Social Pedagogy Development Network – Impressions of Launch Day

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

On Friday, 27 November 2009, the Social Pedagogy Development Network had its start-off event in Colchester. Set up as a grassroots movement by ThemPra Social Pedagogy in partnership with the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC), Jacaranda Recruitment, and the English section of the International Federation for Educational Communities (FICE), the network aims to connect those organisations and professionals who have already been active in developing social pedagogy or are eager to do so, thus contributing to the coherent development of social pedagogy in a way that builds on existing best practice.

Sixty participants from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even from Denmark, Belgium and Germany joined us for the day with palpable passion for making a difference in the lives of the children and young people they work with, and social pedagogy was seen as the metaphor illustrating these ambitions.

In order to create opportunities for exchange and to encourage delegates to take ownership of the Network, the day was designed to evoke people’s enthusiasm and engagement with each other and with social pedagogy, both in playful and serious ways, with much of the discussion in small groups. It became obvious that there are many social pedagogy developments across the four countries and that these can offer inspiration and learning to others. While much of the morning session focused on participants building relationships with each other and exchanging their experiences around social pedagogy, participants also began a dialogue around the wider context and ways in which social pedagogy can grow in these conditions. These can be summarised in three themes:

The Learning Organisation

Participants recognised that social pedagogy requires an organisational commitment and is more than just about practice – much has to do with how the organisation works. Both a top-down and a bottom-up drive towards social pedagogy are essential, not just in organisations but also within the wider sector. This would convey a sense of everyone taking ownership for social pedagogy.

Practitioners highlighted that support from above is fundamental in alleviating fears about change and making mistakes. If organisations can promote and sustain a culture of trust in their workers and of seeing (honest) mistakes as learning opportunities, social pedagogy will find fertile ground. One example was the approach to managing risk at an individual, organisational and cultural level, where there are enormous myths and differences across the sector. One of the main questions that arose was how social pedagogy can work in a risk-averse organisation or culture.

Professional Identity

Participants noted that social pedagogy can help strengthen their professional identity, especially within residential child care, providing an opportunity to make ‘professional noise’ and giving people more confidence to take more ownership for their practice by focusing on what they are good at.

A further key strength of social pedagogy is that it could draw together different groups of professionals, thus giving the children’s workforce a clearer overarching voice. In connection to this, participants also emphasised the importance of refining the ‘political’ in professional work and seeing the political aspects of our professional actions. Suggestions included the need to form political alliances, focusing on what unites us rather than seeing others as competitors. One discussion group particularly highlighted that we need to engage with schools much more.

More self-critical messages were raised by one group which stated that we need to examine our attitudes towards children and towards society and recognise that attitudes and language affect our practice. This underlines the importance of having a positive concept of children that emphasises their resourcefulness, resilience, and competence rather than using pathologising terms to describe children in care.

Coherent Development

A key endeavour of the Social Pedagogy Development Network is to make the many different developments around social pedagogy more coherent and connected. Participants discussed the tension between maintaining a diverse and creative development of social pedagogic approaches without watering down the meaning of social pedagogy. They concluded that lots of different developments around social pedagogy are within the spirit, but that some training on social pedagogy is very important and that it is crucial to avoid practice merely being ‘relabelled’ without being remodelled from a social pedagogic perspective. This led to the question about courses in social pedagogy and opportunities for placements. As became evident on the day, several courses and qualifications at different levels have been set up or are in the final stages of development.

The afternoon session followed on from these conversations and provided an open space forum for participants to work on the themes they considered most important. In a buzzing, self-directed session, some participants explored the connections between social pedagogy and therapeutic approaches, the relation between risk and social pedagogy, the organisational changes necessary to implement social pedagogy, and how to build practical foundations for social pedagogy.

Others discussed how qualifications could incorporate social pedagogy at different levels, how organisations recruiting social pedagogues could support them in their championing role, what role the third sector could potentially play in promoting social pedagogy and how we can achieve a wider understanding of social pedagogy within the workforce, for example through joint conferences planned in partnership between universities and interested organisations, further meeting days of the Social Pedagogy Development Network with an even wider group of participants, and via the cyberspace on www.SocialPedagogyUK.com to continue the dialogue in the meantime and maintain the momentum created by the passion of participants.

Many participants felt a sense of being connected with like-minded people. “We are not ‘islands’, but there are people out there facing the same issues around pioneering – challenges, cultures, breaking grounds and its side effects, frustration, anger and fears of facing uncertainty in times of change and transition – and that’s on different operational levels (frontline, managerial, organisational)”, reflected Claudia Krüger and Maika Weinert, two pedagogues from Germany who are working in a children’s home in Cheshire.

The day brought to light that, between ourselves, we can overcome any issues, can learn from each others’ pioneering experiences and ideas – and, importantly, can reach levels of enthusiasm that provide the motivation and energy required to sustain the development of social pedagogy in practice.

Abby Ladbrooke, Managing Director of Jacaranda, summarised her impressions from the day, “Here was a group of people who came together, some in their own personal time, and made the very best of the space created for dialogue on the development of social pedagogy in the UK. I found the desire for change to be palpable and the enthusiasm for the theoretical and professional basis that social pedagogy provides to be strong. The determination to find a social pedagogy for the UK seemed not to want to stray far from the roots of the social pedagogy of continental Europe, but the sense that this must be a social pedagogy for this country was clear”.

This spirit was also reflected by representatives from universities in Strathclyde, Lincoln, Liverpool Hope, Newport, Aberdeen, Portsmouth and the new Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy (CUSP) at the Institute of Education, University of London, as well as the University of Ghent.

Where Next?

Professor Pat Petrie from CUSP noted that the academics were able to have useful conversations about future cooperation and have an important role to play in developing a social pedagogy for the UK. “Social Pedagogy can only become rooted in this country if there is a strategic movement to develop training and education, across the country and at various levels, from short in-service courses to Masters Degrees, as well as research”, Petrie explained.

Together with all those who are interested to contribute, we will continue the journey of developing a social pedagogy for the UK by following social pedagogic principles of working in partnership, learning from each other, engaging in dialogue, valuing diversity and building strong relationships. With the Social Pedagogy Development Network we hope to bring these principles to life by providing an opportunity for dialogue and learning.

The next meeting of the network will take place on 18 June 2010, and if you would like to join please get in touch with us (contact@thempra.org.uk). For further insights into what happened on the Social Pedagogy Development Network day, please go to www.thempra.org.uk. We look forward to hearing from you.

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