Francis Goodburn could easily make himself rich. He has just finished a degree in maths and computer science at St John’s College, Oxford, where he was an organ scholar. He was recently voted one of the top 10 black rising stars to watch in Britain. Off the back of this came internship offers at investment banks and at Google — a route into the big jobs at the big companies where many of his post-degree contemporaries are heading. A life of corporate affluence beckoned.
Instead, thanks to Frontline, a new organisation focused on getting high-achieving graduates into social work, this 21-year-old from Wetherby, Yorkshire, has taken a different path.
“My friends were quite shocked when I told them,” he says.
“So was the Oxford careers service. I went and asked them about it and they had to go and dust off an old file from 2002. They aren’t used to people wanting to be social workers.
“I come from a reasonably deprived background and grew up in a council house. So it seemed like quite a natural step to want to help people where I’ve come from. I kept seeing Frontline advertised online and somehow it stuck.”
Frontline aims to get top students like Goodburn into social work, specifically child protection. It is modelled on Teach First, the organisation that has made a big impact on the teaching profession by parachuting top graduates and career-changers into struggling schools.
Much like Teach First, Frontline offers an intensive training course at its five-week summer institute before putting its members straight to work. The pilot scheme starts today, as 104 aspiring social workers arrive at the institute in Sunningdale, Berkshire. Come September, they will start work in 18 councils across London and Manchester. They have signed up for two years, although the hope is that many of them will go on to have a career in social work. In the first year they will be closely supervised by a consultant, who in turn is in regular contact with professionals employed by Frontline.
The scheme was devised by Josh MacAlister, a former Teach First teacher, and Lord Adonis, the Labour peer and former schools minister.
“The shortage of social workers in this country is as acute as the shortage of good-quality teachers was 10 years ago,” says Adonis, who is chairing the scheme.
“We are seeing very high levels of turnover rates and very high vacancy rates — as much as 10% in some local authorities — which would be regarded as crisis levels in some professions. The employers themselves say that they lack sufficient supply of young social workers with the academic qualifications needed to do the job well.”
It’s fair to say that social work is not currently a fashionable profession. It doesn’t have the gritty, inner-city appeal of teaching, portrayed in films such as Dangerous Minds or Half Nelson. It doesn’t have anything like the financial appeal of City jobs offered by accountancy and law firms who saturate the milkround graduate recruitment process. And in recent years, cases such as Victoria Climbié, Daniel Pelka and “Baby P” have damaged the reputation of social work. As a result, it has struggled to attract top graduates, despite its potentially rewarding intellectual and emotional challenges.
“It seemed to us that a similar approach to Teach First was needed,” says Adonis. “To seize the imagination of high-performing graduates by making a fundamentally different offer to them. An organisation that will systematically train them, prepare them, support them in the profession. And not require them to make a lifetime commitment in terms of career.”
Frontline is only one of several organisations hoping to copy the Teach First model. Last weekTheresa May, the home secretary, announced Police Now, a scheme for fast-tracking graduates into the police. There are also plans for something similar in the world of mental health professionals. Until now, someone hoping to be a social worker would have to do a two or three-year academic degree to qualify for the job. Now they can be working, and get paid, within a matter of weeks.
For Goodburn, this was the key factor. “The difference between something that has you working from day one and something that requires years of study was crucial,” he says.
“I’ve been studying since I was four years old, so I want to get out there. New graduates want responsibility. I wouldn’t have done a social work degree.”
For career-changer Harriet Ruck Keene, who has joined the scheme after a career in fine art and public health, the early exposure that the scheme offers was also essential.
“I didn’t want to do a three-year degree again,” she says. “I wanted to do something practical and immediate.”
Much like Teach First, Frontline has its detractors. “Bringing the Bullingdon Club to social work” was one blogger’s viewpoint. More measured experts have raised concerns over the brevity and narrowness of the training scheme — and over the assumption that a smart graduate makes a good social worker.
“It’s not clear whether in the time that is available to them people will be able to have the breadth of knowledge not just for that specific role, but as the grounding for a longer career in social work,” says Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.
“Social work also requires far more than academic skills. Frontline has to identify people not just with strong academic records but people who have the interpersonal skills to work with people from very different backgrounds.”
Lord Adonis, who spent much of his childhood in care, has no time for any criticism. “I know from personal experience that good social workers save lives,” he says. “They also transform lives in providing stability, guidance, advice and opportunity for youngsters who lack all of those things.
“I was very lucky. I had some brilliant social workers, I don’t think I would have got out of care and on the ladder to university and a professional life if it hadn’t been for their work and their support.
“There is nothing for anybody to criticise, unless they are against having an increase in the quality and quantity of social workers.”