The charity that could make you love social workers

...and why many social workers don’t like it

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

Is any public service more reviled than social work? Policemen, when not drinking with journalists, chase down baddies; firefighters save babies, and doctors cure diseases. Social workers, on the other hand, take away people’s children. They miss catastrophic abuse. In no news story are they ever -heroic. The perception of social work is unremittingly grim. It’s badly paid, box-ticking, mired in bureaucracy. Only go into it if you like being a martyr.

Josh MacAlister, the chief executive of Frontline, wants people to imagine things differently. In a decade he thinks social work will be one of the main options for top graduates. At an Oxford careers fair, he suggests, students will be queueing up at the social work stand. Entry will be fiercely competitive. ‘These things are not unimaginable,’ he says. ‘It’s happened in other professions.’

You might think he is daft. But he’s right: in the past decade something similar has happened to teaching. It’s down to Teach First. The scheme, set up in 2002, recruits bright graduates to work in challenging schools. It’s been a ridiculous success — this year it received applications from one in ten Oxbridge graduates.

Teaching has clear similarities with social work. They are both tough jobs that can transform people’s lives. The pay is comparable, too. A newly qualified social worker can earn £27,000 in some areas — enough to make a freelance journalist envious.

MacAlister is a product of Teach First. He became frustrated with the social workers he encountered at his school in Manchester. He started off with the idea of a Teach First for children’s social work and, after writing a policy document about it, quit his teaching job to make it happen.

His organisation, Frontline, is recruiting 100 graduates for a pilot scheme in London and Manchester next year. It has cross-party support — Michael Gove and Lord Adonis are speaking at its launch next month. But the idea hasn’t gone down brilliantly well with social workers. Some regard it as elitist and insulting. The assumption that a bunch of Oxbridge types can swoop in and sort out the mess must be galling. But to see it like this — an attempt to make social workers posher — misses the broad changes that a scheme like Frontline can bring about.

I meet MacAlister at the Frontline office. He is tall and rake-thin, with a quiff and a bit of designer stubble. The aim, he says, is not just to tackle the image of social work. ‘We also need to change the way we train and do social work.’ The training programme, devised by social workers and academics, squeezes what is usually a two- or three-year degree into 13 months. MacAlister says it is not just a compressed version of the current course, but something ‘built from scratch’.

Like Teach First, it begins with a five-week summer boot camp. Then for a year the students are placed in local authorities in teams of four. They ‘co-work’ complex cases under the supervision of a consultant social worker (who is legally responsible for those cases). At the same time they continue to study. Steve Goodman, a social worker who helped devise the scheme, compares it to the way doctors and barristers train. ‘You can’t really beat working alongside someone who’s an expert in their field,’ he says. At the end of the year they qualify; for their second year they complete a master’s.

In the long term MacAlister thinks these dynamic graduates can have a ‘catalytic effect’, ‘challenging the system to improve across the country’. With more professional leadership, he says, they can ‘break the inertia of agencies orbiting around families and bring about change for the children’. Even if they don’t always stay on as social workers, they might become managers or take up an academic or clinical post. They may end up being MPs or journalists able to influence policy.

All of this might make you wonder why academic high-fliers are expected to make such a difference. They aren’t necessarily, of course, going to be good at social work. What is crucial is to have a large pool of applicants. If you have lots of candidates to choose from you can select the best — the smartest and most suited to the work. In this, Frontline is seeking to emulate Teach First, which has a ratio of six applicants to every place, higher than any other route into teaching.

The practical emphasis of Frontline’s training has attracted big supporters within the field. Andrew Christie, who is director of children’s services for three local councils in London and a trustee of Frontline, is strongly critical of the way many social workers are trained at present. Some graduates, he says, emerge ‘completely ill-equipped’ for the task of children’s social work. They might understand the theories, but ‘aren’t able to visit a family and decide whether a child is at risk’. Another problem, he says, is that new social workers do not get to tackle the most difficult cases. They are doing the social work equivalent of ‘syringing ears’. The inadequacy of some of the training of social workers has been recognised in two major reviews of the profession. Two further reviews specifically on social work education have been ordered. It is a period of rapid change in the field.

Prof Eileen Munro, of the LSE, is the author of a child protection review commissioned by Michael Gove. She is ‘the guru’ among social workers. Her report called for more space for them to do their job instead of being constricted by government. She estimates now that about a third of local authorities are taking on ‘quite radical improvements’. She describes Frontline as ‘potentially a very good development’ and adds: ‘The way it’s implemented is what matters.’ When she became a social worker in the 1970s, she says, the profession was prestigious. In a more socialist era, ‘helping the disadvantaged was an admirable thing to do’. A lot of her generation, she says, were driven out of the field by bureaucracy. ‘They weren’t able to use their own skills enough,’ she says.

