UPDATE: Frontline aren’t happy about this story. Read their latest response here

Frontline – the equivalent of Teach First for the social care sector – is charging graduates up to £10,000 if they wish to leave the scheme in less than two years.

In the meantime, participants must continue to do highly stressful and often distressing work, covering a caseload of up to 12 vulnerable children from families with known problems with drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Graduate Fog has spoken to current participants who feel so trapped that they are having nightmares, losing weight, being advised by doctors to take anti-depressants, or hoping they have a breakdown as a way out of the programme. Graduates say there is no cooling-off or trial period allowing graduates to try the work before committing to the scheme long-term, with the result that they are now “trapped”.

When challenged by Graduate Fog, Frontline confirmed that “a small contribution” is requested from graduates who quit before the end of the two-year programme “towards training fees.” As this is a government-funded scheme, they say they are “balancing the needs of participants with our responsibilities to taxpayers.”

Frontline is widely known as ‘Teach First for the social care sector’, and is one of a group of government-backed graduate schemes which fast-track high potential graduates into managerial roles in the public sector, including Teach First, Police Now and Unlocked. Lord Andrew Adonis — who has repeatedly raised concerns about social mobility in the UK — is a Patron of Frontline. It is unclear whether he is aware of the scheme’s policy of charging large exit fees.

One current Frontline graduate told Graduate Fog:

“I’m desperate to leave Frontline but freedom has too high a price. My only hope is getting signed off sick, as Frontline say they reduce the repayment bill if you’re unable to finish the scheme due to ill health, or in some cases let you off completely. Several cases I’m working on are so harrowing I’m having nightmares.

“I was naive and didn’t realise how disturbing this work would be. I think I’m close to breaking point from all the stress. Being signed off would be a silver lining if my mental and physical health continue to deteriorate, if it leads to me being released from the Frontline scheme.

“To be honest I’m in such a state that I can’t be doing a good job for the families either. They deserve better than this. We all do.”

NO WAY BACK The Frontline website sells social work as a rewarding career – but what happens if graduates find it’s not right for them?

Graduate Fog’s founder Tanya de Grunwald said Frontline’s response (pasted below this story) was vague and insufficient, given the seriousness of the issue. She said:

“In the last nine months we have received multiple complaints from Frontline graduates, so clearly something is wrong here. Some participants have left and been chased for the money — others are trapped and can’t afford to buy their way out. For Frontline to call £10,000 ‘a small contribution’ is jaw-dropping.

“It can’t be right that those who can buy their way out can leave, while those who can’t are trapped in a physically and mentally demanding programme they are desperate to leave. I am genuinely concerned for their well-being. Social care work is tough enough for those who want to do it. What must it be like for those who don’t, but can’t afford to quit? If Frontline wasn’t aware of this problem before we brought it to their attention, they should have been. And if they were, it is barbaric they have allowed it to continue.”

The graduates also question the value of the training that Frontline claims they have received. While Frontline insists the scheme is a “university accredited social work programme,” much of the period concerned appears to involve real work (indeed, the graduates are actually paid a salary for this) — so the graduates are unclear when their £10,000-worth of training actually happened. One told us:

“The scheme kicks off with a five-week summer institute of training, where the main bulk of the teaching happens. After that, graduates work full-time for 236 days, with a day of teaching every fortnight, essentially recapping what we’d already learned at the institute. Most of our learning was done on the job, under supervision by consultant social workers who were paid by the local authority — just as anyone would be supervised by their manager in any other job. Are they charging us for that? A £10,000 price tag seems way too high for such a small amount of proper teaching.”

Frontline insists that the repayment policy is detailed in successful candidates’ offer letters, and in their contracts, and this does appear to be true. However, several graduates told Graduate Fog that — being fresh out of uni, excited to have been accepted and assuming they’d love the Frontline scheme — they did not give the clause the serious consideration they now realise they should have done. Many didn’t show the contract to their parents, let alone a lawyer.

We also understand there has been heightened confusion among those with friends a year ahead of them on the Frontline scheme. Graduate Fog understands that the £10,000 repayment cap was introduced in 2017 but no special effort was made to highlight this to the first cohort affected. Some graduates who saw the figure presumed this policy was never enforced, feeling confident they would have heard if it was proving problematic for those already on the scheme, and not realising that it was new.

