By Alex Turner and Alice Blackwell
The proportion of students attaining a master’s qualification from fast-track social work training provider Frontline dropped significantly across its first three cohorts, new figures show.
Data released under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation by the University of Bedfordshire, Frontline’s outgoing academic partner, revealed that for the 2016 cohort – the most recent for whom final results are available – only 65% of students who started the master’s qualification have passed it.
For the first two cohorts the pass rate was around 20 percentage points higher.
In a separate development, Frontline confirmed it is widening its entry criteria for its 2020 intake, after only 393 of the 452 available spaces were filled for the cohort that has just started – a bigger shortfall than in previous years.
A statement issued by Frontline said the gap was down to its “rigorous selection process” and the “exacting standards” around local authority partnerships that determine how many participants can be placed in each region.
Frontline participants study for a master’s – a key selling point of the programme – in their second year, while working full-time in children’s services departments and completing their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). They spend their first year in local authority placements, at the end of which they must achieve their postgraduate diploma (PGDip) in order to register as social workers and continue their studies.
More on Frontline
The University of Bedfordshire’s FOI release, made in response to a public request, revealed that for the 2016 cohort, which originally numbered 155 participants, 84 of the 130 who started their master’s have so far passed it.
Eight students from the 2016 cohort are still in the programme but have yet to complete the qualification, meaning a maximum of 92 could do so – giving a possible attainment range of 65% to 71%.
For the first two cohorts the master’s pass rate was higher, with 87% (79 of 91) of 2014 cohort students who started the master’s going on to complete it, and 84% (90 of 107) of 2015 cohort members doing so. Across those intakes, 87% of those who started the Frontline programme as a whole (104 and 123, respectively) commenced the master’s. This dropped slightly to 84% of the 2016 cohort’s 155 enrolees, the FOI response revealed.
In response to the data release, a Frontline spokesperson said: “Of those who start Frontline, we are pleased that 92% qualify as social workers and 86% complete the full two-year programme.
“We offer optional academic credits in the second year of the programme that we believe are highly valuable,” the spokesperson added, referring to the master’s. “The vast majority of trainees choose to take this up and of those who do, 78% get a final master’s award.
“For a small number of trainees, personal circumstances mean that they do not take up the final 60 credits [the master’s],” the statement said. “This choice allows these individuals to focus on their work as a newly qualified social worker in the second year of the programme.”
Frontline’s newest students are due to start their placements in local authorities next week, having completed the five-week ‘summer institute’ that provides a foundation in social work theory.
This year, Frontline’s target cohort size, set out as key performance indicators (KPIs) introduced in a contract with the Department for Education (DfE) covering the 2017 to 2019 intakes, was 452. But only 393 students have started the programme, meaning 87% of places were filled.
Last year the target was missed by a much smaller margin, with 336 of 352 places (95%) taken, while in 2017 282 out of a possible 300 students (94%) commenced their studies.
For the 2020 cohort, people with a 2:2 bachelor’s degree will be eligible to apply for the first time, provided they have also completed a postgraduate course, Frontline’s spokesperson said. In the past, only those with a 2:1 bachelor’s degree have been considered.
We’d really value your feedback on how Community Care can deliver more of the content you want in a way that works for you.Take our short survey to help us do this, and give yourself a chance to win an Amazon Alexa in the process.
The spokesperson said the move did not mean selection criteria were being relaxed, and would bring the organisation into line with entry requirements set by universities, for postgraduate courses, and by fellow fast-track pathway Step Up to Social Work.
They added that for the 2019 cohort, there had been 12 applicants for every place available, a similar ratio to previous years.
“We never relax the criteria of our selection process, even where this means we will fall short of the maximum number of participants,” the spokesperson said.
Frontline’s 2017 to 2019 contract says it must remedy any failures to hit KPIs within 21 days or any period the DfE directs.
A spokesperson for the DfE said: “Frontline have made a significant achievement in welcoming new trainees, with numbers increasing from around 100 students in 2014 to almost 400 just five years later.
“We regularly meet with Frontline to discuss and monitor the performance of the programme,” the spokesperson added. The DfE did not answer questions as to whether it had instructed Frontline to take any action to address its shortfall in students, or dip in master’s attainment.
From 2017, master’s pass rates have also featured in Frontline’s list of KPIs. The 2017 cohort’s results are due to be submitted to the DfE in November.
The 2017 to 2019 contract says 90% of students starting their master’s should complete the qualification – far above what the members of the 2016 cohort have reached to date, though no such target applied for that group.
For its 2017 intake, Frontline sought to make its master’s compulsory. But it reversed the decision earlier this year after concerns were raised that students in some local authorities were struggling to balance academic work with the demands of their ASYE year.
A fresh contract, covering the 2020 and 2021 cohorts, drops the master’s pass rate target to 70% of those who start it. But it also sets tougher terms than its predecessor, saying that failure to meet one or more KPIs in a given (annual) service period will enable the DfE to terminate arrangements with 30 days’ notice.
The new FOI release caused controversy when it was first published earlier in August. An initial batch of figures provided by the University of Bedfordshire appeared to show a majority of some Frontline cohorts failing to achieve their master’s.
Critics of the programme speculated on Twitter that they provided hard evidence of the fast-track scheme’s poor value for money and questionable credentials.
But the figures immediately appeared to contradict data that had previously been made available, most obviously in terms of intake numbers, which were far higher than those previously published by Frontline and the DfE.
The university subsequently retracted the data on the basis that it contained errors. It issued a statement to Community Care that it was “incorrect because we believe we have accidentally duplicated course records”.
From 2020, Lancaster University will take over as Frontline’s academic partner. In the meantime, before the end of 2019, academics from Cardiff University are due to publish an independent evaluation of both Frontline and Step Up, including detailed analysis of participant retention.
This year’s Community Care Live 2019 boasts over 30 free learning sessions to equip you to face the key challenges in social work practice today. You can also sign up to any of our eight legal learning sessions to help ensure you have the legal literacy your role requires. Register now to ensure you don’t miss out.