Social Pedagogy and Therapeutic Education

My passion for and interest in the transformative potential of residential child care done well was rekindled earlier this year when Barry Sheerman, Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families, spoke on Radio 4 about how the Danish system, rooted in social pedagogy, prepares about 80% of children in care for university, whereas in England this figure is about 8%. I felt both inspired and agitated – inspired that RCC was, at last, being discussed in the national media for reasons other than scandals and abusive practice and agitated that I knew so little about this social pedagogy business. I was also sceptical, based on my experience of working with ‘looked after’ children. I found it hard to imagine anything equipping 80% of them to enter anything more than universities of life.

An initial ‘dabble’ into social pedagogy left me none the wiser really. I was, however, re-motivated and quite excited by the energy surrounding the whole thing, even though I remained very unclear just what exactly this ‘thing’ was. In time I discovered that I was not alone and that most colleagues would respond to my mention of social pedag ojy or goggy with a rather blank expression and the question, “What’s that?” to which I could provide only a limited response. I think it was the continued media coverage, my own curiosity and Barry Sheerman’s statistics that fuelled my own continuing desire to discover more.


My own experience of residential care began at the Cotswold Community in 1990 when I visited one day as a very green, twenty-year old undergraduate. I’ll never forget the experience of leaving Kemble BR in a taxi, heading for Spine Road West and driving along the long isolated drive, passing the handpainted (by children) signs saying, “Slow! Children at play!”

I then met a very serious but likeable man, John Whitwell, who not only looked at me intensely as if he could somehow see within the contents of my soul but also asked me how I could convince him that I wasn’t a paedophile! As if that wasn’t enough I was then permitted to visit one of the ‘households’ where I accompanied a young student social worker on a car journey to the local town with one of the ‘boys’ who needed to by a bouquet of flowers to take with him the following day to his mother’s funeral. I was later told that his father had killed his mother the previous week. I was both shocked and deeply touched, unable to believe that the small, angelic little boy I had just been with was living this reality.

I spent the summer as a volunteer living and working with ‘the boys’ of the Cotswold Community and returned on graduating and stayed as a paid staff member for almost six years.

In this time I witnessed and was embroiled within an intense, psycho-dynamically informed version of milieu therapy. In retrospect, I was transformed, as were the lives and experiences of peers and ‘the boys’ living in this carefully managed, planned ‘living-learning’ environment. It was here that I developed a lifelong passion for and interest in human experience and relationships and developed faith in the healing potential of new, non-abusive relationships for severely deprived and neglected young people. Since leaving, I have witnessed and worked in numerous other residential settings, some claiming to be ‘therapeutic’ and others not. These experiences have been very mixed and led to me now stating very clearly that I believe in the transformative potential of residential care done well rather than residential care per se.

The Institute and the Tavistock

Perhaps the richest common ground between therapeutic childcare and education and social pedagogy is the centrality of a focus on relationship in the broadest sense. My endeavour to educate myself about social pedagogy led me to visit its UK heartland at the Institute of Education where I was soon told that not only is it ‘gojy’ and not ‘goggy’ but it is also “definitely the way forward for English residential homes”. An initial definition offered was that of “education in its broadest sense”, which a few months later on a second visit was refined into “something closer to social action”. For me it remained exciting but somehow very hard to visualise and translate into the context of the children’s homes I knew.

I began to feel aggrieved that, as far as I could figure out, there was little reference within the social pedagogic literature to the emotional experience of children and staff members within residential care. Very little, if any, to how the whole business should be led, managed and organised in the best interests of the children and little about the context in which children are placed in residential care in England and the importance of the work undertaken at the many interfaces. I would include in this the whole personal and professional network of each child – birth family members, social workers, foster carers, Independent Reviewing Officers, schools etc.

I was also hooked on the omission of what I would call a ‘psychological dimension’ to the whole framework of social pedagogy. Despite these reservations I was, and am, hopeful that social pedagogy can positively transform the experiences and outcomes of young people and staff members in residential childcare.

Conversations with colleagues at the Tavistock Centre, where I had recently trained in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, seemed to generate similar reactions in terms of social pedagogy seeming both attractive but ‘psychologically lite’. I was also keen to encourage collaborations between the Tavistock and the many providers of fostering and residential care in an ongoing way, believing that the training models provided by the Tavistock potentially have a great deal to offer those living and working with this very troubled and troubling population of children. The idea of a working conference emerged with a focus on the potentially fertile common ground between therapeutic childcare and education and social pedagogy.

