Across the great divide: creating partnerships in education

Picture: Partnership sculpture, Reykjavik. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence and sourced from Flickr.

Across the great divide: creating partnerships in education. In this piece Thoby Miller evaluates the educational needs of young people; examines the professional insularities which exist between teachers and youth workers and consider how their respective inputs into the lives of young people might be developed into a partnership; and discusses the human tendency to identify by difference.

Contents: introduction · teachers and the formalisation of schooling · youth and community work: a profession in transition? · current problems in integrating education practice · changing the way we look at young people · enhancing the impact of formal education · sustainable development, eco-literacy and the politics of interdependence · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article

Teachers and youth workers both spend time working with young people, engaging in various kinds of focused activity. Although there is some collaboration between the two, for many teachers and youth workers, there still exists a perceived distance in terms of practice and often a mutually critical attitude towards each other’s style of engagement with young people.

The present discussion tries to look at how partnerships between teachers and youth workers might benefit young people. It considers some of the advantages that might be gained from a more integrated system of education; one in which a greater commitment to the principles of social education might enhance more formal approaches. It could be said that there exists a ‘Great Divide’ between formal and social education and there is a case for increasing co-ordination both at the level of theory and practice, expanding the breadth of the education that we offer young people. It is argued here that young people may benefit from both groups being willing to cross that ‘Great Divide.’ To pursue the analogy further, it may be that such a crossing of boundaries would involve a certain level of ‘hat-grabbing’, since the ride itself could be bumpy. However, it could be worth it, in terms of the benefits that might accrue for young people, by way of a closer fit to their actual needs. That, after all, is the central concern of both groups. In the past, too much energy has been expended on the negative practice of identifying differences between the two professional areas; areas which have more in common than is generally accepted. Perhaps it is time for those commonalities to be recognised and developed.

In the words of Michele Erina Doyle:

The split between formal and informal education is part of the problem. We would all do better if we concentrated on being in the same field – education – rather than trying to convince ourselves and others of our differences. Learning involves process and product not process or product. (2001:6)

The following discussion operates on three levels.

First it examines the relationship between teachers and youth workers and how this might be made more effective for young people. Whilst it is not usual to discuss students/pupils as service users, it may be useful to do so in order to explore some of the ways in which the service they receive from education professionals could be improved through better co-ordination. If we are serious about promoting the rights of young people, as well as their responsibilities, we might be led to consider whether they deserve more choice in the topics covered and consultation over other issues that significantly affect their learning. To do so would require a re-examination of the service being provided and a consideration of whether professional insularities might be compromising the overall outcomes.

Second, and more generally, an examination of the relationship between teachers and youth workers suggests a need to look at the balance between formal and social education in the lives of young people and to consider whether there is a case for a more holistic approach. We need to question the kind of preparation we are giving successive generations and whether it is appropriate to their needs, in terms of their personal and social education and as well as a preparation for future employment. The current policy initiative launched around citizenship is unlikely to succeed while it comprises just another segment of a formal curriculum; especially when it is part of an education agenda that denies students the right to express their views on key issues. Far better surely, to integrate more securely the principles of social education into formal practice, so that citizenship becomes an element within a developed focus on personal and social education and a springboard for a subsequent pattern of lifelong learning.

Most speculatively, we will consider our innate tendency as human beings to delineate and conceptualise ourselves as separate from others, despite the overwhelming evidence of our interdependence on each other and of our being a part of the natural environment. It is a feature of modernist discourse that we more readily identify points of difference rather than points of commonality. Maybe this is the root of professional rivalries.

As modern societies steadily take on more of a multi-cultural character, we may need to be mindful of how far we continue this differential delineation. Bryan Turner argues that modern society has outlived its need for the ‘thick’ solidarities and hot commitments which currently generate so much nationalist fervour and ethnic hatred.

 …modern democracy…presupposes large nation states, mass audiences ethnic pluralism, mass migrations and globalized systems of communication …(so) modern societies probably need cool cosmopolitans with ironic vocabularies.  (1999:99)

So, while recognising and valuing points of difference, we should not allow our sensibilities to overheat into a kind of insularity that it is negative and exclusive, particularly so for educators  who are directly responsible for much of what is learned by subsequent generations.

