Frontline, the fast-track social work training provider recently given a £45 million contract extension by the Department for Education (DfE), has dropped the compulsory master’s degree element of its two-year programme.
In a newsletter sent to participants in its 2017 cohort, days after the January funding announcement, Frontline said it had “heard clearly” that some were struggling to complete the academic element of their second year.
Frontline said the change from a compulsory master’s degree was down to a range of circumstances.
“In response and following much discussion we have decided the academic component of Year 2 is no longer compulsory for 2017 cohort participants,” the newsletter, parts of which have been shared on social media, said.
At the time of writing, one month after the letter was sent, Frontline’s website still described the year-two master’s as “compulsory”.
But in a statement to Community Care, Frontline confirmed the U-turn, which it said was based on “feedback” from participants and would also apply to later cohorts.
A spokesperson declined to give further detail but denied there was any evidence Frontline students were having problems because of the programme’s expansion into a wider range of councils, where they could face more difficult work placements.
In the prior information notice which laid out the requirements of the up to £50 million contract that would eventually be given to Frontline, the government outlined how the successful contractor would “design and deliver training allowing accelerated qualification as a social worker and ultimately leading to a Masters degree”.
Frontline participants who complete their year-two studies, undertaken while working as a newly-qualified social worker (NQSW), receive a fully-funded master’s degree to add to the postgraduate diploma in social work they complete in year one.
The provider has always advertised the master’s qualification as an integral part of its programme, which was estimated by a 2016 assessment as costing the government almost £46,000 per trainee in 2016.
But completing it was only made obligatory for 2017 and later entrants onto the 26-month course, which begins with an intensive five-week summer school followed by two years on placement at local authorities.
The 2017 cohort – who are those currently in their second year of the programme – were warned in their initial offer letters, seen by Community Care, that failure to complete the two-year programme would bar them from saying they had participated in it. The letters also said claw-back costs of up to £10,000 could be imposed on students who left the programme, without extenuating circumstances, during year two.
The January newsletter softened both of these positions, stressing that students could now opt out without financial penalty if they were facing “challenges that make completion of the academic aspect of my second year unmanageable”.
“If personal circumstances prevent you from completing the academic component of Year 2, we will continue to support you to become great social workers and you will still be eligible for coaching and to join the [Frontline] Fellowship,” the newsletter added.
The 2017 cohort saw Frontline grow significantly, from 155 entrants the previous year to 283, at the same time as it took its curriculum design and delivery, previously led by the University of Bedfordshire, in-house.
The number of participants rose again in 2018, when 336 started the programme, and it will enrol 450 in each year between 2019 and 2021.
The new contract with the DfE, which covers the cohorts starting in 2020 and 2021, came under fire last year when its prior information notice was published.
A group comprising academics and campaigners as well as the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) warned that fast-track routes into social work were potentially less academically rigorous and, as they expand, could undermine traditional academic pathways. Recent research published by Skills for Care showed postgraduate university social work degrees growing in popularity, but undergraduate enrolments dropping off while fast-track schemes increased their market share.
But Frontline has argued it offers good value for money, with a 2018 letter to children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi, co-signed by eight children’s services bosses, pointing to superior practice entry and retention rates among its graduates.
Last week Zahawi responded to written questions from Emma Lewell-Buck, the shadow minister for children and families, around drop-out rates, money clawed back from students who had left Frontline, and DfE oversight of the programme’s academic staff.
The minister said no money had been recouped to date, and that the DfE “does not monitor operational data such as Frontline staff numbers, their qualifications and turnover”.
Zahawi produced figures for the numbers of students from Frontline’s first five cohorts who had withdrawn during their qualifying (diploma) year, but made no mention of how many had left the cohorts during their NQSW/master’s year.
In its statement to Community Care, Frontline declined to provide more recent course attrition figures than a set published in 2017, which only covered the 2014 and 2015 cohorts in full.
Frontline’s spokesperson confirmed the numbers listed in that dataset as having completed those programmes included around 10% who had finished the two years in placement but had not gained their master’s degree.
“We expect that, as was the case when it was not compulsory in previous years, 90% [of those commencing their second year] will complete the taught component,” Frontline’s statement said of the provider’s future expectations.
The spokesperson said further data around attrition would be published in the near future.
“Frontline is working with 48% of children’s services in England, in which there is significant variation,” Frontline’s statement said. “There is no evidence that participants are now encountering more challenging environments.
“In fact, we have put more support into the programme since our pilot cohorts,” the statement added. “Our focus is on supporting vulnerable children and families that need the very best social workers, and we will continue to do so.”
A DfE spokesperson said Frontline was a “valued partner” in achieving its goal of “recruiting, retaining and developing the best social workers”.
“Frontline expects participants to complete the full two-year master’s programme and, as with any contract, Frontline regularly reports back to the government about their performance, including the number of people completing their courses,” the spokesperson added.