Guide to Qualifications and Training: Social Work

Joe Lepper
Friday, September 1, 2023

Department for Education data shows there were 7,900 social work vacancies in England in 2022, up by more than a fifth compared with the previous year and the highest rate since 2017. In 2022, children's services lost 5,400 full-time equivalent social workers.

“Unmanageable caseloads, not enough staff support and a lack of resources,” are factors in this exodus, says the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

According to the DfE, caseloads increased from 16.3 per social worker in 2021 to 16.6 in 2022. And the sickness absence rate rose from 3.1 to 3.5 per cent.

In March 2023, the charity Food Foundation warned social care workers were among those hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis, with 27.9 per cent of those working in the sector experiencing food insecurity.

As councils battle to hire permanent employees many are forced to rely on agency staff, with 6,800 full-time equivalent temporary workers used in 2022, up 13 per cent on 2021's figures.

Emerging policy

The government pledged action aimed at tackling workforce shortages in England in its February 2023 response to last year's Independent Review of Children's Social Care.

Plans set out in the Stable Homes, Built on Love document are backed by £200m investment over the next two years. However, this falls short of the independent review's call for £2.6bn in funding over five years with £1bn spent over the first two years.

Measures pledged by government include recruiting child protection lead practitioners to work within family help teams to better protect children, keep families together where possible and tackle issues including domestic abuse.

Multi-agency child protection units are also planned, where child protection lead practitioners work with education and justice specialists on safeguarding plans.

High turnover of social workers, increasing demand and delays in assessments are also affecting services in Northern Ireland, according to a review of children's social care published in June this year. This recommended the creation of a single, region-wide body to deliver social care and the development of a trainee social worker programme.

Early career development

Early career development for social workers is also set to be shaken up by measures outlined in the government's Stable Home, Built on Love report. Ministers want to create a five-year early career framework (ECF) for children's social workers similar to the framework available to teachers. This would replace the current assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).

Through the ECF the government hopes to introduce “an expert practitioner level” for years three to five post qualifying, to help social workers to move to child protection lead practitioner roles.

Plans to recruit up to 500 additional child and family Level 6 social worker apprentices are also included. The government says apprentices “are more likely to be from the communities they work in and so will be more likely to reflect their diversity”. Councils will be encouraged to support staff to become apprentices.

In addition, the DfE and Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) are working on plans to improve training bursaries and support grants.

Agency workers

The government is also keen to tackle councils' reliance on agency staff. A 2023 consultation set out plans such as pay caps and a three-month ban on social workers leaving a council role to do more lucrative agency work in the same area.

A minimum requirement of five years' post-qualifying experience before being able to work for an agency is also being considered.

The Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) wants the local cooling-off period for council workers leaving to join agencies extended to at least six months.

But a survey by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found two in five social workers would quit the profession if restrictions were put in place on agency work, which many see as more flexible and better paid.

Training standards

In March, social work regulator Social Work England (SWE) launched its new three-year strategy, which promises to build on plans to simplify training frameworks plus guidance for providers on improving equality, diversity and inclusion.

Training standards include requiring social work students to spend 200 days learning in practice settings.

Social worker teaching, supervision and assessment is carried out by practice educators. SWE is looking to “develop a closer relationship” with these trainers including assuring their work. It has commissioned academic research into their role, with a final report due in September 2023.

Student social workers are registered in all parts of the UK, except England. SWE says any move to proceed with student registration in England “would require full public consultation and legislative change”.

During their registration year social workers must record a minimum of two different pieces of continuing professional development (CPD), including one on peer reflection.

A formal consultation took place last year ahead of new guidance on readiness for professional practice, setting out the skills student social workers need to register with SWE. Guidance is expected by January 2024.

In May 2023, SWE set up a training advisory forum to bring together employers, course providers and social workers to support the body in implementing guidance.

Routes into social work

A three-year social work degree or a two-year master's are the main routes into children's social work. University courses include two placements. There are 83 providers delivering 297 courses.

Bursaries are available for 2,500 undergraduates and offer £4,862.50 (£5,262.50 in London) for the final two years of study. The postgraduate rate for 1,500 students is £3,362.50 (£3,762.50 in London).

Three-year university and employer-run integrated degree apprenticeships and fast-track routes are also available.

Fast-track providers include employer-based 14-month programme Step Up to Social Work for graduates, who receive a £19,833 bursary. Applications for the next Step Up to Social Work cohort in 2024 closed in April this year.

Child Protection

In May the DfE awarded fast-track provider Frontline a contract to train 500 specialist child protection social workers a year for three years from September 2024. Participants qualify as a social worker after their first year on the three-year programme. They can also complete a fully-funded Msc in advanced relationship-based social work practice with children and families in their final year.

Frontline's programme starts with a four-week readiness to practice stage, the majority of which is delivered online, with three days of residential teaching and regional events. The first year includes a 200-day placement at a council or children's trust with the second year focused on continuous professional development and mentoring. Frontline covers tuition fees and participants receive a tax-exempt bursary of £18,000, or £20,000 in London. According to the training body 99 per cent of those who qualify on the programme go on to work in social work.

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre), offers 27 training courses around child sexual abuse issues. Tailored training for designated safeguarding leads, social workers and those in education and police forces is also available covering topics such as sibling sexual abuse. New CSA Centre courses for 2023 focus on multi-agency working and child sexual exploitation among other issues.

