Informal education in schools and colleges

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In recent years there has been a significant growth in the numbers of informal educators working in formal educational settings like schools and colleges. We explore the phenomenon – and some of the possibilities and problems involved.

contents: introduction · recent developments in school and college policy and practice · the decline in classroom teachers’ involvement in informal education – and the rise of the specialist · the extension of curricular activity and the focus on outcome · developing opportunities for informal educators · conflicting frameworks · conclusion – what future for informal education in schools and colleges? · further reading and references · how to cite this article


There has been a significant growth in the numbers of informal educators working within schools and colleges in Britain and a number of other countries. As we will see, three factors have been especially significant in Britain:

The narrowing of the focus of classroom teachers and lecturers particularly as they deal with increased workloads and the national curriculum.

A growing belief in the need to attend to learning beyond the classroom if educational achievement is to rise and if people’s orientation and skill base is to remain relevant to the economy (e.g. Bentley 1998; Leadbeater 2000). An aspect of this has been the growth in use of problematic notions such as lifelong learning.

A desire to ensure that school and college life is marked by reasonable behaviour and is attractive to potential students and their parents.

In the United States we have seen a parallel growth in interest in full-service schooling (Dryfoos 1994) and a concern with ‘helping in the hallways’ (Hazler 1998). Similarly, those schools that have tried to grapple with the notion of multiple intelligences have had to look at create a variety of environments for learning – many of which embrace the informal. In this article we will see that there are considerable pressures on, and issues for, informal educators in these developments. However, there are also great possibilities and some significant spaces to engage.

Recent developments in school policy and practice

Primary schooling

Within the primary education field in the UK there has been a tradition of using the notion of informal education to describe the more fluid, ‘open‘ and apparently progressive forms of schooling that developed in the 1960s (e.g. McKenzie and Kernig 1975). As Blyth (1988: 11) has commented, informal pedagogy has ‘figured spasmodically in English education from quite early in the industrial age and even before. Robert Owen and, later, Samuel Widlerspin are examples here.  However, there was a particular moment when ‘informal education’ came to the fore:

Certain words have acquired a peculiar potency in primary education, and few more so than ‘informal’. Never properly defined, yet ever suggestive of ideas and practices which were indisputably right, ‘informal’ was the flagship of the semantic armada of 1960s Primaryspeak . . . spontaneity, flexibility, naturalness, growth, needs, interests, freedom . . . self—expression, discovery and many more. (Alexander 1988: 148)

Many of the thinkers (e.g. Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Dewey and Bruner) that we would see as informing the development of informal education as a conversational form are also important influences on this movement (see Blyth 1988: 7-24). However, since the 1960s the terms of educational debate have shifted dramatically. When we look at discussions of primary schooling the noun ‘informality’, rather than the adjective ‘informal’ was much more likely to be used by the late 1980s  (see Jeffs and Smith 1990: 5-6). Thus, instead of informal education, it was possible to examine informality in pedagogy, in curriculum, in organization, in evaluation and in personal style (Blyth 1988). By the mid 1990s, the British government ‘espoused the simple nostrum that the key to enhanced standards and economic competitiveness was an unrelenting concentration on basic skills in literacy and numeracy, to be addressed mainly through “interactive whole-class teaching”‘ (Alexander 2000: 2). It became far less common to hear informal approaches to primary education being advanced as a blanket alternative to formal ones.

However, with the failure of many of the formalizing initiatives such as literacy hour to engage the interests of children there has been movement. In addition, growing resistance on the part of schools and teachers to the ways in which a broad and balanced primary curriculum has been compromised by the national tests and strategies has played a part in the search for pedagogic alternatives. We have seen the reappearance of projects as a means of organizing work, and a stronger emphasis on dialogue and upon less didactic activity. Recently, and rather symbolically, the Cambridge Review of Primary Education called for the development of local community curricula with explicitly communal foci:

