything in place before the next election.
    European courses in Social Work are often 4 years in length and have a greater depth. The social class and make up of the courses would be interesting to break down, along with the ethnicity of the candidates of colour.
    Frontline’s backers ( and I am prepared to be described as cynical) I cannot believe are funding the programme from a social conscience point of view, more likely a long term business return in terms of contracts and other financial opportunities. After all candidates when qualified will be working in local authorities and may be in positions when budgets and long term strategic interests are discussed. However where will this leave children and their families or vulnerable adults?? If everyone is a leader, senior manager, politician or journalist, who will be there to support, enable ,encourage ? Who is actually doing the social work??

    • June Thoburn February 4, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      Thank you Com Care for the detailed exploration of the issues that is much needed. Three additional key facts. 1. When comparing the fast-track routes, Thing Ahead, Step-up with Teach First they are modeled on, it should be born in mind that the ‘normal PG training for Teachers is around 12 months- the normal MA in social work is between 22 and 24 months to allow for 200 days of practice (including 30 days practice preparation) as well as a skills, knowledge and values syllabus and rigorous assessment across practice, policy, research and values issues relevant to the range of needs groups. Is 12-14 months long enough to be given a licence to practice in such a complex role and be able to practice across needs groups (though possibly not acceptable other than in England – we need to know more about the standing of these as conveying eligibility for use of protected title of social worker outside England- including the other UK nations. Are these undoubtedly able people- those who really want to continue as front-line social workers- being sold short? Would we think 12-14 months adequate before doctors, nurses, psychologists achieve registration status?
      2. There has been no evaluation of the shorter (n essence 14 months) Step-Up scheme. The evaluation cited is of the 18 month PG Diploma scheme
      3. It could be misleading to describe these as 2 year qualifying programmes. These fast track trainees receive their ‘licence to practice’ ie their academic qualification in social work that allows them to register as a GENERIC social worker, after between 12 and 14 months. They may/ or may not, decide to continue with Masters studies. There is no systematic evaluation about how many of the 18 month let alone the 14 month Step-up-ers continue to complete the 2 year masters programme (or even complete the ASYE) They could at that point take their PG Cert/Dip and move elsewhere without the benefit of further assessed learning. We do not as yet know (and the duration of the Cardiff U evaluation does not allow for the follow up) about numbers continuing to an MA in social work. (An MA in family therapy or an MA in ‘leadership’ so early in a social work career is not appropriate). This second year should be to deepen knowledge values and skills in social work, and especially include a dissertation and training in research and data analysis that they will need to evaluate evidence informing practice in future years.

      • Joan February 6, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

        The frontline second year does include the option of a Msc in research, policy and practice. Participants are taught research methods and data analysis and undertake a primary research project for their dissertation. Participants can choose that route or the MA in Family Therapy. So some will choose to enhance research schools, perhaps if they are interest in academia or policy, and those interested in techniques for practice can do family therapy.

  2. John Wilks February 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    Fast track schemes: thin learning. If one has worked for some time, what does the class of degree matter?

  3. Andrew Faulkner February 3, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    As a “Step Up” graduate I can tell you it’s impact on me – disastrous. I have recently returned to my previous profession (education) as it is almost impossible to find work as a newly qualified social worker. Despite now having a Masters degree in social work I haven’t got the experience that every single local authority seems to require; so I can’t apply for their vacancies. Agencies won’t touch you without 2 years post qualifying experience and post-AYSE experience. I’m now back working in schools at a fraction of what I was on before going on the “Step Up” program and having to start building up my career again. Catch 22. No experience, no job; no job, no experience. Until this “2 year post qualifying” caveat is removed, fast tracking into social work is pointless.

    • Joe Louis February 4, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

      I’m astounded to hear this – nearly every authority in the country has numerous vacancies for permanent SW’s and regularly recruit for NQSW’s

    • Donna February 6, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

      If you apply and demonstrate in your application and interview that you have transferable skills you will be appointed.

