This post was originally published in May 2016, but has been updated in December 2020 to reflect changes since then.
Social work: an amazing profession where you can really notice the difference you make on a day to day basis. But how do you become a social worker?
1. Do your research
A degree qualification is a must but there are several routes you can take. You can study a full time undergraduate degree in social work which can take 3 to 4 years to complete as a student.
In addition, some local authorities partner up with their local university to offer a part time social work degree while you work for the local authority in a social care setting.
This can take up to 6 years to achieve, but can save on costs as the local authority may sponsor your degree and pay you to work, thus significantly reducing your student debt.
It’s worth a chat with your local authority to see what they offer.
Alternatively, if you’ve already studied an undergraduate degree in a non-related subject e.g. art history, geography etc., you can then take a two-year full time postgraduate degree in social work to allow you to swap careers into this field or you can study part-time while working for a local authority in a social care role.
It's now also possible to qualify through a social work degree apprenticeship.
Taking approximately 36 months, apprentices gain an Honours degree in Social Work on completion, allowing you to register with Social Work England, the new regulator for social workers.
Apprentices on the scheme earn while they learn as they undergo a mixture of on-the-job training and university study, with a minimum of 20% of an apprentice's paid working hours spent in off-the-job training.
The great thing about degree apprenticeships is that you can qualify into a graduate role without having to pay tuition fees or incur any student debt.
Degree apprentices receive at least the National Minimum Wage, currently £6.15 for 18-20 year olds, although employers have the freedom to pay considerably more.
2. Choose a university
Many universities offer social work degrees and it can be hard to decide which one to choose.
According to The Complete University Guide's Subject Tables 2020, the top universities for social work degrees are:
- University of Edinburgh
- University of Nottingham
- University of Stirling
- Lancaster University
- University of Birmingham
- University of East Anglia
- Queen's University Belfast
- Robert Gordon University
- University of York
- Glasgow Calendonian University
You can look for other social work courses via UCAS, using their search tool.
3. Choose a course
Once you have found programmes that you like the look of, you'll then you’ll need to find the time to research and visit the individual university to discover the course that best suits you.
Entry requirements for an undergraduate social work degree are varied as no particular subjects are required at level 3 (A-level or equivalent), but A-levels in psychology, sociology and law or a level 3/4 vocational qualification in health and social care should give you a head start on gaining a place on your undergraduate course. You will however need at least 5 GCSEs including English, maths and a science as well.
Social work degrees are distinctly practical affairs, with over 200 days of work placements in a variety of settings to give you experience in as many areas of social work as possible.
From residential homes, refugee/asylum seeker centres and hospitals to people’s own homes, children’s care homes and adoption and fostering centres.
Social work degrees can also focus on homelessness, physical and learning disabilities, mental health issues and drug, alcohol and substance use with people of all ages from babies and teenagers to adults and elderly people.
As social workers can be on call at night or working as part of a 24-hour service team in a health centre, your work placement will not be in a 9 to 5 office environment.
4. Investigate funding
The good news is that you may be eligible for funding for your social work degree (undergraduate or postgraduate) either through your employer or as a bursary through the NHS.
It’s worth noting there are 2 types of bursaries; social work bursaries where your degree is 100% social work and NHS bursaries if it’s a joint social work degree with nursing or an equivalent subject.
These bursaries can support both your course fees and your living costs and although the bursary won’t cover 100% of your costs it should reduce your student debt considerably. You can then apply to Student Finance England for further financial support just like other students.
Once you complete your undergraduate degree you will still need to complete your first 12 months in work with the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) and continue with annual CPD (Continuing Professional Development) to keep your skills and knowledge current.
5. Work on your skills
To become a successful social worker you'll need to have good skills in the following areas:
- Active listening - this means paying attention to and remembering what others tell you and demonstrating this through appropriate body language and responses. It's not only essential to collecting client information but also to establishing trust.
