By Harry Ferguson, professor of social work, University of Nottingham
The evaluation of Frontline raises important questions for social work that transcend the particularities of that course.
We now need a robust debate about what social work education is for and the extent to which its future – in England at least – lies with 2-year MA and 3-year BA courses provided by universities or with the fast-track courses of 12-month Frontline or 14-month Step Up to Social Work programmes, or both.
The direction of travel is strongly in favour of fast-track courses.
The government recently invested £100m in Frontline, which will mean that soon 1 in 4 new social workers will be trained by them. It has also announced plans to extend Think Ahead, the fast-track route for mental health social work, and confirmed it is considering axing bursaries for social work degrees.
And since the mostly positive Frontline evaluation will certainly be used to argue even more strongly in favour of fast-track courses at the expense of traditional degrees, it is vital that what this evaluation does and does not show is clearly established.
Compared to traditional courses where time is split roughly 50-50 between being in university and on placement, Frontline students do a 5-week summer school and spend the next 11 months in placement with 20 days in the classroom.
On placement students are supervised by consultant social workers, while academic tutors go out to teach them. Unlike mainstream courses where a wide range of intervention methods are taught, Frontline focuses on family systems thinking and motivational interviewing.
The most contentious aspect of the evaluation is how the ‘practice quality’ of Frontline participants was assessed by comparing them with a small number of MA and BA students.
Students did simulated interviews where actors played service users. Audio recordings of the interviews were then independently rated. Participants also did a brief written reflection on each interview.
Frontline participants rated ‘significantly higher’ than students on mainstream programmes for the quality of their interviewing.
When compared to mainstream students who met the minimum academic requirements of Frontline, the difference in interviewing quality remained. However, there was little difference in the quality of written reflection.
All courses good
Predictably, the ‘significantly higher’ performance rating of Frontline students grabbed headlines. But what must not be overlooked is that the findings for mainstream students was also ‘mostly positive’.
In other words, students from all courses were good at using interviewing skills in simulated practice situations.
It is extremely important to remember that MA and BA courses were not being evaluated. This was a study of Frontline – not a comparative study of different social work courses. Thus while a very full analysis of Frontline is rightly offered, virtually nothing of what social work degree courses do is.
The involvement of degree students was confined to an analysis of the simulated interviewing skills of what the report describes as a “disappointingly small” number of students.
Not the full range
The researchers did compare the student cohorts and found that Frontline participants have higher levels of educational attainment, many more were privately educated, were younger and fewer had child care responsibilities or worked part-time.
Frontline students are paid £19,000 for doing the course, while degree students receive much less and if the bursary goes they will get nothing.
The evaluation report acknowledges how a simulated interview and written reflection “do not cover the full range of tasks” encompassed by social work and do not assess social scientific knowledge in depth.
The report is cautious about how the findings should be interpreted, stressing that an important question remains as to whether Frontline’s superior performance in simulated interviewing is due to the distinctiveness of their students and selective recruitment or due to a training model that emphasises practice skills.
It concludes: “It is not possible for the evaluation to answer this question decisively.”
A decisive answer would require 2 things: a full and rigorous evaluation of mainstream and fast-track courses that compared inputs and outcomes for the full range of knowledge and practice skills; and a different methodology.
A big problem is that simulated practice appears to tell us little or nothing about how social work is performed in the real world.
Loughborough University sociologist Professor Elizabeth Stokoe goes so far as to argue that simulated interviews are actually misleading because they are not a reliable guide to how people behave in real-life.
Thus the students in the evaluation showed they can conduct good interviews with simulated clients in a classroom, not with real service users in their homes which is where most social work happens.
My own research into home visits shows the sheer complexity of what social workers have to do and the importance of evaluating not only their interviewing skills but their capacity to play with children, to get to see them on their own, and so on.
Applied social scientists
One criterion where degree students rated higher than Frontline participants was in ‘how students theoretically conceptualise substantive issues in the scenario and for their practice’.
On that basis, within the evaluation’s limits, mainstream degree students were found to be effective simulated interviewers and very good in their knowledge of theory and its application to practice.
In effect, these students were fulfilling what I regard as the core mission of university social work education, which is to produce effective practitioners who are applied social scientists.
Achieving this takes: time for personal as well as intellectual and professional development; a strong research base; learning not only social work skills but from sociology, philosophy, social policy, etc. about the ways social work practice is shaped by social, cultural and political processes; excellent practice placements; lecturers who know a lot about practice and theory; and students who are clever, empathic, ethical and practically wise.
Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, recently part justified Frontline’s decision to keep its teaching in-house by arguing that universities are not the only institutions that conduct research and produce knowledge.
I agree and I’m sure Frontline will contribute to research and learning. But what has been missing from this debate is a true appreciation of the role universities play in providing knowledge for practice, producing social workers who are effective because they are applied social scientists and the costs were such departments to be forced to close.
At its worst a very unhelpful stereotype exists of universities using social theory in ways that keep students remote from practice realities, resulting in idealistic unskilled social workers.
Future of research
It needs to be stated that without the teaching and research university social work departments do, the profession could not survive, develop and thrive. Take PhDs, for instance. Between 2010 and 2015, the Economic and Social Research Council funded 102 social work PhDs.
Many more PhDs studentships were funded by universities themselves, or by social care agencies.
Then there is the impact of research funding. Where I work in the Centre of Social Work at the University of Nottingham, for example, in the past 6 months alone social work academics have brought in well over £1m in research income and this is replicated in universities across the country.
I could go on, but the key point is that the survival of university social work departments and their courses is vital to educating further generations of social work teachers and researchers and to providing knowledge and evidence-based teaching.
The evaluation notes that Frontline has its critics. I have never been critical of the programme, its staff or students. I welcome them and particularly support their focus on practice skills.
But what worries me more and more is the manner in which the rolling out of Frontline and other fast-track courses is at the expense of mainstream social work education with the effect of undermining its contribution and endangering its future.
The dangers of this evaluation being used in simplistic ways came home to me when I saw BA and MA students on Twitter responding to tweets – of the ‘Frontline participants are significantly better’ variety – by worrying if they will get jobs if they graduate with what now appears to be an ‘inferior’ degree.
There is valuable learning in the evaluation about the Frontline approach that social work education needs to consider.
But this needs to happen alongside a clear recognition of the high value of mainstream social work degrees and a clear long-term commitment to university-based social work education and producing practitioners who are effective because they are applied social scientists.