Most social workers who qualified through Frontline’s first two cohorts left their original local authority within three years, new research shows.
A long-delayed report for the Department for Education (DfE) said three-quarters of participants from the fast-track training provider’s first cohort had left their original employer 36 months after registering in September 2015. Of the second cohort, registering in September 2016, 63% had left their employer within 30 months.
The finding correlates with separate research carried out by Community Care earlier this year (see box), which appears to show the trend continuing among later cohorts.
During their first 36 months, 36% of the first-cohort graduates had progressed from their original position – in most cases to senior social worker, with a handful having been promoted to consultant social worker or team manager roles.
But over the same timespan, 29% of the cohort had left the profession altogether, said the interim review, which forms part of a study running until 2021.
The project, focusing on recruitment and retention, is evaluating both Frontline and Step Up to Social Work, another fast-track postgraduate scheme delivered by a consortium of universities.
It has not yet generated up-to-date comparative data for the two routes into social work because Step Up only runs every two years. Nor at present is there directly comparable data for the wider children’s social work sector, though a second longitudinal study being conducted by the DfE may provide this in due course.
‘Not the desired outcome’
Jonathan Scourfield, a professor of social work at Cardiff University who is leading the fast-track study, said it was unfortunate that such data were not yet available.
Nonetheless, he said the numbers of Frontline graduates leaving their original employers were “very high”.
“At three years post-qualified, only 25% are still employed in the same local authority [they trained in] and that is a very low figure,” he said. “You’d have to say that’s not the desired outcome – we know there are retention problems across the profession, but this particular programme is meant to be helping solve that problem.”
Scourfield added that it was too early draw conclusions as to the reasons behind the trend, but said the study would be going on to interview employers who had participated in Frontline and Step Up, and may also investigate whether certain factors seemed to predict whether people stayed in jobs.
Both fast-track schemes were established with the aim of addressing longstanding recruitment and retention challenges within children’s social work, and tackling what was claimed to be a lack of quality among graduates trained through traditional university courses.
A well-known paper written in 2012 by future Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister argued, in response to employer concerns about low retention rates, that “a fast-track programme should be designed to encourage the retention of staff in frontline posts”, enabling local authorities to train and then nurture “high-potential” staff into management posts.
Findings from the new interim report suggested that fast-track alumni entered the profession with some advantages and enjoyed direct practice. Yet interviews with participants found less satisfaction with the wider experience of being a children’s social worker, due to the job’s well-documented pressures, and low public appreciation of the role – which had hastened the departure of some from statutory work.
Interviews also picked up stresses specific to the fast-track courses – some of which have been previously documented by Community Care – and that trainees’ experiences varied between councils because of familiar factors such as workload and management support.
Reconciling teaching and practice
The study of which the report forms the initial update is meant to track the long-term outcomes of Frontline’s first five cohorts and Step Up cohorts 4 and 5, which qualified in 2017 and 2019.
Graduates are being surveyed at six, 18, 30, 36, 48 and 60 months after qualifying, with the research team contacting Step Up participants directly while adding questions to questionnaires Frontline already sends out internally, and carrying out follow-up interviews with a selection of respondents.
Six months after qualifying, graduates from the two schemes gave broadly similar responses – between 80% and 91% positive – in terms of how well-prepared for practice they felt, to those collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency from students who had qualified via traditional courses in 2016-17.
As with previous studies, participants commented on the all-consuming nature of the fast-track schemes, which are local authority-based and demand that trainees juggle practice with academic work.
Follow-up interviews revealed that Frontline graduates felt broadly positive about the programme, though with the passing of time “some interviewees described difficulties in reconciling what was construed as idealised teaching… with the realities of social work practice”.
Meanwhile participants in Step Up – which now takes place at around 90% of English local authorities – described a range of experiences from very positive to negative.
“Where placements did not work so well this was associated with a perceived lack of support, high caseloads and limited practice opportunities,” the report said.
It added that graduates raised questions about the suitability of the intense course for those with caring responsibilities, and about whether its 14-month duration was sufficient training.
Despite this, some later commented that with hindsight they believed the rigours of Step Up had given them a firmer footing on which to enter social work than they would have gained from a traditional route.
