As the Director of Children’s Services for the Tri-borough I’m delighted to be hosting three Frontline units this year. Frontline, in our view, promises to make a major contribution to strengthening the social work profession. It is a profession that needs strengthening, and it needs help with this process.
Frontline won’t be sufficient on its own, but it has a major part to play. It brings together an alliance of interests; from social work academics forming The Frontline Academy, to Frontline’s founding partners; consultancy BCG, educational charity Ark, Big Change Charitable Trust and The Queen’s Trust.
Some of Frontline’s thoughtfully constructed package draws on evidence of what has worked previously. Teach First has been a notable success; as I know from talking to head teachers and graduates of the scheme. But Frontline also incorporates elements of the successful Step Up to Social Work project; a scheme which we, in West London, have piloted with great success. It has produced high quality graduates who have already made their mark in the practice.
The two programmes (Step Up and Frontline) share the principle of being specialist programmes targeted at those that want to do social work for children. I have been an advocate of the need for specialisation in training for many years. Others continue to promote the generic model. But whilst there are shared elements – and we must always acknowledge that overlap exists – protecting children now requires such a high degree of technical competence that the learning of it cannot be regarded as some form of post – qualifying ‘add on’.
Both programmes also involve the employer, the Local Authority Children’s Service, as a central player providing the practice experience. As a representative of that sector I say that we have to hold up our hands and acknowledge that we have failed the profession in the past. Too many social work students have been denied good quality and challenging practice experience in mainstream Children’s Services. With Frontline, students will work with their practice supervisor (the Consultant Social Worker) on a caseload including some of the most vulnerable children that we seek to protect.
Both schemes also work on the basis of the academic input being commissioned specifically for the purpose. By so doing, the input is both vocational and academically rigorous. The two are not mutually exclusive. If local authority employers should acknowledge their past failings, so should academia. In the past some social work courses have been too theoretical, concentrating too much on social constructs, and not paying sufficient regard to the need to provide students with the required practice skills. Standards on some courses have been too low.
But Frontline is not just a clone of Step Up. It offers more. The concept of the Consultant Social Worker adds a new dimension to the profession of children’s social work, offering a new career pathway for social workers who want to progress but remain in practice. The entire Frontline programme is being designed around a detailed understanding of practice and what works in helping people change and (amongst other things) become better parents. The programme has a major part to play in moving practice on from what too often has been a straight-jacketed model of assessment and mediocre care management, sometimes in a revolving cycle.
Again, Frontline is but one player in this new, exciting but challenging phase of the profession’s development. Ofsted’s focus on ‘the journey of the child’ is another driver of change. People generally become social workers to help people and make a difference. Too often, I believe, they then become disillusioned when they start practice, at least in mainstream child protection, because it can be more about assessment and monitoring. Frontline aims to provide its graduates with a full skill-set equipping social workers to deliver purposeful interventions.
Frontline attracts controversy. Any new kid on the block challenging ruling orthodoxies does. But why wouldn’t we want to attract the brightest and the best to what is such a difficult and demanding job? That Frontline has a part to play in shaping a different future is not to rubbish all that has gone before. We already have great social workers doing great work, protecting children and changing their lives for the better. But I suggest that we all think that we can do better; and Frontline is going to play a leading part in that exciting and promising future for social work with children in England.
Andrew Christie is Director of Children’s Services at the Tri-borough and a member of the Frontline Board