Post-qualifying training

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) offers a range of opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD). Programmes on offer in 2023 include the online Child Protection Social Work Masterclass series, covering issues such as ethical challenges and substance misuse. BASW plans to launch online learning material to support social workers who qualified overseas and come to work in the UK, training for out of hours social workers, and sessions on neurodiversity and relational social work.

Frontline's Pathways CPD programme focuses on building social workers' leadership skills. The course is funded by the DfE and run in partnership with North Yorkshire County Council and Foundations, the What Works Centre for Children & Families. It offers training for supervisors, middle managers, heads of service and practice leaders. As of June 2023, more than 900 social workers have started the programme since it launched in 2022.

Residential care

The government's Stable Homes, Built on Love report says it will work with councils to create regional care co-operatives to plan, commission and deliver care in two areas with a view to an England-wide roll out.

This report also outlines plans to develop professional registration of the children's residential care workforce and explore the development of a leadership programme for new managers. This would run alongside a new knowledge and skills statement and training for all managers.

The government is also committed to undertaking a workforce census and highlighting case studies of good practice in recruitment, retention, qualifications, and training.

The 2023 State of the Sector survey by the Children's Homes Association (CHA) found nearly three quarters of providers say they are facing significant recruitment and retention challenges.

The CHA has concerns over the effectiveness of the government's proposals. Its deputy chief executive Mark Kerr describes plans for regional care co-operatives as “pie in the sky”, especially moves to pool budgets among councils that are already tackling deficits.

Meanwhile, he claims the workforce census is “not fit for purpose” because only a random sample of staff were asked for information.

CHA head of policy strategy Jen Robins worries that plans for professional registration of the workforce will be implemented in England ahead of the results of analysis into the effectiveness of the move. Registration will require a change in the law that could be introduced in 2024's parliamentary session.

Training for residential workers in supporting children with complex needs include a Level 3 course in therapeutic work with children and young people run by residential school Mulberry Bush. This has an option to continue to a Level 5 foundation degree, validated by the University of the West of England. Meanwhile, the Crossfield Institute, offers a Level 3 certificate in therapeutic group work with children and young people.

Supported accommodation

Provision for looked-after children and care leavers aged 16-17 in supported accommodation must now be registered with Ofsted and is subject to basic requirements around staff training, supervision and development. This includes a commitment by providers to arrange essential training where there are gaps in knowledge and skills among staff. Providers must apply to register with Ofsted by 28 October 2023, with inspections due to start in April 2024.


The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) is England's largest employer of social workers. Its 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.

Cafcass runs a Social Work Academy for newly qualified social workers, offering mentoring and training with social workers working towards a master's degree over three years. The academy was created to train and develop social workers to Cafcass's standards.

In April, Cafcass updated its practice quality standards for working with children and families in public law proceedings based on latest reviews and significant incident reports. These include standards around reducing delays and engaging with children.

In the same month the service also introduced standards for those working in private family court cases, covering issues such as understanding children's rights, welfare and safety. Other areas covered by these standards include tackling bias and prejudice and ensuring plain, jargon-free language is used with children and families.

Meet the practitioner

Richard Devine, children and family social worker, Bath and North East Somerset Council

Richard Devine's choice of career was informed by his late father's experiences as a child in care. His dad suffered abuse in a children's home and went on to become a social worker.

“I felt an obligation to finish off what he had started,” explains Devine, who was 16 when his father died. “I wanted to work with children in a way that made a positive difference and thought social work was an opportunity to do that.”

After completing his BSc in Social Work from the University of the West of England in Bristol he went on to do further training, including a master's degree in attachment studies from the University of Roehampton and local authority-run training on issues such as domestic abuse and substance misuse.

He has also completed Signs of Safety and Systemic Practice training and is now a trainer of social workers himself, delivering the British Association of Social Workers' child protection social work practice masterclass series this year.

He advises those considering a career in social work to seek out relevant work experience.

“Look for opportunities to work with children and families, ideally with social workers but also in community settings,” he says. He also advises listening to social work podcasts for further insight into profession.


There is no shortage of people saying they would like to foster, but the latest statistics from Ofsted suggest councils and independent fostering agencies (IFAs) are struggling to turn interested callers into carers.

In 2021/22, there were 138,075 enquiries in England, up 18 per cent on figures for 2017/18. But over the same period there was a five per cent fall in the number of places available. As of March 2022, there were 43,905 fostering households.

The Fostering Network says thousands of new foster families are needed to meet demand as around 30,000 children come into care every 12 months.

The government's Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy proposes action to improve recruitment and retention of foster carers, backed with around £25m investment over the next two years to ensure better support and allowances.

The Fostering Network offers training for prospective carers, shaped by standards outlined by the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments. The standards specify the need for carers to complete training after their applications are approved and be given a clear professional development plan to develop their skills.

The network offers the Skills to Foster training resource to help prepare prospective carers and new applicants.

A new edition of this will be available from the summer of 2023, with a greater focus on equality, diversity and inclusion and expanded content on child development, trauma and therapy.

The training package includes video tutorials and a series of masterclasses with the network's learning and development team as well as a “train the trainer” course for those who train and support foster carers.

Read more in the Children's Workforce Guide to Qualifications and Training 2023/24

Read the full guide online

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