Ryan Wise, like so many in the profession, found his way to social work via a circuitous route. Admitting he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he first went to university, the route that took Ryan to a child protection team in Manchester included a religious studies and history degree, work in charity fundraising, account management, sales and then Frontline.
The 27-year-old was in the first cohort of the often controversial fast-track social work training scheme and, a year after becoming qualified, he has now completed his masters and his time with the course is coming to an end.
The government has vaunted Frontline as one of its key planks of social work reform. It has attracted large amounts of government funding and only those with a 2:1 degree or higher are eligible, leading them to be branded as ‘high flyers’.
Ryan says the political rhetoric and argument that surround the course has made it difficult for Frontline graduates who then have to sit side-by side other graduates in the workplace.
“It doesn’t help. It doesn’t set the tone very well,” he says frankly.
“Initially it was difficult because I think a lot of people just didn’t know what it [Frontline] was…they saw media reports about it and went off that.
“We had to engage people to try and explain what it was. I think I was a bit naïve about that, because I thought people might just know.
“But once we started to explain how we do it and the premise behind it and how it’s practice based and learning on the job, a lot of people were more receptive to how Frontline trains social workers,” Ryan explains.
New cohorts of Frontline graduates are being welcomed into the authority where he works in, and others which host the new fast-tracked social workers, but Ryan says this acceptance is still not necessarily the case with the wider profession – pointing particularly towards criticism on social media from academics.
“I feel that in the profession we have not felt welcome at times.”
“I think because there’s so much uncertainty about social work education and future social work people are still a bit cagey about it, which I kind of understand.
“I think often maybe people think Frontline is going to be the be-all and end-all of social work education, which I don’t think is true…my perspective from working within Frontline is there are loads of routes into social work, and we’re just one of them.
“Me and my colleagues who do Frontline: we do it because we want to be social workers and we want to help children and families, we don’t do it because we want to represent government or anything like that,” he adds.
“When I was done [with training] I knew it was for me because I was excited each day, [it’s] a bit of a cliché, but it was what I thought. I got to work with people and try and make changes. The changes were small, but when they did come up I knew I had helped a small bit in that change.”
Ryan admits he is ‘very biased’ towards the benefits of Frontline and the preparedness it gave him for frontline work.
“In the first year I was in the authority for 200 days, more or less the whole year, [and] you pick up so much about what it’s actually like. Obviously you’re not holding cases because your consultant does, but you live and breathe it because you’re there.
“I knew about the systems, the structures, the processes, which I think often people can be overwhelmed by. I knew what resources were around, I had connections within the authority in terms of friendships and knowing colleagues. I knew how stuff worked so it wasn’t like going in blind,” Ryan says.
“A lot of [Newly Qualified Social Workers] I have met, who have not come through Frontline, often have not had a long statutory experience. The positive for me was I knew what was needed in an assessment, what was needed when a child became looked after, what needed to be done by when.
“There is so much process in social work, as we know, [and] every authority does it differently. There are different people to contact and I felt I had a good grasp of this. NQSWs who did not have my experience often told me a lot of their ASYE was about developing this work nous and knowledge. For me, as I had already been in the authority for 200 days, I was at an advantage.”
Frontline graduates are supported by a £19,000 bursary in their first year, and then move straight into paid employment in the local authority, but he says it wasn’t so much the funding that appealed to him, as the practical nature of the course.
The focus on practice skills and how social work is done, he says, spoke to him because that’s how he learns.
“Frontline is so focused on ways of working with people; and that is how I test myself as a social worker; I consistently reflect and consider what questions I asked, how I was helpful in that visit…”
On whether he would have made the step in to social work without Frontline, Ryan is unsure.
Ryan’s mum is a social worker with adults, so he says social work was something that was always around him.
But the final decision followed a variety of jobs in Cardiff that just weren’t right and forced him to ask himself “what am I doing?”.
“So I moved back home to Manchester, re-evaluated my options and realised I wanted to do something direct with children and then found Frontline.”
Frontline is not the saviour
Ryan’s first year included six months on the duty team, before moving into the longer term team and he acknowledges there have definitely been moments of doubt.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t do this. When it feels like everything is kicking off at the same time and you’re just overwhelmed. But if you’re in a really good team you have the support structures in place to help you get through it.”
Now that he’s finishing his Master’s he is contemplating what to do with all all the spare time that has opened up to him but says he has no plans to move out of child protection.
“I want to practice systemically, a lot of authorities are moving towards that. I want to stay in child protection…I am really interested in how we do social work. I think the key question in social work is what actually is good social work?
“I think the authorities that are doing well have a clear idea about what good social work looks like. Often because of the pressures – get your visits done, get this signed off –you lose sight of is that actually really good social work?”
He’s adamant however that this has nothing to do with Frontline becoming the profession’s saviour.
“I work with some amazing social workers who haven’t come through Frontline, absolutely brilliant, really experienced. I’m not arrogant to think I know it all – I’ve only been practicing a year, I’ve got to learn loads.
“Different routes into social work suit different people. Different routes have their own strengths and weaknesses which leads to a rich, varied workforce. Frontline suited me but I understand it’s not for everyone.”