Social work reform Contents

3Initial training

Initial education

24.In 2003, the qualification route for social workers became an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, replacing the previous two-year diploma. The degrees cover social work for both adults and children, with specialism introduced after the first year. The Health Care Professions Council (HCPC) approves Higher Education Institutions to deliver social work degrees and grants approval for individual courses. Following completion of the degree, graduates must register with HCPC to practice as a social worker. ‘Qualifying routes’ for social work were expanded with the creation of Step Up to Social Work in 2010 and Frontline in 2013. The Department invested £35m in both Frontline and Step Up to Social Work (see Box 1 for further details) over the 2010–2015 period, and announced in January that they would expand these approaches by investing a further £100m.42

Box 1: Accelerated ‘qualifying routes’ into children and families social work


Frontline was launched as a fast-track graduate recruitment programme for child protection social work to target ‘high flying’ graduates, inspired by the Teach First model. Frontline is an accelerated two-year programme with a minimum entry requirement of a 2:1 degree in any subject. The teaching model is a five-week summer school, followed by two years in a local authority. The first year is a placement, alongside academic sessions, which concludes with a postgraduate diploma in social work. In the second year, trainees work as a qualified social worker in children’s services and continue to study towards a master’s degree, as well as completing a leadership development programme. Trainees receive a bursary of £19,000 for the first year, and thereafter are paid a typical newly qualified social worker salary in their second year by their ‘host’ council.

Currently, 18 local authorities in London and Greater Manchester take Frontline students on placements; in the 2016 cohort, Frontline will expand to the North East, meaning up to 29 authorities overall are expected to participate.

Step Up to Social Work

Step Up to Social Work is a full-time training programme with a duration of 14 months. It was created by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) as an employer-led postgraduate course on social work with a children and families specialisation. Step Up was designed to attract high calibre career changers to an intensive route into social work, with trainees receiving a bursary of around £19,000. Entry is restricted to graduates with either a 2:1 or higher at undergraduate level, or a 2:2 at undergraduate level plus a master’s degree, as well as relevant experience working with children and families. Students receive a postgraduate diploma when they complete Step Up.

Source: Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) 1.4–1.5

Specialisation in initial education

25.In 2013, DfE commissioned Sir Martin Narey, former Director General of the Prison Service and Chief Executive of the charity Barnardo’s, to review initial social work education for children and families social workers. His report, published in February 2014, concluded that there were significant deficiencies in preparing students for the demands of children and families social work practice. Sir Martin concluded that “social work should remain a single profession but with specialised degree programmes” and recommended that:

universities should be encouraged to develop degrees for those intending to work in children’s social work. Such degrees would build on a first year common to all social workers, with a second and third year focusing exclusively on children and related issues.43

26.Also in 2014, DH asked Professor David Croisdale-Appleby, then Chair of Skills for Care, to conduct an independent review of social work education for adult social workers. In contrast to Sir Martin Narey, Professor Croisdale-Appleby concluded that social work degrees should remain generic so that all social workers “have the capability to work with all individuals, groups and communities and to do so in all settings and institutions.”44

27.The majority of evidence we received was in favour of a generic social work qualification. The Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) told us that Professor Croisdale-Appleby’s report was warmly welcomed by the sector, in comparison with Sir Martin Narey’s report, which it said was considered to be based solely on anecdotal evidence.45 JUCSWEC recommended qualifying courses remain generic, as social workers needed to know about the issues adults faced as these could impinge on children.46

28.Frontline and Step Up to Social Work specifically produce children and families social workers, rather than a social worker with a standard qualification. An independent evaluation of Frontline commissioned by the Government, which reported in March 2016, said that its model inherently moved away from generic social work, but that concerns over Frontline’s narrow focus on child protection were not borne out.47 Professor Ray Jones, on the other hand, expressed concerns that specialisation was being introduced too early, which he said undermined the ability of graduates to understand the experience of adults.48 Cornwall Council said that accelerated schemes were narrowing the range of learning to the detriment of a family approach to social work.49At our private seminar, participants unanimously favoured a generic start because they considered that social work required a broad understanding of children and adults to ensure successful practice with both in family contexts.

29.Isabelle Trowler told us that the system was able to maintain a generic framework, but with increased allowances for specialist capabilities, and said that “what Sir Martin Narey proposed is exactly what is happening.”50 On this point, Mr Timpson told us that the Department supported the recommendation to have a generic start to social work degrees, and then opportunity to specialise thereafter.51

30.We are persuaded of the need for a generic initial qualification for children and families social workers, as they should have a broad understanding of issues affecting both children and adults. Specialisation should primarily occur in post-qualifying training. We recommend that the Government increase generic elements in both Frontline and Step Up to Social Work curricula as we are concerned that at present they focus primarily on children and families social work.


