Social Work Careers

Thinking about a career in social work? Read our FAQ to find out more.

What is social work?

Social work is a profession that is centred around people - from babies through to older people. The BASW Code of Ethics defines social work using the international definition of social work.

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.


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, or work with others to contract for work.

Registered as a social worker

To be a practicing social worker, social workers must be registered. To be registered you must have a social work degree (either an undergraduate degree in social work, or a masters in social work). Once you have completed your degree you will be eligible to apply to be registered as a social worker with one of the four UK regulators. The regulators exist in order to protect the public by ensuring that only qualified and competent practitioners are allowed to practice as social workers.

Each of the four UK countries has a different regulator. For England it is the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), for Wales the Care Council for Wales, for Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) and for Scotland the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) . 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 can be struck off the register and not allowed to practice as a social worker. This ensures that people using social work services can have faith in the professionals entrusted to work with them.

Social workers work with a variety of people including:

  • 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 substance misuse problems
  • 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
  • Carers

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 crucially use their skills in relationship work.

Post-graduates who have obtained a 2:1 or above in previous studies can apply for a fast-track route into social work whereby you train on the job. Step-up to Social Work and Frontline are for those wishing to get into the field of Children and Families. Please look at the websites for further information.

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 improve their lives. 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 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 difficult. Social workers need to be resilient and know how to get support themselves and use that support effectively.

School or college students

If you are currently studying at a school or college please read our informative leaflet on a career in social work.


Social work degree

Social workers are trained and qualified with a degree in social work (BA), CQSW, DipSW or a master’s degree in social work. People who want 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 work, voluntary work, work placements or life experience. Some people may for example have been a carer to a friend or relative which has given them an insight into social work.

On the degree course, you will learn about the role of social work and the variety of legislation which is applicable to social work, social work theory, research, ethics and values. There is a big emphasis on practical learning and approximately half of the course consists of undertaking work placements in a social work or related setting. This enables students to link academic 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. (Minimum 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 run social work programmes. You can study social work at your own pace and continue to work. However the OU do not find social work placements for you so you would need to find an employer to sponsor you in order to become a social worker (and that is not that easy to achieve). This route maybe useful if you work in the field of social care already.

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 in social work. The Master’s degree is usually two years long and so people on the course go on to their practice placements fairly soon into their course. It is therefore vital that people undertaking the course have a good understanding of what social work entails.

Part-time studying

Some social work degrees enable you to complete the degree over a longer period than usual, for example five years part time. You will need to search the index of social work courses (below) to find out if any part time courses are running.

Joint social work and health degrees

A few universities run a dual social work and nursing degree. Again you will need to search either the lists below or the Internet for joint social work and nursing degrees.

Fast track degrees into social work

If you got a 2:1 and above at undergraduate level or have a wealth of experience you can apply for either Step-up to Social Work or Frontline. Step-Up is an intensive full-time training programme that covers everything trainee social workers need to know in 14 months and is also funded. Frontline is a two year funded full-time training programme benefitting from intensive practical and academic training. Both schemes are for those looking to get into Children and Families.

Post-graduates who have obtained a 2:1 or above in previous studies can apply for a fast-track route into social work whereby you train on the job. Step-up to Social Work and Frontline are for those wishing to get into the field of Children and Families. Think Ahead is a graduate programme for those wanting to become a mental health social worker. Please look at the websites for further information.

Finding a social work course

Please follow the links below to find out about which universities run social work courses:

I have a criminal record; can I still become a social worker?

In order to become a social worker you first have to be accepted onto a degree course in social work. You will have to declare any criminal records that you have and the university will have to decide whether they will admit you if you do have a record. You have to declare all convictions, spent, or not. Minor offences that are not recent will obviously be less of a barrier to entry than more serious crimes and more recent crimes. You are very unlikely to be accepted if you have a conviction against a vulnerable person. It is vital that you are absolutely honest at this stage, because if you are not then you a) could be removed from the course and b) if you are not removed from the course you are likely to face problems when applying for registration, or applying for jobs. There are some specialist social work posts where having been an expert by experience is seen as something positive. For example work in substance abuse teams. If you have drugs related criminal record this may not be a bar for acceptance on a course, but you will need to discuss carefully with the university your offences history.

