The Social Pedagogy Development Network

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.’ Margaret Mead

Social pedagogy has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years, with many different small and big projects emerging up and down the country. From the outset, much of this enthusiasm has been due to the fact that social pedagogy cannot be implemented by importing it from continental Europe. Instead, its implementation builds on existing good practice and connects with traditions in the UK closely related to social pedagogy. Petrie (2010) refers to social pedagogic notions by inspirational thinkers like Robert Owen, Thomas Barnardo, Emmeline Pethick and Mary Neal; Smith and Whyte (2007) describe similarities with the Scottish tradition of social work; and Eichsteller and Raper (2006) connect social pedagogy to the youth work method, to name but a few.

In this sense there is much to develop a UK tradition of social pedagogy from, some of which needs rediscovering, reclaiming or re-thinking. At the same time, there also seems to be something new and exciting about social pedagogy, as it provides an overarching and coherent framework that focuses on holistic well-being and learning, is based on a positive concept of children as ‘rich’, as competent and active agents, and offers sound theoretical concepts about the importance of developing strong, authentic relationships in order to support the inclusion of individuals into society. Many professionals can therefore identify with social pedagogy on a personal and professional level.

In order to provide a forum for professionals who are passionate about social pedagogy and want to explore it further, we created the Social Pedagogy Development Network (SPDN) in partnership with the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC), Jacaranda Recruitment, and FICE-England.

We see the SPDN as a grassroots movement for people and organisations that are interested in social pedagogy and want to nurture it at a local and national level. The network is underpinned by social pedagogic principles about engaging in open dialogue, of valuing people and their experiences, of connecting with others in a democratic way. Social pedagogy is thus brought to life in people’s unique ways, and through the exchange and relationships with others we can ensure that it grows on ideas and traditions from within the UK, inspired by ideas and traditions from other countries. For this reason, the SPDN offers an ‘oasis’ that encourages a rich and colourful diversity of social pedagogy ‘flowers’ to blossom together. This means we provide the conditions for participants to engage with each other and the themes or issues that people feel most passionate about, thus enabling a shared ownership for the SPDN.

The SPDN is based on the idea of parallel action (Burns, 2007), that change occurs where people can pursue what matters to them by forming self-organised ‘clusters’. Each cluster can initiate multiple creative and parallel action streams that reinforce each other, thus leading to change. Parallel action streams could be regional networks of organisations interested or engaged in social pedagogy, or higher education institutions wanting to explore how to incorporate social pedagogy into qualifications, or people with an interest in restorative justice or therapeutic child care getting together to think how these relate to social pedagogy, or different providers forming alliances to promote social pedagogy at a political level, or interested organisations exploring opportunities for (inter-)national exchanges …..

There is no limit to the creativity and possibilities that the SPDN is aiming to nurture, just as the flowers in a field can be endlessly combined into different colourful bouquets. Following Margaret Mead’s words, the SPDN is about bringing together small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens in order to make a difference.

To keep the development of social pedagogy diverse and colourful, we want to enable as many organisations as possible to be part of this dialogue. Therefore places are free of charge, with different organisations agreeing to host one of the biannual meetings. More recently, we have also set up a virtual forum that allows the dialogue to be ongoing in between meetings. As with the SPDN, this is open for anyone with an interest in social pedagogy to join. (See the end of the article for contact details.)

So far, the SPDN has met twice, hosted by Essex County Council and Staffordshire County Council, two local authorities very committed to implementing social pedagogy. Our next meeting will take place on 5 November, 2010, when Derbyshire County Council will welcome participants for the day. If you would like to become part of the SPDN and join us on that day, please get in touch. Here are some impressions from the previous meetings.

First SPDN meeting – Colchester 2009

On Friday 27 November 2009, the Social Pedagogy Development Network had its start-off event in Colchester. Set up as a grassroots movement, the network aims to connect those organisations and professionals who have already been active in developing social pedagogy or are eager to do so, thus contributing to a coherent development of social pedagogy in a way that builds on existing best practice. Sixty participants from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even from Denmark, Belgium and Germany joined us for the day with a palpable passion for making a difference in the lives of the children and young people they work with, and social pedagogy was seen as symbolic for these ambitions.

In order to create opportunities for exchange and for taking ownership over the network, the day was designed to evoke people’s enthusiasm and engagement with each other and with social pedagogy, in both playful and serious ways. It became obvious that there are many social pedagogy developments across the four countries and that these can offer inspiration and learning for others. While much of the morning session focused on participants building relationships with each other and exchanging their experiences around social pedagogy, participants also started a dialogue around the wider context and how social pedagogy can grow within these conditions.

