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A social work revolution — throwing top graduates in at the deep end

Social work is the job least desired by students. Frontline, a fast-track scheme, is a radical attempt to change that

I remember the shock of starting my first post-student job. I reckon many new graduates have faced the same challenges this autumn: getting out of bed on time; making the boss’s tea. But when Lucy Ivory tells me about the “shock” of her first job, started shortly after she sat her finals, she means something different. A child trusted her enough to reveal a horrible secret about their life and left it to her to prevent the same harm happening again. 

“It’s encountering things that they wouldn’t even write for a TV show,” she tells me. “Not things you can imagine when you say the words ‘family’ or ‘children’. It’s the reality of that that’s the shock.”

Ivory is 22. She is literally fresh-faced, her Lancashire can-do practicality overlayed by a brimming optimism. She is also a pioneer in a radical experiment. Can we revolutionise social work, and the lives of our most vulnerable children, by recruiting the brightest candidates from the best universities and throwing them in at the deep end?

Frontline, the organisation for which she works, is a world first. No other country has tried it, but it aims to do for Britain’s most beleaguered profession and underserved young people what Teach First is doing for deprived schools, and attract graduates from Oxford and Cambridge. Last month Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, announced that Frontline will expand across the country, backed by £100 million of government funding. A new body will drive up standards, aiming to turn social workers into high-status professionals on a par with surgeons and lawyers. Think Ahead, the new fast-track training programme announced last week, aims to do for mental health what Frontline is doing for social work.

It’s hard to imagine the maturity most 22-year-olds would need to take on the deepest, darkest problems of children only a decade or so younger than themselves — certainly I didn’t have it. Detractors of this experiment — and there have been quite a few — think it not just divisive but irresponsible. Yet spending time with Ivory and the young founder of Frontline makes me think again. Ivory does have maturity —not least because her job is ageing her rapidly —but, just as importantly, she brings hope.

“I asked this boy about what was important to him,” Ivory continues as we sit together in a children’s play-therapy room in Essex. “He suddenly revealed this thing, which was really upsetting and difficult for him. I was really surprised. I was just sitting there as we are now, and he chose me to tell. I was shocked but it was also a privilege that I was trusted to do something with it, to make sure I could protect him.”

Let’s say upfront that social work has an image problem. A really bad image problem. They are seen, at best, as bossy “loony leftie” do-gooders, as satirised in Radio 4’s comedy Clare in the Community. At worst they are the nation’s punch bags in the wake of high-profile catastrophes such as Victoria Climbie or Baby P.

When I tell the social workers I meet for this article that I have an irrational terror of them turning up at my door and somehow removing my children, they sigh deeply and say, “Sadly a lot of people think like that.” All their good work goes hidden and unthanked.

Josh MacAlister knows this. When he graduated with a good degree from Edinburgh University, he chose Teach First. He is the son of a social worker but that profession didn’t occur to him. Instead he taught at tough secondaries in Oldham and loved it. Yet he saw that for the neediest students a good social worker was just as important as school, and also how the crisis in social work — a quarter of councils having vacancy levels of 15 per cent or more — was failing his most vulnerable students. Some of his pupils went through six or seven social workers in a year.

MacAlister had a lightbulb idea: what about applying Teach First to social work? When he wrote what he now calls a “naive” article outlining the plan, he quickly got the attention of Andrew Adonis. Adonis is famous for founding the academy school movement, reforming — critics say disrupting — the British education system. But Adonis’s heart is with social work; after spending his childhood in care he credits it with his success.

“The status of social work in this country is frankly a national scandal,” Adonis wrote in The Times three years ago, “similar to comprehensive school teaching a decade ago: far too few good young graduates with burning motivation.”

Soon Adonis helped MacAlister secure the financial and political backing of Michael Gove, then the education secretary and himself an adopted child. As MacAlister relates this I find his ambition extreme. In 2013, aged 25, just a few years into his first teaching job, he quit for the considerably bigger task of starting a revolution in child protection. Now he is chief executive of the Frontline charity, a funnel for private and public money. As with MacAlister, all Frontline’s strengths are its weaknesses: radical, untested, outsider and young. I can see why, I say, credibility may have been a problem. “Oh yes absolutely, at first,” says MacAlister.

