Josh MacAlister is spearheading a revolution in social work empowering both families and practitioners
Three years ago only 10 Oxbridge graduates applied to go on social work courses. In 2013, 200 students from Oxford and Cambridge alone attempted to join Frontline, a new programme designed to attract some of the country’s highest-achieving graduates into what its founder and chief executive, Josh MacAlister, calls ‘one of the most difficult jobs in Britain’.
MacAlister began to develop his thinking on social work recruitment five years ago while working with vulnerable children as a teacher in challenging schools in Greater Manchester. The profession, he wrote at the time for Progress, had been ‘left as the poor sister of teaching’. ‘Children’s services were battered by endless news stories of child neglect and instead of supporting the profession we oversaw years of finger pointing,’ MacAlister argued.
A Teach First graduate, MacAlister was attracted by the scheme’s philosophy – a ceding of power by the state and recognition that it is not always best placed to fix problems – and the resulting collaboration between government, business, and the third sector. Combine that with Teach First’s focus on raising the status of the teaching profession and its creation of thousands of lifelong champions to tackle disadvantage in Britain’s schools, and MacAlister believed he had identified a model which could have a similar transformative effect on social work – the public service which the country’s most vulnerable children are most reliant upon.
Five years on, with recruitment for the second cohort of aspiring social workers under way, Frontline’s chief executive wants to ‘reposition social work as a prestigious, demanding, attractive career choice’. But his real goal is a much wider one: to tackle the ‘really, really poor’ outcomes that children who need social workers still face: ‘If you’re a kid who’s got a social worker you’re probably 10 times more likely to be excluded from school. Only seven per cent of kids who are in care get to university; a quarter of the young prison population were in care when they were younger.’
The solution, suggests MacAlister, is to ‘help move the children’s services system away from the more recent culture of assessing and referring to a position where it’s about changing families’. In order to do this, however, it is crucial to empower social workers so that they can ‘introduce change [into the] system so that the family can change’. ‘Your responsibility is to change the family dynamic to reduce risk and improve life outcomes, or get out of the way,’ he argues.
‘We need to help move the children’s services system away from the culture of assessing and referring to a position where it’s about changing families’
MacAlister’s vision has been strongly influenced by the radical redesign of children’s services pioneered by the London borough of Hackney 10 years ago. Its focus on social workers managing their caseload as a team, rather than individually, and the notion of ‘systemic family therapy’ – working with the whole family, not simply parents or children – has, he says, ‘really influenced’ Frontline’s approach. ‘What Hackney has helped us do is show us how social work can work really well.’ Not that he views Hackney as a one-size-fits-all model. ‘There are lots of different ways that [social work] can work really well,’ MacAlister believes, ‘but there’s a set of ingredients which are about clear leadership; very high expectations and standards that social workers need to meet or they need to move on; and a very clear practice model.’
So what is innovative about Frontline? ‘What Frontline does is it finds people who may not have considered social work before, puts them through a rigorous selection process, educates them in a different way to do social work and then places them in a different context to be successful,’ MacAlister explains. In order to ‘get great people’ – what its chief executive calls ‘the right mix of grit and warmth to be able to do the job’ – Frontline is ‘really, really selective’.
MacAlister makes no apologies for the rigour of his programme’s selection process as he reels off the day-to-day challenges social workers face: standing up in court to make a case; going into homes and holding competing ideas about what could be going on while not getting too married to a hypothesis at an early stage; writing ‘really clear’ reports that convey to someone who has never met the family what is going on and what the risks are; and building relationships extremely quickly in potentially hostile situations. In the face of all of these, he says, social work should be viewed as ‘intellectually demanding’.
Last year 2,600 graduates and people changing careers applied for just 100 places on Frontline’s two-year leadership programme which, following an intensive five-week residential course, places them in a local authority child protection scheme in Greater London or Greater Manchester. The first year qualifies participants as a social worker through direct work with children and families. The second year leads to a master’s qualification as people work as newly qualified social workers.
But it is not just the toughness of the selection process which is innovative, so, too, argues MacAlister, is the focus on ‘practice learning’: how to train social workers to do their job ‘really well’. He cites traditional training methods which see aspiring social workers observed three or four times on a pass-fail basis, while their grades are still determined by exams and essays. ‘On Frontline your grades are driven through the quality of the work that you do with families. We get academics to go out into local authorities and teach in practice so that it’s bringing the university into the practice environment. We – and this sounds like it should be obvious and done on all courses – observe practice and grade people against practice,’ he says.
What does that mean in practical terms? Frontline works with local authorities to identify the most able practising social workers, promotes them to become team managers, but insists that they do not move away from practice into management, and then provides them with training. The team manager is assigned four Frontline trainees. MacAlister describes how they then ‘form a unit where they share a caseload together that’s risky: it’s got court proceedings in it; got Section 47 investigations with the police in it; and it’s got quite complex abuse or neglect cases. And for a year this team work that caseload with the support and supervision and oversight of a consultant social worker, but with the exposure of the risk.’
Unsurprisingly, Frontline has faced resistance from many social work academics in the university sector. They complain it is too elitist, selective, expensive and undermines current university provision. MacAlister suspects other motives, however: ‘Frontline, if it works and is successful, is a threat to that market. At the centre of the criticism is a fear that the implication of this being successful is they’ve spent some of their career doing something which could have been put to bed easier.’ Local authorities, by contrast, have been big supporters of Frontline.
Government faces a particularly acute challenge with children’s services, in particular in terms of encouraging innovation. High-profile scandals involving children such as Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly in Haringey, who suffered abuse, neglect and death without effective intervention by social workers, led to huge amounts of new, somewhat rigid, process and procedure. But such after-the-event regulation, while understandable, ignores some of the core issues facing children’s services. ‘The answer at the moment to make social work better isn’t to make more regulation, guidance, process or central government intervention,’ suggests MacAlister. Instead he advocates that the state should ‘set some really big and clear tram tracks and [then] let wise people make good judgements within those tram tracks’.
Providing some of those ‘wise people’ is the task MacAlister has set for Frontline. ‘Many of them will stay in social work and some will leave,’ he says of his brainchild. ‘But we’re a bit like Teach First: inviting people to join a programme where they get a shared experience for what’s happening with some families in this country, and have the ability after the programme to do something about it, whether it’s in social work or outside in policy, business, law, the media. And so the aim would be, in 10 years’ time, to have not only social work positioned as a really prestigious career choice, up there with law and teaching and medicine, but also that we’ve got a network of thousands of people who have gone through this.’
Liz Kendall MP is shadow minister for care. Steve Reed MP is shadow minister for home affairs
Download the full pamphlet, Let it go: Power to the People in Public Services, here
- Josh MacAlister is chief executive of Frontline
- He first pitched the idea on the Progress website in an article in August 2010
- Frontline has been dubbed the ‘Teach First for social work’
- Frontline trains top graduates to bring about change within families
- The programme aims to raise the status of social work
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.