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

England's flagship fast-track social work training provider is a perennial source of debate within the profession. We asked members of the 2017 cohort about the highs and lows of their time with Frontline

Image of student at work
Photo: Solis Images/Fotolia

Story updated 5 April 2019

For social workers on Twitter there are few subjects more divisive than Frontline, the fast-track training provider that was awarded £45m of public money in January 2019 to put 900 students through its programme from 2020 to 2022.

Frontline’s critics, who include many people involved in university social work education, accuse it of being elitist, PR-driven, opaque and of questionable academic and ethical merit, among other things.

Defenders of Frontline, which has taken on around 1,000 trainees since 2014, argue that it delivers value for money and is heavily evaluated, citing a 2016 Cardiff University study that found its graduates demonstrated superior practice skills to those qualifying from other routes. Some add that it is the victim of a campaign driven by ideology and self-interest, and by the stories of a few students who have shared bad experiences.

Last week those stories were being discussed again. A social media row broke out after a blog accused Frontline of preventing participants from quitting the programme by imposing huge financial penalties on early leavers.

Letters sent to students starting Frontline in 2017 did threaten to claw back up to £10,000 from students who fail to complete all elements of the programme without good reason. But no money has so far been recouped – and in January Frontline waived penalties for students unable to complete their master’s degree, citing pressures some 2017 cohort members were facing.

Frontline’s master’s, completed in the second year when social workers also undertake their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), had only been made mandatory for its 2017 cohort. That intake marked a significant expansion for Frontline, from 155 to 283 trainees, and saw it bring its teaching and curriculum design in-house having previously had it delivered by the University of Bedfordshire.

Seeking to explore the issues behind Frontline’s change of heart, Community Care interviewed eight members of the 2017 cohort, along with other people with direct knowledge of the programme.

The experiences they shared were far from all negative. But they raise questions about how the organisation has managed its expansion – which has continued with 336 students in 2018, and a planned 452 this year – and about the consistency of academic and workplace support on offer to students of a programme that markets itself as being for “the brightest and best”.

‘This has not been handled well’

For many people we spoke to, alarm bells first rang at the 2017 summer institute, at which Frontline trainees receive an intensive social work crash course.

The five-week institute, where participants undertake long learning days and stay over during the week, is by necessity a full-on experience. While some people – especially those who had not studied for a while – found it a bit of a whirlwind, most agreed it was a positive way to start.

“It was good in lots of ways,” said Rich*, a participant based in the south of England. “I feel I really gained skills to go into social work and work with people straight away, [even though] it was intense and draining.” Several others added that the institute is a great way to bond with peers, some of whom they would later be working alongside.

But almost everyone we spoke to described an incident during the final week that revealed Frontline’s organisational capabilities in a poor light, and left a bad taste in the mouths of many.

Around a dozen students were pulled from classes and told there were issues either with their academic qualifications or, in the case of some non-UK nationals, with their visas, making them ineligible for the programme, multiple interviewees said. This was despite some having checked in advance with Frontline that their documents were okay.

“My first question was, ‘What am I supposed to do?’,” recalled Chris, one of those threatened with removal from the course. “I had given up my job, which I was happy in, for the sake of my education. They said, ‘Can’t you just go back?’ and I said, ‘No, they hired someone’.”

The mix-up, which Frontline said was down to administrative errors, caused uproar. Several participants we interviewed said their sense of injustice was heightened by the fact that one student who was asked to leave was a care leaver, who had been working for Frontline and encouraged by the organisation to join the cohort. Frontline did not confirm or deny this.

After a protest by some students, and belated legal consultation around visa issues, most of those in danger of losing their place were told they could proceed with the local authority placements that follow the summer institute. In some cases Frontline paid for students to sit or resit exams so they could meet the programme entry requirements. But some felt these efforts were too little, too late.

“They were trying to help people, because they had quit their jobs and been away for five weeks, but it didn’t come over well to the rest of the cohort,” said Rich. “I just remember thinking, ‘This has not been handled well,’ and people were pissed off because Frontline were talking about wanting to expand, and it’s like, you can’t even get it right with our cohort.”

