Social Pedagogy in Essex

In December 2008 Essex County Council launched a three-year programme to introduce social pedagogy across all twelve of its children’s homes.  This initiative aims to improve the quality of life for children in the homes, to increase the knowledge and skills of the residential workforce and to effect a shift in culture and practice by establishing social pedagogy as the theoretical foundation for residential services.


The programme set out to achieve these aims through a variety of means including:

  • Initial six-day professional development courses run by ThemPra’s social pedagogues, introducing residential practitioners to social pedagogic theory and practice.
  • Social pedagogy agents: a smaller number of staff in each home have undertaken a further two-day course with ThemPra to enable them to take up lead roles as change agents in their teams in developing social pedagogic practice further.  Follow-up support days for social pedagogy agents, run by ThemPra, have taken place to help establish these new roles.
  • Accredited written assignments (conferring 30 level five academic credits through the University of Lincoln) based on practitioners’ reflective analysis of their efforts to enact social pedagogic theory through creative practical work with children.
  • Team-building: ThemPra have undertaken team-building days with whole staff groups in each children’s home, focusing on building a pedagogic culture and providing individualised support to teams in making changes to their practice.
  • Awareness-raising: a variety of events and meetings have taken place to raise awareness of social pedagogy across children’s services in Essex and engage support for the developments in residential services from other professionals, including social workers, independent reviewing officers and CAMHS among others.
  • Action research: independent qualitative research to evaluate the impact of the programme from the perspectives of practitioners is being undertaken by David Crimmens (University of Lincoln), alongside consultation with children and young people on their views of their homes by an internal researcher.  This research is ongoing; findings will be finalised in 2011.
  • Strategic implementation framework: a project steering group and an interagency strategic group have been established to lead and oversee the programme.  A residential services development officer has been appointed to support the implementation of social pedagogy.  A practitioners’ network has been set up, providing a bi-monthly meeting space, online discussion forum and quarterly newsletter, for residential workers from across the homes to discuss social pedagogy and have a voice in strategic decision-making.

Satisfaction, Some Scepticism and Success

To date,157 staff have undertaken the introductory six-day social pedagogy course, representing over a third of the residential workforce. Sixty-six of them have gone on to complete further training and take up roles as social pedagogy agents.  Feedback from the overwhelming majority of participants in the courses has indicated an exceptionally high level of satisfaction with the training and support from the majority of participants for the introduction of social pedagogy to residential services.

However, it is worth noting that a minority of course participants remain sceptical about the potential of social pedagogy and teams report that there is a lower level of understanding or support for social pedagogy amongst staff who have not taken part in the training.  Inevitably, various obstacles to developing social pedagogy have been encountered, from existing policy frameworks to the inspection regime and internal team dynamics.  Time and patience is needed to effect lasting cultural and organisational change.

Nonetheless, the introduction of social pedagogy has sparked a huge range of positive practice developments across the homes, with teams reporting a variety of benefits from improved relationships with local neighbours, to more creative activities with young people and enhanced team-working.  The ways in which teams have put social pedagogy into practice has varied a good deal between the children’s homes, although there are common themes, illustrating the way in which social pedagogy is culturally constructed and practised differently in different contexts (Lorenz, 2008).

From the outset of the Essex project there was recognition that social pedagogy is a perspective and philosophy underpinning a particular disposition or stance (haltung) towards practice, rather than a technique or method to be ‘applied’ (Hamalainen, 2003; Kornbeck, 2002; Cousee et al, 2008).  The work of the Thomas Coram Research Unit has been invaluable in identifying some of the cross-culturally consistent principles of a social pedagogic approach for an English-speaking audience (Petrie et al, 2006).  The question for those with an interest in developing social pedagogy in the UK is how these ideas can form the basis for an interpretation of social pedagogy specific to our own culture(s).

Rather than a top-down ‘imposition’ of social pedagogy, the focus of the Essex programme has been on empowering residential practitioners to take the initiative in rethinking the theoretical basis for their work and developing their practice based on social pedagogic principles.  Therefore, in introducing social pedagogy to Essex, part of the ambition has been to explore what social pedagogy might mean in an English context and how it might build on and challenge existing professional thinking and practices.


One of the most significant areas in which the developing understanding of social pedagogy in Essex has challenged existing thinking and practice has been in relation to concepts of risk.  There have been numerous criticisms in recent years of the discourse of risk and associated risk-averse practices which have come to dominate residential child care in the UK (Milligan & Stevens, 2006; Smith, 2009).

In Essex, social pedagogic notions of risk competence (Eichsteller & Holthoff, 2009) have enabled rethinking of the concept of risk and empowered residential practitioners to challenge previous practice orthodoxies and make changes to practice.  Initially, these changes focused primarily on physical risks to children and widening the range of activities available to them.  For example, where previously residential workers had struggled to have barbecues with children due to health and safety concerns, children and staff in one home now regularly gather around a campfire in the garden in the evenings.  There are many other such tangible examples, from children being allowed to have pets to going swimming in the sea.