At Frontline’s launch Michael Gove said that his banker and barrister friends “have it easy . . . Their jobs, to my mind, aren’t nearly as intellectually stimulating or demanding or prestigious as being a social worker.” Spectacular graduates, he urged, should turn down the siren call of the City for more meaningful work. That was wishful thinking. When the UK graduate careers survey polled students on a range of desirable jobs, social work came out bottom. Medicine, law and banking were top, nursing and teaching mid-table. Burnout is high: a social worker’s expected working life is seven years, half that of a nurse. For those in child protection it’s estimated at only three years. Social work applicants have, on average, far worse A-level grades than teachers.

It only strikes me now that lots of people I know consider teaching but never social work. I ask MacAlister why. “Everyone has been to school and had a teacher; they understand it,” he says. “There is a mystery around social work because most people don’t come into contact with them. Part of our job at Frontline is to explain the power of what a really great social worker can do.”

There are three elements to Frontline’s appeal. One is that is has the prestige of a tough selection process: a degree of 2:1 or above is just the start of a rigorous series of tests and interviews. In the first year, 2014, there were 25 applicants for each of the 100 places. While fewer than ten Oxbridge graduates normally enter social work in a given year, Frontline had 184 Oxbridge applicants in its first year (it selected 22).

Next, Frontline graduates are apostles of a new way of working. Frontline adopts a model developed in Hackney in east London over the past decade by Isabelle Trowler, now the newly appointed chief social worker to the nation. When she began as a leader of children’s social work in Hackney, it was in a parlous state: half the staff were agency-sourced and children were going into care just because social workers didn’t have the time to sort out fixable problems.

Trowler embarked on a total, and, she says, what outsiders deemed “barmy”, redesign. Her first act was to get rid of the chaff, making staff reapply for their jobs with aptitude tests. “It’s a tough job and you need a good brain on you,” she tells me. Instead of having social workers operate individually, she grouped them into units of four, supported by full-time administrators, psychologists and senior managers. This freed them to spend more time working with families.

Money was saved and burnout fell, as did the rates of children being taken into care. The Hackney model is now cited as best practice by an independent review. The way the winds are blowing it seems the government is keen to get the whole country to act a bit more Hackney — see the appointment of Trowler. Frontline, which sends its recruits in Hackney-style units of four all over England, is a start.

Yet for most of the graduates I speak to the overriding draw is it fast-tracks them into real work, just as Teach First does. This is why Ivory chose it. Her grandfather was a social worker, her mother is a social worker. Yet towards the end of her psychology degree at Glasgow University, Ivory balked at the traditional academic training in social work. “I didn’t want to sit in a lecture theatre again. I wanted the experience of it. I wanted something real and tangible. That was the appeal, knocking people’s doors, sitting on people’s sofas.”

She had two weeks off after finals, then a five-week residential boot-camp course taken by all Frontline recruits, and two weeks later she was on the job in Colchester in Essex. She and her unit of four other Frontline first-years are supervised by senior social workers. They will get exposure to cases of increasing complexity as the year unfolds, essentially compressing two years of traditional social work training into one. Does she feel prepared enough?

“I don’t think anything can prepare you for knocking on someone’s door the first time,” she says. “I could have had seven years in the classroom and still felt nervous. Your tummy’s going, you feel a bit sick they’re not going to let you in, you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Social work has a nervous relationship with the media. The bad headline cases have made them wary of the press; in turn most people only hear of them when the bad headline cases come to light. My interview with Ivory is part of an attempt to change that pattern, but it still must be conducted under the watchful eyes of two press officers and her senior social worker.

Ivory is unfazed, and I start to think that social work may simply be improved by recruiting more people from Lancashire. She likes the support of being part of brand Frontline. In their first year, graduates receive a bursary of between £19,600 and £23,700, depending on their location. This rises to between £24,000 and £30,000 in the second year. Already the second year Frontline students have nearly double the retention rate of the equivalent trainee social workers.

Ivory has been deeply affected by that child unburdening to her an awful truth he had kept secret too long. “I was upset, but I had to use those emotions to motivate myself. I couldn’t sit there and be sad, I had to be angry, that guaranteed that I did something.”

Does she fear, though, what a job working with some of the grimmest parts of human nature could do to her youthful idealism? Her answer surprises me. She talks about making a change in people, but it strikes me this stands for the same effect Frontline is trying to have on an entire way of thinking.

“I enjoy it,” Ivory says with a broad smile. “I like hearing about the changes people make. I like going to people’s houses and see what they are doing differently. I’ve only been here a few months and I’m already seeing it. It’s like reading a book and you don’t want to put the book down. That’s what it feels like.”

Read the article on The Times website by Helen Rumbelow (Paywall)