Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm

Picture: Playing games @ one of Seva Mandir's Non-Formal Education Centers. Picture by Anna Wolf and sourced from Flickr. Reproduced under a Creatvive Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm. Alan Rogers explores the confused usage of the terms non-formal and informal education and suggests a way forward.

Contents: introduction · defining non-formal education · non-formal education in the field: from the 1980s to today · non-formal education and lifelong learning/education · towards a new paradigm · bibliography · how to cite this article
There is a renewed interest in non-formal education (NFE) today.  And it is significant that this interest comes not so much from the so-called ‘Third World’ (I use this term to refer to poor countries in receipt of aid from rich countries, because many other persons use it as a short-hand.  But I find it objectionable – see non-formal education, colonialism and development). As the Council of Europe recently said,

The Assembly recognises that formal educational systems alone cannot respond to the challenges of modern society and therefore welcomes its reinforcement by non-formal educational practices.

The Assembly recommends that governments and appropriate authorities of member states recognise non-formal education as a de facto partner in the lifelong process and make it accessible for all (Coun Eur 2000).

Defining non-formal education

The original version of non-formal education emerged in 1968 (Coombs 1968).  It arose in the context of the widespread feeling that education was failing (e.g. Illich 1973), not just in developing countries but also in so-called Western (or Northern) societies as well (e.g. Bowles and Gintis 1976 among others). In the West,  the reform movement took different forms,  but in all planning and policy-making in relation to education in developing countries from 1968 until about 1986, non-formal education was seen as the panacea for all the ills of education in those societies (Freire 1972 and others). Most aid agencies included non-formal education in their portfolio of interventions, and the sums spent on it (much in Western countries especially USA for academics, research centres, consultants, publications and reports etc), were substantial.  By many non-formal education was seen as the ‘ideal’ form of education, far better in all respects than formal education.  By others however, it came to be seen as a sub-system of education, certainly not superior and by some as considerably inferior to formal schooling.  It could even be described as a temporary ‘necessary evil’ in situations of crisis until formal schooling could be restored (Pigozzi 1999).

The discourse of non-formal education divided the world of education into two,  one of the many famous dichotomies of the period. On the one hand is formal education:

Formal education as used here is, of course, the highly institutionalized, chronologically graded and hierarchically structured ‘education system’, spanning lower primary school and the upper reaches of the university (Coombs and Ahmed 1974:8).

But formal education was never closely defined – the use of the words ‘of course’ in this quotation shows that it was assumed that everybody could recognise the formal system of education.

On the other hand is non-formal education. Non-formal education was defined as every educational activity outside of formal:

Nonformal education … is any organized, systematic, educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children (Coombs and Ahmed 1974: 8).

But that too was very imprecise, and every country interpreted non-formal education in their own way.  For some, it meant every educational programme provided by the Ministry of Education apart from the schools and colleges (e.g. adult literacy classes).  For others, it meant educational programmes like schooling provided by non-governmental agencies (NGOs).  For yet others, it comprised all the educational and training activities of other Ministries (Women’s Affairs, Health, Labour and Employment, Youth and Sports and Culture etc etc).  Others again included within non-formal education the individualised learning programmes for different and specific learning groups – women’s discussion groups, for example, programmes which approximate closely to social work and specialist counselling,  whether provided by the state, NGOs, commercial agencies or other civil society bodies (religious organisations, trade unions, new social movements etc).  Some took it to mean every educational activity apart from schools and colleges, including radio and television programmes, the print media (newspapers and magazines etc).  Whenever one reads any statement about non-formal education at that time,  it is important to ask what definition of non-formal education is being used.

There was a third element – informal education.  But when one looks carefully at what Coombs and Ahmed say about informal education, there is a major problem which many writers at the time pointed out. They are really speaking about ‘informal learning’, not informal education’. Like everybody else, they define ‘education’ as planned and purposeful learning;  but they call ‘informal education’ all that learning that goes on outside of any planned learning situation – such as cultural events.

