The Fostering Network recently launched Head, Heart, Hands, a groundbreaking programme to introduce social pedagogy into foster care across the UK. But what exactly is social pedagogy? And why does it matter for foster care?
Social pedagogy is commonly practised in education and social care in many countries in continental Europe, but there is no real tradition of the approach in the UK. It eschews process and procedure in favour of a more holistic approach to understanding each individual child's needs and finding a bespoke way of working with them.
It focuses on the importance of relationships and is based on a unique blend of academic knowledge, an understanding of emotional needs and using practical daily activities as vital opportunities to learn and build the relationships that will help children thrive – hence the title Head, Heart, Hands. Reflecting on practice is a huge part of social pedagogy – taking time to think why decisions were made and the impact the decision has had on all those involved – and learning from this.
Simon Johr, working for Staffordshire county council, describes social pedagogy as "the art of education". He explains that he and his peers have a very flexible approach to working: "What might work very well for one person may not for someone else. What exists is a common philosophy on how to treat people. We use a holistic approach where we try to understand people's behaviour. If a child shows strange behaviour, we do not just confront them with the issue: we try to find out what the underlying reason for the behaviour was."
Head, Heart, Hands will be based in six demonstration sites around England and Scotland. Over the next four years, 240 foster carers will participate in a learning and development programme, supported by the programme's social pedagogy consortium and two social pedagogues employed by each site.
These courses will provide foster carers with more understanding and new techniques to apply in their fostering. The aim is that this will support them to strengthen the relationship they have with their fostered child and make decisions confidently in the best interests of the child, enabling a shift away from the overly risk-averse approach so prevalent in our social work culture.
As well as working with foster carers, Head, Heart, Hands will also invite social workers to take part in the same learning and development courses. The programme will also provide support and guidance to the sites with the aim of helping to identify and then reduce any barriers to a social pedagogic approach.
Amanda Mercer is one of the few foster carers in the UK trained in social pedagogy; she has integrated the techniques in her fostering. Speaking at the launch of the programme, she said how her confidence as a foster carer soared: "For me it's about being fluid with my approach and matching the rhythm to meet the child's needs – so each day is child-centred. And being child-centred allows space for a young person to step out of their comfort zone into a safe learning zone and be able to discover and develop skills that are often suppressed."
By increasing foster carers' confidence in their own abilities, we at the Fostering Network are also hoping they will be given higher status by their colleagues in the childcare team. We want to see their views and expertise better respected by social workers and others working with fostered children, and for a social pedagogic "risk-sensible" approach to be taken on by the entire system.
This requires a huge change in culture, a systemic shift. But we believe that it is possible – and worth it. And so do our funders: Head, Heart, Hands is paid for entirely by charitable grants and the contributions of the demonstration sites. Our securing financial support from such influential funders as KPMG Foundation and Comic Relief demonstrates to me the excitement about the programme.
And what's all this for? For the children, of course – the whole focus of the programme is on enabling foster carers to help children in care build positive relationships, find more stability and improve their long-term wellbeing and life chances.