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The wider involvement of graduates in social work: an interview with Josh McAlister, CEO of organisation Frontline

BySarah Henderson

Oct 10, 2015

Could you tell me a little bit about Frontline?

Josh: I founded Frontline as a charity in 2013 to shift the perceptions of social work as a prestigious career of choice. We go to universities to recruit people and challenge notions of a career in social work.
It is a really demanding role – ranging across representing in court to being in inter-agency meetings to actually knocking on a family’s door – often all in one day. We also train and develop people to have the biggest possible impact with the children and families that they work with.
Thus it requires a special mix of skills which we believe we can help develop.

What drew you to social entrepreneurship?
Josh: When I left the University of Edinburgh and applied for Teach First, it was the only graduate course that offered two things in bucket loads: a sense of social purpose, specifically addressing educational disadvantage, while also stretching me with new skills. The public service aspect of my job really attracted me to a career in social work.
Subsequently, at Teach First I worked with children who had social workers involved in their home life. I was inspired by that, and I thought about the huge gap between the families that need social workers (half a million in England), and the beleaguered and misunderstood perception of social work as a profession.
This is obviously a huge issue and five years ago I wrote an article in my first year of teaching which argued for applying the principles of Teach First to the profession of social work. From there I got loads of support from the government – Lord Adonis, a former minister, is Frontline’s chair – the Labour and Conservative party to set up Frontline as an independent charity.

There’s been a recent surge in social entrepreneurs and burgeoning interest in the third sector. Why do you think that is?
There’s been a lot of start-ups and the most successful ones come from seeing a real world problem and tackling it with leadership skills, like us at Frontline. So I think you need that, along with a great network or people around you to support and guide you.
There has been an assumption that as soon as you leave university you choose high-flying careers to make as much money as you can as fast as possible.
I think, to really change Britain’s society and make it a more egalitarian world, we need to change that assumption, so that after university you think of contributing back to society as the first career move.
And I think this is such an exciting moment for social work as people are looking into giving back and starting up ventures that tie into social development. There is so much opportunity as well, with groups such as Teach First, Police Now and Frontline.

What would you say are the benefits in such a career?
Josh: With Frontline, you can make a transformational impact on children and family’s lives and that is by far the biggest benefit. As a career, it is really varied and intellectually stimulating as you won’t just sit behind a desk.
For example, after the two year Frontline program you will have demonstrated that you can build a professional network around a family, help them change, and do this all in the context of legislation and legal risk: that is leadership.

How do you respond to critics from social work academia groups who claim that the five-week training period is too short and incomplete to prepare you for going ‘into the field’, arguing that it devalues the academic component of social work? Do you think this also speaks to the larger theory vs. practice divide?
Josh: The five week summer course is only the beginning of a two year academic course in which you get a masters. So at the summer institute you learn the basics of social work and the legal framework. You qualify as a social worker at the end of 12 months so it is an accelerated course, but LSE does the same thing – it’s about the history of it, if you get the right people in and if they’ve got the right underlying abilities and academic qualities to learn to be a qualified social worker.
So to clarify, after the five week program you go to your local authority of the start of your two year experience with them and in the first year you are working with two to three other recruits under the full-time supervision of a consultant social worker to work on a group of families together. This is all done in conjunction with studying and getting your masters.
To answer if this is ‘too soon’, our view is that the studying is incomplete without real world experience to blend theory and practice. It is similar to placements in social work courses, but the advantage with Frontline is that it leads to a higher qualified placement, as it is for a longer time period and under the guidance of a professional.

How would you suggest making a social impact in and from your university life?
Josh: That’s an interesting question. I would say university life is rife with opportunities and it’s really up to you to take advantage of them.
For many people, they will never be as free and footloose as they are now so I would encourage them to get involved by joining programs like LEAPS or societies such as Nightline or Amnesty International.
Getting involved in student politics is great, from identifying and campaigning on local issues to make a real, tangible difference in students’ lives. Additionally, in applying to companies like Frontline, experience in volunteering and societies will give your CV a big boost.

Approximately 75 per cent of all social workers are women. Why do you think that is? Could you talk about the gender disparity in social work a little bit?
Josh: On most social work courses, there are 87 per cent women. At Frontline, a quarter of our cohort are men, which is slightly more balanced. We want to contribute to a profession that is really diverse, from sexuality to ethnicity, as we feel increased diversity leads to a better learning environment. We make a big effort to actively recruit for men, people from different courses, and backgrounds at universities.

Do you think the gender disparity is due to the gendered assumptions of social work itself wherein people view it as a feminine job with assumptions of child care?
Josh: I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what social work involves, particularly child and family social work.
You are right, it’s often assumed to be a child care career. This ignores how dynamic and varied it is, which means that the job is for everyone really.
It’s also worth emphasising that we are getting in more men than most.

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