At a deeper level then, this present discussion is a consideration of the boundaries that divide us.  Borders and boundaries are inevitably points of interface. They are as much sites of potential conflict and incursions, as they are of agreements and resolutions. These points of resolution could be developed into a productive space where new syntheses can be generated. Teachers and social educators could create such a synthesis around the concepts of sustainable development and eco-literacy. The conclusion to the discussion will suggest that the integration of such concepts into education practice would constitute a legacy that could be crucial, not only to the current generation but to many generations to come; an introduction to a pattern of lifelong learning that transcends individual lives and makes a fundamental contribution to life in the future.

Teachers and the formalisation of schooling

The protagonists on this educational boundary are engaged in proposing apparent alternative visions of what young people need in the way of education.

Teachers are part a formal education system, focused primarily on a finite product. Eraut (2000) identifies five features of formal learning:

  • a prescribed learning framework
  • an organised learning event or package
  • the presence of a designated teacher or trainer
  • the award of a qualification or credit
  • the external specification of outcome

All of these are characteristics of a secondary school. The EC definition (2001) is very similar to Eraut’s model but interestingly includes the concept of ‘intentionality’ from the learner’s perspective as a feature of formal learning. For our present purpose, this is a significant addition. Do all students in secondary school follow their studies with intentionality? This is hardly the case, considering the number of disaffected students currently being identified and ‘managed’ so that they do not impact on the school’s position in the league tables.

Until recently, the main focus of secondary education has become the achievement of more passes, with better grades for as many students as possible.  The learning process which young people go through has not been valued in the same way as the product; a pursuit of the Holy Grail of summative assessment. The difficulties those students may have overcome in order to get good grades and the informal learning that may have taken place along the way, have only been given marginal consideration.

However, recent initiatives have begun to indicate a positive change, with increasing recognition of learning achieved outside the formal curriculum. The Department for Education and Skills policy document ‘Investment for Reform 2002’ outlines an intention to ‘transform secondary education…(making)…a decisive break with the old comprehensive system…(and)…radically reforming working practices in schools.’ This radical agenda includes a reform of teaching and learning, ensuring that the learning needs of individual students are met, as well as reforming partnerships beyond the classroom.

Working in partnership with teachers, social educators are well placed to drive forward such an initiative, collaborating on inclusive strategies. Meeting the individual needs of students could, for example, involve a re-evaluation of the importance of conversations with their students or again could include the development of emotional literacy. In this way, education policy might move beyond an instrumentalist concern for future employment into improving personal awareness and social skills.

The DfES Green Paper on ‘extending opportunities and raising standards for 14 – 19 year olds’ provides a promising basis for subsequent partnerships:

The best education is far more than the acquisition of knowledge, skills and qualifications. It also helps young people develop attitudes and values that provide the basis for a successful and rewarding life at home, at work in the community. Young people in this new century should have self-confidence, the ability to be self-critical, the drive to take on new challenges and take risks and the capacity to relate to others in positive, constructive ways. Today’s generation of young people need these skills (2002:1.20)

This statement virtually comprises a definition of the aims of social education and as such, seems to suggest a significant shift in education policy and one that is much overdue. Over the past twenty years or more, secondary schools and the practice of teachers who work in them, have been made increasingly accountable. Whilst this culture of accountability has achieved overall increases in the quantifiable elements of education, particularly improved exam results for the majority of students, it has done less to reduce the sense of exclusion experienced by less able and less well motivated students.

During the 1960s and 1970s, British education went through a process of liberalisation, which increasingly focused on the needs of the child. Along with the introduction of comprehensive secondary education and the abolition of physical punishment came developments in both the substance and delivery of the curriculum which made the experience of schooling more user-friendly. When Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph initiated a rejection of these changes in the 1970s, they presented their reforms as a more accurate way of assessing the effectiveness of current education practice. There were certainly instances of indifferent teaching and even downright incompetence and there was a case for teachers to become more accountable and to be encouraged to demonstrate good practice. However, the Thatcherite project was also driven by an innate mistrust of the power of professional bodies and the ways in which their power could be used to challenge central government.

