Frontline author defends controversial social work training scheme

The Frontline training scheme is not a panacea, but it will make children's social work more attractive to high quality graduates, says project leader Josh MacAlister, as he addresses some initial concerns from the sector.

Community Care: There is no shortage of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) at the moment; on the contrary, many are struggling to find work because local authorities prefer to recruit those with two or more years’ experience. Wouldn’t Frontline simply increase the volume of social workers looking for entry-level jobs?

MacAlister: We want social work to be a career of choice. Negative media stories and high profile scandals mean that social work continues to struggle to attract the very best people. While there are lots of NQSWs who are struggling to find jobs, there are also local authority frontline teams that have told us there aren’t enough ‘practice ready’ new social workers. The training and design of Frontline will ensure that, after year one, people have lengthy experience of statutory settings and a training programme that gives them well developed practice skills. Community Care’s own vacancy rate and agency staff studies tell part of this story. Frontline will aim to bridge this gap.

You suggest a preference for more candidates from Russell Group universities, which tend to attract more middle class students. How would this affect the diversity of social work graduates?  How important is academic ability versus experience, in your opinion?

Frontline’s recruitment process will look for two key features. One is the high academic ability you need to be an effective social worker. We should not be afraid to say that frontline practice requires analytical thinking, assessment skills, and excellent written and spoken communication. The second will be the qualities, skills and values to be a successful practitioner. These range from emotional resilience, compassion, good quality judgement and humility. There are people out there who have both and we should stop at nothing to bring them into social work.

It goes without saying that there are great social workers, and future social workers, who didn’t go to Russell Group universities and I would add that the Oxbridge point has been somewhat simplified. The Frontline report said the number of Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates applying for post graduate social work courses was a “very narrow” measure and that it was “indicative” rather than conclusive – but I do believe something is wrong when less that 1% of students from these universities considers social work.

If the quality of social work training is a concern, why create a new, fast-track scheme rather than trying to improve current provision?

The ambition for Frontline is that it would be more than a training scheme. To have maximum impact on challenging social disadvantage we need to create a mission-focused programme that conceives social work as a leadership role. Frontline will bring together experts from the profession and beyond to fully prepare people for the reality of the job. Further reform is being championed by Eileen Munro, the Reform Board, Reclaiming Social Work and others. My view is that Frontline is a small but important part of improving social work.

How many currently-practising social workers did you speak to as part of your initial research into this idea and how many will you consult as you move the project forward?

Lots. Since starting work on the project at the start of this year I’ve had countless conversations with new and experienced social workers, safeguarding leads, directors of children’s services, academics and people from professional bodies. There is no plan to end this process and I’m still eager to get the views of professionals about how we can make Frontline successful. Big decisions still need to be made about the design of the course and the level of support that participants will need in the workplace.

How would Frontline ensure that people gain enough understanding of wider social work issues? It is generally agreed within the sector that social workers require generic training before specialising in a certain field, as there can be so much crossover in terms of skills and knowledge.

Being a social worker is one of the most challenging professions in Britain today and preparing individuals for that work is a massive responsibility, which we take incredibly seriously. This is about getting great people to take up this challenge, without in any way sugar-coating what it involves. Our ultimate duty is to those children whose lives we want to improve, which is why we are taking our time to develop the best possible programme in consulation with professionals and others.

On the timeframe, the Frontline programme will be two years long; the first 12 months will be intensive on-the-job training with a number of evening and weekend sessions to build on the intensive residential training at the beginning. It’s really important to stress that Frontline participants will continue to learn theory for practice throughout the first year and beyond. Naturally, lots of this theory will give the participants an understanding of the wider role of social workers and the links between adult social care issues and the impact this can have on wider families. But there is an urgent need for people who are prepared with the skills and knowledge for frontline children’s social work.

Some people have pointed out that fast-tracking ‘high quality’ graduates into child protection won’t work unless the fundamental problems of capacity/inadequate resources are addressed. What assurances are there that Frontline trainees will be properly supported once they complete the course?

This is a really important point. If Frontline is successful it needs to part of a wider range of measures to professionalise and support social workers. Some of the options we are considering include external mentors who can provide extra supervision and check that participants are being properly supported. We also need to design a way of working with local authorities so that they can get the most from Frontline.

Beyond the first year, participants would be entitled to ASYE [Assessed and Supported Year in Employment] support, ongoing mentoring from Frontline and further study towards a master’s focused on leading change in difficult circumstances. The nature of the programme would also mean that there would be a national cohort of social workers who could use their networks to make wider change in the profession beyond the two years. Frontline would have a formal way of supporting this network. 

Download the report, Frontline: Improving the children’s social work profession

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