Guide to Qualifications and Training: Social Work

Charlotte Goddard
Thursday, September 1, 2022

Shortages of children’s social workers in England hit a five-year high in 2021 with 4,995 full-time equivalents leaving their roles, an increase of 16 per cent on 2020.

The vacancy rate rose from 16.1 to 16.7 per cent. Councils are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain social workers, according to the Local Government Association with 11.2 per cent of children’s social workers leaving the profession or moving to agency work in 2021. A What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC) survey of nearly 2,000 social workers in England published in March found 10 per cent were considering leaving their organisation due to racism. Respondents reported opportunities for career progression were denied or unavailable to social workers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.


May 2022 saw the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, led by Josh McAlister, founder of social work charity Frontline. The review called for the establishment of an “expert practitioner” role within children’s social work, which would see experienced social workers work alongside multi-disciplinary family help teams. The role would allow social workers to progress in their career while remaining in practice and earning a high salary.

Under the proposals, the role of expert practitioner would be gained after participating in a new five-year early career framework. This would replace the current assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) with a more detailed curriculum and an assessment after two years instead of one.

The review also recommended replacing independent reviewing officers (IROs), who represent the interests of looked-after children, with an independent opt-out advocacy service to be provided by the children’s commissioner for England.

Other proposals included a requirement for all registered social workers to spend 100 hours each year in direct practice, the establishment of local authority regional staff banks, and a national recruitment campaign. The government plans to deliver a response and implementation strategy before the end of 2022.

Training standards

New Social Work England education and training standards launched in September 2021, applying to all qualifying routes. Social Work England aims to have inspected all initial social work education and training courses against the standards by September 2024 and review the standards in the process. It is consulting on new “readiness for professional practice” guidance.

Routes into social work

The main route for entering child and family social work is a generic three-year social work degree or two-year masters. University social work courses are based on students doing two placements. Social Work England currently approves 301 social work courses.

Almost half of course providers reported student recruitment was lower than their target in 2021/22, according to Social Work England. Just over half said they were still experiencing placement challenges due to the pandemic.

In 2022/23, bursaries of £3,362.50 (£3,762.50 in London) are available for 1,500 postgraduates in England, who can also access up to £4,052 in tuition fee contributions. There are bursaries of £4,862.50 (£5,262.50 in London) for 2,500 undergraduates who are funded for the second and third years of their course.

Specialist fast-track routes such as Frontline and employer-based 14-month programme Step Up to Social Work provide another route into the profession. A Department for Education evaluation of fast-track routes published in December 2021 found “reasonably low” attrition rates six months after qualifying with 15 per cent of 2019 Step Up graduates and less than one per cent of 2019 Frontline graduates not working in statutory social work roles in England.

Step Up students receive a bursary of £19,833 and can train in regional partnerships, earning a postgraduate diploma in social work. The government has not confirmed whether the programme will continue in 2023 and beyond. A third route is provided by the social worker Integrated Degree Apprenticeship.

A total of 27 social work teaching partnerships aim to tackle regional variations in supply of social workers and ensure availability of practice placements for students.

Newly qualified social workers

The ASYE provides access to training and development during practitioners’ first year of work, with regular reviews leading to a final assessment against national standards. Employers receive £2,000 for each newly qualified social worker supported through the scheme. Not all offer an ASYE.


The National Assessment and Accreditation Scheme (NAAS) for social workers, which aimed to provide a clear career pathway for social workers, was scrapped in March. The government plans to introduce a new assessment model by the end of 2022.

Post-qualifying training

Social workers must record continuing professional development (CPD) with Social Work England annually when they apply to renew their registration. New requirements, launched in December 2021, mean they must record at least two pieces of CPD in their online account, including one “peer reflection” where they have discussed their CPD with a colleague, manager or another professional.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) runs a CPD accreditation scheme and launched its own CPD programme in 2019. It also runs a mentoring scheme for newly qualified social workers, those returning to social work or trained overseas.

WWCSC has developed CPD-accredited Evidence, Learning and Method training to support social workers’ understanding of different research methods. It is running online and face-to-face sessions for local authorities this year.

Practice supervisors

The DfE-commissioned Practice Supervisor Development Programme, which provided CPD to social workers taking up their first role supporting and developing the practice of others, ended in July 2022. The DfE plans to commission a new CPD programme for the children and families social work sector.

