Social work education and registration: Educating for social justice or learning to ‘not notice’

In 2001 Amy Rossiter asked the critical question:  ‘do we educate for or against social work‘.  She wrote  about being

 exhausted and beleaguered  by a lifetime of being positioned as a “professional helper” by a state that organizes the people’s problems as individual pathologies that are best administered by professionals who are trained not to notice the state. (p.1, emphasis added)

I suspect many social work educators feel the same. And in Aotearoa New Zealand we are being asked to ‘not notice’ the erosion of the welfare state, and ‘not notice’ poverty, homelessness, health inequalities and the institutional racism which pervades Māori experience of state institutions.  We are  being asked to ‘not notice’ the erosion of political commentary and debates in news media saturated by sport and inane clickbait  sensationalism. In this culture it becomes more vital for social work educators to teach students to notice, and to question (Beddoe & Keddell, 2016), and to resist the encroachment of  politicians into social work education.

In this post I discuss the need for social work vigilance in protecting critical, research informed social work education from government interference in curriculum. The freedom and focus of social work education is closely tied to registration.  In 2003 Steve Maharey , speaking about the registration legislation , said he wanted ”to enable a breadth of experience in the social work domain; not to limit it. This government wants the social work profession to be in the driving seat in determining its own professional standards. After all, you’re more qualified”.

I’m not so sure that the present administration believes that. The lack of any meaningful engagement with social work education by the Rebstock panel didn’t fill me with optimism. Yes,  I met with the panel – I flew to Wellington at my own expense. I had written earlier in my blog ‘A surfeit of inexpert opinion and the legacy of failure to invest in social work?‘ about the failure of this National government to support quality social work  via a well-resourced education system. Instead we had nothing on the table…..

No discussion with the universities, no request to review the curriculum, no investigation of workforce development needs… Nothing. So what is the agenda? Inevitably this comes down to politics. The Minister probably wants cheaper graduates and preferably compliant bureaucrats who will be uncritical and apply interventions to families.

Right now submissions are open on the review of the SWRA 2003. An issues paper is available here which explores the possibilities for mandatory registration, the competency system,  the disciplinary tribunal system and potential changes to  the powers of the SWRB  regarding removal of the right to practice and so forth. And these are all very important issues. I want to encourage NZ social workers to grapple with the issues paper, despite its length and complexity.

I often observe a lack of  clarity about the role of statutory registration. I have written on my own blog about the significant differences in the functions and potentials of SWRB and ANZASW. If there is only one thing every NZ practitioner needs to understand is that SWRB is a crown entity and thus an arm of the state. As such the SWRB  can work in our interests but it does not act for us. In developing the form of registration we have now,  we have moved away from self-regulation which is the system in Australia. As such we must not be naive about the extent that any government – whether well-disposed to social work or not- can exercise a great deal of power over our profession.

Despite grumbles over costs and the confusion over whether you can dip in or out of registration as it suits you and your budget (you can’t) mostly we have been very fortunate. We have a SWRB board and administration that has been very engaged with social workers, our professional bodies and the schools of social work. The SWRB has pushed for much greater standardisation of programme length so now we are in line with most countries with entry being a four year BSW equivalent or a qualifying master’s degree. This will benefit our profession in the international environment and help build a workforce that is better educated and able to utilise, research and create relevant local knowledge through scholarship and research.

However we should not be complacent and imagine that we will just move forward.

The current review of the SWRA opens the discussion about many aspects of registration. And this includes social work education, as a recognised qualification is needed to meet the requirements for registration. Social work education is a contested site. It has been for decades (Ritchie, 1997; Nash and Munford, 2001, Beddoe, 2014).  There is always a tension between the short term goals of politicians who want messy and complex problems to go away and the long haul efforts for social justice and human rights and social work education itself can be scapegoated. The Global Standards document Education and Training for the Social Work Profession (IASSW, 2005) provides a framework to guide schools of social work in developing and reviewing curriculum.   There is however an understanding that social wok education must prepare people for local practice. But how local and who decides? Political interference is rife  in other settings, (see for example Ferguson, 2016).

The danger is that in the rolling out of outcomes of the Rebstock review of Child, Youth and Family (see various posts here) the broad focus of social work is lost. There is a real risk that social work educators will be pressured into teaching very narrow, individualised methods which focus on fashionable but dubious approaches, which  stem from demonising families and  denying the impact of poverty and social exclusion. There is a risk that social work with adults, people  with disabilities, mental health and so forth will be diminished in social work curricula. The Rebstock panel was ill-informed about social work beyond CYF, surprised for example that CYF only took about a quarter of the graduates.  It is not for the Minister of Social  Development to define social work or to assume that government can interfere in curriculum. We are an international profession and we prepare graduates for wide fields of practice here and across the globe. We need graduates who are international in their perspectives  while being grounded in their own communities. This is not an easy task. But as Iain Ferguson (2016, p.10) has written very recently we need to resist the :

‘reform’ of social work education which would cut the value base of social work, involve an anti-intellectualism which would leave workers ill-equipped to address complex situations and collude in the demonisation of service users as solely responsible for their own problems. It is in these movements and in these strivings – political, academic and professional – that the hope for a different kind of social work lies.

This is not a time, colleagues, to not notice the state.


Beddoe , L. (2014). A matter of degrees: The role of education in the professionalisation journey of social work in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 26(2/3), 17-28.

Beddoe, L., & Keddell, E. (2016). Informed outrage: Tackling shame and stigma in poverty education in social work. Ethics and Social Welfare, 10(2), 149-162. doi:10.1080/17496535.2016.1159775

Ferguson, I. (2016). Hope over fear: social work education towards 2025. European Journal of Social Work, 1-11. doi:10.1080/13691457.2016.1189402

IASSW. (2005). Global Standards for  the education and training for the social work profession. Joint Statement by IASSW and IFSW. Retrieved 4 September 2010, 2005, from here

Maharey, S (2003). Speech. ACE 21st Birthday conference. Auckland College of Education:  Auckland.

Nash, M., & Munford, R. (2001). Unresolved struggles: Educating social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Work Education, 20(1), 21-34.

Ritchie, J. E. (1967). The relation of the university to the profession of social work. New Zealand Social Worker: News and Opinions, 3(4), 3-13.

Rossiter, A. (2001). Innocence lost and suspicion found: Do we educate for or against social work. Critical Social Work, 2(1).  Read in full here.

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