An outcomes-based approach to social work education?

In a previous blog post I discussed the current review by the New Zealand Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) of its programme recognition standards. Since the programme recognition standards are what the SWRB use to recognise and (every five years) re-recognise a social work qualifying programme, any changes introduced as a result of the review would, in effect, reform social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand.  A consultant has circulated a survey amongst stakeholders to invite comment on the existing standards (SWRB, 2013) including: the graduate profile, the curriculum, requirements for fieldwork placement, admission criteria, modes of delivery, and staffing requirements. In my last post I discussed curriculum content and argued that specifying required curriculum content would hinder rather than help curriculum improvement. Instead, I argued that the focus of our attention ought not to be on curriculum inputs but on clarifying the outcomes of qualifying education. In this post I want to continue with that argument, reflect on the survey questions about the graduate profile, and consider what an effective, outcomes-based social work education might look like.

In the survey form circulated by the SWRB consultant there is a section inviting comment on the graduate profile that is included in the current programme recognitions standards. The survey ask the following questions:

The Policy Statement of the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB):  The process for Recognition/re-recognition of social work qualifications in New Zealand  describes eleven graduate attributes.

1.1 Are these attributes fit for purpose?  Do they ensure that a newly graduated social worker is competent to practise in all settings in Aotearoa/New Zealand?  Should they be more specific?

1.2 If not, please provide details of additional attributes you would like to see and the rationale for their inclusion.  Should any be deleted?  If so which?

In fact the SWRB process for programme recognition currently applies three sets of criteria that relate to the social work curriculum: these include the ten core competence standards that must be assessed before completion of the final student placement; a graduate profile of fourteen (not eleven, as stated above) attributes that graduates must achieve (and that programme learning outcomes must be mapped to); and ten curriculum indicators.

Although these three sets of criteria are expressed slightly differently, and some items appear in one list only,  many of the items have a significant degree of overlap. For example:

Core competence standard one: Competence to practice social work with Māori.

Graduate profile one: Demonstrate the ability to work in a bi-cultural context and acknowledge the centrality of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to social work as a professional and in practice.

Curriculum indicator 2.4: The curriculum is designed to ensure graduates will be competent to practise social work with Māori.

Of the three sets of criteria the core competence standards and the attributes of the graduate profile both take the form of outcome statements. Is is also worth noting that, although the programme recognition standards do not refer to them, the SWRB website includes a number of indicators for each of the ten core competence standards (between three and six for each competency with 45 indicators in all) and work has recently been conducted to expand on core competence one – competence to practice social work with Māori – adding a draft ‘kaitiakitanga’ framework grounded in Te Ao Māori principles.

This begs the question as to status of the graduate profile and its relationship with the core competence standards. The SWRB website states that the core competence standards “identify minimum standards of practice for the social work profession in New Zealand”; and the programme recognition standards state that the graduate profile “is the minimum expected outcome for students completing a SWRB recognised social work qualification”.  The programme recognition standards also state that, in relation to the ten core competence standards, graduating students should meet these “at a beginning practitioner level”, yet what a beginning, or advanced, or expert level of competence might look like is not identified.

To invite survey respondents to comment on the graduate profile, without recognising the relationship between the graduate profile and the core competence standards is, I believe, a mistake. In fact, maintaining two separate sets of criteria – one focussed on practice and the other on the academy – is also, in my view, a mistake. (Although, there are jurisdictions where the division between academic and practice outcomes are very much in evidence (see, for example, Health and Care Professions Council, 2015; Higgins, 2016)).

The achievement of an effective, outcomes-based, social work education requires that we articulate clear, unambiguous and realistic statements of intended graduate outcomes, competencies or capabilities. Also, if we are committed to continuing professional development, and recognise that social work learning is developmental in nature (Beddoe, 2014; Moriarty & Manthorpe 2014), we must adopt a whole of career approach and specify the outcomes we should expect at different points in the career journey.

As many of you will realise I am suggesting we take an outcomes-based approach not dissimilar to the English Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) developed by the Social Work Reform Board and now owned by the British Association of Social Workers. This framework sets out expectations on social workers at each stage in their career journey from entry to social work, to advanced and strategic level appointments. Importantly, from a social work education perspective, the PCF differentiates expectations on students at the point of entry to the programme, on pre-placement readiness for practice, at the end of the first placement, and at the end of final placement.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting the wholesale import of an English framework to Aotearoa New Zealand, but the development of our own distinctive framework built on a professional commitment to te Tiriti o Waitangi and an appreciation of indigenous practice models. Nonetheless, in my view, we can learn something from the holistic and developmental architecture of the PCF. It would be sensible to use our core competence standards as a starting point, though we may prefer to choose to express these as capabilities. (I won’t discuss the capabilities versus competencies debate in this post but readers may be interested in Taylor and Bogo (2014a), Burgess, Barcham, and Kearney (2014), Taylor and Bogo (2014b), and Higgins (2015).)

