Frontline’s rapid growth threatens its consistency, students warn

Members of fast-track social work training scheme's 2017 cohort report problems with course administration, marking and local authority support

Photo: ra2 studio

Story updated 5 April 2019

Social workers who have trained as part of Frontline’s 2017 cohort have warned that the fast-track scheme’s rapid growth may be damaging its consistency.

Participants interviewed by Community Care, most of whom are still on Frontline’s programme and so spoke on condition of anonymity, reported patchy support within some local authorities, marking delays, sudden teaching staff turnover and administrative problems.

The largely government-funded scheme, which has trained around 1,000 social workers, grew from 155 to 283 trainees between 2016 and 2017, at the same time as moving its academic element in-house from the University of Bedfordshire.

It expanded again for 2018, to 336 students, based across in 48% of English local authorities, and will train 450 students per year under a new two-year, £45m government contract announced in January.

In February, Community Care reported that Frontline had dropped the compulsory master’s element of its course following feedback from students but denied there was any evidence that they were encountering more challenging work environments as a result of the programme’s expansion into a wider range of councils.

‘It should have been checked and double checked’

In an incident near the end of the five-week summer institute that kicked the two-year 2017 course off, cohort members said that around a dozen students were told there were issues with their qualifications or visas, and that they would have to leave the course.

While most were subsequently accommodated onto the course, participants said the episode – which Frontline said was down to an administrative error – was clumsily handled, leading to a protest.

“It was something that should have been checked, checked and double checked,” said one 2017 cohort member. “It was ludicrous that by then people had quit their jobs and given up leases to start a new life [in social work].”

Some participants reported positive experiences within the local authority placements they undertake as part of the Frontline programme, on which they are supported in four-person ‘units’ by experienced consultant social workers (CSWs).

But others revealed problems with CSWs, including poor supervision and an apparent lack of relevant training and experience in undertaking the role. Some said that concerns about poor local authority practice were not followed up – although in at least one instance, Frontline has withdrawn trainees from a council because of an inadequate training environment.

‘We’d just hear randomly staff had gone’

Students also reported issues with the academic side of the 2017 programme. Several senior staff members, some of whom were described as “fantastic”, left Frontline in summer 2018, seemingly without warning, cohort members said.

“We didn’t find out anything, we’d just hear randomly they had gone, or get an email saying they had left,” said one.

Former staff members declined to talk in detail about their reasons for leaving, because they had been told to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Frontline did not answer questions from Community Care regarding staff turnover. Following publication of this article, it said that no former members of staff had signed NDAs, but that one had signed a settlement agreement with a mutual confidentiality clause after leaving the organisation. or why NDAs had been used.

Following the departures, students experienced marking delays that saw some of them unable to register as qualified social workers in time for the start of their second year.

Most cohort members we spoke to had stayed on the programme, with some praising most elements of it. But a majority voiced concerns it had grown too fast.

‘We don’t get everything right’

In a statement to Community Care, Frontline’s delivery director Lisa Hackett acknowledged that “we don’t get everything right” but said 90% of the most recent, 2018 cohort had rated the teaching as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

“We are privileged to be part of the social work community, to be able to play a part in entering the lives of people who are often marginalised and discriminated,” Hackett said.

“We take our role seriously and gathering and responding to feedback is at the heart of how we improve as an organisation,” she added. “Everything we do is to bring about change for vulnerable children and families, which is why we’ll always be working to improve our programmes.”

A spokesperson for the Health and Care Professions Council said that since Frontline’s expansion had been approved in 2016 by the regulator’s education and training committee, the organisation “has engaged with our monitoring processes and continues to meet the standards”.

The spokesperson declined to comment on any specific issues raised by students but added: “If anybody has a concern about an HCPC approved programme they can raise it with us and we will take appropriate action.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Children’s social care is only as good as the people who deliver it, which is why we want to recruit, retain and develop the best social workers, so they can continue to offer the much needed lifeline to those who need it most. Frontline is a valued partner in achieving this goal.

