Hundreds of trainee social workers will study a curriculum entirely designed and delivered by the Frontline programme under plans that will significantly reduce university input into the fast-track scheme.
Frontline students currently train on a curriculum that’s design and delivery is led by social work academics at the University of Bedfordshire, the programme’s ‘academic partner’. That contract is coming up for renewal and a tender published this week reveals Frontline plans to bring teaching responsibilities in-house.
Frontline said it enjoyed “a great partnership” with Bedfordshire but the changes would help deliver greater consistency when the scheme is rolled out nationally.
Social work academics raised concerns Frontline’s proposals woulf block universities from any “meaningful involvement” in the programme’s training.
The contract will see Frontline take on full responsibility for designing and teaching its curriculum. It will directly employ social work experts, including academics.
The partner university role will be reduced to accrediting qualifications, administering student admissions, quality assuring grading by Frontline staff, and providing student welfare support.
Frontline, which started training social workers in 2014, is a two-year programme. Trainees do five weeks of intensive classroom-based learning, a year of on-the-job training and an assessed and supported year in employment.
Participants qualify with a postgraduate diploma at the end of the first year and work towards a master’s degree while employed as a newly qualified social worker in the second year.
The changes announced in the tender proposal will affect the teaching arrangements for up to 832 trainees starting Frontline between 2016 and 2018.
The move is part of Frontline’s expansion. The programme currently runs in London and Manchester but ministers have backed a national rollout. An evaluation of the scheme, which is funded by the Department for Education and private and voluntary sector partners, will be published later this year.
While Frontline can take on responsibility for its curriculum design and delivery, it needs to maintain a partner university to accredit its training. This is because the organisation does not hold degree awarding powers. For the same reason several colleges get their social work qualifying programmes accredited by universities.
Currently any providers wanting to apply for degree awarding powers must meet a series of requirements, including a four-year track record of course delivery. However, this could change. In November, the government’s higher education green paper proposed removing “barriers” to new providers getting degree powers.
Frontline’s desire to directly employ social work experts to run its programme across the country sets it apart from the Department for Education’s other favoured fast-track social work scheme – Step Up to Social Work. The Step Up programme is provided regionally by consortia of universities and employers.
The move comes amid tension over the government’s social work education reforms. As well as expanding fast-track schemes, government funding has been reduced for traditional social work degree programmes. Ministers also look set to cut social work bursaries – the main source of financial support for students on traditional courses.
The sensitivity of the debate, and the politics surrounding it, means few involved on any side will speak publicly about the issues. Privately, sources expressed differing views about Frontline’s tender and its implications for the sector.
Some said Frontline’s decision to takeover delivery of its curriculum could help it control the quality of training. It was also suggested the regional model used by Step Up could leave room for too much variation in the standard of teaching at different universities.
Several sources raised concerns that by directly employing social work experts, Frontline would lack the same level of independent or semi-independent scrutiny as it would with a strong academic partner. It was also suggested that by removing links with the wider social work community, and moving teaching outside of universities, the programme could be shaped by political priorities above professional concerns.
Some others were prepared to talk on the record about the tender and the wider reforms.
Brigid Featherstone, co-president of the Association of Professors of Social Work, said: “A significant programme is to be delivered by an untested organisation without meaningful involvement from a higher education institution. Where is the evidence to support this use of government funds? Where is the evidence that it has been tried successfully elsewhere?”
Sue White, professor of social work at the University of Birmingham, said: “What is troubling here is that there seems to be no ability to have a public debate about what this means for the profession. Any voice of caution from social work academics is called self-serving and labelled partisan.
White, who sat on the Social Work Taskforce charged with reforming the profession in 2009, added: “This move feels like it could be the beginning of a process that sees social work severed from the places where knowledge is created. That is never good news for a profession.”
A Frontline spokesperson said: “Bringing the programme delivery (including curriculum design) in-house will allow us to further innovate and bring greater coherence to the programme as we scale.
“We will still be using a university and will be employing a number of academics and want to increase consistency and quality across all aspects of the programme…A number of social work qualifying courses already use the model we are adopting, with further education colleges getting a higher education institution to validate.”
What do you think about the government’s reforms to social work education? Community Care is keen to hear from students (on all qualifying routes) and social workers. Email us here or leave a comment below.