social education and politics

Chapter 4 of Mark Smith's exploration of youth work and social education - Creators not Consumers. Rediscovering social education (1982).

contents: ·the politics of developmental needs· what should workers do?· conclusion ·

[page 34] Whilst many of the young people we work with face incredible injustices, are ignorant of their rights and are racist and sexist, our normal reaction is that these are areas that somehow, someone else should do something about. In this chapter I want to say why this will just not do. I want to show why youth workers, if they are to be honest in what they do, must turn away from surface polishing and grapple with the problems of politics and power.

The politics of developmental needs

Issues like racism or powerlessness are so big that it is difficult to see what we can do about them. The very word ‘politics’ is enough to strike horror into the hearts of managers and bring boredom to the faces of young people. Yet we can’t escape its consequences. The problem we have to face is that by ignoring politics in our day to day youth work we may actually be restricting people’s ability to meet their developmental needs.

Perhaps the best way into this problem is to look back at those developmental needs. The need that shows the problem at its clearest is the fourth — the need for responsibility. People cannot take responsibility for their own lives in a vacuum. We live in society and our actions must, therefore, affect others. Thus when the young organisers of the trip gained the space and resources to carry through their idea, these had to be largely won at someone else’s ‘expense’.

In other words, there had been a shift of power.

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Power: The capacity of an individual or group to make and carry out decisions and, more broadly, to determine what goes .on the decision making agenda. Such decisions may be made against the interests and/or opposition of others.


Power in our society is very unevenly distributed. The young people we work with have only a slim chance of ever having any real control over the events and institutions that shape their lives. Looking back at the value base of social education we took two basic beliefs as our starting point:

  1. All members of society have a right to a full emotional, social and intellectual development.

  2. Society has an obligation to ensure that people get access to the resources and opportunities that enable such development.

Whilst workers may believe society has an obligation to all its members, in reality that obligation is far from being fully honoured. A privileged few take a disproportionately large share of the resources and opportunities. This places social educators in a real dilemma. As soon as they try to enable a growth in people’s power to make and carry through decisions they are challenging the distribution of power and, therefore, acting politically. (As I understand it politics is to do with power in society, (whether that society be a tribe, a nation state or some other type); the relations between societies; and the social movements, organisations and institutions which are directly involved in the determination of such power.) Conversely, when workers ignore or avoid this political dimension they are, in effect, limiting people’s social development and so maintaining the power structure. Thus in an unjust society, where power is in the hands of the few, social educators can never be neutral or ‘non-political’.

The significance of this point cannot be over-emphasised. Within these values and within social education generally there is a tension between the interests of individuals and groups The decisions an individual takes about his/her life must affect others. The way in which this restriction works is determined by the values society acts upon. We therefore need rules that ensure people keep their rights and don’t infringe upon others’. Just such a set of rules is provided by the instrumental or ‘doing’ values we discussed in the last chapter. They can be translated into political values such as

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Ultimately it is only in a society within which people act upon such principles that everybody’s developmental needs can be adequately met and safeguarded. Unfortunately, we do not live as yet in such a society and this has important implications for social education. To begin to understand these implications we must return to our definition.

Social education is the conscious attempt to help people to gain for themselves, the knowledge, feelings and skills necessary to meet their own and others’ developmental needs.

If we follow the logic of our definition through then the ‘necessary knowledge, feelings and skills’ mentioned must also include those of politics. So it is that social education is not just political but has to be consciously political. It has to be a practice that actively helps people to gain the necessary knowledge, feelings and skills to think and act politically (i.e. political education). The question becomes not whether or not social education is political, but given that it is political what should workers do?

What should workers do?

Firstly workers need to clarity and be open about their values.

Discussions about values are not very common in youth work. Rarer still is any consistent attempt to test our actions against our values. One of the main arguments of this book is that values need to play a more central role in youth work. First, clearer aims lead to more effective action. Second, as social education cannot be neutral we must be open about what we are doing. The people educators work with have a right to know what is being done with them. This last point is a particularly sensitive one where politics is concerned. There is much talk in political education of ‘bias’ and ‘indoctrination’. As values are such a central part of human experience bias is inevitable and important. Our values are our ‘bias’. They are our humanness. Do we want or even need ‘balance’? It is frequently people’s ‘bias’ that touches us most. We do not adopt values through pure reasoning, (indeed there is a sense in which our values are beyond reason), but because we feel that they are right. This feeling often comes about because we have known someone who passionately believes in a certain value and tries to live his/her life by it. Anyway who wants to be ‘balanced’ about justice or freedom or equality? These are values which social educators, quite frankly, should be trying to convince people of. All that youth workers have to remember is that they [page 37] are educators and are therefore bound by education’s values of openness and explicitness.

