Social work fast-track programmes: tracking retention and progression
Mary Jackson, chief executive, Frontline
Today, the Department for Education (DfE) has published a new evaluation looking into what happens to participants after they have completed a fast-track social work training programme, namely our Frontline programme and Step Up to Social Work. We welcome this evaluation – it showcases some real positives of the Frontline programme, which is a key part of the charity’s mission to bring about social change.
I am hugely proud of the Frontline programme. It continues to bring skilled and driven people into the profession – over 2,300 individuals have started the programme since its launch in 2014 – and it has a number of characteristics that set it apart from other routes. It is the only programme specialising in child protection social work, and that has such a strong focus on systemic practice. The learning environment we provide is also unique – participants learn in units (small teams) of up to five participants. They are led by an experienced social worker and share ideas, challenge each other on how they are weighing risks and offering support to families. We are confident that these contribute to our participants’ high quality of practice and leadership. It is against this backdrop I wanted to share some of my reflections on the evaluation.
The Frontline programme training is rooted in child protection theory and practice and equips our participants with the tools and knowledge they need to hit the ground running in their ASYE year (their first year of post qualification). It is fantastic to see local authorities recognising the quality of our participants’ practice, evidenced by the fact that 73% have progressed into more senior positions 60 months post-qualifying. This is a key reason over 50% of local authorities across the country partner with us year after year and contributes to our levels of retention – we know that career development and progression motivate social workers to remain in the profession. It is very encouraging to see that only a small number of social workers trained both through the Frontline programme and Step up had left the profession – for Frontline this ranged from 8-16% across cohorts 2-5 after 18 months. Disappointingly, there is a lack of comparable data for mainstream routes, but the evaluation indicates that retention is at least as good, if not better, for social workers trained through fast track routes.
Those who did leave cited several major push factors: intrinsic job satisfaction, lack of support from local authorities and bureaucratic procedures causing them to neglect time spent directly with children and families. The evaluation notes that some social workers who trained via the Frontline programme are disappointed in the realities of social work following their training, as there is often a disconnect between what they learn during the programme and the local authority working environment. Our participants report that the quality of their training left them feeling well prepared or equipped for the role, however they felt unable to apply the evidence-based theories and frameworks in practice to bring about the best outcomes for children and families. We hear from social workers that our programme gives them the underpinning to be great social workers, and that the emphasis on systemic practice enables them to do the best work with children and families.
The opportunity to work directly with children and families is the main reason people want to be social workers, which is evidenced by the fact that the majority of those who leave do so to work in mission aligned roles or where they can spend more time working with children and families. This is not new information, which makes it even more frustrating. We know that a third of qualified social workers don’t work directly with families, instead their time is spent supporting the work of others and caught up in bureaucratic tasks not best suited to their roles. Even those working with children and families report spending as little as 20% of their time doing so.
This is why we are constantly striving to support practitioners and local authorities to improve the culture and leadership across social work. We work closely with them to learn what works (particularly those with strong retention rates), and to understand what they are doing that enables social workers to work impactfully with families and stay in front line practice. We know how useful these learnings are, which is why we share these examples through events and in meetings with policy makers and other local authorities.
Listening to local authorities facing challenges is equally crucial. We have learnt a lot over the past eight years, and have made important changes to our programmes as a result of their feedback. Our placement model is an example of this. Originally, we were only able to offer 79% of Frontline programme participants their first-choice location, but making a change to our model means that this has increased to 95%. As the evaluation notes, local authorities are pleased with this improvement in our regional placement model and welcome the increase in local participants.
It always strikes me as curious that fast-track programmes like the Frontline programme and Step Up are often evaluated based only on their retention rates. This is very different to other academic routes and, as the evaluation states, the lack of comparable data makes it almost impossible to draw any useful conclusions. Frontline collects and holds a high level of detailed and accurate data from our participants, and we would encourage and welcome comparable retention data from mainstream routes for the benefit of the whole sector. Meanwhile we continue to develop our approach to evaluation to ensure we can evidence the quality of our programmes and would value an evaluation that focuses on the quality of social workers who have come into the profession through all qualification routes.
We know all social workers across the country want to be able to do their best work for and with children and families, but that they work in a system that too often prevents this. We will continue to support local authorities, participants on all our programmes and our fellows to become social workers and social work leaders who bring about crucial system change.
Hear from our fellows
Luke is currently stepping away from social work as he feels the system that is currently in place prioritises tasks over relationships and meaningful change. With a distinction in his Masters degree, Luke will take his knowledge and social work experiences into the policy field to try to influence the changes he believes are necessary in the sector.
“Social work is such a demanding job that so often we have very little time to plan for visits and social workers minds can be on the thousand and one tasks they have to complete, rather than on the conversation at hand and the relationship building opportunity each visit presents us. I worry that many social workers around the country are trying their best to give, when they themselves have very little left.”
Emily Jones has been a qualified social worker for six years, and currently works as an asylum specialist. After completing the Frontline programme in 2016, she took a break from the profession after 3 years to work directly with vulnerable people and asylum seekers in a charity setting, before returning to local authority work.
“I found the training and approach to learning on the Frontline programme so valuable. It really focuses on quality of practice and equipping you with the theories and approach to practice that enable you to do the best work with children and families. It is sometimes hard to do this in-depth work with a family as high caseloads and expectations around recording takes away from the time you need to spend with families.”
John Rolph discusses how important the leadership content of the Frontline programme has been in his social work career so far, despite initially thinking that it was too early to learn about leadership.
“Frontline has always encouraged me to stay focussed on good outcomes for vulnerable children above all else. While I was training on the programme, I initially thought it was a bit early for us to think about leadership within the social work sector, when we’d just started practicing. On reflection, though, the leadership skills we gained can be applied as equally to working with families as they can to affecting change within the social work system and progressing to more senior roles. Systemic training in particular has been foundational for my practice.”