A Fieldtrip to Freiburg

European care professionals have been recruited to work in the UK for many years, but recently Jacaranda, a staffing agency which specialises in this field, has experienced an increase in the planned recruitment of such staff for the professional approach they bring: Social Pedagogy. The Department for Education pilot project combined recruitment of Social Pedagogues from Germany and Denmark with awareness-raising of the social pedagogic approach; staff working with children in care in residential settings have started to learn more about Social Pedagogy – and the word is spreading. The more people hear, the more curious they become.

It was as a result of this curiosity that Jacaranda organised a field trip to one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, Freiburg, to see Social Pedagogy in Action. Charlotte Levene, National Children’s Bureau Associate, provides her unmediated reflections from a trip of fifteen UK residential child care professionals in October 2010. Jacaranda will run a further field trip in March 2011, with a focus on children with emotional and behavioural problems in residential care as well as children with disabilities.

I arrived in Freiburg late Sunday evening and checked into my hotel wondering what the few days ahead had in store. My mission, “Go to Germany; help support the group; tell us about it”.

I reached the station out of breath and slightly disorientated after vastly misjudging the journey to the meeting point. (Replace, “I’ll walk, it will give me the opportunity to see the town” with “I should have got the tram, it will give me the opportunity to arrive on time”). The plan was to meet fifteen group members at the station in Freiburg and then head to St Anton’s, a residential special school in Riegel to begin our exploration of social pedagogy in practice. The reality resulted in meeting our Jacaranda rep, Ingolf, and some of the group at the station, a few more at Riegel station and the remainder of the group at St Anton’s. In the world of residential child care we are always happy to have the information but what we decide to do with it is an entirely different matter.

We were picked up from Riegel station by staff from St Anton’s and driven to the school. The transport had the name of St Anton’s written across it so it was clear that we were heading to the school. Similarly, children travelling in the vehicle could be identified as residents of St Anton’s. We drove through Riegel, a small and quiet Black Forest town, and headed to the school. I thought about some of the placements in England and felt that this was definitely more like the rural locations of therapeutic communities that I had visited rather than our more common local authority city-based homes.

We arrived at St Anton’s and were invited into a meeting room where the head of school, Joachim, introduced himself and shared the plans for the next few days. Prior to the trip I had thought about how we could ensure that everybody gets the most out of their time in Germany. I thought that it might be helpful if the staff at St Anton’s had an idea about the way that the English system worked so that discussions, and maybe comparisons, were contextualised. Ingolf introduced me to the group and explained that I would do this. I suddenly became quite self-conscious and considered what this was about. It wasn’t because I was speaking in front of the group or explaining concepts to people whose organisation I was visiting. This was well inside my comfort zone and something that I had undertaken many times before. Surely I was never more at home than when sitting with a group of residential managers, exploring the good practice and the progressive, and wondering how to change the things that held us back. I realised that this was something to do with my role and task within this group.

For the last few years I had had an employer, a job title, an email account and a name badge (although that was lost within days of receiving it). When working for NCB my role was clear; Principal Officer of NCERCC (National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care) and my key task was to facilitate the Children’s Residential Network. This entailed designing and running regional events for people working in and with residential child care and exploring and sharing practice.

The task for this event seemed similar: explore residential child care practice and then document discussions and share these. However, my role felt undefined. Was this something I should seek definitive clarity on from Ingolf or should I take responsibility to establish this? I sat with this feeling whilst I explained the English Looked After system and Scottish colleagues described the Children’s Panel system. I realised that whilst Ingolf was essentially running this field trip he was not going to tell me what to do or define my role for me. This could be established as we worked together to ensure that people got the most out of their experience in Germany.

Once the system in the UK had been discussed, we learnt about Germany and specifically St Anton’s. Initially it felt important to explore St Anton’s in relation to children’s homes and residential special schools in the UK. I thought that this would help to contextualise the way the school works and fits into systems in Germany. However, as we started to realise that there are so many differences to explore, I tried to stop looking at St Anton’s and Germany in the context of ‘compare and contrast’, and instead considered what we were seeing and learning about without the constraints of what we know about our own system.

St Anton’s and the Role of Parents

St Anton’s has a number of functions. The site contains a school, various houses, a secure unit and space outside for young people to use and play in. Some houses function as children’s homes and provide residential accommodation for groups of young people aged 7-17. Other houses are for the use of day pupils who attend the school and then use the house space for meal times, homework and other after school activities. The school day at St Anton’s ends at 12, which allows for time for the young people to be with others in their group away from the school setting and take part in leisure activities with the support of residential staff. St Anton’s also offers an outreach service in the community and support to mainstream schools.

Joachim shared information about St Anton’s and the group picked up some key points that they were particularly interested in. Joachim stressed the importance that is placed on the role of parents and that their role and responsibilities with their children is never underestimated. The majority of the parents have chosen to place their children at St Anton’s and it is believed that this decision is instrumental when working with parents; they have acknowledged that help is needed and they have committed to thinking about change by choosing St Anton’s as the right placement for their child. Parents are usually involved in deciding what type of support they will access and where, if necessary, their child will be placed.

Joachim explained that if they have concerns about a child’s behaviour they will ring the parents and ask them how best to work with their child. There is a recognition that most young people return to their parents when they leave care and St Anton’s believe that they therefore must work with them to ensure a positive transition home. There was much discussion in our group about working with parents who may have been abusive to their children or who make unhelpful decisions about their children.

At St Anton’s they hold the belief that there is love between parents and children and it is their task to work with this in mind. Regardless of what has happened within the family, the task is to work without judgement and very closely with parents. Group members suggested that at times this is not possible, and we discussed examples of when contact between a parent and a child has significant damaging effects on the child. This was accepted and it was explained that if this was the case then perhaps this was not the right placement for the child as one of the key tasks of St Anton’s is rehabilitation with the family.

The Children

This prompted discussion around a recurring theme of the visit: who are the children who attend and what have their experiences been? The reason that this was asked seemed to be a belief that these children had had different experiences from the children in care in the UK and that these children probably would not have come into care if they were in the UK. The issue of the threshold for coming into care remained live in the group throughout our visit and was discussed in more detail during a session on the following day. However, for the purpose of this experience I reminded myself to step away from making comparisons and just explore the process that was taking place here.

All the children who attended St Anton’s had struggled in mainstream school and needed to be in a smaller environment. Many of them had experienced difficulties within their families and it was assessed that they needed to live separately from their parents.

A Solution Focused Approach

St Anton’s was built on the principles of using a Solution Focused approach and this was discussed within the group. The principle of this approach is focusing on what has been achieved and what can be achieved rather than on the negative experiences of the past. The Solution Focused approach underpins all practice at St Anton’s, so care planning and reviewing, for example, would explore what the young person had achieved whilst at St Anton’s and what their hopes for the future are, rather than looking at how to manage negative behaviour.

Thinking and working in this way prompted much discussion. The majority of the group members work with young people who have experienced extensive abuse and explained that the young people need space for these experiences to be explored in order to heal and move forward and that they would not be able to think about their futures in a hopeful way. There was a belief that a psychodynamic approach is necessary when working with very traumatised young people. This reiterated the hypothesis that the young people at St Anton’s are less traumatised than the children who enter the care system in the UK. This may be the case and not something any of us were able to prove or disprove, but I was clear that there are solution focused practitioners who believe that this approach could be used with anyone at all, despite their experiences.

Looking to the future and exploring success does not have to be undertaken in a large way and is also a skill that takes time to develop. However, there is a belief that if a person has chosen to engage with a service, then it is possible to work in this way. It was interesting that there was such a defence for talking about the past and exploring experiences in order to move on and I wondered whether this would be the preferred approach of young people. I also wondered if this was the reality of conversations in children’s homes and if perhaps solution focused conversations might be a helpful way of communicating in residential child care.

Social Pedagogy in Practice

We could have continued talking about residential child care for the day but it was time for us to see “Social pedagogy…in practice”. The saying, “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand” underpins social pedagogy practice so we headed to our separate houses to become ‘involved’.

We were invited to have lunch with the young people in each of the houses. It felt slightly awkward being in the young people’s home and the language barrier meant there was a lot of nodding and smiling rather than clear communication. I sat at a table with a group of young people and waited for the go-ahead to tuck into the food in front of us. The group said Grace before eating and I noticed that there were other references to Christian influences around the room. I asked about these and learned that the organisation is funded by a Christian charity and that this is the case for most residential provisions in Germany. Many children’s homes in the UK that are run by charities started up as Christian charities but most no longer have religious affiliations.

When I explained that this is very different from the UK I was asked where their young people get their spiritual learning from. I was unsure how to answer that question and it still hangs in my mind. Do we explore young people’s spiritual learning in the UK, and how do we do this if we and the young person is not affiliated to a religion? Is it our duty to explore spirituality and do we have the tools to do this? Development of the spirit is a key concept in social pedagogy and therefore a topic to learn and consider in training and practice. I wondered if I would be able to describe when I had worked with a young person and had considered their spiritual development. I am not convinced I would recognise spiritual development in myself, let alone in others and considered that this is something worth exploring in more detail when working in residential child care.

