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Remarkably little has been written about the history of social work education; it is most often relegated to a passing mention in another more general history text. A full reading list is available here - it is not nearly as comprehensive as it deserves to be.

Social work education today has been transformed from the kind of education and training that was available in the early days. We can see evidence of the changes by examining the curriculum, and by checking out the key texts that students and practitioners would have been relying on.

The curricula presented here relates to the University of Edinburgh. To find out more about the curricula of other universities, it is necessary to turn to wider reading on the history of social work education. We can also find lists of courses in the appendices of some of the seminal texts such as Younghusband (1947).  The list of university social science courses in 1949-50, as presented by Younghusband, is available here.

The list of key texts (presented in date order) gives a clear indication that UK social work knowledge and theory in the early years of the profession drew inspiration from the US, with a few notable exceptions; this did not change until the 1960s. We can also see the tension between social work’s community/social emphasis and its leaning towards an individual/casework approach. A third point to note is the high number of women writing about social work in the early years.


The Diploma in Social Study and Training was taken over 2 years, with academic classes in the afternoons and evenings and visits to agencies. There was also a series of lectures open to the public, inaugurated by the Secretary for Scotland.

Interestingly, the Second Annual Report notes that a decision had been taken to allow for experience gained during the war to count towards the practical element of the training. This states: “The end of the war has meant that large numbers of women, who have been engaged in nursing and in other war work, are now considering how best they can make use of the experience which they have gained”.

Year 1 Teaching

Social Ethics (Professor Seth, Professor of Moral Philosophy)

Social Economics (Miss MT Rankin MA, University Assistant in Political Economy)

Personal and Public Hygiene (Dr John Guy, Assistant Medical Officer and TB Officer for Edinburgh).

In addition, practical training was offered, described as ‘visits of observation to a wide range of agencies and individual work’, supervised by Mr John Watson BA. Three days a week was spent in practical work ‘so as to afford a wide and general experience of social conditions, and of the methods that are being adopted to remedy some of the most pressing social ills’ (Second Annual Report, 1918-19).

Year 2 Teaching

Industry and Social History (J.F. Rees MA, Lecturer in Economic History)

Personal and Public Hygiene (Dr John Guy, Assistant Medical Officer and TB Officer for Edinburgh).

Social Psychology (Dr James Drever, Combe Lecturer of Psychology)

Local Government (Lady Leslie Mackenzie (1859–1945) née Helen Spence was well-known for her campaigning work to chart the link between poverty and poor public health and to redress its effects, particularly among children)

Discussion class (conducted by James Seth, Professor of Moral Philosophy)

The practical work in the second year was described as ‘more specialised, e.g. assisting in the Welfare Department of a factory’ (Second Annual Report, 1918-19).


By this time, students who successfully completed the course (theoretical and practical) received a University Certificate in Social Study; those who had completed an MA qualified for the University Diploma in Social Study.

(University Calendar, 1922-23)


The above arrangement continued for some years, as this entry in the calendar demonstrates: “the School provides courses of study and training for those preparing for social work, whether official or voluntary. The University has instituted a Diploma in Social Study for graduates in Arts and a Certificate for non-graduates; the University Settlement is used in connection with the practical side of the training.”

(University Calendar, 1927-28)


The calendar notes the regulations as before, and also includes information about the Advisory Committee. This was convened by Sir John Lorne Macleod who had been Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1916 to 1919. Other committee members demonstrate the continuing strong links between 'town and gown' that characterised the work of the School:

Councillor Allan, Councillor W. Kinloch Anderson, Miss Anne Ashley, Mrs George Kerr, Lady Leslie Mackenzie, Dr John Guy, Baillie Andrew Young, Miss Alice Younger , Professor F.W. Ogilvie (Chair of Political Economy from 1926, later becoming the second Director-General of the BBC) and Miss Nora Milnes (Director of the School of Social Study and Training).

Teaching (Years 1 and 2)

Psychology (Professor Drever)

Education (Professor Thomson)

Social & industrial problems (Miss Nora Milnes)

Local government (Lady Leslie Mackenzie)

Social Ethics (Rev. W.R. Forrester)

Political Economy (Professor Ogilvie)

Moral Philosophy (Professor Taylor)

Economic history (Arthur Birnie)

(University Calendar, 1932-33)


The courses for the Diploma in Social Study demonstrate the continuing focus on social and economic conditions. They are now listed as follows:

A) Theoretical

1. Social Economics

2. Any 4 of the following - Psychology, Statistics, Elementary Anatomy and Physiology, Public Health, Organisation of Industry and Commerce, Industrial Law, Administrative Law, Political Science.

3. Tutorial instruction by Nora Milnes.

4. A thesis approved by the Director of Studies.

B) Practical

1. General practical work

  • office work/case investigation, club work
  • visits
  • students are recommended, in addition, to gain a knowledge of the social conditions of some city other than Edinburgh.

2. Special practical work in accordance with their prospective careers (e.g. hospital, housing, property, employment exchange, probation etc.)

