Launching the Frontline Fellowship; the importance of movements

14th October 2016

After being set up nearly four years ago, we have now launched the Frontline Fellowship. The Fellowship is a network of individuals who have a shared experience through a Frontline programme and are working towards a common mission, to transform the lives of vulnerable children and families. We celebrated the event at the iconic Foundling Museum, the home of Thomas Coram’s take on child protection, 277 years ago. This event marked a milestone for Frontline in our ambition to create a movement committed to addressing social disadvantage through social work practice and leadership.

Alumni networks are traditionally known for their focus on soliciting donations. But there are a growing group of alumni networks centred on addressing major social problems rather than organisational needs. Teach First is a leading example of this with their work in the area of educational inequality. Initiatives such as the National Citizen Service in the UK and AmeriCorps in the US are building broad movements around public service. In England, organisations such as Police Now, Think Ahead and Unlocked are also working to build these movements across public services focussed on specific social problems.

Frontline’s movement has been established to support a broad range of Fellows, including both those with years of experience, alongside others who have recently qualified as social workers. As well as having completed a programme with Frontline, each member of this community has a determination to improve the social work system and address significant social disadvantage. Frontline is not working alone in this effort.

In social work more broadly, a growing movement of reformers are chipping away at the procedural and bureaucratic status quo and promoting a focus on social workers as agents of change. Initiatives such as Pause and the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) and models such as restorative practice and systemic ideas share a belief in the strengths of the family and the importance of a quality relationship in direct practice. This is being brought to life by a group of leaders across the profession who have a vision of a world class social work system.

These movements work because they are based on individuals coming together in common cause. At the launch of our Fellowship, we heard from Jake Hayman, Founder and CEO of Future First Global, who has experience of creating alumni networks around the world. Jake shared the wisdom that alumni movements are only successful when they are focussed on empowering and serving their members rather than serving an organisation. This is a key insight for purpose driven movements.

The agenda of organisations such as Frontline aren’t hidden but they are often overlooked or misunderstood. The retention rates for those joining a profession via innovative routes is a valid test. Government departments, and tax payers, rightly want to know that new talent will be sticking it out with colleagues who enter a profession through more established routes. With 96% of those starting the Frontline Programme qualifying as social workers and early indications suggesting that well over four in five are staying in children’s social work after their two years, we have reason to be positive about our contribution to the workforce. We are bringing more great people into a profession and the vast majority are staying.

And many of those who are remaining in social work are making significant contributions. There are many examples of those who have completed Firstline (our leadership programme for social work managers) who are now working in new ways that can transform practice. Some have totally changed the way they do supervisions to focus more specifically on practice or by introducing space for groups of social workers to reflect on the work and learn from one another. Others are managing risk in a completely different way, working more closely with their teams to share decision-making and accountability, whilst developing their own and their team’s resilience. These small-scale changes are not unique to work being undertaken by those who are Fellows of Frontline. This type of work happens in every corner of the profession. Taken together this work and these innovations can dramatically improve the help and support for children and families.

Yet if we’re serious about tackling deep and complex issues that social workers are often contending with, then we need an all-out assault on social disadvantage, root and branch. This needs people working in social work to build a world leading system that promotes safety and stability for some of the most vulnerable children. But it also requires individuals to problem solve outside of the system with a focus on the same outcomes. So having some people finish our programme and go on to other careers should not be seen as a failure but a strength of the movement we are trying to build. Just as Frontline alone isn’t going to transform social work, those working in social work alone are not going to resolve some of the deepest social problems. Large scale change will require social workers, entrepreneurs and activists working with a common cause.

Sophie Humphreys, the founder and chief executive of Pause, is a great example of this. Having seen the system fail with women having multiple children removed, she set up an initiative to intervene and give women the skills and opportunities to develop a more positive future. Having started her career as a social worker she set up the initiative in a local authority. Pause is now growing to a national programme as a standalone charity and it is making large scale change for women across the country. Sophie had the gumption to lead change from within the system and then outside of it.

Many powerful networks in this country are made up of those with wealth and the right family background. Public institutions such as the media, courts and government are still dominated by too narrow a group. Changing this will take generations of work on multiple fronts. In the meantime, we need those in positions of power and influence to understand the realities facing many families in this country. We must make greater use of the power that comes from people working together with a shared experience and vision, with networks fashioned around social problems not social class. It is my hope that networks like Frontline’s Fellowship can contribute to this shift.