  4. Dr Stephen Stericker February 3, 2016 at 11:15 pm #

    It took me at least 3 years of pre qualification experience and 4 years of post-graduate experience in frontline children’s services to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to become an effective and proficient practitioner. My experience was supplemented by post graduate training which only served to enhance my skills. As someone who, for a number of years, was a social work practice educator and operational manager, I can confidently state that fast tracking anyone to fulfil such a complex and demanding role simply does not work.

  5. Old School February 4, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    I entered social work twenty five years ago (as a graduate from a top Russel Group University) and did the equivalent CCETSW PG entry qualification. I became ‘skilled’ in the tasks and procedures within child and family social work and eventually became a team manager. I have post graduate quialification’s and now work as social work educator, for what it is worth I can tell you why I managed to succeed in my career. It was not the good university I attended and the fact that I had good management support and career development……… it was my background.
    I was brought up on a council estate and understood the issues around me and the excellent role models who taught me that these conditions had been created by an unfair education system and government who did not value or understand the lives of ordinary people. I was able to work well with the service users in my charge because I understood their lives and the fact that the system which rewards the odd few like me creates a majority of losers.
    I sincerely hope that any undergraduate tempted to come into social work questions their reasons for doing so – do not be tempted by the generous training allowance or rhetoric from the government or local authority employers. Ask yourself why do I want to do this…..if the answer that comes back after long reflection isnt about improving the lives of people and challenging the inequalities in our society, think again.

    • Nanbar February 6, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

      Old school, your experiences, reflect my own. I agree with your response to the article

  6. Helen February 5, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

    It’s a shame there isn’t any on the job training for social work assistant. I have a level 5 qualification so therefore not eligible for the programmes above nor can I afford to go to university due to needing to work full time.
    I would love to be able to train as a social worker given that my role is to support social workers in completely assessment and much more but the options are not there.
    A scheme to train social work assistant to social workers whilst still working would be great!

  7. Peter Durrant February 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

    What amazes me about this debate, as a long-retired social worker now living alone and puzzling, continually, about the present and worrying phenomenon of loneliness and isolation in often disinterested neighbourhoods, is our failure to focus on what works and what does not. Failing to reminded ourselves that a hands–on trade, as opposed to the superficiality of a ‘profession’ ignores a more helpful dialogue on what social work sometimes does fairly well and often badly. Especially in terms of achieving sharp problem-solving experiences/skills working cooperatively with disadvantaged societies, and I lived for the first twenty five years of my life on one of these neglected estates in south London, working with, and not for, disadvantaged populations. ‘Supported’ – or rather not supported, by the inadequacy of budgets which, in no sense, offer any real social and financial alternatives. So what skills are we taught and even barely possess. On reflection these, range from non-evidenced, over-generalised and poorly thought-through concepts ranging from fragments of Freud, Marx and Darwin through to non-directive counselling, the odd concept of social casework and a complete absence of welfare rights, radical social policy and administration and a complete failure to under-stand class, deprived neighbourhoods, and societal inequality. Which often makes it impossible to help those who are on the institutional receiving ends of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, lack of education and the many other situations which influence our so-called interventions. Reinforced by our inability to challenge the subtle power implications of our subtle middle-class often top down behaviours. Have you looked at You Tube recently and watched social workers coping, often badly, with working class people on shabby council estates having, seemingly, never been taught about the importance of thoughtful reflection, power-sharing and the difficult art of prevention. Which sadly illustrates to me, after thirty years experience, that we are simply agents of social control imagining we can help as we chase an empty and unhelpful notion of ‘professionism.’ Which, of course, Shaw defined as a ‘conspiracy against the laity. Where we could, arguably help is to adopt radical advocacy approaches, enabling and facilitative approaches based on open and shared community development/community social work theory and practice which, instantly, forces us to confronts our shortcomings. Building a progressive integrated, inter-professional structure by starting anew, which often actually works, based essentially on learning from people having to painfully survive from the grass-roots upwards.

  8. Cath Martin February 17, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

    How about throwing some of this money to increase practice educator’s fees? No increase for 10 years and then a 33% pay cut. Supporting a failing student puts us in the realm of below the minimum wage.