Developing youth work: Chapter 5 – Beyond social education

developing youth work

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This chapter (5) from Developing Youth Work (1988) explores the notion of social education – and how it came into usage in the British youth work tradition. Mark Smith argues that there are particular problems around the personalist orientation that it involves, and the extent to which the idea of selfhood involved is ethnocentric. He also suggests that it has so misused that it needs to be abandoned.

contents: introduction · a history of social education · growing up · the problems of a personalist orientation · ethnocentrism · rescue, reform or abandonment? · further reading and references

Looking back at this chapter now, the major question to ask is does the argument still hold? The central issue remains for me the individualistic orientation of many of the discussions of social education – and the extent to which it is possible to infuse these with a social understanding of selfhood. In many respects, things have got worse. The interest in personal, social and health education (PSHE) in schools and youth work agencies has arguably become more strongly individualistic. There has been a further loss of faith in, and understanding of, social groupwork. What is more, there is also a continuing lack of attention to the essential character of social education and to the notion of association (as evidenced in the British government’s vision for youth work – Transforming Youth Work). In these respects we could conclude that the central argument in the chapter holds. However, since writing this chapter in 1987/8 I have recognized that are two significant additions need to be made to history section.

First, there was an earlier tradition in English writing that looked to looked to social education. James Hole, in his survey of working class education looks to various social forms (such as newspapers, belonging to groups) that socially educate. Hole, it should be recognized, was a committed associationalist, and an important figure in the development of adult education.

Second, I underplayed the impact of the developing notion of social pedagogy in Germany. Perhaps the most significant contribution came via the impact of Hebart et al. on John Dewey and other American writers – and we can see some important themes (especially around the notion of community) being reworked in the North American social education tradition and in the work of Dewey.

Mark K. Smith. 2001

links: association · social pedagogy · transforming youth work · John Dewey · James Hole on social education · Jane Addams on socialized education

[page 88] In the mid-1980s there was talk of the ‘emerging crisis of purpose in social education’ (Leigh and Smart, 1985). Whether or not this crisis of purpose only then appeared is debatable. What is certain is that social education has been used as an expression of purpose and method by many within youth work, yet it is rarely subjected to serious enquiry. While some attempts have been made to breathe life into the concept (NIYWA, 1987), social education is not visible in a sustained and consistent body of practice. At the same time, the term has been increasingly used within schooling. Many of the confusions and tensions concerning its usage within youth work are also present there.

Youth workers and officers are subject to a range of pressures from both outside and within the occupation, concerning their professional identity. Social education has been a key means of explaining their job both to themselves and to others. At first glance the notion does appear to describe the occupation — the use of social activities for educational ends. The ‘social’ is usually invested with a double meaning, one relating to method and the other to content. In the case of the latter, social education is generally used to refer to the personal development of the individual, particularly in relation to others. Hence the Albemarle Report was able to say:

To encourage young people to come together into groups of their own choosing is the fundamental task of the Service. Their social needs must be met before their needs for training and formal instruction. . . . It means too, that it is the task of the Service to offer, in its own different environment, social education of the kind that has long been valued in the corporate [page 89] life of those pursuing formal education in schools, technical colleges and universities. (HMSO, 1960: 52)

Not surprisingly, social education has been used to describe a wide variety of activities — some educational, many not. It has become little more than a rhetorical device. ‘The variety of meanings attached to this term often succeed only in hindering its usefulness as a helpful concept’ (ILEA, 1986: 3). Further, as a partial result of its role in ‘explaining’ the work, social education has often been treated as if it was youth work’s ‘property’, its own invention, yet its roots lay somewhere quite different.

A history of social education

Social education entered the vocabulary of US educationalists by the late 1890s and there was even a quarterly journal devoted to its study. By 1908 Scott was advocating it as a contribution towards a ‘more comprehensive and deeper social synthesis organically united with a freer and more thorough-going individual development’ (Scott, 1908: v). ‘The individual must learn that he is to be held responsible for his acts. . . . He must feel that either singly or in combination with others he is the cause of what happens’ (1908: 281). Scott placed an emphasis on education for democratic citizenship. Crucially, he recognized the pedagogic implications and advocated a self-organized approach to group work. This portrayed the school as a social organism that could be used for developing cooperative attitudes and competencies. ‘Liberty can only be realized by conduct, and its expression is always self-direction, selforganization, and self-control’ (1908: 13).

