Frontline students have ‘significantly higher’ practice skills than others, evaluation finds

The evaluation couldn't identify whether the results of practice assessments for students were due to the training or the highly selective nature of the programme

trainee social workers at a unit meeting
Frontline participants at a unit meeting. Photo: Frontline

The quality of practice of Frontline participants is “significantly higher” than students from mainstream programmes, an independent evaluation into the training scheme has found.

Published today, the long-awaited evaluation of the training scheme for children’s social workers said the interviewing and written reflection skills of participants were significantly higher than those on mainstream programmes, and that a “new cohort of highly skilled practitioners is joining the workforce”.

The evaluation added that the quality of students from mainstream programmes was also “mostly positive”.


However, questions remain over whether the difference in quality was due to Frontline’s approach, or the programme’s selective nature.

“Selection into the Frontline programme was not random, rendering it difficult to evaluate whether any differences in performance in the Frontline evaluation are due to the Frontline programme itself or due to any selection effects,” the evaluation said.

A comparison between Frontline trainees and those from mainstream programmes who had the minimum academic requirements needed to join Frontline found little difference in the quality of written reflection, while the difference in interviewing quality remained.

Frontline is a post-graduate social work training course that aims to bring people with strong academic records into the profession. Its curriculum includes an intensive five-week summer institute and a year in practice in a local authority. They qualify after that year and start their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment. Roughly 2,000 applicants applied for its first cohort, of which one in 20 were selected. Frontline students are paid a bursary worth the equivalent to a £19,000 a year salary and their tuition fee costs are covered.

Highly selective

Cardiff University’s evaluation was unable to identify whether the difference in quality was because of the training, or the highly selective nature of Frontline. “It may well be that Frontline’s very well-resourced and highly selective recruitment campaign has borne fruit, although it is also possible that the Frontline training model has contributed to the impressive practice quality of Frontline graduates,” it said.

It also accepted that criticisms of the model from academics remain, and it would be “understandable” if social work educators in England did not rush to embrace Frontline. It acknowledged how, in its comparison of the skills of Frontline trainees and mainstream education trainees, that those in mainstream programmes were more likely to have part-time work and childcare responsibilities.

Frontline students were also found to be less ethnically diverse than other under- and post-graduate social work courses, but as diverse as the general population of England and Wales.

Other key findings

  • Participants in Frontline have “significantly better” A-level results than students on other social work programmes, better GCSE grades in maths and English, and more first-class degrees
  • Frontline students rated “significantly higher” than other students for their interviewing and written reflection skills
  • Frontline trainees’ confidence in their ability was significantly lower than those from mainstream courses
  • More Frontline participants see themselves staying in social work than those in masters programmes in universities with highest entry requirements
  • The move away from generic social work is “inherent” in the Frontline model and trainees’ experiences in an adult setting “was not universally positive”.
  • Frontline students are younger, more likely to have parents who were graduates and more likely to have attended private schools
  • Findings about how training was delivered to students were “broadly positive”. There were signs the programme had improved between cohort one and two
  • Local authority perceptions of Frontline trainees was very positive over time, but their lack of practice experience was noted by consultant social workers at the outset
  • Integration with other practitioners in social work teams was “variable”
  • Social workers said their training had been “cut back” because of how much money councils were having to put in to running the programme
  • Frontline participants gave mixed reviews for their adult placement. Some said it distracted from child and family social work
  • The evaluation warned that, without any formal connection to university research, Frontline’s evidence base could “substantially weaken” in coming years

The evaluation compared Frontline trainees with a sample of students about to qualify from mainstream programmes, and students in high-tariff universities. They all went through simulated interviews with actors playing the role of service users.

Their recordings and written reflection were independently rated by two experienced practice assessors in accordance with generic social work practice quality criteria. The assessors did not know which group each participant was from.

The quality of the trainees skills was scored, and it was found that overall Frontline participants scored more highly, other than in the application of theory, in each area evaluated.

The average scores given to the practice skills of trainees in Frontline's evaluation. Graphic: Frontline

The average scores given to the practice skills of trainees in Frontline’s evaluation. Graphic: Frontline

The findings suggest a “high quality of practice from Frontline trainees” in the areas tested. But added the findings for mainstream students were “mostly positive” despite showing scores lower than Frontline’s.

It said “the much clearer” difference in interview quality could be interpreted as supporting Frontline’s emphasis on practice skills.

Some criticisms answered

The evaluation said it could answer some criticisms of Frontline, such as concerns it offers a narrow focus on child protection, trainees’ ability to establish relationships with families and that trainees might practice a “more confrontational” child protection approach.

But it also found that some Frontline participants struggled to contextualise their learning due to a lack of relevant work experience, and noted that the requirement for two days of shadowing in a the placement local authority, with one day in an adult setting, “might not be sufficient for those with little or no previous experience”.

