On the Frontline of social work

Josh MacAlister, CEO of the social work grad scheme Frontline, tells what makes a good social worker

All photos courtesy of Frontline

All photos courtesy of Frontline

Frontline is the new kid on the graduate employer block. Despite only being in its first year, it’s already received thousands of applications for a mere 100 places, and has made it onto the prestigious Times top 100 list of graduate employers.

The concept of the programme is not dissimilar to the Teach First programme for trainee teachers, but for social workers. The two year Masters provides a fresh alternative to the more academic social work qualifications, with an emphasis on learning the role whilst actually working in the field.

Founder and CEO Josh McAllister was inspired to found Frontline after his own experiences showed him the great need for an efficient working system in social work in the UK.

“I became interested in social work when I was on the Teach First programme, teaching in schools in Stockport in the Greater Manchester area. I saw a number of children that were in care and had social workers. The reality of the outcomes of the lives those children with great social workers was visible more and more everyday. Then there’s the fact that those who are in need of a social worker are ten times more likely to be excluded from school and that only 7 per cent of children in care go to university. Also, nearly a quarter of the prison population were in care at some point in their lives. So, if you look at statistics nationally, they’re really shocking and when you’re working directly with them, it makes it all the more real. Becoming aware of that I questioned: why does social work have such low prestige? It’s not considered by a large number of graduates as a career choice because of the scale of challenges.”

“Frontline is seen as a threat to tradition”

Aware of these challenges, he wrote a “very naïve 500 word article, about four years ago, saying we should apply the principles of the Teach First to social work. And it’s gone from there.”

But what is the Frontline Masters like? What is it that makes it stand out from other routes into social work?

According to Josh, it’s the emphasis on learning in the working environment. “It’s a two-year, work-based programme. You work for those two years in a local authority. The first year you’re learning to be a qualified social worker and you’ll be working with a qualified consultant social worker, which Frontline will have trained, alongside three other trainees. The idea of the first year is to experience the realities of a social worker and the challenges of it. In year two you are a newly qualified social worker, with your own caseload and families to work with. It’s not classroom based learning in the traditional sense.”

There are some classroom experiences, of course, and Josh asserts that this is still very much an academic qualification, not simply just work experience.

“The structure of the learning is that you begin with a five week intensive course at the summer institute, where the whole cohort come together. This is a great opportunity to gain a sense of cohort support around you as you embark on the programme.

“Over the two years there’s also leadership development input. This is to make sure that not only are you an effective social worker, you are able to work and have an impact on the children’s families.”

Nonetheless, one of the benefits of Frontline is that though you will be essentially in a learning environment, you will also be fulfilling a role in the community and actually have a fully paid job.

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You’re paid a bursary in your first year, which is equivalent to a salary outside of London, to about £18,000. Then in year two, as a qualified social worker, you will be paid a salary of around £22,000.”

This year, Frontline has made history by making it on to the Times Top 100 list of graduate employers. This is the first time ever that social work has made it on to the list. But why has it become so popular?

Josh believes it’s down to the new image that the company has given to social work.

“The reason we’re in it, I believe, is because a lot of graduates want to do something with a social purpose and there aren’t that many opportunities out there that directly appeal to the sort of things that they want. It’s a big challenge, and it presents to those with the confidence and the values a sense of social purpose, and way for them to really develop themselves. We’re describing social work in a way that it isn’t always described. We make it clear to people we’re working with the courts, with the police, with teachers. This is what social work is and we’re able to present ourselves in a way that people haven’t considered before.”

I certainly agree with Josh when he claims that this achievement is “great news for social work, as it opens lots of new opportunities.”

One particularly interesting aspect about Frontline, as opposed to other graduate employers, is that it is a charity. This is something that Josh is keen to promote.

“We’re describing social work in a way that it isn’t always described”

“The reason we set it up as a charity, rather than just a graduate recruitment programme, is because the issue we are trying to address is a societal one. It’s for those children that have disadvantage in their social or family circumstance and thus tend to have worse outcomes for life.”

The main aims of Frontline are charitable, as opposed to profitable.

