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What is social care?



Social care is a profession where people work in partnership with those who experience marginalisation or disadvantage or who have special needs. Social care practitioners may work, for example, with children and adolescents in residential care; people with learning or physical disabilities; people who are homeless; people with alcohol/drug dependency; families in the community; older people; or recent immigrants to Ireland.

Social care has been defined by IASCE – the Irish Association of Social Care Educators – as:

a profession committed to the planning and delivery of quality care and other support services for individuals and groups with identified needs

It has been more formally defined as:

the professional provision of care, protection, support, welfare and advocacy for vulnerable or dependent clients, individually or in groups. This is achieved through the planning and evaluation of individualised and group programmes of care, which are based on needs, identified where possible in consultation with the clients and delivered through day-to-day shared life experiences. All interventions are based on established best practice and in-depth knowledge of lifespan development.

In the broader European context, social care work is usually referred to as social pedagogy and social care practitioners as social pedagogues. In the United States and Canada the term ‘child and youth care’ is commonly used.

What personal qualities do you need to be a social care practitioner?

A social care practitioner has ‘academic’ qualities that include: a broad knowledge base in their field; the ability to work both independently and as part of a team; research skills; and a problem-solving approach.

In addition, certain personal attributes tend to characterise practitioners, such as reliability and trustworthiness; altruism; empathy, compassion; and maturity. Social care practitioners must be open-minded and be prepared to examine and perhaps even change their own attitudes towards others.

Social care work can be very challenging – emotionally and physically - and can mean working in some very difficult environments – but it can also be uniquely rewarding.

What qualifications do you need to be a social care practitioner?

The professional qualification is currently a 3-year National Diploma. These courses will gradually be retitled Ordinary Degrees in the future. Many qualified practitioners go on to complete an Honours Degree in the field, and some may progress to postgraduate qualifications. Diploma and degree courses in social care are offered at the Institutes of Technology in Athlone, Blanchardstown, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee, Waterford, and at the Carlow College, and through the Open Training College (based in Goatstown, Co. Dublin).

The government has indicated that in the near future all those wishing to work in the social care field will have to be professionally qualified – the Ordinary Degree in Applied Social Studies (Social Care) will be the basic entry qualification.

A course of study in Social Care typically includes subjects such as sociology, psychology, social administration and policy, principles of professional practice, law, creative skills (art, drama, music, dance, recreation) and research methods. Many courses offer specialised modules in particular areas.

A key element of studying to be a social care practitioner is involvement in a number of supervised work practice placements of several months duration. Some students already working in the field (‘in-service students’) build on their existing skills by following a carefully supervised programme at work.

Social Care students are challenged to develop academically through deepening their knowledge, professionally, by learning and practicing social care skills, and personally, by developing a capacity to look at their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the work

Most social care courses actively recruit mature age students (23+ years) and those who have completed relevant FETAC and BTEC courses within the further education sector.

Where do social care practitioners work?

Enable IrelandFocus IrelandSocial care practitioners may be employed in either the State (statutory) sector - (for example for the Departments of Health and Children; Education or Justice) and in what is termed the non-governmental sector (in organisations such as Barnardos, the Brothers of Charity, Enable Ireland, Focus Ireland  and many others – many of which are fully or partially funded by government) and in community-based organisations.

Salary scales for qualified social care practitioners are (as of 2004) in the region of €28000-€39000 plus allowances. Salary scales for more senior positions such as childcare leaders are in the region of €38000-€44000 plus allowances.

What’s the difference between a social care practitioner and a social worker?

Social care practitioners will typically work in a direct person-to-person capacity with the users of services. They will seek to provide a caring, stable environment in which various social, educational and relationship interventions can take place in the day-to-day living space of the service user. The social worker’s role is typically to manage the ‘case’, for example by arranging the residential child care placement in which a child is placed, coordinating case review meetings and negotiating the termination of a placement.

It is possible for those with a degree in social care to qualify as a social worker via the postgraduate route. A number of Irish universities (eg UCD, TCD and UCC) accept the BA (Hons) in Applied Social Studies for applications to their postgraduate social work courses. There is no guarantee of entry and the universities continue to select their students according to their own criteria. If you are interested in following this route you are advised to contact the universities involved.

What is involved with a work placement on a social care programme?

Work placements are central to the education and training of most social care practitioners. Placements are found in a broad variety of settings, from crèches to drugs rehabilitation centres, to secure residential units, and may be in Ireland or overseas. The length of placement can vary from a short ‘agency visit’ to a half-year, full-time, depending on the course and year of study. Students are supervised on placement by experienced staff, must meet demanding learning outcomes, and are visited by an external supervisor for what is called the ‘3-way meeting’ between student, agency supervisor and college supervisor. The work placement aims to achieve many outcomes. In particular it: 

  • provides future social care practitioners with ‘hands on’ experience, in a variety of settings

  • helps to maintain close links between the social care agencies, practitioners and educators

  • introduces students to professional standards of dress, communication and punctuality

  • helps students to recognise their limitations and to manage their own expectations

  • provides experience of working therapeutically with clients

  • provides students with the opportunity to use their own initiative

  • helps students to develop their awareness of the needs and rights of various client groups

  • develops students’ skills in forming relations and communicating with others

  • develops students’ skills in working constructively with colleagues

  • provides practice in keeping records and using case files

  • emphasises the importance of confidentiality

  • develops confidence

  • assesses students’ fitness to practice as professional care practitioners

Graduate profile

Read the views of David Williams a graduate of the social care course at Dublin IT.

Further information

You can obtain further information about social care courses by contacting any of the educational institutions listed below: 


Contact person

Contact details

Athlone IT

Owen Ross or
Dr Niall McElwee

(090) 642 4400
(090) 647 1897

Ballyfermot College of Further Education

Sydna Farrer

(01) 626 9421

Blanchardstown IT

Dr Celesta McCann James or Rose Doolan

(01) 885 1322
(01) 885 1124

Carlow College

John McHugh or
Jean Gorman

(059) 9131114

Cork IT

Dr Áine de Róiste or
Tom Dennehy

(021) 432 6546
(021) 432 6550

Dublin IT

Dr Kevin Lalor

(01) 402 4163

Dundalk IT

David Getty

(042) 938 1786

IT Sligo

Dr Perry Share

(071) 915 5340

IT Tralee

Pat McGarty or
Colm O'Doherty

(066) 719 1716
(066) 719  1833

Limerick IT

Karen Sugrue or
Cathy Jones

(061) 208 208

Open Training College

Raymond Watson or
Enquiries Office

(01) 298 8544

Waterford IT

Fergus Hogan

(051) 302 252

last updated 22 Jul 2005