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How to become a social worker

Social workers offer support to those most in need, whether it’s a family under pressure or a person with a physical or learning disability trying to live independently

Social workers learn to remain calm and build relationships with people in sometimes stressful situations, understand new circumstances quickly – which may involve legal and financial information – and help people to be as happy as possible in their lives.

If you're genuinely interested in understanding social or emotional disadvantage, discrimination, poverty and trauma, and making a difference, then this could definitely be the career for you.

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Not interested in becoming a social worker? Browse all of our careers and job guides.
 

Overview

What does a social worker do?

On a day-to-day basis, social workers may:

  • Conduct interviews with individuals and families to assess and review their situation.

    For example, if an elderly person with dementia keeps on falling over and is frequently being admitted to hospital, a social worker would have conversations with the individual, their partner and other family members to establish whether the way forward is a residential care home, a homecare package or keeping things as they are.
     
  • Undertake and write up assessments (sometimes in collaboration with other professionals), which meet specified standards and timescales.

    For example, working with a family that is on a Child Protection Plan, where both parents have a history of serious substance abuse and the primary school responsible for their children is worried about the children’s behaviour.
     
  • Give information and support. For example, working with a care leaver to help them gain independence skills such as budgeting and cooking, and also offering advice on education, benefits and training opportunities.
     
  • Organise and manage packages of support to enable people to lead the fullest lives possible.

    For example, if an elderly mother has an adult son with learning disabilities and she no longer feels able to care for him because she needs to go into a residential care home herself. A package of support, including getting him ready to go to a day centre, is developed so he can stay in the family home.
     
  • Recommend and sometimes make decisions about the best course of action for a particular person or family.

    A social worker working for a local authority may decide to seek a care order because a child is not receiving the sort of care it would be reasonable to expect from a parent, and this lack of care is causing the child significant harm.
     
  • Liaise with, and make referrals to, other agencies such as Careers Services, Jobcentre Plus, Probation Service, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service etc.
     
  • Participate in multidisciplinary teams and meetings.

    For example, in child protection, multidisciplinary teams could include, police, school teachers, careers advisers.
     
  • Maintain accurate records and prepare reports for legal action.

    You may be working with a young person who has previously offended and you may be asked by the defence team to help them prepare for an upcoming court case.
     
  • Give evidence in court. For many social workers this is an incredibly stressful part of the job.
 

Common social worker skills

These are the skills and qualities needed to become a social worker, according to the National Careers Service:

  • listening and communication
  • sensitivity and understanding
  • patience and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations
  • flexible and open to change
  • the ability to work well with others
  • the ability to accept criticism and work well under pressure.


Top tip! Just saying these words when you're applying for a social work course is meaningless unless you can relate them to the experience you've built up, through volunteering or similar.

 

How to become a social worker

In the UK, 'social worker' is a protected job title, which means only those who have completed certain training can go by it.

Social work is a graduate profession and you'll need either an honours (BA or BSc) or a postgraduate degree in social work to find employment.

The degree will need to be approved by one of the four regulators:


Degree apprenticeships in social work have been developed, for example at UCLAN. These should be available from September 2019.

The Find an Apprenticeship website is a good place to start to find and apply for a degree apprenticeship. You can also browse our special apprenticeships advice area.  

Also, employers – such as local authorities – may recruit internal staff who are already working in social care, whom they believe are capable of coping with and excelling on a degree programme.

Top tip! Don’t be completely obsessed with league tables – such as the Guardian or Complete University Guide – when choosing a social work degree course. 

When it comes to social work, as long as the course is approved by one of the four regulators above, you should have solid career prospects.

You can learn more by visiting the universities on their open days and speaking to current students and staff.

 

Social worker education and qualifications

What qualifications are required to become a social worker?

Each university sets its own entry requirements, although generally you’ll need:

  • a minimum of 240 Ucas points
  • five GCSEs grade A* to C including English and maths
  • and two A-levels or equivalent at least.


However, you can check how entry requirements vary from one university to another with our course search (plus lots more information including student satisfaction ratings). 

For example, Nottingham University wants ABB at A-level (or equivalent eg 148 Ucas tariff points) while the University of Winchester will consider a minimum of 96 tariff points.

Always check the details set out in the entry requirements. For example, UWE Bristol prefers sociology, psychology, law or social science subjects to have been taken at A-level.

If you check out the social work courses on Which? University, you can see the percentage of applicants who receive offers for a particular course. For example, the University of Greenwich only made offers to 11% of the people that applied. Such stats something to consider when making your Ucas choices, so take your application seriously and prepare accordingly.

What course modules might you study on a social work degree? Find out in our social work subject guide.
 

What do universities look for in social work degree applicants?  

Edd Carter, senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University and former admissions tutor at Middlesex University, offers his tips to improve your chances:

  • Try to get at least six months' work experience in a role related to social work, such as part-time voluntary work in a care home, that you can fit around school/college.
     
  • Demonstrate a strong understanding and commitment to the profession. Be able to prove that you've spoken to social workers and have read the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
     
  • Get the Ucas application right, highlighting the relevance of your work experience and demonstrating how it relates to social work roles and values and preparing properly for written assessments.
     
  • Admissions tutors look for potential and commitment at the interview stage. Do your research before you arrive, be confident and enthusiastic.



