Firstline programme

The Firstline programme develops good social work managers into outstanding leaders, who are better able to support their teams and influence the wider social work system.


Social work managers are the engines of transformational practice in social work. Developing the leadership skill of this essential group can have a profound effect on social work practice for the benefit of disadvantaged children and their families.  The Firstline programme is an innovative leadership development programme. It enables first line social work managers to develop their own leadership identity and skills which fit within their unique personal and professional context, and supports participants to lead change in social work and broader society. Two ten-month cohorts run each year: the first starting in the spring, the second in autumn. The programme includes a number of residential leadership modules, workshops and extensive coaching.

What does the programme involve?

Over the 10-month programme, Firstline leaders participate in a range of activities that challenge and develop their leadership skills. Firstline leaders take part in small group practice sessions and individual mentoring sessions. These are supported by systemically-informed teaching and skills-modelling, delivered at three residential modules.

We have designed the programme specifically for social work managers, taking into consideration the demands of the role. Most sessions take place within local authorities to limit the amount of time managers are away from their day-to-day work.

Leadership sessions


Firstline leaders have six one-to-one leadership sessions with their leadership development advisors (LDAs), each lasting two hours. LDAs support, challenge and guide Firstline leaders, helping them to decide on areas for development and working with them to achieve their goals. Our LDAs are specialists in systemic practice, coaching and/or social work leadership. Firstline leaders have a choice of LDA and can decide whether they would prefer to work with someone from a social work background or would benefit more from the advice of someone outside the system. These sessions have proven to be incredibly valuable to Firstline leaders’ development.




Practice sessions




Four two-hour practice sessions take place across the programme, acting as practice forums. They provide opportunities to practice conversations, gain ideas from colleagues about how to develop relationships and embed learning from other sections of the curriculum. An LDA facilitates the sessions, which take place within the Firstline leaders’ local authority. The Firstline leaders themselves drive the content and pace of the conversations.




Development focus


The development focus spans the duration of the programme and gives Firstline leaders the opportunity to apply their learning from the programme in a tangible way. Working with their LDA, Firstline leaders choose an area for development, linked to our leadership capabilities, that is ambitious but achievable and measurable. At the end of the programme, Firstline leaders present on their focus and share where changes have occurred in their practice, management or relationships.


Residential modules

Three two-day residential modules support all of the above sessions. These take place over two weekdays away from local authorities and include at least one overnight stay. These sessions are engaging and interactive, and provide an opportunity for Firstline leaders to share best practice and build networks across different local authorities around the country.


360 diagnostic
At the beginning and end of the programme, Firstline leaders complete a self-assessment and invite feedback from their teams, peers and managers. Colleagues fill in a survey with questions based on our eight leadership capabilities. We create a report from this feedback which LDAs share with their Firstline leaders. The report helps inform their development focus, as well as providing Firstline leaders with a sense of how their leadership skills have developed during the programme and how this has impacted on their colleagues.


The Firstline programme is based on extensive research into what constitutes excellent first line leadership in a children’s social work setting. Our findings evidence the importance of high-quality first line leadership. They also highlight the need for leaders to demonstrate a high level of confidence, skill and judgement in order to make considered decisions, hold their staff and partners to account, and empower social workers to create social change for children who do not have a safe or stable home. Read the full report.

Firstline Capabilities

Through our research, we have created eight leadership capabilities. We believe these are essential for outstanding social work leadership and they underpin the Firstline programme. Find out more.


The Centre for Children and Family Research (CCFR) at Loughborough University conducted an independent evaluation of the Firstline programme. The evaluation reported that those on the programme gave “overwhelmingly positive” feedback, with the majority considering it as “the best training and professional development that they had received as managers and leaders.” Read the full report.


Read the latest research into the Firstline programme, and find out more about the impact it is having across the country. Find out more.


Once you have completed the programme, you will become part of the Frontline Fellowship. Through the Fellowship, you will have access to opportunities and a supportive community who are united by experience and the desire to actively make a difference for children and families. Find out more.


To be eligible to join the programme, you must work as a first line manager within one of our current partner local authorities. If you aren’t sure whether this is the case please get in touch with us or speak to your service manager.

If you are a senior manager in a local authority, please see our partner with us page for further information.


After holding an introduction meeting in the local authority, we invite managers to apply for the programme. We then run a selection day to make sure that the Firstline programme is right for them and their current development needs. These will take place online or in the local authority to minimise the time commitment for managers.

The exercises, like the programme itself, are based on the Firstline leadership capabilities and include group and individual discussions.

More information about these exercises will be provided once you have expressed your interest in the programme, but do get in touch if you have any questions.

  • Case study
    I got involved with the Fellowship because I got so much out of my experience with Firstline. I can confidently say I don’t think I would be a service manager today had it not been for the Firstline programme.
  • Case study
    Firstline has helped me look at how I manage my staff. It’s helped me identify that whilst I’m good at managing performance I’m not great at interacting with extreme levels of emotions.
  • Case study
    The Firstline programme has really improved the motivation of participants who now have the confidence to try different approaches to difficult situations.