Informal education as used here is the lifelong process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills,  attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment – at home, at work, at play;  from the example and attitudes of family and friends; from travel,  reading newspapers and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television. Generally, informal education is unorganized and often unsystematic; yet it accounts for the great bulk of any person’s total lifetime learning – including that of even a highly ‘schooled’ person (Coombs and Ahmed 1974:8).

In other words,  it is very close to what some people define as ‘experiential learning’ (another term which carries wide divergences of meaning whenever it is used). Since it is unorganised, total lifetime learning,  it is clear that we are talking here about informal learning, not informal education.  This is a vital distinction to make, for it remains a fact that almost everyone who used the non-formal education discourse either omitted informal education altogether or they used the term in the sense of informal learning. Nobody at this time defined informal education except in terms of unstructured learning. The non-formal education discourse divides the world of education into two, formal and non-formal, all of which is set inside a wider context of informal learning.

Non-formal education in the field: from the 1980s to today

From 1986 the debate about non-formal education (one of the most extensive in education’s history) declined.  Today there is almost no discussion about the nature and role of non-formal education apart from a few articles which simply repeat the earlier debate (and they reveal clearly its inadequacies).  But during the 1980s and since then,  programmes labelled non-formal education have spread enormously throughout Third World countries. And (as with the Education for All debate which began prior to the Jomtien Conference in 1990 and still informs much educational policy and planning in developing countries), the term has been hijacked by children’s education. There was one strand of non-formal education from the start which included children’s alternative schooling (for out-of-school-youth),  but this normally concentrated on those younger persons  who were too old to go to school.  Now large programmes of schooling for school-aged children are run under the title of non-formal education:  BRAC in Bangladesh for example, runs over 34,000 Non-formal Primary Schools and other providers take that figure up to well over 50,000 such schools.  Similar programmes are run in many countries in Asia and Africa: Mali has a large non-formal education primary school programme (community schools).  In other countries such as the Philippines and Thailand,  national non-formal education programmes of accreditation and equivalency for adults have been created, offering a second-chance schooling to those who missed out or did not complete their primary schooling.

There are of course some exceptions to this trend of identifying non-formal education with alternative schools for children and adults.  The Association for the  Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) has set up a non-formal education working group which sees non-formal education in a wider sense than this (but also including non-formal schools for children).  They want to try to identify all parts of the non-formal education world (agricultural and health extension, for example, women’s programmes, income-generation training, environmental enhancement activities etc) and seek to integrate then into one non-formal education system, so that all such activities can be co-opted by government to help with the development of the country. Ethiopia is a prime example of this approach, with its national Directory of non-formal education.  Under structural adjustment,  with a smaller role for the state,  it is felt to be important that all agencies engaged in any form of education and training, especially civil society bodies such as trade unions and the churches and other religious bodies, should contribute towards the national development goals.

But on the whole non-formal education in this context (education in developing countries) now seems to refer to more informal ways of providing schooling to children (and some adults who need it). When asked what is ‘non-formal’ about such a national system of schooling leading to recognised certificates or equivalent qualifications, the answer comes back that they are more ‘flexible’.  They have less well qualified and trained teachers. They have a simplified form of curriculum. They often have different teaching-learning materials. They are frequently part-time and have more flexible dates of terms than the so-called formal schools.  In some cases,  they are viewed by educationalists and parents alike as a better form of schooling than the state schools; at other times, they are viewed as inferior, second-class.

Non-formal education and lifelong learning/education

Today, as we have seen, there is a new interest in the concept of non-formal education.  It comes from a very different arena – Western post-industrial societies, and from a very different source – the discourse of lifelong learning/education.  If one constructs education as a unitary activity which exists throughout life, then it becomes important to find new ways of breaking it into manageable units for handling the concept.  The former divisions into primary, secondary and higher are precisely what lifelong learning/education wants to get rid of.  Lifelong learning/education sees learning as taking place not simply in schools and colleges but throughout the whole of life, in many different locations and times.  In order to embrace the totality of all forms of education under the rubric of lifelong education, the discourse of lifelong learning speaks of  education “formal and non-formal” (sometimes with “informal” education or learning thrown in as well).  Since lifelong learning/education has itself been co-opted by the states to two main aims,  helping economic growth and promoting active citizenship, then the interest of the state and other agencies in non-formal education is with its contribution to these two ends (Aspin et al 2001;  Field and Leicester 2000).