In contrast, within British youth work, Baker makes early and explicit use of the concept in a rather pedestrian way: ‘the Social Agencies not only interest and amuse a boy, but under good leadership, they smooth his rough edges and impart to him a polish’ (1919: 130). This ‘polish’ was apparently to include being taught:

to take off his hat upon entering the Department; to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and to be civil; not to be impertinent; to mind his own business and refrain from personal comment. Opportunities will be found for showing him that chivalrous respect is due to womanhood. Cleanliness of person and apparel, and in a hundred other details can be encouraged in an unobtrusive way. (Baker, 1919: 130)

Booton (1985) suggests that the concept was also in use within the [page 90] Charity Organizations Society at this time. However, the concern appears to go beyond the question of manners, having:

more of a literal meaning indicating the individual’s education (ie knowledge, understanding) about society and social processes. As such it did not denote a particular curriculum, much less a specific practice, and was probably directed as part of the typical reformist language mainly towards middle class adults. (Booton, 1985: 10)

It was a concern which was present in the interest in citizenship by educationalists in the 1930s and in social studies in the late 1940s (M. Smith, 1987: 10-12). Significantly, the advocacy of a broadly-based social studies was linked to an emphasis upon active learning and a challenge to the traditional organization of the secondary school curriculum. Somewhat idealistically, Hemming saw one of the aims as the fostering of:

the development of spontaneity, self reliance, flexibility of mind, clear thinking, tolerance, initiative, articulateness, adventurousness of outlook, courage in the face of new problems, enjoyment of created activity, sound standards of action and appreciation, world-mindedness, a sense of purpose and philosophy of life. (Hemming, 1949: 8)

In these early representations we can see many of the strands present in current usage. However, within youth work it is the Albemarle Report which is usually taken as the landmark in the usage of the term. It asserted that the Youth Service provided for ‘continued social and informal education of young people in terms most likely to bring them to maturity, that of responsible personal choice’ (HMSO, 1960: 103). Certainly by the mid-1960s there began to be a more widespread use of the phrase. For instance, Evans (1965) includes a chapter entitled ‘Social Education’ which discusses briefly youth work’s contribution to the social development of young people. Significantly, nowhere in this chapter does Evans mention social education or interpret it. This was left to Davies and Gibson (1967), who defined the term around the idea of maturity, and developed an analysis of the practice and institutions that must accompany it. The prime concern was ‘with any young person’s meetings with others, with his capacity in these meetings to accept others and be accepted by them, and the ideas, thoughts and opinions, the motives and the emotions inherent in such meetings and interests’ (Davies and Gibson, 1967: 12). Its product was:

any individual’s increased consciousness of himself — of his [page 91] values, aptitudes and untapped resources and of the relevance of these to others. It enhances the individual’s understanding of how to form mutually satisfying relationships, and so involves a search for the adult for ways of helping a young person to discover how to contribute to as well as take from his associations with others. (Davies and Gibson, 1967: 12)

This demands young people’s involvement in relevant situations and interrelationships — the process cannot be detached as an exclusively intellectual exercise. Davies and Gibson emphasized social education as a particular type of process directed at a specific task — the social development of adolescents. Here education (and learning) were seen as gerund — words which can be used as a noun or a verb. Learning can, therefore, be viewed as either an internal change in consciousness or as the process of acquiring knowledge, feelings and skills. In this context, then, social education is a particular type of learning process and/or an attempt to achieve an internal change of consciousness such as the achievement of maturity (in what ever way that is defined). The importance of this was that it conceptualized and symbolized a shift from an emphasis in youth work debates from personal adjustment to person-centredness. For those committed to personal adjustment, ‘society’s’ rules and norms would be taken as given and young people adjusted to this view of maturity. In contrast, the new social education focused rather more on the process of learning and, hence, upon the relationship of the worker/teacher to the person.

