A referral has been made. A neighbour who overheard a child screaming in the night has called the NSPCC and now the child’s parents, frustrated by the interference, are using every excuse to avoid letting a social worker into the house. The child’s asleep, they explain, she’s been ill in the night.
As tensions grow, the child’s father demands of the social worker: “Do you have kids?”
All the social workers assembled break off and laugh at this question’s familiarity.
This is a role-play session, part of the training consultant social workers are delivering at Frontline’s summer institute. The fast-track social work training programme started this month with a five-week residential summer institute to prepare its 104 graduate trainees for a local authority work placement, but it’s not just the students here who are getting trained.
The social workers who have agreed to take part in Frontline, by supervising a unit of the programme’s participants within their authority, are learning the programme’s model, which is based in systemic practice.
Also known as the Hackney Model, or “Reclaiming Social Work”, it was pioneered in Hackney by current chief social worker Isabelle Trowler and former Hackney children’s services deputy director Steve Goodman.
In the Hackney Model, cases are allocated to units of social workers rather than individuals, each headed up by a consultant social worker who manages the unit whilst remaining in practice. Trowler and Goodman went on to form consultancy Morning Lane Associates, which now advises Frontline on developing its training programme.
Part of what makes Frontline unique in the world of social work education is that each participant will be placed in an authority within a Hackney-style unit, overseen by a consultant social worker to help them with their cases.
Accommodating these units within participating authorities has required them to work in close partnership with Frontline. Taking on students with only five weeks of training under their belt, who will be working in a model not necessarily the same as the authority’s own, is a big commitment, but one that the Frontline believes will have big rewards in the quality of the social workers it hopes to produce.
I want to stay working with families- that’s why I’m a social worker.”
The Social Workers
For many of the consultant social workers who have chosen to take part, managing a unit of Frontline students is an opportunity for career progression while remaining in practice.
Henry Smith, a children’s social worker in Richmond upon Thames, sees participating in the programme as a way of engaging with both the academic world and with service users.
“I’ve always been interested in the academic side of social work and try to read as much as I can,” he says. “This is an opportunity to do that while working with students and, most importantly, stay working with families – that’s why I’m a social worker. I’ve got no desire to be a senior manager.”
Smith sees Frontline as an opportunity to redress some of the things he saw as lacking in his own social work education, including being told by his university that students would learn on their placement things that the placement organisations expected that they should already have learnt in university.
In this model, he thinks, they will learn in five weeks “more than most first year students…probably more than some second year students”. “What they’re being taught is preparing them very well for being in the authority and I don’t envisage them needing more or less support than a normal student,” Henry says.
However, there will inevitably be some resistance to a model different from the authorities’ own, and while the consultant social workers don’t want to dilute the Frontline model, it will have to mould into the existing systems in the host authorities.
Suzan Ismail, a children’s social worker in Haringey, feels “there’s always going to be resistance when something new and potentially radical has been introduced, but most people are much more receptive now”.
In Haringey there has been resistance across the board: from newly qualified social workers who want to know what’s wrong with the way they were trained, to more experienced social workers who feel that they are using the model’s techniques already and don’t need to adopt the systemic model formally.
There’s always going to be resistance to something new and potentially radical.”
“There are lots of techniques I was already using but this has given it a name and taught me even more of the theory behind it,” says Ismail. “The idea in systemic practice is that you can ask certain questions that become the intervention in themselves. We’ve got into a habit as social workers of always referring so this puts the focus back on social workers doing that kind of work, being a change agent.
“I don’t know if Frontline participants will need any more or less support – they’ll just need different support, but the amount they’ll be getting through the programme is far more than you would be getting on a traditional course. They are going to be well equipped.”
In the face of criticism, a lot of work has clearly gone into Frontline’s image, from the video address to the cohort given by Prime Minister David Cameron, to the expertly orchestrated visitor tours. But students Colin Edwards and Natalie Williams are clear that the programme doesn’t shy away from opposing views about the programme, or within social work itself.
Career changer Edwards, who worked in advertising and marketing before deciding to put in an application, says: “You shouldn’t think that everyone at Frontline necessarily has the same point of view about what we’re doing here. There’s massive debate between all the participants about pretty much everything.”
Williams, a recent psychology graduate, adds that the Frontline students have had “plenty of people who aren’t exactly in love with idea” come and speak to them.
Edwards and Williams got to Frontline by different paths, but both were drawn by the idea of learning in practice with the support of a team, and both have had opportunity in their personal lives to see the value of good social work.
I met so many inspirational people, most of whom were social workers.”
“This is really what I always ought to have been doing, but I didn’t necessarily believe I was capable of it when I was going into university,” says Edwards.
For Williams, it was a placement in a low security unit for people with personality disorders and subsequent charity work with people with learning disabilities that got her interested in social work.
“After my year-long placement, I got involved with lots of charities,” she says. “I met so many inspirational people, most of whom were social workers and I thought – that’s what I’m going to do. For me, Frontline made it accessible for me to become a social worker.”
Teaching the Hackney Model to the Frontline participants has been enabled by working with the organisation that came out of the model: Morning Lane Associates, which is currently training up consultant social workers to pass on knowledge of the model to the trainees.
Karen Schiltroth, the company’s head of learning describes working with Frontline as “a pretty good gig”.
“It’s been really exciting for us because we’ve all lived the unit experience and our own journeys of moving from traditional teams to units has been transformational for each of us,” she says.
“The model is really about how you create a context which provides multiple perspectives to enrich a complex task and I think that’s a model that’s applicable in most situations.
Working with Frontline is a pretty good gig.”
“The thing that the unit model does is it operates in recognition that this job is hugely complex and no one person has all of the skills and all of the knowledge for all of these difficulties – you have to collaborate.”
For Bedfordshire University professor Donald Forrester, the lead academic on the programme, Frontline will never be the only way that social workers get educated.
“That’s never been our intention,” he says. “I think we need lots of different approaches and the others are absolutely valid. I hope we can go beyond the unhelpful polarisation of the discussion to a point where other courses can take something from Frontline and Frontline can learn from other courses.”
Two weeks in and no-one has a bad word to say about the programme – from within Frontline’s walls at least. The institute is off to a flying start, but the end result still remains to be seen.