Social pedagogy in practice

How does social pedagogy work on the continent, and what are the barriers to its use in the UK, asks Kathy Oxtoby

What is pedagogy?

Is a system of theory, practice and training that supports the development of the whole child, and looks at all aspects of their life skills. Central to the approach is the idea that children are seen as competent and active people in their own right.

What do pedagogues do?

Most children’s professionals will have heard of social pedagogy and have an idea of how it works. Some may have even worked with overseas’ trained social workers who have practiced as social pedagogues. But it is useful to understand what the role actually entails.

Social pedagogues are well established in continental Europe and are often trained to graduate level. In Belgium, the term is roughly translated as “walking in the shoes of”, reflecting the close and empathetic nature of the social pedagogue’s relationship with the young people they work with. By encouraging looked-after young people to take what might seem small steps – such as developing a routine to get out of bed and go to school – the social pedagogue can help them to make great strides in terms of developing life skills.

In western European countries where there is little fostering and residential child care is about long-term placements, the social pedagogue tends to take on a parenting role. Tim Loughton, shadow minister for children, witnessed social pedagogy in practice during a visit to Finland and Denmark in 2006. He says the social workers he observed acted as “friends and advocates – someone the young people could rely on, rather than an authority figure”.

Chris Hoddy of the UK charity Break, which employs five social pedagogues, recently visited Germany to see the practice at work in the residential sector. He was impressed by the standard of training of staff working in children’s residential care, which, he says, is in stark contrast to the UK, where people can be recruited to the sector with no qualifications or experience.

Personal skills

On the continent there is an expectation that if you are trained in social pedagogy you will bring personal skills to the workplace, such as music, drama or sport, which can be used as “extra bits in your armoury to help engage young people”, says Hoddy.

Gabriel Eichsteller spent his early career working as a social pedagogue in Germany on a play bus, which involved “being with the young person and engaging them through simple activities such as playing football. It helped them to have happier lives,” he says.

Social pedagogy in Europe is not confined to residential care. Stef Lambertz who studied to be a social pedagogue in Germany, says that unlike in the UK, there is an “integrated approach” to supporting young people. All those involved with a child’s care will have an awareness of them as a whole person, she says. So the teacher will be mindful of their home circumstances as well as teaching them to read, and staff in residential care will be aware of the school’s need to educate the child and the importance of supporting them to do that.

Until recently, the concept of social pedagogy has been relatively unheard of in the UK. According to David Crimmens, principal lecturer at the school of health and social care at the University of Lincoln, this is partly because UK policy tends to be dictated by crisis management, “rather than debating what is the best way to bring children up outside of the family”.


Other aspects of the UK system impeding the development of social pedagogy include the high turnover of social work staff, which undermines continuity of care, a lack of time for reflective practice and the tick-box mentality in children’s services, he says.

There is also a public perception that you don’t need to have special training and qualifications to work in child care, Lambertz suggests. “People sometimes say: ‘Isn’t helping someone with their homework like being a mum?’. They don’t understand that there’s much more to it, when you’re looking after a child with complex developmental or behavioural problems.”

Despite these barriers, the approach is slowly gathering pace here. The Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) is conducting a three-year pilot programme, run by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Jacaranda Recruitment, focusing on residential child care. Several local authorities, including Hackney and Essex, are involved in social pedagogy schemes, while organisations such as the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care are looking at ways of using the approaches in residential care.

But for social pedagogy to be practised more widely in the UK, several practical issues will need to be addressed – it will not simply be a case of transporting a way of practising from mainland Europe, says Jonathan Stanley, manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care.

“We are developing an English social pedagogy,” he says. “It will require a translation over a long time – a generation of change of culture, theory and practice.”

Stanley points out that the approach exists in a European culture that supports it. Similarly, children’s services here will require “a new look at policy, regulation and training”.

Qualifications needed

Currently, there are no qualifications in social pedagogy in the UK. Claire Cameron, a senior research officer at TCRU, says children’s workforce training bodies need to endorse social pedagogy as a suitable qualification for the sector. She would also like to see courses in social pedagogy become available to a variety of professionals. Trainers will need to have more contact with institutions in other countries “to enable us to learn from their training curricular and methods of teaching”.

In the short term, the approach might be more costly than existing ways of working because of the necessary investment in training. “But if it means young people having a happier life in the long run, then social pedagogy is well worth it,” Eichsteller says.

The constant reflection demanded by the approach can be time-consuming. But Eichsteller suggests that potentially it also involves spending less time on doing paperwork, freeing up staff to spend more time working with children. Some believe this would take social work back to the 1970s – practices would become “child centred rather than largely organisation centred”, Crimmens suggests.

And with more emphasis on using everyday activities to forge relationships with children, he says social workers would need to “cook pancakes, build kites and kick a ball around – the kinds of things they do with their own children”. 


STEFAN KLEIPOEDSZUS, former social pedagogue, Germany. Currently a trainer in the UK

Staff live with residents ‘like a family’

Stefan Kleipoedszus is a social pedagogue who trained and practiced in Germany. For several years he worked as a pedagogical assistant in a residential unit for young people and adults aged from 13 to 30 with severe disabilities, from complex health needs to severe autistic disorders. Some residents with autism had associated high levels of aggression and were unable to communicate through language.

All staff who worked at the unit, (which was divided into four flats, housing six residents each) had a qualification in social pedagogy. Of the care provided Kleipoedszus says: “We were focused on fostering independence and trying to set up a normal routine with residents.”

He says staff constantly strived to help residents achieve minor improvements. “It was all about small steps. So it might take us six months to help a resident achieve something as simple as getting a yoghurt from a fridge.”

Staff lived with residents “like a family”, he says. “One of the main differences between working in Germany and in the UK is that here it can often feel like ‘them and us’, but at the unit we were really living together.”

Another difference is the level of responsibility for decision-making professionals working in residential care have, he says.

“We could make all the decisions ourselves within a recognised framework. Here things are more hierarchical and there is a more strict line of accountability.”

He also finds UK practice focused on “big outcomes” such as those outlined in Every Child Matters. In Germany, however, it was more about achieving small aims within every day life.

Now delivering training in social pedagogy in the UK, Kleipoedszus believes its value is that “it allows you to bring your own personality to what you do, so that it is you that is making a difference to a young person’s life, rather than a rule book”.

Further information

Pedagogues come to residential child care in England

Case Study – Gabriel Eichsteller

Debate on social pedagogues

Social pedagogy and the children’s workforce

 Social Pedagogy UK

Published under the heading ‘Continental Divide’ in the 19 March edition of Community Care 2009

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