informal education with young women in the community

In this chapter from T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Glynis Francis explores some of the issues with regard to developing informal education practice with young women. 

contents: introduction ·  the experience of being an informal educator · informal education and social relations · young women and informal education ·prioritizing : placing young women’s experiences at the centre · return to main contents

photo: getaway girls, leeds[page 49] This chapter will focus on my work as an educator within the community rather than as a trainer in a formal educational institution. For it is through my work within the community that I have primarily developed my philosophical and political thinking on education and not the other way around. My basic premise is that all people value educational opportunities. We all know what it feels like to experience the power of knowledge either as a positive, because we have it, or as a negative because we do not.

Educational opportunities are most commonly seen as being time at school and perhaps college; a time that is culturally largely predetermined and economically shaped. The curriculum for these educational opportunities is generally speaking outside of the control of the participants. Much research and debate has focused on how children learn, or learn to fail. In many respects, the problems arise from a desire to socialize people, to prepare pupils and students to be acquiescent citizens with knowledge and vision, not thinking individuals. The authoritarianism of much formal education contrasts with the belief of many community workers that ‘we are here to respond to the needs of the people’. This view has been less frequently encountered since the decline of the people—centred politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Community action in this country had its heyday during those decades, spurred on by political activists from within communities and student bodies without. Tenants’ associations and campaigns for better housing, fairer rents, play facilities, work conditions and community resources later became integrated and institutionalized. However, where there was money and resources, there was also accountability and strings.

The growth of community development teams during this period [page 50] shifted the focus from action to reform. The intervention of professionals, people employed and paid directly or indirectly by the state, challenged the power base within communities. The lack of clarity within which this intervention often took place served to fog the debates. People’s perceived needs were reinterpreted by professionals and the practical outcome, stereotypically, were the community associations, mums-and-toddlers’ groups and play schemes now to be found in most inner city areas. In this context training is often provided to ensure that community members perform their tasks more skilfully and develop an awareness of the differences within a community and respect for individuals. The real challenges, as I have seen them, are not in creating the appropriate learning environment or marketing courses: rather, they relate to selling a philosophical and political perspective that challenges the notions of the educated and the status of learning materials; undermines the assumed professional status of teachers; and strives to put the learners in control of their learning.

The experience of being an informal educator

It is difficult to communicate the freshness and excitement I have felt about education. I feel restrained by the language used to rationalize and give meaning to educational experiences by educationalists —estranged from the process and definitions generally available because of a differing value base. For some time the basis of my work seemed like a reaction to the structures and attitudes found within formal education, the sense of relative powerlessness, the consumption of the prescribed cake with humbleness and gratitude. With a respect for my own struggle through the system I had to move and define some principles for myself as an informal educator.

When appointed as a neighbourhood worker attached to a large community school and college, I was very impressed with the resources available. What I had not appreciated was the struggle there would be to utilize them, both in terms of gaining access for community groups and in releasing them to be taken out into the community. I was probably appointed to the job, in part, for my warmth, openness, energy and enthusiasm: a sort of human minibus, with a big purse, a coal fire and comfy chair and the stamp of approval saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. The key resource, and sometimes the only resource, for work within the community are workers themselves. Learning how to manage myself, as a valuable resource, became the hardest task. To make [page 51] sense of these ideas I will describe a number of situations which have caused me to examine my practice and adjust my thinking.

A key learning stage for me was associated with the development of a project for truants, who preferred the atmosphere of the adventure playground to the local community school. In the view of the New Romantics people should be free to learn when and where they want. In sympathy with such an approach I spent a considerable amount of time trying to make contact with these young people. The first hurdle was to get them to stand still long enough to let them know I was not a teacher, wag officer, social worker or plain-clothed police-woman. So much for my alternative image.

The next hurdle was to give them some reason for a working contact. Here the choice of roles is enormous. If you are too entertaining then what do you really know? Too authoritarian, then you are just like the rest. Interesting, respectful and fair, then you are unreal and short-lived. The third hurdle is the potential for role conflict with other young people and colleagues. The style of relationship offered to young people was a step towards empowerment. It involved establishing roles and interests without the power, traditions and status which can be called upon by those working in mainstream educational settings. In practice, this involved using a range of detached youth work skills which are not properly understood or shared by other professions. Contact made with young people on their own territory, to some extent on their terms, enabled me to have a quite different perception of their needs, a greater awareness of the circumstances surrounding their lives, and indeed some empathy with truanting. An additional difficulty was that the working contract with these young people legitimized their time with the project outside school, yet in school hours.

