Social Pedagogy: the Impact of Rousseau

When I was a student at teacher training college, tomes which influenced my development as a teacher included the Plowden Report* (1967) and the history of education including, due to its centenary, the history of the *board school. An additional text was the book of Emile by Rousseau. Looking back, I acknowledge that I was privileged to have what I considered to be the best preparation to become a teacher of small children by being trained by professionals who actually cared about their work and the influences they had on our scatty lives.


Rousseau was a very strange individual. He accepted that he had no real skills as a parent – in fact he put all of his own children into orphanages stating that they would better off being looked after there. He even identified that as a teacher he was useless. What he did instead was to conjure from his imagination, a perfect child – Emile, and he would become his perfect teacher or pedagogue. The book traces Emile’s ‘history’ and the methods the fantasy teacher, Rousseau, would use to correct, inform and occasionally punish his charge.

His approach was formulated on the philosophy that the natural world can teach us all we need to know. He would set his pupil challenges and see how he managed with expert guidance to become successful and knowledgeable. This was my first introduction to the culture of pedagogy.

Plowden and Learning

Coincidentally, the Plowden Report* identified the importance of the individuality of the child and that each child was unique. It was an exciting time to be involved in the education of small children. All schools became more open and integrated learning was the way forward. Within the classroom, there were activities and challenges for children to work on throughout their day. They were no longer taught the same thing at the same time and by the same method. We allowed for their individual learning styles and promoted their personal interests.

I loved going to work very early and setting up my classroom as a surprise for the children when they came in. At one time, when I returned to Cumbria, I taught the whole of the Infants department in a wonderful classroom which had three open plan rooms where they could indulge in creative work, or science and maths or straight forward paper and pencil tasks. Some days I would draw a bird or animal on the board and we would spend the day finding out about its behaviour, food nesting etc. The younger children would be very happy to find matching pictures or sort items into shapes until they elected to join the ‘bigger’ children’s groups.

One rather blustery day, we walked down to the harbour and sat in the shelter looking at the waves as they leapt over the sea wall. We then went back to school and the children painted the most magnificent pictures of the sea I have ever seen. Their parents admired them and took them home so I have nothing other than memories of that event.

The board schools* were the first to offer education for all. Up to then, only the privileged few had access to any possibility of improving their chances for employment or earning a decent wage. So you can see why I am still in awe that so many historical events happened at the time of my training and how much they have influenced my attitudes and expectations.

Back to Rousseau

It is clear that in his real life, Rousseau had so many problems that he almost invented this fantasy to prove that under different circumstances he could have been a good father and an excellent teacher. There is a hint of pomposity to pedagogy and I imagine that over the centuries many dedicated teachers have found themselves pushing their pupils just a little harder in the direction of their own interests or have expected a little more than can be given, especially in physical or specific cerebral tasks. We only have to look at sports coaches to see the intensity and passion that emanates from the adult.

In his book, Rousseau is keen to identify his skills and brilliance rather than that of the child. What he does state, however, is the importance of the natural environment and that learning will take place if the provision for a learning experience is planned and acted upon, not merely left to chance. I take this to indicate the essential necessity to plan and observe so that the child or children have every opportunity to play their way into learning and understanding.

Play Work

I wonder what Rousseau would have made of playworkers – people who are trained to understand the different facets of play experiences and how the provision for play is more than merely providing a large field. I like to think he would have identified their importance as mentors and facilitators. Perhaps he would have understood the importance for freedom during play to be what you need to be in order to work through problems, or make sense of a situation. He certainly would have been fascinated by the introduction of risk in play in order to allow for the balance and skills of self-reliance that today’s children have to be taught, due to the fears and anxieties of their parents and other well meaning adults.

Where pedagogy can be utilised to offer a holistic and informal approach towards learning, I don’t imagine many people would express concern or have reservations. There are those who reserve judgement on its effectiveness. I remain cynical as ever. I experience a degree of anxiety on the potential for harm – emotional and psychological – a self serving pedagogue may have on their pupils. Perhaps I am over-exaggerating the risks. However, I remain on the fringes.

While social pedagogy has been a key organising idea in many European countries, it has only recently become a focus for exploration in English-speaking countries. It is often used to embrace the activities of youth workers, residential or day care workers (with children or adults), and play and occupational therapists. Social pedagogy can also be used to describe those concerned with community learning. It overlaps considerably with the notion of informal education.

As a practice social pedagogy tends looks to groupwork, association, relationship and community, and to holistic educational processes. It depends very heavily on the character and integrity of the educator and their ability to reflect-in- and -on-action.


* Plowden Report 1967

The Plowden Report is the unofficial name for the 1967 report of the Central Advisory Council For Education (England) into Primary Education. The report was called Children and their Primary Schools and was named after the Chair of the Council, Lady Bridget Plowden (1910-2000). It observed that new skills were needed in society, stating that “the qualities needed in a modern economy extend far beyond skills such as accurate spelling and arithmetic. They include greater curiosity and adaptability, a high level of aspiration, and others which are difficult to measure”.

Plowden Report: Children and their Primary Schools (1967) London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

* Board Schools

It was with the Education Act of 1870, also known as the Forster Act, that we have the real birth of the modern system of education in England. This not only gave rise to a national system of state education but also assured the existence of a dual system – voluntary denominational schools and non-denominational state schools.

The Act required the establishment of elementary schools nationwide. These were not to replace or duplicate what already existed but supplement those already run by the churches, private individuals and guilds. The country was divided into school districts and in those areas where there was inadequate provision school boards were to be elected. These were responsible for raising sufficient funds to maintain the schools. The schools were often called ‘board schools’.

These elementary schools had to be non-denominational. The school boards could charge a weekly fee not exceeding ninepence. For a limited period the school boards could pay the fees if the parents were unable to do so. The voluntary schools could also receive such payment of fees from the school boards.

They had to guarantee attendance for all children in their respective districts between the ages of 5 and 13. The school board could appoint officers to enforce attendance. These officers or ‘board men’, as they were commonly known, became one of those terribly menacing figures firmly implanted in the minds of young schoolboys. This figure was an effective deterrent in playing truant – all the more menacing because the child could only picture him in his imagination (if he faithfully attended school, that is!). He was also known as the school attendance officer.

Religious instruction was an integral part of the school curriculum but was not compulsory. This was to be nondenominational. From 1870 onwards voluntary schools declined, except Roman Catholic Schools, because boards schools provided better buildings and higher pay for teachers. Elementary education became effectively free with the passing of the Education Act 1891.

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