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

Charlotte Goddard
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The number of children and family social workers in England is increasing, but there are also high rates of vacancies – 16.1 per cent in September 2020.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on social workers’ workload. A British Association of Social Workers (BASW) survey found it had also taken a toll on practitioners’ wellbeing with 68.3 per cent saying working from home made it more difficult to switch off.

Recruitment and training have been affected. “Neither are really back to normal,” says BASW professional officer for children and families Rebekah Pierre. “When so much is uncertain, it’s not surprising fewer social workers are seeking new roles and instead opting for stability and familiarity.”


The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, chaired by Frontline founder Josh MacAlister, published The Case for Change report in June 2021, setting out the need for a new approach to children’s social care in England. It called for more to be done to recruit and retain social care staff and ensure social workers have the right skills, knowledge and support.

Social Work England (SWE) is the regulator for all child, family and adult social workers. It set up a temporary register of around 13,400 former social workers who left the profession in the last two years to fast-track them into employment during the Covid crisis. Temporary registrations will close 14 days after the government declares the coronavirus emergency has ended.

New SWE education and training standards launch in September 2021, applying to all qualifying routes. They include a requirement for at least 200 days on placements with a greater emphasis on student support.

Routes into social work

The main route for entering child and family social work is a generic three-year social work degree or a two-year masters. University social work courses are based on students undertaking two placements. SWE currently approves 292 social work courses.

In 2021/22, bursaries of £3,362.50 (£3,762.50 in London) are available for 1,500 postgraduates in England. 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.

Specialist fast-track routes such as Frontline and employer-based 14-month programme Step Up to Social Work provide another route into social work. Students on the Step Up programme receive a bursary of £19,833 and can train in one of 23 regional partnerships involving more than 100 local authorities in England. Those who complete the scheme earn a postgraduate diploma in social work. Step Up to Social Work cohort 7 will start in January 2022. The government is considering whether future cohorts will take place. A third route is provided by degree apprenticeships.

A total of 23 Social Work Teaching Partnerships aim to tackle regional variations in supply of social workers and ensure availability of practice placements for students. An evaluation published in November 2020 found the programme had led to more collaboration between higher education institutions, local authorities and others, more and better placements and increased support for newly-qualified social workers.

Newly qualified social workers

The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) 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 availability of ASYE positions, compared to demand, continues to be problematic,” says Pierre. “This puts some graduates at a disadvantage when it comes to learning and professional development.”


The National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS), which aims to provide a clear career pathway for social workers, was extended to 13 more local authorities in 2020, bringing the total to 69. The assessment comprises an online multiple choice knowledge assessment and a simulated practice assessment. NAAS assessment centres were closed until June 2021 due to the pandemic but have started to open.

The accreditation system is not mandatory but the government hopes it will be widely adopted. An evaluation published in November 2020 found six in 10 respondents had received some training or support about NAAS, which the majority found helpful.


Social workers must record their continuing professional development (CPD) with SWE when they apply to renew their registration annually. SWE is currently consulting on proposed changes to carrying out and recording CPD, which will come into force in December 2021. Under the proposals social workers would record at least two pieces of CPD each year in their online account, one of which would be on a theme determined by SWE.

BASW runs a CPD accreditation scheme and launched its own CPD programme in 2019. New developments include weekly workshops aimed at practicing social workers and students on placement and weekly one hour lunchtime workshops. Learning outcomes are aligned with SWE requirements. BASW’s e-learning series Theory to Practice has covered issues including parental substance misuse, contextual safeguarding and remote working. BASW also 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.

What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC) has launched a three-part free training programme to support practitioners with evidence-based practice.

Practice supervisors

The Practice Supervisor Development Programme has delivered CPD for more than 1,100 social workers over the last three years, including face-to-face learning, group and one-to-one practice development sessions and self-directed study. During 2020 delivery moved to virtual platforms, and there are plans for 35 virtual cohorts in 2021. The programme has been extended with up to 700 additional places.

A course for managers of practice supervisors was launched in 2020. A further 12 cohorts are on offer during 2021.

Systemic social work

Systemic practice is a way of working that focuses on relationships and working in collaboration with families and professional networks. The Centre for Systemic Social Work was launched by Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith & Fulham councils in 2017. The DfE-funded centre 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, as well as a six-day Systemic Leadership course. It also runs a national Practice Leadership Development Programme for aspiring practice leaders.