Every social and liberation movement threatens some other group’s values, assumptions and power, which inevitably leads to a questioning of the nature, struggle and distribution of power and authority in society. The main objection from the teaching staff was that the project’s influence might encourage truanting, that the level of empathy shown to young people could undermine the attempts of teachers to deal with it. And, indeed, young people might gain some power from their new perceptions and understandings, thus undermining the teaching staff in what they saw as the right and best way to educate young people.

Another crucial question was who controls and sets the curriculum or the agenda for learning. I had been working with small groups of young women and girls in the neighbourhood centre. The [page 52] objective was to develop a lunch—time session catering particularly for students and those without work. The session took the form of a discussion group in the club, sometimes sparked off by a video or speaker. The agenda, as I saw it, was to encourage discussion about women’s issues such as abortion, rape, marriage and sexuality. I consciously directed the choice of subjects for discussion to embrace women’s perspectives and feminist ideas. These sessions were very popular, despite the interference of the lads. However, the main challenges came from other youth and community staff who questioned the choice of topics and accused me, and others, of trying to brainwash young women and impose ideas on them. The issue here was that I saw myself as having an educator’s role which involved the presentation of a female and feminist perspective on topics, not my personal perspective. Although the two are clearly linked, extending understanding of different values, challenging ideas and thoughts, are crucial activities for educators seeking to get people thinking and questioning. It is important to acknowledge and recognize the subjective elements and ensure a counterbalance. This can be achieved by providing information, access to knowledge and understanding, in order to create the possibility of choice for others. The question here is whether we will become unpopular if we state or propose the agenda or curriculum. Are we simply ‘entertainers’ rather than the ‘lion tamers’ (schoolteachers), who perceive ourselves as better people because we care about individuals?

Within the formal structure my role as a neighbourhood worker had an air of casualness: I was not restricted by bells and timetables. I was on first-name terms with young people and had a responsibility to be out in the community. The fact that I worked evenings, weekends and school holidays was hidden from the teaching staff. Having a choice of roles is like having a wardrobe of clothes. It is nice to know you have a choice, but how easy is it to make it? Within the centre I could take advantage of the role young people — students and pupils — were expected to play and the ‘normal’ behaviour expected of them. I was able to command similar authority to the teaching staff in school. The risk was that young people would then be unable to see me in a different role outside school. Out on the streets and around the neighbourhood I was able to change my behaviour without immediately exposing the role boundaries of the centre staff. Given the ‘exposed’ nature of neighbourhood work, having to rely on your own abilities without the security of the institution and its labels, the risk of losing confidence and clarity of purpose is high. One personal strategy was to align myself with other people in  [page 53] similar roles encountering similar risks, like adventure playground workers, community leaders and the national detached youth workers’ forum.

Informal education and social relations

Bored, lonely, looking for a challenge why not call into your local Community Education Centre and see what we have to offer… short courses for all members of the community. . . pay as you learn. . . from Play and your Under 5s to pre-retirement courses from local history to aerobics.

All these activities have a potential educational value for the participants. Recruitment processes are crucial in ensuring that the opportunity reflects the needs and interests of the people. The community education centre, in offering opportunities ‘from cradle to grave’, seeks to connect with fundamental aspects of life, to develop education from the processes of production of our lives. And in these processes of production, women occupy a particular and often hidden and subordinated role. Community education touches on these social relations and derives some of its power from them. Educational practice may reinforce existing social relations or it may undermine them. It does not escape them.

How is it that uniformed organizations have the membership that they do and that church and local groups continue to attract people? These institutions have a long history, based largely on voluntary effort, are deep-rooted in tradition and overtly concerned with moral and social well—being. In my analysis belief in sisterhood, brotherhood, the family and an acceptance of role, indicates that the need for belonging, importance, worth and respect continues to be a basic need. As someone brought up in a village,  I took my place within the church, belonged to the Girl Guides, was the eldest child in my family and attended the nearest secondary modern school for girls — or young ladies, as our head teacher reminded us weekly. These were all age-old institutions with women at the helm.