There are many different ways in which workers can clarify their values and understand their political meaning. It is very much a case of choosing a method that speaks to a workers condition. However, one point that does need emphasising is that within social education, value clarification should be both an individual and a group exercise. We have already suggested the need to build upon a teamwork approach. For that approach to have any success it is essential that there is agreement and compatibility about the ends you want to achieve and means used to get there. It therefore follows that workers need to explore together (and with young people), the values on which they base their practice. (For some suggestions about how workers can personally explore the issues raised in this chapter see Further reading.)

A further important step is for workers to examine what their values may mean in the lives of the people they work with. Choosing values is an intensely personal affair. By and large it is not the worker who has to live with the consequences of his/her intervention in another persons life For this reason much importance has been placed on the idea that problems should be defined by the person who ‘owns’ them. The values we, as workers, hold can be experienced and understood in a completely different way by others. What we may see as sensible ‘rules’ about behaviour (such as the ‘doing’ values already discussed) can be experienced as oppressive by the people they are applied to. Workers therefore need to be constantly checking the appropriateness of what they are encouraging.

Second, workers need to understand how concentrating on individual needs maintains the power structure.

Workers will have to recognise that the concentration on the needs of the individual and small group that has characterised social education up until now may actually work to maintain the uneven distribution of power and so negate their efforts. This may appear to be a harsh judgement to many but an examination of the way power is maintained within our society shows why this may be so.

When people have power, they, not unnaturally, want to hold on to it. In simple terms this involves the creation of two groups, one on top of the other, using a process known as subordination. The top, powerful group maintains its distinctiveness from the larger, bottom group by setting certain entry requirements. In our society it could be argued that the two main requirements are the possession of:

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Today it is more difficult than in the past for members of the top or dominant group to pass on their privileged status to their sons and daughters. Their children do, of course, start with a special advantage. There is likely to be a background of academic or other success, an environment which encourages the gaining of qualifications and money for special schooling and help. The result is that children in middle class families stand a much greater chance of academic success (e.g. over 70% of students attending polytechnics and universities are from middle class families). Also while rising death duties may have made the passing on of the advantages of wealth more difficult, a similar ‘improvement’ in tax avoidance has meant that little difference has been made.

Members of the bottom or excluded group are faced with two choices if they want to increase their power. The first individualistic response is to attempt to get the necessary qualifications/property that will gain them entry. As we have seen, members of the top group have a head start here. They can also alter the entry requirements if it looks like too many people from the bottom group are getting in.

An alternative choice is the collective achievement of power. Here members of the excluded group join and work together in order to take power for the benefit of the group as a whole. Examples of this sort of action would be the day to day conflicts between trade unions and employers, the efforts of ethnic and racial groups to attain civil rights and the attempts of women's groups and organisations to achieve full equality with men. The excluded group’s main strength is its ability to mobilise significant numbers of people in such things as strikes, pickets, demonstrations, marches and so on. As such, collective responses often find themselves with legal problems (not unexpectedly as the power holders use the legal system to maintain their own position). The types of action already mentioned can also be very costly in personal terms and are therefore difficult to sustain over a long period.

To sum up, the top or dominant group is in a strong position to hold on to power. It makes the rules (and therefore has ‘the law’ on its side), its sons and daughters have a head start in gaining the necessary entry requirements and its methods of getting and keeping power involve fewer direct personal costs. When we look at what youth workers do, the significance of this analysis quickly shows itself.

Social educators only work with a small proportion of the youth population. As long as they continue to emphasise individual needs to the exclusion of collective needs, all they will be doing is to oil the wheels of the subordination process. An example of this sort of process is when workers help young people to get jobs by tackling things like self presentation and social skills. They are dealing with a private trouble yet [page 39] the public issue is a considerable shortfall of jobs. The collective or public need is for an expansion of job opportunities or their alternative. If the worker is successful s/he merely alters which individuals get through the gate into the privileged group. The worker does not affect the overall balance between the groups. In other words, s/he meets the needs of one group at the expense of the other.

