Social pedagogy: changing the future of foster care

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Having recently started work at The Fostering Network, and being a foster carer, I’m keen to understand the role that social pedagogy can play in improving the lives of young people in foster care. Here are three of my early reflections on the impact of Head, Heart, Hands.

Social pedagogy promotes relationships

Head, Heart, Hands has the aim of demonstrating that social pedagogy, a proven approach elsewhere in Europe, can work here in the UK. Head refers to the use of theory which can be shared by all the people in the team around the child. Heart acknowledges that relationships are central for human beings, that everyone has an ethics and values base which needs to be recognised and understood. Hands take the theory and the emotions and make them work in everyday life, seeing practical activities as vital opportunities for learning and building relationships.

Social pedagogy has a strong focus on the heart element, and gives foster carers, social workers and others a framework and theory to promote the importance of relationships and conversations. It’s not that relationships are anything new in foster care, but the emphasis on the ‘human’ aspects of foster care that social pedagogy brings, along with a shared understanding of this by all those involved in foster care, looks to be making a positive difference for foster carers and the children and young people in their care.

Social pedagogy enables foster carers to advocate more confidently and effectively using shared language and theories

One aspect of social pedagogy which seems to be coming through very clearly from the places where Head, Heart, Hands is being implemented, is that foster carers are more confident in making decisions that they consider are in the best interests of the child, and are better able to advocate for the children and young people they are looking after.

Social pedagogy is helping foster carers increasingly feel part of the system rather than outside of it. Again, foster carers wanting to advocate on behalf of those they are caring for is not a new phenomenon, but because social pedagogy has an academic rigour, with shared language and shared theoretical models, foster carers feel much more confident in describing why they think they are right in a way that social workers and others in the team around the child will understand and respect.

Social pedagogy recognises that change happens in a context and looks to create long-term change

When I’ve thought about my own practice as a foster carer it’s often been in the context of how I relate to, and build relationships with, the young person in my care and the various social workers involved. Social pedagogy certainly encourages the building of those relationships, but it recognises that there is only so much change that can happen at that individual level.

For example, I might have taken on board the social pedagogic concept of a more sensible approach to risk and be keen to work that out in practice with the young person I’m caring for. But what happens if my supervising social worker hasn’t got the same approach? Or what if my SSW is on board, but the local fostering service isn’t? Or the fostering service is, but OFSTED isn’t? Social pedagogy aims to bring systemic change to all these levels, with the ultimate aim of improving the lives and outcomes of looked after children and young people.

Encouragingly, there is evidence of wider systemic changes within the Head, Heart, Hands demonstration sites; for example in how annual reviews are conducted or how safer caring courses are run.

So, as Head, Heart, Hands enters its final year, it really does look as if there is emerging evidence that social pedagogy is improving the lives of young people in foster care – through, among other things, building and strengthening key relationships, enabling foster carers to be better advocates for the children they are looking after, and bringing about wider systemic change. It will be exciting to see what longer term differences social pedagogy can bring to fostering services and in the lives of fostered children and the families that care for them.