Frontline to curb university influence on fast-track social work curriculum

Tender document reveals plans that will see Frontline significantly reduce the role of its academic partner

Students in lecture
Credit: Mood board/Rex Features (posed by models)

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 changes

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.

Expansion

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.

Wider reforms

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.

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.

9 Responses to Frontline to curb university influence on fast-track social work curriculum

  1. Andrew February 18, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

    Let’s not pretend: this is the privatisation of social work, all part of the Government’s plan to avoid accountability for the provision of public services.

  2. Louise Bishop February 18, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    Sounds like the perfect opportunity to breed lots of little Cameronites with in-house training reserved exclusively for the high-flyers, serving a Conservative party mentality and the minions (the rest of us) covering the cost! Not that I’m bitter taking the 3 year 50k of debt route of course 😉

  3. Trevor McCarthy February 18, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    Frontline is as yet unproven. One of the reasons it has managed to gain a measure of acceptance or at least ‘benefit-of-the-doubt’ was the calibre and reputation of the academic leadership of the programme.

    Any move to dilute and sideline academic input would be troubling. To do so precipitately before the Frontline programme has proven itself to be as good as traditional training is reckless.

    The first intakes might be expected to do unusually well as recruits and staff participating would be highly motivated and aware of the novelty and attendant scrutiny of their positions.

    It should be remembered that there is no evidence whatsoever that so-called high-flyer graduates have the key skill set – interpersonal skills and empathetic approach that underpin social work. Academic excellence is all very well and it is no substitute for the communication skills that excellent social work requires.

    A questionnable programme is now dubious.

  4. karen February 19, 2016 at 11:02 am #

    I am on my second year (BA) Social Work degree course and I am astonished by the funding being directed at both Front line and Step Up. The further funding allocated despite not waiting for the review on Step up highlights the determination for the fast track option as a preferred directive from the Government. Why ?. What is the benefit ?. The subsequent cuts to bursaries each year and now talk of being completely cut has impacted greatly on the students I have been on the course with. This disregard to the students already completing a (BA) Social Work course could even be said to be dismissive, discrminitive and oppressive.

  5. John Wilks February 24, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    From the article above:

    “……bring greater coherence to the programme as we scale.”
    Scale: up or down? And what sort of English is that?

    And also from the article above:

    “The partner university role will be reduced to accrediting qualifications, administering student admissions, quality assuring grading by Frontline staff, and providing student welfare support.”
    All the background work required to run a degree programme.

    Bursaries were the staple for getting students educated and given by companies who benefited from the Graduate working for them to repay the investment. An investment, not a cost, as a car is not an asset.

  6. GGLS February 24, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Ah yes. This will be an undoubted success. Remember these are ‘high flyers’ eager to swallow the neo-liberal doctrine whole, without question.

    I mean, The City of London is teeming with such high flyers and thats never been a problem has it? I hear 2008 was a particularly good year.

  7. Sonia Walton February 24, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    From what I have read I feel the current government has little respect for the job social workers do.

    Its almost an attitude of anyone can do it as long as there is someone there to do it. Some one to be the whipping boy.

    The Front Line scheme puts me in mind of working in a factory and learning by “sitting with Nellie”

    There is positives in this but it not the whole picture and it does concern me.

  8. Kay Coddington February 24, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    This is just one step further too completely undermine social work as a profession. I complete agree with the comment about this being away to for the government to avoid responsibility, especially when it all goes wrong they can just scrap that provided and move on to the next without having any real deprecations on the government as they are deliquescing their responsibilities.

    I was not a fan of these schemes prior to the step to remove university training, but now I fear that such training could be very dangerous for service users and result in harmful practice. Social work involves working with a diverse range of people with some really complex needs. Many of these needs are a result of deeply rooted in social inequality and oppression, and social work trainees are meant grasp this in 5 weeks training and 1 placement, before moving into a paid “placement”, a job.

    Social work has become consumed in politics and the media, and the underlying focus of fighting oppression, promoting social justice and supporting some of the most vulnerable individuals in society, are often consumed with it. That’s not to say practitioners are not trying to do this; just that it is becoming ever harder with caseloads and procedures. And I fear that students on the fast track schemas will not have that protected learning time to ensure this is at the heart of their practice. Instead they will be swamped with the “procedural stuff” of whatever organisation there placement will be in.

  9. Yvonne Bon if as February 24, 2016 at 10:38 pm #

    The main resource available to me on my CQSW course back in the 80s was access to a university library, allowing me to pursue avenues of knowledge little touched on by the actual course, which was at least 50 % a waste of time. Perhaps universities have themselves to blame for being sidelined. Sad though as I suspect there will be little academic discourse and debate possible in the time allowed in the new format, I wonder if it will the pushing of single, latest theory, or stuff like NLP.