… by building on children’s knowledge and experience, by engaging children educationally with the local culture and environment in a variety of ways, and by involving children in discussion of the local component through school councils and the work of the CCPs [community curriculum partnerships], the community curriculum would both give real meaning to children’s voice and begin the process of community enrichment and regeneration where it matters. (Cambridge Primary Review 2009: 53)

While the words ‘informal’ and ‘informality’ are not used with any regularity (other than referring to learning) we can see some familiar themes appearing in the Cambridge Primary Review:

Teaching and learning should engage with the big ideas, key processes, modes of discourse and narratives of subjects so that they understand what constitutes quality and standards in particular domains … Learners should be encouraged and helped to build relationships and communication with others for learning purposes, in order to assist the mutual construction of knowledge and enhance the achievements of individuals and groups. Consulting pupils about their learning and giving them a voice is both an expectation and a right … Informal learning, such as learning out of school, should be recognised as at least as significant as formal learning. (James and Pollard 2008: 17; 19)

The scene looks set for further movement.

Secondary schooling

If we approach informal education as process that is conversation-driven then we can see that there are various spaces for activity within schools and colleges.  One significant tradition of work has been the school-based youth club.  A second has been an interest in extra-curricular activity – in part a throw-back to some of the ideals and practices of Victorian public schools. This has often found expression in sports, hobbies and arts clubs and groups. A third has been work undertaken with children and young people around schools councils. A fourth, and fundamental form, has been the everyday conversations that emerge in the classroom, or in encounters in hallways, canteens and play areas. Such activity does not necessarily have the funding and resources it needed, and is ‘offered on a personal basis by committed teachers’ (Andrews 2001: 14). Historically, within the UK these activities have typically involved lecturers, teachers and students working together with just a small sprinkling of additional characters like youth workers and youth tutors. In the United States there has been a stronger tradition of the involvement of other ‘specialists’ like coaches.

Since the early 1990s within UK secondary schools and colleges there has been a significant extension and broadening of activity. This has involved a growing army of personnel including classroom assistants, informal educators, youth workers, learning mentors and personal advisers. Sometimes this has taken a particular organizational form such as in the new community schools in Scotland (modelled after the US notion of full-service schooling), mostly it has arisen out the an incremental growth driven by new policy initiatives. In further education colleges there has also been an expansion in the numbers of mentors, advisers and youth workers.

Activities have included, for example:

Working with students to set up study clubs and circles (to follow particular academic interests), and ‘homework clubs’ (spaces to do the work).

Encouraging and supporting the development of groups around enthusiasms and interests such as music and sound systems, environmental issues, and cross-community reconciliation.

Developing alternative educational provision for young people experiencing difficulties in mainstream classrooms.

Working with individuals around the personal difficulties they are experiencing in their lives. This could be to do with family relationships and friendships, schooling, health or around thinking about their future.

Being around in hallways, canteens and recreation areas to help build an environment that is safe and convivial.

Enhancing the quality of relationships and of college and school life generally through activities like residentials and ‘fun days’.

Opening up and developing avenues for young people to engage with different political systems via things like school councils, students’ unions and youth forums.

Assisting with the development of inclusive education. This may be through working with young people to accept others, and to make sense of the school environment.

Looking for opportunities to enhance community cohesion – both within schools and locally.

Some of these developments have occurred out of simple economic necessity. In order to attract application it has been necessary to attempt to make schools and colleges more attractive to parents of potential students. This has encouraged some schools to more actively engage with their local communities, feeder primary schools, and to work with community groups and parents in fresh and imaginative ways.  Others are providing youth and leisure provision for young people (and parents) to project a favourable image, make schools and colleges safer places, and retain affiliation. More recently in England a number have taken advantage of government policies around developing extended schooling. A comprehensive array of extra-mural activities is seen by some schools and colleges as being a particularly attractive feature for parents.

With the increased local management of schools and the establishment of further education colleges as ‘independent’ bodies, there has also been pressure to find new sources of income and to increase the ‘return’ on the resources that the school possesses. Senior managers in schools have looked to gain more income from lettings e.g. from sports facilities – and this has led in some places to the need to work with community and enthusiast groups, and commercial providers, so that they can access their provision. This has been a particular feature of schools in the Academies programme (see Beckett 2007).

