European perspectives on social work

Comparative research undertaken by the Thomas Coram Research Unit found that social workers in England have more responsibility and a wider remit than many of their continental European counterparts.

Social workers in England have responsibility for all aspects of case management and direct contact with families, but in much of continental Europe these responsibilities are split between several different highly-trained professionals. 

In England, most direct work with children and families is undertaken by support staff, many of whom have no specialist qualifications. In Denmark, Germany and France, most of this work is undertaken by professionals highly qualified in therapeutic and direct work, working alongside social workers. 

The report’s authors, Dr Janet Boddy and Professor June Statham, called for a fundamental reassessment of what social workers can and should be expected to do.

Main findings

  • Social workers spend between 80% and 90% of their time on indirect work such as assessment, planning and review. This split has remained broadly constant over the last seven years but the tasks required of children and family social workers within the Every Child Matters framework have become more time consuming. 
  • Social workers are also younger than in the past, with the proportion under the age of 24 having doubled in the last five years (20% in 2003/04 compared to 39% in 2007/08). The minimum age, previously set at 22, has now been abolished.
  • Social workers in England are now required to have a Bachelor’s degree, but concerns remain about the level of experience and training among those undertaking challenging work with children and families.
  • In England, staff who undertake most of the direct work with children and families, such as social work assistants, family support workers and sessional workers are not required to have a professional social work qualification, and have a mix of experience and training, rarely to degree level. 
  • In many continental European countries, most staff carrying out direct work with families have a common Bachelors-degree level qualification in “social pedagogy”, offering a workforce alongside social workers that is specifically qualified for therapeutic and direct work with families and children.
  • In many continental European countries, child psychologists are routinely based within multi-disciplinary social services teams; this contrasts with the UK, where psychologists are usually based in separate Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and educational psychology teams, with high thresholds for involvement in social services work.
Project details



June Statham and Janet Boddy, Thomas Coram Research Unit

Funding programme

Children and Families

Grant amount and duration

April 2009 - June 2009




European Perspectives on Social Work: Models of Education and Professional Roles, Janet Boddy and June Statham, Institute of Education, October 2009

Download briefing paper (PDF)