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.
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‘They need to consolidate, not expand’: the impact of Frontline’s rapid growth on student experience
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.”