This article was updated on 8 October 2018
In a tall lecture hall inside Warwick University’s sprawling campus, more than 300 students have gathered to listen to a talk about engaging perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Among those taking notes, or just listening to charity SafeLives’ head of training, Briony Williamson, is Frontline’s 1,000th participant.
Frontline’s summer institute, the starting gun now for more than 1,000 social workers’ careers in the five years since it launched, is an intensive five-week training programme that students complete before a year’s placement in a frontline children’s services team.
This session, which focuses on domestic abuse, starts with a lecture, followed by the first opportunity for students to meet their placement consultant social worker, before a seminar discussing case examples, and an afternoon hearing from an expert by experience.
The programme is a key part of a Frontline participant’s journey. It’s a dive into the world of social work before doing it practically on the front line of child protection for a year followed by a further year doing the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), at the end of which they have a master’s degree.
Frontline is not without its controversy and this quick grounding in social work theory and legislation is central to the criticism the model faces, along with the greater level of funding it gets from government compared with undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
But as the hundreds of students work through their eight-hour day – with a break in the middle for a mainly jacket potato-oriented lunch – Frontline is the biggest it has ever been, having started with a comparatively modest 100 students five years ago. With a cohort of 450 expected in 2019, it is set to get bigger still.
Frontline was developed by Josh MacAlister, its chief executive. The genesis of the idea came from his experiences of the Teach First programme, a similar fast-track route into education, and as a secondary school teacher.
“Through that experience I had some interaction with social workers who came to the school and with children who had social workers and could see that, when [social work] was done really well, it was transformational.”
It was 2010 when MacAlister wrote a “very naïve” 500-word piece about finding new ways to “get more great people into social work”.
He then developed his thinking during his time at think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), issuing a paper in 2012 that provided the blueprint for Frontline. The report said that the profession had “struggled to recruit and train high-calibre staff” and needed to attract “the best and the brightest”. In 2013, Frontline launched, and so did the controversy – some of which, MacAlister admits, was self-inflicted.
“When I was still teaching and writing the initial paper proposing Frontline, there were significant words and language used in that report which weren’t very helpful,” he says. “Very quickly thereafter, we changed the language and tone of some of our communication.”
However, despite these changes of tone, criticisms of the programme persist.
Central to Frontline’s proposition is attracting graduates with high levels of educational attainment. It originally set a requirement of applicants having a 2:1 or above in their undergraduate degree and at least 300 UCAS points in A Levels or equivalent, then equivalent to three B grades. Now, it requires a 2:1 (predicted or obtained) and a C or above in GCSE English and Maths (or equivalent). The intention is to attract people who may not have considered a career in social work. To attract them, Frontline trainees are paid bursaries of between £16,756 and £19,591, depending on where they are based. In their second, ASYE, year, they are paid an NQSW salary.
This has led to allegations that the scheme was elitist in relation to its student intake – an evaluation found 71% of its first cohort went to Russell Group universities, compared to 30% of students on a group of postgraduate social work courses with high entry criteria. There were also concerns the route would not just be a fast track into social work, but would provide a leg-up into management and the civil service. Frontline graduates become “fellows” and its fellowship programme facilitates opportunities in fields outside of social work, including policy and research. Frontline stresses, however, that most graduates are still working in social work practice.
MacAlister believes there are, “in a small number of cases”, some views of Frontline that are “intractable”, noting a “relatively small group of social work academics” who are “well intentioned” and whose views on Frontline haven’t changed over the past five years.
But some criticisms relate to actions taken after Frontline’s creation. This includes opposition to it taking its curriculum design and delivery in-house, where previously this had been led by academics at the University of Bedfordshire. The university role became to accredit qualifications, quality assure grading from Frontline staff, administer student admissions and provide student welfare support.
Samantha Baron, professor of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University and chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, says academics remain concerned about Frontline’s training model, adding there is very little academic input, threatening the relationship between knowledge, research and evidence in the training.
These concerns built on preexisting criticisms that five weeks in a classroom is not enough to get the complexities and ethics of social work accurately communicated.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, says: “Their initial education is squeezed, and they don’t have the time to both absorb knowledge and competences – the competences they need to build – nor the confidence in practice before being exposed to really critical issues and decision making.”
MacAlister highlights the link Frontline retains with the university and says the change was made to help provide consistency when the programme was rolled out nationally.
On the concerns that the route doesn’t give social workers enough of an academic grounding, MacAlister argues that considering practice and academia to be different things is a “problematic false dichotomy”.
“Practice is academic. It is an academic discipline. It’s not that there is an academic and practice world that needs bridging, it’s that practice itself is an academic pursuit,” he argues.
In bringing training in-house, Frontline has employed its own academics. Lisa Hackett, Frontline’s delivery director, was head of social work and communities at De Montfort university before joining Frontline in 2016.
She has worked in children’s and adults’ services, and as an academic worked out of hours doing Mental Health Act assessments to keep herself close to practice, which was fundamental to her decision to join Frontline.