Well resourced

“It is possible that the positive outcomes were due to well-resourced quality placements and other aspects of the training model such as focusing on one theoretical framework and teaching two specific evidence-based approaches. However this can only be speculation, given that the evaluation design cannot isolate the effect of the training from selection effects,” the evaluation said.

The evaluation concluded that, while question marks remain over whether the differences in practice quality are due to the model or the very selective recruitment criteria Frontline has, “there is room for an optimistic interpretation of the data in support of Frontline’s emphasis on practice skills and in particular micro-skills of interaction”.

Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, described the findings as an “early endorsement”.

“We are pleased to demonstrate value for money in the work we do to recruit and develop new social workers.”

He added: “We will continue to change the programme as we learn from some of the best practice and research in the profession.”

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17 Responses to Frontline students have ‘significantly higher’ practice skills than others, evaluation finds

  1. Fozz123 March 24, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    I don’t think the question about whether it is ‘recruitment’ or ‘delivery’ is relevant. It’s clear that Frontline is working and who wouldn’t want to be on this programme with its salary and employment. The fact is that most ‘mainstream’ training (and I object to this fast track/mainstream distinction) courses would love 1st class degree entrants. I’ve seen some terrible MA students/graduates. Let’s face it…this is a new dawn. The social work degree is dead.

    • Beth March 30, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

      I am disappointed that you think you can devalue my First Class Degree!
      I had over 15 years experience in Health and Social Care prior to my degree. I still went through the whole programme and that learning including a variety of theoretical models was the base that I now work from.
      Very worrying that the very limited theory has resulted in report above that this could lead to a more confrontational type of work! Families need experienced people who can engage them, understand, empathise and assist with change…not a young cohort who are privileged and who can not reflect on the full range of theory/research and models to assist them in this very difficult work.
      The social work degree is not dead! I hope not as the last thing child protection needs is the type of confrontational type of work that i have witnessed at times!

      • RS March 31, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

        Beth – just to reassure you the Frontline training is not about confrontation. If anything our practice supervisors say we are too respectful! We are being taught heavily in systemic practice and motivational interviewing… both non confrontational methods of engagement. Your degree is not devalued – you are a qualified worker, as we will be. Lots of us on the programme have relevant degrees plus experience (social policy degree plus 5 yrs practice experience for me, and this is not unusual on the programme). The fact is that fast track is attractive to experienced people who want to step up. I have spoken to many people on the programme, who like me were in good jobs before we joined and wouldn’t have made the move if it weren’t for fast track.

      • DW April 1, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

        The report doesn’t say FL students are more confrontational – it says the opposite, that although some people thought FL students might be confrontational with families, in this evaluation, they found no evidence of this. So that’s reassuring I think.

  2. Terry Murphy March 25, 2016 at 7:17 am #

    This evaluation would probably have received a warmer reception from the profession if their had not been such strong conservative political declarations of the programs success prior to it even being completed. Looking at the evaluation its important to note that the success criteria for practice is based upon :”They all went through simulated interviews with actors playing the role of service users” .The idea that simulated interviews can accurately map over to real world practice skills is surely a problematic one . Firstly courses which utilise simulated interviews more frequently in teaching will tend to produce students who perform better when evaluated using this method for evaluation .Secondly the highly contained and constrained nature of the simulated interview is an enormously different context to demonstrate practice ability than the uncontrolled and unexpected setting of real world practice in the community.
    in this instance the design of the evaluation and its context stripping seems to lead unsurprisingly to its findings.

    • DW April 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

      It’s true that simulations are not the same as real situations but it’s not the case that skills shown in simulations have no relationship to real skills – they actually correlate pretty strongly. As it happens, the FL teaching programme doesn’t involve any simulated interviews – I don’t know if other courses do (mine didn’t either).

  3. Get me out of here March 29, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Frontline for Tory Social Workers. So what do we have privileged privately educated probably politically right leaning people employed to pass judgement on the under-privileged lower social classes. Frankly as a Working class Social Worker I resent what I see as toffs being unleashed on the working classes. Now before anyone criticises me for being class biased, well frankly I am.

    In my opinion being a Tory is enough to remove any credibility you might have had, so if you are a Tory please go and find a nice banking job and do what you are generally good at being self interested. Also by definition privately educated well spoken Social workers are resented by both service users and other social workers.

    Class inequality is real deeply entrenched and posh Social Workers are a real turn off. Sorry if my views offend or are considered offensive, but I make no apologies. Tory Social workers we don’t want you.

    • RS March 29, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

      I’m a frontline student, certainly not a Tory and I’m not sure there are Tories on the course! Everyone I have spoken to is a leftie. I consider myself working class but yes I have a degree, that doesn’t make me posh. Social work goes across the classes and service users want a good social worker, they don’t care about their accent. I’m not sure where you got the idea that Frontline is for Tory social workers from but it’s not true. And yes your views are offensive.