The study noted that participants in both programmes faced a steep learning curve but appeared to have been equipped to cope with their increasing workload post-qualification. Around half of all those surveyed felt supported by their line manager ‘to a great extent’, though the study also tracked feelings of anxiety and disappointment as case numbers – and associated bureaucracy – increased and time for direct work became more squeezed.
Such factors were frequently mentioned among graduates of both schemes who had subsequently left children’s social work, who cited common concerns including unmanageable caseloads, stress and conflict between work and personal lives as reasons for their exit. Leavers who had participated in Frontline, who were interviewed in greater numbers, also cited positive decisions to move away from statutory work and into jobs in adjacent sectors.
For Step Up, the interim report only tracked the rate of this attrition among cohort 4 participants up to 18 months post-qualification.
At this stage, it found that an almost identical proportion – 89% as opposed to 90% – remained within statutory social work as had been the case six months after qualifying. These figures correlated with a survey taken at the six-month mark, which found 74% were ‘very likely’ and 15% ‘moderately likely’ to stay in the profession for another six months.
During early 2020, Community Care sent freedom of information requests to councils that have participated in Frontline, asking about their retention of social workers trained via the programme.
Data provided by 32 councils offer a more up-to-date picture than that presented by the DfE’s study, suggested the trend of relatively high attrition from host authorities continues.
As of March 2020, 29% of trainees who qualified in summer 2016 remained at their original employer. Among those who registered in 2017 the figure was 44%, while for those qualifying in summer 2018 the retention rate among original employers was 68%.
Like the DfE-commissioned interim report, our data cannot at this stage be directly compared with the broader picture among newly qualified social workers, who habitually experience significant stress leading to job moves and in some cases burnout. But the figures reinforce the picture of many councils struggling to hold onto fast-track trainees.
For Frontline, richer data was available to the study team. Surveying Frontline cohorts 3 and 4 at six months post-qualifying – at which point they were still enrolled on the second year of the course – researchers found 43% and 53% respectively were ‘very likely’ and 29% and 26% ‘moderately likely’ to remain in the profession beyond another six months.
In practice, greater numbers of Frontline participants continued with social work than those numbers suggest. Yet at 30 months post-qualification, 23% of cohort 1 and 19% of cohort 2 had left statutory practice, rising to 29% of cohort 1 after 36 months.
All cohorts recorded striking drop-offs in the numbers of participants remaining with the local authorities at which they trained. Thirty months after qualifying, just 31% of cohort 1’s graduates, and 37% of cohort 2’s, remained with their host councils – with the first cohort’s proportion falling to 25% after another six months.
Mary Jackson, Frontline’s chief programmes officer, said retention of social workers within the profession “remained a sector problem” due to challenges identified in the report such as long hours, large caseloads and a lack of support.
“We do not want to see anyone quitting social work as a result of these negative factors, which is why we have been working with our local authority partners to come up with creative approaches to addressing these issues,” Jackson added. Some of these included doing more work around matching participants with employers, and providing line management training for people taking on supervision of Frontline graduates in their second, post-qualification year.
“Our view on those who move on, up or even out into roles [in adjacent sectors] for positive reasons is very different,” Jackson said. “What matters to Frontline is that these social workers are continuing to have an impact on the lives of children and their families, whatever their job.”
‘No best route into the profession’
Responding to the interim findings, Rachael Wardell, the chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, said the report provided valuable insights around how well-prepared respondents felt they were for practice, job satisfaction and their reasons for leaving the profession. “It is encouraging to see that intrinsic job satisfaction was high for graduates across both programmes because we know this is fundamental to retention, however, it is concerning that satisfaction with things like hours of work and public view of social work was lower,” Wardell said.
Wardell added that data limitations made it difficult for employers to get a clear picture of whether there were obvious differences between how long people coming through fast-track versus mainstream routes stay in the profession.
“There is no ‘best’ or ‘better’ route into the social work profession – these programmes are a welcome part of a mixed range of provision aiming to raise standards across the whole system, and Social Work England has a key role in ensuring that education qualifying standards are suitable for practice,” she said.
“It is vital the programmes build on the broad range of routes available such as our local universities, teaching partnerships and work-based learning to attract more people who will be well-suited to the profession,” Wardell said, noting that the likely long-lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic make it crucial that both newly-qualified social workers and their employers are properly supported.