In 2006, I joined the London Borough of Hackney to help them recruit social workers. At that time, children’s social work in Hackney was in a pretty dire situation. They were struggling to recruit and retain good people. Around half the workforce were temporary staff. Average sickness rates were high at 15 days a year. Basically, there were plenty of signs that the social work practice system was in a bad way and children and families were bearing the brunt.
It quickly became apparent that just recruiting social workers would not be enough – we needed to radically change the system. I joined Hackney six months after Isabelle Trowler, the then Assistant Director (and now the current Chief Social Worker for Children in England). Steve Goodman was Deputy Director and Alan Wood (who was recently appointed as the chair for the What Works Centre for Social Work) was the Director. So there were a lot of great minds working on figuring out the problem and how to solve it.
Over the next five and a half years Isabelle, Steve and I – along with a great many like-minded and skilled people – set about building a system that: had a clear practice framework on which everyone’s practice was based; was structured in a way that enabled social workers to constantly discuss, consider and debate the needs of children and families; and prioritised social work over paper work and freed practitioners to actually work with families.
We called it Reclaiming Social Work and the Frontline units are based on this model.
Reclaiming Social Work worked because every manager and social worker had a like-minded, dogged, focus on families. Social workers questioned and challenged decisions to ensure they were in the best interests of children. They worked together to come up with creative practice solutions to complex and entrenched problems that families faced and relished the opportunity to do so. They wrote and spoke respectfully about families and helped each other out on tricky visits or meetings.
It is social workers and managers with this level of commitment to great social work who bring about change. Frontline is developing great social workers and managers with the same resolute focus on families.
Last week, 340 participants began the Summer Institute – the first stage of the Frontline programme. Already, they have begun to learn the theory and practice skills – along with the self-awareness and reflexivity – that will enable them to become great social workers.
They have all travelled different paths to Frontline and they will spend the next two years studying and working with families in local authorities across the country. For these first five weeks, they will work intensively together, learning each other’s stories and forming close bonds. This is just as important as the formal learning opportunities at the Summer Institute, because they will undoubtedly draw on the relationships they develop here across their careers.
In two years, they will join around 1,500 social workers and managers in the Frontline Fellowship (which comprises those who have completed our Frontline, Firstline or consultant social worker programmes – all of which are central to our mission and fit together, hand in glove). In the not too distant future, the Fellowship will make up a significant proportion of England’s social work workforce.
The Fellowship exists to harness and propel the collective energy of this movement for a single purpose: to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families. Frontline’s ambition is for a country in which every child has a safe and stable home. At the moment, half a million children in England don’t have that. The culminated energy of the Fellowship, and the driven and skilled social workers and managers within it, will help to bring about that change.