Here then, is the challenge facing social educators. They have traditionally worked in individualistic areas, ‘private troubles’. By doing so, they have contributed toward the smoother functioning of a system that their values would appear to be in conflict with. If they are to bring their practice into line with their values then they have to work in the area of collective action. They must deal with ‘public issues’.

Third, workers need to understand the relation of young people to power.

We often talk about young people’s ‘powerlessness’ without fully grasping the nature of their position. As well as being young, young people also have a particular gender, race and class and through these will experience power in different ways.

If we begin at a general level we can see that individually young people have not accumulated significant property or qualification. In addition they are not in a position to take sustained collective action. The institutions to which they belong (such as schools) discourage it; they [page 40] have, as yet, little of the knowledge, feelings or skills necessary for successful actions; and the whole period is one of change which works against any sustained activity. Where they join community organisations such as political parties and unions, their interests and actions are frequently seen as an irritant, something those organisations could do without.

The one major power young people have is a negative one — their ability to be a threat to order. It was such a fear of the mob which fanned the development of youth work in the late nineteenth century and it is a similar fear which has more recently loosened municipal purse strings in a number of metropolitan areas. It is, however, a difficult power for young people to take any advantage of.

Beyond this general level there are big differences in the way young people experience power. We should not isolate the mechanisms we have been discussing from the classes they create. To a large extent, young people’s experience of power will be affected by the relationship of their families to the subordination process. Thus children from families in the dominant group are likely to gain certain ideas, feelings and skills — those which reinforce the ‘rightness’ of their position and their ability to hold on to it. In a similar way young people who come from families where there has been a history of involvement in collective action will be affected by that experience. Their view of the nature of power and how it is achieved will generally be different from the children of the ‘top’ group, but they also could be prepared to act politically. Young people from families who have suffered subordination without taking collective action are unlikely to possess such confidence, knowledge or skills. They also have a more restricted access to the means to take action.

If the young person’s class position and familiarity with political action is important then their potential class position is also significant. In advance of their fulfilling the full entry requirements for membership of the dominant group, young people who look like getting a good range of academic/professional qualifications or achieving a substantial holding of property can often be allowed to develop and exercise power ‘on licence’. A classic example of this process is the government patronage of student unions.

Beyond class and age two further characteristics need careful attention — gender and race. They remain deep and powerful means of discrimination.

Firstly, at an individualistic level there is a great deal of evidence about the under-representation of women and minority ethnic groups in higher education, apprenticeships, and training for the ‘professions’. [page 41] They are, therefore, falling down on the ‘qualification’ entry to the dominant group. Secondly, in relation to collective action we can see that women and members of minority ethnic groups do not occupy such a strategic position in the labour market. The sectors of the labour force that have industrial ‘muscle’ such as the power workers are predominantly white and male. Women tend to occupy low paid and part-time jobs spurned by men which are, almost by definition, weak in industrial power. Similarly, Black and Asian workers tend to be in the low paid sector.

Members of minority ethnic groups, then, face a double exclusion. They are usually members of the subordinate class and, therefore, experience the dominant class’s attempts to keep them from getting too powerful. However they also experience racism from white members of both classes. Thus, for instance, ethnic minorities are harder hit by unemployment, do not achieve formal positions of power and fail to have their interests adequately represented by trade unions. A similar argument can be made about women’s experience.

To fully understand the experience of young people we must use ideas such as class, gender and race. Rather too often in the past we have used the category ‘youth’ in a far too general way and so ignored the profound differences in experience that, for instance, class generates. Such differences also find expression in the way we, as youth workers, operate.

Fourth, we need to recognise that these society wide processes are reproduced in our work.

This process of subordination is reproduced in the way youth workers and groups work. If we take any of the four concepts previously discussed — class, age, gender and race — and apply them to our day to day youth work then the reproduction becomes clear. A useful example is class.

