What’s So New about Social Pedagogy?

Over recent months the government in the UK has been discovering “social pedagogy”, while in other nations such as Denmark social pedagogy has long permeated mainstream life and thought.  A definition  of this term, which will admittedly for a long time seem a stranger in the English language, would include ideas of holistic education and care of children, and some sharing of this process between parents, families and wider society.  It can therefore be applied to, and in, a number of settings (for example foster families and schools), and draws its theories and concepts from a wide range of disciplines.

If you believe that it takes a village to bring up a child (as most civilisations have implicitly acknowledged) then social pedagogy is unexceptionable and obvious.  This raises the question as to why it should have dawned so late on the British scene.  Perhaps the following ideas have something to do with this:

–           care is separate from education;

–           children should be seen and not heard;

–           the Englishman’s home is his castle;

–           preventing a repetition of horrible child abuse and murders should be the basis of new law, guidance, procedures and inspections;

–           the poor (including children) should be less eligible to a good standard of living than others.

Whatever the reasons, we have found ourselves trapped into a way of seeing and relating to children that is institutionalised at every level in ways that often deter, if not prevent, such a healthy and holistic attitude and approach to children and childhood.

A Long Tradition

Rather than demonstrate this rather parochial and idiosyncratic tendency at work, I thought it might be worth showing that there is a long tradition of social pedagogy in the UK that has yet to be recognised and tapped.  Mill Grove, the residential community in which I live, is just one such example from many.  Right now we have nearly finished packing for our annual summer holiday in North Wales, and we have had almost a month of school holidays.  How do we see holidays?  Neither as a time when the process of education (not the same thing as schooling at all!) ceases, nor as a time of carefully constructed processes of learning: but as the continuation of life and growth where everything is seen as contributing to human development.

So last week we had a young boy staying with us while his parents had a short break. He kept a diary of the week and it was a real surprise to reflect on the quality of life and experience.  He practised snooker all through the week and we held an informal championship match spanning seven days and countless frames; we visited Tilbury Fort on a beautiful afternoon and imbibed all sorts of history from a famous speech of Queen Elizabeth I to the Second World War; another day we watched Essex play cricket at Southend (just a little further along the Thames), and he played twice on the outfield with other lads; we went to a wedding together; had at least two barbecues; hosted a visit from family members from New Zealand; played football and cricket at home; watched the highlights of an Ashes Test Match each evening; and did some jobs together.

This is a very selective account of the week, but it is enough for you to see that it was a good example of social pedagogy at work: a holistic experience of enjoyment, learning, relationships and tasks that connect a range of disciplines and competencies. You will also quickly see that we intersected and interacted with a variety of social groups during the week.

And for those families who have a car, maps and the resources, this is not atypical of a summer holiday based at home.  Social pedagogy is an approach that seeks to widen this experience to all children.

Off to North Wales Again

Mill Grove is an extended family, many of whose members are from disadvantaged backgrounds and experiences, so the summer holiday we are about to begin in North Wales will come as a surprise in the UK, but not in Denmark or other countries that have embraced social pedagogy.

We will enjoy the journey, stopping with family in the Midlands, and noticing all sorts of features in cities, villages and mountains en route.  We will stay in two terraced houses in a harbour village in the middle of the Welsh-speaking region of Gwynedd.  We will explore sand and sea, mountains, lakes and rivers, rock pools, mountains and valleys, ridges and moorland.  We will go into mines, castles, travel on trains; we will paint, draw and do etchings on slate.  We will read, play games indoor and out, and compete for a cricket trophy on the beach.  We will be pony-trekking and sailing, fishing and barbecuing.

There will be thirty or more of us from three generations enjoying life together in Snowdonia.  Now in terms of British categories this doesn’t fit education, social work, residential child care, therapy, behaviour modification, family support, and anything else you care to mention.  But it is mainstream social pedagogy.  And it is what has characterised life for generations at Mill Grove.  I tried to distil the essence of what goes on, and the philosophy behind it, in the book The Growth of Love (BRF, 2008), and people have contacted me from around the world to say how it resonates with their aspirations and longings.  Yet in the UK the professions and professionals do not know how to relate to such a community.

We could perhaps try to work out a professionals’ dictionary of terms to translate what goes on into institutionalised language (“risk assessments”; “safeguarding policies”; “care plans”; “individualised packages of care”; “treatment programmes”; “one-to-one sessions”, “circle time”; “key stage objectives and learning outcomes”, and so on), but I doubt if anyone would listen.  And the very heart and soul of the experience would be lost in the process of translation.

Yet year by year we find children, young people and adults discovering new things about themselves (and their potential), others (and how to relate to them with integrity and sensitivity), the natural world (and its wonders), and a joy deep down in the very heart of things.

Applying Ideas in the UK

So how will this wealth of knowledge and experience in the UK eventually find its way into the mainstream?  I suspect it will take an inordinate amount of time, but my hunch is that it will be economic necessity that opens the way.  I do not mean by this that social pedagogy is a way of getting things on the cheap, but that the time will come when we realise that we have been selling water by the river.  We have been creating institutions, systems and professions that are increasingly expensive to maintain, and have often failed in their outcomes.  When we are ready to dismantle these we will free up resources to support, encourage and celebrate the many “villages” in which children are being raised.

But do not underestimate the resistance to such change: professions and the professionals will, of course, defend the status quo to the hilt.  And it will take a massive paradigm shift among ordinary British people to leave behind such entrenched attitudes and assumptions.  Be that as it may we are off to enjoy another wonderful holiday together!

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