The independent evaluation of Frontline has given us the opportunity to reflect on what’s working and what we need to improve. For our newly qualified social workers, local authorities and the team at Frontline – particularly colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire – the publication has been an important early milestone and cause for celebration. The evaluation demonstrated that Frontline has brought individuals into social work with “impressive” practice skill.
This is really encouraging, but there is still more to do. The independence and rigour from the Cardiff University team means that we have been given a rare and valuable external perspective on how we can improve the programme further.
We have started and will continue to change the programme content and structure – linking taught recall days more closely to the practice reality; cutting back on the burden of paperwork; giving more discretion to local authorities for the delivery of the Contrasting Learning Experience; and, re-sequencing content to support participants on the programme to link theory with practice. We have also begun to make changes to the transition between the first and second years of the programme so that more support is given when participants move out of the unit and into more traditional team structures.
And whilst our cohorts are reflective of black and minority ethnic groups in the general population, we are redoubling our efforts to make Frontline more diverse with insight days, increasingly focused campus activity and ongoing bias training for our recruitment team.
Underpinning these changes is the decision to bring the academic delivery in-house. Constant refinement in a rapidly growing organisation is best achieved by a cohesive team sharing an enthusiasm to rethink what we do and the ability to act if it can be improved. The toughest part of innovation is implementation, so coming together as one team will give us the best chance of building on an early but very encouraging evaluation.
The publication of the evaluation has also prompted some further questions and debate that we want to offer a perspective on.
The evaluation reflected that it was unclear whether our recruitment campaign or training model was responsible for “the impressive quality of Frontline graduates.” Our model consists of three features – demanding selection, training focussed on ways of helping people change, and support from Consultant Social Workers working in units. It is correct to say that the evaluation didn’t look at the relative contribution of each feature. However, they are all part of the Frontline model and our experience is that they are mutually reinforcing. For example, if you recruit for candidates with high levels of empathy they should be more amenable to being educated in complex relationship based intervention methods. Similarly, if you are managed and coached by a Consultant Social Worker who models a particular approach day after day then you should be able to learn quicker.
Coinciding with the evaluation was the publication of the cost comparison study into social work qualification routes undertaken by York Consulting which included three sets of figures. The direct comparison of costs ranked Frontline as the most expensive. The full economic cost comparison ranked Frontline as one of the least expensive. But the most meaningful figure was the comparison of net costs. This figure factored in many of the benefits that unqualified workers can bring to their work and has Frontline as only 9.4% more expensive than traditional undergraduate routes (£38,117 compared with £34,523 per trainee). In light of the higher quality of practice skill exhibited by Frontline participants, we believe this additional cost represents very good value for money.
Additionally, some have questioned whether simulated practice is an accurate measure of social work skill. One of the aims of the Cardiff study was to “measure objectively how well Frontline prepares participants to be outstanding social workers” which was done through a comparison of two simulated practice sessions (scenarios with actors) between those qualifying through Frontline and those learning through traditional courses. Simulations were used by the evaluators so that they could control for the complexity of work being undertaken and so that test conditions could be set to give everyone the same chance.
Whilst this wasn’t a test of real practice it did objectively rate practice skill across nine areas including goal setting, relationship building, cultural competence and assessment. These criteria were created after extensive consultation with academics, practitioners and those who use services. The simulations were therefore a broad measure of social work skill and the evaluation itself is the most robust evaluation of social work education in England that we’ve seen. Frontline continues to be committed to understanding the impact of our recruits on children and families and so we are currently working with Dartington Social Research Unit to use methods of measuring outcomes.
Curiosity is important for everyone working at Frontline. We’re doing lots of things differently and so it’s right that we evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and learn what can be done better. Though at times exasperating, this means that we’re always focussed on developing social workers and a network of leaders for those that matter most – vulnerable children and families who need life changing social workers.