From what research evidence we have it can be seen that there is a high proportion of middle class young people involved in youth club committees. The same can be said of other forms of youth participation such as school councils, local youth councils, and in self programming groups such as the Young Farmers. We should not be surprised at this, as these young people are the ‘sons and daughters’ of the middle class sponsors of such attempts at participation. They know how to behave, feel they have a right to participate and are confident that they have something worth saying. Also they have access to the right sort of knowledge and opportunities. Interestingly the one club members committee in the main piece of research in this area that had a substantial working class membership was based in a coal mining area [page 42] where there was a strong history of collective (trade union) action. (John Eggleston, Adolescence and Community Edward Arnold, London, 1 976 p.109).  If we look at the example we started with, the ‘skating trip’ club, a high proportion of its active membership either had parents that were heavily involved in working class organisations such as trade unions and social clubs or were middle class. These examples underline the importance of family or community experience of power in determining the extent to which its children will become involved in ‘participation’ exercises. Those that come from middle class or active working class families are more likely to ‘participate’. Young women and men who have not known or seen power and organisation are likely to be excluded from such exercises.

Age plays a powerful role in determining the sort of youth provision young people can expect to experience. It often seems that in the youth workers’ minds there are two age categories that involve two different forms of youth work. Thus for the under-14s youth work is largely competition/activity based. Over 14 and we begin to see the trimmings of social education — the attempts at participation, the development of discussions on topics like sex and sexuality, and the use of experiential forms of learning. Such a division cuts right across the developmental needs we examined in the last chapter. In many respects that initial period of adolescence (from 11 to 14 years) involves more change than the later period. It is, after all, in this period that young people have to begin to come to terms with a new set of emotional and physical experiences. It is here that people gain a more sophisticated picture of themselves in the world. Given all this, the way we work with the 11-14 age group seems all the stranger. To deny people the opportunity to have some control over the sort of youth work they receive is a peculiar way of meeting their developmental need for responsibility.

We can see similar patterns in the way we discriminate on ground of gender or race. In the case of gender, for example, in recent years the evidence concerning the way we work with young men and women builds a formidable case for workers to make a major appraisal of their work. Many of us still encourage girls and young women to view their lives in terms of marriage and motherhood. On the other hand our work with boys remains almost totally orientated toward promoting ideas and activities which reinforce sexist attitudes and does little to encourage young men to examine and understand their masculinity.

Similarly, whilst most youth workers would claim that they do not discriminate on the grounds of race, a great deal of youth work can still be said to be racist by default. This is because workers fail to do anything about developing anti racist attitudes. Thus when young people come into youth clubs wearing National Front badges and similar insignia— [page 43] their presence goes unchallenged. Racist graffiti and symbols get left up on the walls. Jokes about ethnic minorities get laughed at. Here we see workers through their inaction and sometimes through a misplaced desire to be ‘one of the boys’ (sic), supporting and colluding with racism.

Fifth, workers need to understand the ‘politics of the youth group’. 

In the last section we saw how the subordination process is reproduced in the club or group. We now need to examine how workers themselves ‘exclude’ young people’s wishes.

A useful starting point is our attitude to management committees. The youth workers tells his/her members that they couldn’t possibly be full members of the management committee (and so be able to discuss the worker’s performance and conditions of employment), because they wouldn’t be able to see both sides of the question/wouldn’t be able to keep confidences/would be bored by the meetings/and so on. In other words s/he is excluding them and maintaining them in a subordinate position. What response can the members make? They have little access to information and to the sources of power. At a collective level, (if they have the confidence and skills to go that far), deputations appear with demands, teams refuse to play, at a negative level equipment gets smashed, relationships become unpleasant. The saddest outcome is when members actually believe the things the worker says about their abilities and attitudes — they accept the ‘rightness’ of their powerless position. Here the worker is not simply failing to me et developmental needs but is actively conspiring to block them.

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If we go back to our definition of power, we can see that in our examination of the way things happen in youth groups, we should be looking at what gets onto the decision making agenda. An issue has to pass through a number of gateways before a youth worker will answer it directly. Let us consider what might have happened if Neil had been in a different club with a group of workers who saw themselves as the ‘providers’ and ‘deciders’.

The first question is ‘Would Neil think about making the request for an ice skating trip?’

In many clubs and groups the workers create an environment around certain issues so that those issues don’t even cross people’s minds. If there has not been a history of a particular type of activity taking place within the club or group and the workers are not in the business of trying to expand people’s horizons, then it is quite likely that most of the members would not see the group or club as a possible forum for such activities. Examples of this may be using the club or group to talk about sexuality, as a live rock venue or as a means of organising a holiday abroad. In some groups it may not even cross people’s minds that they or the workers could organise an ice skating trip. This process is known as the Mobilization of Bias and is a common obstacle to things not getting on the decision making agenda.