‘Supervisors are learning on the job’

Despite the unrest, students we interviewed – some of whom said they had in any case kept out of it – indicated that they began their placements keen to get cracking.

The first year of on-the-job training earns Frontline participants their postgraduate diploma (PGDip) – meaning they start the second year as newly qualified social workers (NQSWs). During this year, they are expected to balance academic assignments with full-time work in a local authority or children’s services trust, grouped in ‘units’ of four supported by an experienced consultant social worker (CSW) seconded to Frontline from the council or trust they are in.

Frontline said that its process for entering into partnership with councils is rigorous, including employee surveys and a day of introductory meetings, and is underpinned by a written agreement. CSWs, it added, must undergo a “robust” selection process, followed by 21 intensive teaching days, six sessions to develop their skills for unit meetings, one-to-one training with a practice tutor and ongoing evaluation.

Most 2017 students agreed the CSW role was pivotal to the experience of qualifying as a social worker via Frontline. Some said they had received fantastic support, while others described mixed or negative experiences.

Some people we spoke to who’d had problems with their CSW acknowledged these were down in part to the kinds of personality clashes that can happen with any manager. But we also heard reports of CSWs seeming ill-informed as to the level of work Frontline participants would be ready for, or being poorly equipped to deliver the programme’s systemic practice model.

“Because Frontline is quite new, some CSWs are learning on the job the same things the [students] are, which can be more or less successful,” said Alex, a 2017 cohort member based in the north of England. Alex added that she was aware of some CSWs “sacking off” training sessions because they involved travelling to London. “Some are phenomenal, but there are others I would not want in my life,” she said, alluding to contrasting experiences she had had under two different CSWs.

Two 2017 participants, who ran into difficulties on their placements, admitted they had made errors in practice but said they had felt unsupported by their CSW and had not been properly supervised. Other people said they hadn’t felt feedback around CSWs and other quality issues within local authorities was responded to as well as it could be.

Nonetheless, in at least one case – in Northumberland in 2016-17 – Frontline has stepped in and shut down a local authority unit, sending its members elsewhere, because the experience for trainees had been so poor. A spokesperson for Northumberland council confirmed it was no longer a Frontline partner.

Marking delays

Variable experiences in hard-pressed local authorities are perhaps to be expected. But 2017 cohort members also reported glitches in the quality of Frontline’s newly in-house teaching programme, despite offering glowing feedback around some of the tutors.

“The first year academic side is obviously quite tough – you are balancing [work with] lots of assignments, and quite often you’d get [from Frontline], ‘Oh, it’s the first time we’ve done this,’ or, ‘We aren’t sure about the guidance because it’s changed from last year,'” recalled Katie, a 2017 cohort member based in the Midlands.

In one instance, she added, an assignment mark scheme was accidentally sent to some students – essentially telling them how to pass – three weeks ahead of a deadline. When the error was discovered, Frontline simply gave the mark scheme to other students in order to level the playing field, giving them 24 hours to make amendments to their piece, she said.

The handling of two assignments – a long systemic essay, handed in at the end of year one, and a systemic practice portfolio, submitted at a summer catch-up day – caused grumbles among large numbers of students.

Both pieces were, for some participants, marred by significant delays and marking that many found unsatisfactory. Late marking of the essay, which formed part of the PGDip, meant some students were unable to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in time for the start of their second year, meaning they had to return to their authorities as social work assistants rather than fully-fledged NQSWs.

The portfolio, meanwhile, was no longer an assessed piece of work since Frontline’s partnership with the Institute of Family Therapy had ended in early 2017. Nonetheless, some cohort members said they put a considerable amount of work into it, sharing highly personal information.

But once handed in, few students got their work back marked promptly as promised, with some people we spoke to still waiting for theirs more than six months later. When portfolios did come back, several felt the marker feedback – amounting in some cases to just a few words – was derisory for a substantial piece of work.

Emails sent by Frontline to students, seen by Community Care, apologising about the two assignments make clear that the “unacceptable” situation was down to a lack of suitably experienced markers. A number of senior staff left around the end of the 2017 cohort’s first year, with some interviewees expressing frustration that they appeared to vanish without warning.

