If you're passionate about making a positive difference to the lives of individuals and families, there are a number of courses on offer to qualify you for a career in social work

Due to changes in the sector, funding cuts and an increased number of people in the care system social service departments are stretched to capacity. As such the demand for qualified social workers is increasing.

Social work, a March 2016 report from Skills for Care, found that the number of enrolments on social work education courses has been steadily declining since 2010/11 and therefore both national and local governments are actively encouraging skilled graduates to consider a career in the field. While undoubtedly challenging, social work can also be incredibly rewarding.

In order to practice as a social worker in the UK you need to be educated to degree level and be registered with one of the four regulating bodies:

  • Care Council for Wales;
  • Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) - England;
  • Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC);
  • Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).

There are a number of available routes into social work from undergraduate study, postgraduate qualifications and specialist training programmes. Find out which one best fits your needs and circumstances.

Social work degree

To enter the profession with an undergraduate degree in England your course must be approved by the HCPC. On first degree courses you'll learn about mental health, disabilities and other issues, the theory of social work, partnership working, ethics and values, and the legislation relevant to the profession. Many programmes are focused on practical learning so you'll be required to undertake at least two work placements in a social work setting as part of the course.

Entry requirements differ between institutions so you'll need to check before applying. For example, to study a BA in social work at the University of Bradford you'll need BBB grades at A-level, while at London Metropolitan University you'll need a minimum of BBC for entry onto their 2017/18 social work programme.

In Scotland you'll usually need four Highers to gain a place on an undergraduate social work course and in Northern Ireland you'll need three B grades at A-level or higher.

The majority of full-time undergraduate degrees take three years to complete. Modules at Bradford include state and society, mental health, working with adults, and service users and carers' perspectives. At London Metropolitan you'll study human growth and development, law for social work practice and protecting children and adults.

To gain a place on many programmes you'll need previous experience of working in a care setting. Experience can be paid or voluntary and may include helping out at a local youth club or care home for the elderly, getting involved with a victim support organisation or advice service or caring for a relative or friend.

Masters in social work

According to the March 2016 Skills for Care report, qualifying leavers aged 24 and over, and those from postgraduate courses, are more likely to find employment in a social work setting than their undergraduate counterparts. If you'd like to build on your undergraduate knowledge or if your first degree is in an unrelated subject, you may want consider a Masters in social work (MSW).

Once again entry requirements for courses vary depending on where you choose to study, but all postgraduate programmes specify the need for substantial social work experience. During the application process you'll be expected to demonstrate a solid understanding of what social work entails and knowledge of current happenings in the industry.

For entry onto the MSW at Sheffield Hallam University you'll need a 2:2 or above in any discipline, while Manchester Metropolitan University asks for a 2:1 with graduates of social science subjects being of particular interest. In exceptional circumstances some institutions may consider candidates without a first degree if they possess extensive professional experience.

MSW generally last two years with a considerable amount of time (usually 170 to 200 days) spent on placement. At Sheffield modules include an introduction to social work, readiness for social work practice, research knowledge, methods and skills and the organisational context of social work. At Manchester you'll cover critical perspectives on society, families and individuals, developing professional practice and social work, safeguarding and inter professional practice.

Search for postgraduate courses in social work.

Some students may be entitled to financial help through an NHS Student Bursary. The Department of Health is responsible for setting the national number of Social Work Bursaries (SWB) and year-by-year this is subject to change so check with the institution that you are applying to before committing to a course.

Frontline graduate scheme

If you're a career changer or a graduate from an unrelated discipline with a desire for a career in social work, a number of organisations provide fast-track training options to help you achieve your goal.

Among these is Frontline, a way into children's social work via a two-year graduate programme. With a focus on leadership development the scheme gives you the opportunity to qualify as a social worker through on-the-job training and academic study.

The programme starts with a five-week Summer Institute where you'll learn all about good social work practice from leading academics. During the first year you'll spend more than 200 days on placement with a local authority child protection team and 46 days studying towards a postgraduate diploma in social work. On completion you'll be able to register with the HCPC as a qualified social worker.

In year two you'll work as a newly qualified social worker, responsible for your own caseload, in your local authority Children's Services Department. You'll be supported by your employer and Frontline to complete the ongoing leadership development programme. You'll also continue your studies and work towards a Masters qualification.

To be eligible for the programme you will need:

  • a 2:1 or higher in your first degree;
  • at least 300 A-level UCAS points;
  • GCSE maths and English at grade C or above;
  • IT literacy and good spoken and written English.

Step Up to Social Work training programme

Alternatively there is the government's Step Up to Social Work initiative - an intensive, full-time training programme covering everything that trainee social workers need to know in just 14 months.

The course covers areas such as social work ethics and practice, child development, assessment of risk and the legal framework surrounding social work. Trainees receive a £19,000 bursary for the duration of the course.

Eligibility criteria are subject to change so check the website for the latest entry requirements. In 2015 applicants needed a minimum 2:1 qualification, or a 2:2 first degree followed by a Masters or Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). They also needed GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or above, the right to remain and work in the UK and demonstrable experience working with children, young people and families.

Think Ahead graduate programme

Another option is the Think Ahead programme, a new route into social work, which aims to train mental health social workers within two years.

The scheme starts with a six-week Summer Institute where you'll gain an understanding of the different approaches to mental health social work. In your first year you'll receive a tax-free training bursary of £16,000 (£18,000 within London) and work alongside other Think Ahead participants in children and family services, child and adolescent services and forensic services teams under the supervision of an experienced consultant social worker. By the end of your first year you'll have gained a postgraduate diploma in social work and will be qualified to register with the HCPC.

In year two you'll work more independently as a newly qualified social worker on a 12-month contract in a mental health setting within your local NHS Trust or local authority. Salaries will vary depending on your location and employer but are typically in the region of £21,000 to £26,000. You'll also continue your academic studies as you work towards a Masters degree in social work.

For a place on the scheme you'll need the right to work in the UK. Necessary qualifications include GCSEs in maths and English at grade C or above, and a 2:1 undergraduate degree in any subject other than social work.

Applications are made online. If successful you'll take a series of online tests and attend an assessment centre before being offered a place on the programme.

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