David Lane interviewed Monika Niederle at the Sarajevo Congress.
The last woman to be President of FICE1 was Peggy Volkov in 1950. A 56-year gap is not something for a child care organisation to boast about, especially when a large proportion of the workforce is female. But there is no doubt that Monika Niederle will redress the balance.
Monika was elected unopposed as President of FICE-International at the recent Congress in Sarajevo, and if she follows the usual pattern by being re-elected a couple of times, she will be President until 2012. She has already laid out her plans for action, and shown that she will be happy to make demands on people to get things moving.
From Social Pedagogue to Head of Department for Youth
But what sort of person is Monika? She is an Austrian, and she started to train first in medicine, with a special interest in pedagogy, as she wanted to be a child psychiatrist. Looking back, she feels that perhaps she was “too keen”, wanting to do everything. In particular she wanted to combine theory and practice, while her Professor wanted her to focus on theory. She was working with children with learning disabilities, and she felt that their care programmes were geared to the wishes of adults that the children should do as much as possible so that the staff could feel successful, rather than listen to the children, to see if they were happy. This thread of concern for children’s interests and listening to their views has run through Monika’s career. The outcome was that Monika ceased to work on her thesis and her Doctorate was abandoned.
In 1975, when Monika was 23, she started work as a Social Pedagogue in a children’s home near Vienna. After two years working in the home, she took up ambulant work with children at risk and their families. (Ambulant is an English word that is used widely in continental Europe but not in England. It means walking and signifies that the worker is on the move, for example as a field Social Worker or a Community Worker.) Monika took to this work, and stayed in this field from 1977 to 1994, a good grounding in work directly with children in the community. She was office-based but was involved in counselling, activities for children, contact with schools and psychotherapy.
Not content with her main professional roles, Monika also trained professionally as a Psychotherapist and a Supervisor, overseeing other ambulant workers. She then moved on to train Psychotherapists and Supervisors, while working in these roles herself.
In 1994 Monika moved into management, taking over responsibility for a children’s home near Vienna. The home was a traditional 60-bedded home for children aged 6 to 14, but she remained as Director of the home for less than two years. While in this post, she was asked to oversee a Youth Education Centre for a few months as well, and she was then appointed as Director of the Centre, a post which she held for eight years. The Centre offered education and vocational training for up to 68 boys, preparing them for entry into eleven professions and trades, provided on a weekly boarding basis.
Since 2003 Monika has been Head of Department for Youth at the Viennese Youth Welfare Office, which deals with boys aged 14 to 18. In all, there are places for 180 boys in the accommodation for which she is responsible, living across Vienna in flats and houses ranging from one to eight people.
It was also in 2003 that Monika became President of FICE-Austria, reviving the National Section, which at one time had been highly active, playing a key role in FICE-International, but which had now become dormant.
Full Steam Ahead for FICE-International
Monika believes in building on the strengths of the past, but she wants to see FICE evolve and develop. Some of her ideas are organisational, reshaping FICE to fulfil its potential. Others are projects which she would like to see FICE take up.
She is concerned for children in prison, children who are heads of households, trafficked children and street children. She would like to see FICE spend time on peace pedagogics, on giving children and young people the opportunity to integrate and participate in its activities, and on diversity.
She is keen to spend money on making FICE’s website more useful, so that it is used by people working with children as a source of information and a channel for dialogue. She wants to see more opportunities for workers and students to use FICE networks to arrange exchanges and visits. She wants to see FICE get back into publishing.
One of FICE’s problems over many years has been that a large proportion of its members have been European, and although some National Sections have been set up elsewhere, in Israel, South Africa, India and North America, for example, they have never been strong enough to establish continental platforms to match Europe. When FICE-Europe was established therefore, the unintended effect was to create another body which was almost the same in scope as FICE-International, but excluding the non-European members.
Monika wants to see a surge in membership outside Europe, so that continental platforms can be established in other parts of the world. A good time to foster this idea will be in 2010, when it is hoped that the Congress will be held in South Africa. NACCW, which is FICE’s National Section in South Africa, is rapidly becoming established as the lead professional child care organisation in the whole of southern Africa, offering training in Zambia for example.