There is a further possible characteristic hinted at in all this, that of setting or context. Social education may, thus, be defined by the context or setting in which a process or task is situated. It is ‘in society’. A crude expression of this view is the way in which the school is sometimes set against the ‘community’ as a site for learning. Thus, social education might occur when young people are given opportunities to learn within the community such as in programmes of voluntary or community involvement. While this is a rather narrow view, the emphasis upon community involvement, as against personal development or the more embracing concern with the relationship of the self, others and society (Elliot and Pring, 1975: 9), does reveal a further, important strand of practice. For example, the Schools Council Social Education Project saw as its final goal the promotion in young people of an active interest in the affairs of their community (Rennie et a!., 1974: 130). This was to be achieved by providing ‘an enabling process through which children will achieve a sense of identification with their community, become sensitive to its [page 92] shortcomings and develop methods of participation in those activities needed for the solution of social problems’ (Rennie et a!., 1974: 130). Earlier, in a similar vein, the Fairbairn-Milson Report asserted that social education was the primary goal of youth work:

We are not so much concerned today as in the past with basic education, or with economic needs, or with the communication of an agreed value system; but we are concerned to help young people to create their place in a changing society and it is their critical involvement in their community which is the goal. (DES 1969: 55)

Our commitment is to a society in which every member can be publicly active. . . . We seek the ‘active society’ in which all are encouraged and enabled to find the public expression of their values, avoiding the extremes of indifference and alienation. . . all individuals should grow towards maturity. (DES, 1969: 59—60)

In the context of the current emphasis upon vocationalism and leisure, these social democratic sentiments evoke nostalgia, much like bowling alleys, Biba clothes and Ford Anglias. Not surprisingly, they were not translated into a widespread body of practice.

During the, late 1970s and the 1980s, there was a renewal of interest in social education within the more formalized arenas of education and training but not within youth work. In part, attention to social education has been occasioned by the arrival of YOP and YTS and the organization of curriculum elements around the notion of ‘social and life skills’ (Further Education Unit, 1980; Hopson and Scally, 1981). Further, the advocacy of political education and of the importance of improving young people’s political literacy once again drew attention to aspects of a possible social education curriculum (Crick and Porter, 1978). The introduction of programmes such as Active Tutorial Work (Baldwin and Wells, 1979-81) and Group Tutoring (Button, 1981, 1982) into schools may well have increased interest alongside more academic investigation (David, 1983; Pring, 1984; Brown et a!., 1986). Recent discussion has addressed both process and content. In her survey of the area Lee suggests that social education can be used to cover:

all those teaching or informal activities which are planned by curriculum developers, teachers or other professionals to enhance the development of one or more of the following:

knowledge, understanding, attitudes, sensitivities, competence, in relation to: [page 93]

  • the self and others, and/or

  • social institutions, structures and organizations and/or

  • social issues. (Lee, 1980: 5)

Such a definition allows social education to subsume what has been described as ‘social and life skills’. It has the merit of focusing attention upon the different ways in which the curriculum is constructed and of recognizing that some teachers and workers may work in all three areas, while others may concentrate on one or two. On the other hand, it restricts usage to professionalized interventions as against the conscious attempts by,~ say, parents or peers, to further the social and personal development of others.

A number of contributions have also emphasized the importance of pedagogy (BYV Social Education Project, 1981; Scottish Community Education Centre, 1982). As Brown et al. comment, ‘it may be that the best practice in social education is not expressed through a curriculum at all but through the quality of the learning situations created throughout the curriculum as a whole and the relationships which pervade the entire school’ (1986: 11). Such an interest in process has, to some extent, characterized the few written discussions of social education in youth work that have appeared since the 1970s (M. Smith, 1980, 1982; Burley, 1982; Booton, 1985). Here the concern has been to emphasize cooperative and collective means of working, the focus upon the person, the importance and means of recognizing and harnessing people’s experiences, the significance of problem-posing, and the necessity of placing such processes in a political perspective.

Underlying the various shifts that have occurred in the theory and practice of social education are a number of assumptions that have a direct bearing upon the usefulness of the idea for practitioners. Three themes are of particular significance:

(i)    There are questions about the way social education in youth work has been conceptualized around youth, or rather adolescence and the dangers inherent in notions such as ‘growing-up’ and maturity.

(ii)   Social educational practice has been dominated by a focus on the individual and small group and a lack of attention to the political nature of practice.

(iii)  The way in which the self has been conceptualized can lead to the charge of ethnocentrism (and sexism, as we have already seen in Chapter 1).[page 94]

Growing up

Every society is faced with the problem of how to ensure that successive generations are socialized into ways of thinking and behaving which serve the community or the needs of particular groups within it. This process is open to eternal debate and the sort of answers given will depend, to a large extent, on the position occupied within that community. For the individual there is the problem of making the transition from some state known as childhood to another known as adulthood, between or overlapping which there is something known as youth or adolescence. Within these states there appear to be differing expectations concerning dependency and responsibility. One way of conceptualizing the transition is to see it as a movement from relationships characterized by a high degree of dependency to ones which contain a greater degree of independence. Thus, young children are initially dependent on older family members for the most part for the satisfaction of their needs. As they grow older in Western societies, they move outside their family, first at school and in the peer groups they join, then perhaps through further education, training or work. At some point they are likely to leave the family and set up a household of their ‘own’. Another, and related, way of viewing the transition is to think in terms of changing responsibilities both for oneself and for others. Youth is therefore a period when more and more responsibilities are taken on. This position is reflected in legal terms by the differing ages at which people are seen as being able to take responsibility for their actions.

People make this transition at different rates and in different ways. Age is only one factor in determining experiences. Class, geographical location, gender, ethnicity and physical and mental ‘ability’ all can have a major bearing (Jeffs and Smith, 1988b). In many societies transitions may be marked by explicit rituals or ‘rites of passage’, e.g. birth, naming children, attaining adulthood, marriage and death. Thus, initiation rituals remove people from the status of child and place upon them the new position of ‘marriageable adult’. To mark this fundamental transition, both psychologically and socially:

the novice is first physically separated from, and systematically divested of, his old position as child. He has ritually to put away childish things, and is frequently spirited off to a conditioning camp in the wilderness, that inexhaustible fount of [page 95] mystical energy and renewal. There he is symbolically stripped of his old personality and enters a transitory limbo. Finally purged of his old social personality, the new recruit is eased into his new position in adult society with an appropriate ritual accompaniment. (Lewis, 1976: 131).

Within industrialized societies the rituals and symbols of transition are less marked or, rather, do not play such a powerful role in communal life. Further, the length of the transitory limbo has grown. Hence, in Chapter 1, we saw how specifically male and female conceptions of adolescence came to be constructed. Adolescence was also shown to be the product of particular circumstances at a specific moment of history and not a universal condition. While there may have been some conception of ‘youth’ and even a period of transition, what Victorian middle-class social reformers wanted to impose on young people was new in many respects. This was a period of enforced and extended dependence on adults, not just a symbolic moment of transition. It was a time which had to be traversed in order that maturity may be achieved. The way in which such thinking has been reflected in the theory and practice of youth work can be seen to disadvantage young people in a number of respects.

First there is the ever-present tendency to undervalue people as they are now. In Milson’s memorable phrase, young people must be valued as human beings, for what they are now, not only for what they may become (Milson, 1970: 85). It is all too easy to look at behaviours that are labelled ‘temporary’ or the ‘excesses of youth’ and fail to understand how real they are to those that are experiencing them or, indeed, to recognize their inherent value and importance. This is not restricted to youth. If workers are seeking to achieve any sort of change in people then there is a danger of undervaluing people as they are: both denying the expertise and competencies that they already possess, and the logic of their behaviour and ideas at that moment.

Secondly, the association of particular types of behaviour with age has contributed to a paternalism and a growing dependency. Clearly, there has been a significant increase in the length of time that young people remain dependent upon their family for shelter, food and disposable income since the mid-nineteenth century. This has been combined with a growing uniformity in the timing of major life transitions. Thus, young people have been able to be more precise in their age expectations. At the same time the status associated with ‘growing up’, the movement away from dependency, has meant [page 96] that the next stage is highly aspirational for young people, but in many adults’ eyes progress towards it has to be slow. As Macleod has commented in the context of early work on boys in the US, this has profound implications for practice:

Programs would have been unthinkable without a constituency of dependent adolescents in need of recreation; yet the boys’ sensitivity to age differences made them hard to hold. Pervasive age grading had reoriented the issue between adults and boys; instead of a few convulsive struggles for autonomy, there were endless little tests along a finely calibrated course. The boys wanted more tokens of maturity, yet had no intention of demanding total independence. Adults wanted to hold the boys back but not to cripple their initiative. (Macleod 1983: 28)

The upshot of this is, that within youth work, age-related expectations have contributed towards dependency in practice. There has been an emphasis on provision for young people rather than by them. Furthermore, a great deal of effort has been directed at seeking to restrain young people from progressing too fast to the next stage, e.g. in terms of sexual behaviour, drinking and unsupervised leisure. Much ‘social education’ has, therefore, been aimed at getting young people to appreciate and conform to age-related, rather than competency-related, definitions of acceptable behaviours.

Thirdly, the focus on youth as the period of transition can lead to a lopsided practice, as life itself is ‘transitional’. Within the category ‘adult’ there are many moments of change. Parenthood, the impact of the ageing process, changes in relationships, the death of parents and friends, changes in work — all of these affect the way we see ourselves and the way that others see us. This is not to say that practitioners should not concern themselves with change, for patently they should, rather than plead for a sense of fluidity and criticism. Where social education is seen as synonymous with social and personal development, it is difficult to sustain the case for linking its definition to particular age ranges.

Fourthly, there are real doubts about the nature of the transition stage, the state which is to be traversed. While the ideology of adolescence was applied to middle-class youth by early commentators with great success, on the whole, working-class traditions and cultures were far less easy to control and penetrate. Crucially, this failure to elicit the required response from working-class young people did not lead to the abandonment of the concept of adolescence: [page 97]

Instead it was stretched to explain ‘precociousness’ and ‘antisocial’ forms of behaviour by reference to the incompetence of working class parents, who it was frequently claimed, failed to treat their children with the correct affectionate and authoritarian control during this traumatic stage in life. (Humphries, 1981: 18)

Much of the theory that has informed the use of the concept of adolescence within youth work, both psychological and sociological, has characterized it as a time of disturbance, storm and stress. As NAYC argued in its evidence to the Youth Service Review, this way of thinking about adolescence ‘has been empirically unsound and as a consequence has been a considerable blockage to thinking about appropriate provision for young people’ (National Association of Youth Clubs, 1981: 4). The reality is, of course, that the vast bulk of young people do not show signs of disturbance and, that those who do, form a proportion of the age range in line with both the child and adult population. The important difference being that, during this age period, problems tend to be of other types, with depression being the most prevalent. Thus, ‘adolescence needs a theory, not of abnormality, but of normality’ (Coleman, 1980: 182). It is not the intention here to argue that age is of no significance in understanding the experiences of young people — clearly it is. Certain patterns of physical, social and emotional development are associated with specific age bandings. As an explanatory idea it has to take its place alongside other variables such as class, sex, race, sexuality, location and disability. What is at issue here are some of the generalizations made about adolescence and the way these feed certain understandings of social education.

All this amounts to a powerful argument for approaching notions such as youth and adolescence with caution, for recognizing that they may well have meaning in terms of young people’s experience, and for the reorientation of prescribed aims away from ideas such as maturity. In other words, practitioners need to view youth as a way of recognizing their target group, rather than as a problem to be traversed. Instead, if seeking to help young people ‘grow up’, a more appropriate course might be to respond to them in such a way as to allow them to take responsibility for their own learning and to face the consequences of that. It is, of course, highly likely that questions of age-related behaviours will be a central motif in the dialogue with young people. However, these behaviours need to be set alongside other factors such as class and gender, and will require practitioners to guard against responses which confirm dependency. [page 98]

The problems of a personalist orientation

Much practice has remained rooted in the personal, without reference to broader forces that help structure life chances and experiences. This tendency was recognized by Montagu at the turn of the century:

Like other philanthropists, club workers are all too easily satisfied with fringing the problems with which they should endeavour to grapple. They peep down into the abyss in which the under-fed, the ill-housed and badly clothed work out their life’s drama, and then turn their energies to surface polishing. They try to make their girls conduct themselves well in the clubs and interest them and amuse them as best they can during their evening’s leisure. But they are inclined to forget the grim truth that, if girls work for less than a living wage, in a vitiated atmosphere, they are not likely to become the strong, self-controlled women whom we desire the clubs to train. (Montagu, 1904: 249—50)

At one level this means that social educational practice in youth work rarely rises above the first of Lee’s categories, that is beyond a concern with self and immediate others (1980:5). Sustained practice which addresses questions surrounding social institutions, structures and organizations, and social issues is thin on the ground. Yet the problem goes deeper than this, for the way in which the personal dimension is approached fails to appreciate that ‘personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problem of history making (Mills, 1970: 248). There are exceptions to this as the growth of feminist youth work practice has demonstrated. Spence (1988) argues that such practice begins with a recognition of the conditions and relationships within which young women live their lives and from which they construct their understanding of themselves, and that this involves relating to their actual material situation. However, the quality of work in this area still remains patchy.

Making the self and others the dominant focus could be excusable if the surface was disturbed and questions about agency and structure were made an integral part of practice. The relationship between individuals and social structure is a matter of some debate. We might begin with Marx’s classic line ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under [page 99] circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past’ (1977b: 300). However, within this there are many questions. In what ways do structures determine what individuals do, how are those structures made and what limits are there then upon individuals to act as agents independently of the constraint of structures? These are questions fundamental to any educational endeavour and have to be approached not just as a preliminary to practice, but also as an integral part of working with people. In other words, it is not only necessary to come to some understanding of the relation of agency to structure before making interventions, the furthering of such understanding is also an essential educational aim.

Willis (1977) provides an insight into the complex relations of agency and structure. In his study of a small group of working-class young men’s resistance to schooling he found that such opposition actually fed and encouraged their acceptance of the productive system. He recognized that people know a great deal about the environment of which they form a part and that some of that knowledge is tacit, while much is able to be verbalized. The ‘lads’ in his study were knowledgeable actors whose actions had unintended consequences. Thus, in the sense it is their own culture which most effectively prepares some working-class lads for the manual giving of their labour power, ‘we may say that there is some element of self damnation in the taking on of subordinate roles in Western capitalism. However, this damnation is experienced paradoxically, as true learning, affirmation, appropriation, and as a form of resistance’ (Willis, 1977: 3). In other words, constraint was shown to operate through the active involvement of the agents concerned, not as some force of which they are passive recipients (Giddens, 1984: 289). Social forces were seen to be acting through agents’ reasons. Educational practice which fails to take account of this is severely disabling. A focus on the self is only legitimate when understood in the totality of social relations. Day-to-day routines and commonsense understandings carry in them both the stuff of action and of constraint. They cannot be taken for granted. Thus, a central function of any educational endeavour must be to help people place themselves in the world – to know what exists, what is of their own making and what is of other forces, and to know what is good and what is possible.


The concept of self that informs much discussion about social education is distinctly Western and individualistic. This can be seen clearly when considering teaching about family relationships and [page 100] obligations. Johnson sums up the Western, and in particular North American, position as follows:

Children are socialized simultaneously to be obedient, to submit to rules which protect the rights of others, and to develop a progressive independence. Operationally, independence means being able gradually to assume responsibility for their own actions, and to exercise [internal] control over their actions. (Johnson, 1985: 123)

Throughout this training the desirability of ‘becoming independent’ is explicitly raised. This is contrasted with Japanese thought where ‘the prerogative for some forms of life-long [infantile] dependency upon selected others is normatively supported’ (Johnson, 1985: 124). The acknowledgement of interdependence in work, friendship and family relations is explicit, conscious and central to social life. In a similar fashion, the Hindu concept of self leads to a rather different understanding of the significance of being ‘individual’. It begins with the concept of the ‘real-self’ or ãtman, which may be contrasted with the lower empirical or material self, i.e. the experiential form of self involving thought, desires and sensations. The Hindu self is therefore that of a ‘dividual’ rather than an ‘individual’:

What would be seen as self-inconsistency in a westerner is perfectly understandable given the idea that Hindus do not see their situational behaviour as a reflection of their true self, but as a reflection of a lesser entity. . . . When the Hindu traditions speak about an individual, it is not to analyse but to denigrate. (Marsella et al., 1985: 14)

Thus, when a Hindu man is asked for his identity, ‘he will give you his name, the name of his village, and his caste’ (Bharati, 1985: 211). There is a Sanskrit formula which begins with lineage, family, house and ends with personal name. In this presentation, the empirical self comes last. This contrasts with many Europeans who will identify themselves primarily and immediately by their job or special skill:

The western striving is toward the development of a solid well-functioning ego. The inner experience of self should be clearly delineated from the outside. The Hindu striving goes in the opposite direction – to achieve union with the immutable self, which is ultimately indistinguishable from deity and the totality of the universe. (Marsella et al., 1985: 18)

This underlines the fundamental importance of addressing how patterns of socialization and family interaction, and the operation of [page 101] symbols within different cultures affect people’s self conception and their way of placing themselves in the world. It is simply not possible to approach say, Hindu experience, through the application of Western models of thought. What results does not make sense, worse still the culture may then be stigmatized as irrational or silly. Understanding can only be attained by attempting to enter different cultural systems of thought. This has particular significance for those who are consciously engaged in education. They have to be sensitive to different senses of self and to amend the direction and delivery of their work accordingly. It places a primary duty on the educator to listen and act in such a way as to remain true to people’s developing sense of themselves and to guard against the imposition of models of thinking which are of the educator’s making or ownership.

Rescue, reform or abandonment?

In the preceding discussion, most of the attention has been on practice which is educational in ethos and which is genuinely informed by some recognizable ‘theory’ of social education. However, the term has been used to cover a multitude of sins, both within schooling and youth work. At least questions concerning the personalist orientation of practice, the focus on maturity and the westernized understanding of the self can be responded to practically and intellectually. Whether it is possible to rescue social education from its chronic misuse in other respects and to develop appropriate forms of pedagogy under its aegis poses different problems.

At the beginning of the 1980s, rescue did appear possible to some. For example, in earlier work, I suggested a way of thinking about social education that centred around enabling people to meet their developmental needs (1980, 1982). It was defined in such a way as to make a break with some of the thintking in Davies and Gibson (1967). For instance, social education was pictured as a process through life, that was not tied to the attainment of some fixed state such as ‘maturity’, but to the process of development, that was concerned with both individual and collective growth, and that could be mutual and not linked to adults doing things for young people. Social education seemed to be a convenient vehicle for the encouragement of educational as against recreational provision, and for the development of practice which accorded young people respect and power. Now a rather different judgement must be made, at least for youth work.

First, the term continues to be used in a loose way and to embrace practices that could in no way be seen as educational. Within youth [page 102] work it is frequently applied to learning that would have happened anyway. Often provision entails activity for activity’s sake without there being any specifically educational intent. In this way, the phrase has burrowed so deep into the youth work vocabulary, and it has become so corrupted and misused as to mean that any attempt at rescue or rediscovery is doomed. Once an idea becomes a rhetorical device and is applied indiscriminately, it ends up like the boy who cried wolf. No one believes that there is any substance to what is said. In many respects, the fact that the Youth Service Review (HMSO, 1982) was only able to discuss the term in a superficial manner, was the final symbolic nail in the coffin. The Review Report proclaimed that the Youth Service’s task is to provide social education (HMSO, 1982: 122), yet nowhere is there any serious effort to actually define what is meant by this term. What we are told is that the processes by which youth work and work by other agencies assist personal development constitute a young person’s social education (HMSO, 1982: 13), and that the Youth Service has developed specific methods of working, including the experiential curriculum, voluntarism, a non-authoritative relationship between workers and young people, and encouraging young people to participate in decision making (HMSO, 1982: 34). Nowhere are these elements brought together in any coherent form. Social education is supposed to be youth work’s central task, but a major report on the Service is unable to state clearly what it actually is.

Secondly, there has been a general association of social education with specific groups of young people and with ‘low status’ activities. The extent of this linkage means that it is difficult to see how the term can be reclaimed for universal work. In some schools social education may entail:

little more than short courses in careers education or health education. Other courses are more elaborate and may incorporate . . . other topics such as moral education and political education. Alongside these courses, but not integrated with them, are likely to be courses in child care and parentcraft which have sprung up as an extension of home economics for the ‘less able’. Even more elaboration is usually indicated when titles like ‘social education’, ‘social studies’ or ‘community studies’ are used. (C. Brown 1986: 8)

Such studies often appear in the fourth and fifth years of secondary schooling and their teachers frequently experience difficulties as what is taught does not fit into the usual range of examination-orientated subject divisions. The fact that social education is not [page 103] examined, is seen to be non-academic, lacks resources and is often staffed by a rag bag of teachers from other subject areas means that it is viewed as peripheral and low-grade by young people, their parents and by the staff themselves. In addition, the association of the area with ‘less able’ students can lead to a deficit model, wherein those apparently lacking in particular skills or capacities are socially educated, while those possessing the appropriate social capital carry on with academic study. Similar ‘streaming’ can also occur within youth work. It is also significant that a number of adult training centres have been redesignated as social education centres (Blackburn, 1988). In addition, many of the activities are also seen to be high risk and ‘controversial’. Sex education, peace education and political education can all excite fears of what response governors, parents or local politicians might make. This reputation of social education as a high risk/low status area has important implications when considering the relationship of youth workers to mainstream education. Their espoused specialism is viewed as troublesome, marginal and apparently capable of being undertaken by almost any teacher.

Thirdly, when we come to examine the two central elements that are commonly used to define the phenomenon, it is difficult to see that there is anything unique or specifically the property of social education. If we consider social education as an attempt to promote an internal change of consciousness, then it is usually so widely defined that the ‘social’ could be dropped. In other words, what we are concerned with is education. There cannot be much that in some way or form does not contribute to one’s understanding of self, the relationship with others and with society as a whole. To a very real degree the use of phrases such as these are boundaryless. Where does social education end and other forms of education or other enterprises begin?

Concerns with the personal and the social transcend ‘subject’ barriers. It can be argued, for example, that all school subjects contribute to social and personal development in some measure. Indeed, if they did not, it would be difficult to see how they could be conceived of as educational. If the school or youth work unit is to be effective, then what is required is ‘a careful, philosophical reflection upon what it means to be a person, how development as a person is inextricably linked with a form of social life, and where moral values and ideas are presupposed in both’ (Pring, 1984: 167). The whole curriculum would then be interrogated for its contribution to people’s development and in schools there would be no specially designated subject slot for ‘social education’ or the like. Against this [page 104] last proposal, the pragmatist might ask ‘why not?’ If something is to be valued within the schooling system it has to have separate subject status. Furthermore, given that it touches upon personal values and sensitivities ‘should it not logically be a matter for both experts and expert treatment?’ (McBeath, 1986: 44). In this view something called ‘social education’ or ‘social and personal development’ can be recognized by the extent to which an emphasis is placed upon ‘the immediate present and the immediate future of the self and self—other relationships’ (McBeath, 1986: 43). Within the schooling sector there may well be an argument for this line of approach, where the case has to be put alongside a number of other curriculum demands. However, this is a restricted understanding of social education — again only covering the first of Lee’s (1980) categories, and it still leaves crucial boundary problems.

Another answer to the boundary question is to alter the constraints on what ‘social’ is taken to mean. Here we might turn to the use of the term ‘social education’ in the USA, where there has remained a major strand of practice that links it with what might be called citizenship or political education. In other words, the ‘social’ is seen as societal and more specifically as enabling people to be active citizens (see, e.g. Morrissett and Williams, 1981). As those familiar with the debates within political education will already know, there are also problems in defining this activity’s boundaries, but they are perhaps less problematic than those associated with social education (M. Smith, 1987). However, to redefine social education in this way in the UK would be a difficult task and would entail a major shift of focus. Another, pragmatic course of action is simply to assert that certain subject or topic areas such as careers and health studies, are social education. But this would be little more than playing with labels.

Turning to the conceptualization of social education as a particular type of process we can see similar problems arising. Social educators cannot claim property rights over group work, experiential learning or any of the other means that are employed. Indeed, such approaches are increasingly being used in other areas of the school curriculum. ‘What makes for good social education is the same as what makes for good subject teaching. In other words, exploiting the dynamics and relations of the social group’ (McBeath, 1986: 53). In schooling and youth work, there is not a particular method which can be labelled social education. This in itself, would not be a problem, if when method was joined with content, something unique and definable appeared. In reality what we find is an extraordinary range of concerns and practices, the only link between [page 105] the many parts being that the term social education has been applied to them.

The mistake I made in earlier discussions of youth work was to assume that the scale and quality of genuinely developmental endeavour could be enhanced by directing practitioners’ attention to the ‘education’ in ‘social education’. My intention had been to emphasize ethos and method. However, the particular amalgam that emerged, in part because it was linked to an unreformable rhetorical device, was not a very effective tool in the attempt to encourage practitioners to see and understand themselves as educators, and to develop their competencies as such. A further limitation is that while a number of practitioners may conceive themselves as educators, the particular focus for purpose — personal and social development — is not one that a significant number see or experience as central to their work. A more effective course is to demarcate clearly purpose and method; to start from first principles and establish purpose and method while taking into account what youth work can offer as unique.

All this would suggest that the definitional and strategic problems associated with social education in youth work are of such a magnitude as to make the term useless as a theoretical, and hence practical tool. If those concerned with youth work perceive their endeavours as essentially educational, then to simply name them as such would appear to be a more profitable course of action. Historically youth workers have turned to the use of social facilities in order that educational or other work might happen. It was the linking of these two notions which perhaps accounts for the appeal of social education within youth work. Unfortunately, the act of joining together the words ‘social’ and ‘educational’, does not make a theory, nor a practice. Thus, it is not only a ‘crisis of purpose’ (Leigh and Smart, 1985), with which youth workers are faced. Social education has come to resemble another ‘child’ of the 1960s, system-built housing. Initially attractive and offering the promise of better times, it only takes a short while for paint to peel and for the inherent structural faults to blight the lives of residents. Often the only way to put right the problems is to demolish the whole structure and start again.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

Reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton: Keynes: Open University Press.

First placed in the Archives in April 2001. Refreshed July 2019

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