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April 2019

Independent evaluation of the Think Ahead programme draws positive conclusions

Durham University and the University of Bristol have today published their independent evaluation of the Think Ahead programme, containing a raft of positive findings and concluding that the programme is “worthy of continued support and further development”.

The evaluation followed the first cohort of Think Ahead participants, who completed our two-year programme in September 2018, and concludes that our programme was successful in achieving the objectives we set out to accomplish. In particular, the report highlights that we have:

  • Recruited and inducted “a cohort of highly capable and committed practitioners into mental health social work”.
  • Developed and implemented an effective model for training them and provided “a robust preparation” for the practice environment.
  • Ensured that they stay in the workforce as “highly valued” practitioners.

This matches the feedback from a recent survey – included in our Impact Update – in which 81% of our partner organisations rated the Think Ahead model as more effective than other training routes at developing trainees to become great mental health social workers.

Yet, despite these achievements, we commissioned the evaluation not just to see what went well but, importantly, where we can still improve. Since the evaluation focused on our first cohort, we have already been able to address many of the recommendations it makes – for example, by changing the venue of our Summer Institute for subsequent cohorts and by overhauling the leadership development aspects of our programme. However, we are committed to continually improving the programme, and we will examine the report carefully for further opportunities.

Our evaluation team recognises the great ambition and notable achievements of the Think Ahead programme.

Roger Smith, Professor of Social Work at Durham University

In response to the report, our Co-Chief Executive Ella Joseph said: “We’re very pleased with the outcome of this first independent evaluation of our programme. It clearly reaffirms the effectiveness of our approach and shows that the work we have done so far, in collaboration with our participants, partners and everyone else who has supported our programme to date, has really paid off.

“We commissioned the evaluation because we wanted to ensure that our approach was effective and evidence-based from the start. We’re delighted with this assessment that since we launched, our programme has been successful in recruiting and training talented mental health social workers, and making a positive impact in community mental health services across the country.”

Roger Smith, Professor of Social Work at Durham University, said: “Our evaluation team recognises the great ambition and notable achievements of the Think Ahead programme. We were able to observe the commitment of all those involved to implement real innovations in the education of social work professionals, in preparation for the demands of practice in mental health services. Think Ahead seeks to change thinking about mental health social work, as well as preparing skilled practitioners for this role. As well as having a demonstrably positive effect on practitioner development, Think Ahead has clearly influenced the wider practice environment for the better in some cases.”

Professor Martin Webber, Think Ahead Academic Lead from the University of York, said: “Having been involved in Think Ahead’s work from the very beginning, I am very proud of what we have achieved over the past three years.

“The report confirms that the curriculum, which we developed and delivered in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire, has succeeded in turning participants into highly valued social work practitioners who can use social interventions in mental health services. I’m particularly pleased that the focus we placed on incorporating service user voices into our teaching is seen as extremely valued and effective.”

The report lists nine key findings:

  1. The Think Ahead programme has demonstrated the capacity to recruit and induct a cohort of highly capable and committed practitioners into mental health social work.
  2. Completion rates were high, and on qualification participants were viewed as highly valued recruits to the workforce.
  3. The programme model, combining an intensive preparation phase, followed by a sustained period of integrated practice-based learning, has provided a robust preparation for those moving into this specialist area of social work practice.
  4. The partnership model established to host participants is able to provide an effective framework for programme delivery, achieving ‘buy in’ from agency partners and practitioners.
  5. The ‘student unit’ model for supporting practice-based learning, with a dedicated Consultant Social Worker, works well in providing a rich, collaborative learning experience.
  6. The embedded engagement of service users in programme delivery was highly valued by participants, and enhanced commitment to social work values.
  7. The programme was observed to be intensive and highly demanding, as might be expected of fast track programmes of this nature.
  8. Where preparations were sound, the partnership model worked well; but where systems were not robust or there were key personnel changes, the quality of the learning experience was jeopardised.
  9. As perhaps could be expected with the first iteration of the programme, there was evidence of some organisational and delivery problems, such as the consistent engagement of service user interests, the problematic venue for the delivery of the initial six-week learning bloc, and the quality of some of the teaching days to support the practice learning experience.

You can find the full report on Durham University’s website.

Read the full report