Social work – Children's Workforce Guide to Qualifications and Training

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The number of children and family social workers in England is increasing, but there are also high rates of vacancies. On average, local authorities had a 16.4 per cent vacancy rate in September 2019. Brexit is likely to affect social work recruitment, as social care workers have been excluded from the list of skilled categories that can apply for the Health and Care Visa.

In December 2019, Social Work England replaced the Health and Care Professions Council as the regulator for all child, family and adult social workers. In March 2020, it set up a temporary register of around 8,000 former social workers who had left the profession in the last two years, aiming to fast-track them into employment in response to the pressure placed on the profession by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In May this year, Social Work England launched new standards for education providers, aimed at improving consistency in the quality of training for students, including the requirement for a minimum of 200 days’ practice learning. The standards will be introduced from September 2021.

The main route for entering child and family social work is through a generic three-year social work degree or a two-year masters. University social work courses are based on students undertaking two placements. Due to the pandemic, education providers have been empowered to reduce the number of placement days a student has to complete, but students must still meet Social Work England standards at the point they wish to apply to join the register.

“We have seen some creative and imaginative ways of delivering placements, through online meetings with service users for example” says Hannah Brown, head of education and quality assurance at Social Work England.

In 2020/21, bursaries of £3,362.50 (£3,762.50 in London) are available for 1,500 postgraduates. Meanwhile, 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. Postgraduates can also access £4,052 in tuition fee contributions.

A second route into social work is employer-based 14-month fast track programme Step Up to Social Work, designed to attract high-calibre career changers. Students receive a bursary of £19,833 and can train in one of 22 regional partnerships involving more than 100 local authorities in England. Those who complete the scheme earn a postgraduate diploma in social work. The next Step Up to Social Work cohort will begin in January 2022.

Apprenticeships provide a third route. The number of providers offering apprenticeship courses is increasing. There are currently 313 Social Work England-approved programmes at 83 providers, including Approved Mental Health Practitioner courses.

The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) for newly qualified social workers provides access to training and development during practitioners’ first year of work, with regular reviews leading to a final assessment against national standards. Not all employers offer an ASYE course. “The lack of availability of the ASYE for some does create anxiety,” says Gavin Moorghen, professional officer and lead on children and families at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

The National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS), which aims to provide a clear career pathway for social workers, was extended to 12 more local authorities in 2020, bringing the total to 68. The assessment comprises an online multiple choice knowledge assessment and a simulated practice assessment involving a role play of two scenarios. All NAAS assessment centres have been closed until spring 2021, due to guidance on social distancing.

The accreditation system is not mandatory, but the government hopes it will be widely adopted. “We were concerned recently that there seem to be attempts to make it mandatory for some social workers,” says Moorghen.

BASW launched a continuing professional development (CPD) programme in October 2019, focusing on issues such as supporting the next generation of social work practitioners, leadership, and research and evidence-based practice. Webinar series include Professionals in Practice and Success in Social Work. In 2021, BASW will launch a new e-learning series. It has also developed an accreditation scheme for providers of CPD.

BASW runs a mentoring scheme, initially for newly qualified social workers, but expanded to cover social workers seeking advice on returning to social work and overseas social workers needing advice and guidance on working in the UK. It includes weekly mentor facilitated group sessions.

The Practice Supervisor Development Programme has been developed and delivered by a consortium of partners including Research in Practice. From September, the programme will offer more places for practice supervisors with up to five years’ experience. The consortium is also offering a new course for managers of social workers who have already completed the programme, which will look at how “middle leaders” can promote and model the skills and behaviours needed by practice supervisors.

A pilot project delivered by What Works for Children’s Social Care will place social workers in 80 secondary schools from September 2020. The £6.5m programme, funded by the Department for Education (DfE), aims to embed social workers in secondary schools to reduce referral rates to children’s social care. Funding will cover the salaries of one team manager and up to eight social workers in participating local authorities.

Child protection

Social workers lack adequate training around child sexual abuse, according to a report published by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and others in February 2020. The government has launched a child sexual abuse support services transformation fund to develop and embed best practice in support for children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse.

Between October 2018 and January 2020, the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre) piloted an intensive training and development programme to create CSA Practice Leads, and support organisations to build their understanding and confidence in identifying and responding to CSA. The CSA Centre has adapted the programme for remote delivery and will be delivering a multi-agency programme and cross regional programme over the next six months.

The NWG Exploitation Network offers a range of foundation- and advanced-level courses covering child sexual exploitation and wider exploitation suitable for organisations within the statutory and voluntary sector. The courses are accredited and count towards CPD.