What MacAlister is doing, it seems, is trying to reverse this trend — to restore prestige. It is an aim the profession should embrace. But no matter how much Frontline insists that social workers are ‘doing a great job’, those working in the field are inevitably going to take umbrage at the group’s emergence. Social work is a vocation, they say, it shouldn’t be something that privileged kids try out on their way to a lucrative career in the city.

When I meet MacAlister I put some of the criticisms to him. He is only 26 — isn’t he a bit underqualified? Can social work really be an option alongside Deloitte and PwC? He is a bit nettled, and recites the things naysayers tell him: ‘You are never going to be able to do this because social workers are hated. They are hated because they have to go into families to take children away. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. All those phrases you hear about social work all the time. Well, it just does not have to be that way.’

It’s hard to resist his insistence that things can be better. ‘If you’re not careful you get caught up in a view of how things are at the moment and your imagination is limited to tweaking or adjusting the way things work,’ MacAlister says. ‘But the most exciting public service reform is actually saying this can be totally different.’ If the system is broken, why stop someone who is trying to fix it?

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  • Ermintrude

    There are a few points that I think need addressing in this piece and I’ll try to as briefly as possible. Firstly though, I’ll say as a social worker, I never went into this profession to be ‘loved’. I went into social work wanting to advocate for people, listen and do what can be a difficult job, as best as I possibly can with the aim of constantly learning and growing to do it better.

    Where I think Frontline is wrong

    Well, there is the element of ‘elitism’ – social work needs strong applicants from all backgrounds and a good Oxbridge degree can mean different things to different people. To one person who has struggled and fought to get there it is, perhaps, a different kind of achievement to someone who has had private tuition paid through prep school etc but I don’t want to bar anyone. What I think we have to get away from is defining people by which university they attend – especially with fees as some people need to go to the university nearest where they live, whether that’s Russell Group or not.

    The other concerns about Frontline are not addressed in the advertisement for MacAlister. It shows he has no understanding of what social training is at the moment or has been historically. One can qualify as a social worker through a Bachelors or Masters programme currently and one qualifies to work generically – then specialise in childrens, adults or mental health services. This so-called scheme focuses entirely on children’s services ignoring the importance of working across families with people with different needs.

    The assertion that people who qualify as social workers don’t work with the ‘most challenging’ cases is nonsense and I’m surprised he could get away with saying that. Personally, I don’t think newly qualified social workers should go straight into child protection work but that’s another argument. The truth is that they do now so there’s a fallacy in the article.

    The other issue that MacAlister fails to mention is that currently social work students do placements alongside practising social workers. Yes, these can be improved (I’ve taken students myself) but it does happen. Then there is a scheme which runs currently where for the first year after qualification, new social workers are supported by qualified practitioners and given extra focus. But Josh either conveniently forgets this or pretends it’s not happening as it fits his political agenda.

    No-one from Frontline – who are so keen at getting the press – address the real issues raised by social workers and they whitewash over them and show no understanding of the profession at all or willingness to engage.

    There have been many recent consultations on social work education and many positives have been put forward by teams of social work academics and social work professionals but the govt turns instead to someone who looks at the flawed Teach First model. Indicative of the govt really.

    • Mark Greaves

      Hi Ermintrude,
      Thanks a lot for your comments. I guess I disagree with you about elitism – I’d say a good degree always has a value regardless of who got it. Also, on the point that new social workers often don’t get to work with the most challenging cases (this was what Andrew Christie said, not Josh MacAlister) – isn’t it true that a lot of placements for trainee social workers are in SureStart centres or schools or other situations where they don’t necessarily grasp the huge statutory responsibility that social workers at local authorities have? I think the Frontline model is likely to work because it has been built on the advice of a lot of brilliant social workers and social work academics.

      • Ermintrude

        Hi Mark

        I appreciate your response but I think this is where the interviewee actually hoodwinked you. Andrew Christie and Josh MacAlister, they have specific agendas to push and you were pulled into it – which of course, I don’t in the least, mean as a criticism because I can’t expect people outside the sector to have as much understanding.

        Yes, there are some placements in SureStart centres but that isn’t the most common. I was a practice educator in a mental health team and an approved mental health practitioner – I had students with me working alongside me with complex work and students are, today, placed in child protection teams, it really isn’t uncommon – not remotely. It isn’t everyone’s experience but it wouldn’t be right for everyone. I’m not sure pushing students to work in the ‘most challenging areas’ is right for everyone either.

        The other issue I’d question is ‘The Frontline model is likely to work because it has been built on the advice of a lot of brilliant social workers and social work academics’. Actually, that’s a fallacy. Let me admit the evidence:-


        This is the report that led to the programme. You’ll see that the focus group was made up of teachers who had been through the TeachFirst programme.

        Josh whines about ‘oh, social workers hate us etc etc’ but actually it’s because he and his scheme has refused to listen when we’ve tried to engage him. I went to an event which he attended, a conference for social work educators, and he did not answer any of the questions which were put to him by eminent social work academics. Yes, he has some managers and important figures to back him and it’ll be a success because it has to be and the government likes it but it’s not true that he has consulted lots of brilliant social workers.

