A revolution in child protection which would see elite graduates fast-tracked into social work has been given the go-ahead by Michael Gove, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The programme, called Frontline, is modelled on Teach First and would create a new movement of social workers to bring leadership, prestige and a sense of "social mission" to one of the least appealing and most widely criticised professions.
The Education Secretary gave the green light to the plan amid growing concern about child protection in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The revelations have once again highlighted widespread problems with the protection of children and the state of social work in Britain, which has been described as a "national scandal" by Lord Adonis, the former education minister.
Social workers were criticised for failing to act on signs of abuse in the shocking cases of Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié, and research has shown that those working in the profession often lack the assertiveness to challenge parents in problem cases. Earlier this month, Birmingham Social Services was criticised by Ofsted for continuing "inadequate" protection of children, despite improvements made following the death of Khyra Ishaq in the city in 2008.
The profession is in a state of crisis, say experts, with social workers struggling with increasing workloads, spending cuts by local authorities, and dwindling morale following high-profile cases. Last year there were 1,350 vacancies for social workers, while only 5 per cent of people who started training in this field last year had been to one of the Russell Group of leading universities. At the same time, calls relating to child abuse to the NSPCC helpline have more than doubled in the past two years, with nearly three-quarters of those calls referred to the authorities.
The Frontline idea was developed by Josh MacAlister, who underwent the Teach First programme and is a head of department at a secondary school in Greater Manchester. Mr MacAlister first suggested the "Teach First for social work" in 2010, when it was reported by The IoS. Lord Adonis, the former schools minister and ex-adviser on education to Tony Blair, helped to develop the idea. Last week Lord Adonis and Mr MacAlister held talks with Mr Gove, who ordered a business plan to implement Frontline.
Like Teach First, the Frontline programme would involve two-year in-work training for graduates, who would need to show qualities needed for social work before starting the course, including compassion, leadership and a confidence to challenge and use authority. Individuals would start with an intensive summer school of training before being placed in a frontline working role, where they would complete academic study and social work training in the first year, leading to a recognised social-work qualification.
The second year would involve continued in-job training at the same local authority. Graduates would have their salaries in the first year paid by Frontline, which would be established as a social enterprise, independent of government and local authorities. The second year would be funded by local authorities.
Similar to Teach First, Frontline participants would be committed to only two years, and would then be free to leave the profession. But Mr MacAlister argues that because of the rewarding nature of the "social mission" involved in jobs such as teaching and social work, individuals would feel motivated to stay on.
While social work already requires a degree qualification, there has been criticism that the training is poorly suited to the practical realities of the profession.
A report putting the case for Frontline by Mr MacAlister, for the IPPR think tank, found that of 2,765 people who started a degree in social work last year, only five individuals had been to Oxford or Cambridge, suggesting that social work is not regarded as a high-status profession. Two-thirds of social work students pass their degree the first time round, while only 12 per cent of applicants have three grade As at A-level or equivalent.
The idea could be met with resistance by some in the field, especially as being a high-flying graduate would not necessarily equip an individual with the life experience needed to spot abuse or neglect in children. But Mr MacAlister argues that Frontline would be also open to older, more experienced graduates who wanted to switch career.
Local authorities experience such a high turnover of staff that they frequently have to rely on agency staff to fill gaps. As a result, vulnerable children can be seen by several different social workers in one year, which can lead to oversights in their care. Council budgets have been cut by an average of 10 per cent this year, further putting the lives of vulnerable children at risk, said the IPPR report.
The report, published this month, said: "Children's social work is under enormous strain. Chronic funding pressures, a ballooning workload and a poorly trained and supported workforce have all combined to put vulnerable children's lives at risk.
"Despite the importance of an effective workforce, social work has struggled to recruit and train enough high-calibre staff; it has suffered from a perception of low prestige, and been criticised for offering degree courses that provide inadequate training."
Earlier this month, Lord Adonis, who was in care as a child, wrote: "The status of the social work profession is frankly a national scandal. The status quo is similar to comprehensive school teaching a decade ago: high vacancy rates and far too few good young graduates with burning motivation or excellent training and support. For tens of thousands of children each year social workers not only make a profound difference to their life chances; they are often the difference between danger and safety in a child's life."
Teach First, which was implemented by Lord Adonis as Mr Blair's adviser in 2002 to improve teaching in "challenging" comprehensives, has attracted more than 3,000 elite graduates to the teaching profession over the past decade and is regarded as a success. Although the graduates are committed to only two years of teaching, more than half have remained in the profession.
'It used to be more about the person. Now it's about figures and time and budgets'
Sonia Simpson has been on the front-line of social work for the past 10 years.
Yesterday she welcomed government moves to bring in a Teach First-style scheme for social workers. "I think it's a good thing that the Government is trying to raise standards," Ms Simpson said. "At least it is trying to communicate to people that social work isn't the easy option."
Ms Simpson, 50, said the move was in contrast to what often appeared to be a complete lack of government interest in the increasing pressure being put on social workers.
She added that in recent years morale among many of her colleagues has plummeted, as budget cuts and public criticism take their toll: "It has become all about doing more with less. It used to be more about the person and now it's about figures and time and budgets.
"As soon as you mention the word social worker, the perception is negative. They think you're either putting old people in homes or you're putting people in care."
Ms Simpson admitted that she did have reservation about the scheme. "It could mean that we go back to what it was in the 1970s, when a lot of social workers were white middle-class do-gooders," she said.
"It's great to be academic, but does that mean you'll be a good practising social worker, and will know how to deal with people whose lives are in crisis?"
The cases that went wrong
Baby P died aged 17 months in August 2007 at the hands of his mother, Tracey Connelly, her abusive boyfriend and their lodger. The toddler, who suffered more than 50 injuries, was on the at-risk register and was visited 60 times by social workers, doctors and police.
Tortured to death by her great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, and Kouao's lover, Carl Manning, in 2000, eight-year-old Victoria, could have been saved if had it not been for a lack of communication between social workers, nurses, doctors and police officers.
The seven-year-old from Handsworth, Birmingham, died weighing 2st 9lb in 2008 after mistreatment at the hands of her stepfather Junaid Abuhamza and mother Angela Gordon. A serious case review found social workers failed to listen to people's concerns.
Social workers placed 20 children from six families into care in 1990 after becoming convinced they were suffering from satanic abuse by their parents. The investiagtion was triggered when Daniel Wilson then six, told teachers he had had nightmares about ghosts. No evidence of abuse was found.
Nine children were taken from their beds in South Ronaldsay by police because social workers believed they were being abused by a satanic paedophile ring. The alarm was triggered by Morris MacKenzie. The children were held in care for five weeks on the mainland before being returned after no evidence was found.
Amy Garland and Paul Crummey were accused by social workers in South Gloucestershire of child abuse after doctors failed to spot that their six-week-old son Harrison's "injuries" to his legs were caused by a rare genetic bone disease Osteogenesis imperfecta. When the doctors realised their mistake, the case was dropped.