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Helping others or a rewarding career? Investigating student motivations to train as social workers in England

Stevens, Martin and Moriarty, Jo and Manthorpe, Jill and Hussein, Shereen and Sharpe, Endellion and Orme, Joan and Mcyntyre, Gillian and Cavanagh, Kate and Green Lister, Pam and Crisp, Beth (2012) Helping others or a rewarding career? Investigating student motivations to train as social workers in England. Journal of Social Work, 12 (1). pp. 16-36. ISSN 1468-0173

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Understanding why people want to be social workers is important both for developing social work education and for the profession as a whole. This article presents evidence about the motivations of students enrolled on social work degree programmes in England and draws on data from 3000 responses of three successive intakes of students responding to six online surveys and 26 focus group interviews involving 168 students from nine different social work programmes in six case study sites. The article locates these data in the context of earlier studies of social workers’ motivations, the changing policy context and the changes introduced by the new degree. Similar to previous studies, the current analysis shows that altruistic motivations dominated, but students were also influenced by career issues and the day-to-day aspects of social work. The data highlight continuities with the former qualification in social work in the UK (the DipSW) and provide evidence that the introduction of the social work degree has not dramatically changed the underlying motivations of social work students. Understanding student motivations is important in terms of recruitment to social work qualifying programmes and subsequent retention within the profession. Social work educators and employers need to pay attention to the consequences of mismatches between motivations and expectations about what professional practice involves.