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Developing your career in social work

Social workers support and protect some of society’s most deprived and vulnerable people. They usually become involved in people’s lives at moments of stress and difficulty, and their task is to help solve problems and bring about change. It’s immensely challenging and rewarding work, requiring a high level of motivation and commitment.

Social workers support individuals, families and groups – such as children and young people, offenders or older people – and those facing particular challenges such as homelessness, physical and mental health conditions, school refusal, drug and alcohol abuse, or family breakdown. They work closely with other health and social care professionals in interdisciplinary teams, and may specialise in a particular area of practice such as child protection or adult mental health. Settings for social work include:

  • the community
  • service user’s homes
  • schools
  • hospitals
  • the premises of a local authority or voluntary organisation.

To practice as a social worker, you need a qualifying degree. A social work degree can be useful for many other professional areas including counselling and advice work, psychotherapy, youth work, community development and probation. For some roles in these areas you may need to undertake additional education and/or training.

To get detailed information about typical jobs within these areas – including day-to-day activities, the qualifications you need and what you might expect to earn – visit the Prospects careers website, for a general overview. However, there are variations in the qualifications needed and other aspects of the role within the UK, therefore it can be useful to look at information for the nation where you are based/where you live as well.

In Scotland, the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) provides a list of universities offering the social work qualification at undergraduate and postgraduate level. The SSSC website also includes case studies on studying and working as a social worker in different types of social work settings.

In Wales, Social Care Wales has information on how to qualify as a social worker in Wales. In addition, the WeCareWales website has lots of helpful advice and information about social services, social work and other roles in the sector.

In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council’s A Career in Social Work provides comprehensive guidance on a career in social work.

In Ireland, the GradIreland website will help you learn more about the role and CORU, the Health and Social Care Professionals Council, has a list of all of the Irish universities offering social work qualifications.

How the OU can help

The OU is the UK’s largest provider of a part-time qualifying degree in social work. At any time over one thousand students are studying with us.

The degree offers a unique opportunity for people who are already employed in a social care context to build on their experience towards a professional qualification in social work. You continue in employment while you study, which means you can put your learning into practice immediately. The course is delivered through a combination of theory and work-based learning – for this reason, you need to be supported by your employer, who works in partnership with us (for example, to provide practice placements). We already work closely with hundreds of employers who support students to study – but if yours is not yet signed up to the scheme, you can request our prospectus for employers to discuss it with them (please specify whether you live in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland).

See a list of courses related to social work

Not yet employed in social care?

If you’re not currently employed in this field but want to study this degree, you’ll need to seek employment as an unqualified worker – such as a social work assistant or support worker in residential or day care. In England, a few local authorities still offer traineeships but most now offer the social work apprenticeship. It’s essential to discuss your training options at any job interview since applicants must be supported by an appropriate employer to be considered for the qualifying degree in social work.

Getting started

If you’re not quite ready for degree-level study, our Psychology, social science and wellbeing Access module (Y034) could be exactly what you’re looking for. It’s designed to build your confidence and study skills while giving you the chance to dip into some of our most popular subjects, such as psychology, childhood and youth, early years, health and social wellbeing, sport, education, and social sciences. By the end of the module, you’ll be well prepared to begin your social work studies with the OU, provided you are already working in social care and supported by your employer.

More about Access modules

Work experience

If you’re finding it difficult to move into the social care sector, doing some voluntary work can provide practical evidence of your interest and commitment. Examples might be local day centres; befriending organisations; voluntary organisations that look after particular groups such as older people or vulnerable adults; or training as a telephone helpline counsellor. Check Do-it, the national volunteering database, for opportunities in your area and some of the other websites nationally listed on our volunteering page.

Note that you’ll need to apply for a police check to work with children, young people and vulnerable adults.