“As with any contract, Frontline regularly reports back to the government about their performance, including the number of people completing the programme.”

4 Responses to Frontline’s rapid growth threatens its consistency, students warn

  1. Mark Potter April 4, 2019 at 2:37 pm #

    For clarity here are our responses in full:

    Frontline exists to transform the life chances of the half a million children in England who don’t have a safe or stable home. The quality of our programmes is essential for making this happen. An independent and comparative evaluation found that our participants rated highly on practice skill. Feedback from our participants further reflects programme quality, with 90% of the most recent cohort rating the teaching as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. To have achieved this while growing from a cohort of 104 in 2014 to 340 in 2018 is something we are immensely proud of.
    This has only been possible because of the knowledge and commitment of our teaching team, which draws on recent practice and academic experience. The team is 34 strong and all of their profiles are public – https://thefrontline.org.uk/meet-the-team/

    But we don’t get everything right. Our approach, like that of effective social workers and children’s services teams, is to learn so that we keep improving. For example, two years ago we were responsible for administrative errors that resulted in a small number of people starting at the summer institute despite not meeting the entry requirements. We supported those who were able to sit tests in time to meet the eligibility criteria but two individuals were unable to do this by the end of September and were offered a place for 2018. This was our fault and we took full responsibility. We implemented a large number of changes to processes and the team structure in 2017 with the result that the 2018 summer institute was our biggest and most successful to date. Everyone who started the programme met the eligibility criteria.

    We are privileged to be part of the social work community, to be able to play a part in entering the lives of people who are often marginalised and discriminated; the least, the littlest and the last who have the smallest voice in our society, whose lives are characterised by loss, abuse, poverty and mental ill health. We take our role seriously and gathering and responding to feedback is at the heart of how we improve as an organisation. Everything we do is to bring about change for vulnerable children and families, which is why we’ll always be working to improve our programmes.

    Lisa Hackett, Delivery Director

    Teaching staff
    Of 26 practice tutors, 24 have Master’s qualifications or higher. Of the other two, one is
    registering for a doctorate (bringing the total number of practice tutors with, or working towards,
    a doctorate to six), and the other undertaking their MA. They both have extensive experience –
    one having worked as a Principal Social Worker and the other as a team manager in a child
    protection team for many years. As with all teaching staff, they have been approved by our
    accrediting university partner. All practice tutors and members of our curriculum team are required to complete a PGCert in Education in order to become fellows of the HEA.

    Marking
    Participants on the programme submit a total of 20 assignments over the two years. We aim to
    mark and return all of these assignments within four weeks. For the 2017 cohort, two summative
    assignments were returned to participants outside of our four-week turn-around deadline. In both
    instances, marking was delayed due to the need to source enough markers who were qualified in systemic practice. We have since hired a systemic lead to oversee this process and avoid this situation arising again. All subsequent assignments have been marked and returned to participants within a four week timescale.

    Local authorities
    We are currently working with 48% of children’s services in England. Of these, 95% are either
    satisfied or very satisfied with their partnership with Frontline. This is demonstrated by over 90%
    of local authorities choosing to re-partner with us in 2018. When Frontline enters into a partnership with a local authority, we follow a rigorous process. This includes a local authority employee survey, a full day of introductory meetings, a robust process for selecting Consultant Social Workers (the practice educators) and induction training for relevant staff. The process is further underpinned by a written agreement. In exceptional cases, we have ended a partnership mid-year so that participants can move to work in nearby local authority that will support them to learn.

    Consultant social workers (CSWs)
    CSWs, experienced social workers who oversee the learning of participants in their first year on
    the programme, are required to undertake a core training programme. This comprises 21
    intensive teaching days and six sessions to develop their expertise in unit meetings. They are
    provided with bespoke one-to-one training with their practice tutor and are evaluated on a regular
    basis by participants. Practice tutors respond to this feedback, ensuring any additional support is
    given where needed. In circumstances where a CSW backfills a role before completing training – for example, if a CSW takes maternity or paternity leave – we always ensure they receive additional support from a practice tutor, an experienced CSW and are subject to increased feedback sessions. If we become aware of instances where a CSWs is working on cases that are not assigned to their unit, it is raised with the partner local authority and addressed appropriately.