But there is great uncertainty in this context as to what constitutes non-formal education,  what the term refers to, what is its meaning.  There are at least two main reasons for this.  First,  with the increasing diversity of formal education,  it is no longer clear what is and what is not included under the rubric of formal education.  Is open and distance learning part of formal or non-formal education?  Are private commercial educational programmes leading to officially recognised (often state-sponsored) qualifications part of the formal system or not?  What about e-learning? What about the many different forms of schooling which are emerging?  What about commercial ‘universities’ or work-based degree programmes?  Where does formal end and non-formal begin?

Secondly, the term non-formal education now covers a very wide continuum of educational programmes.  At one extreme lies the flexible schooling model – national or regional sub-systems of schools for children, youth and adults.  At the other extreme are the highly participatory educational programmes, hand-knitted education and training, tailor-made for each particular learning group, one-off teaching events to meet particular localised needs.  Most educational programmes will of course lie somewhere between these two points. But to include both kinds of provision under the heading of non-formal education tends to lead to confusion, for they are very different in spirit and in form.

Towards a new paradigm

This distinction is sometimes conceptualised in terms of contextualisation.  Some learning activities and teaching-learning materials are highly contextualised – chosen or created for this one learning group alone with considerable involvement of the learner group in the design of both curriculum and learning materials.  This is sometimes called self-directed or participatory education (Mocker et al 1982; Campbell and Burnaby 1999).  Adult education at one time was based on this principle – adults chose what they wanted to learn,  so that the curriculum was built by each learning group and around their particular interests. The outcomes were not pre-set but chosen by the participants,  and the evaluation was made by the participants in terms of their personal satisfaction with whether the programme met their individual needs at the time.  Other learning programmes are however less highly contextualised, with pre-set outcomes, a pre-set curriculum (however adapted it might be to the group), brought-in materials (which may again be adapted or supplemented by each participant group), and standardised forms of evaluation.

One way of understanding this distinction is through group dynamics and organisational theory.  Groups can be located on a continuum from very formal to very informal. A formal group is one which does not change as new members join it.  The army is a clear example of a formal group. An informal group is one which is highly dependent on the individual members, so that if someone joins or leaves,  the nature of the group and the activities it can undertake will also change. A drama group or a sports team are examples of this kind of group. If someone from a drama group leaves or a new person joins,  the whole team is affected and the kind of plays which the group can perform will also be different. Most groups of course lie somewhere in the middle and groups often move along the continuum in both directions.

If we could apply this to education,  such a concept would help us to define formal as well as non-formal education.  We could say that at one extreme of this continuum lies formal education – education which does not change when new participants join. A university chemistry course will not change according to the participants.  It may well change for other reasons but these are determined by the provider,  not in consultation with the student-learners. A school history curriculum is set by the educational agencies – it rarely varies very much according to the interests of the class being taught.  If you visit several such learning programmes,  you will be able to identify the common elements.  At the other extreme lies the educational programme or activity which is made up by the facilitator/teacher in association with the participants – a creative writing course or a reading circle, for example. The most extreme form of this kind of education and training is the single-learner provision to meet an individual need.  If you visit several such programmes, each will be doing different things with different aims and purposes, and it will be harder to identify the common elements.

Most educational programmes of course lie somewhere between these two extremes.  A women’s assertiveness group for example will have some common elements as well as highly individualised or participatory activities. Some forms of schooling find ways of including the particular interests of the different classes within the learning programme. Most programmes will be partly formal and partly informal. Some parts of the programme will be determined by the participants, others are given by the providing agency. And most programmes will move along this continuum in both directions from time to time – going from formal to informal and from informal to formal.  Both forms of education are important elements in the total learning experience.

