Social workers work with people and families to support them through difficult times and ensure that vulnerable people, including children and adults are safeguarded from harm. Their role is to provide support and help in order to improve outcomes in people's lives.

They maintain professional relationships with people, acting as guides and advocates. They sometimes need to use their professional judgment to make tough decisions that might not always be well received by those they are trying to help.

Social workers work in a variety of settings within a framework of relevant legislation and procedures, supporting individuals, families and groups within the community. Settings may include homes or schools, hospitals or the premises of other public sector and voluntary organisations.

Social workers tend to specialise in supporting either children and families, or vulnerable adults.

It can be a challenging role, occasionally receiving a lot of media attention, which can be negative when things go seriously wrong. As a result of this, the government is putting more measures in place to support and develop a strong workforce of social workers. Qualified social work professionals are sometimes supported by social work assistants. They also work closely with other professionals in health and social care.

Social workers can work in both statutory and non-statutory roles. In a statutory position a social worker's role is to adhere to the laws that exist to protect the vulnerable clients that they work with. Social workers have a duty to abide by the legislation and the power to enforce it.

In non-statutory roles social workers still work with a similar client group but are not specifically responsible for enforcing the law. Social workers in non-statutory roles are often employed in the charity sector or in specialist roles, such as providing support for drug and alcohol users, homeless people and people with mental health issues. They can also be employed in early intervention roles that aim to prevent the escalation of problems in society to where statutory services are required.

Responsibilities

Many social workers work with young people and their families. They may work with the following groups:

  • the elderly;
  • people with learning and physical disabilities;
  • young offenders;
  • people with mental health conditions;
  • school non-attenders;
  • drug and alcohol abusers;
  • homeless people.

Government legislation focusing on the integration of health and social work services means that social workers often work in multidisciplinary teams.

Tasks typically involve:

  • conducting interviews with individuals and families to assess and review their situation;
  • undertaking and writing up assessments (sometimes in collaboration with other professionals), which meet specified standards and timescales;
  • offering information and support;
  • organising and managing packages of support to enable people to lead the fullest lives possible;
  • recommending and sometimes making decisions about the best course of action for a particular person or family;
  • liaising with, and making referrals to, other agencies;
  • participating in multidisciplinary teams and meetings regarding, for example, child protection or mental health;
  • maintaining accurate records and preparing reports for legal action;
  • giving evidence in court;
  • participating in training, supervision and team meetings.

More information about a career in social work is provided by Skills for Care, the sector skills council for health and social care professions.

Salary

  • There are no fixed national salary scales but a newly qualified social worker should expect to earn £22,000 per annum. With further responsibilities and experience, this can rise to around £40,000.
  • Social workers for the NHS would typically start on Band 6 of the NHS pay scale, which is £26,041 to £34,876.

Most local authorities would pay travel expenses for journeys made for business purposes. Many local authorities are happy to negotiate flexible working hours and also have family-friendly policies and childcare voucher schemes.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are normally around 37 hours per week. If you work as a residential care social worker, regular unsocial hours are normal practice. Occasional evening and weekend work may be necessary if working in child protection or fostering and adoption teams.

Part-time work, job shares and career breaks are possible.

What to expect

  • The work is office based, but with frequent visits to service users.
  • The sector in which you work and the structure of your organisation will affect how you operate. You may be the main professional working with the client but, increasingly, you will be part of a multidisciplinary team, working alongside other professionals such as therapists, health professionals, the police, legal services and education professionals.
  • Jobs are available in most areas, although this depends on the size of the local population and the particular social work specialism.
  • The nature of social work practice can be both emotionally rewarding and demanding. Working conditions are often under-resourced and heavy caseloads are common.
  • All social workers are entitled to regular supervision sessions with a more experienced member of staff or manager, which allows the social worker to discuss cases they are working on and get support.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent. Absence from home at night is occasional.
  • Overseas work or travel is uncommon, although opportunities to work in developing countries do exist. For example, with organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and with families in the armed forces through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA).

Qualifications

Social work is a graduate profession and you will need either an honours or a postgraduate degree in social work. The degree will need to be approved by one of the four regulators. These include the:

Although the diploma in social work (DipSW) and other previous social work qualifications are still recognised as valid social work qualifications, they are no longer offered to new entrants.

If you have an HND or foundation degree you will require an undergraduate degree in social work, although the following subjects may improve your chances:

  • legal studies;
  • politics, government or public administration;
  • social care;
  • social sciences.

Most undergraduate degrees are full-time courses lasting three years, although there are some part-time courses.

A minimum 2:2 honours degree is needed for entry to the postgraduate professional training. Some universities will only accept applicants with at least a 2:1, so check with each institution. Applicants will also need to have passed GCSE (or recognised equivalent) maths and English at Grade C or above.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate courses cover the same topics and have a strong practical element with over 200 days, (usually six to seven hours a day), of supervised work placements. Approved postgraduate courses are usually full time and last two years, although there are some part-time courses available.

Applications for most courses are made through UCAS. A few part-time postgraduate degrees are available where applications should be made direct to the university. Search for further courses at the HCPC Register of Approved Programmes.

There are different options for training on the job in social work.

Frontline, a new, accelerated, two-year programme for graduates with a focus on leadership development is an innovative opportunity for exceptional people to become qualified social workers and lead change in society.