        If you have time, can i direct you to this blog post I wrote about my concerns – none of which have been addressed. Yes, we can focus on the ‘elite’ issue but it’s far more than that. It’s a lack of understanding and intelligence in the process and it’s the running to get great press pieces like this, which don’t actually tackle some of the concerns raised


        I really appreciate your response and hope my response doesn’t come across as harsh. I don’t intend it to. It becomes frustrating when you can feel like you aren’t being heard but I appreciate the space to share these views very much.

        • Mark Greaves

          Thanks for your reply and the link to your blog. The only thing I would add is that by ‘brilliant social workers’ I meant people like Steve Goodman, of Morning Lane Associates, who is quoted in the article and who helped to reshape social work in Hackney and whose arguments to me sounded pretty brilliant. Apologies I couldn’t cover some of the issues you’ve raised – it’s hard to be comprehensive in a short-ish space.

          • Ermintrude

            I’m sure his arguments did sound brilliant because they were based entirely on their own agenda. I don’t really recognise him as a social worker because he isn’t actually a ‘frontline’ social worker on the ground. He’s a consultant. He is earning money by promoting the Frontline model and all it stands for. I’d love it if someone from the press did speak to real social workers doing the job but of course, we don’t have the brilliance of people you do speak to. That’s a shame.

            I am concerned but my voice isn’t an important one. The government like it and the team have slick PR but inside, desperately sad to see a profession I am extremely proud of pulled apart by a group of consultants and PR men who look for a target to build their political careers on.

            Thanks for reading 🙂 all the best..

    • evad666

      Perhaps if there were less Marxist graduates and more parents?

      • redgrouper

        Very few social work graduates today would describe themselves as marxists.

    • Clachan

      Well can I say as a former foster carer– you really do have your head up your arse and it is deplorable the things that social workers do which actually are a threat to looked after children. You and your profession are a disgusting example of a department looking after their own reputation over the needs of the children!

  • anon

    Another fluff piece that lacks any attempt at a critical
    look at Frontline.

    Teachfirst – the basis of the Frontline model is clearly
    successful in some senses – pulling in more graduates to teaching than before –
    indeed more graduates than practically anything else in the UK. But as anyone
    with a critical eye might consider – does it have its problems? Yes, of course
    it does – it has the biggest retention problem of all the routes into teaching.
    So, Teachfirst pulls people in – but then loses them quicker. So will that
    really make an impact on the real social work frontline?

    We also have another Director bemoaning the outputs of the
    current system conveniently ignoring any employer culpability for the process –
    even though student social workers are with employers for about half of their
    entire studies. Does Frontline deliver any extra ‘on the job training’? Well,
    it compresses the academic input of teaching and the length of time to
    qualification – squashed from a typical 2 years to 12 months. We have to ask
    ourselves – does halving the time taken to qualify really improve the quality
    of those who are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our communities?

    Of course, it’s also convenient for the occasional Director
    to blame Universities for the quality of qualifying social workers. Ignoring
    the fact that they do this without a shred of evidence beyond the anecdotal –
    surely we all are aware of the real issue with social work practice. What we
    know from research is that working conditions are poor, CPD opportunities are
    practically non-existent, workloads are high, management is struggling
    specifically in the key area of supervision and salaries are worsening. This
    leads to the single biggest problem – retention of good, experienced social
    workers – who simply have had enough. Throwing bricks at Universities in these
    circumstances is simply avoiding the harder, home truths for employers.

    And that’s, fundamentally the issue with Frontline – it
    ignores all of the above and instead of being a scheme that genuinely values
    social work and social workers – it’s all about fixing the wrong problem with
    the wrong attitude.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Mark Greaves 31 August 2013

    Let`s not get ahead of ourselves.

  • redgrouper

    The article is like much of what passes for journalism- today just a glorified press release. Okay you did speak to someone behind Frontline. However, if you had spoken to the bloke who has just been jailed for selling fake bomb detectors, I am sure he would have given a glowing account of his product.
    Social Work programmes have been recently updated and completely overhauled as a result of an extensive evaluation to ensure that they meet the demands of the current realities of practice.

  • David Mortimer

    Have you ever read the report on Bruce Clark’s
    major distortions of family policy which was first published on the 26th of
    April in 2005 by Consensus?

  • Tallulah Hennessey

    It is always enlightening and surprising to hear of courageous social workers who have aspirations to make a difference. Down our way, the social workers are dedicated only to taking children away from the easiest people to take children away from: if there is a single mother they will be there. If there is a single mother with a child who has a disability they will be there. And after that it is all courts and suits. And adoption; this is where it is all leading; forced adoption at a time when most people have children because they want to have them. God bless social work. Really -, and God bless social workers: somebody has to.

  • Clachan

    Social workers are basically lying bastards!