Social Work Careers
Thinking about a career in social work? Read our FAQ to find out more.
- What is social work?
- What is a social worker?
- Why become a social worker?
- Social work courses
- Bursaries/financial help
- Children’s services/adults services
- Social work salaries
- Continued professional development
What is social work?
Social work is a profession that is centred around people - from babies through to older people. The profession works to protect vulnerable people, enhance relationships and help families to stay together where possible and enable people to live fulfilled lives as independently as possible. The profession works closely with other professions such as education, health and probation services.
Social workers work in a variety of organisations. Many work for local authorities in departments that provide services for children or adults. Some work in NHS Trusts and many others work in the voluntary and private sector. A new development is the creation of social enterprises, whereby social workers set up their own company and contract for work.
What is a social worker?
Social workers work with individuals and families to help improve outcomes in their lives. This may be helping to protect vulnerable people from harm or abuse or supporting people to live independently. Social workers support people, act as advocates and direct people to the services they may require. Social workers often work in multi-disciplinary teams alongside health and education professionals.
Registered as a social worker
To be a practicing social worker social workers must be registered. Each of the four UK countries has a different regulator. For England it is the Health Care Professions Council, for Wales the Care Council for Wales; for Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Social Care Council and for Scotland the Scottish Social Services Council. The Councils are set up to protect the public. Social workers have to agree to adhere to a professional code of practice. Those social workers who do not adhere to the codes of practice face a conduct hearing and could be struck off the register and not allowed to practice as a social worker. This ensures that people using social work can have faith in the professionals entrusted to work with them.
Social workers work with a variety of people including:
- Vulnerable older people
- Children with disabilities
- Teenagers with mental health problems
- Young offenders
- Adults with learning disabilities
- Adults with a mental health problem
- Adults with a physical ability
- People with alcohol, drug or other addictions
- Refugees and asylum seekers
- People who are socially excluded
- Families where there is a risk of family breakdown
- Children who need to live apart from their families
- Foster carers and adopters
- People, including children who are at risk of abuse or neglect, or have been abused and neglected
Social workers usually have a ‘caseload’ – a number of cases of individuals/families who they work with at any one time. Their work entails visits to service users, assessments, organising packages of support, making recommendations or referrals to other services and agencies, keeping detailed records and participating in multi-disciplinary team meetings. Social workers also provide support and information and use their skills in relationship work. Click here for further info on caseloads.
Why become a social worker?
Many people go into social work because they want to ‘make a difference’. They want to work with people and help them to access services they may need. People wanting to be social workers need to be able to manage a sometimes heavy workload and manage their time effectively. They also need to keep effective notes on their cases for other professionals to be able to access and understand for the best outcomes of the service user.
Social work can be emotionally demanding and it is important that anyone interested in becoming a social worker understands that. Dealing with other people’s pain and suffering is demanding. Social workers need to be resilient and know how to get support themselves and use that support effectively.
Social work degree
Social workers are trained and qualified with a Degree in Social Work, (formerly a Diploma of Social Work) or a Masters in Social Work. The three-year social work degree was put in place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in September 2004. The Scottish government introduced a four year degree. The degree programmes replaced the two-year Diploma in Social Work with the aim of raising standards of practice in social work and boosting the profession.
People wanting to undertake the social work degree need to show that they have an understanding of social work and will need some experience of social work or social care prior to studying. This experience can be achieved through paid-for work, voluntary work, work placements, life experience (some people may have been a full-time carer to a friend or relative at home – see section on carers, in our FAQ’s, below, which has given them an insight into social work) or volunteering. It is also possible to study while you work (see section on part-time studying).
On the degree course, you will learn about the role of social work and the variety of legislation which is applicable to social work, ethics and values. There is a big emphasis on practical learning and a 200-day placement is part of the course in order for you to put your theoretical learning into practice.