The Frontline fast-track graduate programme aims to ensure trainees get the experience they need, while also bringing high-calibre graduates into child protection social work. The programme received additional funding from the DfE to run two new cohorts in 2020 and 2021. No additional funding for the programme has yet been confirmed.

Participants undergo an intensive five-week residential training programme, followed by two years working in a local authority child protection team while studying towards a masters qualification. In their first year, successful participants qualify as a social worker. In their second, they complete their ASYE. This year, the summer institute was delivered through online teaching and participants began their local authority placements in September.

In 2020, Lancaster University became Frontline’s higher education partner, with plans to qualify 900 new social workers on the 2020 and 2021 cohorts. Of those who start, 92 per cent qualify as social workers, 85 per cent have completed or are on track to complete the two-year programme, and 75 per cent of those who have finished the programme completed all 60 credits of their masters qualification.

Frontline also runs the Firstline 10-month leadership development programme for existing social work managers. Delivery for the autumn 2019 cohort culminated in Firstline’s first online residential, with 71 leaders completing the programme in July 2020. Firstline will only run one cohort in 2020 rather than two.

Looked-after children

In January 2020, Ofsted’s annual report expressed concerns about children’s home staff qualifications and training. The inspectorate called on the government to develop a workforce strategy to increase capacity and competence.

The DfE is consulting on the regulation of the children’s home workforce, with proposals including the introduction of a knowledge and skills statement. It is also consulting on unregulated children’s homes, including plans to introduce a minimum national standard for accommodation. The government has also pledged to undertake a review of the care system.

“We would like to see the review recommend the return of the requirement that social work students undertake a placement in residential children’s care,” says Jonathan Stanley, principal partner at the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC).

The sector is facing a recruitment crisis, particularly when it comes to managers. The Independent Children’s Homes Association’s 2020 State of the Market report found perception of the sector in the media was seen as a contributing factor. Staff turnover is high – 48 per cent of providers report staff turnover levels above 20 per cent, while according to Ofsted, 34 per cent of children’s homes had new managers in 2018/19.

Since January 2015, staff working in children’s homes in England have been required to obtain the Level 3 Diploma for Residential Child Care. Managers are required to hold the Level 5 diploma, but are given up to three years to gain it. According to Ofsted, the proportion of staff with the required Level 3 qualification has increased eight percentage points since 2017/18, standing at 61 per cent, with a further 21 per cent undertaking the qualification. The percentage of managers with a level 5 diploma has increased to 51 per cent.

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.

Along the way, participants will either be expected to gain a Level 3 Diploma in Residential Child Care or a 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.

Training for care home staff must evolve to meet the changing needs of young people arriving in children’s homes, says NCERCC’s Jonathan Stanley. “There is a need for further professional development to provide a safety net of good practice around trauma, gangs and child sexual abuse and exploitation, for example,” he says. “This kind of training should be integral to being seen as qualified.” National professional development support, along the same lines as the What Works Centre for Social Work should also be available to children’s home staff, he says.

The NCERCC is set to relaunch in September 2020, developing and supporting access to theory, policy, practice and research. It will include two new mini-sites, Re:thinking Residential Child Care and Re:thinking Children’s Commissioning. In September, the centre also plans to launch a Children’s Home Association for Registered Managers.


The Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD) tool assesses the extent to which organisations support the wellbeing of their staff and promote optimum social work practice. Launched in December 2019, SWORD was developed by academics at the University of Bedfordshire and Birkbeck University, in partnership with Research in Practice. The tool includes an online staff survey, which aims to provide feedback on organisational strengths and weaknesses in areas including wellbeing, appreciation of staff, team building and lifelong learning.

An overview of the findings are sent to the organisation with a “traffic light” system profiling performance across five key principles. Red means urgent action is needed. An accompanying workbook contains a range of evidence-informed practical tasks and interventions to support improvements, including “quick wins” and more in-depth strategies.

“We are including a set of questions on Covid-19,” says Birkbeck’s Dr Gail Kinman. “Social workers are having to change their practice considerably, and there is some evidence of moral distress in cases where professionals feel they have to act in ways that contradict their training due to difficulty in accessing resources, for example.”


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 services setting. Meanwhile, heads of practice provide leadership over particular geographical areas. Cafcass currently contracts 133 associate family court advisers, who are self-employed social workers.

Cafcass offers a wide range of training opportunities. “Our wider learning and development offer for 2020/21 will focus on issues of unconscious bias, domestic abuse and risk assessment,” says Natalie Wyatt, Cafcass improvement manager.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on Cafcass’ work. The organisation has produced training materials focusing on technical issues of video conferencing and the nuances of how to communicate effectively and safely with children and families in the context of the pandemic.

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