Twenty years on personal and social education is dominated by women; most community education tutors I know are women, and within youth clubs and organizations women so often seem to hold the key roles. The reason for drawing the reader’s attention to this is to suggest that within the broadest definition of informal education, social relations are one of the most important areas for consideration. Women have been socialized into caring roles and they are a majority in the caring professions. This underpins women’s social interaction  [page 54] both professionally and personally. Women can find themselves devalued because their tasks and skills are not seen as scientific or intellectual. So while women remain the guardians of human rights, men control the means of production.

Government policies continue to legislate traditional roles and values for men and women and to emphasize the centrality of the family. Yet although the national trend has pulled in one direction it has still been exciting to see, and be a part of, a decade of developments which have sought to extend opportunities for girls and young women. Equal opportunity policies have been useful—insofar as the paper on which they are written can offer some protection. Management and officers are able to state their intentions and fend off unwanted criticism. However, women’s skills and abilities can be professionalized at one point and be made redundant, except as a cottage industry, the next. Equal opportunity policies have followed the traditional pattern of decision making. They have been delivered and administered from the top down, reaffirming the traditional and existing social order and relations.

Young women and informal education

Here I want to begin by focusing on some of the work I have undertaken with young mothers. Young women who choose to become mothers do so for a number of reasons. Motherhood can be a role that bridges the divide between schoolgirl and adult worker. The first of these is compulsory, the second may be unobtainable, at least if young women want to retain some element of self—respect and integrity. Motherhood has a clear role and status, leading to unpaid work, that at least allows for some self—expression such as a beautifully cared for baby. Baby putting on weight can be experienced as a personal achievement; taking her first step, uttering her first words. The happy, playful and developing child meets with the approval of health visitor, clinic and family, all of whom reinforce the achievement of ‘successful motherhood’. This means that women can make the role of mother their primary concern for many years; other can feel themselves to have the potential which only needs discovering. Young women, particularly those with small children are being judged, assessed, observed and recorded as a sociological phenomenon. The media has done much to damage the self-esteem and confidence of young mothers. Headlines such as ‘Gymslip mums’, ‘Teenage pregnancies’ seek to provoke disquiet and feed further moral panic.

[page 55] My approach to these young women was based on an assumption that they were not making use of the local mums-and-toddlers’ groups, mainly for fear of being judged as inadequate or viewed as irresponsible for having a child outside marriage. My contact with these young women was initially on the streets and through the health clinic. It was my intention to offer a variety of skills and experience that would be useful in terms of their independence and in relation to their roles as mothers.

After our first few meetings the young women were able to identify some learning needs of their own, such as the role of child guidance, how to choose a primary school, child development and how parents can help, basic do-it-yourself skills, sport and outdoor pursuits and how to secure and organize a holiday away. Using their position as mothers we were able to look more widely at the role of women in society and the different pressures upon us. The young women had a variety of experiences and attitudes to raising children and the role of mothers. They were particularly fearsome of social workers and health visitors and wanted to know more about their legal position and the functions these professionals performed.

The content of sessions was negotiated with the young women and as group worker I encouraged them to question and challenge what was being said. All the while I drew on my own experience as a single—parent, lesbian mother to provide a challenge to the notion of the nuclear family being the only right environment in which to raise children. One particular attitude that prevailed was that having had a child it was your responsibility to provide for it. In practice, these young women were initially very reluctant to leave their children in the creche or seek a place in a nursery. It was a real achievement when, after running a series of rock—climbing sessions, discussion groups, learning to use video camera with the children ‘in tow’, some young women decided to leave their children in the creche. Only then could they begin to express their spirit and optimism as young women with wants and needs of their own. The project did not succeed in maintaining the interest and involvement of all the young women. Those that left were critical of the behaviour of others in relation to their children. Some did not want to be identified with single mothers and felt themselves to be better off and hence not in need of the support or activities on offer.

