Josh MacAlister had the idea for Frontline while working with Teach FirstEwan Shears

Nationwide, 38 per cent of young people go into higher education. For children who have been in care, the figure is six per cent. This is just one of a roster of statistics that highlight the disadvantages faced by young people in care, disadvantages that Josh MacAlister, founder of Frontline, is determined to turn around.

Launched this year, Frontline is a new graduate training programme, aimed at training bright university leavers for the challenging career of social work. Based on the model of Teach First, Frontline recruits go through a rigorous two-year on-the-job training programme, which earns them a professional qualification and a Master’s degree.

Teach First was launched in 2002 and is now the UK’s largest graduate employer. MacAlister hopes to mirror this success: “Our ambition is in the next ten years, social work is seen as one of the top graduate career destinations”

However he also concedes that social work is very different from teaching in that “the risk is greater”. The challenge, he tells me, is that “social work is either not understood by people…[or] there is a negative public perception of it.”

Overcoming the somewhat unglamorous image of social work is one of Frontline’s key challenges. In order to tackle this, MacAlister is seeking to recruit bright graduates from top universities, such as Cambridge, rather than people who have undergone traditional vocational training to enter the field.

MacAlister makes “no apology” that social work is an “academically demanding job”. Great social workers, he argues, have “intellectual curiosity at what is going in peoples homes and families.” These are the people who are willing and able “to stand up in court and be cross-examined for three hours by barristers and are able to…[communicate] in ways that people can understand.”

However, MacAlister emphasises that academic ability alone is not enough to be a great social worker.

The focus on academia has rustled a few feathers in the world of social work, particularly amongst academic experts in the field. A joint report published earlier this year from the University Council Social Work Education Committee and Association of Professors of Social Work called the programme “narrow” because of its specific focus on child protection. This means that “students know next to nothing about issues such as adoption, fostering, youth offending, mental health, disability and aging.”

“The potential for mis-assessing risk and factors impacting on children and families makes this scheme a high risk policy,” the report argued.

However MacAlister freely concedes that the reaction to Frontline has been mixed: “There have been people critical of our focus on academic ability, but I can’t think of any other profession in the country where its okay to say you do not need the best and brightest. So to the critics of Frontline, I would say you shouldn’t settle for anything less than people who have the academic ability and the personal qualities”.

He also notes that the main professional bodies in the field, the College of Social Work and the British Association of Social Work have both “cautiously welcomed” Frontline.

Regardless of criticism, Frontline is making a name for itself at recruitment fairs up and down the country. “What we’ve managed to do…is get social work into the conversation. People are considering it in a way that they might not have done 12 months ago”.

A key to Frontline’s success has been its influential and cross-party support. Labour Party peer Lord Adonis, who was raised in care, has backed the project from its outset, after meeting MacAlister at an event in 2010. More recently, Education Minister Michael Gove provided start-up funding to launch the programme.

MacAlister is emphatic that Frontline is not a party political organisation: “Frontline is absolutely cross party...We’ve had enthusiastic endorsement from the lead spokespeople for the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats, and that support continues.

“The idea with Frontline is actually to build something that last beyond any one party being in government.”

With this in mind, MacAlister has also established a link with the Civil Service Fast Stream, for Frontline participants who decide they do not want to be involved in direct social work: “What we are saying, is that if people do leave Frontline after the two-year programme, we want them to remain committed to the mission. That’s why, for example, we’ve got a partnership with the civil service fast stream, whereby people who do the two years on Frontline who may want to go into policy afterwards can do so.

“We should have more people in policy and in government making decisions who understand what it is like on the frontline.”

Despite this emphasis on experience, MacAlister has never trained as a social worker. He was in his fourth year of teaching after joining Teach First, when his exposure to children in the care system made him start thinking about entering and transforming the field.

However the Teach First experience has stayed with him: “If we can help turn the herd in the way that TeachFirst has done…I think that [will do] a lot to make Britain a better place to live.”

Frontline’s mission is “to transform the lives of vulnerable children”. It is early days, but many experts and experienced social workers will be watching closely to see how Frontline develops towards this aim. And MacAlister knows it.

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