Introduction To Careers In Social Work


Care Appointments presents the Department of Health’s guide to careers in social work…

What is Social Work?
Social work is all about people. Social workers form relationships with people. As adviser, advocate, counsellor or listener, a social worker helps people to live more successfully within their local communities by helping them find solutions to their problems. Social work also involves engaging not only with clients themselves but their families and friends as well as working closely with other organisations including the police, NHS, schools and probation service.

Social workers tend to specialise in either adult or children’s services

Adult Services: Roles include working with people with mental health problems or learning difficulties in residential care; working with offenders, by supervising them in the community and supporting them to find work; assisting people with HIV/AIDs and working with older people at home helping to sort out problems with their health, housing or benefits.  

Children / Young People Services: Roles include providing assistance and advice to keep families together; working in children’s homes; managing adoption and foster care processes; providing support to younger people leaving care or who are at risk or in trouble with the law; or helping children who have problems at school or are facing difficulties brought on by illness in the family.

If you leave school at 16 or 17 and are interested in this area, you can start a preliminary further education college course in Social Care or pursue a modern apprenticeship in Health and Social care. Both of these options will include placements and you may also be able to combine this with voluntary work. Through job experience and NVQ assessments, you could become eligible to enter the degree course and if employed within the sector, your employer may provide funding for you to do this.

Check out your local FE colleges to see if they offer Social care courses or talk to your school careers service.

If you’re under 21 and have – or soon will have – at least 2 A levels or equivalent qualifications, you can apply to universities and colleges that offer the 3-year degree course*. Application is through UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) Universities and colleges throughout the country offer the programme.

If you already have a degree in another subject, some universities offer a shorter postgraduate course which will enable you to practise as a social worker. You will need to contact individual universities for further clarification.

A high proportion of Social Workers come to the job as a second or third career. Your previous experience will be valued and may be considered in place of formal academic qualifications when considering your eligibility to join a degree course.

Because career-changers may be older and have family responsibilities, it can be challenging to survive financially while following the course. However, since September 2003, students studying for the degree qualification will be eligible for an annual bursary of up to £2900 and free tuition fees.

Degree in Social Work
Social Work requires a professional qualification currently an honours degree in social work that involves a combination of course work and a minimum of 200 days spent in practice settings providing the opportunity for lots of practical experience before you actually qualify. Once qualified you will need to register with the General Social Care Council (GSCC) which is responsible for regulating the workforce.

Previous qualifications in social work including the diploma will continue to be recognised as valid social work qualification. {mospagebreak}

Meet some people who are social workers and find out more about their work and backgrounds.

Vinette Pearcy, Deputy Operational Manager
“I manage a group of nine staff within an overall team of 26 people drawn from different services – police, probation, social work, teachers, community psychiatric nursing, and a drugs worker. The co-ordinated Youth Offending Team is a new concept, and there’s no previous model to follow. In practice, I have responsibility for everything that happens to young people at court and subsequently in the community. I miss some of the hands-on creative work that comes through direct contact with the people we are supporting, but now I’m trying to create the conditions in which my staff can do the job even better.

“I studied for a degree in Community Studies before taking a specialist qualification and going originally into probation work. One of the advantages of social work is how much variety there is. I don’t know that I’ll stay in youth work forever. I could move into areas like adoption and fostering, working in adult services, or even become a college lecturer for future generations of social workers.”

Jo Neale, Social Worker – Family Centre
“While I was at school I had done some voluntary work with young people, and decided I’d like to become a social worker. I did a social care course after leaving school and worked in a children’s residential home before joining the social work course which included practical placements.

“I’ve been in various sectors of social work, and really enjoy what I’m doing now. I help run a Family Centre for parents and children. We make assessments of the support they need, and work in partnership with them to move things forward. We can help parents improve their parenting skills, give them practical guidance in organising their lives, and provide a fun environment for kids to play in – away from the pressures that might exist at home. Users are referred to us from various sources, but we also have a drop-in service. It’s a job with real responsibility in terms of enabling children and parents to lead more fulfilling lives. It’s the direct contact with families that I enjoy, and helping give them the opportunity to change.”

A Case from Jo’s File
“Ann came to our attention as a very young single parent. There were concerns about the safety of her baby, and obviously we had a responsibility to protect the child as well as to support the mother. Ann was a resistant client who had had a difficult childhood herself, with a background of domestic violence in her family. She attended our Family Centre reluctantly, expecting criticism from people she regarded as being in authority. Our approach was to be non-judgmental and build on her strengths.

