Relevant Experience For Entry To The Degree In Social Work In Northern Ireland

This editorial explains why having relevant practical experience and knowledge of social work is beneficial to someone who is applying to the Honours Degree in Social Work (the Degree), the professional qualification to practice as a social worker in Northern Ireland (NI).  It also provides examples of some of the ways of gaining relevant experience within NI.

Why undertake relevant experience before applying to the Degree?

When people are applying to the Degree, they need to be able to provide evidence that they understand what is involved in working in the fields of social work and social care and will need to show that they
are fully committed to training.

Through relevant employment or volunteering experience, applicants can obtain some knowledge and understanding of practice issues, can gain some awareness of the personal attributes and skills needed for employment in social work, and can find lots of practical experience to draw on to help with completing applications and attending interviews.

Being a volunteer or a temporary care worker is not only an effective way of finding out more about the different opportunities in social work and social care, helping you to decide that social work is the career for you, but is also a satisfying experience which makes a valuable contribution to our community.

What are the qualities needed to train to be a Social Worker?

Social work involves working with a broad range of individuals and families, assessing their needs and supporting them to make lifechanging and often painful choices in complex situations.

As an applicant for social work training, you need to be prepared to examine, challenge and change your own attitudes and prejudices. You may become involved with the behaviours of individuals and families whose ways of living their lives are very different to yours, and you may even be required to use legislation to protect adults and children who are vulnerable or at risk.

Social workers work within Health and Social services in NI, and also within the education and justice systems. They frequently work alongside other social care, medical, health care and education
professionals, so the ability to work as part of the team is essential.

Prospective social workers need to be patient, sensitive, tolerant, and determined to help achieve positive change for those they work with.

How do I obtain this relevant experience for entry to the honours Degree?

Relevant experience involves showing evidence of significant direct contact with people needing support or help. This might be gained through working with older people, children or families, some of whom may have a physical/learning disability or mental health issue.

Experience may be gained through life experience, voluntary work, paid work or a mixture of all three and can include work through school, church, youth or community groups. Involvement may be part-time, full-time, or sessional, but should be sustained over sufficient time to demonstrate interest and commitment.

Please note, if you decide to make an application for a place on the Degree, it is very important that you outline any paid, or voluntary/unpaid work experience on your UCAS application form. Course
providers wish to recognise both voluntary/unpaid experience as well as paid experience, particularly in relation to an application for the accelerated Relevant Graduate Route.
Experience obtained through Volunteering

Voluntary work is often the first step to getting started in social work. The most effective way of gaining relevant experience may be to undertake voluntary work in the evenings and/or weekends, as you can
combine it with other work or study commitments.

If you are unemployed you can undertake unpaid voluntary work and continue to claim social security benefits provided you are free to attend interviews and take up a job if offered one.

Opportunities for voluntary work may be available within your own community, in local hospitals, community groups, voluntary organisations and in prisons.

The addresses for voluntary organisations are listed in telephone directories, in public libraries, on the internet or by contacting your local Citizen Advice Bureau. A list of the Health Service Trusts (HSST) and bigger voluntary organisations can also be found in the NISCC Social Care Contacts booklet available from the NISCC website, or from the NISCC Information Service.

Large public libraries, community centres, health centres and town halls usually have a notice board advertising local voluntary work opportunities.

Please note, anyone employed to undertake voluntary/unpaid work with children and vulnerable adults, will be vetted to check their suitability to volunteer.

Example of a volunteer

Ravindra is 23 years old and is employed in the civil service. He currently volunteers for a youth justice
agency. He has been with the agency for almost two years now. This involves being a mentor* for a young boy who is currently in care. To do this work Ravindra has been vetted for suitability by the youth justice agency.

Ravindra spends two hours every Thursday night with him. Sometimes they just meet at the centre cafè for a chat, or they may take part in organised activities such as sports or craftwork at the centre.

Ravindra has been supporting this boy for just over a year and finds this work very rewarding. Volunteering has given him the motivation and interest to consider training for a career in social work.

