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Frontline: The Unanswered Questions

Frontline officially launched last week. But many questions remained stubbornly unanswered. I have no expectation that they will be answered, but they need re-stating nonetheless.

Social work practitioners have voiced their concerns. For example, Fighting Monsters social work blogger returned after a two year absence to express ten criticisms of the Frontline programme (apologies for any misrepresentation of the arguments):

  1. The university you obtain your undergraduate education from does not define your ability as a potential social work practitioner
  2. Social workers have not been involved in the development of the Frontline model
  3. Social work learning cannot be compressed into one year
  4. Why not wait until the Step up to Social Work scheme has bedded down so we can properly test out its ability to retain practitioners?
  5. People who use social work services do not appear to be involved in the proposals
  6. Is leadership the right quality for a children’s social worker?
  7. Do we need better social workers or better local authority automatons?
  8. The apprenticeship model of social work education limits the breadth of experience students can gain
  9. Investment in post-qualifying education helps to retain practitioners in frontline roles and not qualifying education
  10. Social workers can only earn respect by speaking up for people who use social work services.

A thoughtful blog by Natasha, a part-time MA student, describes social work as a ‘journey, not a race’. She questions the brevity and intensity of the Frontline programme in providing suitable learning space for students. Additionally, writing in The Guardian, Peter Beresford argues that Frontline undervalues the expertise of service users, which has traditionally informed social work education.

Critiques such as this are not considered in much of the media’s reporting on Frontline. The Spectator, The Economist and The Guardian have all run pieces which don’t critically engage with the problematic issues of Frontline. Reading like glorified press releases for the Frontline publicity bandwagon, they side-step serious debate and suggest that Frontline is the panacea that social work has been waiting for. Even social work-friendly David Brindle describes social work concerns as ‘venomous criticism’.

When Frontline was announced (again) earlier in the year, I argued that training for specialist roles such as child protection social work is best conducted post-qualifying. It had been a component of the former post-qualifying framework (abolished along with the General Social Care Council) but was never fully supported by local authorities as it wasn’t a legal requirement, unlike equivalent Approved Mental Health Professional training. If the media and government ministers had supported and invested in post-qualifying social work education as many have advocated before, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much opposition to Frontline today.

There are some important pedagogical features in Frontline which have the potential to transform social work education. Social work academics are open to change and innovation, but are frustrated that there are many questions which remain unanswered. In spite of statements made by Donald Forrester before and after he took up the academic lead for Frontline, there are many concerns which have not been fully addressed.

On Friday, the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee and the Association of Professors of Social Work published a further joint statement as many of their previous concerns had not been addressed by Frontline. I reproduce the statement in full here as I think it’s important to provide Donald, Josh MacAlister and others leading Frontline with the opportunity to answer these questions. (I should add, though, that I have not played a role in developing this statement and that this blog is merely my personal musings and does not represent the views of any particular organisation).

Social work academics are not dinosaurs resisting change. We are passionate about supporting current and future social workers to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society. Our questions, and that of many other social workers and people who use their services, deserve a response. Responses can be published as a comment on this blog, which will not be edited or censored.

Frontline: Joint Statement from Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee and the Association of Professors of Social Work

Colleagues assuming national roles on behalf of JUC SWEC and APSW are aware of developments in relation to Frontline and the recent national launch. The following represents the views of the overwhelming majority of both organisations’ respective members.

We are aware that Frontline is now recruiting across universities on campus, and this development is occurring without negotiation with existing university provision and departments. Frontline has advertised for brand managers to promote the programme amongst undergraduates; again these brand managers are not connected with existing programmes and will be competing for recruits with existing MA programmes.

We have previously raised our concerns about the inadequacy of the analysis upon which Frontline is based. As colleagues are aware, social work education is a great deal more than qualifying teaching; it provides the basis for an academic discipline concerned with teaching, research, practice and social justice. We have sought to enter a constructive discussion with those engaged in Frontline about the risks to the delicate ‘bio system’ that is social work – but we have not been successful in securing answers to critical issues. It is timely to share with our respective networks and more widely the following questions, as these have not been satisfactorily addressed by government ministers, civil servants or Frontline colleagues in our discussions and exchanges to date.

1. The evidence base for Frontline

We remain concerned about the evidence base for the use of immersion training for qualifying social work education. We are not convinced that there is a robust evidence base to underpin the development of intensive short length on-site training for complex, reflective professional roles. We remain concerned that inappropriate parallels have been drawn between teaching and social work in the rationales and activities basing Frontline upon Teach First. Further, the high levels of drop-out from the profession by Teach First graduates after a year is concerning.  We have yet to see a clear analysis of how and why a model based upon raising the status of teaching was considered suitable for a profession such as social work which has a completely different history and is primarily based upon delivering services to families in their homes and communities. We would welcome a rigorous and independent analysis of the basis for the construction of Frontline. It is important to note that the devolved UK nations are not following this path and that the respective regulatory bodies make no suggestion of developments of this kind. There must be a possibility, therefore, that students who take this path will be ineligible for registration in other countries, including those within the UK. Will this be made clear to applicants?