The second question is ‘Would Nell make the request if he thought a trip was a good idea?’

Let us assume that the idea of a club skating trip had crossed Neil’s mind. The next hurdle is the actual asking of the question. Frequently questions are not asked or demands made because members believe it would be no good if they did. They ‘know’ in advance that the workers would refuse because they had ‘too much work’ or some other excuse. Another response might be that they expect the workers to make no response! The request will simply be left unanswered. A third possibility is that members fear for what could happen if they did speak out — they expect a retaliatory response. Members may want to complain because a certain person is excluded from the club but don’t speak out because they might be branded as a trouble maker and therefore not ‘suitable’ for other club activities. This way of stopping an issue reaching the ‘agenda’ is known as Anticipating Reactions.

Question three is ‘What happens when Neil does make a request?’

Here the workers may simply fail to directly respond — they say neither
yes nor no. Examples of this sort of behaviour are

This strategy is known as negative decision making — where people are able to make a noisy protest but nobody listens.

Lastly, Neil’s request may actually get on the ‘agenda’ and a decision is made.

Based on 'The non-decision making filter' in Peter Saunders,
 Urban Politics. A sociological interpretation, London, Penguin 1980, page 29.

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There is, of course, no guarantee that it will go in his favour. The workers may say no.

This non-decision making process is shown diagrammatically in Figure 6.

Here, then, we have the process by which issues are filtered out before an actual decision has to be made. We also need to consider the basis on which the worker is able to use his/her power. In other words why does the worker have power?

Much that has been written about the sources of power in social or organisational settings can be brought under six broad headings

(The main characteristics of these sources of power are summarised in Figure 7).

What such analysis can do is to help us understand the position of workers and what they can do to encourage young people to achieve some control for themselves. Thus, for example, if we apply these headings to the relationship between youth workers and young people, it can be seen that the sources of power most frequently in young people’s hands are negative and physical. In saying this we must bear in mind the following points: Firstly, as we have seen, there is power on both ‘sides’. Thus what is of interest is the balance of power.

Secondly, it is important to be clear where that power can be used. Many of the arguments in organisations are about boundaries. What domain can a particular group or individual rule over? Thus whilst the worker may have control over what goes on in certain parts of a club - there may be other parts (such as the toilets!) where his/her control is more marginal and is in dispute.

Lastly, the amount of power an individual or group has will change — it is not constant. Changing circumstances, new issues, will put strains on power relationships, bring new forces into play. The power of one group is likely to be discovered a bluff when it fails to deliver the goods.

Figure 7 Sources of individual power

There are six possible sources of individual power which give the holder the ability to influence others

Physical Power. This category is self explanatory — it is based on the threat or use of physical coercion. It does not have to be used to be effective — if people believe in its existence and see it as superior to their own power then that will be enough. As a power source it can be particularly significant when adults deal with children, or men with women.

Resource Power. Here the person is in control of resources that others desire. It is also known as ‘reward power’. Thus where the youth worker has control over a building and the provision for certain activities then s/he can have considerable power through the threat of withdrawal. Rewards need not be material. They can be things like the granting of status.

Position Power. This power comes through a particular role or position in an organisation. Position gives the holder authority to do certain things. It is sometimes called ‘legal’ or ‘legitimate power’ and in the end has to be underwritten by either physical or resource power. Position power gives the holder potential control over some crucial ‘unseen’ assets.

  • Information. Information is usually directed towards a particular position such as ‘youth worker’ or ‘secretary’.

  • Right of access. Positions give entry to a variety of networks. Committee membership is often ex officio. People in other organisations will often only ‘listen’ to those holding a certain level of position.

  • The right to organise. Position confers on the holder the right to different behaviours - s/he controls the way work is organised, the layout of the physical and social environment, the way decisions are made, and so on.

Expert Power. Expert power is vested in someone because of his/her acknowledged expertise. It is only influential for as long as it is recognised that the holder has expertise. In a ‘meritocratic’ society it is a power that many will accept. Only if expertise is questioned do the holders have to resort to other sources of power to get their recommendations accepted.