Other graduates say they are now kicking themselves for not taking legal advice before signing up to the government-backed scheme. One told us:

“I remember seeing something about the repayment policy when I glanced through the contract — but I confess I didn’t consider the full implications at the time. It crossed my mind to ask about it, but I thought it would look bad to bring up what happens if I wanted to leave, before I’d even started. Certainly, no-one at Frontline ever spelled it out verbally or asked if I had any questions about the £10,000 specifically. I now realise I was naïve, but I was so excited about being accepted by Frontline that I never thought I’d need to quit. But I’ve realised this work just isn’t for me.”

The graduate agreed it was “offensive” that Frontline considered a bill of up to £10,000 “a small contribution” saying:

“I am from a poorer background and live pay cheque to pay cheque. I have no savings and no access to help from my family. Even having to pay back a small amount each month for the next however-many years would put a financial strain on me, on top of my existing graduate debt. I just can’t afford to get out of this job.”

The complaints about Frontline follow outcry over large so-called “exit fees” being charged by other graduate employers, including Capita and FDM Group.

Capita was found to have been invoicing graduates for up to £21,000 if they quit in less than two years, although the outsourcing firm has since changed its policy following bad publicity.

Meanwhile, legal action is ongoing by a group of former graduate employees of FDM Group and a third firm, Sparta Global, who are both sending bills for around £16,000 to graduates who leave in less than two years. The case is backed by The Good Law Project and Jolyon Maugham QC. Concerned Labour MP Frank Field wrote to the business secretary Greg Clark, who referred the matter to the Modern Slavery Commission to investigate.

Graduate Fog understands that while there are cases where employers may ask departing staff to repay training costs, these must be fair and reasonable, and clearly explained up-front, especially in cases where there is a power imbalance between the creators of the contract, and those signing it.

Regardless of the details, de Grunwald said she had heard enough to conclude that the Frontline scheme urgently needs to be re-structured.

“Social care work is well-known to be demanding, and the nature of the work makes it hard for anyone to predict accurately whether it will suit them before they start. Anyone can see how hopeful and idealistic young graduates may well find their expectations about social work do not match reality. As such, Frontline must anticipate that their drop-out rate will be higher than for many other graduate programmes. This should be factored in to their planning and costs. There should also be a cooling-off period to allow participants to change their mind if they discover they are not suited to this work.

“We have asked Frontline to scrap this two-year exit policy policy immediately, and release all unhappy participants from the scheme, with no charge. It is unacceptable that a government-backed scheme is telling graduates that their two options are to pay up to 10 grand, or tough out two years of harrowing work.”


SEE FOR YOURSELF Here are the emails between Graduate Fog and Frontline:

TO: Frontline
FROM: Graduate Fog
SUBJECT: Press enquiry about unhappy Frontline graduates
DATE: 22 August 2018

I run the careers blog Graduate Fog.

I am writing to express serious concerns about Frontline, having heard multiple stories from graduates who say they wish to leave your scheme but feel trapped and miserable as they are told they must pay up to £10,000 to be released from their contract of employment.

I would be grateful if you could answer the following questions:

What exactly are these costs for, and how are they calculated?

Is it true that some graduates are being told to pay up to £10,000?

Is it true that they are sometimes given as little as 14 days to do so?

What happens to those who leave but are unable to pay back the amount you claim they owe, or who simply refuse to pay it?

For those who do make a payment, where does the recouped money go?

Does Frontline feel it takes adequate steps to ensure those who enroll on the scheme are fully aware that they will be unable to leave unless they pay this large sum?

Is Frontline not concerned that such a high sum effectively locks young people in jobs where they are miserable, especially those without access to financial support from their family?

Is Frontline not concerned that young people from poorer backgrounds will be put off from applying to this scheme because of this policy?

Is Frontline confident that it is behaving ethically and legally in respect to its conduct with participants on this scheme? What would you say to the suggestion that Frontline is failing in its duty of care to the young people it employs?

