Students on the front line

Photo: Frontline Frontline’s 2015 cohort with CEO Josh MacAlister (front left), Isabelle Trowler (chief social worker for children and families) and Lord Adonis (chair of the Frontline board).

Launched in September 2013 by Josh MacAlister, Frontline was conceptualized as the ‘Teach First of social work.’ With this graduate scheme as its model, Frontline aims to attract academically able, skilled and motivated people to the field of social work. Just two years later, Frontline is now number 40 on the Times Top 100 list of graduate employers and is in the midst of recruiting its third cohort of graduate students. A week ahead of the application deadline, The Saint spoke with Mr MacAlister, Frontline’s founder and CEO, and Bea Bennett, a campus brand manager for the charity and a fourth-year student here at St Andrews, to get the scoop.

MacAlister is the son of a former social worker, but it was not until he started worked as a schoolteacher in Manchester that he grasped the “social problem in a powerful way because [he] was working with children who had quite a bit of involvement from social services and could see in each case that those children faced massive disadvantages.” After graduating from the Teach First programme, he worked as a social worker himself before developing his idea for Frontline.

In a Guardian article from 2013, Mr MacAlister said that after meeting a social worker who was a child’s sixth case manager in twelve months, he realized the profession was “overstretched and demoralized.” This epiphany led to MacAlister’s idea to set up a “graduate fast-track programme that draws on the Teach First scheme and is about getting more leaders into children’s social work.”

Teach First deploys high achieving graduates to the most challenging schools in England and Wales, and Mr MacAlister’s experience as a student in this programme was crucial to Frontline’s success. Seeing how Teach First “brought teaching as a profession from an area not considered by graduates to being one the biggest UK graduate employer within ten years,” led him to think that: “if it could happen in teaching, it can also happen in social work.”

Natalie English, a fourth-year maths and Spanish student, and Marie Ellen Bowers, a second-year neuroscience student are student brand managers for Teach First. “Teach First is a charity set up to end education inequality in the UK,” says Ms English. At the moment, the chief indicator of how well a child does in school is how much their parents earn, so Teach First has the aim to end this.” She and Ms Bowers explain that the scheme places graduates in schools facing challenging circumstances for two years. The first year is spent working towards their postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), which is fully funded by Teach First, and in their second year they begin working as fully qualified teachers in schools across the country.

Similarly, Frontline recruits go through an intensive five-week summer programme followed by 12 months of intensive on-the-job training and one-on-one teaching. By their second year, they have received full qualification as social workers and assume responsibilities for their own caseloads. Graduate students work with their local authority’s Children’s Services team while also focusing on developing leadership skills. At the end of two years, each member of the Frontline cohort is able to gain a Masters qualification in social work, with the added benefit of receiving coaching from an expert in the field.

Since its start, Frontline has faced criticism about its abbreviated timeframe. After just five weeks, Frontline recruits enter the field, while at other universities it takes individuals up to three years to complete their masters in social work. Mr MacAlister says: “There are other ways in the UK to qualify as a social worker within the same timeframe, but we actually provide people with more time in practice.” He adds: “Local authorities and social workers have seen how good our participants can be.”

Both Teach First and Frontline face issues with the sustainability of their programmes. Ms English explains that while 60 per cent of Teach First graduates stay in teaching, the rest go into a wide range of other industries, including finance and policy making.

However, she is quick to add that this is not a problem for Teach First as the programme aims to create individuals with great leadership skills. Leadership, of course, can be applied in any profession, not just teaching. In fact, graduates of Teach First’s Leadership Development Programme are seven times more likely to be promoted than someone who has not completed the programme.

Frontline takes a similar view. Of course, the main aim of the programme is “to transform the lives of children through the development of people with leadership potential,” says Mr Macalister. “And we want to recruit and train people to apply that leadership to social work on the ground as social work.” But, at the same time, he is aware that some graduates will channel their experience with Frontline into other areas, such as civil service. Some may even set up their own social organizations, which is exactly what Mr MacAlister did after completing the Teach First grad scheme. “What we are asking from people that sign up [for Frontline] is not necessarily to create a career in social work,” he says. “Instead, we are asking people to sign up for the opportunity to develop their leadership potential for two years on the programme, and then continue to apply that leadership to the big social problem in Britain.”