If you are accepted on a course and you pass it then you will need to apply to be registered with one of the UK councils. Again you will have to declare at that point any criminal record and you maybe turned down if the council feels that you may be a risk to the public. Once you are registered as a social worker then you can apply for social work posts. Each employer will insist on a full declaration of criminal records and will undertake a criminal records search. It is up to each employer to decide whether they will employ you if you have a criminal record.

Post qualifying continuing professional development


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 in England who have recently qualified to improve and develop their practice. This is not a compulsory course. There is a lot of information about ASYE available on the Skills for Care web site and the Department of Education web site. The BASW site provides a summary. 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.

It is a requirement of all social workers in England to take responsibility for their own professional development, with employers also being encouraged to support social workers with this. In England there is no standard post qualifying award structure at present, (apart from specialist mental health social work), but many universities in partnership with employers offer various courses, often at masters level to help social workers develop. BASW offers advice and support, seminars and conferences, as well as opportunities to become involved with various groups in BASW, all of which are of help with maintaining CPD requirements.

PhDs and Masters courses

Some social workers develop their own careers by searching out and undertaking post graduate study of their own accord. The following web sites although generic are useful in terms of listing quite a lot of post graduate courses. They are not comprehensive though, so do use other sources of information.


Wales has a specific programme for all qualified social workers called The Continuing Professional Education and Learning (CPEL) framework. This is compulsory for all newly qualified social workers from 2013. This provides a career framework for social workers from Consolidation, Experienced Practitioner, Senior Social Worker and Consultant Social Worker. A new post qualifying training programme is in development to cover all of these levels, starting with the Consolidation level, which has now been agreed. Employers are expected to support social workers through these programmes, which provide learning and development against standards according to the level being undertaken. For more information please click here.

Bursaries/financial help

The NHS Business Services Authority administers bursaries for healthcare and social work students on behalf of the Department of Health. To find out more information and details about eligibility, click here. The situation regarding student bursaries can change year by year, it is important to read the Department of Health information carefully. For example you may not be eligible for funding if you live in one of the UK countries and apply for a social work degree course in another of the UK countries.

Information about the Social Work Bursary Scheme in Wales can be found here.

For more information about student loans click here.

To find a scholarship click here.

In Scotland, there are funded PhD studentships at the University of Glasgow - Social relationships and health improvement. Click here for more 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 becoming 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.

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)
  • Helping children with the transition from being in care to living independently
  • Working with young offenders
  • Providing support to families to keep them living together
  • Assisting families where children are avoiding school or truanting
  • Managing adoption or fostering processes
  • Assessing and supporting children and families where there are child protection concerns

If you are working in adults’ services you may have a role, among others of:

  • Working with people with mental health problems to lead independent lives
  • Working with people with learning disabilities to lead as independent lives as possible
  • Supporting adults who have offended
  • Assisting people with HIV or Aids
  • Working to promote independence of people with a visual or hearing impairment
  • Working with people who have substance abuse problems
  • Supporting older people to live as independently as possible or to help them with the transition to supported housing or residential care


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:

  • Working with children in care (also known as looked-after children)
  • Helping children with the transition from being in care to living independently
  • Working with young offenders
  • Providing support to families to keep them living together
  • Assisting families where children are avoiding school or truanting
  • Managing adoption or fostering processes
  • Assessing and supporting children and families where there are child protection concerns
  • Working with people with mental health problems to lead independent lives
  • Working with people with learning disabilities to lead as independent lives as possible
  • Supporting adults who have offended
  • Assisting people with HIV or Aids
  • Working to promote independence of people with a visual or hearing impairment
  • Working with people who have substance abuse problems
  • Supporting older people to live as independently as possible or to help them with the transition to supported housing or residential care

Northern Ireland

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 many jobs that employ qualified social workers where the qualification is not a requirement, although many employers are keen to employ social workers because of their expertise and training. These jobs could be in local authorities or in the voluntary or private sector. Salaries vary greatly, but there are some good alternative career routes.

