For some time I had been concerned at the efficacy of current social work training models. Until recently I led Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB) – a charity which runs a national advice line used by more than 2500 social workers from over 130 local authorities. CFAB also works with a further 1000 social workers through our training programme. The experience has given me a unique overview of practice across the UK. Each year CFAB works with hundreds of excellent, highly competent social workers – but whilst talking to students on placement, and recruiting new social workers, I’ve been struck by the numbers of applicants who lack (what I perceived as) a basic understanding of social work.
Previous to CFAB I managed an Independent Reviewing Officer service and we saw multiple instances where such basic signs of vulnerability had been missed. It is clear that the variance in practice and knowledge is stark and the lack of ongoing training, supervision and case management in some boroughs could be improved significantly.
As I see it, there are two key issues. The first is that many current social work courses are too remote from practice. Placements are often poor or unavailable while social work students are put in settings where they are not directly supervised by a qualified social worker. Meanwhile the teaching has not kept pace with the reality of practice. With Frontline’s approach there is a stronger focus on learning in practice. The qualification year will include more than 200 days on-the-job training and the participant unit model will ensure participants receive supervision from an experienced social worker who bears responsibility for the caseload. In addition, Frontline’s academic programme is being run by a number of highly respected social work academics.
The second major issue is that social work has an image problem, meaning that the profession does not always attract the highest academic achievers into the profession. Yet social work is one of the UK’s most emotionally and intellectually demanding jobs and it is important that we improve the workforce. The selection process for Frontline is ground-breaking for social work and intelligently tests prospective candidates for their suitability for this demanding profession. Employers both inside and outside of the social work profession are already recognising the rigorous nature of Frontline’s selection process and how Frontline’s leadership development programme is set to equip its participants with high-level skills.
Frontline is a scheme which attracts outstanding individuals offering them excellent teaching with a relevant and stimulating curriculum and will then place them on the frontline under the supervision of excellent consultant social workers. It addresses the concerns many social work employers have about producing students who are practice-ready. In addition to robust underpinning knowledge, students will leave the Summer Institute with practical intervention skills for working with children and families. Above all this it places emphasis on social work as a profession where leadership skills are seen as vital and are valued.
Critics in academia are legion but, like me, the majority of employers welcome this initiative and look forward to its success in being part of an exciting transformation in the social work profession.
Andy Elvin is the recently appointed chief executive of The Adolescent & Children’s Trust (TACT) and is also on Frontline’s Board of Trustees.