The roots of social work education can be traced to their international beginnings in Britain and some countries in Europe towards the end of the 19″‘century. From Europe, the profession spread to the United States, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Origins in Europe

Social work education evolved from the work of the Victorians in London who attempted to develop models of charity work and the first two-year full-time teaching in social work as early as 1899 in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam Institute of Social Work Training is credited to be the first two-year training program with theory and practice.

Though the very first school of social work was in the Netherlands, the real beginnings of social work education are found in Octavia Hill’s training of volunteers in housing management and ‘Friendly visiting’ in the 1870s. She worked in the slum neighborhoods of London and initially trained volunteers and later full-time workers. John Ruskin, an art critic, encouraged Octavia Hill in her work and financed her activities.

The Barnetts, who founded Toynbee Hall for men, were not interested in training. Hence, the initiative for training activities was taken by the women’s settlements, foremost among them being the Women’s University Settlement established in 1887 in London by women graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. The training pioneered by this group evolved into organized courses, and ultimately, into professional education for social work.

Another noteworthy beginning in Europe was the one-year training course in social work for young women initiated in Germany by Alice Salomon in 1899. Salomon, one of the founders of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, was an outstanding leader in social work education and women’s rights. Her course in 1903 became the Alice Salomon School of Social Work, which was for many years the accepted model for social work education in Germany.

The beginnings, thus, made in Britain at the close of the 1 9Ih century developed into organized education for social work in Continental Europe and North America early in the 1900s and somewhat later in other continents.

North America

A course entitled ‘Summer School on Philanthropic Work’ heralded the beginning of professional education for social work in the US. It was inspired by Mary Richmond I 1 and organized by the Charity Organization Society of New York. The course consisted of lectures, discussions, conducting inquiries, visiting agencies and institutions, and working under the supervision of experienced agency guides. The course evolved into a one-year program in 1904 as the New York School of Philanthropy and in 1911, it added a second year.

Similarly, in Chicago, the Hull House and the Chicago Commons in collaboration with the University of Chicago, organized a course in 1903 which a year later became the Chicago Institute of Social Sciences. In 1920, it was renamed as the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration -the first autonomous graduate school of social work within a university.

Other Continents

In later years, the pioneering efforts of Europe and the US spread to South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

South America

In South America, the first school was launched in 1925 by two remarkable men, Dr. Rene Sand of Belgium and Dr. Alejandro del Rio of Chile. Both were physicians, and pioneers in social medicine and social welfare. The school later renamed the Alejandro del Rio School of Social Work, offered a two-year program. The curriculum was heavily weighted with subjects and field placements related to health. As the School flourished many of its graduates became pioneers of social work education throughout Latin America.


In South Africa, schools patterned on the British model were established in 1924. The first institution was a three-year diploma at Cape Town and Transvaal University College. The first, degree course was established at the University of Stellenbosch in 1932.

The early South African schools, with a few exceptions, were admitting only white students. The first school to qualify non-white students as social workers is ‘the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work established by the YMCA in Johannesburg in 1947. Hofmeyr, a philanthropist and a member of Parliament, and Dr. Ray Phillips, a missionary, were responsible for the school. Many graduates of the school, of whom Winnie Mandela is one, are found in government, politics, and social welfare agencies.


The first institution to be established in Asia was the Department of Sociology and Social Work, Yenching University in 1922. It was a four-year course with a Bachelor of Arts degree. However, it did not survive the Communist revolution and, therefore, was suspended.


Australia initially developed a social work tradition largely derivative of UK and USA models and has only lately developed more indigenous theory, practice, and publication. The first social work training institutes, numbering five, were established outside universities prior to World War I1 (between 1929 and 1937), in the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. These first schools offered general social work training via a two-year undergraduate course and a one-year medical social work specialization which could be taken after the general training. The early leaders of these programs were largely British women trained in medical and psychiatric social work.

In Australia, the practice of social work is largely carried out under the government auspice Emergence of Social Work Abroad and to a lesser degree under the non-government (voluntary) and religious auspice. Approximately two-thirds of social workers are employed by federal and state government social service agencies, while the remaining one-third are employed in a variety of non-government and religious organizations.

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