“We teach our social work students at universities, ‘let’s be curious, let’s think about things, let’s explore, come up with hypothesis, let’s dissect information’. For me it was important to be curious and check out the model, and I liked its clear alignment with practice,” Hackett explains.
Another charge levelled at Frontline is premature specialisation, given its clear focus on children’s social work.
Jones adds: “It’s introducing specialisation right at the beginning of a social worker’s education. Initial education ought to be a broad-based, generic education for social work [with a] focus on social work competences, social work’s knowledge base and values, and the specialisation ought to start to occur in the ASYE and through continuing professional development.”
MacAlister sees these criticisms as a response to the idea of Frontline being a “threat to how things have always been done”. The organisation defends itself when it comes to accusations of specialism too soon. Frontline is an approved generic social work qualification in England, and a 30-day placement in an adult setting is part of the course.
However, graduates have faced restrictions practising outside of children’s services in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the organisation says they “may need to complete additional training” before practising in other parts of the UK. This isn’t just a problem for Frontline. The Scottish Social Services Council has said that graduates of both Frontline and Step Up, the other main fast-track route for children’s social work in England, need to complete “compensatory measures”, in the shape of two adults-focused academic pieces, in order to work in adults’ services in Scotland.
Despite this, MacAlister points out that the cohort size for Frontline has more than tripled since it launched, which wouldn’t have happened without a demand for the service and appreciation of what it brings.
The evaluation of Frontline, published in 2016, found that the interviewing and written reflection skills of participants were significantly higher than those on mainstream programmes. When researchers sought to control for the highly selective nature of the programme by comparing Frontline participants with a group of students on mainstream programmes who had achieved the minimum qualifications to get onto Frontline, they still found a significant difference in quality on interviewing, though not on written reflection skills.
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, says the growth in Frontline shows it has something to offer, but ultimately, employers “just want good social workers as soon as we can get them”.
“As employers we’re going to treat all routes as equally valid,” she says.
Entering the front line
Over lunch, the seating areas in Warwick University’s Oculus Building are occupied with groups of social work trainees, chatting among themselves.
One is made up of four women of various backgrounds. Debra, aged 36, came to Frontline having always wanted to be a social worker, but not having been able to pursue it for various practical and personal reasons when she left school.
Sarah was a picture editor for a TV listings magazine for 15 years, before having a daughter meant “something changed” and she wanted to become a social worker.
Jodie had been a police officer for the previous 12 years, before opting for children’s social work to do something “more preventative than reactionary”. A similar motivation was behind Lian’s decision to swap from family law, a path she initially wanted to pursue after completing her degree two years ago.
Jodie, Sarah and Debra all agree they wouldn’t have been able to do Frontline without the significant bursary paid while on the training.
Jodie explains: “I’ve got a mortgage, children in school, financially this is the only route viable for me.”
While people at the session at Warwick University were a mixture of career changers and recent graduates who wouldn’t have done a master’s degree and the extra debt burden that brings, the reality is that the funding per student afforded Frontline by government is significantly greater than that for traditional routes (see below). And in the wake of the birth of Frontline, traditional courses struggled, including because of government cuts.
Government funding for bursaries and placements on traditional routes fell by 30% from 2012-13 to 2014-15, while the value and number of social work bursaries has been frozen for the past four years. During 2014-15, the number of approved social work courses in England fell from 276 to 256, though the numbers enrolled on postgraduate and undergraduate courses was stable from 2014-15 to 2015-16, the latest year for which figures are available.
To date, Frontline has received £36 million from the government. Meanwhile a £50m contract currently going through the bidding process, for a fast-track training route equivalent to Frontline’s model for 2020-22, prompted a war of words between the profession and Frontline earlier this year.
Academics, backed by the British Association of Social Workers, said in a letter to the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi that the contract represented “committing large amounts of money to extend a programme that is unproven in resolving the challenge for employers of retaining and developing experienced social workers”.
The letter called for a stakeholder consultation, impact assessment and a “proper evaluation” of the scheme. Frontline hit back, with the backing of some directors of children’s services, arguing it was the “most heavily evaluated programme in the country” and it provided value for money.
‘Funding not equitable’
Wardell says routes into social work aren’t being funded “equitably”.
“Just on the facts alone the funding isn’t equitable across the different routes into social work, and that must influence how people choose,” Wardell says.
Jones says the funding made available to fast-track programmes such as Frontline, and Think Ahead in mental health services, means university routes are being “threatened and undermined”.
He adds that, compared with Frontline participants, students from other routes end their initial education with big debts and are “exceptionally disadvantaged”.
Baron says she has seen the reality of this in universities, identifying declining numbers of people on postgraduate programmes and the sense that students applying for social work courses are “going [to fast-track schemes first] and then to higher education institutes”.
While Frontline students have all had to complete an undergraduate degree – so will likely have faced similar financial burdens – they don’t have to pay for their master’s qualification, unlike students on postgraduate courses.