Policy orientations

Underlying much of the movement in the UK has arisen out of a particular set of policy orientations (see, social exclusion, ‘joined-up thinking’ and individualization – the connexions strategy). Here I just want to note four particular aspects:

The concern with social exclusion. A key theme in current policy initiatives is the ideas that if people become disconnected from schooling and further education, and thence the labour market, they are more likely to pose significant problems for welfare systems and society as a whole. Drug-taking, crime, family breakdown and teenage pregnancy are oft cited examples here. This understanding harks back to notions of a so–called ‘underclass’ of unskilled and disaffected people. One obvious way of eliminating such a drain on resources is to make every effort to ensure people gain entry to the labour market (in part through ensuring that they gain the ‘right’ skill mix and orientation in the schooling and college system), and to increase the cost to them of not working (through changes to the income support system etc.).

The mantra of ‘joined-up thinking’. Another important part of the equation has been the Government’s concern with the duplication of, and lack of coordination between, agencies and services. Two immediate problems have presented themselves here. First, there is only limited evidence to suggest that a) there is significant duplication; and b) that it is against the interests of potential clients and participants. Second, the notion of ‘joined-up’ services proceeds from a dubious assumption – that people benefit from dealing with services that share information with one another. ‘Joined-up’ services could work to curtail the freedom of people to ‘shop around’. Furthermore, many agencies (especially those concerned with informal education) work on the basis of a ‘fresh start’ – and may well not welcome such information or wish to share their knowledge. Furthermore, co-operating with certain types of agency may well compromise their ability to work with particular groups and individuals.

The growth of surveillance and control. There has been a strong focus on the surveillance of those who may cause a problem to social order. In recent years this has resulted in the growing use of close circuit television, failed attempts at curfews and the use of welfare workers to monitor the activities of families and individuals. One of the most obvious developments here has been the deployment of youth workers and informal educators in recreation areas and the hallways of schools and colleges. Some further education colleges, in particular, have experienced problems of order and have turned to the employment of security guards and youth workers as a way of calming the situation. More covert or implicit forms of surveillance have gone almost unnoticed – such as the use of course work for qualification and the monitoring of individual ‘progress’ within schooling. These are what Staples (2000) has termed the ‘mundane’ practices of surveillance. The Connexions strategy in England was a further extension of this activity. Detailed records are kept on individual young people. Those deemed to be ‘at risk’ are subject to special monitoring – notably with regard to post 16 options. Tasks that flow from this monitoring include: ‘seeking to prevent drop-out from options, arranging alternative provision when they unavoidably leave options – including links with specialized agencies, and using outreach to bring back into learning those who are not in it’ (Social Exclusion Unit 1999: 81). When this is added to the phenomenal growth in data collection linked to child protection and profiling it is apparent that there has been a disproportionate response. Key databases here include ContactPoint – the national index of all children in England; e-CAF – the electronic Common Assessment Framework, which holds an assessment of a child’s welfare needs; and ONSET – the Home Office system that gathers information from many sources and seeks to predict which children will offend in the future. All three of these databases are ‘almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law’ (Anderson 2009).

The move to individualization. Last, there has been an increasing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals. Essentially a form of case management is seen as the dominant way of working. People are identified who are in need of intervention so that they may re-enter education, training or work. Individual action programmes are devised and implemented. Programmes are then assessed on whether these named individuals return to learning or enter work – rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the process.

For informal educators this set of policy orientations is deeply problematic – they run counter to some central aspects of practice. There is a shift from voluntary participation to more coercive forms; from association to individualized activity; from education to case management (and not even casework); and from informal to bureaucratic relationships. (See youth work, young people and association)

In addition, to these particular elements we need, also, to take account of some longer-run movements in schooling, and the structuring of occupations.