Personal Power. Also known as ‘charisma’, here power resides in the person and in his/her personality. It can be enhanced by a person’s expertise or position. Personal power is tied to success and self confidence and can quickly disappear in defeat. Many people make the mistake of viewing their power as being personal rather than positional.

Negative Power. All the previous forms of power are ‘legitimate’ in particular situations. If power is used contrary to the agreed rules then it could be said to be negative power. Negative power is, therefore, the ability to stop things happening, to delay them, to distort them. In a sense this power is an ‘illegitimate’ use of some of the other forms e.g. of position.

(Based on Charles B Handy, Understanding Organisations, London: Penguin 1981 (Chapter 5).


Understanding the nature of power, how it is used and what is its hidden agenda is of central importance. If youth workers are to seriously make [page 48] in their work a space for young people to gain some understanding, confidence and skills in affecting the political forces that structure their lives, then the problem of power has to be tackled. This whole discussion points to the need to face up to the way we keep things off the decision making agenda. How do we, as workers, contribute to young people’s powerlessness?

Sixth, we must look for the possibilities for action.

The problem with the sort of questions that have been raised here is that they run very deep. Confronting our own racism or sexism can be personally very threatening. For instance, as a male youth worker when I begin to examine the way I work with young women and girls it doesn’t stop with questions about the relative range of activities available to them, but has to explore the way I relate to them, what sort of things do we talk about, what sort of attitudes am I communicating? I am then faced with questions about my relationship with women workers in the group. Are they doing ‘women’s work’ — looking after the domestic side, the relationships, leaving the men to ‘organise’? This questioning then leads to my own family relationships. Do I do my share of the housework, cooking or childcare? Is the responsibility for these equally shared? Whose interests are paramount when we make decisions? How do I use the peculiar and ‘unsocial’ nature of youth work to avoid family responsibilities and so on? It doesn’t even stop there. I then have to start [page 49] exploring the way I work with the ‘lads’. Am I colluding with their sexism so that I can gain entry into their world? Are they going to think I’m ‘wet’, or eccentric, or completely out of touch with reality if I start questioning their attitudes to women or their macho posturing? This is where it hurts. So much of social education is concerned with process — with who and what we are — that we have to get personal about politics.

Alongside an exploration of our personal politics we must also examine what this political dimension means for social education’s broader ‘curriculum’.

We must return to the issues raised in the last section. As has already been suggested if workers are to help people to meet their own and others developmental needs then action must be taken to share the sources of workers power. If we are to avoid reproducing the subordination process, power has to be put into the hands of the group as a whole. This has implications for the kind of structures that will be needed — so that information is open, skills can be shared — and for the ethos/feelings that will have to be generated. Individuals need to be committed to the group’s ideas and the idea of the group (i.e. respect for the groups authority). The headings suggested in Figure 7 provide a useful framework for starting this questioning process.

At the knowledge level the political curriculum would have to include many of the issues raised in this chapter. The meaning of power, how it relates to concepts such as class, race, gender and age, what it means in day to day life. Beyond that it is necessary to know how the political process can be acted upon. In many respects the development of a political understanding can begin in very simple ways. It might mean that workers have to put a bit more effort into creating opportunities for discussion by doing things like leaving newspapers around, or putting up posters or by ‘challenging’ people wearing badges. It might mean having a few more ‘formal’ discussion groups. As has already been suggested, the difficulty with social education is often that there are so many possible cues for conversation — such as the lads excluding the girls from using the pool table, why people like a particular record, experiences on a particular YOP scheme and so on. Our first problem, as workers, is often that we don ’t make the time to listen and talk or don’t recognise the opportunity.

A second problem faced by social educators is that the most appropriate form of learning — learning by doing — involves action — and in this case political action. If we look at some of the knowledge areas that a political education curriculum would cover then we can see that learning about the way local government works is best done through directly trying to influence what it is doing — what is being learnt is seen as more relevant and immediate. Similarly by starting with the way everyday events in a [page 50] person’s life are affected by factors such as class, race, gender and age then the significance of these concepts can be grasped. The problem of course, is that education has generally been seen as passive. People sit behind desks in rows and learn. As soon as they leave the classroom and think and act on that learning then this is somehow not education. The problems multiply when we consider what sort of things might go to make up the skills part of a political education curriculum.