I asked if the young people knew why we were there and they said that they did not. I also asked about participation and whether St Anton’s had an equivalent of a children in care/school council. They explained that there had been one in the past but this was not active at the moment. I explained that participation had become a key theme in the UK and wondered if this was the same in Germany. It did not seem to be a priority and I wondered if perhaps young people had always taken an active part in their care planning and if this was inherent in the system and in social pedagogy practice which is why it is not identified as a separate entity.

Lunch was quiet and when we finished one of the young people cleared the table and another sorted things out in the kitchen. I noticed how calm and relaxed the staff and young people were and asked about this. The staff explained that most of the young people had lived there for two to three years and that the home is very settled. There was a relaxed attitude to the afternoon’s activities and young people either chose to spend time in their rooms working and playing games, or outside with staff.

The area outside provided opportunities for young people to be adventurous and play with others. A football game quickly started and staff, young people and members of our group all played together and all seemed to be having a good time. Meanwhile some of the other young people zoomed around on go-karts. I noticed that no-one had helmets on and that this was not mentioned by any of the St Anton’s staff. Riding around on a go-kart, head free in the wind looked like extremely good fun and it prompted me to think how much we moderate our leisure activities.

These young people did not have adults telling them when they could start and when they must stop and there was no adult telling each young person that it was someone else’s go. There was no designated area for the carts and the young people skilfully manoeuvred out of the way of others. It was a pleasure to note that there were no arguments, no accidents and no panic; just young people playing, being excited and having fun.

There was space for the young people to make their own decisions and to consider and explore risk for themselves and this seemed to work. They were careful when they were playing but knew how to work the go-karts safely. This consolidated some of the discussions we had been having about risk. We explored different attitudes towards risk and risk assessments and there was an acknowledgement that a social pedagogue has a duty to ensure that situations allow a young person to develop their ability to assess risk for themselves.

There is recognition in the UK that we want Looked After young people to have the same opportunities that other children have and there are many discussions about how to ensure we do not practise in a risk averse way. What I particularly liked within social pedagogy was the importance placed on the young person’s experience of the journey to get to the outcome. Young people and adults worked together to assess and explore situations.

Other members of our group described observations that they had made. On the secure unit one of the workers forgot to lock one of the doors. The group member who observed this also works in a secure setting and explained that if he had done this his job would have been at risk. This was met with surprise from the staff member who had left the door open. He explained that he is trusted and that it is acknowledged that mistakes are made. If a young person went out through the door then it would be an opportunity to work with them on this. This prompted a discussion on trust of staff. The staff member explained that he has to be trusted as he is responsible for developing responsibility and trust in young people. Young people also need to know that mistakes are made and that these will not necessarily be met with punishment or anger.

We discussed observations of the relationship between adults and young people in each setting. After lunch some of the young people had spent time in their bedrooms. One group member explained that he had sat in a bedroom talking to a young person and that this was without supervision of a staff member. This threw up a number of questions within the group. What if the young person made an allegation? What if the adult behaved in a way that was not OK? In this specific instance the young person had the opportunity to spend time with a residential worker from the UK and the worker had an opportunity to learn about the young person. It seemed to be a very positive experience for both.

It is very important for young people in care to know that bedrooms and bedtimes can be safe and it is the role of the residential worker to help with this process. However, members of our group expressed their difficulties with this in case allegations were made about staff members. I thought about St Anton’s allowing one of our workers to be in a room with one of their children and wondered what the thinking was behind this. I wondered if the staff knew their young people so well that they assessed that this situation was safe enough and that the young person would be capable of managing a situation in which they felt uncomfortable. This would reflect other ideologies that I had observed and heard about; good practice will not be compromised because of fear of repercussions or allegations. However, I also wondered if perhaps there was a different attitude to safeguarding in Germany and that this was not always one of the first considerations when making decisions.

We discussed an observation made of a young person in the school who had become disruptive whilst others worked. One of the group members had observed that he had not been challenged on his behaviour and had been left to wander around the class. He eventually re-joined the group at which point a teacher re-engaged with him. Joachim explained that this is a planned response and that there has been a conscious shift over the last few years in the way that behaviour is viewed and managed.