31.The DfE-commissioned evaluation of Frontline concluded that the “initial evidence is mostly positive.”52 The evaluators praised the impressive skills of Frontline trainees and believed a strong cohort of talented practitioners would be joining the workforce. Frontline trainees scored higher overall than students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, although all three groups were evaluated positively. The report said it was unable to determine whether this was due to Frontline’s training model itself or the programme’s “well-resourced and highly selective” recruitment campaign.53

32.Evidence we received was mixed on the merits of Frontline. The primary concern we heard was the lack of evidence supporting Frontline’s teaching model. JUCSWEC told us Frontline’s five week summer school followed by a placement of one year was “untested” and was concerned the Department was prematurely celebrating the virtues of the approach.54 Research in Practice, a charity which champions evidence-based practice in children’s services, said it was crucial that Frontline was subject to robust evaluation, and said there needed to be sufficient flexibility to change the programme in line with future evaluations.55 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said Frontline and Step Up were making “a valuable contribution to the continued effort to drive up the quality of newly-qualified social workers.”56 Following publication of the evaluation, Brigid Featherstone, Co-President of APSW, told us in oral evidence:

I think there is an awful lot of good news in the evaluation. I welcome the fact that it appears a lot of very talented people have come into the profession that might not have done so otherwise. I think there are a lot of questions about why they have come in that are not answered by the evaluation. Was it the bursary? Was it the fast track into the civil service or was it the fantastic and very rigorous recruitment process that I think we have a lot to learn from? [ … ] I am very, very happy about a lot of the work that Frontline are doing but there are risks.57

Financial parity

33.DfE commissioned an independent evaluation of the cost to public funds of the ‘qualifying routes’ into social work in 2016.58 It found that the most expensive accelerated route was Frontline, which cost approximately three times more than the undergraduate route per student. DfE told us that when net costs were compared Frontline was only 10.4% more expensive than an undergraduate course.59 Net costs was defined in the evaluation as the cost to the government, minus benefits to the economy, such as students performing the duties of a social worker. However, the evaluation considered net cost comparisons “largely illustrative” and did not itself provide a comparison: the Department’s analysis was done separately. Furthermore, due to a lack of data, the net costs of traditional routes did not contain additional benefits to the economy from students undertaking part-time work in other sectors. Josh MacAlister, Chief Executive of Frontline, acknowledged the programme’s higher cost, but said “early indications of Frontline are that it is producing good value for money.”60 Recognising the limitations of the Frontline evaluation, its evaluators recommended that “ideally some longitudinal research will be commissioned in future, as was recently done for Step-Up graduates.”61

34.The financial implications of Frontline and Step Up’s expansion were a recurring theme in our evidence. Academics were especially concerned at the disparity in funding between fast-track programmes, where trainees receive a bursary of around £19,000 and have their course fees paid, and university social work courses, for which some lower value bursaries are available, but numbers are capped and their future is unclear.62 BASW said that in contrast to the increased investment in fast-track schemes:

current university based programmes are facing severe cuts to spending and in some cases, closure [ … ] We need a critical examination as to how to sustain and enhance viable university contributions to social work education programmes across the degree spectrum.63

35.We recommend that the Government commission an extended research study of Frontline alongside university routes to establish comparative long-term outcomes. The Government will then have a stronger evidence base to make decisions on any future changes to the funding and structure of qualification routes.

Collaboration with universities

36.Frontline originally delivered its teaching programme with the University of Bedfordshire, but decided to bring the provision of training in-house as part of its plans to expand. Josh MacAlister explained this decision:

As we scale up to get to about 450 [trainees] a year, working across the country, we were either faced with looking at a continued partnership with the universities delivering the academic component and then Frontline holding the relationship with local authorities, which has done a great job to date but, at scale, would be very challenging. So we made the decision to bring the provision of training in-house, partnering with a university to accredit a Masters level degree for the programme, so still working with a university but with Frontline itself employing the practice tutors and individuals to do the teaching.64

37.In written evidence, the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol told us that “retaining social work education within research-intensive universities is essential” and that there was a risk that the expansion of Frontline could cause social work education to disappear from universities, which could threaten “internationally-excellent” social work research.65 Brigid Featherstone said:

Research is the life blood of any profession and [Frontline’s] future intention to disentangle themselves from an ongoing relationship with the HEI could mean that their methods of work are not rooted in an organic research base.66

38.The current lack of co-operation between Frontline and universities is unhelpful. Both routes will continue to run alongside one another in the future and it is important that they share knowledge and experience. As universities are the major source of research evidence, they should be able to influence the development of Frontline to ensure the programme remains evidence-based. We recommend that any future contract with Frontline to deliver social work education include a university partner to collaborate in the design and delivery of the academic programme. In the meantime, we encourage Frontline and the university sector to co-operate more closely. We ask Frontline and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee to write to us setting out how they propose to work together.

42 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform, January 2016, paras 19-23

44 David Croisdale-Appleby, Re-visioning social work education: an independent review (February 2014) p 68

45 Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (SWR0024) para 3

46 Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (SWR0024) para 5

47 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 124

48 Professor Ray Jones (SWR0006) para 12

49 Cornwall Council (SWR0012), para 12

50 Q163

51 Q203

52 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 13

53 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 12

54 Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (SWR0024) para 8

55 Research in Practice (SWR0035) para 9

56 Association of Directors of Children’s Services (SWR0030) para 11

57 Q60

58 Department for Education, Comparing the costs of social work qualification routes (March 2016)

59 Department for Education (SWR0045) para 9

60 Q65

61 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 124. The Step Up to Social Work Longitudinal Evaluation is currently assessing the programme’s effectiveness in preparing its graduates for children and families social work, and its impact on career trajectories and responsibilities. These findings will be compared with graduates from different ‘qualifying routes’ after three and five years. For further details see: Durham University, ‘Step Up to Social Work Longitudinal Evaluation,’ accessed 9 June 2016

62 PQ 31245, 15 March 2016

63 British Association of Social Workers (SWR0029), para 4.3

64 Q62

65 School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol (SWR0032) paras 4 & 23

66 Q60

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12 July 2016