Social workers need skills in problem-solving, communication, working with others and patience. On the course you will learn about law, partnership working, assessment, intervention, mental health and disability issues.
The entry requirement for each course differs, so you need to research what the minimum requirement for the course is at each higher education institution and in each UK country. As a rule of thumb in England you will need minimum 5 GCSE’s grade A* to C, including English and Maths, and 2 A-levels. The Social Work Reform Board Recommendation in England is for a minimum of 240 UCAS points.
In Scotland, the minimum entry criteria for the degree tends to be 4 Highers and in Northern Ireland, 3 B-Grade A-levels or higher.
The Open University www.open.ac.uk run social work programmes. You can study social work at your own pace and continue to work. However, they do not find social work placements for you so you would need to find someone to sponsor you in order to become a Social worker. This way forward is ideal if you are working in the field of social care already as a care worker or family support worker for example.
Post graduate Masters degree
If you have a degree in a different subject, some universities offer a shorter post-graduate course leading to a Master’s Degree which will allow you to practise social work. The Master’s degree is usually two years long and so people on the course go on to their practice placement fairly soon into their course. It is therefore vital that people undertaking the course have a good understanding of what social work entails.
It is possible to study part-time for a social work degree while you are working. However, it is important to remember that entry requirements must still be met and the practice placement must still be completed so employers need to be aware of this prior to embarking on the course to make sure they are happy with the arrangement. It is therefore easier to study part-time if you are already working in the social work field. You may also be able to apply for a specific sponsorship of trainee scheme with a local authority or voluntary organisation.
Social work courses
There are plans to change the social work degree from 2013 onwards. There will be an update shortly on what the proposed changes will mean for those wishing to apply to social work courses. For now, however, please follow the links below:
- Find your course in England (or follow this link instead)
- Scottish Social Services Council approved courses
- Approved training courses in Northern Ireland
- Approved courses in Wales
The Assessed and Supported Year of Employment (ASYE) was a recommendation of the Social Work Reform Board (SWRB). The ASYE followed on from a previous scheme called NQSW. The ASYE is designed to support social workers who have recently qualified improve and develop their practice. There is a lot of information about ASYE available on the Skills for Care web site and the Department of Education web site. The Skills for Care site provides information for qualified social workers working, or wanting to work in adult services and the Department of Education web site information for those wanting to work or working in children’s services. Skills for Care also have regional offices – look at the Skills for Care web site for your nearest regional office. Because there is so much information contained on the above sites the following questions and answers are designed to highlight key aspects of ASYE, based on questions that BASW members have raised with the BASW England team.View Questions & Answers
The NHS Business Services Authority administers bursaries for healthcare and social work students on behalf of the Department of Health. Find out more information and details about eligibility, click here.
The Skills for Care website also offers information on funding and bursaries.
Information about the Social Work Bursary Scheme in Wales can be found here.
There is also information about planning for funding education here.
For more information about student loans click here.
BASW’s Social Workers’ Educational Trust provides small grants to qualified social workers wishing to undertake post-qualifying training. Please click here for further information.
Children's services / adults services / local authorities
Under the Children Act 2004, there was a requirement in England for a Children’s Services Director to be created. This meant that social services split from having responsibility for children’s and adults’ services to children’s services aligned with education, and adults’ services aligned typically with health services. A Director of Children’s Services heads the children’s department and a Director of Adults’ Services heads the adults’ services department and therefore has overall responsibility for this area.
Social workers tend to specialise in either children’s or adults’ services.
If you are working in children’s services, you may have a role:
- Working with children in care (also known as looked-after children – children who are in local authority care)
- Helping children with the transition from being in care to living independently
- Working with young offenders who may have broken the law
- Providing support to families to keep them living together
- Assisting families where children are avoiding school or truanting
- Managing adoption or fostering processes
If you are working in adults’ services you may have a role:
- Working with people with mental health problems
- Working with people with learning disabilities
- Working in residential care
- Supporting adults who have offended, supervising them in the community or helping with resettlement
- Assisting people with HIV or Aids
- Supporting vulnerable older people to live independently
In Scotland, a social work graduate can work in general frontline services or can choose to specialise in:
- Children and families
- Community care
- Criminal justice
- Mental health
In Wales, on completing the social work degree, it is possible to specialise in a certain area such as:
- Mental health
- Older people
- Drugs and alcohol work.
