Fast-track graduates appear to be no more likely to leave children’s social work than peers educated through traditional routes, but many experience a “disconnect” between their training programmes and the realities of social work, a review has concluded.
The analysis of the Step Up to Social Work and Frontline programmes found participants of both, while highly trained and valued by employers, often found the move to a full caseload a “major step up”.
But it said that “dissonance” between an idealised conception of social work and experience of local authority practice – leading to “disappointment” – was much more pronounced among graduates of the latter programme.
“Both social worker and employer interviewees spoke about a distinctive Frontline experience of this gap… connected to the training model’s relatively intense consideration of cases in a small team (unit) and application of systemic theory,” the report said. “The perceived issue was a mismatch between the training model and the reality in the employing local authority.”
The final evaluation report, carried out for the Department for Education by a team led by Cardiff University’s Jonathan Scourfield, found Frontline graduates left councils where they trained at “substantial” rates – at least 55% after two-and-a-half years.
Some councils expressed dissatisfaction about this tendency to leave, though the retention of Frontline participants among ‘host’ authorities has improved in recent years, something the study put down to the national organisation placing participants closer to their home areas.
Step Up, which is instead run by regional consortia of universities, saw 60% of participants retained by host councils after two-and-a-half years, within the cohort for which comprehensive data was available.
‘Social workers shouldn’t stay where they can’t do the job’
In an interview with Community Care, Frontline’s chief executive Mary Jackson said the local retention data “is what it is” but that the organisation would always “be pushing to do better and more”.
“That’s why we want to get feedback, why we adapt to feedback that local authorities gave us about local recruitment, and why we adjust our model,” she said. “We’ll be working to improve that number.”
Jackson added: “I would not want any social worker, whether they come through Frontline or any other route, to feel they need to stay [in a local authority] if the pressure or the situation means they can’t do the work they came to the profession to do.”
In a blog published soon after the release of the research findings, Jackson mentioned the “disconnect” between training and practice but put this down to participants having to work in environments in which they were unable to apply their skills.
Asked about whether the organisation should consider adapting its model to reflect circumstances within the wide range of local authorities Frontline now works with, Jackson pushed back on the suggestion.
“I would much rather think about how we change the system to enable them to [put into practice their learning], than to change our training to ensure they can operate within the system,” Jackson said.
She added that Frontline “absolutely” hoped to continue operating the government’s national fast-track social work training scheme beyond the end of its current contract, with the DfE having issued a pre-procurement notice relating to the programme this week.
“No social work programme equips social workers as well as Frontline does to operate within a local authority context,” Jackson claimed. “Not just because of the first year learning in situ, but because they are sat in a unit of peers, managed by a senior social worker from within the local authority, who understands the context and the setting.”
‘Tricky’ attrition rate comparison
Jackson said she was “delighted” about overall levels of attrition from social work among Frontline and Step Up, which were about 12% and 13% respectively 18 months after qualifying across the cohorts for which data was available.
While there is no directly comparable benchmark for children’s social workers trained via traditional courses, available data shows that across all social workers in England the rate at 15 months is 18%. No data exists at present that allows longer-term attrition to be compared.
After the evaluation’s publication, some social workers and academics criticised the way in which it had assessed and compared attrition rates given that Frontline trainees remain within the programme for an additional year after qualifying.
Scourfield, the study lead, defended the decision on Twitter, saying that the comparison with other routes into social work was “tricky” due to the difference in programme structures but that on balance he stood by the decision.
“Year two of [Frontline is] arguably more like in-service than initial training and they do qualify after one year of training, as do Step Up,” he said.
The research found that three years after qualifying, 19% of the third Frontline cohort (which qualified in 2017) had left the profession, compared with 22% of the second and 36% of the first.
For the fourth Step Up cohort (which also qualified in 2017), the attrition rate was 17% after two-and-a-half years but only 12% after three, suggesting some graduates had moved in and out of the profession – a pattern that could also be observed in the first Frontline cohort four and five years after qualifying.
Moving upwards or onwards
Significant numbers of participants from both programmes were progressing in their careers, the research found. Three-and-a-half years after qualifying, 38% Step Up graduates had moved up from entry-grade social work roles.
Data for Frontline participants was available over a slightly longer term, with 73% of survey respondents still in social work reporting they had progressed five years post-qualification.
Despite overall attrition rates appearing no worse than for social workers trained by other routes, the study observed that many Frontline graduates in particular were likely to set their sights on an eventual move away from local authority practice.
“The majority of interviewees saw themselves moving aside into different, albeit allied, roles,” the report said. “Systemic therapy was a popular option, which ties in with the Frontline programme training model, some spoke of specialist roles, for example with looked-after children or residential care for parents whose children are at risk of becoming ‘looked after’, or a move into Cafcass or youth justice.”
While Step Up graduates were more likely to be seen to being committed to their local authority roles, some employers interviewed for the study noted that they tended to be academically driven and drawn in the long term towards research-based opportunities.
Highs and lows
Asked about their job satisfaction, most graduates of both schemes said they were satisfied or very satisfied with most ‘intrinsic’ factors pertaining directly to their role, and large majorities rated supervision positively.
Participants from both Frontline and Step Up were far more likely to be dissatisfied with ‘extrinsic’ factors such as the numbers of hours put in, physical work conditions and in particular the lack of public respect for social workers.
An analysis carried out as part of the study tracking individuals from both programmes found “that the only two factors statistically significantly associated with retention were perceived support from the local authority and intrinsic job satisfaction”.
Graduates of both schemes who had left local authority social work cited familiar extrinsic factors – around stress, caseloads and having insufficient time to work directly with children and families.
“[But] the finding [around retention] would suggest that workplace attention to improving intrinsic job satisfaction would not be wasted, assuming there is also some attention to extrinsic factors,” it concluded.
‘Insights for government and LAs’
Rachael Wardell, chair of the ADCS workforce development policy committee said the findings provided “valuable insights that national government and local authorities can take away, particularly around retaining social workers”.
In relation to the job satisfaction measures, she added: “These are all fundamental to retaining a high-quality workforce and there is a role for government here to champion the vital work social workers do each and every day in supporting children and families.”
Wardell said there was learning both for local authorities and fast-track social work training providers around the difficulties some find adjusting from learning to full-time practice.
“This will have been even more pronounced for those beginning their social work career during the pandemic,” she said. “Nevertheless, employers have been working hard, putting in place innovative measures to help with their development and wellbeing to ensure all those entering the profession receive the support they need during this difficult period.
Wardell said fast-track social work training schemes should not be seen as any better or worse than other routes into the profession.
“Social Work England has a key role in ensuring that education qualifying standards are suitable for practice,” she said. “It does not matter how a person came into the profession if they have the determination and commitment to making a positive difference and the necessary skills and are properly supported to do the job well.”