On the Front Line: A conversation with Lord Adonis about the new grad scheme in social work

Inspired by his time as a Teach First teacher and seeing that the social work sector needed fresh new graduate talent just as teaching had done, Josh MacAlister decided to apply a similar model to social work. Launching in 2014, around 100 graduates started an intensive five-week induction programme in social work, followed by a year of on the job, supervised training in local councils, working on real cases from the first day. In the second year, participants become qualified social workers with their own caseload, and work towards a master’s qualification.

Now on its second cohort, the scheme has been hugely successful and is expanding its intake next year, having jumped up 36 places this month in the Times Top 100 graduate employers list, with 15 applicants per place.

We spoke to Lord Andrew Adonis, former politician, journalist and now Chair of Front Line to hear his thoughts on the scheme and on the challenges facing the social work sector:

Q: What made you decide to become the chair and what attracted you to the project

A: I had been instrumental in establishing Front Line, working with Josh McAlister who is now the chief executive. I oversaw the original project spec that led to the creation of Front Line and I did so because of my experience a trustee of Teach First. As former Education Minister I believed in the Teach First approach of recruiting top graduates into a social enterprise focused on a key a public service that was finding it hard to recruit. I believed that this approach could be applied to social work in the same way as it has been applied to teaching.

Q: What difference in particular do you think new young graduates will make coming into the social work sector through Front Line, rather than the traditional routes into the profession?

A: The problem with the traditional route is that that they aren’t producing nearly enough able and motivated graduates to staff the profession, with either teaching or social work. That was true of teaching a decade ago and it’s true today of social work today. We see a shortage of applicants and an even larger shortage of highly motivated applicants from leading universities. The numbers going on to social work from Russell Group universities has been very small in the recent past, and I think that’s partly because there hasn’t been a dedicated graduate scheme, which focuses on recruitment from top universities.

Teach First introduced just such a scheme, and now we’re seeing spectacular success with the same model for Front Line: 22 applicants per post last year for the first cohort, and we’ve increased participant numbers from 100 to 130 and we will be increasing them further next year.

Q: I have been reading that there has been some concerns have been raised about the amount of training time given to Front Line participants before they go out on the job. How would you respond?

A:  There is a difference between induction and training. There is the five week induction at the Summer Institute, which is common to both Teach First and Front Line, and is a residential and high intensity induction programme. However, training continues on the job and every FL social worker has a dedicated and experienced SW who oversees their work and offers constant support and training. One of these ‘consultant social workers’ is assigned to every three or four participants. Because FL participants are placed in groups of three or four in local authorities, this ensures that every participant gets competent supervision and significant and dedicated training. This continues throughout the two years that they are on the FL programme, during which time they assume more individual responsibilities as training social workers. The five week induction is precisely that: an induction.

It is not the totality of the training by any means. If you take the induction together with the two years of the course, then the on-the-job training to become a social worker is significantly greater than what is offered on many traditional social work courses, where the on the job training component is either small or non-existent.

The experience of the first cohort is very telling in this respect in that there was a very low level of drop out, only a few among the first 100. That’s largely due to the quality of the supervision and training. Also important is the strong esprit de corps which comes from participants undergoing the induction together with their tutors and mentors and but also then the ongoing support from their consultant social workers. Front Line is as every bit as focused on recruiting and training the consultant social workers as it is the young graduates as we see the two as being intimately linked; having quality training and supervision is crucial to making Front Line a success.

Q: What do you think are the greatest challenges today in society that the social work sector has to face? What is the most important work that these new Front Line graduates are going to tackle?

A:  There are over 60,000 children in care in this country and tens of thousands of highly vulnerable families which need help, and whose children need protection. That’s a huge challenge. For every child who’s in care there will be several who either have been in care or are at risk and need social worker support. In many departments, particularly in major cities some London boroughs, there is a shortage of good social workers, very high levels of turnover and this has a terrible impact on children and their families. Seeking to provide a stream of highly competent and committed graduates going into social work is a big social imperative. I’d love to see far more Oxford graduates going into the profession and Front Line is starting to bring that about. There was a large cohort of Oxford graduates who applied to Front Line last year who were successful and are now doing very well. I’ve met several of them and am hugely impressed by their commitment and competence.

Q: How would you address the gender gap in social work and education and how to we encourage more male graduates to enter the field?

A: It’s true about the gap there. A third of Front Line graduates are men, which is much higher than traditional routes into social work. So Front Line is making a big difference in that respect. You need profession itself to reflect the people it serves, and as, on average, in social work you are working with more boys than girls, so having men in social work is very important.

Q: Lastly, from your time at Oxford onwards, what has led you to have a focus on education in your political career?

A:  I came from a background where education made a huge difference to my own ability to get on in life, and I’ve always been keen to ensure others have similar advantages. Getting more Oxford graduates into the business of education and social work is a really positive thing for society. We’ve helped promote social mobility and social protection. No profession can succeed unless it has a stream of the best graduates going into it. That’s every bit of true of education and social work as it is of banking and the law. What we need and are starting to do is to rebalance where we send top graduates, sending more into the public service professions as well the established private sector professions.