Too many cooks

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Looked After children can have ten social workers at a time and are often shipped to a new children’s home every year. But a new model being piloted - ‘Social Pedagogy’ – is claimed to give children stability and security. Martin Thomas reports.

Children who have spent time in the 'care system' often suffer reduced 'life chances'. Outcomes for Looked After children have been consistently poor for many decades - in academic achievement, employability, ability to establish and maintain close personal relationships and emotional stability.

A background in care is also increases your chances of being homeless, a patient in a psychiatric hospital, a user of services for substance abusers, a teenage parent or a prisoner.

Legislation has been put into place to improve post-care support, to train foster parents, give foster parents more support and to raise standards in residential care. But children’s homes are still accused of 'warehousing' – giving children a roof over their heads, food, heating and pocket money but giving indifferent care and moving children around unnecessarily. Despite a recent commitment to cut moves, Looked After children can still experience as many as six changes of residence in six years. Yes, children are sometimes moved because their behaviour is so challenging. But constant uprooting can damage children already injured by pre-care experiences.     

Social pedagogy

The most recent Children and Young Persons Act (2008) makes case management its primary focus. But the act also suggests something revolutionary - that 'social pedagogy' could be a step change for the care experience.

The practice of social pedagogy is not widely understood here in the UK. Social pedagogues say professionals should be prepared to occupy the same 'life space' as the children and young people they care for. They should be prepared to deal with children in almost any aspect of their lives - cooking, friends, sports or talking about feelings. Social pedagogues (hereafter pedagogues) are expected to get very close to children and to stay around for 'the long haul'.

Social pedagogy has led to significantly improved outcomes for Looked After children in Germany, Denmark and Norway - especially in academic achievement and, by implication, emotional stability. Pedagogues also embrace the joined-up working promoted in Every Child Matters.

What is social pedagogy?

The Thomas Coram Research Unit at the University of London (Petrie et al, 2009) says the core principles of social pedagogy are:

  • a focus on the overall development of the child or young person considered as a complete and whole individual
  • the pedagogue assumes they are in a close relationship with the child/young person and that the quality of that relationship is key. It needs to be open, honest and without coercion
  • any relationship between a child/young person and a pedagogue needs to occupy the same 'life space' - even if both parties are also part of other 'social environments'
  • the pedagoue should be a 'reflective practitioner' in all aspects of their craft - both theoretical and practical
  • doing things with children/young people is very important. Creativity is a key dimension. The journey can capture the 'spirit of discovery'
  • developing the child/young person as a social being enhances their confidence in groups and relationships. It also fosters a sense of social responsibility and the capacity to care for others.
  • pedagogy accepts that children's rights are fundamental. These rights are more than a matter of law – they are a claim to a happy and fulfilled life
  • social pedagogy requires close interdisciplinary work between professionals. It also requires close work with family, friends and the community.


There are many intellectual antecedents to 'social pedagogy'. In Emile (1762), Rousseau promotes his idea of 'natural education'. According to Rousseau, children's closeness to nature, which he considers ‘essentially good', has to be preserved. Natural education stresses the wholeness of the person and her potential for maintaining an environment where a person can live in harmony with nature.

These ideas were never applied by Rousseau. But other thinkers have been influenced by him in establishing schools and kindergartens. Pestalozzi’s holistic method of education uses the catchphrase 'head, heart and hand'. The child's capacity to think (head), their cognitive abilities, has to be developed by stimulating their curiosity. Moral education (heart) is about developing a sense of direction in life through 'love'. This can only be achieved through personal relationships and teaching a strong sense of social responsibility. The physical aspect of education (hand) means that the whole body and all of the senses must be involved with learning along with the mind and heart.    

Later thinkers have further developed these ideas. Froebel says that very young children respond well to stimulating environments - leading to the establishment of kindergartens and, later, a more sustained interest in 'early years' provision, bridging education and social care.

Montessori took an interest in children considered ineducable – like disabled children and slum children. For Montessori, self-determination and self-realisation were key. Teachers in his schools were taught to choose tasks that engage the child’s personality.

Steiner emphasised the role of creativity and the imagination in the development of thinking. He said that the goal of pedagogues was to develop children and young people into free and moral citizens with a keen sense of the needs of others.

These influential thinkers put their own emphasis on what they think is in children’s best interests. But they all agree that education and socialisation needs to take account of the whole person. They also all agree that the core objective of education is to develop rounded, independent and social children with a keen sense of responsibility for others.

Every schools and kindergarten influenced by these thinkers is unique. But all these pioneers stress the need for imaginative and changing curricula that respond to the needs of children and young people. Social pedagogy is not a set curriculum.

The White Paper Care Matters: Time for Change (2007) proposed pilot projects to assess the effectiveness of social pedagogy in nine residential units in England. Experienced pedagogues from Denmark and Germany were asked to act as advisors.
Too many cooks

A key problem is that there can be several social work professionals involved with Looked After children. Children living in residential units have a key worker who works closely with them. The key worker has primary responsibility for the Looked After Child’s (LAC’s) since no key worker can work 24 hours a day, key working functions have to be shared with other workers in the residential setting.