*Mentoring is about providing guidance, advice, support and feedback to another person. It is about working with the individual with their agreement, not about imposing the mentor’s views. Examples could include helping young adults to cope with living independently after being in care or helping
homeless people to find a stable environment to work through their personal issues.

Experience obtained while at school

For younger people, relevant experience might be gained through voluntary work in projects such as school-based work in mentoring, community projects, hospital visits or buddy/befriending schemes. It
could also include work through youth or community groups.

Example of a young volunteer

Lucy is studying for her A’ Levels. As part of her social care module, she has spent one afternoon each week visiting the local day centre for disabled adults.

At the day centre, Lucy helps out with social activities for the adults. This includes helping them develop their independence and learn new skills such as shopping, cooking and going on outings with them.

Lucy has found this work very rewarding and enjoys working with the people there. She has also spent part of her summer holidays working part-time at the day centre.

The experience Lucy has gained has sparked her interest in social work as a career and she hopes to apply for a place on the Honours Degree after completing her A’ Levels.

Experience obtained from life

Working as a carer for a family member, a relative or a friend can provide some relevant practical experience to apply for the Honours Degree.

Example of a carer

Jim is the main carer for his mother who has a mental illness. Four years ago he decided to use the knowledge and skills this experience has given him to undertake a job he knows he enjoys.

He successfully obtained a job as an advocacy worker for a local carers group. This job allowed him to use his experience to help other carers and has encouraged him to think about moving on to train professionally as a social worker.

He recently completed an Honours Degree in Social Sciences through an Open University distance learning course. He now hopes to apply to the Degree in Social Work via the accelerated Relevant Graduate Route which he can complete over 2 years as he has a relevant social science degree.
Experience obtained while in paid employment in social care

Paid employment as a home care assistant, support worker or day care worker can provide people with suitable experience to support them when they apply for the Honours Degree.

Many Health and Social Services Trusts (HSST), voluntary and private organisations employ social care staff in these posts. Vacancies are normally advertised on sites like or in the regional press such as:

• the Belfast Telegraph (Tuesday/Friday)
• the Irish News (Thursday)
• the Newsletter (Thursday)

Vacancies can also be found by searching your local newspaper, or by going to your job centre. Vacancies placed at the jobcentres can be accessed online through the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) website at:

Contact details for the HSST, voluntary and private organisations and employment agencies specialising in social care can be found in your local telephone directory or by searching on the internet.

Useful contacts can also be found in the NISCC Social Care Contacts booklet.

More information about paid employment in social care can be found in the NISCC Career in Social Care booklet. Please note, anyone employed to work with children and vulnerable adults, will be vetted to check their suitability for employment.

Example of a paid social care worker

Sheila is 45 years old and has worked as a home care assistant for a Health and Social Services Trust (HSST) for a number of years. Her job involves providing personal care and support for older people with specialist needs such as physical, mental or learning disabilities in their own homes.

This work can include helping with housework, shopping, dressing, bathing, feeding and toileting. This support helps the individuals Sheila works with to live as independently as possible and provides valuable support to the family members who are caring for them. The sight of a friendly face can make a real difference to the older person’s day-to-day life.

Sheila began work without any formal qualifications, but undertook National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) after starting work as a social care assistant. All social care workers are expected to regularly update their skills and learning and to develop their personal competence.

Sheila successfully obtained an NVQ Level II in Health and Social Care.

Having enjoyed this training she felt motivated to continue studying to a level that would allow her to apply to train to be a social worker. She has now enrolled on an Access course at her local college of further and higher education.

She hopes this is the first step to obtaining a qualified post and intends to apply for a place on the Honours Degree when she completes her Access course.

Information Service
Northern Ireland Social Care Council
7th Floor, Millennium House
19-25 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7AQ
Tel: 028 90 417600
Fax: 028 90 417601
Textphone: 028 90 239340
Email: [email protected]