The roots of social pedagogy reach deep into the past. They draw on ideas of what it is to be a human being living in society and how, through our social institutions, we can support each other in our life-long development. In fact, a way of thinking about social pedagogy is as ‘education in the broadest sense’, alongside formal education and other social policies. In the UK we have had, over the centuries, our own social pedagogy pioneers: thinkers, advocates and people of action who have looked for broadly educational answers to social problems – although until recently we have not named this approach as social pedagogy. Social pedagogy was first defined in 19th century Germany when, for those with the vision to see, the industrial revolution threw into high relief the deprivation of people who came into the towns to find work in the factories. In much of Europe it has developed as a field for policy, practice and theory, and a recognised graduate profession. Social pedagogues can work in different settings and across a wide age range, from fostering services to child and adult residential care, community outreach and youth work.
What is social pedagogy?
Social pedagogy can help develop good practice by providing common understandings and building on existing strengths. Social pedagogy learning and development offers a distinctive approach:
- An ethos informed by values relating to human equality and respect, whether for colleagues or the people who use a service. Social pedagogic practice is based on building relationships and valuing dialogue and joint activity. At the same time social pedagogy encourages a critical awareness of the workings of society and its institutions.
- Recognition of people’s existing and potential strengths, rather than turning to a deficit model. Allied to this is an appreciation of human creativity and the significance of the different contributions people can make to improve social life, through dialogue and purposeful activity.
- Reflection leading to appropriate action is an essential element of social pedagogic practice: a democratic ethos is important but not in itself sufficient. Social pedagogy offers concepts and models which provide a framework for reflection. These feed into practice, both at the everyday level and when more challenging circumstances arise.
- An understanding that, in the light of reflection, practitioners adapt their approach according to specific contexts, rather than being overly tied to procedure or habitual response.
- An understanding of people as socially, as well as psychologically, situated and that both factors inform how we view the world and our place in it.
Overall, social pedagogy seeks to support human development and promote social justice through activities which are mostly small scale and everyday but based on an awareness of the larger social picture as well as individual circumstances.
Since the 1990s, there has been increasing interest in social pedagogy in the UK. Initially, interest arose from professional and academic interchange with colleagues in continental Europe. This did not focus directly on social pedagogy but was concerned with service provision in Europe, for example for children and adults living in challenging circumstances. A result of this interchange was that the word ‘pedagogue’ became somewhat more familiar. In the late 1990s, a British government department began to show an active interest in social pedagogy, which arose out of concerns and scandals surrounding children’s residential care. The Department of Health, and later the Department for Education, commissioned a series of studies of social pedagogy (1999 – 2008) at the Institute of Education, University of London (now University College London), where there was considerable experience of researching European social and educational provision. Government funds for a pilot scheme introducing social pedagogy into children’s residential care followed the research. These activities led, in 2009, to establishing the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy (CUSP), as an international forum promoting research and teaching in social pedagogy and the first University of London PhD in social pedagogy was awarded in 2015. This led to the formation of the International Journal for Social Pedagogy, which is an open-access journal focused on social pedagogy articles.
Other universities across the UK have developed modules and full BA/MA programmes around social pedagogy at bachelor and Masters levels. For example, the University of Central Lancashire has a BA (Hons) Social Pedagogy, Advocacy and Participation, and Robert Gordon University has a BA Residential Child Care that has been developed through knowledge of social pedagogy. The University of Greenwich has accredited a Supporting Teaching and Learning Foundation Degree taught at West Kent College which includes a 30 credit module in social pedagogy. The University of Derby offers an online short course introducing social pedagogy. The University of Salford offers an MA in Social Pedagogy.
Other learning activities and agencies
- It has been estimated that, so far, around 2,400 people across the UK have taken part in learning and development courses outside the University system, commissioned by local authorities and independent organisations. They have been delivered in the most part by ThemPra, a social enterprise founded in 2008, and Jacaranda. These two organisations now teach the Crossfields Level 3 and 5 Diplomas in Social Pedagogy.
- Children in Scotland has acted as a consultant on social pedagogy for the Scottish government and has a long standing interest in European early years care and education. The Scottish Out of School Care Network has been part of a European network since 1989.
- Among other pilot schemes undertaken outside the university sector, the Fostering Network conducted Head Heart Hands (HHH) (2011 – 16) a four-year programme introducing social pedagogy into foster care in local authorities and private organisation in England and Scotland.
- The Social Pedagogy Consortium (Jacaranda, Thempra and Professor Pat Petrie, UCL Institute of Education), after informal collaboration over some years, came together as delivery partners for Head Heart Hands, in 2011.
- The Social Pedagogy Development Network is led by ThemPra in partnership with the Social Pedagogy Consortium and others. Open meetings, held at least once a year, are hosted by local government and third sector organisations and are attended by up to 200 participants.
- Community arts organisations have taken up learning opportunities for arts practitioners and Youth Music commissioned the evaluation of a national programme within a social pedagogic framework.