MacAlister says the funding for Frontline and Step Up are broadly comparable, but Step Up doesn’t get the same criticism: “I think one of the reasons for that is universities get money from Step Up contracts, and the noise that comes from some about Frontline is wholly disproportionate to the funding that comes through.”
The cost of Frontline
A 2016 report carried out by York Consulting for the Department for Education found that the cost to government for training a Frontline trainee was £45,823, compared with the £40,413 for a Step Up trainee, £23,225 for a postgraduate student and £14,675 for an undergraduate student.
The reverse was true in terms of the cost to the individual of each qualifying route, with the undergraduate and postgraduate routes incurring significant costs in terms of tuition and living costs, and lost earnings from having two or three years of study.
Combining the costs to the government and the costs to the individual, the researchers concluded that the overall cost to the economy was significantly greater for the undergraduate route than all three of the others, with Step Up being the lowest, followed by Frontline.
Frontline in practice
Stuart Williams, operations manager at Durham Council children’s services, a role in which he has responsibility for safeguarding and Frontline, had some trepidation about Frontline initially.
“I wouldn’t deny that I had an appropriate anxiety in relation to this programme before I was a part of it. To me the proof is in the pudding,” he says.
He says Frontline has been a huge success in Durham. In 2017-18 it had one unit of four social workers, next year it will have three units.
“They’ve all brought something quite individual to the table. Their ability to integrate with the teams has been fantastic. Their motivation has been second to none,” Williams says.
He says regardless of route, social workers who begin their careers in Durham are excellent, but he sees advantages to the Frontline model. Some other newly qualified social workers have come without ever having a placement in children’s services – and that can be a “limited but initial barrier to their learning or development”.
“What we have with Frontline is participants with almost very limited knowledge that we have been able to work with and guide and show exactly what good practice looks like. We’ve had the ability from day one to set the bar very high and be very clear with our expectations.”
From Cohort One to now
John qualified through Frontline’s first cohort after a varied career working in communications in the charity sector, spending time abroad in a children’s home and working as a theatre director.
During his time abroad the desire to be a social worker grew, and then he saw Frontline reported in the news.
“I saw Frontline and that it was a fast-track route which meant I would be able to go straight into work – I think without that option it just wouldn’t have been something I could have done,” he explains.
Those first days weren’t without their nerves – John had read the criticisms being made of the fledgling course.
“I think people were referring to it as elite, a bit snobby – I was definitely worried about that. You start to worry about the kind of people you are going to be on the course with.”
Once the course started though those concerns melted away and then he did his ASYE in his placement authority, before moving to a new authority closer to home, where he now remains in a child protection role.
“I remember discussing with the other participants about how we might be perceived but actually my experience of that was actually quite positive. People seemed to be really interested in our training and skills, and it might just be my perspective, but I think people quite liked what we brought to the work we were doing in our student year,” he says.
John sees himself remaining in child protection before potentially pursuing a management role and is currently doing practice educator training.
‘Leading our own profession’
Baron says Frontline was born out of the government’s view that the profession wasn’t meeting standards and it needed to use “disruptive innovation” to raise those, but she says the system has been reformed and it’s time for social workers to be “leading our own profession”.
This is echoed by Jones, who says that the calibre of entrants to the profession from all routes has been high for some years.
For MacAlister, the future isn’t about Frontline getting any bigger. Next year it will hit capacity of 450 trainees, but there is no intention to grow it past that point.
“There will always be different routes into social work, and Frontline will only account for 10% of all new entrants into the social work profession.
“There are a number of routes that come with a bursary and the government has invested significant amounts of money into teaching partnerships, and then you’ve got more traditional postgraduate and undergraduate routes. That mix is a good thing because there will be people in different stages of their life who either want to do a career change or start their career in social work.”
Some, including Wardell, maintain the proof of Frontline’s success can’t really be measured until it proves it is training social workers who remain in the profession.
The organisation’s recent impact report found 87% of social workers who had completed the course were still in the profession six months on. A Skills for Care analysis of figures for traditional routes found that 69% of those who graduated in 2016 were employed as a social worker six months after qualifying, with a further 16% employed in other social care roles and health. Meanwhile, the DfE is funding an evaluation on retention, comparing the impact of Frontline and Step Up, but MacAlister would like to see comparative figures for under- and postgraduate courses.
He says Frontline’s future growth will be through its fellowship programme of graduates and those who have completed Firstline, the leadership programme given innovation funding by the DfE. From next year that group of people will be growing by 600 annually.
For Wardell, employers are pragmatic about where they get their social workers from.
“I don’t see any employers really getting into the thick of this argument – we’re just interested in getting social workers who can do the job, are good and likely to stay with us,” she says
She adds that Frontline is a “player in a changing field” as the profession awaits the arrival of social work apprenticeships, now likely to open in 2019.
“The apprenticeship stuff has grown up in parallel with fast-track routes into social work, but it comes from a different part of the system and a different kind of thinking.”
But for Wardell the key thing for employers, regardless of route is: “Once you’re qualified, how you got qualified doesn’t matter to anyone, you’re a social worker and that’s the end of it.”