Does the UK really need social pedagogues?

Do children in care really need social pedagogues, asks Michael Fitzpatrick, the parent of a looked-after child on the verge of transition to adult services

According to the draft guidance on “the physical and emotional health and well-being of looked after children and young people” produced by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie), social pedagogy is “an important development for all care provision”. But what exactly is it?

Social pedagogy is the latest and the hottest import in the world of British social policy. Whereas earlier models for New Labour policy came from the US – welfare-to-work from Workfare, Sure Start (Headstart), Family Nurse Partnerships (Nurse-Family Partnerships) – social pedagogy is European.

Barry Sheerman, Labour chair of the House of Commons’ children, schools and families select committee, recently told Radio 4 listeners that 80% of Denmark’s looked-after children progress to university thanks to social pedagogues (a rate some 10 times that of the UK). Perhaps in Denmark they do not also expect unqualified and transient social care staff to look after children with high levels of need.

Associations with Nazi era

Social pedagogy is an approach that can be traced back to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and is seen in the development of Froebel’s kindergartens, and the more familiar nursery and residential schools associated with Montessori and Steiner. It attracts radical advocates who emphasise its commitment to social equality. However, it has also taken social pedagogy several decades to recover from its association with the Nazi regime. Then it was used to facilitate the extension of state authority into intimate spheres of family and personal life, just as these new Nice/Scie guidelines would incorporate the sort of intrusive and moralising therapeutic outlook that permeates public health policy into the education and social care of looked-after children.

It seems likely that the main appeal for New Labour is that a social pedagogue is not a social worker, that most disparaged and discredited professional of the past 10 years. A combination of managerialism, marketisation and scapegoating by politicians and the media has produced widespread demoralisation among social workers. The social pedagogue – new, glossy, Scandinavian, spouting platitudes about providing a “holistic package of support” and “integrated care and education” – emerges as the solution to a problem largely created by New Labour.

Professional expertise

It is typical that this new Nice/Scie guidance fails to acknowledge the achievements of the current social care system, despite all its inadequacies. My son, like many others, has thrived in care through the dedicated efforts of high quality staff supported by high levels of professional expertise, efforts that generally receive little public recognition and inadequate remuneration.

The draft guidance is full of familiar jargon and waffle about “delivering excellent, world class, services”. But there is no need to go in search of gimmicks to Denmark or Germany or even Pennsylvania, or to return to cultish and outmoded psychological theories of attachment and personal development to find out what children in care need.

It is straightforward. Children need care from well-trained and well-qualified staff. To attract and retain such staff, and prevent the rapid turnover that causes distressing disruptions to relationships and loss of continuity of care, they need to be well-paid and their activities need to be well-resourced. Politicians could help by ceasing to produce more policy guidance like this, by ceasing their bad-mouthing of social workers and by putting the pedagogues on their bicycles.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in Hackney, east London

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