Most Frontline participants leave host councils within three years, study finds

Interim report finds students from the fast-track programme and its counterpart, Step Up to Social Work, join the profession well-equipped yet suffer from same structural stresses as traditionally educated peers

Image of students in lecture theatre (credit: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)

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”.

Familiar pressures

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.

Attrition rates

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.

Continuing trend

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.

10 Responses to Most Frontline participants leave host councils within three years, study finds

  1. Joe July 24, 2020 at 2:53 pm #

    From a HR perspective – It’s not necessarily the route in to Social Work that needs the analysis for retention, but actually how social workers are treated both locally at their employer and nationally by way of stress, high demands, support and pay / benefits to reflect the work they actually do.

    • Steve Horton July 27, 2020 at 4:15 pm #

      Joe has s good point here, I am a Social Worker who retired two years ago, in my view the reason Social Workers move on within three years are a/ They wish to broaden their experience, and b/ perhaps to leave the profession then or not to many years later.
      In my opinion the difficulties in recruitment and retention are the same and similar as they have been now for many years particularly since the early 2000’s, Social Work as we know is difficult and stressful, what Social Workers ask for to meet their professional needs, and in order to provide good quality support and service to their clients is LOW CASELOADS, GOOD QUALITY and REGULAR SUPERVISION and GOOD ONGOING PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT, GOOD TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES, and to work in a SUPPORTIVE ANTIBULLYING CULTURE, not a blame culture. NOT to spend 80% of their time on a computer often inputting a high level of information that it does not need a Social Worker to do, Social Workers want to be doing direct work with clients Children Families, Adults and so on.
      So we know how to make good social work to support people, to attract people to Social Work and to retain Social Workers, so let’s get on with it rather than continually revisiting the problems that won’t go away unless we do someone thing about it.
      Sadly there are many local authorities who are either unable to grasp this, or are not interested, it’s not rocket science.
      On the positive side there are some local authorities out there that have grabbed the above issues by the scruff of the neck and sort out and turn themselves round, with support from some nationally known figures like The Late Dave Hill CBE. So can we please get on with it and NOT make excuses as to why we cannot.

  2. dk July 24, 2020 at 3:58 pm #

    Should in fairness open by saying I’m a (sometimes conflicted) former Frontline participant …

    Genuine question … Why does it matter, even a little bit, if Frontline participants don’t work for their original host local authority two or three years after qualifying? It seems to me that the important issue, one of the issues that fast-track schemes should live or die by, is how many participants remain working in social work roles (or, if you want to be more narrow, front-line social work roles) in the years after, and not for which employer.

    Keep in mind here some of the context; the first two Frontline cohorts offered placements only in London and Manchester. Plenty of participants had to move from their usual bases to join the programme. And within that, Frontline had a very … ahem, broad definition of what constitutes London, with some participants who had expected to be based in the city (and I know many of these had arranged accommodation there) only to be told they would actually be working in Buckhinghamshire. And participants were not able to choose their host local authority; not suggesting they should have been able to, just making the point that many ended up in areas that were not necessarily a good fit home-wise, commute-wise, family-wise and so on. In that context, is it surprising so many did not remain in host local authority’s for years after qualifying? If anything, I’m mildly surprised so many stayed as much as a year beyond registration (i.e. the second MSc year if the programme).

    We also have no broader social work context. I know my local authority and many of our neighbours hugely struggle to keep ASYEs for more than a year or so after they complete that year. I suppose we’ll only ever know with certainty if the DfE or any other body actually looks into this, but there is no concrete evidence to suggest the Frontline figures are worse than more general retention figures … For all we know, they might actually be better!

    My understanding is that Frontline’s stated aims were to build retention in the profession, not for select employers. 71% still in the profession 3 years later … Again, my anecdotal experience is that figure is pretty good compared with those qualifying through traditional university courses and it doesn’t seem there has been any meaningful or robust enquiry into how it compares with other routes into social work.

    Frontline may be failing to deliver on its own terms, but I’m more strongly starting to believe that we as a profession do not have a clue what failing to deliver even looks like. How have we got to a place where we do not seem to have a good understanding of the retention, movement and career trajectory of social workers qualifying via traditional universities? Where is the accountability, to employers, to current/former/prospective students, to children and families? It’s absolutely right that Frontline faces this level of scrutiny, but bizarre and worrying that HEIs seem to have escaped similar.