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 March 2022. The project aims to find out if placing social workers in schools can build better relationships between social workers, schools, and families, and improve outcomes.

Child protection

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse delivers training in preventing, identifying, and responding to child sexual abuse. Training has moved online during the pandemic, reaching more than 2,000 professionals. The centre launched new courses in 2020 and 2021, covering harmful sexual behaviour and sibling sexual abuse. Longer programmes include a Train the Trainer course and the Child Sexual Abuse Practice Leads Programme.

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 has received DfE funding to run a cohort in 2022. 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. Lancaster University is Frontline’s higher education partner.

Frontline also runs the Firstline 10-month leadership development programme for social work managers. A DfE evaluation published in May 2021 reported the programme improved attendees’ levels of confidence and increased their expertise and ability to lead teams of frontline staff. The evaluation found 99 per cent of participants were satisfied or very satisfied with the training. There are 89 participants in the autumn 2020 cohort while 92 started in spring 2021. Another cohort will begin training at the end of September 2021 and two cohorts will take place in 2022.

Looked-after children

In July 2021, the government published the results of a consultation on the regulation of the children’s home workforce. The majority of respondents felt professional registration would improve recruitment and retention. There was a consensus that professional standards should be established for people in care roles in children’s homes. The government has said it will keep the recommendation for a professional register for residential child care “under review”.

The National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care relaunched in January 2021 with the aim of developing and supporting access to theory, policy, practice and research. “We see less sharing of practice across providers than previously,” says principal partner Jonathan Stanley.

Private companies run over 80 per cent of children’s homes, with the remainder run by local authorities or the voluntary sector, meaning pay and conditions vary. “There is a need for one pay scale and one set of terms and conditions across the sector,” says Stanley. The centre is working on the creation of an association for registered managers and workers in children’s homes.

The government has proposed the introduction of national standards and Ofsted regulation for unregulated children’s homes such as requiring staff to have the skills to identify and act on signs a child is at risk of harm.


Recruitment and retention continue to be a challenge in the sector. “There is a national shortage of staff at most levels but in particular at registered manager or senior, qualified, levels,” says Liz Cooper, deputy chief executive officer at the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA). The ICHA’s 2020 State of the Sector report, published in November 2020, found more than 80 per cent of homes have managers in post, with 75 per cent being fully qualified. Over one third – 36 per cent – of providers report staff turnover levels above 20 per cent.

Ofsted’s most recent annual report, published in December 2020, reported a significant rise in the number of requirements for children’s homes to improve leadership and management. “We see homes without strong leadership that make poor decisions for children and staff, who are also unsupported,” states the report.

In August 2021 Ofsted amended children’s home guidance, saying it may consider registering a manager to manage two homes, a situation previously described as exceptional. “That is a retrograde step,” says Stanley. “There are sound reasons why there should be one manager for one home, and we are worried this opens up the possibility of one person managing even more than two homes. Senior staff in every home would then have to take on additional responsibility, effectively doing the manager’s job.”


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 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 will either be 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.

ICHA’s partnership with training provider Dialogue allows members to identify specific training requirements and receive discounts on training courses. Dialogue offers regular training at ICHA’s Registered Manager and Responsible Individual events.


In May 2021 social work charity Frontline launched the Headline programme, aimed at heads of service within local authority children’s services. Heads of service sit above team managers and below directors and assistant directors of children’s services.

The 12-month programme aims to equip leaders with the skills and knowledge to deal with a range of challenges, identified through research and consultation with sector experts, local authorities and experts by experience. These include keeping children and families at the centre of social work practice, developing an inclusive workforce, and cultivating effective multi-agency relationships. It also aims to develop participants’ strategic leadership skills and knowledge to maximise the impact they have on their service, teams and ultimately children and families.

After completing the programme, Headline leaders will join the Frontline Fellowship, a community of social workers who continue to develop their skills, share excellent practice and scope ideas and initiatives that will bring sustainable change for children and families.


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 120 associate FCAs, who are self-employed social workers.

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

Nagalro, the association for children’s guardians, family court advisers and independent social workers, expressed concern about the programme, saying Cafcass roles were “unsuitable” for newly qualified and inexperienced staff. Cafcass, however, says programme participants will be “robustly supported” through its Social Work Academy, which has mentors and 78 practice educators providing review, supervision and guidance.

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