The decline in classroom teachers’ involvement in informal education – and the rise of the specialist

One of the significant long-term movements within schooling and further education in the UK has been the decrease in the amount of time that lecturers and classroom teachers have been able, or prepared, to give to informal education – both in terms of extra-curricular activity and free-ranging conversation within the classroom. The formal side of their work has increased markedly. Their average working week for both has risen significantly since the mid 1980s (to somewhere around 56 hours during term time). Three particular things have been significant here:

The increased use of coursework. The use of coursework as a form of assessment has grown markedly since the early 1970s. It began, in part, as a means of accrediting those students who experienced difficulties in doing exams. Subsequently, the ability to assess longer term and more substantial pieces of work has appealed, as has its relative success in keeping students working. Coursework has meant a significant increase in the marking load of teachers and lecturers, and a corresponding decline in time available for extra-curricular activities.

The need to address curriculum requirements. With the introduction of the national curriculum (and the associated regime of inspection) there appears to have been a marked change in the orientation of teachers within classrooms. There has been considerably less freedom for teachers and students to explore ideas and phenomenon outside it’s detailed specifications – and to take time on those areas that excited them. They are under pressure to complete programmes and to raise and sustain student performance in assessed subjects. This tendency has been further strengthened with the introduction of literacy and numeracy strategies in the second half of the 1990s. Moreover, the way national curriculum was framed placed students in a ‘more passive and conformist role’ (Alexander 2000: 565). Space for conversation and the freedom to ‘go with the flow’ was severely constrained. The tone and direction of school inspections added to these movements – and help to sustain a climate of conformity. Failure to address the requirements of the national curriculum and other government initiatives could have important consequences for schools. It can be argued with some justification that ‘during 1988-1998  England acquired one of the most tightly controlled and regulated state education systems in Europe’ (Alexander 2000: 122).

An increased emphasis upon monitoring and bureaucratic activity. The expansion of course work and the operation of a national curriculum have contributed to a significant growth in bureaucratic activity – course work has to be recorded and organized; and the progress of students monitored and evaluated. The activities of teachers, too, have to be checked. Other factors have also been at work here to increase the amount of time that teachers and lecturers have to spend in writing reports and keeping records, and in taking part in meetings. Two key elements here have been changing policies around students with special educational needs and the impact of child protection legislation.

The overall impact has been a significant decline in the amount of time and the freedom that classroom teachers and lecturers have to engage with their students in conversations and open-ended activities – and a growth in the numbers of specialist and ancillary workers involved in schools and colleges. The biggest growth has been in classroom assistants, but there has also been a significant expansion in the number of youth workers, and the introduction of learning mentors (largely as part of the Excellence in Cities Initiative) and then personal advisers (as part of the short-lived Connexions Service). The rationale was clear. As the Department for Education and Skills stated in respect of learning mentors,

… they take some of the burden off teachers, who often feel as though they should be helping pupils to overcome problems inside and outside school. Having a Learning Mentor to help pupils tackle these problems free teachers to teach…. [and] to concentrate and focus on delivering the national curriculum. (DfES 2002)

While there has been some room for interpretation in the learning mentor role (although this is now being eroded); the personal adviser role did have strong central expectations associated with it. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we have seen Taylorism in action. Schools and colleges have come to more strongly resemble production lines: the educational task has been sub-divided, workers operate in their particular areas to a centrally defined plan, and their products dispatched to the market.

The extension of curricular activity and a focus on outcome

Alongside growing constraints upon the activities of classroom teachers and others within schools and colleges there has been a growing appreciation in policy debates of the significance of relationships and learning beyond the formality of the classroom. This appears to have been picked up earlier in the USA where has been a sustained tradition of participation in student government and sports and arts clubs (Fashola 2001). However, there has been a developing body of research in both Britain and the USA demonstrating links between involvement by children and young people in organized activities and associational life and educational achievement (as well as there being broader benefits in terms of building social capital) (reviewed in NFER 1999; see, also, MacBeath 1999), and around creating the right environment within the family and local networks (discussed in Hughes et. al. 1994; Munn 1993).

