It's fair to say that the social work sector has its share of challenges, but a career as a social worker can be incredibly rewarding as you help to improve the lives of others. Learn more about the different routes to qualification
Thanks to funding cuts, an increase in the number of people in the care system and a lack of qualified graduates, social services departments are stretched to capacity. As a result, there's a need for qualified and experienced social workers.
There are a number of ways to gain social work qualifications, from undergraduate social work degrees and the Masters of Social Work (MSW) to fast-track training programmes. Discover which route is right for you.
Social work degrees
In order to practice as a social worker in the UK you need to be educated to at least undergraduate level and registered with one of the four regulating bodies. These are:
- Social Care Wales
- Social Work England
- Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC)
- Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).
On undergraduate social work degrees you'll learn about mental health, disabilities, the theory of social work, partnership working, ethics and values, and the legislation relevant to the profession. Many programmes focus on practical learning, so you'll be required to undertake at least two work placements in a social work setting as part of a course.
Entry requirements differ between institutions so check before applying. For example, to study BA Social Work at the University of Birmingham you'll need ABB grades at A-level, while at Manchester Metropolitan University you'll need a minimum of BBC for entry onto their 2020/21 BA Social Work programme.
In Scotland you'll usually need four Highers of at least BBBB, if not higher, to gain a place on an undergraduate social work course. 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 and are comprised of a range of modules.
At Birmingham, for instance, you'll study modules such as 'Psychology and human development for social work', 'Law for Professional Practice' and 'Advanced Practice: Individuals, Families and Communities'. Placement areas include domestic violence/women's aid, refugee and asylum, child protection, substance misuse and mental health.
At Manchester Metropolitan, you'll study modules in 'Social work, Social Justice and Lived Experiences', 'Law, Rights and Safeguarding' and 'Critical and International Perspectives in Social Work'. You'll experience a 70-day placement in year two and a 100-day placement in your third and final year.
To gain a place on many programmes you'll need previous work experience 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. You'll also need to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check prior to enrolment.
Please be aware that as a result of COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place to help prevent the spread of the virus, university teaching methods and placement modules are subject to change. All or part of your course may be taught online and placements may be postponed or cancelled. Work experience opportunities may also be limited.
Masters in Social Work (MSW)
You can't become a social worker without a degree, so if your undergraduate course was in an unrelated subject, you'll need to take an MSW. Many social work undergraduates also pursue a Masters in social work to further their knowledge and specialise in a particular area.
Entry requirements vary depending on where you choose to study, but all postgraduate social work courses specify the need for substantial 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 MA Social Work at the University of York you'll need a 2:1 or above in any discipline, as well as one year's full-time work experience in a social care or health-related role. Kingston University expects a 2:1 in a social science subject for entry onto its MSW.
In exceptional circumstances candidates without an undergraduate degree may be considered, if they have extensive professional experience. The best way to gain this experience is through volunteering.
An MSW generally lasts two years full time, with a considerable amount of time (usually 170 to 200 days) spent on placement.
At the University of York you'll study units including 'Social Work Across the Life Course', 'Law and Policy' and 'Evidence in Practice (Children and Families/Adults)'. The 2020/21 tuition fees for UK and European Union (EU) students cost £7,600.
At Kingston University, MSW 2020/21 tuition fees are £7,010. Course modules include 'Readiness for Direct Practice', 'Assessment and Intervention' and 'Legal, Ethical and Policy Frameworks for Social Work Practice'.
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. Only a limited number are available, so there's no guarantee you'll receive support. If you're eligible and manage to secure a bursary, it'll be paid directly into your bank account. You'll keep receiving the bursary for the duration of your studies, unless you withdraw.
Undergraduates can apply for a Social Work Bursary from their second year. The basic bursary rate for 2020/21 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. If you are eligible for a bursary it will be paid directly to your university. In 2020/21 the basic grant is worth up to £3,362.50 (studying outside of London) and up to £3,762.50 (inside London). The income-assessed Social Work Bursary is worth up to £2,721 a year (outside of London) and up to £4,201 a year (inside London). Discover more about funding postgraduate study.
Year by year this is subject to change, so check with the institution that you're applying to before committing to a course.
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 the field of social work.
Frontline is a two-year graduate programme that provides a way into children's social work. 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 at the University of Warwick 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 Social Work England as a qualified social worker. Learn more about postgraduate diplomas.
In year two you'll work as a newly qualified social worker, responsible for your own caseload, in your local authority's Children's Services department. Your employer and Frontline will support you to complete the ongoing leadership development programme. You'll also continue your studies and work towards a Masters in Advanced Relationship Based Social Work with Children and Families.
To be eligible for the programme you'll need:
- a 2:1 or higher in your first degree
- GCSE maths and English at grade C or above (or equivalent)
- IT literacy and good spoken and written English.
Your first year tuition fees and Summer Institute accommodation is covered by Frontline, and you'll receive a tax-free, National Insurance-exempt bursary to support you through your studies. This ranges from £18,000 in regions across the UK, to £20,000 if you're based in inner London.
In your second year you'll earn a newly qualified social worker salary, which depending on your location will typically range from £25,000 to £34,000.
The organisation also runs the Firstline programme - a ten-month course, which aims to develop good social work managers into outstanding leaders. To be eligible you must work as a first line manager within one of Frontline's partner local authorities.
Step Up to Social Work
Another option 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.
Entry requirements are subject to change so check the website for the latest entry requirements. You'll typically need a minimum 2:1 qualification, or a 2:2 first degree followed by a Masters or Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) to apply, as well as GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or above, the right to remain and work in the UK and a minimum of six months' experience working with children, young people and families.
The Think Ahead programme aims to train mental health social workers within two years.
The scheme starts with a four-week Summer Institute where you'll gain an understanding of the different approaches to mental health social work. In year one you'll receive a tax-free training bursary of £17,200 (£19,100 within London), paid monthly over a 14-month period, 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 Social Work England.
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 £33,000. 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
- See what else the social care sector has to offer.
- Find out how to become a social worker.
- Learn how to answer social work interview questions.