Social workers returning to the profession after a long
break often find themselves at the bottom of the heap, despite
their many years of experience.
But things are different in education and health circles, finds
Turning up for work after a break that may have spanned several
years is a daunting prospect. For social workers the break will
probably have coincided with upheavals in policy, practice and
organisation, leaving returning staff feeling out of touch.
Yet despite the high vacancy levels for social workers up and
down the UK there is insufficient support available for those who
want to return to the profession. In some cases social workers
have, on their return, found themselves at the bottom of the salary
scale despite having years of experience before they took their
As it is down to individual employers to make arrangements to
update the skills of workers who have taken a career break, the
quality of the support varies from area to area.
There is no nationally approved refresher course for those
wanting to rejoin the profession and many in the sector believe one
should be introduced.
But how does the situation for social workers compare
with related professions? Do they offer return to work paths that
social work would be wise to copy?
About 13,000 teachers returned to the classroom in 2002 after
breaks. It isn’t necessary to attend a returners’
course before taking up a post but courses are available.
These are designed to update teachers on developments in
education and give them the opportunity to brush up on rusty
teaching skills via a supported school placement.
The courses are free, last between six and 12 weeks, and are run
by local education authorities, universities and colleges. They are
offered full-time and part-time and are available nationally. They
cover topics such as the national curriculum, literacy and numeracy
strategies, and classroom and behaviour management. Distance
learning courses are also an option.
Those on a Teacher Training Agency-funded returners’
course are entitled to a training bursary of £150 per week for
the duration of the course. In addition financial help is available
for child care.
For teachers who have not taught for seven years or more,
intensive returners’ courses are available. An individualised
training programme is put together consisting of between 140 and
165 taught hours as well as a supported school placement of at
least four weeks.
The National Union of Teachers says such refresher courses are
crucial. “So much change will have taken place in the time
they have been out of teaching. There are so many initiatives
coming from government that it is crucial that returning teachers
have a reintroduction to what is happening in the
profession,” says a spokesperson.
Midwives who have practised for fewer than 100 working days or 750
hours in the past five years are required to do a return to
midwifery practice programme.
The programmes are designed according to individual needs and
are run throughout the UK. They are run in partnership with
universities and the NHS and consist of a period of theory and
The courses vary according to the midwife’s experience and
how long they have been away. A midwife who has not been working
for five years will need to do about four weeks’ practice in
a maternity unit. Someone who has been away for 20 years will need
to do six months.
A distance learning programme has also been developed by the
Royal College of Midwives in collaboration with the Open
University. It has been accredited at diploma and degree level
through Sheffield Hallam University and allows midwives to start a
returners’ programme when it is convenient for them.
The returning midwife will not have to pay for the return to
practice programme and help is available for child care, books and
travel. A training bursary of at least £1,500 is also
available. On these courses midwives spend time in maternity units,
but here there are sometimes difficulties, says Carol Bates,
professional development adviser at the Royal College of Midwives.
“An individual on a return to practice course has to be
mentored by a qualified, experienced midwife. With staff shortages
it is difficult to do this,” she says.
Occupational therapists who have taken a career break are not
required to do any particular training before they return to
practice. However, new requirements for registering with the Health
Professions Council, which regulates the profession, are to be
introduced in July for those who have been out for two years or
Currently, organised refresher courses for occupational
therapists are not available, and “re-orientation”
schemes tend to be provided in the workplace under supervision.
This may involve spending time in different departments, going on
placements and attending training programmes. It could also involve
joining in teaching and practical sessions on a university
occupational therapy programme.
Return to practice education is free and those retraining will
receive at least £1,000 to support them. There is also help
available for child care, travel and books.
The College of Occupational Therapists says that people who have
had a career break will need reorientation and updating when they
return to work, and that all will have different needs. It suggests
people who want to return to work should contact the local
occupational therapy service manager to find out about vacancies
and help available for updating skills.
Julia Skelton, group head of practice at the College of
Occupational Therapists, says that social workers and occupational
therapists could potentially share refresher training. But, she
adds: “There may be generalised issues such as the policy
context and the environment but there may also be more specific
Trained nurses who have been out of the profession for five years
or more need to go on a return to practice course. These are free,
offered all over the country and are made up of theory and clinical
practice. The returner’s status on clinical placements will
be supernumerary, so they will not be a vital part of the
The return to practice courses are run according to demand and
may be available on a part-time basis. Financial support of at
least £1,000 is available during the course, and help with
travel, books and child care may also be possible. Each nurse
attending a return to practice course will be allocated two
mentors, a tutor in higher education and a practising nurse on the
Sue Howard, education adviser at the Royal College of Nursing,
says that the return to practice courses are crucial as people are
not able to go back to work without attending.
The NHS Careers website states that while there is no guarantee
that a returner will get the job they want, they will be eligible
to join the local bank offering part-time work on a flexible basis.
However, it says that often people on return to practice courses
find jobs in the wards or units where they did their clinical