“Persistence paid off. As Ann attended the Centre and we visited her at home, we established a level of trust. I could show her techniques for handling difficult behaviour in her child and increasing her confidence as a parent. Now she has a second child who is meeting all the milestones for development and the family is doing really well. We still see Ann occasionally as she keeps in touch, but I like to think we have broken a pattern of negative family behaviour that was being passed on from one generation to another.”

Mike Walsh, Senior Practitioner, Disabilities Team
“Social work is my third career. I started out as a mental health nurse, then went into industry. I played football for the senior side of a local youth club and gradually became more involved in the club. That triggered my interest in social work and I became a senior residential worker in a local children’s home. After various jobs, I was seconded to a social work course. Since qualifying, I have worked with disturbed young people, and adults with profound disabilities. I took a year out to run a community narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal, then became a manager in a hospital-based team working with older people. Because I wanted to work more closely with clients, I have now stepped sideways into a senior practitioner role. I love every minute of it.

“Often, it’s putting together all the different things that need to happen to help people keep control of their lives. Sometimes, it’s helping people through life-changing events. You’re an advocate for people and someone they can turn to. You need to win their confidence, even when they’re wary of your role; and you have a lot of autonomy to organise your own caseload and make your own judgements. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

A Case from Mike’s File
“Mr and Mrs M have been together for 60 years – they met while serving in World War 2. He is 86. She is 84 and for some years has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. This has advanced to the stage where she needs virtually continuous care, but Mr M will not entertain the idea of her leaving the home they have shared for so long.

“I’m the person who co-ordinates the care package that enables Mr M to look after his wife. This includes four daily visits from Home Care assistants, a daily visit from a District Nurse, a hot meal delivery service, a sitting service to let Mr M go out shopping or have a break, and occasional respite care for Mr M when I can persuade him to take it. I consult Mr M at every step because he is still her main carer and proactive in shaping how the package works.
It might have been easier for all the professionals involved to persuade Mr M that a nursing home was the better option. But there’s a real satisfaction in being able to support his devotion to his wife, and seeing a multi-disciplinary team pulling together to make it possible.

Siobhan Bowd & Alfzal Ahmed – Social Workers

“I work with young people who are going through the process of leaving care – foster or residential. They are all on a journey into independence, but need a helping hand along the way. The most important thing you can do is listen, understand, and be with them as they search for solutions. It involves making an assessment of needs, preparing a care plan and then reviewing progress. I work in partnership with the young person and other people important to them. The work is varied. You could be going to the job centre with them one day; offering emotional support through the turmoil of adolescence the next. They are teenagers after all!

“I came into social work through periods of voluntary work in the UK and abroad. I did a social studies degree and went on to take a Diploma/Masters in Social Work. I have worked in different fields, including palliative work with people who have chronic or terminal disease. Working with young people can be frustrating, but it’s also tremendously challenging and rewarding. The great thing is just how energising it is.”

A Case From Siobhan’s File
“Jenny put herself into care – a foster home – after her mother pushed her downstairs on her 16th birthday. It was the culmination of a childhood of abuse; Jenny decided she’d had enough. Fostering went OK but at 18 she moved out into supported housing – a women’s hostel – and started to struggle. She had no family to call on and got into an abusive relationship with a man. I was one of the few people who she could look to. Most of what I did was listening, talking things though, helping with practical matters… Being consistent in my support for her.

“Now she’s a strong, independent, young woman. She has her own tenancy, attends college, and is looking to make a career in journalism. She has joined our fostering panel as an advisor, representing other youngsters. Jenny has taken charge of her life. I’m proud for her; and pleased to have been able to help.”

“I took a degree in electronics management and worked with London Underground for two years before deciding that social work was where I really wanted to be. I had been an assistant youth worker before university and carried on with youth work part-time while I was a student. The death of my father made me re-evaluate my career. I got a research job within social services, investigating low take-up of services among ethnic minority groups.

“Subsequently, my employer sponsored me to do the 2-year Diploma in Social Work. I feel I have an important job to do in advocating on behalf of young people within a system that they don’t find it easy to connect with… We need to give them the best start so they can fulfil their potential.”