Interview with german social pedagogue Susan Buchmuller

Children in care in Germany work with a social pedagogue. Susan Buchmuller, working in Britain, spoke to Camilla Pemberton about what it adds to social care

International models of social pedagogy have begun to attract a loyal following in residential child care. While experts are keen to develop a model in the UK, pedagogues from Germany and Scandinavia continue to be welcomed in children’s homes where they work alongside social workers and residential care staff.

Susan Buchmuller has a masters degree in social pedagogy and extensive experience working in residential child care in her native Germany. She is currently living in the Wirral and sharing good practice with social care workers at children’s home Kinder House, based in Wallasey, after coming to the UK through a pedagogy pilot scheme run by the Thomas Coram Research Unit.

Social pedagogy is a system of theory, training and practice based on a holistic approach to other people and their social, emotional and educational development.

Buchmuller says the integration between social work and social pedagogy in Germany means every social pedagogue can work in social care, and vice versa. She says this and Germany’s long history of social pedagogy constitute key differences between German and British social work.

“In Germany social care workers, including pedagogues, are generally better qualified because you cannot work with children without a high level of training, including bachelors and masters degrees.”

The German care system is looked upon as transformative, says Buchmuller, while residential care is seen as a positive option rather than a “last resort”. “Residential care is seen as good for young people. After eight years old we normally wouldn’t place them in foster care but would consider small children’s homes, with six to eight children, as the best option. It is very important to a pedagogue that children have as normal an experience in care as possible.

“Care leavers in Germany have better life opportunities than when they entered care. Pedagogues place a particular emphasis on making sure children are well-prepared for community life. We take children on regular outings and they can stay with their friends after school.”

Social pedagogy values an approach pedagogues call “head, heart and hands”. Buchmuller explains: “We use our heads to learn theories which help us understand and describe young people’s behaviour and reactions. We work with our heart to empathise with young people’s needs and family background. We work with our hands to stimulate young people to do everyday activities, such as handcrafts, making pizza and playing sports. Our approach is a combination of these three things.”

Social pedagogues, she says, have “strong social bonds” with children in residential care. “We are very warm and authentic with children – we give them a hug when they need one. We find the best outcomes for children are seen when you show you like them and when you are honest about your emotions. If something is funny, we laugh; if we worry about the children we tell them.

“It’s important to show children that you are a whole person. We tell them about our interests and feelings. Not all of them – of course, I wouldn’t tell a child who can’t see their own parents that I’ve just seen mine – but I would tell them about my hobbies and would say ‘I have a brother, like you do’.”

Buchmuller says the British social workers she has met have been “very open” to learning about social pedagogy. “Although pedagogy in practice is less common in Britain, I see workers using pedagogic approaches without realising. But I only hear about social work being studied.”

Yet there are aspects of the UK system which could constrain social pedagogy, says Buchmuller. These include the poor perception of residential care, and multiple placements and high case turnovers which would limit a pedagogue’s time to develop a strong relationship with the child.


Out of the ghetto

In June 2007 social pedagogy, until then largely confined to academic discussions, was backed by the government in the Care Matters white paper, which proposed a pilot programme to examine the effectiveness of social pedagogy in residential child care. Also in 2007, the Social Education Trust commissioned a three-month project, run by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, to look at ways of implementing social pedagogy in English residential care. Since then, the government has signalled greater commitment to the discipline. In the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ Looked-after Children report in March 2009, social pedagogy was highlighted by the government as a valuable way of working in residential care. A qualification in social pedagogy is currently being developed.


Head, heart and hands

Social pedagogy looks at the social aspects of education and the educational aspects of social care. It takes account of the unique characteristics of the child, who is seen as a “whole person” with an active role to play in their own socialisation. The whole nature of the pedagogue is also emphasised by them bringing their own personality and personal skills into their work, and relationship, with the child.

More on pedagogy in Europe

This article is published in the 26 November 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Bonding with the whole person

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.