Social Pedagogy and UK Traditions of Social Work

Work with Families

As with UK social work, social pedagogy has a strong emphasis on working with families, and working in partnership with parents. Where children are in care, the pedagogues are expected to work with families as well as the child. Foster-carers are often offered elements of social pedagogy training, or may themselves be trained social pedagogues. Such staff work at helping children maintain links and to return home where possible. As they are trained in a range of practical skills (games, sports, arts and creative activities in general) and in specific methods of working, pedagogues would usually be expected to work with families, in the sense of encouraging parents to develop parenting skills, and supporting parents to resolve difficulties in managing their children.

We can see from this that the pedagogue role has some similarities to that of residential workers, except that pedagogues are trained to engage fully with families. In continental Europe children in care and families would still have social workers, with similar roles to the UK (for example, assessment and case management) but the pedagogue is available to undertake work in identified areas.

Reflective Practice

Reflective practice is seen as a major element in social pedagogy training, as it is in the UK in social work and other professions. This involves workers being trained to reflect on what they are doing, and why, and linking theory to practice. In teamwork situations pedagogues are expected to reflect with each other, giving feedback and suggestions to one another.

It is a notable feature of recent social pedagogy initiatives in the UK that both foreign social pedagogues and British staff notice that the British system of care seems to be dominated by concerns about risk and ‘safeguarding procedures’ rather than on confident relationship-based practice (Bengtsson 2008: 4).

In contrast pedagogues seem to have both the training and a professional environment which supports greater self-confidence about managing relationships and risk. The recent review of social work in Scotland (Roe 2006) recognised that social workers often felt weighed down by procedures and recommended among other things that social workers should be afforded greater autonomy.

Personal Care and Professional Relationships

Social pedagogues are trained to have authentic and mutual relationships with the children and young people with whom they work, while using the relationship to work purposefully and therapeutically, in the broadest sense. One of the differences of emphasis that seems to make this approach attractive to residential workers who have taken part in the English pilots is that it affirms the positive care role of the worker, as opposed to the very risk-averse-dominated UK approach, which seems to view personal relationships as potentially suspect. In contrast the pedagogues are expected to manage their relationships and use them positively and professionally.

The use of the relationship seems to be an aspect of social pedagogy which is different in some degree to the way that professional relationships are understood and have evolved within a UK social work context. Two particular conceptual frameworks have been well-received by participants in UK pilots so far.

1. Head, hand and heart: the idea that the worker is supposed to engage in all domains; practical skills and activities (hands), thinking critically and analytically (head), and recognising and affirming the place of emotions, feelings of care and concern (heart). Within social pedagogy these aspects associated with ‘heart’ are recognised as crucial to the care and development of the child, rather than being seen as risky and to be avoided.

2. The ‘3 Ps’: Private, personal and professional: another conceptual device used by some of the pedagogue trainers, acknowledging different aspects of the self: private, personal and professional. Again the distinction between the private (the part of you which you generally do not share with service users or bring to work), and the personal part (which you do share and bring to work), seems to be helpful. It enables residential workers to see a valid theoretical basis for the ‘personal’ aspects of the job.

The following comment comes from the evaluation of an English pilot project involving German and Danish pedagogues working with a number of residential staff in either training or mentoring roles:

“Participants report the biggest impact of this project was either a reconfirmation or gaining of new perspectives on how to meet the needs of young people in residential child care without needing to discard the knowledge and experience they had already built up. On the contrary, they felt that they could refine and develop their existing knowledge, skills and teamwork by consciously embracing and implementing a more social pedagogic approach in their everyday practice.

“As one participant put it, ‘Over the years, ‘the head’ for example, staff policies, risk assessments, children coming in as a last resort, has dominated how I perceive and work with the young people. I have rediscovered ‘the heart’ and can see working with these young people with a renewed perspective'”.  (Bengtsson et al., 2008: 3-4) 

Purposeful Use of Activities

Another marked feature of social pedagogy, and one which distinguishes it from British social work, is the emphasis on the use of activities; both outdoor recreational activities and sports, and indoor recreation using all types of creative activities. During their training social pedagogues will spend considerable amounts of time learning to use a wide range of creative and recreational activities with children and young people. Social pedagogues are not expected to be experts in any activity but rather to be willing to use their interest to engage with children as part of the care process. A conceptual device which captures this element of practice is the ‘common third’, described in a separate article in this issue.


Gabriel Eichsteller is one of the three founders of ThemPra, which was set up to support and encourage the development of social pedagogy in the UK.


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