These can be summarised in three themes:

  • The learning organisation: participants recognised that social pedagogy requires an organisational commitment and is more than just about practice – much has to do with how the organisation works. Both a top-down and a bottom-up drive towards social pedagogy are essential, not just in organisations but also within the wider sectors. This would convey a sense of everyone taking ownership for social pedagogy. Practitioners highlighted that support from above is fundamental in alleviating fears about change and making mistakes.

If organisations can promote and sustain a culture of trust in their workers and of seeing (honest) mistakes as learning opportunities, social pedagogy will find fertile ground. One example was the approach to managing risk at an individual, organisational and cultural level, where there are enormous myths and differences across sectors. One of the main questions that arose was how social pedagogy can work in a risk-averse organisation or culture.

  • Professional identity: Participants noted that social pedagogy can help strengthen the professional identity, especially within residential child care, as it provides an opportunity to make ‘professional noise’ and gives people more confidence to take more ownership for their practice by focusing on what they are good at.

A further key strength of social pedagogy is that it could draw together different groups of professionals, thus giving the children’s workforce a clearer overarching voice. In connection with this, participants also emphasised the importance of refining the ‘political’ in professional work and seeing the political aspects of our professional actions. Suggestions included that we need to inform and influence the political debate, focusing on what unites us rather than seeing others as competitors. One group particularly highlighted that we need to engage with schools much more.

More self-critical messages were raised by one group, which stated that we need to examine our attitudes towards children and towards society and recognise that attitudes and language affect our practice. This underlines the importance of having a positive concept of children that emphasises their resourcefulness, resilience, and competence rather than using pathologising terms to describe children, especially those in and on the edge of care.

  • Coherent development: A key endeavour of the Social Pedagogy Development Network is to make the many different developments around social pedagogy more coherent and connected. Participants discussed the tension between maintaining a diverse and creative development of social pedagogic approaches without watering down the meaning of social pedagogy. They concluded that lots of different developments around social pedagogy are within the spirit, but that some training on social pedagogy is very important and that it is crucial to avoid that practice gets merely ‘relabelled’ without being reflected under a social pedagogic perspective. This led to the question of what courses there are in social pedagogy and if there are placement opportunities. As became evident on the day, several courses and qualifications at different levels have been set up or are in the final stages of development.

The afternoon session followed on from these conversations and provided an open space forum for participants to work on the themes they considered most important. In a buzzing, self-directed session, some participants explored the connections between social pedagogy and therapeutic approaches, the relation between risk competence and social pedagogy, the organisational changes necessary to implement social pedagogy, and how to build practical foundations for social pedagogy.

Others discussed how qualifications could incorporate social pedagogy at different levels, how organisations recruiting social pedagogues could support them in their championing role, what role the third sector could potentially play in promoting social pedagogy and how we can achieve a wider understanding of social pedagogy within the workforce, for example through joint conferences planned in partnership between universities and interested organisations, further meeting days of the Social Pedagogy Development Network with an even wider group of participants, and via the cyberspace on to continue the dialogue in the meantime and maintain the momentum created by the passion of participants.

The day brought to light that between ourselves, we can overcome any issues, can learn from each others’ pioneering experiences and ideas, and, importantly, can reach levels of enthusiasm that provide the motivation and energy required to sustain the development of social pedagogy in practice. Therefore, together with all those who are interested to contribute, we will continue the journey of developing a social pedagogy for the UK by following social pedagogic principles of working in partnership, learning from each other, engaging in dialogue, valuing diversity and building strong relationships. With the Social Pedagogy Development Network we hope to bring these principles to life by providing an opportunity for dialogue and learning, which was continued on the second meeting in Stone, Staffordshire.

Second SPDN meeting – Stone, 2010

Following the great success of the start-off event for the Social Pedagogy Development Network in late November 2009, we met again on Friday, 18 June, 2010. This time the meeting was hosted by Staffordshire County Council, and nearly 80 participants took part in order to contribute to the day’s theme of exploring how we can jointly develop a coherent UK social pedagogy that builds on domestic traditions, allows rich and colourful diversity and is underpinned by shared principles and values.

