‘We must not be ashamed of trying to attract outstanding graduates into social work’

Lord Andrew Adonis, chair of Frontline, explains why he thinks social work should strive to attract more graduates from the UK’s leading 24 “Russell Group” universities.

Critics of the new on-the-job training scheme Frontline have accused its founders and supporters of at best misunderstanding what makes a good social worker and at worst outright elitism. But Lord Andrew Adonis, chair of Frontline and former Labour education minister with responsibility for children’s social work, defends the scheme’s aim to attract “outstanding” graduates into the profession.

Adonis is a trustee of Teach First, the training and recruitment model on which Frontline is based. For years, he thought this model could be applied to children’s social work, but, at the time he was education minister, from 2005 to 2008, Teach First was still relatively new (it launched in 2002) and its impact had not yet been assessed. On top of this, nobody was willing or able to come forward with a proposal to adapt the model to social work.

Now, he says, Frontline is an idea “whose time has come”. This is partly because Teach First has grown and is deemed by the government to have been a success, but also because Josh MacAlister has come forward as chief executive. MacAlister is a Teach First graduate, which is how he met Adonis. “The reason I got involved with Frontline in the first place was because of Josh,” Adonis explains. “This idea that you could set up an equivalent of Teach First in social work has been around for a while, but making these ideas happen depends on transformational individuals. Josh came and told me this was what he wanted to do and I thought the least I could do was open a few doors.”

An ‘elitist’ model

Adonis specialised in education policy when he was an advisor for the Number 10 Policy Unit, which he went on to lead before becoming education minister. He is almost evangelical about the way Teach First has raised the status of teaching and firmly believes Frontline can do the same for social work. “The transformational moment for me, when we were considering whether to back Teach First, was when we were told about the success of Teach for America in the United States. Somebody told me that one in 10 graduates from Harvard and Princeton were applying to Teach for America that year. I simply couldn’t believe it.

“In my year at Oxford, I recall only one of my contemporaries applying to become a state school teacher and, for him, it was a toss-up between becoming a teacher and becoming a priest; he had that level of social commitment. And now Teach First is recruiting 10% of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge and about the same in Russell Group universities are applying.”

Yet it is exactly this emphasis on attracting people from Russell Group universities that has worried so many in the social work sector. A spokesperson for the College of Social Work, writing on its blog, pointed out that Russell Group universities are “not alone in offering a high level of education”. A former social worker writing on her own personal blog agreed: “Frontline is based on an elitist model where some universities are ‘better’ than others. I don’t think the university you go to defines your quality of potential for social work or your intelligence and ability to critically analyse and reflect.”

Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University and chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network, pointed out that most service users, when asked what they valued as the most important qualities and skills for social workers, would not say “their choice of university”.

But Adonis does not seem overly concerned by the elitist label. “If social work is going to be a top profession, it needs people of the calibre of our top lawyers, doctors and accountants in the profession, which means academically able graduates,” he says. “We’ve got to be unashamed about that.  But they also have to have the right personal skills to make a difference. There are people with vested interests who don’t want things to change, but there’s almost nobody who doesn’t want to see more of the brightest and best graduates applying for social work, which is what Frontline is about. It’s not in any way to denigrate what’s happening at the moment; it’s to build on it.”

And this is the key point. Adonis thinks a lot of the criticism stems from a misunderstanding; that people feel Frontline is trying to replace existing training and recruitment routes. “It does not seek to do that. If it proves to be successful I hope it will grow over time, but even if it grows substantially it’s still going to be a small minority of the intake into the profession. Is there room for both? There manifestly is.”

Frontline’s short-term plan is to recruit 100 outstanding graduates into children’s social work from next year. Its broader ambition is to make a “transformational difference” to vulnerable families. The success of this, Adonis says, will depend on getting “the most able people in society taking on the toughest jobs”. “Unless we get to a situation where teaching, social work, working in a youth offender institutions and all those other jobs that are important to society are as highly regarded and recruit as successfully as the lawyers, accountants and civil servants, we will never work as a society.”

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