Mary Jackson, chief executive of Frontline
As we find ourselves having moved into February already, I have spent time reflecting on all that happened last year and the learnings we at Frontline want to hold on to as we think about our hopes and aims for 2022.
Over the last six months we have continued to see local authorities respond in creative and resourceful ways to the pandemic, innovating and trialling new ways of doing things. Yet at the same time social workers remain under pressure. The media spotlight on the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson had a significant impact, alongside the ongoing pressures of staff absence and home working due to covid, mean that social workers are needing to work harder than ever to support children and families.
As England’s largest social work charity, we at Frontline are always thinking about how we can support local authorities and social workers to do their best work and achieve the best possible outcomes for children and families. I wanted to highlight some of the ways I believe that Frontline can, and will be doing this over the coming year.
Identifying opportunities for, supporting and funding innovation in the sector. Innovation in social work has played such a key role in the last 10 years whether it be through the introduction of different approaches to practice and training, advances in technology or new multi-disciplinary working models. Several of the initiatives which grew out of the Department for Education’s innovation programme (such as No Wrong Door, Strengthening Families and our own Firstline programme) are examples of this. For each, the local authority take-up and the positive external evaluations, show clearly the value in these different approaches.
When it comes to innovation, it is widely acknowledged that the best people to look to for answers, are those closest to the challenges. Social work is no exception – we believe social workers are best placed to identify ways to overcome the challenges they face. However, social workers rarely have the capacity to translate their insight into practical solutions to overcome these challenges.
Over the next 12 months, we plan to expand our philanthropically funded Innovation Lab. We will be encouraging social workers with innovative ideas that could improve outcomes for children and families to come forward and, through the Lab, will support them to explore whether and how their idea could become a reality. The Lab provides practical support, opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration, help in developing impact measures and expert advice and challenge, all designed to support in the development of successful innovations. Our aim is that supporting social workers to develop these ideas will lead to long-lasting and sustainable social change for children and families.
We are big fans of data at Frontline. We capture data on our curricula; how we promote social work; how we attract and retain diversity on our programmes; how we work with our partners, and in many other ways. We do this so we can closely monitor the impact of our work and make changes if we don’t get the intended outcome. There is no agreed measure for ‘good’ social work practice which makes it difficult to know how best to evaluate whether people’s practice has improved. Equally, there is no agreed way to measure the impact social workers have through their work with children and families, which makes it difficult to understand (beyond individual social workers or children) what is working well, and what might need to be done differently.
Frontline can help change this. Over the coming year and beyond, we want to develop ways to measure and demonstrate impact more widely, including the impact of our programmes on participants, their social work practice and in time on children and families.
I firmly believe that personal leadership skills are at the heart of excellent social work practice. Our experience over the past eight years, through all our programmes is that excellent leadership training equips people at all levels to navigate their roles and contribute to, or create, a culture which prioritises and centres children and families above all else. I have seen first-hand through our Firstline and Headline programmes how, by developing their leadership skills, managers create a culture of trust in their teams and support social workers to hold risk whilst giving them opportunities to develop their skills. Skilled leaders can quietly and adeptly strip away obstacles and coach their teams to do their best work with children and families.
Ofsted are increasingly focused on leadership in social work, having recently found that England’s highest performing local authorities had evidence of strong leadership at all levels, noting that this is necessary to create an environment where great practice could thrive. In developing people’s leadership skills across all our programmes, we have learned that the first step is raising people’s awareness of the leadership capabilities specific to social work and their personal areas of strength and development.
Over the next year, through our programmes and fellowship, we will continue to develop our leadership training and support social workers to bring about change for children and families. We offer ongoing development and networking opportunities to all fellows which we believe has contributed to the fact that the majority of Frontline programme participants are still in social work practice five years post qualifying, and to the fact that 73% of these have progressed to more senior roles within this time. We hope by continuing to offer fellows development opportunities, we can support them to progress and, as a result, sustain their commitment to social work. To date there is no conclusive evidence to indicate the links between strong team/organisation leadership and retention, and through our approach to data collection we aim to better understand this correlation across the course of the next year.
Finally, we aim to continue to attract more people with the right skills into social work through the Frontline programme, and to develop the leadership of others on Firstline and Headline. We need to increase the diversity of those applying to all our programmes so that the social work and leadership workforces better reflect the communities they serve. We also want to ensure we are raising the status of and challenging misconceptions surrounding the social work profession so that people have a better understanding of the work social workers do to support children and their families, day in, day out. That’s why last week we launched the first step of our new, three-year campaign to champion the profession, challenge stereotypes and address negative perceptions of social work, with a view to inspiring more people to consider social work as a career choice.
And these four points are just the beginning. In the coming months and across 2022 we will continue to look for ways to improve what we do and share our learning with social workers and local authorities. We are determined to continue to identify ways we can support the profession and find solutions to the long-established problems social workers face. As with all of our work, this unfailingly comes back improving outcomes for children and families and creating and sustaining a system that works better for them.