Research findings on social pedagogy

Social work academic Joe Smeeton examines research findings contained in Raising the bar? Evaluation of the Social Pedagogy Pilot in residential children's homes

Social work academic Joe Smeeton examines research findings on social pedagogy in children’s residential homes

What is social pedagogy?

Social Pedagogy is an unfamiliar term for many UK practitioners but has a long, respected tradition in Europe for working with vulnerable service users in a variety of settings, especially residential care (Petrie et al, 2006). It is sometimes thought of as holistic education, which recognises that individuals are part of the systems in which they develop – social education. As such it spans education, social work and childcare, incorporating a breadth of theoretical perspectives with a few unifying principles or concepts including the ideas of ‘shared space’, ‘the common third’ and reflexive, relationship based work. It can be described as ‘just good practice’ but social pedagogy “provides a coherent theoretical framework for articulating effective residential care practice” (Hannon et al, 2010).

The research

● Key words: social pedagogy / children’s homes / residential care

● Authors: David Berridge, Nina Biehal, Eleanor Lutman, Lorna Henry and Manuel Palomares.

● Title: Raising the Bar? Evaluation of the Social Pedagogy Pilot in Residential Children’s Homes, Department for Education (2011)

● Aim: To “describe and compare the different methods of implementing social pedagogy, compare the respective quality of care and outcomes; gather young people’s, social pedagogues and staff views; and consider the implications for the future development of social pedagogy and residential care in England”.

● Methodology: Mixed methods were used to conduct process and outcome evaluations of the use of social pedagogues in three categories of homes. Thse were compared with a control group of homes where no social pedagogues worked. Questionnaries were used to look at the outcomes and progress of young people but most of the evaluation involved individual or group interviews.

● Conclusion: The variance in the skills and expertise of the social pedagogues plus the historical and cultural differences between the residential units included in the pilot make the findings and conclusions complex. However, social pedagogy is seen as having merit for further development and study.


This substantial evaluation reports upon a pilot programme that was funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and initiated by the Thomas Coram Research Unit to recruit trained social pedagogues to children’s residential care in England.

The 2007 publication Care Matters: Time for Change seemed to solidify a belief that young people in residential care have not had the best service and that a significant factor is that residential workers are undervalued and of low status due, in part, to the lack of an agreed unifying approach to looking after young people with complex needs. The government of the day looked to Europe to see a very different, and ostensibly better, experience of residential care provided by workers trained to graduate and post-graduate levels in social pedagogy, which has a long established tradition in a number of European countries.

This evaluation attempts to uncover the extent of pedagogic practice within the homes studied and how the introduction of social pedagogues into these homes has affected practice and outcomes for young people. The researchers gathered a range of views – from senior managers right through to young people – to describe the experience of all involved as well as attempting to collect quantitative data.

What follows then is a complex picture of findings with significance to both policy makers and practitioners. The authors describe some positively reported experiences by a range of participants and see some inherent value in social pedagogy as an approach because it brings coherence and meaning to the work that is useful and accessible to staff by providing a conceptual framework for understanding complex and sometimes challenging behaviour that otherwise can feel quite menacing.

The ‘common third’

The readiness of social pedagogues to take on a broader responsibility for young people’s lives as would an active parent, rather than referring onto other professionals seen as having more expertise, seems to be preferable. The authors felt the pedagogic distinction between the ‘professional, personal and private’ to be a more caring, genuine and empowering approach likely to establish trusting relationships than an approach of professional detachment.

The report’s description of the social pedagogues’ eagerness to engage young people through the ‘common third’ was an especially powerful and useful practice approach. Workers and young people developing a common interest in a new, joint activity seems to have a great deal of merit and appeal and also seems a relatively simple concept to introduce into current settings.

There seem to be more problematic principles that may not easily translate into the English context, such as the use of ‘shared living space’ and a focus on the group as a site of intervention due to the transient population. However, if residential care with a coherent approach to caring for young people becomes seen as a more positive option rather than as a ‘last resort’, these approaches may have capacity to develop future practice.

The authors make few recommendations as this is mainly a descriptive commentary on a pilot, but they hope that the potential impact of social pedagogy does inform future developments in children’s services.


This is a rigorous and thorough methodology that unfortunately thwarted by the implementation of the pilot itself rather than the methodology. What seems to be being measured is not implementation of social pedagogy within these children’s homes, as only two of the homes claim to have fully implemented it, but rather the impact of employing mainly German social pedagogues with a range of experience and qualities in English residential care. What emerges is a complex picture of culture clashes between European and English approaches to residential childcare, couched in a tangled historical legal-policy context. This is further complicated by the effect of a majority of English workers, mainly with lower academic and professional status but more experience, accommodating a few German pedagogues who seem to have higher academic and professional status but less experience. What follows are a series of interesting challenges to current practice that extend beyond the confines of the home and into wider practice and responsibilities for childcare.

Findings are also difficult to pin down because young people in residential care are a very transient population, which makes trying to measure effects using a longitudinal design very difficult – you are rarely measuring the same young people at the beginning and end. There is perhaps a wider discussion to be had about the usefulness of measuring outcomes for young people that has started elsewhere. I would argue that the better measure of social pedagogy would be in trying to gauge any changes in confidence, competence and perceptions of self-efficacy of the residential workers adopting it.

Practice Implications

For policy makers:

● Explore further the potential for social pedagogy to inform policy and practice in the UK.

● Work with researchers, academics, practitioners and social pedagogues to develop a model of social pedagogy that can work in the UK context.

● Develop guidance about the importance of relationship building rather than risk averse practice.

For senior residential managers:

● Explore the readily accessible principles of social pedagogy as a unifying approach to practice across homes.

● Look at the training needs of staff and develop a strategic plan to developing features of social pedagogy in the wider staff team.

● Balance the need for staff to engage with young people against that of the need to complete paperwork.

For practitioners:

● Investigate the broader approach underpinning social pedagogy

● Consider using the strategy of the ‘common third’ in your direct work with young people

● Prioritise relationship-building over risk avoidance.

About the author: Joe Smeeton is a social work academic at the University of Sheffield

More from Community Care on social pedagogy

Further Reading:

Department for Education and Skills (2007) Care Matters: Time for Change. Transforming the Lives of children and Young People in Care, London: The Stationery Office.

Hannon, C., Wood, C, & Bazalgette, L. (2010) In Loco Parentis. London: Demos.

Petrie, P., Boddy, J., Cameron, C., Wigfall, V. & Simon, A. (2006) Working with Children in Care. Maidenhead: Open University Press

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