When applying to a social work degree course, Edd advises prospective students and candidates to demonstrate the following:

  • an awareness of the social context for social work practice, such as poverty, family breakdown and disability
     
  • self-awareness, including understanding your own baggage and not letting this get in the way of being a professional social worker
     
  • the ability to develop a rapport and the potential to develop relevant knowledge (through examples which have come about from a part-time job, for instance)
     
  • skills and values through professional training (or at least that you have the potential to learn these things).

 

Writing a personal statement for social work

The personal statement is crucial. Your statement and overall application for a social work degree should demonstrate your knowledge, work and extracurricular experience and the right skills and qualities all tailored towards the social work field.

As another career advisor, Alan Bullock, wrote:

Avoid bland clichés. Saying 'I have a passion for helping people' or 'I am a people person' isn’t good enough. This is a career that will require you to work objectively within professional boundaries. It needs a lot more than just ‘people skills’.

Writing a personal statement for social work? We asked social work admissions tutors how you can convince them that you're right for the course.

Build your personal statement from scratch with our statement builder tool.
 

Interview advice for social work applicants

You could have an individual interview, a group interview or be asked to complete a task (or a combination of all three).

Practise answering these possible interview questions:

  • 'Why do you want to become a social worker?'
  • 'What work experience do you have that demonstrates you have the right qualities to become a social worker?'
  • 'What does discrimination mean to you? Give us examples.'
  • 'How does government policy affect the social work profession?'
  • 'Do you think every secondary school should have a social worker? Discuss.'

How to prepare for university interviews including questions you might get, what to wear and more

 

Social work degree examples: what is required 

Below are three examples of what univerisites want specifically from social work applicants. You must check the detail. There are many similarities but there are some differences:

Manchester Metropolitan University 

Applications which meet our academic entry requirements will be assessed by the following criteria on the personal statement:

  • The ability to demonstrate a coherent statement of relevant experience.
  • Awareness of discrimination as a factor that influences experiences.
  • The ability to demonstrate an understanding of what social workers do.


An interview is part of the application process, and a satisfactory Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate and health assessment will be required prior to enrolment.

Applicants who are successful at interview will be asked to provide a second reference. The second reference must be a work reference, from a referee who can comment on the applicant's suitability for the social work profession (for example, work in the voluntary or charitable sector).


Nottingham Trent University

In addition to the entry requirements listed above, you will need to submit a personal statement demonstrating:

  • an understanding of the role of a social worker and current social work issues
  • an insight into the statutory and regulatory aspects of social work and social work training
  • your social care work experience (paid or unpaid), and how this relates to social work
  • the length of time spent gaining relevant experience, and how this makes you suitable for social work training.


You will also need to:

  • undertake an interview with a lecturer and practitioner or service user, a written test, and a role-play scenario
  • complete an enhanced-level Disclosure and Barring Service check
  • provide a satisfactory health declaration
  • declare any personal involvement with Children's and/or Adult Services by completing a Character Conduct form
  • confirm the ability to use a range of IT facilities including email, internet, and word processing.

University of Brighton

You should have:

  • experience of being in a helping or support role, for example in a social care or education setting (this may be paid or voluntary)
  • understanding of, and preparedness for, social work practice
  • a satisfactory academic reference
  • a satisfactory second (character) reference preferably relating to social care, a helping role you have had outside of your family, or from your most recent employer.

The combined nurse and social worker route

Be aware of this niche combination offered at three universities in the UK:

 

Funding your social work degree

Most social work students will receive student finance from the student finance body in their country, combining tuition fee and maintenance loans. Learn more about how student finance works in England, ScotlandNorthern Ireland and Wales.

Additionally, social work students in England may be eligible for an extra funding through the Social Work Bursary.
 
Social work bursaries:

  • can be used to help with study and living costs
  • are paid into the student’s bank account at the start of each term
  • don’t need to be paid back
  • are limited (or capped) so there’s only a certain number available each year
  • are only available to those students who can prove they are eligible
  • must be applied for each academic year.

Undergraduate students can only apply from their second year of study while postgraduate students can apply for every year of study.

Studying a healthcare-related degree? See if you can get any extra funding through the NHS bursary.



 

Social work jobs

Common and well-known employers of social workers

According to Graduate Prospects, 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.

 

Where to find social work jobs

Social work vacancies are placed on a wide range of jobs boards including the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Children and Young People Now (CYPNOW) and Community Care.

There are opportunities for social workers across the UK.

 

What it's like to have a job in social work?

Here are some of the things you can expect from a career in social work:

  • While the work tends to be based in offices, you'll go out a lot to speak to the clients that you are working with, often called 'service users'.
     
  • The work can be equally emotionally rewarding and draining.
     
  • It's common for a social worker to feel overwhelmed at times because of the how many different people they are working with.
     
  • You can develop different specialisms, from young offenders to the homeless.
     
  • Social workers can – and do – make a difference to people’s lives.

 

Popular social work graduate schemes

As well as the postgraduate degree route to social work, the BASW notes that:

If you have a 2:1 degree in a different subject (or lots of experience) and want to specialise in working with children and families, you can apply for a fast-track programme. Step-Up to Social Work is a funded 14-month intensive training programme. Frontline is a funded two-year training course. Think Ahead is a graduate programme to become a mental health social worker.

Average social worker salaries

The average annual pay for all social workers is £37,440. This is higher than the UK average for all workers, which stands at £26,260.

Search for a course to see what graduates went on to achieve (plus much more).


Related and similar jobs to social worker

  • social work assistant
  • mental health nurse
  • family support worker
  • welfare rights officer
  • counsellor
  • careers adviser

 

For more information

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