I look forward to hearing from you.


They replied:

TO Graduate Fog
FROM: Frontline

Frontline is committed to transforming the lives of the most vulnerable children and families by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals to be social workers, with the support of local authority partners.

All participants commit to completing the full two years of the university-accredited social work programme upon signing their offer letter. If a participant decides to break this commitment, we ask for them to pay a small contribution towards their training fees, which is clearly stated in their offer letter.

As is the case when a student withdraws from a university course, this reimbursement goes towards the cost of their learning and development up to the point that they’ve decided the profession’s no longer for them. In the event that these costs are recouped, participants would receive a payment plan to ensure that payments are made in easy-to-manage instalments.

Before seeking reimbursement of the costs, we are willing to take into account any extenuating circumstances, including ill-health, which may result in a participant needing to leave the programme.

We replied:

TO: Frontline
FROM: Graduate Fog

We corresponded towards the end of August over the subject of Frontline charging graduates £10,000 if they wish to leave the scheme in less than two years. At the time, you described this as ‘a small contribution’ towards their training costs, and insisted this policy was clearly outlined to those starting on the scheme.

Since then, I have heard several even more disturbing and harrowing stories from current Frontline participants, all of whom say their mental and physical health are rapidly declining as a result of being “trapped” on this scheme.

Because they cannot afford to pay back the £10,000 you claim they owe, even in installments, they simply cannot afford to leave. They are overworked, burned out, having nightmares and being put on antidepressants by their GPs. Some have refused to take these, in the hope that they will have a breakdown, as they’ve heard that Frontline occasionally makes exceptions in those cases, and they may be let off from having to pay they money you say they owe.

Although you are correct in saying that this £10,000 charge is detailed in the contract, it seems clear that this is inappropriate and insufficient, given the circumstances. The graduates say nobody stated this policy clearly to them verbally, and you never suggested they sought legal advice before signing the contract. Also, it would be predictable that enthusiastic young graduates wouldn’t give much thought to the idea of quitting the scheme before they’d started, it could be argued that you are taking advantage of their youthful naivity and optimism. The few who said they were concerned about this policy in the contract were afraid to ask for clarification in case it made them appear to Frontline that they were not committed to the scheme or a career in social care.

In my role running Graduate Fog for the last nine years, I have heard hundreds of troubling stories from young workers – but what I’m hearing from Frontline participants is by far the most disturbing.

It is spine-chilling that a government-backed graduate scheme is effectively chaining young workers to harrowing and distressing work that has a detrimental impact on their health and well-being. It appears you are effectively threatening to fine them if they leave. Whatever you say, it is clear to me that something is very, very wrong here.

At this point, I am not interested in what the Frontline contract says or doesn’t say – as I think we have gone beyond that discussion. I would simply like to hear what you have to say about what I have written above, and how you can possibly justify putting Frontline’s young participants through such an ordeal.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Frontline sent this reply:

TO: Graduate Fog
FROM: Frontline

Please find a response below from Frontline to your latest email. As previously mentioned, we’d be happy to arrange for you to speak to someone within the organisation to discuss this further.

We understand that the very nature of social work, working with the most vulnerable children and families, is challenging. To support our participants as they start out in this tough but rewarding career, we place great emphasis on pastoral care. We offer counselling at our Summer Institute and a range of professional support throughout the two-year programme, including qualified coaches in the second year.

The majority of our funding comes from the Department for Education. As this comes from public funds we have a duty to spend with care. This means balancing the needs of participants with our responsibilities to taxpayers. As with all of our policies, we sought legal advice on the recuperation of fees.  

Since 2016 we have requested part-repayment of fees from eight participants who have chosen to leave the Frontline programme prematurely. We take the wellbeing of those on our programmes seriously, which is why before seeking reimbursement we always discuss and take into account any extenuating circumstances they may be facing. These have included mental health and a change in responsibilities outside of work.

Best wishes,

Graduate Fog will now contact Lord Adonis and Frank Field MP regarding this story. We will keep you posted as and when they respond…

Are exit fees unfair – or is it reasonable to demand £10,000 from those who have changed their minds? Have your say below…

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap