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A front row view of the Frontline launch as 'high-flying' graduates invited to apply

Frontline, the fast-track training scheme for ‘high-flying’ graduates is to accept applications for its first cohort of 100 candidates from 30 September. The date was revealed at a major launch event in London on 12 September attended by the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and former Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis, a long-time backer of the initiative.

Applicants will undertake what Frontline’s devisers described as ‘a rigorous four-stage process’, including a self-selection questionnaire, online application form, psychometric testing and an assessment centre. Successful candidates will start their training at a five-week summer institute in July 2014.

The Frontline Academy is based at Bedfordshire University and headed by Professor Donald Forrester who leads a team of academics including experts from the Institute of Family Therapy and the Institute of Psychiatry.

More than 2,800 potential applicants have already expressed an interest in taking part in the programme, which aims to make social work more attractive to academic high achievers. Frontline follows a similar model to Teach First, a fast-track programme for schools established in 2003 and that that reportedly invites applications from one in ten Oxbridge graduates each year.

The scheme has attracted significant controversy since its initial development by 26-year-old Josh MacAlister,  a product of the Teach First programme who felt social work could benefit from a similar model for high achieving graduates.

Critics have suggested that the five-week initial training model is inadequate for preparing graduates for working with children and families. Concerns persist too that Frontline heralds the demise of a generic training model for social work, with plans for a counterpart scheme for adult social workers being developed separately by the Department for Health.

BASW has welcomed the “Potential to attract new talent into the profession” but has emphasised the need for assurances about the quality of the training and the availability of statutory placements for students undertaking conventional degree courses.

BASW Professional Officer Sue Kent attended today's launch, and offered this assessment of the day and what it might mean for the social work profession:

"Listening to the launch of Frontline one couldn't help but be impressed as the Education Secretary Michael Gove praised social workers, highlighted what a complex and difficult job they have and how the perception of the profession has to change. This, coupled with Chief Social Worker for Children, Isabelle Trowler, extolling the virtues of social work as a career of which she was proud, was good to hear. 

"The amount of support within one room for this new initiative, following the methodology of Teach First, was impressive. There was even care leaver Jerome Harvey-Agyei, now a youth participation worker and star of the Frontline promotional video, to praise this new approach to attracting good social workers to the profession, combining his support for the initiative with references to his own mixed experiences of the profession.

"It remains worrying for many social workers, however, to hear of sponsorship from private companies, the support of the Government, or indeed the idea running through the scheme that recruiting top class graduates is the answer to improving the social work profession.

"We heard figures for recruitment of top graduates to Teach First in the UK, and a comparative scheme in the US, where 10% of graduates from Harvard & Yale apply for their equivalent  programmes. The implication is that we could see 10% of Oxbridge candidates applying to become social workers and, in so doing, witness a change public in perceptions of our profession?

"This sounds impressive, and tempting. But questions persist, and surely rightly so. Will these graduates be prepared within the short time-scale proposed to truly assist distressed and dysfunctional families, even with the team-based supervision arrangements proposed? Will service users be impressed that the social worker on their door has a first class (or upper second) degree?

"As Jerome Harvey-Agyei suggested, his priority was that the social worker would have the time and patience to support him through being flexible and offering different opportunities to communicate directly, rather than face a demand to go to an office at a set time for support. Is this not a resource issue rather than that connected to academic ability?

"I must add, however, that I was pleased to see and hear social work taking centre stage. Equally, the scheme is certainly raising the profile of social work in this country, which is part of the purpose of the scheme – making social work more attractive to a wider range of people than it is today; surely not a bad thing.

"What we didn't hear today, and for good reason in some respects, were all the details. For instance, the proposal to create groups of four students in local authority hubs, and to employ 25 experienced social worker consultants to offer excellent practice education within our councils. It’s a good model, possibly with strong links to the past, but a positive move in principle but one that needs to be seen in practice before we can be certain of its effectiveness. Will it attract the right calibre of consultant, will it impact on existing supervision and placement opportunities for undergraduates on standard university degree courses; will the students get the support their minimal residential education will doubtless require?

"And finally, once these excellent 100 candidates have qualified, how will the local authority hang on to them? Will they not be zooming off into management, nurtured to be high flyers, wanting to progress? Does it matter? To most of us, yes, but for some of Frontline’s proponents the mere advocacy of a profession by a potentially different demographic might be sufficient. Teach First graduates do tend to remain in the profession for more than a mere couple of years, so the model, if it transfers, might prove satisfactory.

"There are still many questions to be answered but we were reminded today that this will be a pilot, so let’s hope, and insist on, a thorough evaluation before ministers are able to commit to the long term.

"Our academic colleagues in JUCSWEC and APSW have recently emphasized ongoing concerns about Frontline, and BASW too will continue to press for further refinement, reassurances and, where necessary reforms.

"That said, this pilot process is going to happen, so BASW will retain its determination to be as constructive as possible in order that, ultimately, social work and young people like the care leaver we heard from today, get the best possible outcome."