Reflections on the DfE interim evaluation

21st July 2020

Frontline is a charity working to ensure that all children in England have a safe and stable home, and that their life chances are not limited by their social or family circumstance. Our mission is to create social change for these children and their families by developing excellent social work practice and leadership. A key part of this is through our two-year Frontline programme – to date we have brought over 1,300 new social workers into the profession, and it now represents approximately 10% of all newly qualified child and family social workers entering the profession.

We are hugely proud of everything our Frontline programme participants have achieved and the impact they have already had on thousands of children and families across the country. Yesterday, we welcomed in our new 2020 Cohort participants as they start their journey at our five-week summer institute. We know that this cohort, like the six before them, will bring new learnings and challenges that have and will enable us to improve and grow – with feedback from all participants at the heart of this.

Today, an independent interim report has been published by the Department for Education, based on the first two years of a longitudinal study looking at the retention and progression of those completing the Frontline programme and the work-based Step Up to Social Work. As with all evaluations of our programmes, we welcome the report’s publication and are pleased that there are already some encouraging findings.

As this is an interim report, it’s too early to draw final conclusions and it is noted that comparable data for the 80% of people entering social work through mainstream routes isn’t available. Even across the two programmes evaluated (Frontline and Step Up) the data is hard to compare given it is measuring different cohorts and, ultimately, the programmes are driving towards different goals. This report primarily focuses on our first cohort of social workers, who came into the profession in 2014. Since then, we have made lots of changes to our programmes to further improve our training and development.

That said, we are pleased that the report highlights some positive findings; both programmes have higher retention rates at six months post-qualifying than any other route into social work. In addition, 18 months after qualifying, only 5–14% of Frontline fellows reported they had left statutory social work in England. For Step Up cohort 4, this figure was 11%. Over a third of Frontline graduates responding to the survey had gained promotion within three years of qualifying and intrinsic job satisfaction was high for those completing both programmes.

The report also highlights challenges for both programmes; extrinsic job satisfaction was lower than intrinsic, particularly hours of work and public respect for social work. High caseloads and a lack of support were contributing factors to this, as well as reasons people gave for leaving the profession. The retention of social workers is another key challenge, which is why we have been working with our local authority partners to address and mitigate some of the key ‘push factors’ causing people to leave the profession.

These challenges are not new, and they are familiar to all those in the social work profession. We are determined to do our bit to tackle them, supporting our local authority partners and continuing our work to bring about wider system change. To share best practice, we recently ran a free national conference on social work recruitment and retention. We also support our partner local authorities by investing in the leadership potential of their existing social workers. Our Firstline and consultant social worker programmes have now developed over 650 social workers who are in turn providing better support and supervision to thousands of social workers.

Whilst considering the early findings from this interim report, it is important to recognise that Frontline and Step Up were set up with very different objectives. The Frontline programme was created to attract those who would not have otherwise considered social work as a career. We firmly believe that not enough people seriously consider social work as a career of choice in which they can make a real impact, and we have worked hard to appeal to graduates and career changers without deterring them with the expectation that they must stay in a role for life. It is noteworthy that 47% of graduates only expect to be in their first job for two years (as shown by 2019 High Fliers Research).

Despite this, and as the interim report today shows, in bringing new people into the profession for a two-year commitment, many choose to stay much longer. Our approach inevitably means we bring people into the profession who are more open-minded about their future career options, and we might therefore expect to see comparably lower retention rates. We of course support our local authority partners to retain participants and offer ongoing development opportunities, but we also believe that systemic change for children who don’t have a safe or stable home requires a broad movement of people working inside and outside of social work. We therefore actively support alumni who leave social work jobs but move into positions where they can make an impact. For example, we have fellows working to tackle the cycle of youth violence, launch their own initiatives or work in government on policy.

On the other hand, Step Up provides a valuable route into the profession for those already persuaded of career in social work and wanting to take an accelerated and work-based route. Partnerships of local authorities and universities that deliver Step Up to Social Work are totally focused on creating a steady stream of new social workers who can be retained with the employers they are hosted with. In doing this, the Step-Up programme offers an invaluable route for children’s social care teams. Frontline’s theory of change is different but no less important.

The Frontline programme now accounts for 10% of all those entering the profession. It is a positive that in 2020 there is more choice for those entering the profession and employers leading it than ever. The varying objectives and approaches taken by the wide range of social work education providers in England is a real strength of the system. We will continue to play our part in supporting our partner local authorities, bringing more great people into the profession and building a movement to help make lasting social change for the children and families.

You can read the full report here.