    Participant wellbeing
    The wellbeing of our participants is of the utmost importance to us. For those on the Frontline
    programme we provide extensive support throughout the two years. This includes a practice
    tutor, consultant social worker, team manager (in year 2 when they are employed by a local
    authority), relationship and development manager, head of region and professional qualified
    coaches. All are on hand to help when needed. In addition, participants are offered access to
    counselling services should they require it. 90% of the 2018 Cohort rated the quality of support
    from their regional Frontline team either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

    Evaluation
    The programme is the most heavily evaluated entry route into social work in England, with an
    independent study rating Frontline participants more highly on every one of the ten assessment
    criteria when compared to social work students training via mainstream routes.

    Participant satisfaction
    88% of our latest cohort on the Frontline programme expressed satisfaction in the most recent
    survey, with 90% rating the teaching as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

    Graduate perceptions
    We have made progress in improving perceptions of social work as a career choice, with the
    profession now represented at 26 in the High Fliers Top 100 graduate employers survey.

    • Diane Galpin April 4, 2019 at 10:36 pm #

      There are more important questions we need to ask. For example it is reported Frontline’s support comes from across the globe, receiving ‘pro bono’ support from several powerful, and influential private multi-national companies, for example;

      The Boston Consulting Group, an American worldwide management consulting firm with 90 offices in 50 countries. The firm advises clients in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors around the world, including more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500 and is one of the ‘Big Three’ strategy consulting firms.
      The Alexander Partnership which is Europe’s leading provider of executive coaching, leadership and culture development.
      Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (AMV BBDO) is an advertising agency that works with over 85 brands, including BT, Sainsbury’s, Diageo, Walkers and Mars. AMV is part of the BBDO network, the third largest agency network in the world and part of the Omnicom Group.
      Baker McKenzie, founded as Baker & McKenzie in 1949, is a multinational law firm. As of August 2017, it is ranked as the second-largest international law firm in the world . It is also ranked as the second largest law firm in the world in terms of revenue with US$2.67 billion in annual revenue
      One wonders why social work in the UK requires steerage from multi-national corporate influences and this begs the question just how does the current approach align with social work values as defined within a global perspective?

      The rise and rise of Frontline is a good example of the changing world in which social work education is emerging. Ark is a charity which co-founded Frontline. However, it is also a profit making company and was set up as an alternative investment industry focusing on global education. The power of such organisations are changing the educational landscape and is increasingly highly influential in shaping public policy and redefining the role of government and businesses in the production, management and delivery of public services embracing neoliberal ideology. (see World Yearbook of Education 2016: The Global Education Industry)

      It’s all a very long way away from the social worker on the real frontline who enters the complex lives of those they work with on a daily basis. Neither can imagine what it must feel like to enjoy the resources, power and influence of those shaping both their futures.

      • Tom J April 5, 2019 at 3:05 pm #

        Agreed.

  2. Mark Potter April 5, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

    Diane, it’s worth considering that individuals within these organisations consider it part of their civic duty to support charities working with those less fortunate than most of us.

    I agree that it certainly is new for social work but like education, we should welcome with open arms those with expertise from other sectors so we can make our own more effective for the children and families we all serve. All charities (Frontline is a registered charity) receive support from outside sources, why not expertise as well as funds? Much of this external support is directed to improving our participant’s experience on the programme the benefiting their practice. For example, providing free event space to run our leadership seminars which are available to all social workers through our partnership with community care.

    I for one am proud of all the partnerships we have at Frontline and look forward to more in the future. There is so much we can learn from others and being closed to this won’t create the change in society we all want to see.

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