The Role of the Social Pedagogue

1st April 2008

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

  • 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.

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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