The Case Against Extended Frontline: Letter of Objection

SWAN is a co-signature on the following letter – please feel free to circulate and to contact MPs.



Nadhim Zahawi MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families Department for Education

By email

10th May 2018

Dear Minister


The purpose of this letter is to call on the Government to suspend the proposed tender to expand the fast-track children and families social work programme. The signatories are the main professional organisations representing social work, including practitioners and academics.


A Prior Information Notice (PIN – 2018/S 064-142495) was issued on the 29th March 2018 and remains on the website: ( However, the planned information day on the 27th April 2018 was cancelled and we are unaware of the current status of this tender.


We request that the tender be suspended in order:


  1. To allow the opportunity for a full stakeholder consultation and impact assessment – that includes current providers within the HE sector and social work employers- on the long and short term implications of such a radical shift of scale in the funding and delivery mode of social work education.
  2. To allow time for a transparent and rigorous assessment of the use of £50 million of scarce public funds for this project and how far it represents value for money.
  3. To allow time for proper evaluation of the current fast-track scheme, ‘Frontline’, for which this current tender is, without question, an extension.
  4. To ensure that this evaluation critically examines the impact of this route into social work on the workforce, particularly in light of the challenges that many employers continue to face in recruiting and retaining experienced social workers and leaders.
  5. To ensure the meaningful involvement in the evaluation of a range of stakeholders, including representatives from our organisations and the new Chair of Social Work England.


Our primary concerns regarding this tender and the expansion of the Fast-Track programme proposed are as follows:


The cost of this tender


A recent Department for Education study (Cutmore and Roger, 2016) found that the unit costs to government are significantly lower for the established mainstream routes into social work than for the accelerated routes: Undergraduate (£ 14,675); Postgraduate (£ 23,225); Step Up (£ 40,413) and Frontline (£ 45, 323). The tender suggests that the cost per student would actually rise to £55,000 in the next few years.  This raises important concerns about the continuing disparities between the funding available to programmes that ostensibly have the same aim; that is to educate the future workforce.


The lack of longitudinal evaluation


The House of Commons Select Committee on Social Work Reform (2016 – 2017) recommended that:


The Government commission an extended research study of Frontline alongside university routes to establish comparative long-term outcomes. The Government will then have a stronger evidence base to make decisions on any future changes to the funding and structure of qualification routes.


A study has been commissioned but has not concluded. However, the Government is committing large amounts of money to extend a programme that is unproven in resolving the challenge for employers of retaining and developing experienced social workers. This is puzzling given that a critical issue for many local authorities concerns retention.


Moreover, Frontline is based on the Teach First model. A study by the National College for Teaching and Leadership found that after two years the retention rate for Teach First was poorer than for other graduate routes (Allen et al., 2016).  This reinforces the need for evaluation before large amounts of scarce public money are allocated further.


Impact on social work education and research in universities


The fast-track programmes offer students a wage of around £20,000, and the payment of fees. This represents a significantly more favourable level of financial support than that offered to students on any other qualifying route into social work. Beyond the obvious issue of equity, this pattern of provision risks creating deep instability in the mainstream routes to postgraduate qualification that already exist in universities, with important medium and long-term threats for the sector as a whole.


In particular, the proposed expansion of a fast track children’s social work training to cohorts of up to 450 students per year will pose a significant challenge to the viability of current postgraduate programmes in Universities across England.   We are concerned that this expansion will reduce applications to – and thereby threaten – courses in some of the most prestigious, research-oriented Universities where such post-graduate provision tends to be clustered.


Masters students are of central importance to the sustainability of a research culture for the social work profession, not only within universities but also within practice environments.  Once damaged, the sector’s capacity for research will be very difficult to repair.


In written evidence to the Select Committee, the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol stated that “retaining social work education within research-intensive universities is essential” and that there was a risk that the expansion of Frontline could cause social work education to disappear from universities, and in turn threaten “internationally-excellent” social work research.  Additionally, Professor Brid Featherstone reported to the Select Committee that:


Research is the life blood of any profession and [Frontline’s] future intention to disentangle themselves from an ongoing relationship with the HEI could mean that their methods of work are not rooted in an organic research base.


We think it is essential that Government, engage with the implications of an extension of Frontline, which is not university-based, for a profession which is currently built on independent and academically robust social work research and education at Masters and doctorate levels.


Equality issues


Not only is the renumeration for Frontline (and Step Up) students, as opposed to students on traditional programmes unequal, but it would appear from the research on who has been recruited to study on Frontline programmes to date that structural inequalities are being reproduced. Maxwell et al’s (2017) study comparing the pre-training characteristics of Frontline and mainstream route students concluded that Frontline has recruited a more socially advantaged and less diverse group of entrants and that ‘the impact of this not uncontroversial initiative warrants careful monitoring through longitudinal study if we are to fully understand the nature of this most recent instance of social engineering in England’s social work profession’ (p. 502).


In addition, the Frontline model, which requires attendance at a 5 week residential programme over the summer, is potentially restrictive for students with caring responsibilities for children or adults.  We have asked the Department for Education whether an equality impact assessment was undertaken prior to the issuing of this tender notification. The response received was that:


The Department for Education understands the importance of, and is committed to, ensuring appropriate considerations are made on how our policy decisions affect different individuals. With this particular procurement, we have considered how we will meet our Public Sector Equality Duty through the advertised service once it is procured, and will continue to pay regard to these duties as the procurement exercise progresses.


We consider this an inadequate response to the Public Sector Equality Duty given the evidence already available about Frontline cohorts so far.


In the light of the issues raised in this letter, we urge the Government to suspend this proposed tender and would welcome further dialogue with you about constructive ways forward.



Yours sincerely,


Association of Professors of Social Work (APSW)


British Association of Social Workers (BASW)


Joint University Social Work Education Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC)


Social Work Action Network (SWAN)




Copied to:

Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS)

Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)

Chair of Social Work England

Local Government Association (LGA)

Chief Social Worker for Adults

Chief Social Worker for Children and Families

Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)





Allen, R., Bibby, D.,  Parameshwaran, M., Nye, P., Education Datalab and FFT (2016) Linking ITT and  workforce data: (Initial Teacher Training  Performance Profiles  and School Workforce Census), National College for Teaching and Leadership, Department for Education, Reference DFE- RR507


Cutmore, M. and Roger, J.  (2016) Comparing the costs of social work qualification routes, York Consulting, Department for Education, Reference: DFE-RR517


Maxwell, N., Scourfield, J., de Villiers, T., Pithouse, A. and Le Zhang, M. (2017) ‘The Pre-Training Characteristics of Frontline Participants and Mainstream Social Work Students’, British Journal of Social Work, 48(2), pp. 487-504

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