Young women had been attracted to the various groups and provision because of the possibility of getting what they wanted in the way of advice, association, activities, action and access. The facilities were made available for their exclusive or primary use on  [page 56] the basis that separate provision should be a choice within communities. As far as was possible and practicable, child care was provided and the space made warm, comfortable and welcoming. So certain boundaries were established by workers and the agency, both philosophically and physically. The next stage related to the assessment by the young women, of skills, knowledge and resources which should be given priority. It is this political step that tests most fundamentally those educators who believe in the expansion of educational opportunities. Much of this style of intervention is summed up in the words ‘relevant and meaningful’, which must be central to our agenda as informal educators. To be relevant and meaningful is to negotiate, reflect needs, individualize, personalize. Yet to have meaning this must be linked to participation, democracy and community development.

In the past participant democracies have been seen to rest upon and even presuppose the existence of small and local groups like family networks, the neighbourhood, the parish and work groups. Today, primary groups of this kind are often experienced as less ‘close’ or else seem increasingly functionless in an age of centralization and mobility. Informal education provides the workers with a framework that ideally attempts, in principle, to engage with people as equals. I do not mean to suggest that my life as a professional worker is somehow comparable to that of an unemployed single parent; but my lack of statutory power and the fact that the young women chose involvement helped foster an air of equality. The infrastructure, the family and church, may not exist for these young women and alternative supportive networks need to be fostered. I think it is imperative that we do not see ourselves as entertainers, lion tamers or plain-clothed police or, for that matter, do-gooders with our basket of goodies. For to do so subscribes to a view that the people we are educating are deficient or worse, that a good laugh, a friendly smile or straight talking is somehow going to relieve their problems.


Prioritizing by using some hidden criterion is manipulative. Prioritizing by first come, first served ignores inequality of opportunities. Prioritizing by pretending to a neutral stance is naïve. Prioritizing by ‘this is what we have always done, it’s worked out all right to now’, maintains the status quo. All prioritizing reflects the political ideologies of those empowered to take action and make such decisions. [page 57] For educators working in informal settings, this process entails an awareness of inequalities. Both the worker and agency need to identify areas of need openly and unashamedly. An examination of existing resources and provision, their relevance and appropriateness to the potential user’s needs is essential. An appraisal of staff skills and values to create the optimum effectiveness and efficiency of a learning situation is also required. Some groups’ needs are easier met than others; for example, disabled people’s access to some centres is poor and in reality creates an unsuitable learning environment. The need for prioritization cannot be ignored since the reality of funding for such work is usually aimed at particular areas in the country and related to already identified sections of the community. Limited resources, funding with inbuilt priorities, political biases and workers’ time are all elements that need to be managed, monitored, maintained and developed in response to the priorities identified.

Critical analysis of the educational direction of some developments shows that greater resources, particularly in terms of person power, have been gained for women’s and girls’ issues in education. A tolerance for separate provision is growing, with some back-up resources. The needs of women now reach the agendas of departments, committees and organizations even if the outcome is undesirable. In some areas women have a higher profile within their community: they are seen as organizers, administrators, campaigners, spokespersons, enablers, winners and fighters. Women’s history has been a popular topic within community education; it serves to give a political as well as historical context to women’s struggle. Events like International Women’s Day have provided a significant focus for some women and have prompted our conscience about the need for international struggle. On the other hand, the higher profile given to some women has alienated some from the working class. A high degree of sensitivity is required when allocating budgets. Positive action not only necessitates clarity of aim and objective but also the building of the support and political power to carry it forward.

The tradition of autonomy and choice within informal education enshrines a philosophy of live and let live. Yet Brownies are seen as respectable, whereas girls’ nights are seen as subversive. Young women’s projects and the like can initiate a questioning of the nature, structure and distribution of power and authority within the community and society. As a result of differentiation on the basis of age, sex and social status, women are able to debate class, values, [page 58] attitudes, the lifestyles of different groups, subcultures and counter-cultures and the extent to which differences should be tolerated and accepted. Informal educational opportunities offered to particular groups are important as a counterbalance to the inequalities created; and legitimated in most institutions.

Disaffected young women see themselves as failures; their confidence as people is often limited to a few situations. Their ability to understand their position is restricted, the range of social skills on which they draw is narrow, the language they have to communicate with is insufficient and their ability to identify their needs is constrained. So a fundamental stage in opening up educational opportunities to women, and in particular young women, is to help them break through all barriers and blocks to learning, irrespective of whether these relate to feelings, thoughts or ideas.

