New consultant social worker roles to be funded by the Frontline fast-track training scheme

Josh MacAlister, the man behind the controversial Frontline training programme proposals for children's social workers, insists he is taking the sector's concerns on board.

The Frontline fast track training programme for children’s social workers has provoked an emotional response from many in the sector, including frontline staff, employers and academics. Some vehemently support the proposals, claiming the scheme will attract talented graduates who might never have otherwise contemplated social work as a career. Others argue that the money and time would be better spent on improving existing qualifying courses. Attempts to bash out the detail of Frontline’s delivery have often been thwarted by arguments over whether the programme should even go ahead.

Frontline has polarised the profession far more than, say, the Step Up to Social Work programme before it.  Josh MacAlister, the man behind Frontline, suggests this is because he and his team are proposing a more radical overhaul of the way social workers are trained. They are not trying to condense the existing degree curriculum into one year as Step Up did into 18 months; instead they are designing a new curriculum altogether and changing the way it is delivered to students.

And, while many academics in particular have loudly voiced their concerns about the timescales and structure of the programme, MacAlister has the backing of some big players. Professor Eileen Munro and the recently-appointed chief social worker for children in England, Isabelle Trowler, were both involved in the early discussions about Frontline – to name just two from a fairly substantial list. The government, too, has thrown its weight behind the scheme, giving it startup funding (continued funding would depend on whether MacAlister’s team is able to prove Frontline’s worth).

Yet MacAlister seems keen still to court the approval of grassroots social workers and academics. He points out that he has listened to feedback from the sector and tweaked the proposals in response. For example, Frontline will now:

  • Give students a longer period of time for study leave, “so they have a bit more of a breather during the first year”.
  • Send each participant on “contrasting placements” for up to six weeks in total during the first year, so they experience a range of settings. This might be in a charity or another part of the department in which they are normally based, for example.
  • Part-fund full-time consultant social workers (CSWs) to support the students.

MacAlister says the programme has suffered from many misconceptions, such as that it dumps people straight into frontline child protection social work with only a few week’s training. Media coverage hasn’t helped, with many news outlets, including Community Care, picking up on the summer school angle (it was hard to resist the accompanying photo of a student sitting on a deckchair in the sun).

But MacAlister explains that the five week summer school period is intensive preparation for beginning the equivalent of a year-long practice placement with concurrent academic teaching. Students will only be able to qualify as social workers at the end of that supported year of on-the-job training. “We want to get them practice ready at the point of qualifying,” says MacAlister, adding that this includes instilling in students leadership skills and the kind of high-level critical thinking advocated by Munro in her review of child protection.

Scrapping the traditional practice placement model

One of the most interesting aspects to emerge from the proposals is how Frontline will deliver the on-the-job training. Traditionally, students on practice placements are slotted into existing teams and allocated a practice educator. It is pot luck whether they will get a high quality statutory placement and, even if they do, they may not be properly supported by a practice educator with the right skills or a light enough caseload. MacAlister borrows a term he once heard used to describe this; a “brittle” system with several weak points, any of which could undermine the whole experience.

Instead, Frontline is proposing to create a new “participant unit model” to support its students. Each unit will be made up of a CSW, four Frontline students and some form of admin support. It has some similarities to the Hackney model, but without requiring such a major (and potentially very expensive) restructure.

The CSWs will be trained by Frontline so they will know exactly what each student is learning on the academic side. In this way, it taps into what Alison Domakin says about practice education; that practice and academic learning should be much more closely aligned. The CSWs will receive monthly coaching sessions throughout the year and work with the students full time, which means they will receive closer supervision than they would in a traditional practice placement, says MacAlister. The unit’s caseload will increase as the year goes on in line with the students’ capabilities.

Frontline is proposing to fund the training of and a salary uplift for CSWs, in exchange for being allowed to have a hand in recruiting or appointing them. They are offering employers £5,000 per student. To put this in context, local authorities currently receive £18 per day per student from higher education institutions, which, over 200 days of placement, amounts to £3,600 per person. “Saying to a local authority, ‘can we have your best social worker for learning and development please’ raises eyebrows,” says MacAlister. “This way it’s good for employers, because they can offer advanced roles that allow experienced social workers to stay on the frontline rather than move into management. The biggest risk to this not working is not finding the consultants or them struggling to do the role.” The aim is to recruit 25 CSWs for the first cohort of Frontline students, starting from this December.

In the meantime, Frontline has committed to raising £1.5m in addition to its government seed funding. MacAlister hopes to announce the scheme’s main university partner this month, who will further develop and finalise the curriculum ahead of the first intake of students next year. This partner will also be responsible for delivering the training programme and overseeing the accreditation of its participants. The application process for potential students will open later this year. While this is going on, MacAlister insists he will remain open to constructive criticism and feedback from all quarters: “I hope I keep getting invited into the lion’s den.”

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