Social Worker

The Job and What's Involved

Social workers work with people who need help and support at times in their lives.

This may include working with:

  • Families, children and older people.
  • People with mental health problems, physical or learning difficulties, or sensory impairment.
  • Homeless people, refugees and those seeking asylum.
  • People whose lives are affected by drugs, alcohol or HIV/AIDS.
  • People who have committed or been affected by crime.

Social workers work closely with other professionals, such as doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, teachers, the police and the courts, and increasingly work with them in multidisciplinary teams. They may be supported by social work assistants.

The work involves:

  • Assessing the situation of someone needing to use the service by interviewing the person (and their family if appropriate) and drawing on information from other agencies.
  • Agreeing with the service user what they need (on occasions, such as in child protection cases, social workers have the legal power to decide, with professional colleagues, what is necessary to protect a vulnerable person).
  • Organising the support needed by the service user - this can involve liasing with other agencies, including contracting with them to provide an agreed service.
  • Developing a relationship with service users and their families - they may continue to offer support, information and advice.
  • Taking part in supervision sessions, where they discuss their cases with a colleague.
  • Keeping records of their contact with service users and other agencies, and preparing reports for occasions such as case conferences, tribunals and court.

In Scotland, social workers may also work with people who have committed or been charged with crimes. This is similar to the work of youth offending or probation officers in the rest of the UK.

Most social workers work 37 hours a week, but their hours can be irregular. They may have to work some evenings and some work on a rota to provide cover over 24 hours. Part-time work and job sharing is possible.

Social workers have an office base, but travel to meetings and to see service users in their homes or other places.

Starting salaries may be between around £19,800 and £27,300 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 100,000 registered social workers in the UK. Although this number has grown there is still a shortage, particularly in London and south-east England.

Potential Employers include:

  • Local authority social services, adult care and children's services departments in England.
  • Local authority social services departments in Wales.
  • Social work departments in Scotland.
  • Health and Social Services Trusts in Northern Ireland.
  • Criminal justice services provided by local authorities in Scotland.
  • Private organisations, including residential homes.
  • Charities, such as the NSPCC and Barnardo's.
  • Hospitals, health trusts and GP practices.
  • Organisations that provide social work support to Armed Forces personnel and their families.

Many social workers work for employment agencies on short-term contracts with different organisations.

Vacancies are advertised in Community Care, Opportunities, The Voice, in national, local and regional newspapers and on the internet. There are also some specialist recruitment agencies.

Education and Training

Becoming a social worker requires an accredited honours degree or postgraduate degree in social work followed by registration with the General Social Care Council in England, the Care Council for Wales, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council or with the Scottish Social Services Council.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Social work honours degree courses usually require at least two A levels/four H grades, plus five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English and maths.

Other qualifications may be accepted, either on their own or alongside A levels/H grades. They include relevant AS levels, BTEC national and BTEC/SQA higher nationals, Scottish Group Awards (SGA), the International Baccalaureate, NVQ/SVQ Level 3 in Health and Social Care and the CACHE Level 3 Diploma in Child Care and Education.

Exact entry requirements vary between courses, so candidates must check carefully.

For social work postgraduate degree courses, students need a first degree.

Universities prefer applicants to have had some relevant experience, e.g. paid or voluntary work with carer's and service users. For postgraduate courses some universities require a specified minimum period of caring experience.

All entrants to social work training have their backgrounds checked by the Criminal Records Bureau or Disclosure Scotland to make sure that they are suitable to work with children and vulnerable adults. They are also medically screened to make sure that they are suitable for social work training.

Many universities throughout the UK offer full-time honours degrees in social work. Courses last three years (four in Scotland). A number of universities offer full-time postgraduate degrees in social work. Courses usually last two years.

There is a range of part-time, open and distance learning courses that lead to a social work qualification, including programmes offered by the Open University. These are open to people who already work in the social care field. In some cases, employers pay for the course.

There is a Fast Track Graduate Training Scheme in Scotland. Students train as social workers by working with a local authority and studying at university. Training takes between 16 to 19 months.

Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may be eligible for financial assistance to fund their studies.

To maintain their registration, social workers have to keep their training and learning up to date.

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Skills and Personal Qualities

A social worker should:

  • Be able to develop trusting relationships with service users and carers without becoming emotionally involved.
  • Have excellent communication skills, including listening, speaking and writing.
  • Be resilient and able to handle pressure.
  • Work well in a team with colleagues and professionals from other agencies.
  • Be aware of people's different needs and respect diversity.
  • Have patience and maturity.
  • Be able to negotiate for their clients.
  • Have management and organisational skills.
  • Be able to manage a complex workload.
  • Have keyboard, database and number skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Social workers may progress to become senior social workers or team managers. Experienced social workers may move into related work such as counseling, therapy or education and training. It is possible to become self-employed.

There may also be opportunities to work abroad, including voluntary work.

Get Further Information

Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC),
7th Floor, Millennium House,
19-25 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7AQ
Tel: 028 9041 7600

British Association of Social Workers (BASW),
16 Kent Street, Birmingham B5 6RD
Tel:0121 622 3911

Care Council for Wales (CCW)/
Cyngor Gofal Cymru (CGC), South Gate House,
Wood Street, Cardiff CF10 1EW
Tel: 029 2078 0680

Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC),
Compass House, 11 Riverside Drive,
Dundee DD1 4NY
Tel: 0845 603 0891

Skills for Care, Albion Court,
5 Albion Place, Leeds LS1 6JL
Tel: 0113 245 1716

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