In Northern Ireland, job opportunities include working in a variety of settings with a wide range of people. This includes:
- Older people
- People with acute or terminal illness
- People with physical or learning disabilities
- People with visual or hearing impairments
- Families and children or young people
- People with mental ill health
- People who are homeless
- People with alcohol and/or drugs dependency
- People who have offended or been affected by crime
Social work salaries
There are no fixed salaries as each employer would negotiate on a salary. However, newly qualified social workers could expect to earn £22,000 per annum and this could rise up to £40,000 per annum as you take on additional tasks, gain responsibilities and experience.
These figures would be higher in London where the cost of living is higher.
The salaries are usually advertised alongside the post but it is worth checking with your employer, who can also advise you on any benefits such as pensions and paid annual leave.
Salaries range between settings, sector and area. It is useful to look at BASW Jobs or job advertisements in The Guardian Online to see what jobs at your level are being advertised at. You could also look at individual council websites which advertise their jobs.
There are salary trackers which can be found on the internet but BASW cannot be responsible for information on external websites.
Continued professional development
All social workers need to be registered with a Care Council. To maintain high standards in social work, social workers need to re-register every three years and complete post-registration training and learning to meet the criteria of re-registration.
In England the Health and Care Professions Council will carry out audits of a certain number of registrants to establish whether their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is sufficient to support their continued registration. When social workers initially renew their registration with the HCPC in November 2012, this process will not include an audit of your PRTL/CPD, however, since the body is new to regulating the social work profession. Looking ahead, it is very important that you maintain this as part of your professional development and for future renewal with the HCPC.
The HCPC defines continuing professional development (CPD) as ‘a range of learning activities through which health professionals maintain and develop throughout their career to ensure that they retain their capacity to practice safely, effectively and legally within their evolving scope of practice’. Put simply, CPD is the way professionals continue to learn and develop throughout their careers so they keep their skills and knowledge up to date and are able to work safely, legally and effectively.
The HCPC has a set of CPD standards which say registrants must:
- Maintain a continuous, up-to-date and accurate record of their CPD activities;
- Demonstrate that their CPD activities are a mixture of learning activities relevant to current or future practice;
- Seek to ensure that their CPD has contributed to the quality of their practice and service delivery;
- Seek to ensure that their CPD benefits the service user; and
- Upon request, present a written profile (which must be their own work and supported by evidence) explaining how they have met the standards for CPD.
In Scotland, the SSSC states that:
- Within the period of registration, 15 days of learning including study, seminars, training courses, teaching, reading or any other activity which could constitute as learning need to be completed.
- At least five of these days need to be spent working effectively with colleagues to identify, assess and manage risk to vulnerable groups
- Every social worker registered needs to keep records of the PRTL undertaken
- Failure to meet the PRTL requirements ma be considered misconduct by the Council
In Wales, the Care Council for Wales states that
- Within the three years period of registration, all registrants are required to complete 15 days of PRTL
Details of how to log your PRTL and how to re-register can be found here
In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council states that:
- In order to maintain registration you must do 90 hours of training and learning over the three year registration period. Guidance and recommended recording forms are available from the Information for Registrants section of the NISCC website
- The 90 hours could include seminars, training, reading, courses, teaching or other relevant activities
Is social work the same as social care?
No but there are similarities. To practise as a social worker, you need a degree in social work and you need to be registered with the relevant care standards council.
What is a carer?