(University Calendar, 1942-43)


A PG Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work began, the first in Scotland, and second only to the LSE.


The calendar notes that four qualifications were now on offer: The Diploma in Social Study and the Certificate in Social Study (as before) and the Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work. This had two courses within it:

A) Social casework and administration

B) Psychiatry (taught by Dr Batchelor).

The Diploma in Social Study students also covered Social Economics (taught by Miss Marjorie Brown).

There is also mention of a Certificate in Public Administration. It is also possible to take a combined MA and Certiciate, to be completed in 4 years.

(University Calendar, 1952-53)


The Medical Social Work (MSW) Certificate course began at Edinburgh, and is accredited by the Institute of Almoners. This was the first such course in Scotland. Jean Snelling and Stella Waldron had worked to make this happen; they also supported the development of probation officers training “extra-murally” (see Waldron’s obituary of Marjorie Brown).

The Certificate course was a one year course, requiring candidates to be over 21 years of age and to already hold a Social Study degree, diploma or certificate.  Students were advised that they were expected to have already attended classes about psychology in their previous qualification, and that an "elementary knowledge of anatomy and physiology must be aquired by the end of the first term".  Candidiates without an appropriate prior qualification, but relevant experience in social work, teaching or nursing, could undertake the first year of the Certificate in Social Study course, and then progress to the MSW course.

Students were required to have at least eight weeks experience on approved social casework before beginning the course.  The curriculum was made up of the following courses:

*  Introduction to Medical Studies;

*  The Health Human Being;

*  The Human Being in Sickness;

*  Personal Difficulties;

*  Theory of Medical Social Casework

The 'Theory of Medical Social Casework' course consisted of ten lectures, in the summer term.  In addition to teaching the students would also have casework discussions each week and individual tutorials with the Almoner-Tutors every fortnight.  Prescribed books for the course included:  Carl Binger 'The Doctor's Job', Flora Beck 'The Almoner', Sir James Stirling Ross 'National Health Service in Great Britain', Charlotte Towle 'Common Human Needs', and John Bowlby 'Maternal Care and Mental Health'

Source:  University of Edinburgh Calendar 1953/54


The first Scottish Child Care Certificate course began at the University of Edinburgh.  The Certificate was a year long course and candidates were required to be:

i. Over 21 years of age, and;

ii To hold a Social Study Degree, Diploma or Certificate, or some other qaulification which was considered to be equivalent.

Candidates were expected to have completed at least six weeks' residential work in a Children's Home before the start of the course.

The curriculum was made up of the both theoretical courses and fieldwork elements.  The theoretical course were:

*  Social Case Work

*  The Field of Social Work

*  Child Psychology

*  Introduction to Medicine (including paediatrics)

*  Special Problems of Child Care and Adoption

The fieldwork element required that students spend half of each week during the session in fieldwork, under supervision.  After the theoretical courses had been completed a further eight weeks of full-time, supervised fieldwork was required in a Children's Department outwith Edinburgh.  

Students were examined both orally and in writing, as well as consideration being given to the quality of case reports submitted by the candidates.

Source: Unversity of Edinburgh Calendar 1961/62


This year, the calendar demonstrates that there are now three specialist certificate courses: the Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work, the Certificate in Medical Social Work and the the Certificate in Child Care.

It also provides a staff list: Miss Marjorie Brown (Senior Lecturer); Dr Gregor, Miss Margaret (Megan) Browne, Mr Richmond, Mrs Sinclair, Miss Laughton, with Honorary Lecturers Miss McGill and Miss McLaren. In addition, Mr Tom Burns (Social Study Reader) and Mr Hewan Craig (Social Study Lecturer) are noted as Social Science Research centre staff, alongside M.P. Banton, Hilde Behrend, A. Gesses, R.M. McKenzie, Mary Bird and J. Pilgrim.

The courses are given as follows:

A) Theoretical (1) The social services (2) Social theory (3) Elementary economics (4) Any 3 of the following: Statistics, Elementary Anatomy and Physiology, Social Biology, Organisation of Industry and Commerce, Industrial Law, Administrative Law, Political Science, Psychology, Social Anthropology, Social Philosophy, Criminology 5) Discussion class (Miss Brown and lecturers) (6) Tutorial instruction (7) A thesis.

B) Practical - part-time each term and part of vocation in practical work in an area other than Edinburgh.

(University calendar, 1962-63)


This is the first mention of the Faculty of Social Sciences - the Social Study Department is now located here instead of the Faculty of Arts. The Dean of the new faculty is Professor Hunt, who had previously been in the Faculty of Arts.

Again, the staff list is instructive. Marjorie Brown is joined by Mary Gregor, Margaret (Megan) Browne, Susan Sinclair, Hewan Craig, Vivienne Laughton, A.M. McGill and G.J. Hutton (Director of the Social Environment Research programme - see the research pages in this website for more information about this unit). Tom Burns is now listed as being in the Department of Sociology.

