I joined Frontline to set up the Firstline leadership programme back in 2014. The principles of great leadership were, and still are, inherent to everything we do at Frontline. We believe that high-quality leadership and supervision are fundamental to quality social work and therefore to ensuring that vulnerable children and families receive the best support possible. Frontline had been training new social workers through the Frontline programme for five months at that point, with a strong emphasis on developing leadership skill and capabilities. But nothing like this existed to develop the leadership skills of existing firstline social work managers, and there was such a clear need for this. Five months later, I watched as 40 social work managers joined our first cohort. “Do you feel like a leader, or a manager?” they were asked. All of them – every single one – said a manager. By the time they’d completed the ten-month course, they were leaders.
Five years on, I’m fortunate to be the new CEO of Frontline, and am as passionate about Firstline as ever. Since then 500 social work managers across ten cohorts from 63 local authorities have completed the Firstline programme. Today, the second evaluation of the Firstline programme from the Department for Education has been published, following on from the very positive early assessment of our pilot. I’m delighted to say it confirms what we already know from talking to our Firstline leaders, and our local authority partners. Across all seven of the leadership capabilities developed during the Firstline programme, our participants have seen statistically significant improvements in every one – and that’s not just how they rate themselves, it’s borne out by full 360-degree feedback from their peers, teams and managers. Everyone can see the difference that Firstline makes.
93% of Firstline leaders feel their practice as a line manager has improved as a result of the programme. 95% have changed the way they support their teams in supervision. They report an increase in confidence in many aspects of their roles – in decision-making; in holding peers or teams to account; in making changes in day-to-day operations. They are confident in themselves as leaders.
“Without the Firstline programme I would not be the leader I am today working with confidence to discuss progress and changes for the children and families who we work alongside”. – post-programme survey
No wonder 94% are extremely or very satisfied with the course, and the completion rate for the programme is 97%.
But again, it’s not just participants who notice the difference – senior managers also see improvements in Firstline leaders’ analytic and reflective skills, ability to make better decisions and communicate with greater clarity to colleagues and external organisations. Given this, it’s perhaps to be expected that 48% have been promoted after completing the programme, and a third of these directly linked this to the Firstline programme.
Given the brief period of time between cohorts participating in the programme, and the evaluation taking place, it is too soon to properly assess whether the Firstline leaders have been able to implement change within their department or local authority. We hope that future evaluations will be able to measure this more effectively.
The support of senior managers is also a key factor in enabling positive change – and we already know that organisational culture is critical too. This is a reminder to us at Frontline that local authorities face real challenges, and that we must do all we can to support them. We now work with more than half the local authorities in England, so have an excellent understanding of what works – but also what gets in the way. We want to continue to use this knowledge to give something back to our partners through ongoing collaboration, support and involvement, both from our partnership team and through our Fellowship.
It’s clear from the evaluation report that researchers were hindered by the lack of national data on questions such as retention and the impact on children and families. This is a real shame. It’s also a matter of concern that there is not the depth of data necessary to make statistically significant assessments of such important metrics. But what we do know is what our Firstline leaders tell us – 70% report that the programme has helped them promote child-centred practice on an individual and team level; and 74% that the programme has helped improve the service for children and families. And as 96% of our local authority partners return for more than one cohort, it’s clear they appreciate the benefits of the Firstline programme, and, crucially, the difference it makes to the children and families they support.
Social work is, at its heart, about change, and change needs leadership – the Firstline programme was set up in recognition of this. As this evaluation shows, the programme we’ve designed and run for five years now, creates excellent social work leaders. And through excellent social work leadership and practice, comes positive social change for children and families.