In a climate which places such emphasis on the pursuit of excellence, it has been harder for schools to follow inclusive methods of education. Intensive support for students who are experiencing difficulties is much harder to justify in an environment focused primarily on exam success mainly because investing extra time on a student who is only likely to achieve a moderate grade, may not register in the league table. There is little external recognition for the educational value of helping less able students to gain a bare pass, even when that achievement comprises a considerable personal journey. Perhaps this kind of success is considered too difficult to reduce to statistical analysis.

Mike Tomlinson ex-head of Ofsted gave an indication that things might be about to change. Following his explicit criticism of the way Ofsted inspectors under Chris Woodhead carried out their inspections, he offers a strong hint of a move away from reductionist forms of analysis:

 …there were cases where staff in schools were not treated… as professionals…any inspector who thinks that behaving in an off-handed, curt and rude way is doing Ofsted’s business is wrong. We must make sure that we look at parts of education which are not susceptible to simplistic measurements…For some schools, their achievements and the pride they have in them, are very often more associated with the non-quantifiable aspects than with the quantifiable. (Guardian 28 August 2001)

If Tomlinson is right, then it is additional evidence to support the idea that teachers already value the inclusive characteristics of social education and perhaps only need a shift in education policy to build on these values and the partnerships that could be developed.

The new culture of accountability, which developed during eighteen years of Conservative government, brought with it a huge increase in the amount of paperwork which teachers were supposed to deal with, complicating tasks unnecessarily and generating a perception among the profession that current practice was perceived by central government to be unsatisfactory unless teachers had demonstrated otherwise. Hardly surprising then, that teachers responded by seeking early retirement in their droves and that recruitment to the profession declined to the point where schools were soon to face their worst ever shortage of teachers.

The Labour landslide of 1997 did little to improve the situation, endorsing the heavy-handed criticisms voiced by the head of Ofsted and its aggressive use of inspections. The new legislation carried on a process that went beyond an audit of education practice. It consolidated the Conservative’s move towards a more centralised control of education and carried out a massive re-structuring project, policed by a system of inspection which has questioned the integrity of teachers and demoralised the profession.  It is hard then, not to see teaching as a beleaguered profession, compromised and ground down by increasing formalisation, inadequately resourced and viewed by successive governments with suspicion and a lack of respect for their professional integrity.

However, developing partnerships with social educators could point the way towards a more holistic and negotiable curriculum that engages more precisely with the needs of all young people. Issues like anti-social behaviour, drug use and bullying could be dealt with as part of an active critical evaluation of education that involved students as well as teachers. If we begin to look at students more as service-users, we would be more likely to accept the legitimacy of their responses to the service they are being offered. At present, their opinions are seldom sought and still less often responded to.

If such partnerships were successful in reducing the problems caused by those issues identified above and others, not only would the curriculum be enhanced to give a greater breadth of education but the delivery of formal elements would more effective.

Youth and community work: a profession in transition?

Compared to the number of full-time teachers currently employed, the numbers of full-time youth and community workers is small, although these numbers are supplemented by a large number of part-time workers. Some youth & community practitioners feel it is important to defend the ‘unique’ character of their practice but this can create what could be seen as artificial divisions with others who are also involved in young people’s education.

While teachers and pupils are brought together as part of legal requirement for young people to take part in a period of compulsory education, social or informal education carried out by youth and community workers is normally based on a voluntary relationship. From the young person’s point of view, this is intended to help them to develop and express themselves in a less prescribed way.

However, the voluntary nature of this relationship means that social educators’ access to young people is limited. Youth provision is often restricted in its ability to engage with young people. Its purpose is often misunderstood and the value of its impact undervalued by young people as well as adults. The result of this is that relatively few young people experience its benefits. It needs to extend beyond its current tendencies towards involvement with ‘marginalised youth’ into mainstream society.