2. The theoretical and practice models being adopted by Frontline

Frontline is adopting very specific practice models and theoretical approaches. For example, the Frontline literature does not address the expertise currently required of Practice Educators to support learning and to undertake assessment of practice, in particular the Practice Education Professional Standards that are requirements for other social work placement providers.

The evidence to support the adoption of a particular set of theoretical and empirical based interventions in the context of generic social work training is also absent and this development thus has real consequences for our endeavours post Reform Board to ensure we support raising quality in generic training. Fundamentally, the focus on a narrow child protection programme presents the greatest risks to the Frontline project and participants – but more importantly to children. Underestimating the value of considered preparation for this area of practice leads student social workers out into the most dangerous of scenarios with a minimum of awareness. The analysis of issues across the lifespan offered in generic education is fundamental to understanding the range of issues that pertain for services users encountered in all specialist settings. We are deeply concerned about the exclusion of a range of practice models and theoretical approaches that can inform and constitute effective social work.

3. Financing and governance

We have asked for information about what funding is being used to roll out Frontline, and the contributions being made by whom and for what purposes, and to date have not received answers. We have not been able to access the business model or ascertain whether a risk analysis was completed in relation to the impact upon funding across the sector. This means that crucial questions such as the impact upon student bursaries for students from diverse backgrounds have not been addressed. It also means that there is now a high degree of uncertainty attached to the funding arrangements for placements. We are unclear also about the implications for the overall supply of placements.   Who exactly are the key stakeholders in Frontline and what are their respective roles?

4. The implications for social work as a research based discipline

There has been inadequate attention paid to whether the promotion of a work based route will imperil the research base which is crucial to the continued development of good quality practice. Scant attention has been paid by Frontline thus far to the ways in which social work education informs and is informed by research, and it is unclear how in a short intensive training scheme adequate research-mindedness and capacity can be built.

5. Reform of social work education

Currently all English HEI programmes are completing or have recently completed the reforms proposed by the Reform Board as enshrined in the Endorsement process. Change is already underway within qualifying education – every single social work programme (in England) has embraced this agenda.  Frontline should not be above these reforms and needs to deliver on its promise to seek Endorsement from the College of Social Work. A high degree of uncertainty has now been introduced with the development of Frontline and the commissioning of two additional reviews into social work and social care.   We would welcome clarity on timescales and the relationship between the differing reform programmes. We are aware of a parallel development around an ‘Adult’ version of Frontline and wish to make clear that a corresponding evidence base ought to be sought in line with the issues outlined above – in any new construction of a similar route

6. Why the focus on the qualifying level?

There is an urgent need for good quality post qualifying provision across the sector, to support retention and to ensure those who stay are resilient practitioners. Highly focused intensive qualifying education programmes curtail the focus and shape of post qualifying education and training. The privileging of a particular form of qualifying training in the context of austerity is of concern and again we would welcome clarity on whether this has been assessed in the development of the case for Frontline. We would argue that it would be far more productive to resource adequately continuing professional development programmes.

JUCSWEC and APSW reaffirm their commitment to dialogue and conversation regarding all new developments around social work education.

On behalf of:

Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee

Chair: Professor Hilary Tompsett / Vice Chair: Kate Morris

Association of Professors of Social Work

Co-chairs: Professor Brigid Daniel & Professor Aidan Worsley

Agreed and issued 13/09/13


2 thoughts on “Frontline: The Unanswered Questions

  1. Patrick Donohoe says:

    Hi Martin, I have been asking a very simple version of this (where’s the evidence?) for a long time now of Frontline and it’s various representatives. I know we are in a media obsessed world but the constant production of pro Frontline comments and interviews is really becoming tiresome. Donald Forrester has via Twitter suggested a meeting or phone dialogue about the issue of the way in which Frontline has sold itself and consequently sought to ignore at best the efforts of serving Social Workers and at worst to downright disrespect us and the work that we do. If Donald Forrester is willing to open dialogue on this issue then maybe he will be willing to open the dialogue further? Josh McAllister seems impervious to criticism or indeed challenge and Frontline stubbornly refuses to engage in any kind of discussion.

    I am fiercely critical of the way in which Frontline is being marketed and promoted and have genuine concerns about the language it is wrapped in. I am not opposed to new ways of Social Workers learning the trade, if any profession can cope with change it should be ours, however, as a practitioner I think a lot more focus should be on how Social Work teams are resourced, managed and supported rather than Frontline being seen as some kind of miracle cure.

    I am very much up to date with current research and practice issues and am not some kind of Social Work dinosaur but I do fear for the next generation if this limited approach to our work takes hold.

    I have been qualified for 20 years and I am still perplexed, confused and at times unsure of how to proceed when faced with dilemmas, in my opinion Frontline simply cannot mass produce effective and safe child protection practitioners quickly in the way they seem to believe is possible.

    Thanks for highlighting this, me and a dedicated band of Twitter warriors have been trying to do so for some time.

    Let’s hope Donald is listening!


  2. ermintrude2 says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It explains things much better than I did and some of the underlying concerns which are not those which are picked up in the mainstream press which Josh seems to have charmed.

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