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World Social Work Day 2012: Do Children in Care Get a Better Deal in Other Countries?

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The philosophy of social pedagogy is largely alien to the UK's care system, yet as social workers mark World Social Work Day, it is a good time to consider how much we could learn from how the profession operates overseas.

Social pedagogy involves taking a holistic approach to a child's needs, progressively guiding them, rather than reactively addressing problems as they arise.

It is much more prevalent in north European countries, such as Germany and Denmark, than the UK, which tends to take a reactive, and often punitive, line to social "ills".

Unsurprisingly, these countries generally report much better outcomes for their children, particularly children who are "in care", or in other words, parented by the state.

Critics of the risk-averse UK "corporate parenting" model, which relies heavily on impersonal systems and procedures and less on relationships, claim that it de-humanises and stigmatises the young people in care.

Scandinavian countries, for example, despite a proportionally higher rate of children in care, do not seem to report the same disadvantages experienced by children in care in the UK, such as lower educational achievement and higher rates of both pregnancy and criminal offending.

Research such as Working with Children in Care: European Perspectives (2006), by Petrie et al, comparing residential care in England to Germany and Denmark, highlights that these countries view residential care as one method of raising children, rather than as a potentially problematic group to be managed.

The notion of "corporate parenting" of "looked after children" by local authorities was first legislatively introduced by the Labour government in 1998. The principle is that the local authority has a legal and moral duty to provide the kind of support that any good parents would provide for their own children.

This month a report from Roger Morgan, Ofsted's Children's Rights Director for England, found that almost half of all children leaving the care system felt that they were made too leave too early. 49% thought they had been prepared badly or very badly for leaving care.

Does this mean that there has been too much corporate and not enough parenting? While local authorities may be tasked with providing a similar level of care as they'd provide for their own children, they don't, for example, have to complete a risk assessment if they want to walk their own children up a hill, as over-regulation in the current system demands of residential care staff.

Unless you're Justin Bieber, being a teenager is tough. Cast your mind back to the stress of passing many of the rites of passage to adulthood, amid a whirl of hormones and peer pressure, and now imagine doing it alone, without a mum, dad or grandparents, and the only people there to help you are paid to do so. Now imagine being separated from that sparse and fragile, paid for, support system once you come of age.

For children in care, their "key of the door" milestone seems to be marked with rejection. This is something that the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is urging David Cameron to change.

BASW professional officer Sue Kent has said the Ofsted survey highlighted the need for the state to take its corporate parenting responsibilities more seriously, pointing out that the average age most people with families leave home is 24 years old, yet most children in care get booted out of the system, with no support, at just 16.

Sue Kent has said: "Children in care should be cared about and not just cared for. Social pedagogy in residential care should replace the current concept of care for looked after children, as they deserve more than just clean sheets and good meals".

In Germany, for example, there will be times when young people in a residential home are not monitored by adults and will be trusted to be left alone, an extremely unlikely scenario in the UK. In Denmark, most looked after children are brought up in small residential homes, in an attempt at family life.

BASW believes that it is in the government's best interests to extend its responsibilities towards these children into their 20s, where necessary, perhaps by guaranteeing them work placements or helping with their education. This is not more 'nanny-stateism'; it would prevent more care leavers entering the criminal justice or mental health system, and be a positive benefit to society.

Instead, local authorities and central government are currently cutting spending on career services for young people, not giving the care system the same priority as child protection services in their budgets.

BASW has heard from members who work in local authority leaving care teams that their work is being absorbed into youth offending teams, which serves only to reinforce stigmas about children in care.

We as a society need to change how we view these children, and perhaps social pedagogy may be the way forward. Although Labour committed to a three year pilot scheme on the use of pedagogues, that ended in 2011, and does not appear to be championed by the current coalition government.

Until we recognise the benefits of investing in our looked after children, Europe will forever remain in the lead.

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