Over the next two years hundreds of social workers will receive leadership training through the Firstline programme, an intensive course designed specifically for line managers in children’s services.
The government has backed the scheme with £3.7m to expand a prototype version that was tested across eight councils in 2015. An evaluation of the pilot was positive, finding that Firstline boosted both the confidence and skill of managers involved. What did the social workers themselves make of it?
Bexley council’s Sara Taylor and Susan Webb were two of 37 managers to take part in the Firstline prototype. Over the space of six months they attended three two-day residential courses on leadership, three group ‘action learning sets’ that offered a chance to tackle issues, and a series of follow-up individual coaching sessions.
Taylor, who manages Bexley’s referral and assessment teams, says the programme gave managers a much needed chance to step back and reflect on how best to handle the challenges of high pressured roles.
“I found the coaching particularly helpful in looking at some difficulties that were going on at the time,” she says.
“But the course as a whole makes you look at things from a different perspective and think about how you behave when things happen. Because in social work you’re challenged all the time, you’re challenged in terms of casework, in terms of building relationships.
“There are lots of things happening every day, there are a lot of intellectual demands on you really. The course helped create some space to think and reflect on it.”
Webb, who manages Bexley’s Independent Reviewing Officer services and child protection conference chairs, says she particularly valued the residential element of the course. Spending two days having focused learning about leadership and reflecting on her own practice was “intense”, she admits, but invaluable.
“You very rarely get that opportunity to go away and think about these things. It wasn’t about being a manager, in the sense of ‘how many things are done by what timescales?’. Instead, it was about leadership,” she says.
“It helped me to change my style and look at how I needed to do things differently. I learnt to ask questions in a different way. Rather than get cross and frustrated because I didn’t feel I was getting my point across, it was more about thinking about what I wanted to say and how I might say it.”
The team behind Firstline specifically developed the programme for line managers. They felt professional development options for this group often lagged behind those on offer for social workers in either frontline or senior management roles.
Taylor says in her 15 years in social work she’d never had the chance to do leadership training before, with managers often offered day courses to develop their skills.
Webb has completed some management training courses, including a diploma, but says she valued Firstline’s focus on social work: “Because it was closely linked to practice and actually doing the job…that was helpful compared to maybe something more academic.”
The pair feel the course came at a good time for Bexley too. The council’s children’s services have faced a difficult few years, having been rated inadequate in 2012. As is so often the case, the services went through a period of turmoil with high staff turnover and reliance on agency staff. The Firstline pilot in 2015 coincided with wider efforts to bring more stability to the workforce.
“It really gave us the opportunity to have six people going, who were going to be staying and could work in the future together,” says Webb.
“The lasting feeling is that the people we were on the course with, we still have that positive role modelling really that we do across the service. We continue to use it. For example, one of the other people on the course – she and I will sometimes meet to rehearse those difficult conversations.”
Taylor agrees: “When we started Firstline we were all at different places in terms of how long we’d been working in the profession and the different roles we’d had and so on. But I think everyone took something from it. A lot of what we learnt has really come together.”