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Looked-after children in the UK are grossly disadvantaged.
Compared with their peers, they come off worse in terms of health
care, juvenile offence rates, educational achievement, employment
and homelessness. Work in the UK on improving the qualifications of
staff and management focuses on social work and social care in
marked contrast to approaches in many European countries where
children’s policy is framed in terms of pedagogy.

A study at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, at London’s Institute of
Education, looks at five European countries, where the main
qualification for working with looked-after children is in social

Pedagogy is recognised as a distinct area with three connected
levels: the development of theory; the formulation of policy
towards children; and the training and education of workers.
Pedagogy can cover child care, youth work, family support services,
secure custody and residential care. Work across the children’s
sector which, in the UK, seems disparate, is often informed in
Europe by the same approaches and methods. Importantly, the concept
of pedagogy permits any particular provision to be located in the
context of wider social policy towards children.

Participants in the European research explained pedagogy as
bringing up children, looking after their education in its widest
sense (not just schooling), nurturing and socialisation. These are
terms that have more in common with parenting (including “corporate
parenting”) than with social work or social care. Those working in
residential settings share children’s everyday lives, eating with
them, taking them to school and to the dentist, helping with
homework, watching television, mediating quarrels, comforting them,
liaising with parents, and building children’s self-esteem through
enjoyable pursuits.

They are trained to work directly with children and young people,
sharing their everyday lives. Pedagogy relates to the whole person:
body, mind, feelings, spirit, creativity and, crucially, the
relationship of the individual to others. The work is conducted
through the medium of group and individual relationships and based
on reflective practice.

Pedagogues have been described as people who are able to think on
their feet and respond to emergencies, working with their “head,
hands and heart”. Importantly, pedagogic practice emphasises the
value of teamwork with parents and with other professionals in the

Many participants in the research believe that time spent in a
residential setting founded on pedagogic relationships is of
benefit to children. Residential care is not seen exclusively in
terms of child protection, but as supplying something to the
child’s upbringing that would be helpful for the child and their

Training for pedagogues includes the study of theories and methods
(group work), and frequently a range of arts, crafts and practical
skills for use with children. Qualifications are offered at a
variety of levels with some variation between countries. Most staff
are qualified. A German civil servant said that it was policy for
all staff to be qualified and reflected somewhat pragmatically:
“This will save us money in the end because they will work well
with the children and maybe they can return home earlier.”

Students are often in their mid-twenties when they go to college to
obtain the equivalent of UK degrees. Some take optional courses for
work with disabled children, looked-after children, children in
secure units and supportive work with families. In some countries
there is an initial qualification for working with those aged over
16 years.

Qualified pedagogues also work in administration, research and
development in central and local government and in voluntary
organisations. In Flanders, Germany and the Netherlands, staff at
this level may have undertaken four or five years of study while at
university. Others, working with children in residential care, are
more likely to have qualified via courses that last between two and
four years.

Once in employment, pedagogues can have a variety of job titles
relating to the particular situation in which they work. In all the
countries studied, getting a pedagogic qualification was said to be
an attractive option for students, even though the pay of qualified
pedagogues was usually slightly lower than that of social workers
or teachers. There was also great demand for staff with a pedagogic

What might pedagogy have to offer the UK? Here, the approach to
training for the children’s sector relates to specific settings and
blurs the similarities found across children’s work. Framing
children’s work in terms of pedagogy has the potential for an
inclusive, normalising approach, with the main focus on children as
children, while recognising that some children have special and
additional needs.

The concept of pedagogy provides a framework for addressing
questions such as: what do we want for our children? What is a good
childhood? What relationship would we wish to promote between
children themselves and between children and adults? These
questions cut across sectoral interests and provide the context for
policy and practice towards looked-after children and those who
work with them.

At practice level, the emphasis on relationships and living
alongside children, communicating, expanding their world through
creative activities and providing positive role models, has much to

It could prove difficult to transfer training and qualifications
between countries – although the mobility of labour within the
European Union means that equivalence between qualifications must
be found. It is difficult to match UK qualifications with those of
pedagogy, although many universities and colleges offer courses
that could become more explicitly “pedagogic” and many trainers and
educators supported the idea. Most importantly, the new
occupational standards for managers of residential care will
include social pedagogic knowledge in all relevant sections.

In the UK there is a much smaller proportion of children in
residential establishments than in the countries studied. Yet
placement in a children’s home is likely to remain a necessity for
many children. These are young people who need skilled and
committed workers. Yet the proportion of trained staff in
residential institutions is significantly less in the UK than in
the countries studied, where the professional pedagogic
qualification is seen as the key to effective work with
looked-after children.

Pat Petrie is reader in education at the Institute of
Education; Janet Boddy and Claire Cameron are research officers at
the Institute of Education.


1 The research project
Social Pedagogy In Europe: Improving Residential Care  by
the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, is funded
by the Department of Health. Contact project director Pat Petrie
for more information on: 020 7612 6943/ 6958, e-mail


The proportion of young people in residential settings ranges
from 10 per 1,000 in Berlin to three per 1,000 in Bavaria. In 1998,
59 per cent were in residential homes and 39 per cent in foster
care. Very few placements are compulsory. Universities offer a
diploma in social pedagogy, over at least four and a half years,
leading to research, teaching or management. Colleges of higher
education offer a four-year diploma in social pedagogy, which
includes a year’s practical placement. This is the preferred form
of training for employment in residential care and many other
children’s services. Other colleges offer a three-year


About 1 per cent of all children are in public care and this
figure has stayed the same over the past 50 years. Nearly half of
them live in foster families and a third in residential
establishments. In 1998, 11 per cent were placements irrespective
of parental consent.

Pedagogues do three and a half years’ full-time training for work
in settings that cater for people across the life course including
early years services, out-of-school clubs, and residential
services. They are also equipped to work in day centres for
disabled people, regardless of age, and centres for people with
drug and alcohol problems.

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