Phase one: Mapping the curriculum

Research question

What is the content of the current social work curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand how does it relate to the ten core competence standards of the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB)?


Fourteen of the 17 tertiary education institutions offering social work degree programmes agreed to participate in the Enhance R2P study. Between them these institutions offered 19 of all recognised social work programmes. Of the 19 programmes included in the study, 14 were bachelor’s degree programmes, two were bachelor’s honours degree programmes, and three were master’s degree programmes. It is important to note that neither of the two wānanga offering recognised social work programmes agreed to take part in the study, therefore, the findings reflect the curricula of mainstream programmes, although all state they are committed to bicultural practice.

Two methods were deployed. Firstly, to describe the declared curriculum, we conducted an analysis of 402 curriculum documents describing participant’s courses. These documents were ingested to a specially created curriculum database where metadata was added, and documents mapped to key educational terms derived from an educational taxonomy created by the project team. This method allowed the team to create data visualisations of the curriculum and to analyse similarities and differences between programmes. Secondly, to explore perceptions of the taught and the learned curriculum, focus groups were held at eight of the participating institutions for educators (N=27) and social work students (N=35).

Indicative findings

Core educational content is similar, but course design and emphases differ

Both high-level analyses of course titles and more detailed term-based analysis of curriculum documents indicates that social work curricula in Aotearoa New Zealand have considerable commonality at both the level of courses and in terms of topics included. However, the analysis also suggests significant diversity in the way that topics are woven together into courses, the credits associated with particular course types, the use and proportion of electives, the educational level at which particular topics are taught and the extent to which particular programmes give emphasis to particular topics. Such diversity in curriculum design is not necessarily negative, so long as students achieve key educational outcomes.

There were fifty-five different course types

A high-level analysis of course types revealed 55 different types of social work course with research as the most common course type appearing most frequently at level seven (typically the third year of a degree). Other course types such as human development and sociology tend to cluster at level five as part of a first-year introduction to the social sciences. Courses focussed on the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Ao Māori also tend to be introduced at level five. In around a third of course types identified, the course occurred at only one institution: this included course types focussed on family violence, disabilities, risk assessment and youth justice.

There are over 600 different educational topics

A more fine-grained analysis of key educational topics using the taxonomy showed that course documents referred to over 600 educational topics – such as attachment, supervision and kotahitanga (15% of the educational terms included in the taxonomy were terms in te reo Māori). Analysis showed that the top 50 most frequently cited terms in university and non-university course descriptors are exactly the same. However, the frequency of occurrence of particular terms varies between institutions indicating differences of emphasis, at least in the written documentation (or declared curriculum).

Differences in core curriculum areas

A detailed analysis of five core curriculum areas – human development; child protection, risk and family violence; mental health, addictions and trauma; physical health and disability; and, te ao Māori – reveals differences in the extent of coverage of these terms in the curriculum documents of participating institutions. These are described in detail, including data visualisations, in the phase one report. However, the absence or inclusion of a topic in curriculum documentation may not relate to its presence in the taught curriculum or the learned curriculum.

The ten SWRB core competence standards

Mapping the ten core competence standards to curriculum documents proved to be imprecise and unreliable. Judgements about mapping were inconsistent because the standards are open to a significant degree of interpretation and include a degree of overlap. This is an important finding about the nature of the current core competence standards.

Whist curriculum mapping offered insights into the declared curriculum, the educator and student focus groups explored perceptions of the taught and the learned curriculum. In terms of messages intended by educators and received by students there was a strong concurrence in relation to theory-practice integration, the importance of bicultural practice, a commitment to social justice and an emphasis on the ‘use of self’ and reflective practice. 

Theory-practice integration and the key role of fieldwork placements

Both educators and students emphasised the centrality of good, well-supervised field placements in the preparation of beginning social workers and in the process of integration of curriculum content and skills in actual practice settings. However, both students and educators reflected on the variability of high-quality supervision (this issue is explored reported in detail in Hay et al., 2018). Students also mentioned the value of practical learning activities such as problem-based learning, visits to field settings and hearing speakers from the field.

Bicultural and cross-cultural practice

The value of different sources and types of knowledge for practice and a strong need to balance Māori and Western models and approaches was recognised by both educators and students, as was the aspiration to develop a genuine, bicultural social work education. However, despite evidence that terms in te reo Maori are liberally sprinkled throughout the curriculum, some educators and students were less convinced that their curriculum was successful in this regard. In addition, many respondents considered that growing population diversity in Aotearoa New Zealand meant that educating for cross-cultural practice, including working with Pacific peoples, was a strong educational need that was not being fully met.

Ethics and social justice

Both educators and students considered that a concern for ethics and social justice were central preoccupations in the social work curriculum. However, some students expressed less motivation to research wider societal issues. Educators considered there to be pressure from external actors to narrow social work practice, and social work education, to micro level practices concerned with individual and family casework at the expense of community development and other macro approaches to social work.

Critical reflection and the use of self

Educators and students recognised the value of promoting students ‘use of self’ and awareness of self and others in interaction, and on developing student’s ability for critical reflection. The development of personal attributes and practice readiness were thought to be dependent on experience over time, effective placement supervision and learning about the ‘use of self’ and self-care. The gradual growth of students’ self-confidence was considered to be critical (that such gradual developmental growth occurs is supported in the findings from the phase two report on NQSWs readiness to practice).

Genericism and continuing professional development

A generic social work qualifying education was strongly supported by educators, followed by good workplace induction, support and opportunities for further professional development. Educators recognised the need for learning to continue during the early career of newly qualified social workers, and that learning and development support from the employing organisation, during the transition to experienced practitioner status, was considered to be vital.

Significant topics

Educators identified learning about trauma as an important topic but were concerned about an overly narrow focus on childhood trauma. Risk assessment was considered to be an important topic but some argued for a balance between the use of risk tools and the broader assessment of strengths and vulnerabilities. Mental health, child protection and family violence were all considered to be vital components of the curriculum, although differences were evident in terms of the integrated teaching of these topics across the curriculum versus dedicated, specialist courses.

Students identified perceived gaps in the curriculum although these gaps seemed to be specific to particular programmes.