One of the more significant developments in the UK has been has been around ‘out of school learning’. With the operation of organizations like Education Extra in the UK – and the development of government policies around raising educational achievement, lifelong learning and social inclusion – there has been a growing interest in out of school hours learning (OSHL). Michael Barber, for example, has written that, ‘However much schools improve, inspiration and motivation to learn are much more likely to come from children who benefit from involvement in out of school activities as well as formal schooling’ (1997: 257). Government-funded studies demonstrated a link between what were considered successful schools and the amount of extra-curricular activity and homework (Barber et. al. 1997). Significantly, these researchers looked to both the traditional sphere of clubs and societies (what could be described as ‘curriculum enrichment’) and additional study support provided through the medium of homework clubs and extra tuition (so called ‘curriculum extension’). Government and other monies (e.g. from the National Lottery New Opportunities Fund and the Princes Trust) began to flow into schools and colleges (especially those in areas of significant educational disadvantage) and to other settings like libraries to develop the work.

The employment of informal educators like youth workers and learning mentors has been a significant feature of these developments. Sometimes working alongside teachers and lecturers, sometimes working on their own, informal educators classically offer the opportunity to develop more associational and conversational environments for learning. There is often a tension here, particularly with regard to homework clubs, and it mainly comes from two directions. The first concerns the informality and noisiness of the work (and the contrast it provides with the other activities that usually happen around study in schools and libraries). The second involves worries that many informal educators are putting broader educational aims above the more specific curriculum objectives linked to the completion of homework.

This last tension highlights a worrying trend. One of the key features of the interest in out of school (and college) hours learning is that the more liberal notion of extra-curricular activity has been replaced by curricular-focused activity. Out of school hours learning looked to extend and enrich the curriculum, to tie such learning more closely to government and schooling objectives. It is not necessarily about the interests and enthusiasms of students. In this respect it is interesting to contrast this with the development of informal science education in the United States. Often linked to museum and science center activity,

… informal education consists of learning activities that are voluntary and self-directed, life-long, and motivated mainly by intrinsic interests, curiosity, exploration, manipulation, fantasy, task completion, and social interaction.  Informal learning occurs in an out-of-school setting and can be linear or non-linear and often is self-paced and visual- or object-oriented.  It provides an experiential base and motivation for further activity and learning.  The outcomes of informal learning experiences in science, mathematics, and technology include a sense of fun and wonder in addition to a better understanding of concepts, topics, processes of thinking in scientific and technical disciplines, and an increased knowledge about career opportunities in these fields. (National Science Foundation 1997)

Unfortunately, an obsession with targets and the completion of prescribed coursework rather works against the sense of fun and wonder that the National Science Foundation values. It is also a further example of the movement toward institutionalization that Ivan Illich discussed some thirty years ago. The extension of schooling (and other forms of institutionalization) undermines people he argued. ‘It diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems… It kills convivial relationships. Finally it colonizes life like a parasite or a cancer that kills creativity’ (Finger and Asún 2001: 10). We can see that informal education can offer an alternative – but it does depend on its practitioners’ developing strategies to distance their work from the sorts of packaged and prescribed activities that are the normal fare of schools and colleges. It also entails them working with lecturers, classroom teachers and managers to deepen their appreciation of educational forms that value process and conversation – and to demonstrate that there are ways of evaluating the work other than an obsession with measurable changes in the individuals they are working with (see evaluation and informal education).  As we will see below, there are some countervailing forces.

Developing opportunities for informal educators

Here it is worth focusing on three developments. First, there has been a flowering of work linked to the need to address the learning and behaviour of students who are not able to cope with the classroom or who exhibit behavioural problems in other areas of school life. We have seen the development of a range of in-school alternatives that offer sanctuary – a space away from the normal schooling regime in the company of more relationship-oriented and person-centred educators. These take various forms: for example student referral units that seek to address the needs of those exhibiting the most challenging behaviour: learning support units that give students space to orient themselves to learning and to develop strategies for dealing with schooling; and time-out rooms where students can ‘cool down’ and explore issues that are troubling them. Some larger schools will have a mix of such spaces; some smaller schools just one. Often staffed by workers who have trained as youth workers and informal educators, these spaces classically involve small group working and conversation as well as tutoring. Their success, in many respects, is dependent upon creating an ethos that is very different to the school at large (a place of sanctuary) and yet allows students to reengage with schooling.