But we need to identify what kind of areas of the programme are in fact devolved to the learning group and what parts are retained by the providing agency.  For example, in many forms of non-formal schooling, issues of the time and location of meetings,  the dates of ‘holidays’, and such logistical issues are often left to the local community to determine. But matters of the curriculum and teaching-learning materials, the length of the learning programme, the form and timing of the evaluation process are all matters reserved to the providing agency.  There is an assumption (often shared on both sides) that the participants are not capable of determining such matters.  This is what I would call flexible schooling – the standardised elements common to all such learning groups are clearly schooling but the participatory elements mean that it is schooling made flexible to the local group concerned.

We have then an educational continuum as follows:


continuum line
formal education
flexible schooling
participatory education


But unfortunately at the moment the term ‘non-formal education’ (that is everything that is not formal) is used to cover both flexible schooling and highly participatory education.  And that is the cause of the confusion which the term arouses in the minds of the listener.

I wonder whether a more useful set of descriptors might not be as follows:


continuum line


Non-formal then covers flexible schooling and informal education highly contextualised,  highly participatory educational activities.

And to make sure that we do not fall into the problems created by Coombs and Ahmed in their classic studies,  we could draw a distinction between education and learning and extend the continuum in this way:


continuum line
non-formal education
participatory education


Informal learning here being all that incidental learning,  unstructured, unpurposeful but the most extensive and most important part of all the learning that all of us do everyday of our lives, as I have shown elsewhere (Rogers 2003).

These are not of course categories.  The boundaries between each of these ‘sectors’ are very fuzzy indeed.  But the distinctions are very real.  Learning is the keystone;  it is the original matter out of which all education is created.  Somewhere along the learning continuum,  we come to purposeful and assisted learning (education in its widest sense).  When we control this and individualise it,  learn what we want for as long as we want and stop when we want,  we are engaging in informal education.  When we step into a pre-existing learning programme but mould it to our own circumstances,  we are engaged in non-formal education.  When we surrender our autonomy and join a programme and accept its externally imposed discipline,  we are immersed in formal education.

Would such a reconceptualization of formal and non-formal (and informal) education help to sort out the confusion which undoubtedly exists?


Aspin, D.,  Chapman, J., Hatton, M., and Sawano, Y. (eds.) (2001) International Handbook of Lifelong Learning London: Kluwer.

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America New York: Basic Books.

Campbell, P. and Burnaby, B. (eds.) (2001) Participatory Practices in Adult Education, London: Erlbaum.

Coombs, P. H. (1968) World Educational Crisis:  a systems approach, New York: Oxford University Press.

Coombs, P. H. and Ahmed, M. (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty: How non-formal education can help,  Baltimore:  John Hopkins University Press.

Coun Eur (1999)  Council of Europe Report Doc 8595 Non-Formal Education December  1999.

EU Memo (2000)  Memorandum on Lifelong Learning,  Commission Staff Working Paper.

Field, J. and Leicester, M. (2000) Lifelong Education, London:  Routledge.

Illich, I. (1973) De-Schooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mocker, D. W. and Spear, G. E. (1982) Lifelong Learning:  formal, nonformal, informal and self-directed, Columbus, Ohio: ERIC.

cover: Rogers - what is the difference?Pigozzi, M. J. (1999) Education in Emergencies and for Reconstruction: a developmental approach, New York: UNICEF.

Rogers, A. (2003) What is the difference?  a new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester:  NIACE.

Acknowledgements: Picture: Playing games @ one of Seva Mandir’s Non-Formal Education Centers. Picture by Anna Wolf and sourced from Flickr. Reproduced under a Creatvive Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mclxi/4878656235/

How to cite this article: Rogers, A. (2004) ‘Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/non_formal_paradigm.htm.

Alan Rogers is Honorary Professor at the School of Education and Professional Studies, University of East Anglia. Formerly the Executive Director of Education for Development (1985-98), he has worked in the field of adult education and literacy for many years, particularly in developing countries. He is the author of many books and articles in the field of literacy and adult education.

This short paper is based on a forthcoming book entitled Non-Formal Education: flexible schooling or participatory education? to be published in the summer of 2004 by Kluwer in association with the Centre for Comparative Education Research in the University of Hong Kong.  More detailed arguments and references for what is stated here can be found in that book.

© Alan Rogers 2004