Frontline has a lower social work qualification rate than other fast-track programmes, according to data from the providers.
About 90% of Frontline candidates completed the first year of the programme – thereby earning a social work qualification – in the three most recent intakes: 2018-19 (91%), 2019-20 (88%) and 2020-21 (90%).
This was below the completion rates for Step Up to Social Work’s three most recent intakes, which were 95% in 2016-17 and 96% in each of 2018-19 and 2020-21. Like Frontline, Step Up is focused on training practitioners to work in children’s services.
For Think Ahead, which trains social workers to work in adult mental health services, primarily, 94% completed their first year, earning a post-graduate diploma in social work, in the most recent intake (2020-21), with 92% doing so in the two previous ones, 2018-19 and 2019-20.
While the three courses have differences, they are of similar lengths (around 14 months), involve similar levels of financial support for students (tax-free bursaries of between £17,000 and £20,000 with no tuition fees) and involve the trainee being placed in a host local authority or – in Think Ahead’s case – an NHS mental health trust. Both Frontline and Think Ahead have a second year in which trainees are expected to complete a master’s degree alongside their assessed and supported year in employment.
Starters and graduates at fast-track courses
- 2020-21 – 463 starters, 419 graduates (90%).
- 2019-20 – 391 starters, 346 graduates (88%).
- 2018-19 – 336 starters, 307 graduates (91%).
- 2020-21 – 109 starters, 103 graduates (94%).
- 2019-20 – 106 starters, 98 graduates (92%).
- 2018-19 – 104 starters, 96 graduates (92%).
Step Up to Social Work:
- 2020-21 – 686 starters, 658 graduates (96%).
- 2018-19 – 563 starters, 539 graduates (96%)
- 2016-17 – 458 starters, 435 graduates (95%).
Lack of comparable figures for university courses
There are no comparable figures available for university undergraduate courses – which tend to be over three years if done full-time – or postgraduate schemes, which tend to be two years full-time.
Ninety-three per cent of those who left university social work courses in 2018-19 achieved a qualification (91% for undergraduate and 96% for postgraduate), according to Skills for Care’s most recent report on social work education. But it did not report figures for the proportions of degree starters who successfully completed their courses, which may be lower than Frontline’s figure.
However, university courses are not directly comparable to fast-track ones as they are longer and offer much less financial support; students pay tuition fees and are not guaranteed a bursary which, in any case, is of much lower value than those provided to fast-track students.
Differences in intake
An academic source suggested that Frontline’s lower completion rate than Step Up could be to do with differences in intake. Step Up trainees must have significant experience of working or volunteering with vulnerable children. The programme draws from people working in similar fields to children’s social care, who may be expected to have committed to social work and so be more likely to complete their course.
Frontline targets high-achieving graduates who may not otherwise have considered a career in social work and who, because of their academic records, could choose other career paths if they decided social work was not for them, the source suggested.
‘We want as many to complete as possible’
A spokesperson for Frontline said it wanted “as many participants as possible” to complete both years of the programme.
“Our aim is to develop excellent social workers ready for a career in child protection social work, and the Frontline programme has been designed to ensure participants are prepared and equipped with the skills and resilience they will need to do their best work for children and families,” the spokesperson said.
“We know this is a challenging career, which is why we have strong support systems in place. But, if after all the extra help and support someone decides the programme is not for them, then we support their decision to leave.”
A spokesperson for Think Ahead said: “We always look to increase the number of trainees who qualify and who complete the programme.
“We prioritise their wellbeing and support the trainees to give them the possible chance of success. Our aim is to recruit and train excellent, compassionate social workers that will make a difference to people with mental health problems, and we are always looking for ways to improve and achieve that goal.”
Completion gap ‘of concern’
The Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), which represents university social work academics, said it was “of concern” that completion rates for Frontline and Think Ahead were lower than for Step Up during the same period.
The spokesperson said the data needed to be “treated with caution” because of the possible impact of Covid-19 on completion rates across all types of social work course, adding: “Further analysis of this is needed including once data for mainstream programmes are available for the same periods.”
The news comes after the Department for Education (DfE) extended Frontline’s contract to deliver fast-track training for another year, meaning it will offer a programme starting in 2023, at a cost of £22.6m.
In December of last year, the DfE started consulting with potential providers on a contract for an £80m Frontline-style social work training scheme starting in 2024, but it has not yet issued the tender.
The contract would replace the provision currently offered by Frontline and run for four cohorts.