Axing leadership training scheme risks undermining support for social workers, warn PSWs

Principal social worker network says DfE's decision to end funding for Pathways programme leaves gap in leadership training in children's services as some councils have not budgeted for alternative provision

Social worker in supervision w ith manager
Photo: fizkes/Adobe Stock

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The government’s axing of a social work leadership training scheme risks undermining support for practitioners as well as the retention of managers, principal social workers have warned.

The chairs of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network said the loss of the Pathways programme – used by all but 10 local authorities – had left a gap in management training as some councils had not budgeted for alternative provision.

This meant investment in managers was diminshing, despite their role in supporting newly qualified and experienced social workers and in fostering environments in which good practice could thrive, they added.

The chairs, whose statement was based on feedback from PSWs, also criticised the lack of “prior consultation, direct opportunity for feedback or prior notification” by the Department for Education before ending the Pathways programme.

‘Unexpected’ loss of leadership programme

Instead of a formal announcement from the DfE, the news was revealed last month by Frontline chief executive Mary Jackson, at a session of the House of Commons’ education select committee’s current inquiry into children’s social care.

Jackson said the DfE had told the charity days earlier that its £7m contract to deliver Pathways – in partnership with what works body Foundations and North Yorkshire council – would not be renewed beyond its expiry in July 2024 for budget-related reasons.

This was despite Frontline having previously been “given all of the signals that the extension would come through”, said Jackson, and positive outcomes and feedback from the scheme.

About the Pathways programme

Launched in 2022, Pathways operates at four levels:

  1. Pathway 1: practice supervisors – this is delivered over 30 hours, including two on-site days, and provides training in leading supervision sessions effectively, creating a safe and inclusive culture, supporting practitioner mental health and wellbeing, reducing bureaucracy and drawing on research.
  2. Pathway 2: middle managers (for team managers and practice supervisors aspiring to be team managers) – delivered over 56 hours, with four on-site days, this offers learning in setting and communicating an ambitious vision for your team, giving effective feedback, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of your team and putting in place anti-racist and inclusive strategies.
  3. Pathway 3: heads of service (also for service managers and team managers aspiring to be service managers/heads of service) – delivered over 88 hours, with four on-site days, this provides learning on setting and communicating an ambitious vision for your service, putting anti-racism and inclusion at the heart of your strategy, influencing political and corporate decisions, leading change and managing improvement and using adaptive leadership to manage uncertainty.
  4. Pathway 4: practice leaders (for assistant directors/directors of services or heads of services aspiring to these roles ) – delivered over 90 hours, including four on-site days, this includes training on leading innovation, influencing political and corporate systems, maintaining morale and resilience, making anti-racism central to your strategy and using data, research and best practice to measure success.

Positive feedback and outcomes

Frontline said that 98% of Pathway participants reported that their time on the programme had improved their ability to deliver service improvements, while 99% said it had enhanced their ability to lead change.

It added that 14% of practice supervisors who undertook Pathway 1 (for practice supervisors) had been promoted within 12 months of completing the programme, while 25% of aspiring leaders on Pathways 2 to 4 – those undertaking the programme with a view to moving up – had also advanced to a more senior role.

This was echoed by the PCFSW chairs – Paul McGee (Essex), Clare Poyner (Portsmouth) and Rob Tyrrell (Gloucestershire) – in their response to the news.

“Many authorities have received very good local feedback from practitioners who have completed the different Pathway programmes and can see a consequent impact on practice confidence and application,” they said.

Alternative management training cut, warn PSWs

Pathways is fully funded by the DfE, and the network chairs said some areas had “reduced or stopped previously locally delivered leadership training following Pathways involvement and have not planned for or budgeted for an alternative”.

“This will adversely impact on the immediate CPD opportunities for our leaders and aspirant leaders and further affect consistent and coherent learning frameworks, morale, retention and effective succession planning,” they warned.

In a statement on its decision to scrap Pathways, the DfE pointed to other workforce initiatives it was funding, notably the development of a five-year early career framework for practitioners starting in children’s services.

However, the PCFSW Network stressed that it was managers’ responsibility “to develop NQSWs and experienced frontline staff” and, with the loss of Pathways, investment in them was “diminishing”.

Warning of ‘significant gap’ in team manager training

The loss of Pathways means that, for the first time since 2015, there will be no government-funded programme designed to develop team managers.

“This may leave a significant gap in up-skilling first line managers in strategic thinking, which is fundamental to managers in terms of building workplace environments where good practice can thrive,” said the network chairs.

They added: “There is a real concern this significant area of social work practice is being forgotten, yet it is crucial to successful outcomes for children and families and in turn, retention in a sector that is already struggling significantly, especially post-Covid.”

The chairs said the decision recalled the “disappointment” felt by the sector following the 2022 scrapping of the national assessment and accreditation system, given “the significant investment made by practitioners and leaders in promoting and engaging with [NAAS]”. NAAS enabled local authority children’s social workers and practice supervisors to gain accredited status based on passing an assessment.

“We would hope that further dialogue and curiosity about the benefits and scope of a national leadership development programme is promptly actioned,” the network chairs said.


One Response to Axing leadership training scheme risks undermining support for social workers, warn PSWs

  1. Christian Kerr May 1, 2024 at 3:24 pm #

    ‘[T]he network chairs said some areas had “reduced or stopped previously locally delivered leadership training following Pathways involvement and have not planned for or budgeted for an alternative”.

    Which speaks directly to core concern of those who have been critical of the centralised, government-controlled Frontline from the outset: that privileging a particular organisation and its models at the expense of all others risks this very outcome. The alternatives have faded because Frontline has had preferential treatment and funding.

    The PCFSW network’s response is also revealing of its tendency to toe the government line (at least publicly) and once again demonstrates the degree to which local authorities have been captured by Frontline, a publicly-funded organisation backed and influenced by global big money. (See also recent statement from ADSC on this announcement:

    Where is the evidence, beyond the ‘very good local feedback’ cited above that Pathways improved the lives of children and families?

    It’s important we as social workers look beyond the rhetoric and think and talk critically about these things.

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