  3. Chris July 24, 2020 at 8:23 pm #

    Worrying to read about this trend affecting the frontline and step up program but sadly I think people leaving the profession is a wider issue. my first question is what are the conditions of the contract for those on these programs is there any contractual obligation for them to remain in the original authority? I am an apprentice social worker and have no obligation to remain at my local authority post qualifying which to me seems odd! Even the apprenticeship route is fraught with dangers as employers give you the day off but no reduction in Expected output On case load so the pressure is immense I think if apprentices have a role in training unqualified experience staff they must make allowances in work expectations in return the authority should required apprentices to work for them post qualification for a set period.
    Secondly I think social work England have missed the opportunity to raise social care in the public interest and get us on the agenda yet again we seem forgotten and the Cinderella service. Challenging times ahead for social work it takes a hell of a lot of resilience

    • Alex July 28, 2020 at 8:07 pm #

      Totally agree with this point. What have Social Work England done to raise our profile?

  4. Michael Marko July 25, 2020 at 3:34 am #

    Just a guess: High stress (and burnout) and low pay equals low retention.

    • Ruth Namukasa July 27, 2020 at 8:59 am #

      I fully agree with Michael. Social workers earn around 30,000

      The work load is so high and the chances of progression to advanced practitioner (AS), team managers is almost zero as each team can only have or pay only one AP or TM! Despite ones potential and pre-qualified experience, it takes several years to be promoted. This is very frustrating and demotivating! Pre-qualification experience does not seem to count in the social work sector!

      Additionally despite having many black social workers, most management roles are offered to white colleagues! While black social workers wait for years without promotion! In the end they leave in search for progression and higher pay else where!

      Address salary issues, promote workers based on their potential not years of post qualification, challenge inequalities and keep work loads manageable.

  5. PS July 27, 2020 at 11:18 am #

    Yes I will agree with what’s said here- I also did Frontline, I stayed 3 years 1 month before moving on, and this was because it was time to prioritise my wife’s job and not my own. Although this article is about those staying with their host LA, the undertone is those training through Frontline lack commitment, both to the professional and to their LA. I do strongly disagree with that- someone on my cohort moved from northern Scotland to London for 2 years and lived away from her husband during that time when they were newly married. Most frontline participants move across the country for their placement, generally when I have seen people leave, it has been to go back to where they lived before and continue to be a social worker.

    Also I would be interested in seeing these numbers compared to all social workers- I was in one team of 10 workers for two years and by the time I left apart from the service manager and one senior prac I was the longest stayer in that team (I know this is only anecdotal, but I don’t think this was unusual).

  6. ChiaraBadger July 29, 2020 at 11:38 am #

    I see others have been before me with what I want to say. I am not involved in FrontLine, but the headline seems to me to be indicative of a bias against it. It does not matter at all if FrontLine-qualified students move to a new local authority or organisation, so long as they are still practising.

  7. Billy Tell July 29, 2020 at 12:45 pm #

    Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. A similar process took place in the 1970’s onwards where local authorities would pay unqualified social workers who worked for them their salary whilst they were undertaking qualifying training.

    On the undertaking that they would remain with their employers for an indentured period of 2 to 3 years. If this was broken and the employee left their employer for whatever reason their salary could be recovered by legal action.

    One of the unintended consequences of this was to promote an exodus of good residential workers who attained their qualification in this manner to continue to work for the same employer but in a field social work role. ( no more unsocial hours, better salary etc)

    Another historical event took place in the 1960’s which resonates with increasing volume for anyone undertaking frontline personal people work be they social workers, nurses, residential care workers etc in the 21st century and was conducted by the Tavistock Institute into the retention of newly qualified nurses in the NHS. It found that if there was not a conduit for the emotional support needed to undertake the work successfully and for this to go unheard and unrecognised by the employer then the work would lead to increasing stress and anxiety leading to burn out and for the remaining staff to attempt to mitigate their increasing stress and anxiety by developing maladaptive strategies leading to dehumanisation and institutionalising extremely vulnerable patients.

    If the lessons that had been learnt then had been applied to all personal care work it would have revolutionised that work but it still remains a historical pipe dream. If you would like to know more about that work then you can follow this link to the original paper written by Isabel E.P. Menzies Lyth.

    What social work is now is a business with a lack of history and common sense….and I fear will never recover.

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