What emerged was an energetic day entitled So What Makes it Therapeutic? Observation, Analysis and Intervention in Residential Childcare Practice and Training co-organised by the Tavistock and NCERCC and hosted by the Tavistock Centre in October 2009. A wish to involve those at a policy level motivated us to invite the Shadow Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, Mark Burrows from the DCSF, Ann Harrison, CWDC, and John Simmons, BAAF’s Policy and Research Director.

In summary, the day was both fun and stimulating and generated many ideas and questions. The notion of ‘therapeutic pedagogy’ was explored in papers by John Diamond, Chief Executive at the Mulberry Bush Organisation, and Jonathan Stanley at NCERCC and emerged as an evolving idea to be further developed. Most delegates were left still wondering just what is social pedagogy but glad to have had some time in which to begin to think it through and engage with what most agree is an exciting addition to current models and theories.

This grouping is still thinking through how and where the two worlds of social pedagogy and therapeutic care and education might co-exist and collaborate for the benefit of staff teams and young people in a number of settings. In my work in child mental health I encounter countless looked after young people who are approaching early adulthood with a worryingly underdeveloped ‘core self’ or sense of who they are and who they want to become.


These ‘incoherent narratives’ are often devoid of even very basic knowledge about where and with whom young people have previously lived or any clear sense of why they were not raised within their birth families or by relatives. I want to give an example of a recent encounter and then explore what social pedagogy might have offered and also how ideas rooted in the tradition of therapeutic care and education helped me begin to think through the young person’s experience and my own in his presence.

Steve, now approaching his eighteenth birthday, was recently referred to the looked after children’s CAMH service by his GP who noted in the referral letter that he was encopretic and enuretic and that his current foster carer was struggling to manage this. It took some time to identify his case-holding social worker for two reasons. First, in this area, GPs referring looked after children often do not know the child’s social worker, so therefore do not mention them in the referrals. Secondly, Steve was at an age where he fell neatly between being the responsibility of the pathway team who focus on young people’s transitions out of care and the child and family support teams who tend to pass the young people over to the pathway teams somewhere around their seventeenth birthday.

When I eventually tracked down Steve’s social worker I quickly realised that in fact they barely knew each other and they had only met less than a handful of times. The social worker was, however, aware of Steve’s enuresis and encopresis and that he would be ‘leaving care’ (and therefore his foster placement) in less than six months time. The social worker also said that the local authority would still have ‘a duty of care’ towards him after this date.

In keeping with the team’s usual practice I arranged a convenient time with the foster carer to see Steve with her in his foster placement. I arrived, on time, at the attractive nine-bedroomed Victorian property situated in a coastal town in North East England. I noticed a “For sale” sign at the front of the property and made a mental note of this. As agreed, I initially spent some time with the foster carer, a warm and sensitive middle-aged woman with a local accent. She explained how she has had Steve in placement for almost a year and how worried she is about what will become of him after he turns eighteen, as in her mind he is functioning more like an eleven or twelve year old and lacking very much in self-care and independent living skills.

I noticed numerous family photos in frames on the wall and found my mind wandering and wondering who they all were. I couldn’t see any photos of Steve, and she responded to my asking by saying she knows very little about Steve’s life before he was placed with her. He himself rarely mentions the past and she was told very little about him.

She went to tell me how he soils himself most days and usually begins each day with faeces on his fingers and ingrained under his fingernails. He also urinates in bottles in his room and leaves them scattered around the room for her to empty. I began to feel agitated and slightly nauseous as she described how challenging she finds this and how she feels unsure whether or not she can continue to look after him whilst he’s doing this. She also forewarns me that the estate agent has arranged for a house viewing in the middle of my time there and, while being outwardly polite and not wanting to get in the way, I begin to imagine what Steve’s experience of this might be.

My mind fills up with ideas and slightly random thoughts. I often associate encopresis with sexual abuse and wonder what Steve might have experienced on this level. I wonder why there’s just the two of them in this nine-bedroomed property and why the move now? How will Steve experience this? I begin to worry about the placement ending within the next six months and imagine Steve still encopretic, living independently somewhere. I even begin to wonder why he was ever placed here. Is this a medical matter? Might a psychologist be of more help than me? I begin to feel under pressure to stop this poohing and peeing.