The term carer can lead to confusion. Sometimes it is used to refer to a family member or friend who provides care on an unpaid basis. It is helpful to use the term family and friends carers. Sometimes the word carer is used to refer to someone who works in social care and is a paid carer but it is useful to use the term ‘paid carer’.
To find out more about carers, go to Carers UK
What is a social work agency?
A social work agency is a recruitment agency which specialises in social work vacancies and matches social workers looking for work with suitable positions. Those people working through an agency take on short-term contracts so it gives them a wide range of jobs in various settings in a short space of time – useful if they want help deciding which area to specialise in. However, working on a short-term contract as an agency worker makes it more difficult to have the same amount of influence at work as employed members of staff and you may not have the same rights.
Where could I gain experience to become a social worker?
Social work is to some extent a vocational career so it helps if you are interested in people and have an understanding that we can all have difficulties in our lives and need some support along with a commitment to social justice. If you do not have any experience of this sort of work (which could include helping out at a youth club, getting involved with an advice service or Victim Support or any voluntary agency helping people), it would be good to do this to test the vocation as it were.
You can find a wealth of information about social care here
You would need to look for jobs on a variety of web sites and local newspapers. Most jobs are in the private or voluntary sector. For non-qualified social care work local newspapers can still be the best source for finding work.
Will I get any support as a newly qualified social worker?
In England, newly qualified social workers should get a reduced caseload and additional support from their managers.
...In Scotland and Wales
Newly qualified workers in Scotland and Wales are encouraged to use post registration training and learning to help them with their practice. That is one of the reasons that the Scottish Social Services Council insists that five days of PRTL are spent working effectively with colleagues.
...In Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, once social work students have successfully completed their degree course, they are required to complete an Assessed Year in Employment (AYE) as part of continuing registration requirements where they are supervised by a registered qualified social worker. This is to ensure newly qualified social workers have made the successful transition from student to employee and can demonstrate competence in the workplace. It also gives newly qualified social workers the additional support they may need.
I qualified as a social worker abroad and would now like to work in the UK, how do I re-register?
You will need to register yourself and your qualifications to practise with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) www.hcpc-uk.org
Once you have registered it is a good idea to contact local authorities and social work agencies. You can find out details of local authorities from their websites. For example, if you wanted to work in Birmingham you would go to the website www.birmingham.gov.uk
I am interested in returning to social work having taken a few years out to raise my family. Is there any help available?
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Should you require more information about returning to work, you can contact your BASW country office.
You can also contact your country's Care Council:
- Health and Care Professions Council
- Care Council for Wales
- Scottish Social Services Council
- Northern Ireland Social Care Council
Can I study in the UK as I live overseas?
You need to register with the one of the Care Councils in the part of the UK you wish to study in and they will be able to provide you with further guidance.
- Health and Care Professions Council (England)
- Care Council for Wales
- Scottish Social Services Council
- Northern Ireland Social Care Council
I have a criminal conviction; can I still get a career in social work?
It is difficult to advise in detail without knowing the details of your criminal record and also the different areas of social work that you want to pursue. As a general rule unless an offence was against a child or vulnerable adult then future employers and the HPC would unlikely rule you out of entering social work. It might be worth checking directly with the HPC www.hpc-uk.org to see if they can advise you as to whether your offence(s) would likely to bar you from entry into social work.
Having a criminal record is not always a bar to entry and indeed there are areas of social work where experience of the system can be looked on favourably – for example, working in criminal justice or drugs and alcohol services.
Is there a union to protect the rights of social workers?
Yes, the Social Workers Union. Launched by BASW as an arms-length organisation, membership of the Social Workers Union costs nothing for BASW members. If you are already a BASW member, you can opt-in to SWU today for no cost, and if you aren’t a BASW member, you can join today and opt-in to SWU for no additional charge.
BASW members also have access to the Advice and Representation Service. This service is unique, in that members receive advice and representation from qualified social workers, with specialist employment law training.
If you have any more queries or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org