By 2020 the government wants four in 10 new children’s social workers to have trained on fast-track programmes. Ministers are investing £100m in both The Frontline and Step Up to Social Work graduate schemes to make it happen.
Frontline, which was set up in 2013, is gearing up for expansion. In its first three intakes, the programme accepted almost 400 graduates for its social work training. Over the next three, it will take on more than 1,000 as it begins a national roll out.
To meet the demands, Frontline is changing the way it works. For the first time, its social work curriculum will be designed in-house, rather than with a university. Bedfordshire University, which served as Frontline’s academic partner in recent years, will be accrediting and quality assuring Frontline’s work, not designing and delivering it.
The change sets Frontline apart from Step Up, which is delivered by a consortium of universities. It also means Frontline is now employing social work academics directly, including several of the Bedfordshire team who delivered the course in previous years.
‘Exciting, and a massive responsibility’
Social work academic Louise Grant is one of those to make the switch. While at Bedfordshire, she was the academic director for Frontline at the university. Now she’s working for Frontline as the organisation’s first head of academic studies.
Grant says she’s already noticing some differences from working in universities. There aren’t so many layers of bureaucracy, meaning ideas can be implemented “quite quickly”. There isn’t the competing pressures from different faculties. And Frontline’s offer for trainees is “very competitive”, meaning there are fewer worries about attracting students.
“As a social worker I’ve worked in local authorities. I’ve been an academic in universities for the past 10 years. For me this feels like a different way. It’s an exciting place to be because of the energy you get. Everyone has a single vision and mission. Universities can have that, but sometimes they have external drivers too,” she says.
“It’s both exciting, and a massive responsibility on me. Frontline as an organisation needs to be a part of the social work education and local authority journey, it’s not separate from it.”
Grant says a large motivation for bringing Frontline’s curriculum design in-house was a desire to maintain consistency in the way the scheme is taught across regions.
Her team wants a Frontline trainee in the North West of England to receive the same quality and standard of training as one in the South East. There was a fear, she says, that without a nationally designed curriculum it would be easy to “lose control of the fidelity of the model”.
“It’s very important, I think, that we stick to the sense of what Frontline is – our emphasis on systemic practice, motivational interviewing, social learning theory – and that that becomes clearly taught across the country,” says Grant.
Controlling the curriculum centrally also means being able to adapt it more easily, she adds. There is “one process” to go through, working with one university partner to accredit the changes, rather than talks with multiple institutions.
“If for example we think about attachment and trauma and how we teach that, we can build that into the curriculum, get that accredited by one university and then roll it out,” says Grant.
“The alternative would be to go to six universities to say ‘how can you do that, how can you fit that in?’ It becomes incredibly labour intensive. So it’s about trying to have that consistency, agility and sticking to the Frontline model.”
Frontline’s move, however, has sparked concerns among social work academics. Last year Professor Donald Forrester labelled Frontline’s decision to reduce its connections to universities as “a terrible blow to the profession”.
Forrester’s intervention was striking because he preceded Grant as Frontline’s academic director at Bedfordshire and has frequently championed the scheme as a new way of educating social workers.
Among the issues raised by Forrester was a concern that Frontline’s approach could be the start of a process to focus social work education purely on teaching, at the expense of research.
Grant says research is fundamental to Frontline’s model. She says the programme has just issued a tender for a research partner, likely to be a university, to work with it on three main strands of work.
Firstly, the partner will offer social workers working for Frontline as practice tutors the opportunity to carry out PhD research. Secondly, it will help develop a set of “practice insights”, a set of practice-based research projects Frontline wants to fund to gauge which interventions work best for children and families. Thirdly, the partner will advise Frontline on how it can develop “research mindedness” as an organisation.
“We know that we have an obligation both internally and externally. We are going to be an important player in the education of social work,” Grant explains.
“That means we need to take our responsibilities to make sure everything we do is informed by research and knowledge. What we strongly believe is that a lot of knowledge creation happens in practice and we have a huge opportunity and responsibility to think about how we can get that knowledge back into the system.
“We don’t think theory and practice are two different things in terms of their academic credentials. They’re both hugely important elements.”
Linking research and practice
David Worlock, Frontline’s programme director, says the creativity local authorities are showing in developing children’s social work make it a “golden time” to capture learning from different initiatives.
Frontline currently works with 46 councils. Worlock says his team see examples of “great leadership”, and efforts to tackle historic issues like caseloads and the quality of supervision. There’s an opportunity, he says, to getting research “directly linked to practice”.
“I qualified back in 1981. I’ve seen children’s social work develop over 30 odd years. I think this is the most exciting time that I can remember. There’s so much happening,” he says.
“There’s huge potential to do quality research, and share it with other academic institutions and local authorities. Lots of local authorities are now really thinking about what they are delivering in terms of their social work. There’s a real hunger to learn.
“This is a situation where it could be a win-win, by adding to the body of social work knowledge and helping local authorities to learn too.”
Both Grant and Worlock acknowledge the tensions between Frontline and the wider social work academia sector but hope the parties can better work together in the future.
Grant says Frontline is keen to both share the knowledge it has picked up, and hear suggestions on how it can improve. She appreciates the pressures facing academics in universities, and wants to see social work education “prioritised” across the sector.
“There are lots of ways of becoming an outstanding social worker. We’re part of that but there are lots of other ways too and they should be given the support to do that,” she says.
“We need to learn from other people and hopefully we can offer something back to others. I think we can have helpful dialogue because we’re all focused on improving outcomes in the lives of children and families.”
Worlock feels it’s more important than ever to develop a “shared vision” of social work education.
“We have a particular approach – it’s not going to be right for everyone and different people will have different perspectives. But it feels like right now there needs to be a kind of building of bridges across a commonality of improving outcomes. There’s a common shared goal that we’re all trying to achieve and there’s going to be learning flowing in all directions.”