The ice skating trip shows a considerable cross-over between the concerns of a more traditional social education and the aims of a developmental needs or critical approach. A clear implication of the analysis in this chapter is that action on the political system involves action in groups. As individuals, we have (or feel we have), little chance or power to get things changed. The achievement of power for all members of society involves collective action. In this sense social education’s traditional emphasis on groups, collective and participative ways of working, and the development of the necessary knowledge, feelings and skills for groups to work echoes the contents of a political curriculum. However, what is different is that a developmental needs approach indicates a far more active involvement by workers and young people in the creation of space to be able to do things for themselves. This involves action on the political system. The skills involved are not just the inter personal/communication skills of group work but the skills of political action — lobbying, organising public meetings, and so on.

A growing number of workers have discovered the difficulties likely to be faced with managers and employers when they begin work in this area. It is rather more of a problem for full-time workers. Employers (local councillors and their officers) are not known for their charity towards employees who appear to be questioning and challenging decisions they have made. Particularly where this challenge is public. Even where workers have remained within a strictly educational role, their giving of help to those who question their employers policies and actions, brings conflict. There is a sense in which this is inevitable. Social education, if it means anything to local councillors, is likely to be seen as a form of control. The values we have discussed lead to a form of education markedly different.

When we come to the feelings area of the curriculum a similar crossover between traditional and critical approaches is there. The inter personal values have to be translated into political values (as we did in ‘The politics of developmental needs’). The feeling of personal confidence and worth becomes a sense of solidarity and worth as a group. This identification of the individual with the group is a crucial part of politics.

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In many respects it is this area that can cause most problems for youth workers with their managers. For what this entails, if we are to follow the logic of our analysis, is for people to define themselves in terms of their gender, race, age and class. Over the last few years much of the political action taken by young people from within a Youth Service context has been by groups who have a close identity with one or more of these factors. Thus we have seen young Black and Asian groups campaigning for improved youth provision, organising around issues such as police harassment and developing a wide range of self help organisations. Similarly we have lately witnessed a mushrooming of activities by groups of young women — the production of magazines both local and national, putting pressure on for increased ‘girls only’ provision and so on. The importance of what has been happening in both these areas of youth work is that in practice very clear linkages have been made between young people’s everyday experience and the characteristics by which they are oppressed — their race, gender and age.

To a certain extent both these areas of work have been allowed to develop within a Youth Service context because they can exploit the (white, male) liberal guilt of those who administer the service. The ‘solution’ that administrators have proposed — multicultural mixed youth work - has been found to be wanting. It has been rejected by many of the young people it was supposedly designed for. A vacuum was created — the Youth Service had no real answer to this rejection yet felt something had to be done. This space has to some extent been filled by workers and groups of young people who defined themselves first and foremost as ‘Black’ or ‘Female’. However their success, whilst being significant, is also limited. The direction and form of their work has been experienced as threatening by both administrators and workers. In a sense there is little that can be done about this as the work should be threatening. It should be challenging the racism and sexism that permeates our society.

Beyond youth work defined by gender and race stands a form of work that has not been able to exploit the guilt of those who run the Youth Service — youth work defined by class. If we accept that social education should be about helping people to understand their relationship to power and to know who else might be in the same boat, then class has to be tackled. Developing people’s consciousness of class and the way their membership of a particular class affects their ideas and life chances can lead workers into difficult areas. However the next two steps — developing people’s identity with a particular class and taking action on that understanding — are such that it is difficult to conceive of many situations where state sponsored youth work could handle such activities. How many local authorities would agree to their employees encouraging young people to identify with the ‘excluded’ class and to undertake collective action i.e. the achievement of power for the group or class as a whole? Such a form of youth w ork, with values and an [page 52] analysis which lead to conflict, makes clear the controlling functions of traditional youth work. It is at this point that social education’s values clash with political reality, where politicians’ fine words and phrases dissolve into one - NO!

So what can social educators do? If they try to push a conflict model of work too far within a state sponsored Youth Service then their money and jobs will soon be lost. If social educators try to forget or skate round the issue their morality has to be questioned. Perhaps the only realistic course is for workers to recognise, that as such a form of social education is oppositional, it must largely take place outside the state sector. It has to be ‘voluntary’. That said, much can still be done from within the statutory sector and its satellites to support the efforts of those attempting a more critical form of social education.