(University calendar, 1963-64)


The Seebohm Committee had reported in 1968 that for social work to be provided in a more effective and holistic way it should be done through generic Social Service Departments.  This meant that generic social work courses were required to meet the needs of the workforce who would staff these new departments.  Edinburgh had previously had a number of courses including the Diploma of Social Study, and Certificates in Psychiatric Social Work, Medical Social Work and Child Care.  However, in order to meet the new needs of the social work workforce they moved to providing one generic social work qualification in 1970.

The Diploma in Social Work required that students have a degree, or comparable qualification, for example in social administration, sociology and psychology; and to had completed at least eight weeks appropriate supervised fieldwork in an approved department or agency.  

The course had two elements - theoretical courses and fieldwork.  Students were required to attend the following course:

*  Human Growth and Behaviour;

*  Psychiatry;

*  Personal and Social Aspects of Illness;

*  Social Policy and Administration;

*  Social Work Method

Students were also required to choose one of the following courses:

* Special Aspects of Child Care;

*  Medical Information and Social Work in the Medical Field;

*  Social Aspects of Mental Disorder

Candidates were examined orally and in writing and they needed to meet "a satisfactory standard in fieldwork".

More detail is given about fieldwork requirements in the University Calendar for 1971/72 which states that the equivalent of three days a week will be spent in fieldwork or residential work, depending on the student's interest.  A further six weeks of full-time fieldwork will be undertaken upon completion of the theoretical courses.  

Over the next few years the specialist elements which had remained in the course (the specific courses for child care, medical social work and mental disorders) were initially added to in 1971/72 when another course for Social Work in Residential Care was added, however by 1974/75 specialist courses were no longer available.  

Source:  University of Edinburgh Calendars 1969/60 - 1974/75


The qualifications now on offer are the Diploma in Social Administration and the Diploma in Social Work.

(University calendar, 1972-73)

The staff team is listed under Social Administration with John C. Spencer (Social Administration) as Head of Department.  The list goes on to include Miss Margaret (Megan) Browne (senior lecturer); Hewat Craig (senior lecturer); Susan Sinclair (senior lecturer); Mike Adler (lecturer); Judith Brearley (lecturer); Ralph Davidson (lecturer); Esmee Roberts (lecturer); A Rowe (lecturer); John Triseliotis (lecturer); H Wirz (lecturer); Miss D Hayes (honorary fellow); Judith Hines (honorary fellow); Miss P Leslie (honorary fellow); J McCormack (honorary fellow); Miss G. Michael (honorary fellow); Mrs M Wright (honorary fellow).

(University Calendar, 1971/72)


In 1990/91, the two-year Master of Social Work programme was introduced, replacing the two-year PG Diploma in Social Work. The PG Diploma remained as a 'fall-back', qualifying award for those students who did not undertake the Master's dissertation, but it was rare for students to do this - most chose to do the dissertation, not least because it was integrated into the two years of learning.

The MSW curriculum required students to take courses in:

*  Social Work

*  Social Policy

*  Human Behaviour in the Social Environment

*  Social Need

*  Policy and Practice (including law as applied to social work) and;

*  Organisational Analysis

Students were also required to undertake practice placements and to submit a 12, 000 word dissertation on a subject of their choice (although this had to be approved by their supervisor).

John Triseliotis was the Head of Social Work with the rest of the staff team comprising Judith Brearley (senior lecturer); Chris Clark (lecturer); Ralph Davidson (lecturer); Susan Hunter (lecturer); Wendy Paterson (part time lecturer); Marion Ulas (lecturer); Lorraine Waterhouse (part time lecturer) and W. Whyte (lecturer).


Lorraine Waterhouse, already a senior lecturer at Edinburgh, was appointed to the first established Chair in Social Work, when the two units of Social Work and Social Policy split into self-managing departments, while remaining as a joint submission of government research exercises.


In autumn 1998, the University of Edinburgh merged with the Moray House Institute of Education (formerly Moray House College of Education) and a new School of Education was created. At this point, the two social work departments came together, and staff from Moray House joined the university, along with the BA degree (a three-year, Ordinary degree) and a cohort of students who went on to complete their studies at Edinburgh. The following year, Edinburgh launched a new four-year, Honours degree in Social Work for the first time, thus anticipating the professional requirement for an Honours degree that came into place a few years later across the UK.

(The history of Moray House website tells us that Moray House had expanded in 1968/9 with the setting up of a Sociological Studies Department, which became the School of Community Studies in 1972/3 embracing both Community Education and the developing field of Social Work training. The College’s first certificate course in Social Work was offered in 1964; Moray House became the largest training centre for students in these fields in Scotland.)


The University of Edinburgh launched a new four-year, Honours degree in Social Work for the first time, thus anticipating the professional requirement for an Honours degree that came into place a few years later across the UK. It replaced the three year BA (Ordinary) degree that Edinburgh had inherited following the merger with Moray House Institute of Education in 1998. The BA closed in 2000.