To anybody not involved in residential child care these changes may not seem particularly revolutionary, but it is important to distinguish the ways in which they represent not just changes to decision-making but a fundamental cultural shift in professional attitudes and perspectives.  Previous policies rarely included a specific ‘ban’ on particular activities with children. However, they were written from a perspective that emphasised the importance of health and safety considerations above all other concerns.  The role of staff, viewed from this perspective, was to control for all possible risks to the physical health and safety of children while undertaking any activity.  Thus staff are constructed as ‘supervisors’ rather than ‘participants’ in activities with children, their focus being risk management rather than facilitating learning or relationship-building.

What Makes for Social Pedagogy

The significance of having a campfire is not simply about a move away from risk-averse practices; it represents a shift in the thinking of residential practitioners away from risk as the pre-eminent concern to a focus on what can be gained from an activity.  The campfire represents the ‘common third’, an activity through which adults and children can develop their relationships with one another as equal participants in a shared experience.

The campfire itself is no more nor less pedagogic than any other activity, but what makes this part of social pedagogic practice is the way in which staff understand the value of the campfire as an opportunity to bring together all the workers on shift and the children as a group, establishing a sense of community.

Adopting a social pedagogic perspective has enabled practitioners to focus on how they can use the campfire, for example, as a means of demonstrating their trust in young people and allowing them to use their own judgment and experience themselves as competent, by letting them add wood and poke the fire.

The way in which staff actively involve the children in the preparations and encourage them to come together around the campfire creates an atmosphere among the group which is conducive to chatting, telling jokes and stories, reminiscing and reflecting.  What makes it pedagogic is not what is done, but how it is done, based on pedagogic thinking and values.

Professional, Personal and Private

As practitioners in Essex have deepened their understanding of pedagogic perspectives on risk the debate has moved from focusing on physical risks to emotional risk-taking.  The Danish pedagogic ‘3 Ps’ concept (Eichsteller, 2009) of the role of the practitioner as comprising the professional, the personal and the private, has offered a conceptual framework for residential workers to reflect upon their relationships with children in a new way.  Social pedagogic theory emphasises the importance of authenticity and use of the self in relationships with children, as well as the value of physical affection.

In contrast, as Mark Smith (2009) argues, in the wake of numerous institutional abuse scandals and inquiries over the last 30 years, residential child care in the UK has developed an implicit suspicion of the workforce, expressed through ‘appropriate physical contact’ policies, defining when, where and how workers may touch children, and a notion of ‘professionalism’ as meaning that workers should not be too emotionally involved with the children in their care.

Social pedagogy has enabled practitioners in Essex to begin to reclaim relationships with children as central to their work.  In the words of one participant at the residential practitioners’ network “the biggest change needs to be about loving children and having permission to say it.”  For many residential workers in Essex social pedagogy has ‘given them permission’ to start to talk about love in a professional context again.

However, for workers whose professional development has been shaped by advice not to ‘leave themselves open to allegations’ by being too close to children, physically or emotionally, emotional self-disclosure in their relationships with children or colleagues feels risky.  There has been a hugely enthusiastic welcome amongst residential workers in Essex for the way in which social pedagogy legitimises and values their emotional involvement with children.  In this respect many practitioners have viewed social pedagogy as “what we used to do”, before loving and cuddling children became viewed with suspicion and implicitly discouraged.

Whilst this return to fundamental human values in residential practice, rather than reliance on institutional procedures, has been warmly welcomed by practitioners, their discussions have also acknowledged that it takes a great deal of time and trust-building for practitioners to regain confidence in fully using themselves in their relationships with children.  Social pedagogy in Essex has begun to give residential workers a voice in the development of their own practice and their discussions have reclaimed relationships as central to residential child care practice.


Cousee, F., Bradt, L., Roose, R. and Bouverne-De Bie, M. (2008) ‘The

Emerging Social Pedagogical Paradigm in UK Child and Youth Care: Deus Ex Machina or Walking the Beaten Path?’ British Journal of Social Work, Advance Access published on November 21, 2008.

Eichsteller, G. & Holthoff, S. (2009) ‘Towards a pedagogic conceptualisation of risk’ Children Webmag, 1 September (, accessed 9 September 2009).

Eichsteller, G. (2009) ‘Some basic concepts 1: the 3 Ps’ Children Webmag, 1 September (, accessed 9 September 2009).

Hamalainen, J. (2003) ‘The concept of social pedagogy in the field of social

work’ Journal of Social Work 3(1): 69-80.

Kornbeck, J. (2002) ‘Reflections on the Exportability of Social Pedagogy and

its Possible Limits’ Social Work in Europe, 9(2): 37-49.

Lorenz, W. (2008) ‘Paradigms and Politics: Understanding methods

paradigms in an historical context: the case of social pedagogy’ British Journal of Social Work 38: 625-644.

Milligan, I. & Stevens, I. (2006) ‘Balancing Rights and Risk:

The Impact of Health and Safety Regulations on the Lives of Children in Residential Care’ Journal of Social Work 6(3): 239-254.

Petrie, P., Boddy, J., Cameron, C., Wigfall, V. and Simon, A. (2006) Working

with Children in Care: European Perspectives, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Smith, M. (2009) Rethinking Residential Child Care: Positive perspectives,

Bristol: Policy Press.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.