Systemic social work

Systemic practice is a way of working focusing on relationships and working with families and professional networks. The DfE-funded Centre for Systemic Social Work was launched by Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith & Fulham councils in 2017. It provides training programmes for practitioners, supervisors and leaders. The centre offers three 15-day courses: the Certificate in Systemic Social Work Practice with Children and Families for practitioners, the Certificate in Systemic Social Work Supervision and Management for managers and supervisors, and the Intermediate (Year Two) Course in Systemic Practice with Children and Families, plus a six-day Systemic Leadership course.

Social workers in schools

A DfE-funded WWCSC project placing more than 140 social workers in schools across 21 local authorities has been extended to cover the 2022/23 academic year after it was found to have strengthened interagency working, speeded up referrals and assessments, and provided effective safeguarding support for school staff.

Child protection

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse delivers training in preventing, identifying, and responding to child sexual abuse. It launched a raft of new courses in 2021 and 2022, including separate courses on identifying and responding to child abuse for designated safeguarding leads and police, a half-day course on sibling sexual abuse and one-day course on harmful sexual behaviour. The 10-day Child Sexual Abuse Practice Leads Programme can be tailored to social work or multi-agency teams.

Charity the NWG Exploitation Network offers a range of accredited foundation- and advanced-level courses covering child sexual exploitation and wider exploitation suitable for statutory and voluntary sector organisations.

Fast-track programme

The Frontline fast-track graduate programme aims to ensure trainees get the experience they need, while bringing high-calibre graduates into child protection social work. Participants undergo an intensive five-week training programme followed by two years working in a local authority child protection team while studying for an MSc. In their first year, participants complete a 200-day placement while learning core social work knowledge, theory, research and practice skills. At the end of year one successful participants qualify as a social worker and register with Social Work England. In their second year, participants complete their ASYE and carry out a dissertation project. Lancaster University is Frontline’s higher education partner.

Frontline will continue to deliver the programme until the cohort starting in 2025. The government is currently looking for an organisation to run a fast-track programme after the current contract ends.

Frontline is also delivering a new social work leadership development programme in partnership with WWCSC and North Yorkshire County Council, supported by Hertfordshire County Council. The Social Work Leadership Pathways programme consists of bespoke pathways for four different levels of leadership: practice supervisors, middle managers, heads of service and practice leaders. It will launch in late 2022, with the aim of 1,000 social work leaders completing one of the pathways a year. It will replace Frontline’s current Firstline and Headline leadership development programmes, with the final cohorts completing these programmes by November 2022.

Looked-after children

In March 2022, the Competitions and Markets Authority published a review of the children’s social care market, which called for an annual review setting out the extent and causes of shortfalls in children’s home staff. It said recruitment and retention of staff was a “significant barrier” to meeting demand and called on the government to consider a national recruitment campaign, investment in training and qualifications and clearer career pathways.

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care proposed the establishment of local-authority led co-operatives to take responsibility for all new public sector fostering, residential and secure care. “Any commissioning arrangements need to include commissioning of workforce development,” says National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care principal partner Jonathan Stanley. “Ideally this would be a regional workforce team working with others across the country to deliver an evidence-based curriculum.”

Residential child care

Recruitment and retention continue to be a challenge in the children’s home sector. “The numbers and qualities of those applying are not adequate,” says Stanley. With low salaries and minimal benefits driving the crisis, the centre is calling for a salary of £15 an hour and the same terms of employment for residential child care workers across local authority, voluntary-run and private homes.

The Children’s Homes Association (CHA) 2022 State of the Sector report, published in June, found the proportion of homes with a qualified manager in post had increased from 75 per cent to 84 per cent. Staff turnover has soared, with more than 60 per cent of providers reporting staff turnover levels above 20 per cent.


Staff working in children’s homes in England must obtain the Level 3 Diploma for Residential Child Care. Managers are required to hold the Level 5 diploma but have up to three years to gain it.

