The Role of the Social Pedagogue

The nurturing of children and young people, although predominantly family-based, can take place in a variety of settings and can involve parenting, domiciliary care, fostering, adoption and many forms of residential education and care. In tracing links between these, one factor crucial in each is the environment: social, physical and external. Other common threads include the legal frameworks under which all these settings operate and the personal and social development of the young people.

Whether in parenting or care in a residential school, the health, social care and education of the young people is vital. These are all combined in the living and learning environment in which adults and young people share life-space. Thus, within each type of care, common skills are required by the carers.

The profession of social pedagogue or “life-space” worker has long been recognised and supported in much of continental Europe. It was the key concept in the establishment of FICE (International Federation for Educative Communities). In the European model, the role of the pedagogue has increased as the particular knowledge and skills developed in training and practice have been recognised to be more widely applicable, rather than limited exclusively to residential care. Although residential care may be considered the natural setting for life-space work, pedagogues are appropriately involved in support services for family day-care, foster care and adoption.

Current work at the Thomas Coram Research Unit has indicated strongly that, with such an enhanced role, pedagogues would be most suitably positioned to address the needs of young people if the Strategic National Objectives (DfES, 2003) are to be achieved.

Residential Forum

In the United Kingdom, as the potential for the social pedagogue’s role has been gradually realised, the full extent of what should be considered under the term residential education and care has been recognised. In its pamphlet Modernising Residential Care for Children and Young People, the Residential Forum (2005) includes the following:

  • Taking children in all nineteen types of residential setting, the numbers are very much larger – 145,000 of whom 75,000 are in boarding schools. The next largest groups are in further education establishments and special schools.
  • Instead of concentrating solely on the position of children in public care, the focus should be on the policy and practice implications of the scale and diversity of the whole residential sector.
  • Residential care should be seen as an integral part of the whole spectrum of services for children and families offering specialised and expert provision and closely linked to fostering, adoption, family support services for children in need and children at risk.

It should be noted that the nineteen types of residential care cover settings which can be designated: educational, social care, medical care and custodial care. They include boarding schools, residential special schools, children’s homes, therapeutic communities, secure training centres, young offender institutions, hospices, hospital schools, further education colleges, military establishments and homes for young asylum seekers. There are several efforts, not least through the York Group, to illuminate common practice among these various settings and to facilitate the transfer of good practice between them.

Haydn Davies Jones

Initial ideas on the social pedagogue are lost in the mists of time but a continuing focus on the subject dates from the end of World War II and particularly the efforts of FICE. Given the state of post-War Europe and particularly Eastern Europe, there was a need to provide homes of various types for the many orphans and damaged children. Davies Jones (FICE 1981) distinguished the following five issues as those which might benefit from life-space work:

  • relationship problems;
  • behavioural problems;
  • severe disability;
  • crisis intervention; and
  • normal groups.

It is interesting that, a quarter of a century ago, mainstream boarding was linked in with other forms of residential education and care. Children were all those who could not be adequately nurtured in their own or substitute families.

The social pedagogue shares life and interaction with the young people and, in so doing, may cover any or all of the following:

  • provision of primary care;
  • “living” group work;
  • utilising activities; and
  • planned therapy.

An important consideration quoted is the clinical exploitation of daily life events.

Davies Jones goes on to consider various extensions for the social pedagogue. In working with families, the worker becomes part of the family and indeed contributes to the ethos. Other settings equally important are family centres, domiciliary care, peripatetic family care and independence units. The skills of the social pedagogue are also applicable in nurseries, pre-school and day care establishments. Living with people and facilitating learning is clearly also of concern in the community in youth clubs, camps and leisure centres. The summary by Davies Jones indicates the potential scope for life-space work.

Radisson Report

With the formation of the European Union and the requirement for common regulations, the idea of the social pedagogue in the UK was again raised. The Radisson Report (2001) examined the relationship between the social pedagogue, the profession recognised in continental Europe, and the social worker or social care worker found in the UK. Throughout the Report, the accent is on the close relationship of health, care and education and the importance of shared life-space in domestic time for teaching and learning. The core of life-space work is summarised as: to blend the practical tasks of everyday living with the longer-term goals of meeting personal, social, emotional and other aspects of development.

The Radisson Report lists the potential field of activity for the social pedagogue as focusing upon the following:

  • To replace or augment the roles of parents in nurturing young people.
  • To share life-space in residence, home, children’s home, foster home or community.
  • To concentrate on the essential work of human relations.
  • To work in teams.
  • To support the personal and social development of the young people.
  • To provide an education which provides social competencies and moral development.
  • To work in many settings.
  • To work with any presenting problems: physical, learning, social, emotional, mental health or offending.
  • To view the child’s situation holistically so that problems are seen in context.

This last point can be contrasted with that of the social worker who can be characterised as having a pathological approach to problems, in which the focus is on the solution of specific issues.

Thomas Coram

Current and continuing research at the Thomas Coram Research Unit (2005) considers life-space work to be “a broad and coherent approach to underpin all work with children.” It looks to a generic workforce qualified to work across settings bringing an integrated and holistic approach to children’s services. The key principles of practice are listed:

  • A focus on a relationship with a child as a whole person.
  • Living and working in the same life-space as the child.
  • Sharing in many aspects of the children’s daily lives.
  • Work in group settings.
  • Teamwork to include families, professionals and the community. Additional possible services involve support for foster care, youth services, Youth Justice, Connexions and mentoring.

This list follows very much the concept of life-space developed in Moss, P and Petrie, P From Children’s Services to Children’s Spaces London: Routledge-Falmer 2002.

Boys and Girls Town

The development of the approach can be seen through the work of Boys and Girls Town, based in Omaha, Nebraska, the programmes for which include: emergency shelter, family preservation, treatment foster service, residential treatment, behavioural treatment, (short- term) in-patient and common sense parenting.

The role of the social pedagogue is most clearly seen in what are known as family-teachers, a married couple who live with the young people in the home and are the practitioners. They live in, provide a family setting and teach appropriate family and living skills. They also provide love, care and treatment to heal the wounds of abuse and neglect while assuming responsibility for the conduct, well-being and improvement of the young people. The family teachers are subject to continual training, updating of practice and review of performance. The teaching model of Boys and Girls Town has the following objectives.

  • Teaching social skills.
  • Building healthy relationships.
  • Supporting moral and spiritual values.
  • Creating a family-style environment.
  • Promoting self-government.

This list can be seen as a summary of the personal and social development supported by the social pedagogue.

Brian Cairns

The role of the social pedagogue is clearly exemplified in the work of Brian Cairns (Fostering Attachments London: BAAF 2004). The environment in which he and his family of three children live is variously categorised as foster home, adoptive home, residential home or all of these or none of these. Officially, a voluntary children’s home is also a family home in which a further twelve children have been nurtured. The required skills identified by Cairns revolve around: environment, health, education, identity, social relationships, social presentation, emotional and behavioural development and self-care skills. These are essentially the life-space skills required for the various settings identified at the beginning of this paper.


It is interesting to note that for the Managers in Residential Child Care Award (NVQ4) one section of knowledge needed for several of the Standards is headed “social pedagogue”. The role of personal advisers, advocated by the DfES, clearly has some overlap with the social pedagogue but is in many ways a pale shadow. Two other developments in Local Authorities: “super nannies” and “intensive fostering”, also relate clearly to arguments about the need for life-space work and the profession of the social pedagogue in the UK.

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