Over the past twenty years, there has been trend towards emphasising the problematic nature of young people, since funding for youth projects has been readily available to finance a range of solutions to these problems. Jeffs and Smith (1989) refer to youth workers exhibiting a ‘huckster’s desire for easy funding’ resulting in a proliferation of activities which in turn can tend to characterise young people by the problems they experience. The needs of those young people who do not present the school with any particular problems can get overlooked. It is indicative of the demand for social education that when a youth worker initiates a ‘drop-in ‘provision within a school, the take-up in terms of numbers of students is often so enthusiastic as to be almost unmanageable.

As service-users, these students are articulating a felt need. As educators, we have a duty to respond to it.

First though, we need to be more explicit about the terms we are using to describe this non-formal area of practice. Youth and community professionals often use the term ‘informal education’ to describe their style of practice. I have used the term ‘social education’ as a more explicit and positive term, in line with European models of social pedagogy, although I also use ‘informal’ to contrast more precisely with formal settings.

This model of social education is one that aims to enable individuals within communities to regain a level of control over their learning and is based on the fundamental principles of democracy, equality and dialogue. Social education practice in Scandinavia provides a useful example of this, emphasising as it does, the importance of an equal and on-going dialogue between students and educators, with learning seen as an active process, enabling students to gain a greater understanding of themselves and others.

This process is activated by ensuring that the substantive content of the learning is always seen by the learner as relevant to their individual aspirations; that the student is encouraged to negotiate with the educator in a critical examination of suitability, both of the subject being taught and of the way in which learning is taking place.

Perhaps the most important element in this and its sharpest point of contrast with formal education, is the active engagement of the learner in the process of learning. We might associate the absence of such an involvement on the part of the learner with a disaffected attitude towards the whole idea of education and one from which that person never recovers, negating the possibility of their establishing a pattern of lifelong learning.

The open access policy that underpins the Youth and Community Education degree at NEWI, encourages applications from many people whose experiences of school range from the uninspiring through to the completely intolerable. In most cases, they speak of being obliged to study subjects which seemed to have no meaning for them and being taught in ways that required their passive acceptance, whether learning was achieved or not. Together, these two factors comprise a potent means of generating disaffection with the whole idea of education.

Although the experience of formal education may not be a positive one for all school students, the mode of practice is generally understood.  In contrast, fewer people understand the meaning of social education and even amongst professionals working in the field, there is considerable dispute over terminology and contexts.

Colley, Hodgkinson and Malcolm (2002) have provided a comprehensive summary of the different discourses which exist in areas outside formal education and argue that the boundaries between different kinds of learning can only be understood within particular contexts. They experience difficulty with the large number of different classifications of the kinds of education practice carried on outside formal settings. This is complicated by a tendency in many texts to imply that one particular form is superior either morally or in its effectiveness as a means of learning. They use data from two on-going research projects; one looking at schoolteachers’ work based learning and another examining learning cultures in further education:

This revealed that, in what would almost always be assumed to be formal educational settings (FE courses), informal learning was very important, whilst for schoolteachers’ workplace learning, normally regarded as informal, formal elements were present. In both cases, it was the blending of formal and informal that was significant, not their separation. (my emphases)  (Colley et al  2002:2)

This supports my contention that formal and social educators need to co-ordinate their activities both within formal settings and elsewhere. If the ‘blending’ that Colley et al  refer to is a feature of the kind of learning that actually occurs in formal settings, there needs to be a more direct recognition of the importance of social education within that learning process.

Furthermore, such a recognition might encourage a greater public awareness of the importance of social education. David Bell, the director of OfSTED has called for parents to prepare their children better for school. He appears to be talking about social education, a lack of which could cause the kind of anti-social behaviour that he is so concerned about. Perhaps some parents do not understand how best to manage their children. It is unlikely that they will have been helped to learn such skills when they were in school themselves. It may be that an input of good social education practice into schools would enable generations of parents to see how they could include elements of it in day-to-day interactions with their children.

In a society characterised by rapid change such an understanding becomes even more necessary. A world that Jock Young sees as defined by its uncertainty:

…where…market forces which transformed the spheres of production and consumption relentlessly challenged our notions of material certainty and uncontested values, replacing them with a world of risk and uncertainty, of individual choice and pluralism…’ (1999:1)

If the principles of social education were integrated more securely into the formal education system, there is little doubt that it would enhance the profile of a youth and community profession that still finds itself struggling against public perceptions which trivialise the effects it has on the lives of the young people.

