The quality of practice of Frontline participants is “significantly higher” than students from mainstream programmes, an independent evaluation into the training scheme has found.
Published today, the long-awaited evaluation of the training scheme for children’s social workers said the interviewing and written reflection skills of participants were significantly higher than those on mainstream programmes, and that a “new cohort of highly skilled practitioners is joining the workforce”.
The evaluation added that the quality of students from mainstream programmes was also “mostly positive”.
However, questions remain over whether the difference in quality was due to Frontline’s approach, or the programme’s selective nature.
“Selection into the Frontline programme was not random, rendering it difficult to evaluate whether any differences in performance in the Frontline evaluation are due to the Frontline programme itself or due to any selection effects,” the evaluation said.
A comparison between Frontline trainees and those from mainstream programmes who had the minimum academic requirements needed to join Frontline found little difference in the quality of written reflection, while the difference in interviewing quality remained.
Frontline is a post-graduate social work training course that aims to bring people with strong academic records into the profession. Its curriculum includes an intensive five-week summer institute and a year in practice in a local authority. They qualify after that year and start their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment. Roughly 2,000 applicants applied for its first cohort, of which one in 20 were selected. Frontline students are paid a bursary worth the equivalent to a £19,000 a year salary and their tuition fee costs are covered.
Cardiff University’s evaluation was unable to identify whether the difference in quality was because of the training, or the highly selective nature of Frontline. “It may well be that Frontline’s very well-resourced and highly selective recruitment campaign has borne fruit, although it is also possible that the Frontline training model has contributed to the impressive practice quality of Frontline graduates,” it said.
It also accepted that criticisms of the model from academics remain, and it would be “understandable” if social work educators in England did not rush to embrace Frontline. It acknowledged how, in its comparison of the skills of Frontline trainees and mainstream education trainees, that those in mainstream programmes were more likely to have part-time work and childcare responsibilities.
Frontline students were also found to be less ethnically diverse than other under- and post-graduate social work courses, but as diverse as the general population of England and Wales.
Other key findings
- Participants in Frontline have “significantly better” A-level results than students on other social work programmes, better GCSE grades in maths and English, and more first-class degrees
- Frontline students rated “significantly higher” than other students for their interviewing and written reflection skills
- Frontline trainees’ confidence in their ability was significantly lower than those from mainstream courses
- More Frontline participants see themselves staying in social work than those in masters programmes in universities with highest entry requirements
- The move away from generic social work is “inherent” in the Frontline model and trainees’ experiences in an adult setting “was not universally positive”.
- Frontline students are younger, more likely to have parents who were graduates and more likely to have attended private schools
- Findings about how training was delivered to students were “broadly positive”. There were signs the programme had improved between cohort one and two
- Local authority perceptions of Frontline trainees was very positive over time, but their lack of practice experience was noted by consultant social workers at the outset
- Integration with other practitioners in social work teams was “variable”
- Social workers said their training had been “cut back” because of how much money councils were having to put in to running the programme
- Frontline participants gave mixed reviews for their adult placement. Some said it distracted from child and family social work
- The evaluation warned that, without any formal connection to university research, Frontline’s evidence base could “substantially weaken” in coming years
The evaluation compared Frontline trainees with a sample of students about to qualify from mainstream programmes, and students in high-tariff universities. They all went through simulated interviews with actors playing the role of service users.
Their recordings and written reflection were independently rated by two experienced practice assessors in accordance with generic social work practice quality criteria. The assessors did not know which group each participant was from.
The quality of the trainees skills was scored, and it was found that overall Frontline participants scored more highly, other than in the application of theory, in each area evaluated.
The findings suggest a “high quality of practice from Frontline trainees” in the areas tested. But added the findings for mainstream students were “mostly positive” despite showing scores lower than Frontline’s.
It said “the much clearer” difference in interview quality could be interpreted as supporting Frontline’s emphasis on practice skills.
Some criticisms answered
The evaluation said it could answer some criticisms of Frontline, such as concerns it offers a narrow focus on child protection, trainees’ ability to establish relationships with families and that trainees might practice a “more confrontational” child protection approach.
But it also found that some Frontline participants struggled to contextualise their learning due to a lack of relevant work experience, and noted that the requirement for two days of shadowing in a the placement local authority, with one day in an adult setting, “might not be sufficient for those with little or no previous experience”.
“It is possible that the positive outcomes were due to well-resourced quality placements and other aspects of the training model such as focusing on one theoretical framework and teaching two specific evidence-based approaches. However this can only be speculation, given that the evaluation design cannot isolate the effect of the training from selection effects,” the evaluation said.
The evaluation concluded that, while question marks remain over whether the differences in practice quality are due to the model or the very selective recruitment criteria Frontline has, “there is room for an optimistic interpretation of the data in support of Frontline’s emphasis on practice skills and in particular micro-skills of interaction”.
Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, described the findings as an “early endorsement”.
“We are pleased to demonstrate value for money in the work we do to recruit and develop new social workers.”
He added: “We will continue to change the programme as we learn from some of the best practice and research in the profession.”