This then, is some of the ground that an exploration of the possibilities for action must cover. As suggested in the opening paragraphs such an exploration is far from comfortable. It includes looking at one’s personal life, examining the means by which we hold on to power, defining what might be part of a critical social education curriculum. Finally and inevitably it leaves a number of questions about just how far such a form of youth work can be pursued from within a state run youth service.

Seventh, workers need to be sure of their ground before proceeding.

As we have seen, workers that have developed a more critical form of social education work have frequently found themselves in difficulties both with their employers and with the work they have begun. In our experience four broad problem areas have arisen.

i. The failure to act politically. Many attempts in this area have been rather naive. As has been suggested here social education is political and a critical social education is Political with a big ‘P’. Whilst much of the knowledge and skill involved is that traditionally associated with youth work, the activity surrounding the creation of space for this sort of work involves conscious political action. It involves the creation of links with other organisations and bodies that can support and legitimise the work. The creation of strong and supportive management committees. The convincing of councillors and administrators of the importance and legitimacy of the work.

Making the work legitimate and gaining strength through acting collectively are the two main themes that workers will have to tackle if they are to develop a more critical form of social education. Whilst this conflicts with the ‘spontaneous’ ethos of much of youth work, it is very necessary if workers are to avoid the mistakes of the past. 

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ii. The failure to act educationally. It must not be forgotten that the base from which this work springs is an education alone. This means that any interventions with young people have to governed by the sort of values that were discussed in the last chapter. Thus the work must be open, truthful, enhancing of the persons freedom and dignity. Rather too often, workers have got off on a ‘trip’ of their own. Too often workers have seen themselves as advocates professing to speak for young people rather than directing their efforts into helping people to develop skills for themselves or have allowed their own unworked through feelings to cloud their response to young people’s needs.

Whilst the relationship between workers and young people has to be educational, the relationship between the worker and his/her managers is beset with a number of dilemmas. For instance, just how open can, or should, a worker be, given what we have already said about political naivety? There is a need to educate managers and employers but this has to be set alongside the creation of political pressure to support the work you wish to develop. Getting this particular balance right is no easy matter.

iii. The failure to act professionally. I’m rather hesitant about using the word ‘profesional’ as I’ve always felt that it is a singularly inappropriate way of describing the position and relationship of a youth worker with the young people s/he works with. Perhaps ‘craftspersonship’ is more appropriate. Whatever, quite a number of problems arise through workers not working out objectives for their work, planning appropriate actions and responses and evaluating what they are doing. The process outlined in Chapter 1 of assessing — planning — executing — evaluating applies equally to the workers organisation of his/her time as to solving a particular problem.

iv. The failure to recognise the constraints of the working situation. Just how much can be achieved in a particular working situation varies from area to area. Workers need to make a careful assessment of just what is possible. If circumstances (and employers in particular) mean that the sort of work you want to engage in will be seriously compromised then it is likely to be better to pursue the work outside a formal youth work context. In other words it has to be done in your own time. Thus groups of workers have used organisations such as their local union branch, local voluntary organisations or groups set up specifically for the purpose to sponsor their work.

Interestingly some of the most progressive work has occurred where workers have a high degree of accountability to their employers. They have used reports and detailed plans in order to get their work [page 54] accepted by their employers whilst at the same time building up a strong political base for their work. Their secret if they have one) has in general been to start small, to gain credibility and then to build on that.

Eighth, Act!

Whilst there are very real problems in extending and exploring social education work, there is a tendency for workers to see ghosts. Problems that are in reality marginal gain an importance in workers’ minds that blocks the development of their work. As we have seen it is necessary to be realistic about the prospects but there are gaps and spaces within the Youth Service that can be exploited. In many respects it is the first step into a critical practice that is the most difficult one. Once taken, bits of the jigsaw begin to fall into place, and possibilities appear for a more creative and critical social education.

In conclusion

For too long youth workers have tried or pretended to be neutral or nonpolitical. In any society where injustice remains, the social educator has to take sides. As Paulo Freire once wrote

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Sadly, through our failure to recognise that social education involves action at both an individual and a collective level, we have taken sides with the powerful.

Will we change?

creators not consumersMark Smith (1982) Creators not Consumers. Rediscovering social education 2e, Leicester: National Association of Youth Clubs.

Reprinted with the permission of Youth Clubs UK.

Chapter 4: pages 34 - 54.

© Mark Smith 1980, 1982

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