Social work authors have frequently noted the need for a shared understanding between key stakeholder of the outcomes of social work education (see for example Moriarty and Manthorpe, 2014; and Taylor 2015). The development of an Aotearoa New Zealand outcomes-based framework, especially one that specifies outcomes at more experienced and advanced level of practice, would need to be co-produced by a partnership of employers, education providers, regulators and service users. It would also need to ensure active engagement with tangata whenua and Pacific community stakeholders. This would ensure the outcomes are clearly specified and fit for purpose, whilst leaving educational designers (at pre-qualifying and post-qualifying levels) free to create innovative learning pathways for the achievement of those outcomes (Taylor, 2015). With an outcomes-based educational framework in place educators can design programmes that are consistently aligned with the outcomes but lead students towards them along different pathways: mainstream, kaupapa Māori, or faith-based pathways for example. Different pathways would not be considered as specialisms but simply different routes taken to acquire the same knowledge, skills and attributes described by the outcome statements. Since we know that it is the constructive alignment of a curriculum that determines its effectiveness (Biggs & Tang, 2011) the regulation of the social work curriculum can then focus on evidence of the alignment between the required capabilities and the learning activities, learning outcomes and assessment tasks of a particular curriculum.

Here I must declare an interest, since I am a member of enhance R2P: a social work education research project funded by the Ako Aotearoa National Project Fund to enhance the readiness to practise of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is a collaborative, sector-wide project focused on developing a professional capabilities framework to clarify the capabilities of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) and social workers at experienced and advanced levels of practice. In our view, developing a capabilities framework is not something that can be rushed. So, we are taking a three phase approach over three consecutive years: the first, will map out the topics in the current social work curriculum (in the process creating a taxonomy of terms for describing social work education); the  second will investigate the perceived readiness to practice of newly qualified social workers; and the third, highly participatory, phase of the project will co-produce (with employers, regulators, social work educators and service users) what we are currently calling a professional capabilities framework.

The project has been supported by the SWRB, and is being led by researchers from four universities and one polytechnic. Fourteen of the 17 tertiary institutions who, between them, offer 86% of all recognised social work programme in Aotearoa New Zealand are participating in the study. The project advisory group includes key professional organisations, the SWRB, a trade union and employers. The enhance R2P project provides the social work community with an opportunity to build an agreed framework for outcomes based social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand, founded on sound evidence of the current state of the curriculum and knowledge of our graduates current readiness to practise. Would it be unreasonable to propose that we delay amending graduate attributes until this national study reaches its conclusion?


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. doi:

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Burgess, H., Barcham, C., & Kearney, P. (2014). Short reply response to Taylor and Bogo, “Perfect Opportunity – Perfect Storm.” British Journal of Social Work, 44, 2067–2071. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcu029

Health and Care Professions Council. (2016). Review of the approval process 2012-2015: Social work education in England. Retrieved from

Higgins, M. (2015). How has the Professional Capabilities Framework changed social work education and practice in England? British Journal of Social Work, 1–16. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcv018

Moriarty, J., & Manthorpe, J. (2014). Controversy in the curriculum: What do we know about the content of the social work qualifying curriculum in England? Social Work Education, 33(1), 77–90. doi:10.1080/02615479.2012.761689

Taylor, I., & Bogo, M. (2014a). Perfect opportunity – perfect storm? Raising the standards of social work education in England. British Journal of Social Work, 44, 1402–1418. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bct077

Taylor, I., & Bogo, M. (2014b). Reply response to the concerns raised by Burgess, Barcham and Kearney about “Perfect Opportunity – Perfect Storm? Raising the standards of social work education in England.” British Journal of Social Work, 44, 2443–2447. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcu129\

Taylor, I. (2015). Discretion or prescription? Exploring confidence in qualifying social work education. British Journal of Social Work, 45(2), 493–510. doi: 0.1093/bjsw/bct124

Social Workers Registration Board. (2013). The process for recognition/re-recognition of social work qualifications in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

2 replies on “An outcomes-based approach to social work education?”

This morning I opened a message from an Irish colleague who is researching different models of post- qualifying education for social workers. He was asking me to describe New Zealand’s system. So I sadly explain, as I have many times to many international colleagues, that we have no post-qualifying education system for social workers. Our CPD hours requirement for registration is appallingly low. Our employers are poor employers by any measurement. We have people contracting with employers to be allowed minuscule time off to attend courses as long as they are prepared to make a ‘contribution’ by donating some of their annual leave. Social workers pay to qualify as supervisors ( direct immediate benefit to employers) from their own paltry salaries. And this includes CYF not just cash-poor NGOs.
So we have a government on the brink of contracting more and more work out to the NGOs and even to profit gouging service companies. Thus further abrogating responsibility for quality, effective practice. We need to include a decent PQ programme in all contracts. Will we get this? Probably not? Most social workers don’t want more education I am regularly told. They have their ticket. So those who do are criticised for being ambitious. Those who critique the system are accused of elitism. We can’t move forward until we address these issues.

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