The selection process for Frontline is quite rigorous. Individuals are asked to complete an online self-assessment to determine if social work is the industry for them. After submitting the application, online tests are required that assess verbal reasoning, and situational judgment. Applicants who make it through this initial screening process are then interviewed. The final stage consists of a visit to an assessment centre for a day of appraisal, which includes interaction with young care leavers as well as role-playing. Successful applicants will then receive an offer.

Mr MacAlister says that academic success is important when applying since Frontline looks for “people who have the intellectual ability to think about the probabilities that might go on for a family, to stand up in court and be cross-examined and to write complex reports with deep analysis and details.” He adds that people skills are important, too, because ap- plicants must “be able to build great relationships quickly with children and families.” Finally, he suggests that successful applicants ultimately have “resilience and courage,” which are needed “in the conversations they have with parents and families.”

Ms Bennett says that Frontline does not recruit students from specific degree pathways, but subjects such as psychology and social anthropology tend to be overrepresented among incoming recruits. Both she and Mr MacAlister point out that experience helping others – such as volunteering or working with Nightline – is crucial, as it is for anyone looking to break into the field of social work.

Shona Mach, the deputy director of the Careers Centre, says: “Recruiters look for personal qualities that will make [an applicant] a good social worker. If students have been in volunteer positions or internships working with young or vulnerable people and are able to demonstrate skills such as motivation to want to help people and effective communication and relationship-building skills, as well as demonstrating empathy and resilience in difficult situations, they would have some of the experiences relevant to social work.”

Ms English and Ms Bowers mention that individuals expecting large salaries need not apply to Teach First, and the same goes for students considering Frontline. Instead, both programmes focus on producing individuals skilled enough to tackle Britain’s most entrenched social issues. While not the most lucrative option, Teach First is very popular among St Andrews students. Ms Bennett says she hopes for a similar response to Frontline, despite the programme’s relative newness.

Ms Mach says: “Small numbers of [St Andrews] graduates tend to go directly onto postgraduate social work courses, but the recent arrival of work-based programmes such as Frontline and Think Ahead (a fast-track mental health social work scheme) have increased the level of awareness of social work as a career option.” Additionally, she is glad to report that two St Andrews graduates are members of this year’s Frontline cohort and 29 University alums will start on Teach First’s Leadership Development

Programme this year. In fact, she says: “As a percentage of the student population, [Teach First has] more applications from St Andrews students than any other UK university.”

Ms Mach believes that graduates of either programmes will be well prepared to enter the work force. “A number of organizations would value the experience of someone who has worked directly with children and families and understands what is necessary to have a transformative impact on their lives,” she says.

For graduates seeking careers in fields other than social work, she suggests looking into systematic practitioner or family therapist routes, Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Services (CAFCASS), policy making in government, international development, and private or public sector consultancy, all of which will require skills developed in the aforementioned grad schemes.

Students considering social work as a career should research each programme well and make contact with people who have experience in the field. Ms Mach says: “Social work is a demanding but rewarding career, so make sure it’s right for you before starting your application.” She also suggests that students take part in volunteer activities within the social work and/or mental health sectors.


Ms Bennett says that Frontline’s mission is simple: “To change the lives of vulnerable children and young people by recruiting outstanding individuals to become social workers.” And despite the complexities of Britain’s social problems, programmes like Teach First and Frontline have seen considerable success. Mr MacAlister says: “We are now the number 40 graduate employer. If you had said this to someone two years ago, that a programme recruiting people for social work would be number 40, no one would believe you.” However, this change is happening, and it is happening fast thanks to schemes like these.

The deadline for Frontline applications in 12th November. Learn more at their website:


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