- Setting boundaries - the nature of the work means it's easy to get emotionally invested in cases. Setting boundaries ensures that professional lines aren't crossed and keeps you focused on the end goal.
- Critical thinking - being able to think on your feet enables you to make important decisions and solve complex problems based on your knowledge, understanding and analysis of a case.
- Communication - both written and verbal are important here. Social workers need to communicate with a variety of people in a number of different ways, be this talking to clients face-to-face or over the phone, presenting cases to colleagues or making written referrals. All communication must be clear and accurate so your colleagues can understand the information.
- Interpersonal/social skills - social work is all about building relationships with clients so you need to be able to work with people from all backgrounds
- IT - you'll need to keep up-to-date, accurate records of all cases and complete a substantial amount of paperwork, so proficiency with computers is a must.
- Organisation - social workers have to juggle a heavy caseload and liaise with other agencies on a daily basis so organisational skills are vital. Organisational ability also enables social workers to cope under pressure and prioritise their cases accordingly.
- Resilience - the work is emotionally challenging and you'll likely have to deal with individuals and families in crisis on a regular basis. Resilience and the ability to look after your own emotional needs are imperative to succeeding in the job.
6. Apply for relevant work experience
You're unlikely to get onto a Masters course, fast-track programme or secure a job without significant work experience.
Organising a period of work shadowing alongside a qualified social worker may be difficult due to heavy caseloads and the sensitive and confidential nature of their work, however you could try contacting your local authority social services department to explain your situation and enquire about opportunities. If you know a professional social worker now's the time to take advantage of your contacts.
One of the best ways to gain experience of working with children, families and vulnerable groups is through volunteering.
Taking on a voluntary position demonstrates your commitment to social work and is an excellent way to build useful contacts and gain experience in dealing with individuals, groups and families. There are a variety of opportunities on offer - for example, if you'd like to work with children you could volunteer in schools, summer camps, youth clubs and local sports teams.
Volunteering with victim support organisations, homeless shelters and mental health charities such as Mind provides valuable experience for those hoping to work with vulnerable groups. For volunteering positions, look to:
To develop your communication and active listening skills you could volunteer as a phone line counsellor for charities such as Childline, Nightline or the Samaritans. You could also get involved in more wide-ranging community projects at advice centres, community centres and churches.
Paid work is also relevant, especially if it's in a caring capacity and can help to develop your leadership and management skills. Jobs in day care centres, schools and care homes will be particularly useful.
The Princes Trust offers 70-day student social work placements to those undertaking a social work degree at undergraduate or Masters level. The placements give students first-hand experience of supporting those aged between 16 and 25 with issues relating to education, emotional wellbeing, abuse, housing or finances.
7. Look for a position
In September 2019 there were 96,618 social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in England. Once you've gained the appropriate qualifications and experience you could become one of them.
Fast-track training schemes and apprenticeships often lead directly into full-time employment, but if you didn't qualify through these routes you can find social worker vacancies by:
- Searching online - check local authority and council websites, NHS Jobs for careers in NHS trusts and the job pages of charitable organisations you're interested in working for.
- Using your contacts - make use of social media channels such as LinkedIn and Twitter and your university alumni network to let contacts know that you're looking for a job in social work.
- Joining professional bodies - apply for membership of The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which will open up a variety of opportunities. You can search for vacancies and attend conferences and networking events.
- Signing up to an agency - social work agencies such as: Liquid Personnel, Sanctuary Personnel, Caritas and Seven Resourcing are recruitment agencies that specialise in social work roles. Gaining work through an agency means you'll likely work on short-term contracts, providing experience in a range of settings, standing you in better stead for getting a permenant role later on.
Once you've secured that all-important job interview, see our social work interview questions to find out how to get ahead.
For more help and advice on getting into social work as a career, and the responsibilities involved, check out these online resources:
- Social Work Careers
- National Careers Service
- Health Careers - Social Worker
- Social Worker Job Profile
For more on becoming a social worker, please see:
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