When Community Care approached several ex-staff members most said they could not speak to us because of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) they had been made to sign on leaving Frontline. The organisation did not answer questions about staff turnover since taking its academic element in-house. Following publication of this article, Frontline 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.

Knock-on effects

Frontline has also said it is unable to provide figures around overall attrition rates for members of its 2016 and 2017 cohorts, which have yet to be published. In a written parliamentary answer in February, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said that 14 students (9%) withdrew from the 2016 programme in their qualifying year and 21 (7.4%) of the 2017 cohort did likewise. However, there are no published figures for overall dropout rates, encompassing the master’s year as well.

Of the 2017 cohort members we interviewed, three had left the programme early. Four of the five who remained were still set to complete all elements of the programme, including the master’s, while one had dropped the master’s. But – as with the diverging experiences around first-year support – their local circumstances produced different views of the journey to the finish line.

“The ASYE is really well supported in my authority, and Frontline’s tutor comes in regularly, or ad hoc if there are issues with academic stuff,” said Greg, a participant in the south of England. “I haven’t started the master’s dissertation yet but I’ve felt supported both by Frontline and my local authority.”

Others, including Rich, admitted they were struggling. “The ASYE programme is quite extensive in my local authority; I’ve got the master’s, and my caseload – I want to do the best I can with my cases but I don’t feel I’ve got the time to invest everything in it.”

Students mainly felt Frontline’s model had set them up for a strong start as an NQSW in year two. But several queried the consistency of the second-year academic programme and associated support, with Rich noting further marking delays and Katie saying that both the quality of lectures and the availability of her practice tutor had deteriorated sharply since the summer. She added that she felt this may have been a regional issue.

Meanwhile Jodie, a participant in the north of England, said she had dropped the master’s as soon as Frontline relaxed its stance on it. Personal circumstances influenced the decision but, she said, “I just didn’t get the point of it, or feel it would be useful in my role [at this stage in my career]”.

Most people we spoke to said they knew people who had taken similar decisions, even before the master’s was made optional, though others said the prospect of paying back fees had been a “looming” pressure that had kept them from entertaining the idea. Some interviewees who had left early – one of whom cited poor second-year supervision as their reason for quitting – showed us letters asking them to repay money, but these had never been followed up.

People who have stuck the programme out told Community Care they are still enthusiastic about social work, and in most cases were having good experiences at their local authorities. But aside from gratitude for the chance to train without incurring personal cost, they voiced a range of feelings regarding Frontline, and how the organisation has listened and will respond as it continues to mature.

“A lot of this is growing pains [but] the horrible outcome of that is that we are talking about real people’s lives and careers being affected,” said Alex, who nonetheless said she felt “the underlying ethos, teaching and value base are strong”.

In five years’ time things may well be better, Alex suggested, adding that stronger regional governance, and less of a London focus, could be one way to create a more even experience for students. “[But] everyone’s feedback last year was: they need to consolidate not expand.”

‘Feedback is at the heart of how we improve’

In a statement to Community Care, Frontline’s delivery director, Lisa Hackett, said 90% of the most recent, 2018 cohort had rated their teaching as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. She gave credit for this to Frontline’s now 34-strong teaching team, and pointed to the fact that their profiles, and credentials, had now been published on Frontline’s website.

“But we don’t get everything right,” Hackett added. “Our approach, like that of effective social workers and children’s services teams, is to learn so that we keep improving.”

Hackett acknowledged the mistakes that had been made at the 2017 summer institute and said that all but two individuals had eventually started their placements, with others offered spaces for the next year.

“This was our fault and we took full responsibility,” Hackett said. “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,” Hackett added. “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.”

*All names have been changed

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

  1. Ryan April 4, 2019 at 12:14 pm #

    Interesting to read and a detailed exploration of the experiences of some of those from one cohort on the programme. I wonder, do Community Care plan to look at any other routes into social work in as much detail as they do with Frontline? I wonder if we would not expect some of the problems identified above to not feature in other programmes. Frontline is clearly not perfect but I wonder what programme is.

