Social pedagogy in the UK: time to reflect

The government’s evaluation of settings that use social pedagogy for children in care has shown the benefits of the approach. Claire Cameron, professor of social work at Anglia Ruskin University and a member of the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy, outlines some of the work that has been taking place.

The government’s evaluation of settings that use social pedagogy for children in care has shown the benefits of the approach. Claire Cameron, professor of social work at Anglia Ruskin University and a member of the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy, outlines some of the work that has been taking place.

Social pedagogy might be well established in many continental European countries but remains relatively unfamiliar to many UK social workers. Often translated as ‘education in its broadest sense’, social pedagogy focuses on social relations between and among staff and young people and values dialogue and critical reflection as a way of understanding events and interactions. Here I look at some of the highly innovative work to apply the approach that has been taking place in settings around the UK and what they tell us.

Training alone is not enough

In December 2008 Essex County Council hired Thempra to begin training 157 children’s services staff in social pedagogic approaches to their work. Staff valued the six-day training courses but they faced systemic obstacles when trying to use these approaches including with national and local policy frameworks and the inspection regime. Internal team dynamics were also a problem; the practice and cultural shift involved in adopting a social pedagogic approach was not always welcome.

For example, social pedagogy views risk-taking as an educational objective which clashes with the considerable priority given to health and safety in children’s homes. While the values and the overall approach of social pedagogy appeals to practitioners there are entrenched difficulties in the organisation of services for children in residential care when it comes to introducing social pedagogy. There is a need to address social pedagogy not only as a training issue but as a whole employer or even sector development issue.

The role of leadership

As such, the second component of learning about social pedagogy is enabling change through organisational structures. This can take a number of forms such as steering groups that include the most senior staff who are able to act on practitioners’ perspectives about what needs to change in a social pedagogic direction.

Alternatively, practitioners who have had initial training could be turned into ‘champions’ or change agents and offered additional training and support. One more approach is the use of social pedagogic leadership courses that are designed to embed the philosophy, principles and language of social pedagogy into daily practice. Indeed, one of the key lessons from the national pilot was the importance of sustained and committed leadership and management to the philosophy of social pedagogy and seeing it through to everyday practice.

Nurturing creativity

Valuing the practical and creative is a central principle of social pedagogy and employers sponsoring creative arts projects is one way of putting this principle into practice. Derbyshire County Council, for example, has hired freelance artists to work with its children’s homes and specialist foster carers to nurture creative expression among young people and practitioners. This helps develop the physical environment, fosters both relationships between young people and staff and creates a general sense of positivity and wellbeing.

A shared language

Guy Brewer, assistant head of service at Sycamore Services in Scotland, believes that its use of social pedagogy has provided “a common language for all staff to use in their day to day work…and an informed way of thinking and understanding about how they themselves interact with everyone they have contact with”.

 Peter Diamond, the assistant director of education and leisure services at Orkney Islands Council, agrees. Orkney commissioned social pedagogy training for 18 staff from early years, education and residential care as well as those in leadership positions. This resulted in early years and residential care home staff introducing more purposeful reflective practice. In the children’s home this meant they reviewed their perspective on so-called ‘negative’ incidents to include a greater depth of understanding about why these events occurred.

The shared language of social pedagogy also meant that multi-professional discussions could be on a more equitable and less hierarchical footing that valued all participants’ expertise. “There is a real appetite locally to offer further opportunities for practitioners and leaders,” says Diamond. “There are as yet untapped opportunities for social pedagogy to contribute to strategic planning and operational management as well as day to day practice.”

The national picture

The momentum behind social pedagogy is increasing throughout the UK. Serendipity Art College in Batley, West Yorkshire, has hired a social pedagogue as a consultant after noting the considerable synergy between its approach to ‘hard-to-reach’ young people and the methods of social pedagogy.

The first UK Masters student in social pedagogy has graduated from the Institute of Education, University of London. In 2009, the key players in social pedagogy in the UK, including Thempra, Jacaranda Recruitment, the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care and the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy helped steer the inauguration of the grassroots-led Social Pedagogy Development Network. The network meets twice a year and aims to provide a point of connection between different developments in social pedagogy. There is also a social pedagogy website.

Where next for social pedagogy?

More is in the pipeline. The Fostering Network is gathering funding for a project demonstrating the benefits social pedagogy might bring to foster care and Suffolk County Council is embarking on a project to introduce social pedagogic concepts and methods into a children’s centre and a children’s home. The tide of social pedagogy as an approach to care is swelling. First noted as a way of addressing the quality of life and outcomes for young people in residential care, the applications of this way of thinking are widening. Major barriers still exist to widespread adoption, not least in the UK’s somewhat ambivalent cultural approach to children and childhood, but significant questions are being asked about what we want for our most disadvantaged children and many practitioners are pushing at an open door. 

Further Reading

Cameron, C., Petrie P., Wigfall, V., Kleipoedszus, S. and Jasper, A. (2011), Final Report of the Social Pedagogy Pilot Programme: development and implementation, Thomas Coram Research Unit Institute of Education University of London

Boyce, N. (October 2010) Social Pedagogy in Essex, Childwebmag

Cameron, C. and Moss, P. (eds) (2011) Social pedagogy and working with children and young people: Where care and education meet, London, JKP

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