Based on a PhD study, this article explores the experiences of students living in Cumbria and North East England who were undertaking one of two work-based learning social work degrees, one at a local face-to-face university the other at a national distance learning university. Whilst there is a long history of universities in England providing work-based learning routes in social work education, 2010 witnessed a revitalisation with the introduction of graduate schemes followed by apprenticeships in 2018, all situated within local authorities. The article focuses in particular on the significance of identity for work-based learners during their educational journey of ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ a student. By drawing on identity theory, the article analyses how identity is an important concept in understanding the challenges and opportunities for this group of students on their educational journeys into and through higher education. This includes learning for social work education providers about understanding the particular experiences of work-based learners and how to deliver social work education effectively for this group of students. The findings are relevant beyond England particularly as universities move to a more socially distanced mode of delivery as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.