Second, government policies – especially in England – around the development of extended schooling has provided some additional space for more open and associational forms of work. The extended schooling agenda has been more strongly linked to offering young people ‘things to do’ and less oriented to formal accreditation and to curriculum-extension. While much of what is on offer takes the form of organized activities these can be approached in creative ways by informal educators.

Third, an interest in community cohesion has also opened up a significant range of opportunities for informal educators. In part this has been linked into a general lack of understanding of the notion by teachers and senior managers in schools; and more especially how to respond to the demands of inspection regimes around it. More generally, and not surprisingly, there is a lack of understanding of the processes and possibilities of community development activity.

The English government has defined community cohesion as follows:

By community cohesion, we mean working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities; a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; and a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community. (DCSF 2007).

Three particular areas of activity are expected:

  • Teaching, learning and curriculum – helping children and young people to learn to understand others, to value diversity whilst also promoting shared values, to promote awareness of human rights and to apply and defend them, and to develop the skills of participation and responsible action.
  • Equity and excellence – ensuring equal opportunities for all to succeed at the highest level possible, striving to remove barriers to access and participation in learning and wider activities and working to eliminate variations in outcomes for different groups.
  • Engagement and extended services – providing reasonable means for children, young people, their friends and families to interact with people from different backgrounds and build positive relations: including links with different schools and communities and the provision of extended service with opportunities for pupils, families and the wider community to take part in activities and receive services which build positive interaction and achievement for all groups. (DCSF 2007)

The confidence, experience and expertise to engage with these areas in secondary schools is limited on the teaching side – and there is some evidence that schools are turning to informal educators and those experienced in community learning and development to make progress.

Conflicting frameworks

The major danger facing informal educators in the light of the above is that they get incorporated into activities that work against their core commitments. Given the dominance of curricular-thinking, imdividualization, and the orientation to control, ways of working that stress conversation, association and relationship are not likely to be easily understood nor appreciated. This can manifest itself in conflict – and there appear to be four particular flashpoints:

Confidentiality. The status of the information that informal educators gain about the lives and situations of the people they are working with in schools and colleges and how they are expected to handle it is one of the most problematic areas. What is right from the perspective of informal educators is not necessarily what is correct in terms of school and college policies and procedures. The problem here is usually that workers are expected to pass on information about students. If young woman comes to an informal educator to talk about her worries that she might be pregnant then this conversation will normally expected to be reported to the relevant person in the pastoral system etc. That young woman might not want the school or college authorities to know about this aspect of her personal life – and may just want space to explore matters. This can put the informal educator in a difficult position is she or he is employed by the school or college. Thus, one way of creating some room for this sort of conversation is to ensure that the informal educator works for an external agency, and that there are clear agreed boundaries with regard to disclosures (e.g. as is the case in many of the new community school initiatives in Scotland).

Discipline. On the whole informal educators have a more relaxed orientation to questions of discipline. If they are looking to association and relationship, then their fundamental concern is to work so that the group can take responsibility and look to its tasks. They may make very firm interventions – for example, where there are issues of safety and justice. However, for much of the time informal educators look to help build environments where conversation and engagement can happen. This tends to mean that there is more noise and playfulness in the settings where they are working than is usually associated with educators in schools and colleges. Inevitably tensions arise with other teachers and with managers. For example, informal educators working in hallways in colleges may well be comfortable with boisterous behaviour, but the lecturers in adjoining classrooms could well find it disruptive.