We agree that she will go and get Steve, who enters the room rather sheepishly. A tall, rather awkward-looking young man with short brown hair enters the room and sits close to me on the sofa. I quickly become aware of how anxious he seems as he peers at the floor and glances at me fleetingly when I introduce myself. He then starts to nibble nervously on what’s left of his finger nails as I say who I am and why I am there. He says he was expecting me but exudes a powerful vagueness and sense of not knowing in response to my questions about him and his life prior to the move here.

The people arrive to view the house and the carer leaves us alone. I begin to feel both sorry for and deeply sad towards Steve, who keeps nibbling his nails and looks quite vulnerable, bordering on pitiful. I continue to enquire about him: is he sleeping? Is he eating? Where and with whom would he like to live when he leaves this placement? Has he always poohed and wet himself? I know of this from his doctor who has written to me about this.

He tells me that since he moved into care when he was nearly five he has poohed and wet himself. He didn’t before this and he remembers being toilet-trained and not being in nappies. He seems very sad and, perhaps picking up on this, I speak out loud and say I wonder if some of why he does this connects with his own sense of feeling quite shitty sometimes about himself and perhaps not being able to understand why he wasn’t, and isn’t, wanted by the people who brought him into the world, his parents. I feel like I’m taking a risk, perhaps talking out of turn, but he seems very receptive, curious even, as he looks at me and bursts into tears.

We are soon joined again by his foster carer, who comes over to him, places an arm around his shoulders, and comforts him. I feel slightly guilty for upsetting him and let his foster carer know what I said that prompted his upset. She tells me that he never speaks to her about his past and offers to be there for him if he would ever like to. He continues to cry and I let them both know that I think she is best placed to support him from day to day with his thoughts and feelings and that perhaps they might talk together about how they might work towards finding a solution to the problem of the wetting and soiling.

Before I leave we agree that I will write to them both about what the next step might be in terms of my involvement but make it clear that it is most likely I will meet with his social worker and carer rather than with him again. He looks at me with reddened eyes and thanks me as I get up to leave, feeling very uncertain whether or not I have done or said the ‘right things.’ I call the following day to check how Steve is and arrange a day and time on which to meet the carer and social worker.


I will now reflect on this intervention from a therapeutic and social pedagogic perspective before moving towards a conclusion. Clearly this work is undertaken in a context other than a residential children’s home. However, our children’s homes are full of young people like Steve who are hard to engage and understand and present in ways that are difficult to tolerate and survive for both the young person and their carers.

From what I can ascertain, a social pedagogue would have a meaningful relationship with this young person with a focus on working within all aspects of the young person’s lifespace. They would have a good working knowledge of child development and the impact of trauma on both neurological and emotional development. The tricky territory in this example might be the application of predominantly sociological ideas to a part-medical, part-developmental and arguably part-emotional condition or presentation like this. I’m sure the freedom to think and act creatively enhanced by social pedagogical ideas might have led to a less rigid and stuck feel to the relationship between Steve and his carer.

There is a very powerful, ‘too little, too late’ feel and undercurrent to this example, coming from Steve himself, who exuded huge amounts of hopelessness into both me and his carer. I also found myself feeling aspects of his helplessness and hopelessness that were then translated by me into strong frustration towards ‘the care system.’ Surely his encopresis must have been known about at earlier stages of his life and arguably more easily treated then?

Recent encounters with Steve and other looked after adolescents has led me to start to think through why some looked after children develop a greater capacity for self-reflection, coherent self narratives and mentalisation than others. I am particularly curious as to what role and influence carers in different placement settings can have over this.

My hunch or hypothesis is that it is the capacity of the adults caring for young people to model reflection and to think aloud in the presence of the young person about emotional experience that leads to the development of this in young people themselves. This capacity for emotional literacy is present in foster carers and residential staff and indeed in all adults caring for children in whatever context to varying degrees. It is the positive contribution to the development of this capacity in both carers and the cared for that I am most interested and I believe the jury remains out as to whether the tradition of therapeutic education and care makes the greatest contribution or, in time, the developing tradition of an English version of social or therapeutic pedagogy.

It is the idea of a form of therapeutic pedagogy that integrates the strengths of both social pedagogy and therapeutic care and education that requires further exploration and to be rooted in clinical and residential practice. Further dialogue, research and collaboration at many levels is required to test out the actual impact on young people and staff members’ experiences of these two potentially very compatible approaches.

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