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Pioneering pedagogy in Essex

A radical new approach to residential childcare has been introduced in children’s homes across Essex in a bold effort to improve the everyday lives and future outcomes of children living in this type of care.  

Essex County Council is one year into a three-year scheme to implement a 'social pedagogic' approach in all 12 of its children’s homes.

Social pedagogy is an approach to caring for and bringing up children which has been successfully used in European countries - most notably Germany and Denmark - and is gradually gaining favour around the UK. It is an academic discipline, a profession and a practice that puts the child at the centre and works around him or her. It draws on theories from education, sociology, philosophy, psychology and anthropology. It is a selection of principles, core themes and values, and a practical approach to child rearing and upbringing. It focuses on relationships and opens up completely different ways of thinking about care.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is currently funding pilot projects in 30 children’s homes across England, but Essex has gone out on a limb. It has taken the brave step of pre-empting the outcome of these pilots and has introduced the practice throughout the region.

When Maureen Caton, head of residential services and placement provision at Essex, first came across the idea she had been looking for 18 months already for a new way of making children’s homes work better. She felt she had found the solution she had been looking for.

Not all staff in Essex were so enthusiastic when Caton introduced the idea. Suzie Stephens, who is development officer for children’s residential services, is a convert now but was initially sceptical.

“It’s like a cloud, there’s nothing to get hold of," was her initial response. But now “frontline officers leap at it,” she says. “They say ‘yes, this is fantastic. It’s what we want to be doing’. They are keen on it, especially when they see that it might reinforce what they do.”

She means that a lot of the individual care given by staff in the residential homes was already social pedagogic, they just didn’t know it.  And admittedly a lot of it is common sense, taking care back to basics, treating and respecting the child as an individual instead of something that has to be fitted into a system.

Hands, head and heart

Social pedagogy teaches the use of the hands, head and heart when dealing with children. Traditional social work only uses the hands and the head, but social pedagogues are trained to engage with children using emotional awareness and genuine warmth and empathy.

It means carers can form real bonds with children that don’t necessarily end when the young person leaves the home – more like a real parental bond. Keeping in touch with leavers was frowned upon before, and considered risky, and if care workers invited leavers back for tea or to do their washing - as most parents would once a child had left the family home - they kept it to themselves. Now they are positively encouraged to make these more human commitments, and any well reasoned ‘risks’ they do take they know will be supported.

One care home manager says: “Social pedagogy legitimises something we already do.” She has been inviting leavers back for tea and Christmas dinner for years, but if anything had gone wrong she would have been on her own.

Learning together

Social pedagogy begins with an image of children with rights and strengths, rather than needs and risks, and is based on the principles of equality and democracy. The child and pedagogue should learn together.

In practice in Essex this has meant residential care staff have been stepping out of their own comfort zones as they take part in activities with children, rather than supervising them. It has changed the focus of their job and they have found themselves clambering over adventure playgrounds and swimming in the sea.

Last summer young people at The Lodge home for teenagers spent every day at the beach. Previously, the policy surrounding such trips was so detailed about what precautions had to be taken that in practice workers never took the risk – there was too much that could go wrong.

Now the onus is on the member of staff using his or her professional judgment about what might or might not go wrong, and whether it's wise to take a particular child or group of children on a particular outing. Risk assessments are still necessary but are used as ways of working out how to do an activity, rather than identifying reasons why not to. 

“Before, you would always look for a reason why not to take them [to the beach], whereas last summer we were there every day,” says the manager of The Lodge, which is ten minutes from the seaside.

Other changes at that home have included the introduction of paddling pools, swings, firepits and barbeques which would previously have been considered too risky.

Relying on the staff's judgement

The policy on going to the beach is one of 45, filling three lever arch files, which govern everyday life for children and young people in Essex’s residential homes.  But as social pedagogy is implemented, these policies will be redrafted in line with social pedagogic ideas, while still adhering to health and safety and other guidelines they have to work within.

“It’s a question of trying to see what it’s possible to do within these restraints – making these policies more pedagogic in their scope,” says social pedagogy researcher for Essex County Council Nicola Boyce. “Rather than assuming there is a single appropriate response, we have to rely on the judgment of staff. It’s a very brave thing for members and heads of service to do.”

The impression one gets is that there was already a lot of good practice in the Essex residential service, and that they are taking the best elements of what they already do and working from there. 

“People don’t see it as though we’re disregarding everything that went before,” says one manager. “You don’t want people to feel that all their hard work is being disregarded – we’re building on what we’ve got.”

More than a third of the 400 residential care workers in Essex have so far been on a six-day training course. The aim is for half of the staff to have been trained by the end of the implementation period, but they are ahead of schedule with the tenth course (of 16) about to start.

The theory and practical applications of social pedagogy are spreading fast through residential children’s services, through various channels. At one care home those who are already trained share their learning with those who are not, at special ‘social pedagogy days’ which have taken the place of some staff meetings.

The Essex Residential Practitioners Network has been set up as a discussion forum. It meets once every two months and anyone who works in residential services is invited to go along and share their thoughts, questions and concerns about social pedagogy.

Boyce says: “There have been some really in-depth, intense discussions in that group. They can talk openly about what’s happening day by day in their homes and I can take that back [to management] and say what’s needed. It means that residential workers on the frontline are having a direct effect on strategy.”

'It's more like a family'

Those putting the theory into practice on the frontline in Essex are in no doubt that they are doing the right thing. They feel freer and more supported to work with the children in the way their instincts tell them to, and they are seeing the results. “It’s helped my staff and the kids to look at the consequences of their actions,” says one manager. “It’s helped relationships between staff and kids.”

Another reports the atmosphere in the home changing: “It’s becoming more like a family.”

“There’s definitely been a change in some behaviour,” she adds. “The young people are taking more ownership of [the home], and really taking more pride in where they live.”

When another home was recently decorated the young people chose the wallpaper and helped to put it up: “It looks more like a home,” says the manager. “It’s their home, they chose it and they helped to decorate it. They are doing things other children do and so there’s more of an integration into society.”

Massive cultural change

The biggest difficulty the team has faced with implementation has been managing the massive cultural change. There is an uphill battle to spread the message throughout the rest of children’s services. There are all sorts of implications, with a potential knock-on effect on a huge array of systems and processes.

“Part of the implementation process has been the shift in management,” says Stephens. “I see the challenges for an organization in changing from doing something one way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

There is no doubt among the team that this is the right way to work with children, but the cultural change that goes with it means it will take a generation to really filter through the system, Stephens thinks. “Social pedagogy could lead to radical changes in social work,” she says. “For this to be implemented and carried on, the resources are needed to consider the implementation process. It’s got to be championed within the service and owned at the top.”

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