Historically there were many incidents of disruptive behaviour at St Anton’s and Joachim and his colleagues considered how they were currently managing this and whether there may be better ways to do this. There was a belief that challenging behaviour enforced and validated what the child was doing. By giving a child space they will have time to process their experience themselves and potentially learn to take responsibility for their behaviour. There are consequences to behaviour, for example, if a child does not work during class then they need to finish their work later in the day. This is not a punishment, however, and Joachim described it as “Just re-ordering their day”. He explained that changing the culture in this way has been a slow process but staff are now definitely seeing benefits in the classroom.


Before we left St Anton’s I spent time with Ingolf and Joachim reflecting on the previous day and exploring whether there was anything we needed to explore in our final group meeting. I suggested that we spend some time discussing threshold for entering care and the level of risky behaviour that is dealt with at St Anton’s as these were topics that had been talked about within the group.

Joachim talked to the group about admissions and how decisions are made. He explained that they also work with children who are very vulnerable. However, unlike in the UK, a risk assessment that explores the young person’s past experiences and behaviour does not necessarily determine whether the child is admitted to the school.


The rest of the study trip was spent at the university and this consolidated some of the theories that we had seen in practice and had begun to explore whilst at St Anton’s. Professor Schwan gave an overview of social pedagogy and we then had the opportunity to ask questions. What was also valuable was discussing residential child care with social pedagogy students. We learned about their experience of training and asked them about specifics. The students were very clear that social pedagogy is a professional qualification and were surprised that workers in residential care are not always qualified and are viewed differently in the UK.

The social pedagogy course seems to have elements of social work, youth work, teaching and psychology training. Unlike the UK social work course, exploration of their own values and their impact on practice did not appear to be a compulsory part of the social pedagogy training. It would be interesting to explore this further and learn whether anti-oppressive practice is as integral to social pedagogy as it is to British social work.

One of the students worked in ‘Experiential Education’ and our final session was with him. Whilst some of the session was familiar to many of the participants – it was reminiscent of youth work training and some of the activities were things that group members had done many times with young people – it was interesting to see that this would be part of the training that those working in residential child care might receive. Risk-taking and enabling young people to learn from being out of their comfort zones was underpinned by theoretical principles and this was illustrated in examples of outdoor education.

Throughout the study trip risk was the theme that prompted the most discussion and reflection. Safeguarding was a less overt consideration and fear around children being exposed to adults they did not know did not seem to be an issue. Risk was seen as an intrinsic part of life and not something that is the responsibility of adults to remove. Children were given the space and time to learn to think and process so that these skills were developed and less priority was placed on getting the answer right as the journey it took to get there. This space, the time perhaps between aiming for something and achieving, may be pertinent in social pedagogy.

It was difficult to observe the relationships between young people and adults and particularly the skills used to build these relationships. Our visit to St Anton’s was only for a couple of days and it would take considerably more time to really understand how these develop and what makes them work. However, an exploration of some of the experiences that the young people were offered did provide some insight and demonstrated that trust seemed to be a key element of the relationships. Adults trusted young people to make good decisions and young people trusted adults to provide boundaries within which to make them. In addition to this it was clear that adults were also trusted by their managers, their organisations and wider society.

In the UK the social care professions have been under scrutiny. Many professionals fear that if the wrong decisions are made, despite good intentions, repercussions will have a huge negative impact on individuals and organisations. If trust is one of the key elements to social pedagogy then this may need to be embedded in different parts of the UK system if we are to adapt social pedagogy as a way of working. This must come from good leadership and also from factors external to the organisation.

Developing a social pedagogy qualification may help to promote residential workers as professionals, which, in turn, could lead to others trusting their decisions and allowing them to play a larger role in care planning and decision making about young people. This may well also enable young people to be trusted and to have the opportunity to be less monitored and take more risks. In order for this to be successful the content would need to be adapted to reflect the British culture and systems and to actively address the complexities of managing risk in a society where accountability and blame are at the forefront of many professionals minds.

In Germany I observed that good practice will not be compromised for the sake of fear of repercussion and this was refreshing, exciting and something that I have also observed in UK children’s homes. The hope is for this to become universal and the challenge will be exploring where systemic change will need to take place in order for this to happen.

Jacaranda Recruitment recruits qualified Social Workers and Social Pedagogues from Europe for permanent work in the UK. Jacaranda Development provides training and consultancy in Social Pedagogy, offering accredited training (40 credits and Level 4, accredited by the University of West of England). Jacaranda are currently working with Derbyshire County Council, developing Social Pedagogy in their residential and contract care services. Jacaranda is also an organising member of the Social Pedagogy Development Network.

1 thought on “A Fieldtrip to Freiburg”

  1. Hi Charlotte

    This is really good

    I have been trying to restablish contact with you

    Please use above email to reply




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