Frontline participants will work with police, courts, schools, vulnerable children and families as children's social workers. The programme will give participants the opportunity to develop valuable leadership skills to prepare them for influential careers in social work and beyond. It starts with a five-week summer institute, a year of on-the-job training in local authorities, followed by a year as a qualified social worker with the opportunity to study for a Masters.

The Step Up to Social Work programme may be another possibility. It's an alternative, accelerated entry route, which combines work and study. Check the website for details of future student intakes.

Some students may be eligible for a bursary; see NHS Student Bursaries for further details. This can change from year-to-year so you should always check with the institution you are applying to.

Further information on how to train as a social worker is available on Skills for Care and the HCPC website.

You can get specific information on entry requirements and paths to becoming a social worker in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland from the relevant social care workforce regulator:

  • Care Council for Wales;
  • Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC);
  • Scottish Social Services Council.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • patience and the ability to remain calm in a crisis;
  • resilience;
  • flexibility to adapt to new roles, tasks and situations;
  • initiative;
  • strong observation, analytical and listening skills;
  • the capacity to absorb legal and procedural information;
  • the ability to negotiate, mediate and interpret on behalf of service users;
  • good organisational skills to work autonomously and plan meetings for a caseload of clients.

Empathy, combined with a genuine desire to improve the quality of the lives of service users, is essential, as is the ability to think on your feet and make difficult decisions under pressure. An interest or participation in some aspect of your local community is useful. General administrative skills are also needed.

Work experience

You need to have relevant experience in a social work or social care setting before being accepted on to the postgraduate course. Gain as much work experience as possible, either through paid positions in community care settings or by undertaking relevant voluntary work. Some universities specify a minimum amount of time to be spent gaining experience. Details can be found on Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Use the Do-it website or contact Volunteering Matters for details of relevant voluntary work. Your local volunteer bureau may be able to help you find opportunities for work experience.

Employers

Social workers are employed by:

  • social service departments of local authorities in England and Wales;
  • social work departments in Scotland;
  • health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland;
  • primary care/health service trusts;
  • GP practices;
  • hospitals and hospices;
  • children's homes;
  • private sector nursing homes;
  • voluntary and independent agencies.

Settings vary depending on the employer. For example, you may be working in a large department with many hundreds of employees or you could be based in a small organisation where you are the only professionally qualified member of staff.

With experience, you may be able to work in a self-employed or freelance capacity and secure work through agencies. There is a growing market for locum social workers, especially if you have child protection experience. It may be possible to offer counselling, therapy or training skills on a freelance basis. Some local authorities and private homes keep a casual relief list.

Local authority social work tends to have better terms and conditions of employment, but voluntary organisations can offer more flexibility. It is possible to transfer from one sector to another once you're qualified. There are promotion possibilities in both sectors, however you may be able to take on more responsibility more quickly in the voluntary sector. In both sectors there are a range of operational, management and policy jobs.

There are increasing numbers of social workers operating as independent practitioners and social enterprises are taking over social services in some areas. Information about this can be found via the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

Look for job vacancies at:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Qualified social workers in England are required to register with the HCPC and more local authorities are implementing a policy that prevents newly qualified social workers from starting work until their HCPC registration has been completed.

Registered social workers are then required to keep their training and learning up to date through continuing professional development (CPD) in order to re-register with the HCPC after an initial two-year period. This can include different sorts of learning, such as reading and attending conferences and training courses.

The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) was launched in September 2012 with the aim of ensuring that newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) receive consistent support in their first year of practice, so that they are able to become confident, competent professionals.

The Social Work Reform Board is implementing the recommendations made by the Social Work Task Force to improve the quality of social work. This is informing a Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) for social workers. The College of Social Work is developing mechanisms and guidance to support this and it's applicable to all social workers in England.

Care Council for Wales is responsible for the Continuing Professional Education and Learning (CPEL) framework for social workers in Wales.

In Northern Ireland, the NISCC provides information about post-qualification training.

In Scotland, registered social workers must take part in continuing professional development (CPD), which can contribute towards a registered worker's Post Registration Training and Learning (PRTL). For more details, see the SSSC.

Social workers also need to develop skills such as ICT, problem solving, communication, teamwork and personal and professional development.

Career prospects

There are many different specialist roles available in social work, once you have completed the appropriate induction and training. These roles include:

  • homelessness officer;
  • day-care social worker;
  • education welfare officer;
  • healthcare social worker;
  • mental health social worker.

Career development may involve a change of role within a specialism, e.g. from child protection to fostering and adoption. It is also possible to transfer from one specialism to another, e.g. from working with children to working with the elderly.

Social work is a profession where promotion is likely to take you away from hands-on work. Three to five years after qualification, it is possible to become a senior practitioner, team or care manager. In this role, you would have responsibility for managing other social workers, (resulting in a reduction in direct contact), and an increasing involvement in managerial, financial and political issues.

Another route is to become a practice educator, which allows you to become involved in the supervision and management of social work students and less experienced staff.

In England, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) are responsible for regulating, auditing and reviewing social care providers. They may also offer opportunities for career development. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland it's the:

  • Care Council for Wales;
  • Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC);
  • Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).

Another option is to move from one sector to another (statutory, voluntary and independent). You could also consider training and lecturing roles or opportunities for project work and secondments.