While the introduction of the Connexions programme has raised the profile of youth and community workers and the demand for their services, it has also tended to focus their activities on young people who are identified as having problems. While this is clearly a priority, social education must be made more generally available. It is simply too good not to share with all young people. Social educators working in partnership with schools and colleges have an exciting opportunity to do this.

Current problems in integrating education practice

Teachers’ styles of practice are constrained by externally imposed curricula and compulsory attendance. In contrast, the kind of social education carried out by youth and community workers implies a more flexible, open-ended basis. Hardly surprising then, that where these two forms of education coincide, there are tensions over competing strategies, played out within the nature of the respective interventions that each make into the lives of young people.

Inevitably, there will be some schools in which partnerships may be hard to develop, most often because of resistance from the staff and consequently partnership initiatives would need to be encouraged by shifts in both education and youth policy.

However in recent years, the two professional areas have become much more closely associated within both schools and colleges. Mark Smith details some of the initiatives that are taking place, involving ‘…a growing army of personnel including classroom assistants, informal educators, youth workers, learning mentors and personal advisors…’. Activities have included, for example:

  • Working with students to set up study clubs and circles…and homework clubs.
  • Encouraging and supporting the development of groups around enthusiasms and interests such as music and sound systems, environmental issues and cross-community reconciliation.
  • Developing alternative educational provision for young people experiencing difficulties in mainline classrooms.
  • Working with individuals around personal difficulties they are experiencing with their lives. This could be to do with family relationships and friendships, schooling, health or around thinking about their future.
  • Being around in hallways, canteens and recreation areas to help build an environment that is safe and convivial.
  • Enhancing the quality of relationships and of college and school life generally through activities like residentials and ‘fun days’.
  • Opening up avenues for young people to engage with different political systems via school councils, student unions and youth forums.
  • Assisting with the development of inclusive education. This may be through working with young people to accept others, and to make sense of the school environment.

This present discussion explores the idea that the overall quality of the education delivered to young people would be improved by both formal and informal educators venturing ‘across the Great Divide’ which still separates the two areas of practice.

A more holistic experience of education should be available to all young people regardless of their academic ability. It is as unhelpful to overlook the personal and social needs of ‘high achievers as it is those who experience more difficulties succeeding in formal contexts, even though informal support is most urgently needed for those young people who have become disengaged from or disheartened by their experiences of formal education.

Changing the way we look at young people

Conceptions of young people have changed utterly over the past 150 years. Particularly in developed countries, young people now have a greater level of social legitimacy than ever before but perhaps we need still to consider the extent to which formal education practice retains a residual unwillingness to recognise the internal logic and rationality of the behaviour of young people.

Here are two examples, one relating to a minority of students and one that applies to all young people. The purpose here is to illustrate the way that young people are not credited with the rationality of the choices they make, if those choices are in conflict with current educational discourse.

Truancy as a rational choice?

Over the last ten years or more, there has been a pronounced change in the conceptualisation of behavioural characteristics presented by young people in school. These include truancy and general disaffection and are seen as non-productive, dysfunctional and illegitimate by the DfEE and many teachers. In the past, a large number of studies have attempted to account for such conduct by using a pathological model, ascribing and reducing explanations to the personal inadequacies of the individual. However this sort of model has been shown by subsequent research to be deficient.

Stoll and O’Keefe (1989/1993) have demonstrated that much truancy is based on a series of rational decisions taken by the young person. For example, students are most likely to absent themselves from classes that are seen by them as having the least relevance. Furthermore, a SCRE study (1996) has closely linked truancy to levels of educational achievement, suggesting that students are most likely not to attend when they recognise their inability to do well in that setting, predicting quite rightly, as far as they are concerned, that little learning will be achieved.

We would do well to consider the rationality of these decisions. Formal educators and those directing education policy have started to examine the ‘intentionality’ of those who truant or engage in disruptive behaviour, considering that this may be the result of structural problems within the school, a failure to accommodate the learning needs of such students. Where such an accommodation is made, the results are a significant reduction in truancy and an improvement in classroom behaviour. In schools where an inclusive kind of alternative curriculum has already been established, we can begin to see the kind of incremental benefits that more inclusive forms of education might engender.