Placing young women’s experiences at the centre

Any methodology that seeks to relate to these young women must put their own experience at the core. ‘Girls only’ sessions in centres and in the community have been a focus for my work and have provided an opportunity for girls to familiarize themselves with equipment and skills usually dominated by boys. Within these environments girls and young women have explored their relationships with each other as well as their prejudices on class, race, age and sexual identity. Through drama and role play, girls and young women have explored their feelings of anger, violence and frustration. Some have developed strong leadership skills and now contribute in many different ways to activities and the running of the centres.

For the educator the process has been clearly guided by values and principles. It is a conscious and purposeful intervention into the lives of others. We talk cynically about offering carrots to entice our client group, attractive activities used as a vehicle for the ‘real’ work. It is actually my intention to make the ‘content’ significant. Advertising a programme of activities for young women to include water skiing, wind surfing, rock climbing, can look attractive. It is unfortunately the case that many young women show interest but feel unable to take the risks involved. A simple statement that says ‘rock climbing for young women run by women, equipment provided, creche available, no previous experience required’, can go some way to— wards allaying fears. Our fears, I suspect, are to do with being  [page 59] accused of not working in the interest of the majority; of pursuing our own interests through our work; of raising hopes and expectations in young women that cannot be met and followed through. However, by placing young women and their views at the centre of the process, by engaging in a dialogue with them, such concerns can be contained and practice grounded. So, for example, a hair-dressing session requested by young women came to explore hair care, self-images, the question of who women look good for, diet for health, hair braiding and beading, why some women wanted to straighten their hair, and photography. We also discussed the difference between the Saturday job girl and the professionalizing of hair dressing and beauty therapy. When approaching different areas, I try to widen and deepen understanding.

In working with young women with children there is a wealth of experience to be shared and learnt. By relating fundamental hopes and values to each other, to the lives and experiences of mothers and women before us, not just within Europe but in other parts of the world, we can build a confidence in our abilities and through understanding our position in history gain some sense of freedom to move on. It is a style and approach that encroaches upon conversation and story telling, where by discussing our experiences of school and family we can ‘evoke and evaluate our collective memory of what is done to us and what we do in turn’ (Russell 1983: 52). Russell goes on to say that story telling is an age-old method of transferring knowledge, skills and values. It gives political value to daily life. No activity is too trivial for political analysis.

The educational pay-off for this particular area of community development can be measured in the more traditional ways: take up on college courses and of gaining full- or part-time employment. However, there are other, less quantifiable, but significant benefits both to the women themselves and to society at large. The women may well gain a deeper insight into their situations and the institutional structures that surround them. They may experience an enhanced sense of freedom and choice, which often leads to more critical questioning, to increased self—respect for their own thoughts and ideas and to greater involvement in community and political life. Some of the young women I worked with are now active in their own groups. They are using the skills they have gained to help the growth and development of others. Occasionally they are doing this through a more structured role as a trainer but their interventions are mainly made through the informal and continuing process of offering support and encouragement. Others have tested out their new  [page 60] perceptions and attitudes through travel abroad and through an enlarged engagement with other cultures.

A key element of the processes which I have been discussing here is the recognition of existing skills and interests, and the development of these in activities which are not only transferable, but are recognized and valued in the world outside the young women’s daily experience. This development can be seen in individual histories: one young women developed her typing into an interest in computing; another who enjoyed netball undertook a sports leadershp course, coming back into the local playscheme as a playleader; and another’s courage resulted in her poetry being published in a major anthology of young women’s writing. It can also be seen in the movement from ~ shared activity to collective projects. For example, young women in a local youth club experimented with role play and drama, went on to involvement in a city—wide film on anti-sexism. In another case musical improvization sessions led to a small group building their own sound system. In yet another instance, learning rock-climbing ~ skills enabled two or three groups of young women to open ~ International Women’s Day by abseiling down the clock tower of the Town Hall.

Community workers need to be clear sighted and be conscious of possibilities and constraints. Their role is to encourage people to recognize what exists, to help people see what might be achievable and to enable them to find the means to get there. The challenge for community workers is to understand and make visible those mechanisms cover: using informal educationand opportunities which will enable marginalized and disadvantaged groups to enhance their own personal, social and political power.

For details of the texts cited here go to the bibliography.

© Glynis Francis 1990

Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. 

First published in the informal education archives: February 2002.