The key strategic responsibilities reside with the social worker in the ‘children and families team’ covering the area the child's family was living in when the child came into the care system. This stays the same - even if the LAC is 'out of county'. This worker is supposed to liaise with the LAC's family and to co-ordinate other professionals. Should there be very serious emotional issues to be addressed as a result of, say, earlier abuse or neglect, it is possible that the LAC will be getting some help from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). If there are issues with school attendance and behaviour, an educational welfare worker and youth justice worker becomes involved (and even an ‘addictions worker’ if the child has drug problems). Should the LAC become a teenage parent, there should be one social worker for the mother and another for the baby.

For an older LAC, a 'leaving care worker' will help him to plan 'pathway plans'. Some local authorities have children's rights officers - to offer advice and support to a LAC. This is crucial to help the LAC claim a grievance against their 'corporate parent'. Some local authorities even encourage cold calling to prevent anyone discouraging the LAC from speaking. Many local authorities and voluntary sector agencies working with a LAC engage 'independent visitors' - to provide friendship, emotional support and a positive adult role model. A LAC placed with foster families or in secure units has a different configuration of workers - but the system is similar.

This plethora of workers can create confused and even conflicting interventions. The immediate question is: who, of all these workers, can play the role of pedagogue? And should the pedagogue play a separate role to social worker?

Often, a LAC's life is characterised by uncertain and insecure attachments. The pilots currently underway are using the residential care worker as the pedagogue. An alternative model is for a separate pedagogue to 'follow' the LAC. This pedagogue could be the constant in the LAC's life - but not necessarily live in the same area. Either scenario could work - but would have implications for the organisation of the 'pedagogy service'. The pedagogue must inhabit the same 'life space' and to be ready for the long haul - including when the LAC leaves the care system. 

Another suggestion is to start 'social work practices' - like GP practices - where the social worker takes responsibility for 'the primary care of the LAC'.

Social work teams, as recent tragedies like baby Peter and Victoria Climbie show, have high workloads and high levels of staff absenteeism, especially in deprived urban areas. In some parts of the social care system up to 20% of posts are vacant - a reflection on staff stress and low morale. It is not surprising that when it comes to statutory reviews of LAC, the social worker with the supposed strategic overview is often a new face who doesn’t know the LAC at all.

The ‘social work practice’ alternative could be run by a voluntary sector agency or by a professional partnership. Such practices could be paid a base fee for each LAC - plus 'bonuses'. The social work practice would take on care orders and those accommodated voluntarily (sections 31 and 20 cases respectively - Children Act 1989). Since social work practices will only be responaible for Looked After Children, they will be able to provide stability and continuity. Would it work? We await the analysis of the pilots (Le Grand et al, 2007).    

Social workers have too many constraints. Emotional closeness, combined with a willingness to give a hug or to put an arm around a distressed LAC, are not explicitly prohibited - but social workers fear accusations of sexual abuse around teenagers who have already suffered exploitation.

But a pedagogue is expected to take risks with a LAC to encourage her to embrace independent and responsible living. Of course, the usual standards - the General Social Care Council's Code of Practice, for example - would still regulate professional behaviour. But the relationship between the LAC and the pedagogue could be more open, with all or most issues on their agenda decided by the LAC.

But such emotional closeness in a relationship implies attachment. Does that mean that the LAC should manage the changing relationship between themselves and the pedagogue - and even terminate it? It is not clear how the German and Danish social pedagogues handle these issues.

Experimentation is needed to work out the best system of key professionals with clear roles, responsibilities and orientations. By implication, training for pedagogues cannot be addressed until there is a review of workforce in relation to social work and social care - especially in relation to the LAC. It is worth remembering that social pedagogy in Europe is a praxis that underpins early years workers, educators of younger children in particular and youth justice workers (although each has their own dedicated curricula too). It may be that the core curriculum for this wide range of professionals in the UK should also be social pedagogy.


It is clear that the care system has to be more involved in the lives of LAC - and probably for much longer than it currently is. There can be no sensible defence of a system that asks our most vulnerable young people to try to live independently at the age of 16 or 17 - when their counterparts from 'normal homes' often do not leave home until their early twenties or later.

There is also an emerging consensus in the UK that we have developed a social work profession that spends far too much time dealing with processes, managing risks and rescuing children with no clear view of how to 'heal' them and support them into successful adulthood.

Social pedagogy has much to offer. We have too many social work professionals with overlapping roles dealing with children – and yet none of them really know the LAC well. Without a significantly different approach, the corporate parent will continue to fail young people.

The outcomes of various pilot studies about the use of social pedagogy and social work practices need to be carefully evaluated. It is time for more rigour in the way we support our most vulnerable children and young people.   

Martin Thomas is a lecturer in training and social work.


Department for Education and Skills (2003), Every Child Matters, Green Paper, London

Department for Education and Skills (2007, Care Matters: Time for Change, White Paper, London

Le Grand, J (2007), Consistent Care Matters: Exploring the Potential for Social Work Practices, Department of Health, London

Petrie, P, Boddy, J, Cameron, C, Heptinstall, E, McQuail, S, Simon, A & Wigfall, V (2009), Pedagogy - a holistic, personal approach to work with children and young people, across services, Briefing Paper, Thomas Coram Research Institute, University of London, 

Rousseau, J (1993), Emile, Everyman, Dent, London

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