Introducing social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand

Extracted from: Ballantyne, Beddoe, Hay, Maidment & Walker (2017). Social work education, curriculum mapping and educational taxonomies. Wellington: Ako Aotearoa. Retrieved from:


Social work in Aotearoa New Zealand appeared early in the 20th century with early proponents favouring selection of those whose personal attributes would be developed by building on their prior experience in teaching and nursing (Beddoe & Deeney, 2012; Beddoe, 2014). Mary Nash (1998) has provided the most comprehensive account of social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand and reports that social work education in the tertiary education sector was inaugurated in 1950 at what is now Victoria University of Wellington (Nash, 2001). By the 1960s the professional association, the New Zealand Association of Social Work (NZASW), had aspirations for the intensification of social work education in universities (Ritchie, 1967).  Ritchie’s prescription for a strong profession was for social workers to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in social sciences, followed by a two-year postgraduate social work programme, then an internship year (Ritchie, 1967, p.11).

Social work education provision flourished in the period 1973-1986 as new degree programmes began at Massey university (in 1976) and Canterbury university (in 1980), and a new diploma was established at the Auckland College of Education (in 1982). While demand for social work education increased there were many debates about the location and accessibility of programmes. Daniels reported that 14% of social workers held a qualification in 1969 (Daniels, 1973), yet by 1981 another study found that only 12% of social workers held a social work qualification (Rochford & Robb, 1981).

Nash and Munford (2001) outline the role of the NZ Council for Education and Training in the Social Services during this time which developed requirements for level A and Level B certificates. This work led to the proliferation of programmes with relatively low entry requirements.  The council  was later replaced by another body, Te Kaiawhina Ahumahi Industry Training Organisation (TKA), which expanded  the base of lower-level qualifications, including a work-based training option where practitioners were not taught but assessed in the workplace (Beddoe, 2014). By the 1990s there was much confusion about standards for social work education (Randal, 1997). In spite of the early aspirations for social work to become a university educated profession, by the 1990s entrants to the profession could possess anything ranging from no tertiary qualifications at all, a certificate, a degree (in anything at all) or an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in social work (Nash, 1998; Nash & Munford, 2001). Competency became a proxy for qualifications in the early 1990s when debates about registration based on qualifications could not be resolved (Beddoe & Randal, 1994).

At the turn of the century the tide had turned and a major review of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services called for the registration of social workers and improvements in qualifications (Brown, 2000). The development of a non-mandatory system of registration for social workers became a political remit of the then Minister of Social Policy (MSP). The ensuing political sponsorship of registration was an outcome of a decade of criticism of public sector social work, reported critically in the Brown report (Brown, 2000). In 2000 the MSP distributed a discussion paper, “Registration for Social Workers”, as part of the consultation on establishing a formal system for the registration of social workers and this was generally supported by the main political parties (MSP, 2000). A summary of the findings of the consultation reported that all respondents were in favour of the registration of social workers (MSP, 2001).

The stated aim of registration was to “set and maintain high levels of professionalism and minimum standards of practice; result in increased safety and protection for all stakeholders … and provide a formal mechanism for accountability for the … profession’ (MSP, 2001, p.1). While most submissions supported registration, notable reservations addressed the potential exclusion of practitioners who lacked qualifications, especially youth and community workers and Māori social workers. These concerns were to be addressed by improving regional access to qualifying programmes and support, especially for the non-government organisation (NGO) sector.

The Social Worker Registration Act (2003) came into effect in October 2004. The Act required the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) to set a benchmark qualification for registration. The SWRB was guided by the finding in the consultation process that 91% of respondents thought the board should set the entry criteria (MSP, 2001, p.7). However there had been some debate about whether setting educational standards as entry criteria should be a function of the registration board or of a separate education council established under the same Act (MSP, 2001, p.7).  The Education and Practice Standards Committee of the SWRB undertook a rapid consultation process and developed a schedule of current and historical qualifications in social work.  While this process was critiqued by a sector struggling with the impact of change the timeframes were set within the legislation itself (Beddoe, 2007; Beddoe & Duke, 2009).

Social work education remains a contestable site. There is broad agreement that preparatory education should produce graduates with a set of knowledge(s), skills, values and dispositions (Nash, 2001, p.29). However, “just what that knowledge set is, who determines its features, which dispositions are the ‘right’ ones” (Beddoe, 2014, p.22), and how all this is transmitted remains a site of struggle and debate (Nash & Munford, 2001).  Over the decade since the inception of registration there has been a broad consensus among stakeholders about the content and form of social work degrees.  To ensure there are criteria for the review of programmes for the purposes of recognition the SWRB set out its expectations (SWRB, 2015). These are generally not very prescriptive, with the exception relating to the requirements for field placements. Table 1 outlines the SWRB expectations with regard to core competence standards. On examination the core competence standards align closely with the practice standards adopted by the professional association of social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZASW, 2015) and reflect fairly universal expectations for social work. At present, there are 17 tertiary institutions (nine polytechnics, five universities, two wānanga, and one private tertiary institution) offering 19 SWRB recognised social work programmes to over 400 student FTEs each year (SWRB, 2014).

Table 1: SWRB core competence standards

Core competence standards
1. Competence to practice social work with Māori.

2. Competence to practise social work with different ethnic and cultural groups in Aotearoa New Zealand.

3. Competence to work respectfully and inclusively with diversity and difference in practice.

4. Competence to promote the principles of human rights and social and economic justice. Adherence to professional social work ethics.

5. Competence to engage in practice which promotes social change.

6. Competence to understand and articulate social work theories, indigenous practice knowledge, other relevant theories, and social work practice methods and models.

7. Competence to apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments.

8. Competence to promote empowerment of people and communities to enable positive change.

9. Competence to practice within legal and ethical boundaries of the social work profession.

10. Represents the social work profession with integrity and professionalism.

(Social Workers Registration Board, 2015)

Social work education has been advised to avoid complacency about the extent to which the profession sets its standards (Beddoe, 2014). A former social development minister foreshadowed criticism of the readiness to practise of social workers in a speech at the ten-year anniversary of the Social Worker Registration Act (Bennett, 11 November, 2014). This criticism was echoed by the Commissioner for Children in 2015 (Radio NZ, 2 April, 2015) who questioned social work graduates’ knowledge of family violence and their preparedness for work in child welfare services.

Alongside criticism of its outcomes, social work education continues to face some significant challenges. There has been no increase in the core funding for social work education which is funded at the social sciences rate[1]. This is inadequate to cover the real costs of intensive skills teaching and field education. The proliferation of programmes, and increases in student numbers since a low point in 2006, means that there is continuing pressure on teaching institutions to locate good quality fieldwork placements (Hay, Ballantyne & Brown, 2014). While schools of social work are infinitely creative in finding placements for students this is stressful and resource intensive for both tertiary providers and the wider sector (Hay & Brown, 2015). Further, current government social service and Child Youth and Family Service reforms are likely to create new challenges for tertiary providers to ensure graduate capabilities meet employer expectations.

[1] For example, in 2016, social work was funded at $6, 014 per student compared with nursing which sits in a different category funding and receives per student $10,338. Teaching is also more highly funded at $8,569.