    I would suggest that CC are interested in offering a balanced view, they then look to complete similar articles with other routes.

    (I completed the programme between 2014 – 16)

    • dk April 6, 2019 at 5:23 pm #

      My thoughts exactly… Obviously the greater scrutiny relates to politics and money, but I’ve been involved with Frontline and since then two traditional universities offering BA and MA qualifications, as well as Step Up. I have heard literally all of the above complaints (administrative incompetence or oversight, instability in provider staffing, variable practice skill and knowledge from practice educators etc) or personally observed them to be issues in relation to all of them.

      I think you can reasonably have a conversation or debate about the politics or economics of Frontline’s existence without also talking about the relative strengths and failings of other routes into social work. But any debate about Frontline in terms of participant experience or training efficacy that doesn’t acknowledge at its very start that Frontline exists in part because too many traditional training providers are not adequately gatekeeping is a waste of time. There is a reason local authorities like Frontline.

  2. BB April 4, 2019 at 3:52 pm #

    I would suggest a more long term study is needed too – I have noticed that with many of the fast track programmes, the social workers often have extended period of sick leave especially at the end of year two of full practice. There is more to social work than academic ability (and I say this as someone who sees this as a vital part of the picture but not the total picture). My observation is that there is a lower level of resilience in a really difficult and fast paced profession. There is a duty of care issue here too.

  3. Anon April 4, 2019 at 8:41 pm #

    We currently have a cohort of frontline students in our office and nitvsure where they get the idea their a superior group of social workers. They have all made it very clear they have no intention of staying in social work and see this as a career move onto some thing that pays far more than social work.

  4. Tom J April 5, 2019 at 10:46 am #

    Thank you to Community Care for sharing the on the ground realities of Frontline.

  5. Polly April 5, 2019 at 7:42 pm #

    I’m so proud of com care for this investigative journalism. And so proud of the students for standing up for social justice. Students and staff – it’s in your hands you know what’s being going on and you know it’s wrong.
    Please do the right thing and keep talking about the terrible things that are happening in FL.
    it’s heartbreaking and it needs to stop- you know it.

  6. Phil Sanderson April 5, 2019 at 7:56 pm #

    It does seem like the wheels are starting to fall off this Tory ideological project. What are the true retention figures given the vast sums being poured into this project? No doubt the DfE will come up with some number crunching that they did to say the average Social Worker caseload is 18

  7. Dan April 9, 2019 at 12:16 am #

    As someone with first hand experience of Frontline the writer has provided an accurate summation of the issues. There is not the depth of knowledge and long term experience within the staff team to support the systemic model. Many practice tutors are being taught systemic ideas whilst in post. I am not sure any academic provider would justify teaching the staff team the basics in order for them to teach/ supervise /mark dissertations in any major topic. There really isn’t the knowledge and skills there. It really undermines the social work and systemic professions and demonstrates poor academic rigour.

    Staff turnover has been high as they can’t retain the people who actually know something of the topics they teach. Thats because the work load to provide a good service to students is absolutely ridiculous, the context chaotic and the leadership team do not model any type of systemic leadership they preach to local authorities. It’s a great shame as the ideas of harnessing the 3 practice models is good but it really does not do these theoretical models justice and students mis apply systemic ideas which debases what the epistemology can actually do for social work and creating change with families. The pace with which the students are expected to learn and apply is ferocious which leads to burn out. The same applies to the staff. Those that stay do not want to go back into the context of local authority and may not be employed within the social work academic jobs as they are not qualified enough to teach at universities. They are a very unhappy bunch of professionals so I hear. There are some very committted professionals and CSWs. But many are in post far too early to run units and hold the risk and the intense student experience. Far too many students become CSWs within only a few years of qualifying.

    They invest a great deal in their brand and marketing the product to appeal to students. However, most of those working in branding and many who are involved in decision making have never set foot within a local authority office. There is space for Frontline to meet the gap of social workers but making sure it is small and getting it right. The rest of the money should be available for academic courses to think about how they can meet the needs of local authorities more and maintain the profession academic credentials.