A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research has shown that different alternative curriculum programmes can be located at points along a continuum ranging from exclusion to inclusion of the pupil. At the exclusion end, the problem is located with the pupil whose behaviour is seen as unacceptable so that their needs have to met by alternative provision outside the school, which effectively distances itself from the problem.

At the other end of the continuum, schools accept that there is a need to revise its provision in order to meet pupil’s different learning needs and in doing so tries to include them in a more appropriate form of education. Clearly such schools are engaged in promoting a critical reflection of educational practice and are operating as learning organisations, transforming themselves and showing an openness to new insights.  ( : 3)

Political protest as a rational decision?

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) asserts the right of young people to have a voice on issues that affect them. It is significant that the United States, a country that makes a virtue and a military reality of its obsession with individual freedoms, refused to ratify this article.

However, young people have been slow to take advantage of this endorsement of their rights. Furlong and Cartmel refer to ‘…low levels of political participation among youth have been cause for concern in a number of industrialised countries.’   (1997:96) It is deeply ironic that when in April 2003, students were motivated to protest against what they saw as an unjust war, their actions were not seen as legitimate and they were met with the kind of condescension which might have made them doubt whether the calls for their political involvement were genuine. David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers responded in a way that would be laughable, were it not so dismissive of the rights both of young people and of teachers.

Heads should ban all protests during school. They should take disciplinary action against any members of staff who encourage the demonstrations and against any pupils who are absent when they should be in school… The right way to go about it is to give pupils the opportunity in school to debate the issues…They might benefit more from learning about the causes of war than by demonstrating against it. (Reported in BBC News March 21, 2003)

Few comments could have illustrated any better the problematic discourse that still exists within parts of formal education and which is, at least in part, responsible for generating a negative reaction to schooling from both students and teachers! Whilst schools must maintain a duty of care towards their students and events outside school need parents’ permission, there remains an issue over how young peoples’ opinions can be heard.

Firstly, there is a declaration that designated study-time remain inaccessible to the wishes of students, regardless of the crucial nature of the issue. Secondly, there is a threat both to students and teachers which attempts to trivialise their ethical concerns. Thirdly, there is a derisory attempt to offer an alternative to political action in the way of a debate and even this is degraded by the suggestion that young people need to learn more about the causes of war before they take to the streets. Again, as has been suggested in the Hutton inquiry, those young people had assessed the situation only too accurately and had come to the rational conclusion that there was no legitimate case for military action.

The comments of a student who was suspended because of taking part in a protest, highlights the level of frustration felt by those who were disempowered by the experience.

The majority of our school does not have democratic rights. They have no means to express themselves, and they don’t have a voice in real terms. The only way we can, as minors, express ourselves is through demonstration.’ (Sachin Sharma reported on BBC News March 5, 2003 and cited in )

We show a lack of respect for young people by ignoring such views. If we are as genuinely concerned about issues of citizenship as the government claims to be, we need to be prepared to listen with care and respond in a positive way. It can only be hoped that politicians who have long bemoaned young people’s lack of political engagement have the good grace to squirm with embarrassment at the words of Neela Dolezalova, an 18 year old student who had walked out school to join the a demonstration.

Everyone was determined to find a channel for the outrage they felt about the war. I realised that although this student peace movement is young and inexperienced, it is passionate, diverse and creative. Suddenly the politicisation of youth looks unattractive to those who have called us apathetic for too long. (Guardian 22.03.03)

The message seems to be that becoming a responsible citizen means accepting that your democratic rights are going to be compromised. Can active citizenship really be part of an educational discourse based on passive uncritical acceptance?

Enhancing the impact of formal education

As well as changes in national education policy, there is scope for re-evaluating the kind of relationships that exist between teachers and students and whether developmental work could make these more productive. Teachers could be encouraged to engage in more critical self-reflective practice on this topic, highlighting good practice in dealing with problematic behaviour and responding to the perceptions of students.

