If you'd like a challenging but worthwhile career protecting vulnerable people and making a positive difference to the lives of children, adults and families there are a variety of social work courses on offer in this field

Social services departments are currently stretched to capacity due to funding cuts, a decreasing number of students enrolling on social work courses and an increase in the amount of people in the care system. As a result, employers are crying out for qualified and experienced social workers.

There are a number of ways to qualify as a social worker, from undergraduate social work degrees and Masters in Social Work (MSW), to fast-track training programmes. Find out which route best fits your circumstances.

Social work degree

In order to practice as a social worker in the UK you need to be educated to at least undergraduate 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).

On first degree social work 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 BA 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, for instance, 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 work 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.

Find out what you can do with a degree in social work.

Masters in Social Work (MSW)

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 an 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’s generally last two years with a considerable amount of time (usually 170 to 200 days) spent on placement. At Sheffield Hallam 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.

Financial help is available to students on both undergraduate and postgraduate social work courses

Social Work Bursaries

Financial help is available to students on both undergraduate and postgraduate social work courses, in the form of Social Work Bursaries, supplied by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA).

Social Work Bursaries are non-repayable and can be used to help with study and living costs. They are capped so there's only a limited number available. If you're eligible and manage to secure a bursary it'll be paid directly into your bank account.

Undergraduates can apply for a Social Work Bursary from their second year of study. The basic bursary rate in 2016/17 is £4,862.50 if you attend a university outside of London and £5,262.50 if you attend a university inside the capital.

Postgraduates can apply from their first year of study. In 2016/17 the basic grant is up to £3,362.50 (outside of London) and up to £3,762.50 (inside of London). The means-tested maintenance grant is worth up to £2,721 a year (outside of London) and up to £4,201 a year (inside of London). Discover more about funding postgraduate study.

Year-by-year this is subject to change so check with the institution that you are applying to before committing to a course.

Frontline

If you're a career changer or a graduate from an unrelated discipline, a number of organisations provide fast-track training options to help you enter social work.

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 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
  • GCSE maths and English at grade C or above
  • IT literacy and good spoken and written English.

Step Up to Social Work

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 social work ethics and practice, child development, assessment of risk and the legal framework surrounding social work. Trainees receive a £19,833 bursary for the duration of the course.

Eligibility criteria are subject to change so check the website for the latest entry requirements. Typically applicants need a minimum 2:1 qualification, or a 2:2 first degree followed by a Masters or Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). They also need 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

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 £16,900 (£18,800 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.

Find out more