‘I believe this will make a real difference to social work education’

Professor Donald Forrester and Yvalia Febrer, academic lead and programme director respectively for the fast-tracking social work training scheme Frontline, explain how it will transform the way students are prepared for practice.

Ripping up the rule book: Donald Forrester and Yvalia Febrer

Donald, it has just been announced that you will lead a team of experts to develop the Frontline Academy curriculum. Why did you get involved?

Donald Forrester: I’ve been on a bit of a journey, because I sent an email in December to members of the Association of Professors of Social Work saying Frontline was a terrible idea. I was quite hostile to it. But then I stepped back and thought about what my experiences as a practitioner, a researcher and as a lecturer when I was training social workers had taught me. Social work has some serious problems and continuing with the same model of social work education that we’ve always had is not going to contribute to sorting out those problems.

What really struck me about Frontline was that, for as long as I’ve been in social work, universities have thought practice should be different and employers have thought universities should be teaching different things and we haven’t managed very often to get those two together. Social workers primarily learn how to do social work in practice, so you need to focus on making that excellent.

At the heart of Frontline’s approach is systemic practice. By the end of the second year, students could be not just social work qualified, but also NHS-recognised systemic practitioners. We will also teach motivational interviewing, which helps people around behaviour change and has a strong evidence base in relation to working with adults. And they’ll be trained in The Incredible Years parenting programme. So there’s a real focus on making sure social workers are able to help families.

I was also excited by the idea of bringing in specialist consultants who are dedicated to working with each group of four students. They will be trained to support students to learn the approaches I’ve just mentioned.

Yvalia Febrer: It’s a redesign of how social work is done. And we’re happy to have the Tilda Goldberg Centre involved because it’s a research centre, so this will be grounded in research. That’s important for us.

Forrester: And these approaches are ones we’ve researched. We recently published research into the Hackney model of systemic units. Frontline is very influenced by that model and we’ve seen how effective it can be. It makes a real difference to the quality of practice. We’ve also been doing a number of studies about motivational interviewing – we’re finishing off a big one at the moment – and the feedback we’re getting from service users and social workers is that it’s a hugely helpful way of working.

Crucially, students will have to write reflective academic accounts of all these things, but that’s not the only way they’re getting judged; they will be evaluated on their ability to deliver them, for example, through observation of their practice.

Can you tell me more about the leadership element of the programme?

Febrer: I think when people hear that word they think of climbing the ladder and progressing into management. They don’t think of a skills set, per se. But I think the social work role is a leadership role: you are walking amongst complexity, high risk and sometimes quite chaotic situations and trying to bring about some kind of understanding and order. You’re navigating numerous different agencies, many of whom work in different ways and have competing agendas. And a lot of time those relationships are quite strained and difficult. It takes leadership skills to bring about change for a family with all of those things on your to do list. So we’re going to embed leadership development in the programme.

Forrester: When I first became involved with Frontline, I was slightly sceptical about leadership because I think it can be a meaningless buzzword. However, I think the vision of leadership here is partly about creating change with families, but also wider change. Leadership within this programme will look at the contribution social workers can make at every level of the organisation and outside of it.

Why do you feel there is a need to move away from traditional models of practice education?

Forrester: There are some fantastic practice educators – I had one in my second year – and some of them feel like we’re criticising the good work they’re doing. We’re absolutely not. What we’re saying is, it’s not enough just to leave it chance whether people get a good practice educator or not. We as a programme need to make sure that the people offering that crucial role are really good and well-supported themselves, so they can focus on training students how to do the job well. If you get that right, you can really make a difference.

I think there are loads of social workers who’d love the [consultant social worker] role. Social workers don’t come into the profession to become managers, they want to become really good at practice. I probably wouldn’t have become an academic, or not as quickly, if a job like that had been available.

Febrer: I think it’s in the spirit of the Munro review and others of giving experienced, skilled social workers the option to stay in practice.

Many people have been sceptical about Frontline, particularly in the academic world. Was or is that a concern?

Forrester: I’ve been talking a lot to academics. I think when people see the quality of what’s being delivered, it will assuage a lot of concerns. But it is a challenge to social work education, just the same as it was for teaching when Teach First came along. Teach First is now the biggest provider of teacher training, so it’s had a big influence in that sector. I can see why social work academics are very anxious about Frontline. However, I think we have to think about service users and the impact on them – and then we need to think about creating social work education in relation to that.

Febrer: A lot of the criticisms are valid. Many of these people have been teaching and practising social work for decades, so it’s important for us to listen to them.

The structure of Frontline implies that generic social work training isn’t necessary, that social workers can specialise from day one without any detrimental impact on their practice. Do you understand why some people have rejected that idea?

Forrester: I wrote an essay 25 years ago about genericism versus specialising. It’s a perennial theme. I’m not sure that all the time and effort we spend on arguing about this has made any difference to service users. I think we need to start focusing on the quality of social workers – because in my opinion, a really good quality social worker, whatever they specialised in, will be able to work with anyone.

Systemic approaches can be used in adult services and motivational interviewing was developed in work with adults, so the Frontline participants will develop transferable skills.

Some people have also raised concerns about the timescales, i.e. five weeks before students go into a frontline team, one year before they qualify. What would you say to them?

Forrester: In an ideal world a five-year qualification would be fantastic, but we have to be realistic about the options open to graduates and the funding available for social work education. The most academically able have a lot of options, so we need to make this as attractive as possible for them. Frontline will be one of a variety of different courses.

Febrer: The point isn’t how many hours you’re teaching for, but what you’re teaching. It’s the content.

Forrester: There is going to be an evaluation, independently commissioned by the Department for Education. We’re also going to have an extremely rigorous quality assurance process built into the whole thing, from the admissions process through to testing at the end of the course. So we should be able to see the difference the course is making. 

I get no extra pay for this and it’s a lot of work. I’m doing it because I believe it will make a real difference to social work education.

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