Some consideration might, for example, be given to the role which some teachers play in generating flashpoints. In 2002, I conducted a series of informal interviews with youth workers operating in schools. Several of them mentioned the difficulty they found in persuading the teaching staff that badly managed interactions with students were sometimes creating and certainly exacerbating behavioural problems. Many of the explosive incidents that resulted in students being suspended or excluded took place in the classes of particular teachers. In discussions with youth workers, students repeatedly identified the same teachers, maybe four or five in each school. Many students talked of being provoked, of being goaded into an outburst.

Undoubtedly, youth workers are placed in a delicate position, trying to offer support to young people who feel aggrieved, perhaps with some justification but being unable to challenge the nature of their relationship with teachers. There may be some scope for partnership working on topics like this. For example, workshops including both teachers and youth workers would provide a forum for an exchange of good practice and encourage both to develop a clearer understanding of each others’ mode of practice and the problems they face.

However, there is also scope for organisational learning to take place to help deal with unresolved classroom incidents like those identified above: ‘… not only an organisation in which learning opportunities for staff are encouraged and promoted, but one in which the whole organisation is open to new ideas, to learning from experience’ (Coulshed and Mullender 2001:185)

First though, work needs to be done on changing the blame culture generated in part by the aggressive use of inspections. Teachers are more likely to fear failure rather than to see it as a learning opportunity; to care more about deflecting criticism than improving their practice.  In Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987) Schön has referred to professional practice often comprising a high ground overlooking a swamp: ‘On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solutions through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution.’ (1987:3)

Disruptive students are clearly a messy confusing problem and one that cannot be resolved without teachers being open to the opportunity to reflect on their practice and consider how improvements could be made. More suspensions, exclusions and referral units are technical solutions which often merely deflect the problem elsewhere.

One solution to these problems involves joint training for teachers and youth workers as indicated in the following exhibit.


Currently staff training for both teachers and youth workers is carried out separately.However, we might imagine scenarios where, based on an understanding of mutual interests in the same client group, teachers and youth workers might come together in workshop situations.These would enable each group to outline the difficulties they face and move on to developing joint strategies to confront those problems.


Discussion topics might include:

  • The nature of the relationship between adults and young people in educational settings, considering the importance of mutual respect and potential areas of negotiation.

  • The use of forum theatre or role-play to deconstruct and analyse how conflict develops between adults and young people and how these might be resolved

  • Including young people as well as teachers and youth workers in a more general project to develop schools as learning organisations to address learning needs more directly


As indicated above, education policy-makers now seem to be reflecting on the way in which the curriculum could be revised to be less exclusive. This is much overdue in a situation where the implementation of the National Curriculum and Statutory Attainment Targets has forced teachers away from the process of education, towards more quantifiable goals. Blair and New Labour have invoked the mantra of the pursuit of excellence, with the inevitable corollary of a reduced emphasis being placed on the processual journey that less able students make to reach more moderate outcomes. Until recently, teachers have not been encouraged to place value on such ‘soft’ targets; they have seldom been praised for their ability to help students with less ability or poor motivation to experience the kind of positive unconditional regard offered them by social educators. Currently schools can be seen, while enhancing examination results for academically able, to be excluding the needs of those who do not fit into the demands of a formal educational curriculum. In this respect, the student who asks ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘Why are we doing it in this way?’ could be seen as asking a legitimate question that merits a considered response, rather than, as might be the case, being dismissed as impertinent and disruptive.

Young people might be inclined to ask why their learning does not include issues which will affect their futures far more than it will those who are responsible for delivering their education. Already young people have voiced their disapproval of military action in Iraq. They might also ask why they are not engaging in a critical examination of environmental issues, based on the evidence that older generations had left them with a dubious legacy of ecological problems.

Sustainable development, eco-literacy and the politics of interdependence

In the introduction, effective partnerships were seen as capable of generating a fertile space where new perspectives could take root. Globalisation and particularly the freeing up of global markets, presents a challenge to formal and informal educators alike. How is it possible to help young people prepare for a life defined by patterns of consumption, in a world that pays scant regard to its resources and their equitable distribution?

Neither group has a well-developed response to these questions but they are likely to become some of the most pressing concerns within the next half century. This is an area where partnerships start to define a potential strategy for survival based on mutual interdependence.