FICE will need to find ways in which, as an international body, it can be of real help in these countries. It is certainly not a question of imposing European ideas on other parts of the world, but an international body such as FICE may be in a position to influence governments and international aid agencies to see problems in new ways. For FICE membership to be seen as worthwhile, there has to be added value beyond what the workers and their national organisations can do for themselves.
Similar developments could create networks in other parts of the world, so that groups of workers support their colleagues in other nearby countries, linking electronically, perhaps providing training and having occasional continental congresses.
Monika is keen to work jointly with other professional organisations. During Theo Binnendijk’s presidency FICE held talks with a number of other professional bodies, but principally with AIEJI, an international association for social pedagogues with a history and role very similar to FICE’s. In the past, FICE was seen by some people as an organisation for residential child care workers, but it now has a very broad membership. Its remit therefore overlaps in different ways with organisations which have other aims and functions, such as IFCO (for foster carers), IDFCO (for workers in day centres), Eurochild and OMEP (for early years workers). Monika hopes to encourage links, to ensure best use of resources and maximum impact.
If FICE is to expand its programme, how will the projects be funded? Monika almost brushes this question aside. If good projects are proposed, she believes that the funds will be found. FICE is not well off, but Monika’s view is that a combination of higher membership income through recruitment and a percentage of project income going towards overheads will give FICE the finances it requires.
Quality for Children
Monika comes to the presidency with a good track record as far as projects are concerned. She has played a major role representing FICE in the project called Quality for Children, which has been establishing international standards for children’s services. This project has entailed widespread consultation and collaboration between many organisations – both seen as hall-marks of soundly-based project work today. The final report is due out at the end of this month, and it should then move into the stages of training and implementation.
The impact of the report, Monika believes, will depend on the weight of the political support it receives, and she sees FICE moving into a period of advocacy as a pressure group battling on behalf of children’s right to good services, and perhaps playing a role in the monitoring of services against the standards set in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Monika is keen to keep children together with their families, and from her personal experience believes that there is a variety of roles which social pedagogues can fulfil to support families, offering intensive help to young mothers, for example, or enabling families to make considered decisions about the way they want to resolve problems. While she also supports substitute family care through fostering, she is also aware that there are strong arguments against making foster care the automatic alternative to the child’s family, and sees a real role for residential care as one of the options of choice. “All people who are too narrow-minded are wrong”, she said, arguing for an open approach, taking account of the views of others and working to reach decisions which are not only in the best interests of the child but are understandable to the child and, if possible, fit in with the child’s wishes.
The interview took place against the background of the Sarajevo Congress, in which the young people were playing major roles, their Congress being integrated with the adult programme. Monika was pleased with the way the joint Congresses were going, as she is keen on youth participation. Would she try to involve young people in the work of FICE’s Federal Council? She pointed out that there are former foster children on the IFCO Board. Young people have been on the Board of the National Children’s Bureau in England for four years now, a successful experiment which is now an established part of the governance of the organisation. Maybe a web debate is needed first in FICE, she suggested.
Turning Energy into Action
Monika is well aware that if FICE is to match her hopes, a lot of energy will be needed, but she is also aware that FICE members have a wide range of skills, knowledge, experience and networks, and that they may be galvanised if support and encouragement are offered.
And yes, Monika is a wife and a mother as well. We look forward to seeing what a difference a woman as President of FICE-International will make, and we wish her well.
1FICE stands for the Federation Internationale des Communautes Educatives. It is an international professional organisation which has worked since 1948 to foster high standards of child care / social education / social pedagogy. It has National Sections in many countries, as well as individual members in other countries, and the National Sections are represented on the Federal Council, which meets twice a year in different countries.
FICE was founded after the Second World War to provide support to people working in residential child care, but its members now work with children and young people in a wide variety of settings. Each National Section has its own programme, but FICE International holds a Congress every two years, and is currently about to recommence its publishing programme in association with Trentham. Its website is www.fice-inter.org