  4. Old School March 29, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    This report is very misleading and clearly not enough comparisons of data are being made I would urge people to look at another report which has just been published:

    The costs of Social Work Education report shows that Frontline training is THREE times more costly than the undergraduate training route. A Frontline trainee costs £45, 323 to train in comparison to £14, 675 for an undergraduate trainee.

    Are Frontline graduates three times better than undergraduate students upon qualifying?…….will they last three times as long in practice?

    • DW April 1, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

      The cost argument is a difficult one – FL costs more from one perspective but according to the report is probably cheaper based on full economic costs. And the effect size of the differences in practice skills is pretty huge. Plus FL students say they want to stay in practice for longer than eg the MA students involved in the evaluation, so maybe we need to worry more about their longevity (as well?)

  5. Apple Crumble March 29, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

    not worried at all about what these biased researches say

    in another 3-5 years the government will come up with something new with brand new accusations of failures

    Bye Felica

  6. Apparent Tory Social Worker March 29, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    Hands up, I qualified as a social worker via Frontline this September. Full disclosure. It is a programme that, understandably and with some justification in my view, has an image problem and, as is the case with any and all training routes, limitations. It is also a programme that many in the sector have frankly bizarre opinions on. Some responses here demonstrate this perfectly; reference to a report allegedly stating Frontline costs three times as much as the traditional undergraduate route when the linked report makes no such claim (arguably saying the opposite, your perspective depending) and ad hominem attacks.

    One of the best things about my job is working with colleagues from a rich variety of backgrounds, experiences and routes to qualification and my sense is that such social work teams can be the ones that produce the best work and outcomes for vulnerable people. I wouldn’t want to see Frontline or its model replace any other route and completely understand wariness that it would. I also wouldn’t want to dismiss (out of, let’s face it too often defensive-minded prejudice) anyone who chooses any route into a much needed and challenging job. Frontline doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, does it?

  7. CK March 29, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    ‘Frontline participants gave mixed reviews for their adult placement. Some said it distracted from child and family social work’

    I think the real issue is that Frontline heralds the pernicious encroachment of a model of specialisation that has no basis in evidence and which, due to its narrow focus, does not promote better outcomes for service users. My respective practice placements (as part of my two-year ‘fast-track’ qualification – called a Master’s) were with older people and then children and families. I now work predominantly with adults with learning disabilities. And those two placements in disparate settings could not have served me better.

    My understanding is that families are made up of children, young people AND adults, and that children and young people who come into contact with social work very often do so as a result of ‘adult’ issues such as parental drug and alcohol misuse, parental mental health issues, domestic violence, unmet parental/grandparental health/social care needs and so on. There is a strong hint of naivety, possibly condescension, in the suggestion that an adult placement could distract from child and family social work.

    • Beth March 30, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

      I agree. When i went back to work briefly in adults my children and family experience was invaluable. The transferable skills are waiting to be used and you can not separate one area from another. Children with a Disability working is a very good example of why you need knowledge of both…The Care Act/Deprivation of Liberty etc needs to be understood in relation to young people.
      I think it is very arrogant to try and dismiss adult placements! If you are truly cleaver you will turn any experience into a learning opportunity and a chance to practice well.

  8. anon March 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    ‘Frontline participants gave mixed reviews for their adult placement. Some said it distracted from child and family social work’
    I think the comment above is more a reflection on how the placement is organised, for example if it’s run alongside your children’s placement (say one day a week) it could seem like a distraction, and perhaps for some people they weren’t quality placements, which from my understanding is a problem on social work degrees too. I think people are trying to look for anything which fits their judgements of ‘naive’ etc. Funny how social work training asks you to be open minded and curious but it seems many people have made up their minds about Frontline no matter what!

    • CK April 2, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

      You are misrepresenting the point I actually made, which was a wider one about specialisation and how it leads to the idea that social work with adults may lack relevance to social work with children and families, a view expressed by some Frontline students according to this report. As I said, I think this hints at a certain naivety. I was not making a general comment about Frontline beyond that it is advancing the specialisation agenda. Yes, social workers should be open minded and curious, but they should also be critical and express their views and why they hold them.

  9. Chris April 1, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    As a strong academic with a degree from a top university, if I’d qualified ten years earlier then in all likelihood I’d have been ‘herded’ towards Frontline. But I still graduated – Frontline’s big claim is that it attracts a higher standard of social worker. But lots of people with top degrees have always been attracted to social work, and (like me) would have entered the profession regardless of Frontline.
    What Frontline does is to siphon off these graduates (at huge expense) into a technocratic, neoliberal programme, so that universities can then be criticised from the lower standards of their own graduates, ensuring a self-perpetuating cycle.
    I’m glad I qualified from a university with a mixed group of students, rather than from a government social worker factory. I learned a lot of different kinds of skills than I would if I’d gone to an extension of Oxbridge.