Fritjof Capra has spoken of the need for a ‘Copernican shift’ in our understanding of the world and a more general realisation that the human race cannot go on treating the environment as if it were both separate from it and superior to it. He encourages us to adopt a sense of ‘deep ecology’ as opposed to the current shallow environmentalism that Andrew Dobson has described as: ‘a managerial approach to environmental problems… without fundamental changes in the present values or patterns of production and consumption’ (1995:1). Capra proposes deep ecology as a holistic view of the world, seeing it as an integrated whole, where objects are viewed more as networks of relationships. The key concept is interdependence, a challenge to the aggressive individualism of the late twentieth century, characterising formal education largely as a series of personal achievements.

The paradigm of deep ecology alongside a greater emphasis on young people becoming emotionally literate focuses on the importance of co-operation. This could become the basis for partnership work between teachers and social educators, integrating all aspects of the current formal curriculum with issue-based work on gender, equality and human rights.

Such a partnership would provide a model which emphasises the crucial nature of social action, developing in young people a realisation that their learning directly informs their behaviour. If young people become more acutely aware that their actions can make a difference to the world they live in, their perspectives on learning will be transformed.


The educational partnerships proposed in this discussion are based on the need for more considered reflective practice within the education of young people. Policies need to be underpinned by an ongoing re-evaluation of its effectiveness in meeting the needs of successive generations of young people. What is argued here is that more holistic forms of education are required so that improvements in personal and social awareness can enhance more formal elements of the curriculum.

Youth workers operating in schools are in a good position to drive forward such an initiative, yet to succeed it requires the active involvement of teachers. All those engaged in the partnerships need to be committed to a reflective consideration of practice and an openness to the potential learning that engagements with young people provide.

Further reading and bibliography

Capra, F. (1997) The Web of Life, London: Flamingo.

Capra, F. (2002) Hidden Connections, New York: Doubleday

Colley, H., Hodgkinson, P. & Malcolm, J. (2004) Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain,

Coulshed, V & Mullender, A (2001) Management in Social Work, Basingstoke:Palgrave

Dobson, A. Green Political Thought, London: Routledge.

DfES (2002) Green Paper on extending opportunities and raising standards for 14 to 19 year olds, London: Department for Education and Skills.

DfES (2002) Investment for Reform, London: Department for Education and Skills.

Doyle, M. (2001) ‘Education’ in Richardson L. D. and Wolfe, M. (eds)  Principles & Practice of Informal Education, London : Routledge.

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence, Falmer Press : London

Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (1997) Young people and Social Change, Open University: Buckingham.

Jeffs, T & Smith, M (1999) Informal Education, Education Now ; Nottingham

SCRE Study (1996)

Schön, D.A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.

Stoll, P. and O’Keeffe, D. (1993) Officially Present, ILEA Education Unit : Warlingham

Turner, B. (1999) Resisting McDonaldisation, London: Sage.

Young, J. (1999) The Exclusive Society, London: Sage.

Further reading

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning – Experience as a source of Learning and Development, Prentice Hall

Lorenz, W . (1999) The role of training in preparing socio-educational care workers to meet the challenges of social change, Address to 6th FESET European Congress

Miller, T. (2002) Riding the Cusp/Courir deux lièvres à la fois,  Issue No.2 European Journal of Social Education

O’Hagen, B.  (ed) (1991) The Charnwood Papers, Ticknall : Education Now

Richardson, L. and Wolfe, M. (eds.) (2001) Principles & Practice of Informal Education, London: Routledge/Falmer.

Smart, B. (Ed) (1999) Resisting McDonaldisation. London: Sage


Acknowledgement: Picture: Partnership sculpture, Reykjavik by Rob Young. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence and sourced from Flickr.

How to cite this article: Miller, Thoby (2005) ‘Across the great divide: creating partnerships in education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

This piece was first published in  Ros Carnwell & Julian Buchanan (eds.) (2005) Effective Practice in Health and Social Care : a partnership approach, Buckingham: Open University Press. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the publisher.

Thoby Miller teachers youth and community studies at NEWI, Wrexham.

© Thoby Miller 2005