To begin with, we aimed to generate some discussion about what social pedagogy is, so we asked participants to work out in small groups what principles underpin social pedagogy. Sharing their experiences and perceptions, they came up with a very detailed and interesting picture that really got down to the ‘essence’ of social pedagogy. Many groups highlighted the notion of ‘Haltung’. “It’s a stick of rock”, one group argued. “If you broke me in half, it’d say ‘social pedagogue’ on the inside!”

Nearly all the groups also talked about the social justice perspective of social pedagogy as it aims to support social inclusion and tackle inequalities through educational means, thus enabling people to empower themselves. They emphasised the centrality of ‘life world orientation’ in ensuring that social pedagogues take into consideration the many different realities for people affected by social inequality. Other contributions emphasised the value base and concepts of the ‘rich child’, and the holistic approach of using ‘head, heart and hands’, thus highlighting the heart and the importance of love.

Further principles identified by groups included building positive and meaningful relationships, valuing ongoing reflective practice, social pedagogy’s concern with happiness and well-being, and creating a respectful culture by sharing the life-space. One group summarised succinctly that “Social pedagogy is about principles, not procedures; risk competence and experiential learning, not risk assessment and aversion”.  (You can view the full list on

The start of the further discussion about connecting social pedagogy with traditions in the UK was made by Prof. Pat Petrie from the Thomas Coram Research Unit. She uncovered the pedagogic roots in the historic works of Robert Owen, Thomas Barnardo, Emmeline Pethick and Mary Neal, thus reminding us that there are traditional key thinkers that have played a role in the history of the UK by exploring educational solutions to social problems. Pat highlighted that “There is much in our traditions – social work, education, or youth and community work – that chimes with the more radical, emancipatory strands in European social pedagogy”.

The afternoon picked up on her points and, in the social pedagogy world café, explored how we can jointly promote a social pedagogy that is built on existing traditions and that connects different professional groups by providing a shared platform for dialogue. They suggested what changes would need to happen with regards to policy, training and education, practice, and theory in order to develop a UK social pedagogy.

In just a short time they brought together a very long list of brilliant ideas ranging from easy and small steps – such as networking and sharing ideas, spreading the word by adding little explanations on key concepts on the back of meeting agendas, or role-modelling social pedagogy by using everyday situations to create learning experiences – to profound challenges that will require a long-term cultural change and can only be achieved jointly – whether it is how to develop an organisational culture in which all take ownership for social pedagogy, or challenging some of the negative cultural perceptions of children and young people, which are often portrayed in the media. (These contributions are also available for download on

Overall there was a sense of “Yes, we can”, acknowledgement of the challenges ahead and an awareness that we need to start in our own sphere of influence and create ripple effects. Where several ripple effects reinforce each other the waves we generate will get bigger over time. What became visible on the day was that, in many areas, people have already created waves that have had a positive impact. This is an encouraging sign and shows that with dedication and patience we can achieve more than we might imagine – and in a social pedagogical sense it proves that we ourselves are indeed the most important resource in our practice.

Gabriel Eichsteller and Sylvia Holthoff work as Consultants with Thempra Social Pedagogy.

If you would like to become involved in the Social Pedagogy Development Network or receive further details, we look forward to hearing from you – all you need to do is send an email to [email protected]!


Burns, D. (2007). Systemic Action Research – A Strategy for Whole Systems Change. Bristol: Policy Press.

Eichsteller, G. & Raper, D. (2006). Pedagogical Ideas in English Youth Work. Presentation at the TRCU conference ‘What is a Pedagogue?’, London, 12/12/06.

Petrie, P. (2010). Radical Social Pedagogy in the UK? Historical Roots. Presentation at the SPDN meeting, Stone 18/06/10.

Smith, M. & Whyte, B. (2007). ‘Social education and social pedagogy: reclaiming a Scottish tradition in social work’. European Journal of Social Work, 11(1), 15-28.

1 thought on “The Social Pedagogy Development Network”

  1. Hi, this article has made for a very interesting read and it is great to hear about what is happening in the UK with regards to developing Social Pedagogy.
    I am presently undertaking my PG/MSc in Social Work and I am researching options and ideas for my Masters Dissertation. I am very interested in the theory of social pedagogy and have just returned from Denmark, having completed a four month placement in a youth club working along side social pedagogues. I was wondering if there are any materials/ reading on social pedagogy in the UK that you can suggest, that may assist me in coming to a conclusion for my Dissertation Proposal, I want to research something current and interesting.

    Kind Regards



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