Wed, Mar 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Learning from Denmark

The country's approach to education and child care is about nurturing relationships, individuality and creativity

By Madeleine Bunting  /  THE GUARDIAN , COPENHAGEN

Imagine a residential home for children in care in a leafy smart suburb. It's a large old house with elegant high ceilings, set in a large garden. There's a delicious smell of supper coming from the kitchen where a child and a member of staff are preparing a meal. A couple of other children are chatting with two other staff round the big wooden table.

This is the Josephine Schneider House, in the suburbs of Copenhagen, and as I talk to the director, Thore Hirtshals, I can hear in the background the calm busy-ness reminiscent of family life.

The contrasts with the UK are immediate: high level of staffing; the proud declaration that the place has no rules; each child must be treated as a unique individual; and the fact that more than 60 percent of the children go on to higher education -- a far cry from the outcomes of looked-after children in the UK.

Josephine Schneider House epitomizes not just an approach to residential care but the character of the Danish state system of social services and education. The attention to the individual, the huge investment in highly qualified staff, and the priority of developing strong relationships are all are key principles of the Danish tradition of pedagogy.

It is a word for which there is no good English translation but finally, after nearly a century of indifference, the European traditions of pedagogy are beginning to generate keen interest in some quarters in the UK.

Pat Petrie, from the Lonon-based Institute of Education, has just completed a comparative study of children in care in England, Germany and Denmark for the UK government. Her conclusion is blunt: "Pedagogy is enormously important. If we don't take it on board, we will fail children."

Petrie argues that the new interest in pedagogy in the UK is being driven by the childcare issue and the related debates about quality and workforce. There is also an increasing desire to find new approaches in the children's care system, and pedagogy could provide the overarching principles for the increasingly close relationship envisaged between education and children's services.

The concept of pedagogy is central to a range of debates in the UK, from childcare and education to personalization of social services and the broader debate initiated by Lord (Richard) Layard, the London School of Economics professor and government adviser, about wellbeing and happiness. But if pedagogy is to catch on in the UK, it will first need a good definition -- and the English dictionary is not much help, defining it as the principles, practice or profession of teaching.

Pedagogy is best understood as a process of nurturing the development of other human beings, and pedagogues work with all ages, from children in kindergartens to older and mentally ill people.

Implicit within this idealistic aim is a profound set of principles about what constitutes human flourishing and well-being. Aspects that are particularly emphasized, and which inform all pedagogic method, are how pedagogues work to cultivate personal creativity and to facilitate in their clients the capacity for strong, easy relationships with others.

Staff at Josephine Schneider House all trained as pedagogues in a degree course lasting three-and-a-half years. The investment in highly trained staff is a dramatic difference from the UK residential care workforce, 80 percent of which have little or no qualifications. But Denmark is well aware that pedagogy doesn't come cheap. It represents a huge investment in human resources and in the quality of relationships with service users.

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