“Frontline is looking to a build a network of people, over a number of years, who will transform the lives of children in social work and tackle other problems in society. In five years time we’ll have 500 or so people who will have completed the programme and that group of people together, that will have a collected experience and a shared vision, are the sorts of groups that can really shake up things in a big way.”

Like most new and different approaches to the norm, though, there has been hostility to the programme, particularly from academics.

Though Josh has taken note of this, he still earnestly believes in the scheme.

“Whenever there is big change, it does ruffle feathers. There is the quote that “people like change but they don’t like being changed,” which I think it quite true here.”

Nevertheless, Frontline have taken both positive and negative comments on board, to establish itself as an efficient programme.

“As Frontline has developed, there have been people who have given us feedback and we’ve tried to address this, as we want it to be the best it can be.”

Frontline believes that it is incredibly innovative in the field, and is accepting of criticisms against them.

“There are those who will always remain critical of Frontline, as it is sort of a threat to the traditional way in which social work has been practiced for decades. We just want to do something different.”

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The first year of Frontline has certainly been a busy one. Their summer institute, according to Josh, was “successful” and all trainees are now in their first period of practice. The ones that finished the institute are all still on the programme, which is a good sign for the founder.

The career prospects for those who finish the course do seem desirable and even surprisingly varied for such a niche programme. According to Josh, “those who finish the two year programme are qualified social workers, so of course, we expect many people to want to carry on working as social workers. Within that genre, there are many things you can do. For example, you can become an advanced practitioner, or you can become a specialist in a particular area, such as domestic violence or substance abuse. Or, you could get promoted to become a manager or eventually a director.”

Josh was keen to point out though that those who finish the programme need not just go into that particular system.

“There are other skills that you gain from social work that can be used in other professions. You could go work in policy using the experience you’ve had with funding during the programme. You could join the civil service. You could work with other charities that seek to improve the welfare of children and families.

“It would great to see those who have been involved in the Frontline programme start up their own charities that want to change the system.”

Josh has also made it obvious that Frontline deem social work as a reputable career. It is therefore not unexpected that they have a very thorough selection process. But what sort of candidate are they looking for?

“We’re looking for people who have a special mix of personal qualities and academic abilities. You need both to be a successful social worker. On one hand, you need to be able to stand up in court, and be cross-examined. You need to be coherent and clear, and certainly very analytical.

“In 10 years time, I’d love to see Frontline as a top 10 graduate employer”

“You need to be able to write reports that develop competing hypotheses about what could be going on and making really appropriate uses of evidence. However, you also need to be able to build really quick relationships with people and demonstrate empathy. You will need to have resilience and confidence in how you behave.”

This is not to scare potential applicants. The selection process itself appears quite straightforward. Applicants are asked to complete a written form, to be submitted online, followed by further online tests. If you are successful in getting past that stage, you will also have a video interview, which is an opportunity for Frontline to hear about your background and experiences. You will then be invited to the assessment centre, where you will participate in roleplay and group exercises, followed by further interviews.

Josh and Frontline designed this programme specifically so they can “not only find those [they] think are suitable for the programme, but to give people a taste for the programmes and what they’ll be doing in social work.” It is, essentially, a two way process.

Despite its undeinable success in such a short period of time, Josh has big ideas for Frontline’s future.

“In 10 years time, I’d love to see Frontline as a top 10 graduate employer, with at least 350 people being recruited a year, and a network of thousands of people who have completed the programme. We will persist to make it the best place in the world for social work and be there for the children and families that need it.”

Frontline certainly appears to be an attractive path for graduates. Indeed, Josh believes that part of its allure is that it combines the desirable qualities of a job with “social purpose” whilst also allowing trainees to “develop skills in a number of areas.”

He believes that the job is “one of Britain’s toughest but also most rewarding, where you can apply many skills to the most difficult circumstances.” And for that line of work, this country needs the “very best people to be coming into social work.”

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Josh’s enthusiasm and confidence, not to mention the vast amount of achievements in just a year, speak for themselves: Frontline has so far succeeded in shaking up the world of both social work and graduate prospects, and there certainly appears to be much more to come.

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