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 two 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. 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
  • 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. BASW is producing some sample profiles for the HCPC


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

Northern Ireland

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

Log details of PRTL

Overseas qualified social workers looking for work in the UK

If you qualifed as a social worker abroad and would now like to work in the UK you will need to register yourself and your qualifications to practise with:

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

Find out more on working as a social worker in the UK here.


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.

For information about careers in adult social care in England go to For the UK go to

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 to distinguish from the use of the word carer to refer to someone who works in social care and is a paid carer. To find out more about family and friends 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 and others 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?

There is a whole range of work or volunteer experience that would help you get onto a social work course. This could include helping out at a youth club, getting involved with an advice service or victim support organisation or any voluntary agency helping people. Social care work is also very relevant experience. Undertaking such work would also give you insight into whether you really are suited for this sort of work.

Do It is a national database of volunteering opportunities. Their website can be found at:

V Inspired connects 16 to 25 year olds with volunteering opportunities in England. Their website can be found at:

To find social care or similar paid or unpaid work you need to look on a variety of web sites and local newspapers. Most jobs are in the private or voluntary sector.

Re-registration with the HCPC

If you have been out of practice you will need to spend some time updating your skills and knowledge and provide evidence of what you have learnt. Between 0-2 years there are no requirements, 2-5 years you will need 30 days and over 5 years you will need to complete 60 days of practice. The HCPC do not specify what a day equates to but please be aware 6-7 hours would account for one day. The updating period can compromise a combination of supervised practice, formal study and private study. Please note that private study should not make up more than the updating period. The remaining period can be made up with any combination of supervised practice and formal study. It is worth contacting your Local Authority and University as they will sometimes run return back to social work courses which would go towards the updating period. Formal study can consist of the following:

  • Distance learning (for example an Open University module)
  • E-learning
  • Relevant CPD courses - please look at the BASW events page
  • Programmes offered by professional bodies
If you wish to incorporate supervised practice into your updating period it would be useful to contact previous employers, charities, voluntary organisations and anywhere else where there is a social worker in post and who would be able to supervise you. You could also try contacting an independent social worker through our directory however you may want to send a few enquiries as their daily rates may differ.

For further information you may wish to download the HCPC’s guide to ‘Returning to Practice’.

Will I get any support as a newly qualified social worker?

...In England

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. Click here for guidance for newly qualified social workers in Wales.

...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 am interested in returning to social work after a few years gap

Generally throughout the UK there are more social workers than there are jobs available. People with continuous experience find it easier to find work than those who have had breaks or are newly qualified. There are things that you can do that will help. You need to demonstrate that you have kept up to date. If you have kept up your registration with the relevant care council it will be helpful, but if not you need to re-apply. You may find it very difficult to step back into a social work role, but if you do then consider some similar roles where a social work role isn’t a requirement. Such a role could provide the recent experience that could help you get back into social work.

It may be helpful to try to get some shadowing experience with a social worker. This is not easy to achieve and you are more likely to find a social worker willing to do this who is someone that you know rather than ask a local authority, or other employer directly. However it is worth trying to see if a local authority would help.

Agencies may also be helpful. They may say that you don’t have the current experience that employers are looking for, but they may be able to place you in a temporary job that requires less current experience. For example in adult services there may be short term work reviewing services. Undertaking such a role for a few months may give you the relevant experience to apply for social work posts. (Local authorities for example often prefer people who understand and are proficient in their computer systems and policies and procedures, the temporary work would enable you demonstrate that you are up to speed in these areas).

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:

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.

Is there a union to protect the rights of social workers?

Yes, the Social Workers Union is a union specifically for social workers. Click here to see the current SWU fees. If you are already a BASW member, you can opt-in to SWU and add it to your subscription, and if you aren’t a BASW member, you can join today and opt-in to SWU.

BASW members also have access to the Advice Service and Regulatory Council representation. This service is unique, in that members receive advice and representation from qualified social workers, with employment law training.

If you have any more queries or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact