From social education to social and life skills training: in whose interest?

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Here we reproduce the full text of Bernard Davies’  landmark pamphlet In Whose Interest? Published in 1979 the pamphlet drew attention to the fundamental shifts that were beginning to occur in youth work in England and Wales.

contents: preface · introduction · social education · social and life skills training · the economic and political context · in defence of social education · references · how to cite this piece

In Whose Interests was a seminal contribution to the literature of youth work. It was the first sustained exploration of the impact of the state concern with skilling (and associated currents) on youth work in England and Wales. It provides a significant insight into the drift/shift into narrow outcome focus of the Connexions strategy and Youth Matters, and the reason why many state-sponsored services and agencies found it so easy to fall in line with state requirements. The pamphlet was written at a time of significant unemployment (following on, in part, from the oil crisis of 1974) and of an increasing emphasis on narrow, vocational ends in education (after the ‘great education debate’ launched by the then Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan). The rapid growth of the Manpower Services Commission, with its focus on the development of the labour force, and the scale of funding at its disposal had altered the social policy map. Not only did it represent a huge central government intervention, it was targeted at particular groups (especially certain groups of young people) and sought to bring a number of existing agencies and services into its orbit. Bernard Davies was disturbed by the readiness on the part of many workers and agencies to take on MSC initiatives, and by the way they fell into the language and concerns of the social and political agenda involved. In his view, there was something more happening than ‘a mere change of language -a simple updating of terms’. ‘Rather’, Bernard Davies argued, it embodied ‘some alteration in the philosophy, methods and organisational contexts of ‘youth work’ which could have profound implications for young people, and also for youth workers’ (Davies 1979: 1). He suggested that, ‘crudely, social education is to the youth worker what the liberal education tradition is to the school teacher’. What the shift to social and life skills training indicates, therefore, is that the more person-centred and critical goals and methods of traditional youth work are now seriously at risk. The risk is epitomised  by youth work’s increasing flirtation with MSC schemes, with MSC-type perspectives on the problems to be resolved, and with MSC-type assumptions on how to resolve those problems (Davies 1979: 9).While the MSC may have come and gone, the thinking and orientation it embodied has continue to infuse much of government policy around education and social welfare. In this respect there has been little difference between the Conservative and Labour parties in England. Sadly, Bernard Davies’ fears have been realized – the person-centred and critical goals and methods of ‘traditional youth work’, and certainly of a significant swathe of youth work post-Albemarle, have been seriously, possibly terminally, eroded within much state-sponsored work. Workers were not able to ‘regain their nerve’ in sufficient numbers; social education wasn’t the site of the sort of reflective and theoretical exploration needed; and the social and political context in which they operated was not conducive to critical practice. It may well have been that the notion of social education itself was not a strong or embracing enough to handle the task. It certainly seems likely that it wasn’t as embedded in day-to-day youth work practice as many of us had hoped. Also, now with our experience of the national curriculum, Bernard Davies’ arguments around curriculum-construction look problematic – but we do need to remember that he was writing at a time when there was a much stronger appreciation of curriculum as process rather than the current near-universal interpretation of it as product.  Mark K. Smith

[page 1


Though the evidence is limited and mainly subjective, the tug on youth workers to come over to ‘social and life skills training’ now seems very strong. No doubt it is happening because in general they are seen as expert in working informally with young people. More specifically, however, their commitment to ‘social education’ is regarded as directly relevant to, and indeed in many cases even as identical with, one focussed on ‘social and life skills training’. Moreover, youth workers themselves seem more and more often to accept this argument without question. This seems true especially in the context of ‘special programmes’ for unemployed and ‘at risk’ young people, but is apparently also influencing Youth Service activities for ‘mainstream’ young people.

Before this shift comes to be accepted as mere common sense, what it involves, why it is happening and where it fits into broader social, economic and political developments surely need to be considered very directly. For, in my view, it indicates much more than a mere change of language -a simple updating of terms. Rather, it embodies some alteration in the philosophy, methods and organisational contexts of ‘youth work’ which could have profound implications for young people, and also for youth workers. This paper is a tentative attempt to open some of these issues. [page 2]

Section I: Social Education

The origins of the notion of ‘social education’ are very far from clear, but can be traced back at least to the early 1960s. Indeed, the Albemarle Report itself referred to it, though, it would seem, in a very unspecific way: ‘….. it is the task of the (Youth) Service to offer, in its own different environment, social education of the kind that has long been valued in the corporate life of those pursuing formal education in schools, technical colleges and universities.’ (1)

By the end of the 1960s, social education had, for youth workers, gained some much more specific meanings and implications. Policy-makers were certainly using the term as a key organising concept for their provision. Thus, at the local level, in 1967 Derbyshire Education Committee called its review of relationships between the Youth Service and other forms of further education quite simply ‘Social Education’ (2).  In 1969, the National Association of Youth Service Officers, when examining at the national level the relations between schools and the Youth Service, sub-titled its report ‘Towards a Partnership in Social Education’ (3). In 1971, NAYSO joined with the Standing Conference of National Voluntary Youth Organisations and the Youth Service Information Centre to sponsor a special one-day conference, the aim of which was ‘to identify as a matter of some urgency the ground common to workers in social education…..’ (4)

Indeed, by 1969 a major state paper designed to lay down policy directions for youth work nationally and, it was hoped, locally, was stating categorically: ‘The primary goal of youth work is the social education of young people'(5). The Youth and Community Bills promoted in 1974 by Alan Haselhurst and in 1975 by Cyril Townsend talked, in an entirely taken-for-granted way, about ‘the provision of social education’,(6) while the 1975 DES discussion document on ‘Provision for Youth’ referred to the Youth Service offering ‘informal social education’ as if it were a term in common currency, the meaning of which was entirely self-evident and widely agreed (7).

Establishing whether and how the concept ‘social education’ influenced face-to-face practitioners is rather more difficult. For many of them, it would seem, theory is often implicit — embedded in what they do — and so more usually flows from practice rather than being formulated in advance and then used self-consciously to guide it. Indeed, the question needs to be asked: did the notion of social education have all that much impact on practice anyway? In spite of the spread of Bessey courses in the 60s, and the fact that the second Bessey Report explicitly referred to ‘the personal and social education of young people’ (8),   it is by no means certain that the majority of voluntary and part-time workers on whom the Youth Service continued to rely came to see themselves as social educators. Probably, a high proportion of full-time workers were introduced to the basic ideas and principles of social education and may well, in their own way, have struggled to apply these in their subsequent practice. Even so, it is worth recalling that a significant proportion of these full-timers were teacher-trained, and so may not have been very specifically inducted into social education roles.

Even those who were trained on specialist youth work courses may, in often very unpromising circumstances and with often very unprivileged young people, have had only limited opportunities to turn the idea and the theory into practice.

Nonetheless, evidence that practitioners in the 60s and early 70s did try to operate as social educators is far from lacking. Thus the YWCA Report on its detached work project in Paddington gave specific attention to social education (9). One of the major areas of work of the Manchester Youth Development Trust’s Hilton Project, which started in 1968, was called ‘the social education programme’ (10).   In 1975 the Youth and Community Service Training Officer for Hertfordshire was confidently asserting that ‘social education has its own unique identity’ (11).   Moreover, as late as 1978, full-time youth workers — both field practitioners and administrators — who met at the joint NAYCEO and CYSA conference in Exeter were still using the term consistently and in very unselfconscious and common-sense ways to indicate how they saw the purpose and content of their work (12).

Of course, getting beyond these common-sense meanings to a clear and genuinely agreed definition of social education is very difficult. Some attempts have been made, though again they have often been indirect and embedded in practice, and in writing on other topics. One of the first people to have struggled with what social education involved seems to have been J. A. Simpson, a Youth Service HMI in the post-Albemarle period. In 1963, at a time when ‘activities’ were rather out of fashion amongst ‘progressive’ youth workers and ‘association’ was seen as the main justification for what they did, he boldly posed the question: how good is the social side of my club? (13)   He then proceeded to probe his theme in a very searching way, by specifically asking:

Is association in my club ……… harmless…… ?

Does association in my club introduce young people to new interests….. to responsibility?

Have any members shown increasing acceptance of themselves…….?

Are there members who have shown increasing acceptance of others……?

Are there any who show increasing readiness to consort with members of the opposite sex in a relationship other than one of the forms of courtship? Do some members show increased ability to listen with attention to unfamiliar or accepted ideas……?

A rather more specific — and academic — definition was offered in 1967. Davies and Gibson identified social education’s prime concern as:

… any young person’s meetings with others, with his capacity in these meetings to accept others and be accepted by them, and (with) the common interests around which these meetings may revolve. Social education is thus concerned with the ideas, thoughts and opinions, the motives and the emotions inherent in such meetings and interests. It is about the interaction of human beings, about their friendships and enmities, about the way these are deepened [page 3] and extended, and about their consequences. Its product therefore is any individual’s increased consciousness of himself— of his 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 by the adult for ways of helping the young person to discover how to contribute to as well as take from his association with others. (14)

This conception of social education was, of course, highly individualistic in its focus – indeed, it was seen as rooted in a client-centred approach to young people. In other words, it assumed that the primary — perhaps the only — important outcomes would be within the young person: that it would be his or her personal capacities, philosophy, feelings and so on which would change.

This individual focus has dominated conceptions of social education. It can be found, for example, in Philip Taylor’s 1967 definition in his Charles Russell Memorial Lecture: ‘It would seem appropriate to state the objective of social education in terms of the young learning to understand themselves, the kind of person they are, the nature of the beliefs they hold, the roles they play and anticipate playing, as well as learning about their way of seeing the social and physical environment which they inhabit. These two general levels of objectives have been called ‘the establishment of self-esteem’ and ‘the clarification of experience.’ (15)

The 1969 NAYSO Report highlighted similar objectives (16), while the work of Leslie Button (17), Collins and Hoggarth (18) and many other more recent writers and practitioners display equally individualised concerns.

More recently, a conception of social education has begun to emerge — again, often only by implication — which not only emphasises the young person growing individually within collective situations, but which may also mean aiming at collective outcomes. This is perhaps demonstrated most clearly at the point where the Youth Service’s preoccupation with political education overlaps with, and even takes over from, it’s more long-standing commitment to social education. For, in effect, what youth workers are doing when they stress the importance of helping young people develop politically is extending the definition of ‘social’ so that it comes to include the knowledge and capabilities needed for exercising power — that is, for dealing more productively with the large-scale (the macro) institutions and processes of our society. The action which follows from such education can, realistically, be individualistic only to a very limited extent. For, sooner or later, the individual has to join with others and act collectively if he or she is actually to secure some of that power and participate critically in society’s major structures. In other words, the more recent definitions of social-education-as-political-education require that the results be seen, not just in the form of young people’s personal growth, of self-realisation, of self-determination. Rather, they assume that a major outcome will be that young people will act together in more self-conscious and organised ways — that they will form or join pressure groups, trade unions, political parties and so on.

It is important of course not to be naive about the meaning and intentions of much that goes under the name of social education, whether it is individually or collectively focussed. It is worth recalling for example that, at the very time social education was becoming fashionable, the National Association of Boys’ Clubs was continuing to give strong emphasis to its ‘adjustment to industry’ courses. This merely illustrates from practice what Davies and Gibson (19), Eggleston (20), Chivers (21), Butters (22) and others have all emphasised from more theoretical and research perspectives — that some of the more deeply embedded values and purposes of social education imply a wide range of at times contradictory functions and tasks. These further intentions include, in crude terms, the straightforward control of the young, their often subtle integration into dominant ideologies and existing practices, and their preparation occasionally for certain critical roles, though still strictly within the basically unchanged structures and institutions of our present society. For youth work — as I shall try to show very specifically later — can no more be treated as if it stood independently of those structures than can any other agency of social — or economic — policy.

Nonetheless, whether social education has emphasised individualistic or collective outcomes, and in spite of the varied and contradictory functions it has to fulfil, it has always given a powerful legitimacy to person-centred and developmental goals. Moreover, these have not only allowed for, but have even actively encouraged, young people to analyse critically and to  respond creatively to the experiences they have — to the situations they encounter, to the events they must negotiate, to the people they meet. In the course of moving through these experiences, their feelings as well as their ideas and knowledge have been accepted by youth workers as valid and important, and so as important ‘content’ for their learning.

Youth work’s social education tradition — despite all the pressures to get young people to conform, to adjust, to become merely ‘socially acceptable’ and so on — has thus consistently given attention to the meanings attached to their experience by young people themselves. It has, therefore, encouraged them not just to receive and absorb a known, pre-defined and self-evidently correct body of information, values and ideas. Rather, it has provided some space for autonomous reaction, and for learning by asking questions, by expressing scepticism, by legitimating doubt and challenge. Though it has rarely — if ever — generated the liberating form of revolutionary ‘dialogue’ which Paulo Freire seeks a, it has reaffirmed and worked actively to express the traditional liberal values of personal growth and independence of thought and action which, in some of its interpretations, education has sought to encourage much more generally.

These commitments have also made youth workers and policy makers concerned with social education rather less likely to oversimplify the process in which they are involved. At the very least, they have to recognise that there is often more than one view of what is happening and of what should happen to the young people they meet. Their adoption of ‘group work’ as a — often the — key method for developing social education has both reflected this awareness of the complexities of human encounters and change, and has also extended their appreciation of these complexities. And so, too, has their readiness to ‘take what is given’—to accept that their work must ‘tolerate the given environment… ‘ (24). [page 4]

As a result — and again in spite of all the reservations and compromises which practice inevitably produces — approaches to youth work and the thinking on which they rested grew I noticeably in their sophistication during the 60s and early 70s. This enabled social education, therefore, to be expressed in ways which, though of course not changing the world of young people radically, were often sensitive and relevant to their condition and demands.

Finally, it is important to note, too, that because youth work has been an ‘education’ service, it has shared in the relative autonomy which education agencies in general have won from direct state control over the past century and a half. Of course, here too the extent of the freedoms should not be exaggerated: as in all areas of social policy, the economic and political functions of ‘welfare’ in its widest sense, and therefore the influence of the state, have always been considerable, and in recent years have grown enormously.

Nevertheless, alternative traditions — for example, of teacher independence and ‘academic freedom’ – have continued to exist, and have even been reinforced by the growth of professional consciousness and organisation amongst educational practitioners. Education-based youth work has largely taken over these traditions and has to some degree preserved them in the face of the centralising and bureaucratising tendencies which have followed from, for example, local government reorganisation and central government control over finance. Youth workers have also developed their own forms of professional identity in the post-Albemarle period so that, although there have been a number of unintended and ‘non-progressive’ consequences of such professionalism, they too have been able to operate with a recognisable degree of autonomy. Thus an institutional base for youth work has existed which has made it possible to implement at least some of the more person-centred and creative commitments of social education.

In spite of contrary philosophical, practical, organisational and political pressures, therefore, social education has evolved since Albemarle as a springboard for forms of youth work practice which have often stayed close to young people’s deepest concerns, which are progressive in some of their goals and methods and which have often been just about feasible within the institutional structures within which they must operate. Such commitments and opportunities cannot be assumed to have a divine right to survive. Indeed, they may at any time need to be defended very rigorously — and the moment for such a defence may now have arrived.

Section II: Social and Life Skills Training

No clear line can of course be drawn between ‘social education’ and ‘social and life skills training’. Indeed, sometimes the terms now simply run into each other. Thus the Manchester and Hyde ‘Training for Life’ project offers a social education programme, and ‘Intaskill’ of Birmingham includes a social education and life scheme (25), while an advertisement for ‘senior tutors for life and social skills training’ invited applications from people with ‘specialist experience in social education techniques such as group work and counselling’ (26).

Yet, in spite of these apparent similarities in terminology, the notion of social and life skills training seems repeatedly to represent a significant shift, in both conception and practice, away from some of social education’s most important commitments and opportunities. Moreover, although those involved are not conspiring darkly in smoke-filled rooms to bring about the shift, it cannot just be put down to ‘historical accident’. Rather, it represents an often un-thought-out and gradual, but nonetheless very real response to wider economic and political pressures and collective anxieties which are especially characteristic of our society in the later 1970s.

Social and life skills training is not, of course, an entirely new form of practice. It has been used for many years in work with the mentally handicapped, with prisoners and even with those seeking help with personal and behavioural difficulties. However, in these fields of practice it has usually been possible to regard those undergoing the ‘training’ as victims of some personal incapacity, or as seriously deviant, or as voluntarily submitting themselves to some form of therapy. It has, therefore, also been possible to act as if their ‘problems’ could be defined ‘objectively’ and as if their ‘treatment’ were entirely a ‘technical’ matter calling for no important ethical choices. That is, it has been assumed that those being ‘trained’ have few, if any, rights to define their ‘problems’ in their own way, or to decide for themselves if and how they wish to be ‘trained’.

Maybe in the case of a seriously mentally handicapped person or of someone who has fundamentally transgressed our society’s norms it is acceptable to assume that all such ethical dilemmas are totally absent — though today even this assumption is increasingly being challenged. However, social and life skills training has been steadily extended during the later 70s to a much larger and more undifferentiated section of the population, for whom such ethical issues have a very immediate significance.

In particular, this training is now being seen as relevant, via intermediate treatment programmes for example, to young people defined as ‘at risk’ (normally of breaking the law) and above all, under the auspices of the Manpower Services Commission’s programmes, to thousands of unemployed young people. And so — to give just one instance — in May 1979 a single advertisement appeared for eight lecturers at two colleges of further education to mount social and life skills training courses within the Youth Opportunities Programme (27). Both the reasons for such a sudden and massive growth, and its consequences, cannot be treated as if they were entirely and self-evidently benign.

For, when the notion of social and life skills training is extended to such groups, the ethical dilemmas become very real and confusing. Why, one might ask, should young people [page 5] be treated as having greatly reduced rights to self-determination merely because a social worker has made the highly subjective judgement that they might at some time in the future break the law or perhaps just make a nuisance of themselves? Even more, why should the unemployed state of some of these young people be taken as in itself sufficient evidence of their need for a ‘training’ in social and life skills? Does this unemployment really stem merely from personal traits which need to be adjusted or eradicated by such training — from illiteracy or innumeracy, or from laziness, or unpunctuality, or an inability to use the telephone or clock-in at work? Because, during a period of acute economic crisis, they are without a job, have they really forfeited all rights to decide for themselves how they will deal with their unemployment? Must they always, as a price for getting community sympathy or some material support, submit themselves to training programmes aimed at changing their attitudes, their values, their habits, even perhaps their view of themselves?

Alternatively, during such an economic crisis, is it not much more likely that, amongst unemployed young people in particular, the range of personal characteristics will approximate very closely to the norm for our society? That is, will not such young people increasingly include the able and the well-motivated as well as the unable, the disabled, and the disruptive? Moreover, is not the unemployment of the great majority of these youngsters something which they have neither chosen, nor fallen into because of personal inadequacy, but which they have had brutally imposed on them by an economic system incapable of guaranteeing them work? Certainly, there is now plenty of evidence that most young people want to work, actively seek work, are in all but a small minority cases qualified to work, and do without work only very reluctantly. The main reason they fail to get work is not that they do not interview well or do not dress properly. It is quite simply that there are just not enough jobs to go round. Any scheme or concerted national effort which conveys an opposite message, or which merely disguises this basic truth, is not only unhelpful, it is likely also to be judged as dishonest, not least by young people themselves.

These, of course, are never easy questions to answer. They certainly have not been finally resolved by social educators, and have at times not even been adequately confronted by them. Nonetheless, social education has usually been provided in relatively non-stigmatising settings. And, in the training of youth workers for example, the principles and ethics of practice have continually been an area of debate and even of great heart-searching. Is this now true also of those being drafted into social and life skills training? Have the ethical implications of extending this training from quite narrowly focussed and comparatively less problematic areas of practice to work with ‘normal’, increasingly mainstream young people been fully faced? There is, as we shall see, little evidence of this in the available literature — and some signs that its main sponsors regard these ethical questions as mere philosophical distractions.

One of the problems of answering these questions is precisely the fact that ‘life and social skills is a new area, which has become part of the language of post-school youth education (only) over the last two year’s. As a result, it has been written up far less, and less explicitly, than social education, so that indirect evidence is often all we have to establish its meaning and practical expression. Moreover, the advocates of social and life skills training are, of course, usually as anxious as those of social education to assert their liberal and humane credentials, and so to present what they are doing as containing ample opportunity for personal development and creative activity. In other words, contradictory aims and responses exist here, too, as the adults concerned struggle to balance at least some individualised, person-centred goals with goals which concentrate on meeting societally-defined requirements and expectations.

Thus, the background and discussion notes issued by the BBC to accompany its 1979 television series ‘Working with Young People‘ contain sections on relationships with young people and the needs of young people (29). In particular, the latter is organised around a memo-chart produced by the Victoria Settlement in Liverpool to guide staff working in the Youth Opportunities Programme which it is sponsoring under the auspices of the Manpower Services Commission. This chart focuses on identity, recognition, respect, trust, understanding and security, and stresses that, above all, young people need ‘to receive and give’, ‘to be valued’, ‘to comprehend and understand’ and to have ‘order and security’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘stimuli and new experience’. In its use of this chart, the BBC document clearly takes the relevance and importance of such aims for granted, and works hard to get its adult readers to do the same.

Similarly, an I LEA ‘Syllabus for Work, Life and Communications Skills‘ includes items intended not only to deal with young people’s ‘personal identity’, but also to encourage them to reject, where they feel this is appropriate, comments on their behaviour which they believe to be untrue. It encourages an analysis of unemployment which can take account of ‘structural’ as well as ‘transient’ factors (30). What is more at stake, therefore, is not whether social and life skills training is totally unconcerned with personalised, developmental goals for young people. Rather, it is the balance of its goals which needs clarifying — the bias of choices it is liable to make between the personal and the societal, the way the contradictions within the underlying ideology are resolved, and the degree of freedom to work on these contradictions which is available to practitioners.

Here, what seems to be crucial is that the new emphasis on social and life skills training has emerged into work with young people at a moment when anxieties about ‘youth’ and how to contain them are again very acute. This anxiety is widely dispersed, but is perhaps most noticeable in the ‘law and order’ debate over the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act, and in responses to youth unemployment. As a result, how the balance between the personal and the societal has been struck has depended crucially on the need to deal quickly and decisively with urgent social problems. Moreover, these problems call into question institutions lying at the very heart of our society’s stability — namely, the legal system and the labour market.

Above all, what social and life skills training has been expected to do, therefore, is to manage some of the most threatening consequences of the worst crisis which our society — and especially its economy — has had to face for at least 40 years. In the end, how the primary goals of social and life skills training are decided has to depend, above all, on notions of ‘the national interest’ and ‘the community’s expectations’. [page 6]

The personalised needs and demands of those who ultimately receive the ‘service’ have thus increasingly become secondary considerations. Often, such a priority commitment is only implicit, and may not even be intended. Thus, Sue Spence, a psychiatrist at a residential school for young offenders, has written a detailed and lengthy trainers’ manual on social skills training for children and adolescents. At no point does she explicitly state the value propositions on which she is operating, though she does list as ‘important qualities’ required of the trainer ’empathy, interpersonal sensitivity, understanding and good listening skills’ (31). However, such a value-base — if that, in fact, is what it is — proves barely adequate for analysing in a thorough-going way highly complex interactions, such as those between teachers and pupils. As a result, it seems, a child’s unpopularity with teachers can be explained solely in terms of ‘social interaction difficulties’ (32), and the term ‘truancy’ can be treated as entirely unproblematic. The reader is thus left with the impression that the mere adjustment of young people’s ‘skills’ will more or less ensure their successful integration into school.

Sometimes, however, many of the most influential advocates of social and life skills training demonstrate their priority commitment very clearly. Thus the MSC’s widely used ‘Instructional Guide to Social and Life Skills‘ emphasises that social skills are needed, not only at work itself, but also in private life — and that there they are important because ‘a satisfactory private life can contribute to a person’s work motivation’ (33). Later, the ‘Guide’ stresses that one of ‘the main reasons for considering behaviour in training situations’ is ‘to improve performance at work through the development of more effective relationships with people’ (34). More generally, a later MSC document, though acknowledging the need to ‘provide young people with learning experiences of a lasting nature’ starts by noting that ‘the Youth Opportunities Programme should contribute to the general quality of the work force’ and that ‘helping young people with the problems and processes of getting an appropriate job must remain the dominant objective of the Programme’ (35).

Field level projects can also be very revealing. For the Stanley Youth Centre in County Durham – significantly, it should be noted, a Youth Service establishment — the aims and definition of social and life skills are described as those needed ‘for understanding and meeting the expectancies of adult requirements; the ability to make relationships, to gain confidence in themselves, to reach a mature understanding of such requirements and the ability to act effectively and maturely within the adult framework…To equip them with the information and methods needed to gain and keep employment’. (36)

The Manchester and Hyde YMCA — again, of course, a traditional Youth Service agency — focuses an induction programme concerned with ‘training for life’ on what work is about; punctuality, how to dress for work, interview techniques and so on (37). A postal survey of training provision for the young unemployed carried out by the Further Education Curriculum Review and Development Unit (FEU) revealed an identical range of preoccupations (38).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, extended and explicit definitions of social and life skills training are, therefore, entirely absent or very under-developed. That of the Stanley Youth Centre quoted above seems, relatively speaking, to be quite sophisticated. More common is the kind offered by Spence when she suggests that ‘social skills’ are ‘…those components of social behaviour which are necessary to ensure that individuals achieve their desired outcome for a social interaction, e.g. getting a job after an interview. Alternatively, social skills may be defined in terms of appropriate social behaviour within a particular social situation (39). Thus, Spence does not suggest that such skills have a meaning and value which is universal and final. However, it would seem that for her the criteria for determining what behaviour is considered appropriate are limited and vague. She in fact mentions only two: ‘the characteristics of the individual and the situation concerned’. By way of illustration she notes that ‘it would be considered appropriate for a business man to shake hands with a stranger at the office, but it would probably be considered inappropriate if he tried to shake a secretary’s hand each morning’ (40). Social and life skills training designed for unemployed young people seems to rely on even cruder definitions. The MSC’s Instructional Guide, for example, asserts baldly that ‘life skills refer to all those abilities, bits of information, know-how and decision-making which we need in order to get by in life’ (41). In very similar language, the BBC notes to the ‘Working with Young People‘ programme calls them ‘the skills which people need to pull their way through life successfully…..’ (42).   ‘Making Experience Work‘ asserts that ‘some social and so-called (sic) life skills…..are generally important for surviving in an adult world and even for making some positive use of the experience of being unemployed’ (43).  As these quotations clearly illustrate, social and life skills training gives primary attention to coping rather than developing, to surviving rather than responding creatively and critically, to getting by rather than to moving on.

Equally surprisingly therefore, adopting social and life skills training as the organising concept for the work to be done is liable to imply limited and even sometimes sinister forms of practice. We have already seen how, according to Spence, empathy and interpersonal sensitivity may be turned simply into useful ‘tools’ for adjusting delinquent or disturbed young people to schooling. Again, however, it is from the field of youth unemployment that the clearest insights into the nature of social and life skills training emerge. Thus, both the BBC notes to ‘Working with Young People‘ and the MSC’s ‘Making Experience Work‘ give very specific attention to literacy and numeracy training (44). The former also goes on to relate social and life skills training to earlier passages in the notes on, for example, the importance of ‘reflection’ within the education process. In startling contrast to what this means to writers such as Paulo Freire, it explains ‘reflection’ thus:

….. the person has been doing something (e.g. shovelling cement, to be simple) and then realises, by reflection, that if you get your left hand lower down the shovel (if you’re right-handed), you’ll be able to get better lift. Or, after being irritated by some niggle for a long time, (s/he) realises, on reflection, that there is an easy way to cure the problem — by having the confidence to go and tell the supervisor that it is causing annoyance and ‘could it be changed? (45)

Making Experience Work‘ has some comparable illustrations of social skills (‘money management, health and safety, and the creative use of time’) (47), while the FEU survey noted, not [page 7] only that a good deal of work was in progress on numeracy, literacy and ‘improving self-presentation’, but also that, while ‘handling personal finances was a popular topic…..not many replies mentioned education for leisure or recreation’ (47).

Indeed, the MSC’s Instructional Guide at points gives the whole process something of a 1984 twist: ‘One of the aims of Life Skills Training will be to adjust trainees to normal working conditions, giving attention to such matters as time-keeping, discipline and the maintenance of satisfactory relations with other trainees and members of staff….. This calls upon the tutor or instructor to have an understanding of young people as human beings. He/she would act as counsellor and confidante, and create a non-threatening environment in which effective communication between him and trainees would be natural’ (48).

Of course, such statements need not seem sinister. The trouble is the absence of any explicit commitment to certain fundamental values or to certain priority aims. An adult who becomes a young person’s confidante or who sets out to create a non-threatening environment merely to adjust that young person to clocking-in on time or to being nice to a supervisor may easily be seen as manipulative. That is, s/he is very likely to be judged to be using his/her relationship with ‘trainees’ unethically, in order to achieve undeclared ends not necessarily in the young person’s best interests. Because of its primary concern about ‘raising the general quality of the work-force’, social and life skills training is much more in danger of falling into these very serious ethical traps than is social education.

In addition to its foreshortened view of the ‘why’ questions, social and life skills training also has an often very naive view of the ‘how’ questions and of the way to deal with them. Take, by way of illustration, the references above in the BBC notes to the ‘easy way’ of ‘curing the problem’ of ‘being irritated by some niggle at work’. First, the assumption is made that, acting alone, the young person can produce ‘confidence’ out of a hat. Then it assumes that ‘telling’ the supervisor will, in itself, begin to produce results — as if irritations at work merely stem from the fact that someone in authority lacks a vital piece of information. Finally, it assumes that this person — operating from a very low-level authority position – can bring about significant change: that is, that s/he has major and effective degrees of power in working situations. Implicit in this latter assumption too is the idea that work is fundamentally a benign experience for the individual worker, and that therefore all that is required to achieve improvement are minor and technical adjustments to routine working conditions. The complex realities of the human situations, interactions and interests which comprise modern working life are thus totally ignored or carefully glossed over.

Similar examples of how the processes of learning and change are oversimplified can be found in many of the other documents on social and life skills training. Clearly, they could be found, too, in writing and practice based on a conception of ‘social education’, as could examples of ethical wooliness. The argument here, however, is not only that they are more frequent in the context of social and life skills training, but also that they are much more inherent to the concept; that they are not just the outcome of failures of interpretation and implementation, but essential features of the concept itself. They are thus deeply integral to it precisely because the swing to social and life skills training has occurred to meet such a growing and serious problem at the heart of the labour market. For, if this problem cannot be resolved by simple manipulation and technical adjustment, it could well call for unthinkably radical changes in the way our society organises its economic activity and its economic and social relations.

Section III: The Economic and Political Context

How can such a dramatic and sweeping claim be justified, especially in the context of something so apparently peripheral to our current crisis as the gradual substitution within youth work of social and life skills training for social education? Youth work is, of course, very far from the central arena in which this crisis is being played out. Nor, equally obviously, is the abandonment of social education by the Youth Service, insofar as it is happening, one of the more important repercussions. Nonetheless, in microcosm, and in ways which are of central concern to youth workers, this substitution demonstrates some very important, wider trends in our society, in particular in the mid- and late 1970s and as they touch young people.

To see this in its fullest context, it is necessary first to locate social education in its own time, and in particular within the dominant social, economic and political features of the later 60s and early 70s. For, unmistakably, it was a product of that optimistic period of social policy which took as its basic assumptions that an affluent society existed, that continuous economic growth was assured, and that, therefore, all the most fundamental conflicts of interest and values within society had been eradicated. For a society which had ‘never had it so good’ and which was ‘all middle-class now’, any remaining social problems could, therefore, be regarded as residual. These could and would, therefore, be eliminated by an extension of skilled welfare and therapeutic interventions into the lives of that unfortunate and uncomfortable minority of delinquents, psychiatric patients, problem families and so on who had somehow failed to make the most of themselves within the new opportunity structure.

The main challenge facing social policy – and in particular, facing all the education services — was to ensure that every citizen was equipped with the knowledge, confidence, competence and qualifications to move successfully through this newly created ‘open’ society. Such provision would, anyway, .ensure that the ‘community at large’ made the most of its citizens’ talents. But simultaneously, and no less desirably, it was said, it would also provide the surest route to personal growth and self-realisation, and so to personal fulfilment and individual satisfaction for everyone concerned. Thus, social education — as youth work’s main contribution to these [page 8] humane and liberal social policy developments — must itself be viewed in an historical perspective. That is, its values and functions must be seen as in key ways very specifically related to the social, economic and political realities and beliefs of the period which produced it. However, precisely because it was a product of such a liberal and individualistic era, it gave forceful endorsement to youth workers and some teachers who wished to implement relatively person-centred and creative goals outlined earlier.

Clearly, the later 70s are very different in their beliefs and, even more important, in the daily material realities of life. Cut-back and restriction rather than expansion, conflict rather than the consensus and continuity, are now the almost taken-for-granted economic and political considerations of our times. The economic crisis in particular dominates every area of activity, not least that of social policy, and especially overshadows what is being done with and for young people. In such conditions, there is a sense in which — to simplify the crux of the argument — social and life skills training is becoming the only form of training which can and must be offered to increasing numbers of young people when they leave school, even when they do not become unemployed. Of course, this is not, and will never be, the whole story: some recruits to work will always require a training in sophisticated and demanding occupational skills, and sometimes these will call for very high levels of knowledge and understanding and an ability to gain some very advanced types of competence. Skilled technicians as well as professional technologists will continue to be needed, probably in growing numbers.

Indeed, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, this increased ‘skilling’ of the labour force was assumed to be inevitable, and essential for Britain’s survival as an industrial nation. All the great education reports of the period — Crowther, Newsom, Plowden, Robbins — were concerned to tap that enormous pool of ability which was running to waste. They sought to do this, not only because of the individual loss which this represented, but also because ‘…..the future pattern of employment in this country will require a much larger pool of talent than is at present possible, and that at least a substantial proportion of the ‘average’ and ‘below average’ pupils are sufficiently educable to supply that additional talent…..on the whole the level of skill will tend to rise rather than fall….. If anything, the progress of automation and the application of other technological developments are likely to be delayed by lack of trained personnel’ (49).  Even Albemarle noted industry’s ‘growing need for technological and managerial skills’: indeed, it was very concerned about the personal effects on young people of the increasing pressure on them to compete in a world which was more and more selecting for skill (50).

In fact, however, since the early 70s, the number of skilled jobs has decreased and many of those which have remained have been progressively deskilled. One of the clearest indications of this is the decline in the availability of apprenticeships (51). In addition, in both manual and non-manual work — for, say, both the car mechanic and the bank clerk — the requirement has been less and less that workers be highly skilled in specifically job-related tasks. The work processes have, instead, been routinised — reduced wherever feasible to a simpler range of tasks, each calling for lower levels of skill. This has made it easier for workers to acquire that skill, and it had made it easier for employers to use them more flexibly and cost-effectively.

These workers have, of course, still needed some preparation — some training — for work, to which outside educational agencies have been expected to contribute. However, increasingly, the ‘simple labour’ which they are being asked to do has assumed that they possess, not ‘hard’ craft skills but ‘soft’ general skills, defined, for example, as ‘reliability’, ‘a sense of responsibility’, ‘adaptability’, ‘maturity’, ‘realism’ — that is, ‘social and life skills’. John Bazalgette discovered as early as 1972 that employers were complaining repeatedly about young people’s ‘roughness, laziness, lack of discipline, unreliable work-rates, the speed with which they chucked in —a job’ (52).  By 1978, both the (then) Secretary of State for Education and the Chairman of MSC had converted these complaints into a rather more positive set of expectations and aims, the focus of which was vocational preparation which should be broad-based, with a high premium on encouraging flexibility and versatility, and which ‘should not be concentrated on one job or occupation but should provide young people with a base that will be of practical use across a wide field of occupations’ (53) Such training, according to MSC’s own Chairman, should be concerned particularly with developing basic skills across a wide range of jobs: literacy and numeracy, manual dexterity in the use of tools and work materials without sexual discrimination, as well as certain important social skills including how to ‘become presentable at an interview’.  Above all, what was being stressed, in fact, was the need ‘to train and educate individuals for a working life in which they would have to cope with change, so as to achieve a more highly mobile and adaptable workforce’ (54).

The general relevance of social and life skills training to changing industrial methods and needs was thus, by the end of the decade, clearly established and unquestioningly accepted by many very powerful policy-makers. Moreover, by then it was getting even more urgent to implement such training very systematically, since evidence was accumulating that young people had a clear idea of what work was like — and were far from impressed. Thus, in 1975-T977, Martin Simon, after surveying 700 under-25 year olds working for GEC in Rugby — boys and girls, apprentices and operatives — discovered that ‘the expectations of many young people (were) that industrial work is boring and repetitive…..’ (55). And Pahl, after getting classes of young people who were about to leave school (most of them without CSEs) to imagine what their futures were going to be like, got this devastating response from one youngster: ‘/ was 16 and faced with nothing, only a hearse of a life that would eventually lead me to the cemetery gates… My first job was meaningless and obscure, but I tolerated its meagreness for my own sake because it offered a hint of salvation from the obscurity of my own inner self.’ (56)

Even more serious, however, was the fact that the restructuring of industry, in addition to reducing the demand for craft skills, was also reducing the demand for unskilled labour, and was therefore helping to create dangerously high levels of unemployment among young people. The effect of this was not only to ‘waste the lives’ of the young, but also to leave them bereft of key socialising experiences at a crucial stage of their lives. For this was precisely the moment when they might be most amenable to induction into the disciplines of work and when they were leaving the controlling influences of school. Yet increasingly they were out of touch with the adult workers on whom they might model ‘mature’ behaviour; from whom they could learn the routines and habits of the shop floor and those vital values embodied in the Protestant ethic. How, in fact, would they acquire their social and life skills? [page 9]

Whether or not industry required these young people to have highly specific craft skills, it certainly needed them to be kept in a state of readiness for the moment when their labour would be called on.

The problem to be resolved, however, was not just one of what the training of these young people should contain. It was also one of who should provide this training — of which agencies could carry it out most effectively. Throughout the 60s, as the great education reports again demonstrate, it was 1 taken for granted that the schools had a, perhaps the, major contribution to make. Of course, this was often subject to criticism in detail, and the other more specialised providers such as further education colleges and industrial training boards were expanded. Nevertheless, despite its commitment to non-vocationally specific aims such as ‘liberal’ and ‘personal’ education, traditional schooling’s role was rarely challenged fundamentally by the state or even by industry — though the pupils and their parents showed themselves to be much less convinced about its credibility (57).

By the mid-70s, however, attitudes to traditional education had changed dramatically. The clearest evidence was, of course, the emergence of a ‘great education debate’ launched by the Prime Minister himself, and the apparently unstoppable rise of a massive state agency with huge funds at its disposal, whose sole focus was the labour market and the quality of the labour force — namely the Manpower Services Commission. These two events together demonstrated, first, that in powerful quarters the schools were no longer trusted to provide the kind of (social and life skills) training which industrial change and the economic crisis of the later 70s required. They and their teachers were, for one thing, too independent — that is, too well protected against direct state influence and control by their relative autonomy within the structure and by the growth of teacher professionalism. Even the teacher-dominated Schools Council had not been able to seriously dent these defences: even more remote state agencies clearly would have a very long drawn out and probably unsuccessful struggle on their hands.

Secondly, what the schools were offering young people by way of ‘preparation’ for work was seen, in particular in the crisis conditions of the later 70s, as less and less effective. Indeed, it could even be interpreted as subversive. For, when all that liberal and personalised education worked its way through to the economy, what it produced was more awareness about the realities of ‘work’ than industry could bear, and rather too much disaffection from its given conditions of service.

The great education debate and the rise of the MSC were also responses to that part of the crisis which was, of course, totally outside the schools’ control, but which was, as we have seen, becoming more and more serious — the appearance of mass youth unemployment. Structures — preferably a structure, in fact — were needed which could respond to this quickly, coherently, systematically — and with aims and principles which shifted the emphasis away from the liberal-humane concerns of traditional education.

Indeed, what was needed was a clear and single-minded strategy for dealing with a new stage in the life cycle which was marked at one end by the completion of schooling and at the other by the start of ‘real’ working life. During this stage, training and induction would need to be given which ensured that young people transfer relatively painlessly into the labour force when the call came, because above all they had developed the ‘right’ working attitudes and habits. The agency to carry out these functions was self-evidently the MSC, which in the later 70s thus strove to assert its right to mount or control more and more of the training – especially the social and life skills training – of 16 to 19 year olds.

What we are witnessing, therefore, — despite consultative papers issued jointly by the Secretaries of State for Education and for Industry on ‘a better start to working life’ (58) -is a struggle for control of the facilities for learning available to the post-school adolescent, and especially to the 300,000 who each year reach the age of 16 without having gained any ‘educational qualifications. Whether these facilities are called ‘education’ or ‘training’ is, therefore, much more than a verbal quirk. The two terms embody different priorities of value and approach; they are designed for different institutional settings and they could have vitally different consequences for many individuals.

These differences writ small — usually very small — illuminate the deeper meaning of the swing in youth work from social education to social and life skills training. For, crudely, social education is to the youth worker what the liberal education tradition is to the school teacher. What the shift to social and life skills training indicates, therefore, is that the more person-centred and critical goals and methods of traditional youth work are now seriously at risk. The risk is epitomised  by youth work’s increasing flirtation with MSC schemes, with MSC-type perspectives on the problems to be resolved, and with MSC-type assumptions on how to resolve those problems.

In the first place, youth workers have responded in understandably pragmatic ways to an agency which has so much cash to dispense. That is, they have got involved as sponsors, supervisors and other key figures in the Youth Opportunities Programme, as a way of giving immediate relief to large numbers of unemployed young people — and also in order to get more staff and resources into their own organisation. Secondly, youth workers — even those operating at quite senior, policy-making levels — have usually also failed to probe at any depth what an agency like MSC stands for, why it has grown so rapidly, what its impact is likely to be in the longer-term, and what all this means for the Youth Service. Thus, neither the paper produced by the Consultative Group on Youth and Community Work Training in February 1978 (590 nor the statement issued jointly by NCVYS, CYSA, NAYCEO and BYC in September 1978 (60), confronted these deeper questions, nor did they offer youth workers more specific help in defending their social education tradition.

For this reason alone, I am unimpressed by youth work personnel — whether they be policy-makers or practitioners — who tell me that ‘it’s not really like that on the ground’. that ‘it works out alright on the day’, that ‘if the money’s there it’s stupid not to take it’. Of course, I doubt neither the sincerity nor even the accuracy of such assurances on tactics. What I do question, though, is the long-term strategic effects for youth work of acting according to principles which are alien to the relatively enlightened forms of practice which, in the post-Albemarle period, it so painstakingly constructed. [page 10]

Section IV: In Defence of Social Education

What, then, should those who are committed to social education as an important philosophical and practical concept do ? How should teachers, further education lecturers, social workers and youth workers in particular set about defending the social education tradition, especially at a time of economic crisis and under increasing pressure from powerful government agencies? Questions like these cannot be answered simply. The political and economic realities of the present cannot be written out of existence or reduced by mere nostalgic appeal to the past. Nor can youth work, nor even education generally, expect to tackle head-on interests which have so much invested in our society’s current way of distributing power and resources. However, some positive and principled responses do seem possible, even though they stop a long way short of constituting a blueprint for action.

First, youth workers, teachers and others involved in social education need to regain their nerve — their conviction that some of the person-centred, critical and creative goals to which they have been committed are still valid. Such commitments have, it is true, not been all that fashionable in recent years, as the crisis has generated its own insecurities and a search for scapegoats. Despite their roots in long and ostensibly hallowed traditions, these commitments have been treated by Black Paperites as if they were obstructive or even subversive. Radical critics, too, in their anxiety to emphasise structural analyses and political solutions, have often been suspicious or even arrogantly dismissive of deliberate attempts to nurture sensitive and personalised exchanges amongst individuals and small groups. Moreover, by themselves, these orientations have anyway often failed to make much long-term difference to the lives of seriously disadvantaged sections of the population. Nonetheless, social educators have no need to be apologetic about the continuing importance of face-to-face work, or of a heightened understanding of young people’s personal and interpersonal needs and experiences. If they cannot reassert what is distinctive about the theory, philosophy and practice of their specialist field of work, they cannot hope to resist, still less to influence, the cruder, often highly mechanistic and behaviourist forms of social and life skills training now being foisted on so many young people.

Second, however, mere defence and reassertion will not be enough. Further positive analysis and clarification of the meaning and application of social education will also be essential. In particular, deliberate attempts will have to be made to fill the gaps which the work of the 60s left in our understanding of the ‘what and ‘how’ of social education. In many respects it is these gaps which have made it possible for the social and life skills bandwagon to progress so rapidly. In particular, social educators will have to abandon the morally neutral and a-political stances which they took up in the 60s. Instead, they will have more openly and directly to declare that their practice always has a moral and political content, and to indicate the values on which this practice rests. Fortunately, some of them are already doing this. Feminist youth workers, for example, in particular in their work with girls, are now clearly stating the values from which they are starting. In addition, some of those concerned with political education within youth work are also trying to be explicit about the philosophical ideals to which they are committed and have, in one project at least, included amongst their core values ‘human freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. (61)

Third, in clarifying the meaning and implications of social education we need also to sharpen our appreciation and expound more explicitly what its content could and should be — that is, what a curriculum for social education might look like. In setting such a curriculum the characteristic responsive-ness of social educators to young people’s own experience (including its feeling content) and to their explanation of that experience, will, of course, have to be preserved. The temptation to oversimplify what such a curriculum might include will need to be avoided. Nonetheless, social educators will still need to specify more exactly what knowledge and insights, personal and material resources, as well as skills which they are trying to help young people acquire or develop. Take, as just one important example, that still much debated but nonetheless crucial focus of social education — sexuality, sexual activity and sexual relationships. This, it would seem, rarely merits much attention in most social and life skills training programmes, largely, it would seem, because sex education does not directly improve the quality and mobility of the work force.

However, within social education it has frequently been seen as essential that young people gain the information, extend their understanding, reflect on the values and gain the skills which are relevant to their relationships, both casual and intimate, with members of the opposite sex. Indeed, in recent years some youth workers – again, for example, those working from a feminist perspective — have made such education a core feature of their practice. And some, too, I have accepted the need to do this very specifically for that small but often anguished minority for whom sexual relationships involve relations with people of the same sex.

Yet, as these illustrations begin to show, a social education curriculum is about much more than imparting the social and life skills of, say, getting hold of contraceptives, using them properly and safely, and getting advice and help when you are pregnant. Though of course these things are important and indeed sometimes need to be given the highest priority, they can hardly in themselves constitute a complete curriculum for social educators. Such a curriculum must also involve teaching on gender roles as these are ascribed and prescribed within our society and are often also confronting young people’s class position and experience.

For, to take the example of contraception a little further, a person’s willingness or ability to commit herself (or, of course, himself) deliberately to controlling her own fertility may turn on her sense of how well she can take control of her life and future generally. For many working class girls, such confidence may barely have taken root since, in their own past, they may never have actually experienced such control on important matters. For them, the most common experience may well have been that of powerlessness — of only very [page 11] limited opportunities to act independently and assertively in using their own mind or body. These experiences may in turn have encouraged mainly fatalistic explanations of why their lives are as they are, which at least allow them a modicum of self-respect by shifting the blame for their predicament on to forces outside themselves and their own failings.

An even basically adequate curriculum for social education focussed on sexuality and sexual relations would have to take some account of these highly complex issues. Some attempt to detail such a content in this, as on many other issues, is now necessary if the truncated and over-simplified curricula which characterise most social and life skills training are to be challenged.

Fourth, in reasserting the importance and validity of social education, its advocates also need to face the increasing, and very legitimate, demand that they develop practice, and a curriculum for practice, concerned with much more than young people’s leisure. Here, too, social education should not be overawed. Other youth practitioners, despite appearances, have not been all that single-minded or successful in operating outside the leisure arena. Intermediate treatment workers, for example, seem most often to be providing an alternative leisure service for certain groups of young people, though usually on terms which are much less advantageous to the users than those offered by the Youth Service. Moreover, social educators have often been more than managers of leisure facilities. As we have seen, where sex education has been offered, or where youth workers have worked preventatively on the problem of young homelessness, their movement out of the leisure sphere has been very obvious.

Clearly, however, youth workers and others concerned with social education now need to be much bolder and more definite in making such moves and in particular, given where most social and life skills training is coming from, need to confront issues arising out of mass youth unemployment much more directly. However, this does not mean only working with unemployed adolescents and abandoning ‘mainstream’ youth — though certainly one possible way of defending social education would be to go on the offensive and carry its values and principles uncompromisingly into the heartland of MSC-style programmes. But it also means accepting that the problem of unemployment is now penetrating deep into the experience and consciousness of mainstream youth anyway. It is becoming a possibility, and even a periodic reality, for far larger numbers than actually appear in the jobless statistics for any particular month. Not only they, nor even only their friends, but increasingly also their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, are actually experiencing unemployment or are being threatened by it. It thus represents a reality — and so a point of connection for the educator — for a large proportion of mainstream youth. The need, and also, unfortunately, therefore, the possibility for developing a social education curriculum for many young people on this and other non-leisure issues, seems likely to grow in the immediate future.

Fifth, a further component of a reinvigorated theory and practice of social education adapted to the conditions and demands of the times would probably overlap much more deliberately into political education. The sudden fashion for political education, as I have indicated elsewhere (62), should certainly be treated circumspectly and its limitations acknowledged. Nonetheless, current interest in it is real, as are the (limited) resources which have been channelled into it in the late 70s. Yet, as we have seen, in its early evolution social education concentrated almost exclusively on the micro level, interpersonal areas of young people’s experience and expectations. Good historical reasons for this orientation exist and — as I have also argued above — good contemporary reasons remain for continuing to give it priority attention.

However, it now seems vital to consider much more specifically where and how such interpersonal insights and skills can be applied in the political sphere — that is, to activities within large-scale institutions which are focussed on acquiring and using power. It seems likely at least that, to operate successfully in this arena, individuals need to be able to make the fullest use of their social skills. They need to be as clear as possible about their own values and beliefs, to use themselves in social encounters in quite sophisticated ways, to feel reasonably confident in their own self-image and so on. Social educators could well have much to offer here. However, if they have, and if they are to make their contribution appropriately, the political dimensions of social education and the social component of political education will have to be spelt out much more exactly than is now the case and the bridge between the two established.

Finally, a social education theory and practice for the 1980s may need increasingly to build bridges into practice areas and organisational settings with which, at present, its links are quite weak. In fact, as we have already noted in passing, social education has been more widely practised than has often been acknowledged. For, not just youth workers but also a good number of teachers and further education lecturers, and also of course some of those working with ‘at risk’ and unemployed young people, have continuously tried to operate within a social education frame of reference.

However, also implicit in many of the questions raised in this paper, has been the need for such workers now to find allies equally committed to defending what is distinctive and progressive in social education. This may particularly mean identifying those practitioners who accept that distinctiveness, and those progressive principles, but who may not themselves specifically apply the label ‘social education’ to what they do. Again, these practitioners may be found within teaching and social work, and even, it is worth recalling, amongst youth workers for whom social education has not been an important notion. Paradoxically, at the very moment when social   education’s values and validity are being reasserted, this may mean not being precious about it, not making more claims for it than it can bear, and not implying that it can be practised only by a select and known group of ‘professionals’.

In other words, advocates of social education who wish to resist the drift to social and life skills training may need to be looking for alliances with all those other educators now trying to defend the liberal and personalised traditions of education generally. Social education is too much part of that broader tradition to pretend that it is entirely free-floating. It is also far too weak and marginal to stand alone in the face of the current pressures on it. Re-establishing some of these links now seems a high priority.

Indeed, the prescriptive pointers set out in this final section may seem’ too generalised and too lacking in ‘clout’ to make much impression on those wider societal forces which were outlined earlier in this paper. They may, in fact, do little more [page 12] than highlight how marginal social education really is; how little weight it can carry with and for those young people who are being affected by a fundamental restructuring of industry and so of the labour market, and by a deep-seated crisis of faith in the ability of our society’s institutions to deal with this economic upheaval.

Yet, it hard to believe that, for young people, the answers to all this lie in the usually bloodless and manipulative versions of social and life skills training now being constructed. With all its weaknesses and limitations, social education still offers a wider and richer set of prospects for the growing adolescent, and it can still suggest a philosophy and a practice which are more sensitively geared to young people’s personal needs and more potentially responsive to their demands.

For those who wish to be working significantly in young people’s interests, therefore, social education certainly seems worth defending, not least after May 1979 and the election of a new government stridently committed to law-and-order responses to any youngster who rocks the boat. In this new situation, MSC-imposed schemes of social and life skills training may come to seem an even more peripheral issue, especially after the reductions in the Youth Opportunities Programme and other cuts in services to young people. No-one, however, should be in any way misled by this. The new alternatives will certainly not be a re-affirmation of old-fashioned social education, nor even mere ‘benign neglect’. In the coming years, the threat of ‘disruptive and disreputable youth’ is likely to loom larger and larger in the minds of our rulers, for whom the current MSC and intermediate treatment approaches may, therefore, seem increasingly soft. Firm — indeed, stern — measures will almost certainly be seen as necessary.

So — already, it seems, we should be pondering: after social and life skills training, what ? National Service ? We should now be asking ourselves: how prepared are we to deal with that scenario ?


1. The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO, 1960, para 184.

2. Social Education, Derbyshire Education Committee, 1967.

3. The Schools and the Youth Service: Towards a Partnership in Social Education, National Association of Youth Service Officers, 1969.

4. Social Education: The Common Ground, Youth Service Information Centre, 1972.

5. Youth and Community Work in the 70s. HMSO, 1969, para 152.

6. Bill 19, 45/4, 28th November 1973, Section 2 (2) (a); Bill 34, 47/1, 27th November 1974, Section 2 (2) (a).

7. See Youth Service, Special No. 1, Autumn 1975, p.3, para 3.

8. A Second Report on the Training of Part-time Youth Leaders and Assistants, HMSO, 1965, para 62.

9. George Goetschius and Joan Tash, Working with Unattached Youth, Routledge, 1967, pp. 282-284.

10. Bryce Anderson et al., The Hilton Project, Youth Development Trust (unpublished), 1973.

11. Jim McGrath, Social Education – A Functionalist View, in Youth in Society, No. 13, Sept/Oct 1975, p.7.

12. See Bernard Davies, Policies for Youth – Into the Eighties, in Rapport, Sept 1978, p.11.

13. J. A. Simpson, How Good is the Social Side of my Club ? in Youth Service, Vol.3, No.8, July 1963, pp.6-7.

14. Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson, The Social Education of the Adolescent, University of London Press, 1967, p.12.

15. Philip Taylor, Society, Social Education and the Adolescent, National Association of Boys Clubs, 1967, p.5.

16. The Schools and the Youth Service: Towards a Partnership in Social Education, p.7.

17. Leslie Button, Developmental Group Work with Adolescents, University of London Press, 1974.

18. Nigel Collins and Liz Hoggarth, No Man’s Landmarks, National Youth Bureau, 1977.

19. The Social Education of the Adolescent, Chapter 2.

20. John Eggleston, Adolescence and Community, Arnold, 1975, Chapter 5.

21. T. S. Chivers, Which Way for Youth Workers ? National Youth Bureau, 1977, pp.6-9.

22. Stephen Butters, Realities of Training, National Youth Bureau, 1978, Chapter 2.

23. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin, 1972.

24. Jim McGrath, in Youth in Society, No. 13, p.7.

25. Social Education in Informal Settings: case studies of practice within the Youth Opportunities Programme, National Youth Bureau, 1979.

26. Education Guardian, 29th May 1979.

27. Education Guardian, 8th May 1979.

28. Guy Dauncey, Working with Young People, BBC, 1979, p.27.

29. Guy Dauncey, pp. 10-16.

30. A Syllabus for Work, Life and Communication Skills, I LEA, Jan 1978.

31. Sue Spence, Social Skills Training with Children and Adolescents: A Trainer’s Manual, Tennal School, Birmingham, undated, p.3.

32. Sue Spence, p.2.

33. Instructional Guide to Social and Life Skills Training, MSC, 1973, para 1.1.2.

34. Instructional Guide, para 2.1.

35. Making Experience Work, MSC, 1979, para 1.

36. Social Education in Informal Settings.

37. Social Education in Informal Settings.

38. Postal Survey of FE Provision for the Young Unemployed, 1977, Further Education Curriculum Review and Development Unit, 1978.

39. Sue Spence, p. 1.

40. Sue Spence, p. 1.

41. Instructional Guide to Social and Life Skills Training, para 1.

42. Guy Dauncey, p.27.

43. Making Experience Work, para 22.

44. See Guy Dauncey, p.28; Making Experience Work, para 16.

45. Guy Dauncey, p.24.

46. Making Experience Work, para 22.

47. Postal Survey of FE Provision for the Young Unemployed, Section 8 (f).

48. Instructional Guide to Social and Life Skills Training, para 4.1.

49. Half Our Future, HMSO, 1963, paras 10-11.

50. The Youth Service in England and Wales, para 106.

51. See, for example. Young People and Work, MSC, Table 111, p. 15; and Andrew Sawdon et al.. Study of the Transition from School to Working Life, Youthaid, 1979, para 12.4.

52. John Bazalgette, School Life and Work Life, Hutchinson, 1978, p.51.

53. Young People in Transition: The Education and Training of 14 to 19 Year Olds, Report of a Conference held in June 1978, NUT, 1979, p.24.

54. Review and Plan 1978, MSC, 1978, para 4.22.

55. Martin Simon, Youth Into Industry, National Youth Bureau, 1977, para 294.

56. R. E. Pahl, Living without a Job: How School-leavers See the Future, in New Society, 2nd November 1978.

57. See, for example. Young School Leavers, HMSO, 1968.

58. A Better Start in Working Life, DES and Dol, 1979.

59. Training for Personnel in the Youth Opportunities Programme in Relation to the Social Education of Young People, National Youth Bureau, February 1978.

60. The Youth Service and the Young Unemployed, September 1978.

61. Mark Smith, Political Education Programme, National Association of Youth Clubs, March 1979, para 2.6.

62. Bernard Davies, Can the Young Participate ? in Youth in Society, No.33, February 1979.

Parts of this paper have been strongly influenced by an unpublished paper by Simon Frith called ‘Education, Training and the Labour Process’.

Reproduced here with the permission of the writer.

How to cite this piece:  Bernard Davies (1979) From social education to social and life skills training: In whose interest?, Leicester: National Youth Bureua. Available in the informal education archives:

© Bernard Davies 1979, 2006
First placed in the archives: February 2005. Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by