Two apprenticeships for those wanting to work with children and young people aim to give practitioners and managers a clearer career path and flexibility to move from one role to another. Children, Young People and Family Practitioner is a Level 4 qualification for those who want to work in residential care or do community-based work with vulnerable children and families. Participants are expected to gain a Level 3 Diploma in Residential Child Care or a Level 4 Certificate in Higher Education in Working with Children, Young People and Families. Children, Young People and Families Manager apprenticeship students gain either a Level 5 Diploma in Leadership and Management for Residential Child Care or a Level 5 Diploma in Leadership for Health and Social Care.

Apprenticeships can be a way of bringing much needed new staff into the sector, says Jordan Elms, account manager of training company Paragon Skills which has worked with the CHA to promote and deliver apprenticeships and other training. Paragon consults with CHA members to find out what their needs are and supports them in accessing the right training. “We need to look outside the sector at what great people are available, and apprenticeship programmes do that because you don’t need any prior experience,” says Elms.

Following its review of current qualifications, The National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care is calling for a rewriting of the sector’s Professional Practice Standards.

“We need to upskill the residential child care workforce,” says Stanley. “In reviewing the current Levels 3, 4 and 5 we have found them to be inadequately preparing the workforce to meet the high level and complex needs of children being referred.”


The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) is England’s largest employer of social workers. Cafcass family court advisers (FCAs) work across private and public law, looking after the interests of children involved in court proceedings. They must be qualified social workers and experienced in working with highly vulnerable children and families. FCAs can become practice supervisors, taking on additional responsibility for supervising the casework of others, while supporting the service manager and handling more complex cases.

Service managers lead and manage a team of experienced practitioners and are expected to have supervisory or practice management experience gained in a children’s service setting. Heads of practice provide leadership over particular geographical areas. Cafcass currently contracts 137 associate FCAs, who are self-employed social workers.

Cafcass is facing recruitment challenges but says it is recruiting more people than are leaving. The organisation is developing a new reward package, career and qualification pathway and staff development programme. The Cafcass Learning and Development Programme incorporates formal induction and teaching programmes alongside events, workshops and webinars.

In 2021, Cafcass launched a Social Work Academy, which oversees the organisation’s three-year newly qualified social worker programme. The course incorporates hands-on experience in social work through an ASYE, six months working for a local authority and further academic training.


In June 2022, Social Work England published a new approach to social work education, including plans to simplify the complex mix of frameworks and guidance which training providers have to follow, and a focus on improving equality, diversity and inclusion. The organisation plans to research ways to improve its oversight and support of practice educators, who teach, supervise and assess students on their placements. It is also investigating the possibility of registering social work students, putting forward plans to review its education and training standards, and considering the best approach to supporting newly qualified social workers. All plans will be developed through consultation.

The first consultation, which closes on 21 September, is on the creation of new guidance for the knowledge, skills and behaviours that social work students should be able to demonstrate by the end of their qualifying course.

“Working with the sector to ensure that public protection is paramount is central to everything that we do,” says Sarah Blackmore, Social Work England executive director of professional practice and external engagement. “A big part of that is ensuring those coming into the social work profession have the right experience, support and understanding, a consistent approach to their education and training, regardless of their entry point, and can qualify equipped and confident to meet the professional standards and to join our register.”

Meet the practitioner

Patriche Bentick, senior practitioner, London Borough of Camden’s Children Looked After Team

Patriche Bentick initially wanted to be an accountant but left college after three months studying economics. “It wasn’t fulfilling me,” she says. “Growing up in east London I saw deprivation and abuse around me, I wanted to have the power to make a difference.” Bentick gained experience working in after-school clubs, summer camps, mother and baby units in hospitals, and as a youth advocate for tackling substance misuse. Six years after leaving school she undertook a three-year social work degree at Goldsmiths College, qualifying as a social worker in 2013.

The role can be emotional and challenging – particularly when placing very young babies in foster care – but also fulfilling. “We are supporting children in the care system, making sure their education is going well and thinking about their emotional and mental wellbeing.” Bentick also works as a practice educator, supporting students to become social workers themselves.

Research shows a disproportionate amount of black and ethnic minority social workers are failing to complete the ASYE and spending too long in junior roles. In Camden children’s services Bentick has set up Reflect, Reclaim, Rebuild groups for black and ethnic minority professionals to look at what action is needed to encourage an anti-racist workplace, and for all practitioners to focus on developing anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice.

@PatricheBentick on Twitter


Read more in CYP Now's Children’s Workforce Guide to Qualifications and Training




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