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Exactly what is social care and how can we solve the crisis?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 July 2021

annawaldl / Pixabay

Claire Cameron, Peter Moss and Pat Petrie

Social care has been in crisis for years, now made even worse by the pandemic. All agree something must be done, many ‘urging the Government to act now’ – but we are still waiting. What can be done? The problem with ‘social care’ and a promising solution are the subjects of a new article we have published in the International Journal of Social Pedagogy.

In it, we argue that ‘working with people’ should become a rewarding, well qualified and properly funded enterprise, with a highly skilled workforce, and ask why Britain has taken such a different path from much of Europe.

The social care crisis is driven by several factors. ‘Social care’ covers a plethora of services for children and adults including elderly people with additional needs; working-age adults with mental and physical disabilities; and children and adolescents unable to live with their birth parents, assessed as ‘in need’ or subject to child protection measures. Demand has been growing across all these groups, and is likely to continue rising.

A large and mainly female ‘social care’ workforce – 1.6 million in adult social care alone – is poorly qualified and badly paid, with increasing problems of recruitment and retention. Funding is insufficient, while the question of who pays and how remains unresolved; elderly people having to sell their homes to pay for care has been a particularly emotive issue.

Yet amongst the constant talk about a ‘social care crisis’, one issue remains ignored – the concept of ‘social care’ itself and its contribution to the crisis. The term is widely used and taken for granted, yet its provenance is recent, first appearing in policy documents in the 1990s, and its meaning is unclear. As a new construct, ‘social care’ has no deep roots, no long-established disciplinary tradition and no distinctive theoretical underpinning. It is a thin concept, a convenient label for a disparate group of services but with little to say about the complex and demanding relational work required by these services or about the workforce best suited to undertake them.

Central to the crisis of social care, therefore, are not only rising demand, insufficient funding and exploited workers, but the inadequacy of the concept itself to do justice to the work entailed and the workforce needed.

Fortunately, there is another and richer concept, with deep roots and a long-established disciplinary tradition, that can do this work justice, and which has also given rise to a well-established graduate profession: social pedagogy and the social pedagogue. Originating In 19th century Germany, social pedagogy is widespread in continental Europe, with social pedagogues working in many services for children, young people and adults.

Social pedagogy adopts a broad educational approach to social needs, with learning taking place in many settings and situations. It’s as relevant in old age as in childhood. Emphasis is placed on working with the whole person and their overall development, and building on individual strengths. Practitioners promote an image of the competent human being, with a range of unknown possibilities (potentials) to be realised in the moment as well as over time. Realising potential through learning is transformative. For example, it may be that an elderly person comes to understand that they are ‘comfortable’ with their caregiver and that the relationship on offer is trustworthy – a small but significant transformation. Central to the social pedagogue’s practice, therefore, is an understanding that people arecapable of social agency and on-going self-realisation.

Social pedagogy is an avowedly relational practice. Whatever the setting, social pedagogues build and work with relationships that are trusting and democratic, and value associative life, team work and co-operation. They acknowledge that they are not onlookers, but inhabit the same ‘life space’ as those they work with and learn alongside. They bring themselves – ‘head, heart and hands’ – to the work, and see themselves in a personal as well as professional relationship with those they work with.

Despite a long history and a wide reach in Continental Europe, both social pedagogy and the social pedagogue remain little known in the English-speaking world, their meanings often lost in translation. But this has been changing in recent years, with a foothold gained in the UK partly due to work at UCL Institute of Education’s Thomas Coram Research Unit. Spreading interest and understanding has been accompanied by the initial stages of capacity building, including degree courses, a commitment to working with social pedagogy by some service providers, and the establishment of a Social Pedagogy Development Network and a Social Pedagogy Professional Association.

How might social pedagogy help resolve the social care crisis? What future relationship could there be between social care and social pedagogy? Our article sketches two possibilities: a social care system informed by social pedagogy; or moving away from a social care system altogether, to a range of social pedagogic services.

Under the first, social pedagogy would form the theoretical basis for much care-related ‘people’ work, including that subsumed within current social care, but also potentially community work, youth work, housing support and so on. In this scenario, social care might remain the overall and wide-ranging policy label, but a social pedagogic approach would inform the workforce and its practice.

The second possibility goes further. In this scenario, Britain joins the rest of Europe in investing in social pedagogy as the basis for a range of services across the life course that currently come under the social care label. Social care disappears as a concept and umbrella term, leaving a range of services across which social pedagogy and the social pedagogue as core practitioner provide a common approach to policy, professional development and practice, so affording overall coherence to the field.

Such fundamental change raises many issues, not least the increased costs of moving from a low-cost social care workforce to a well-qualified and well paid social pedagogic workforce, a reminder that fixing the social care crisis also requires a new and robust funding formula. But a costly transformation should be viewed not just in terms of improving services; it should also be part of a national strategy to create more good-quality employment. For too long the UK has accepted that working with people can be done on the cheap. Time to value it properly.

Picture supplied by Nether Johnston House

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