Learning about sensitive issues. The approach that informal educators may take to the discussion, for example, of sexual behaviour or drug usage has, historically been more open and direct than that usually associated with schools. Indeed, what is taught in schools (and, to some extent, colleges) is more closely circumscribed by law and the threat of external intervention. The cautious approach adopted by many schools leads to ‘a reliance on pre-packed teaching materials and presentational styles which focus on information giving, both of which predictably thwart dialogue’ (Jeffs and Smith 1999: 207). Informal educators generally offer an alternative way of working with their attention to experience, open conversation and relationship – but can hit real difficulties, especially if they are directly employed by the school or college.

Targets. Success may well be measured in very different ways by schools and colleges, and informal educators. The former are more likely to look to academic achievement, attendance and ‘good’ behaviour as indicators of success; informal educators are more likely to be concerned with the quality of the life of the group, the learning involved and the all-round flourishing of individuals. The ‘problem’ facing informal educators is that their work cannot be honestly evaluated by the sorts of crude outcomes usually employed by schools, government inspectors and even their own agencies. In truth, the same argument can also be made about schools and colleges, but it does pose a particular problem for informal educators as they do not have the same recourse to familiar indicators like exam success. One result of the pressure to demonstrate outcome has been a misguided turn to schemes that accredit experience and learning by some informal educators.

This is not an exhaustive list of the sorts of issues that arise – but it does bring out some of the key dimensions. There are bound to conflicts when educators and workers from different practice traditions have to work together – but informal educators in schools and colleges start with an obvious disadvantage. Their orientation and approach is, generally, significantly out of step with the ways of working that dominate schooling. In a very real sense they have to work on the margins – but this is what they do much of the time anyway. It is necessary for them to educate their colleagues and managers about their approach and orientation. It also important to take to heart a lesson learned in full-service schooling initiatives in the United States. Specialist educators and workers need to be employed and managed by agencies that stand outside the normal school and college structures. It is only in this way that space can be created for the sorts of conversations that are needed.

Conclusion: what future for informal education within in schools and colleges?

From this survey we can see that the expanding numbers of workers within schools and colleges who are not classroom teachers has meant that a number of informal educators have found themselves walking through school and college gates. Some have been able to develop innovative work that looks to relationship and association. Others have experienced a constant and disheartening struggle. The dominant tides of surveillance, curricular expansion, and individualization have sometimes proved too much for them. The values and practices of informal education do not fit easily into the schooling paradigm – but its practitioners have a duty to work within institutions like schools and colleges so that they may be more convivial for learning. As Ivan Illich wrote, ‘[W]e must find more ways to learn and teach: the educational qualities of all institutions must increase again’ (Illich 1973: 30).

It is perhaps a sign of the times that in recent years one of the strongest arguments for the need to examine the learning potential of institutions has come from those like Peter Senge who have sought to alter the character of business organizations (creating so-called ‘learning organizations‘). While some of these writers have had a concern with dialogue and organizational forms that are more just, many have not had the sorts of interests and commitments that Ivan Illich described as ‘convivial’. Within education there has been much talk of lifelong learning but it has only impacted on schools and colleges in the most instrumental ways. Sadly, Illich’s analysis of schooling has increased resonance today:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. (Illich 1973: 9)

There are signs that alternatives can emerge. As I have argued elsewhere, in some respects the current interest in social capital (most significantly expressed in the work of Robert Putnam 2000) is a hopeful discourse for informal educators. The significant gains in happiness, health and welfare in those communities where there is a strong associational life provides a strong rationale for informal education. In this respect specialist informal educators have a role in schools and colleges. They can also make the case for a more holistic approach to education in schools (drawing upon the discourses of well-being and happiness) – but the changes required lie well beyond their area of practice (see Layard 2005; Layard and Dunn 2009). It is in the realm of the classroom teacher and lecturer that fundamental movement has to happen.

As Parker J. Palmer (1998: 3) has noted, in the rush to reform education a simple truth has been forgotten:

Reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.

Further reading and references

Andrews, K. (2001) Extra Learning. New opportunities for the out of school hours, London: Kogan Page. 264 + viii pages. A manifesto for out of school hours learning (OSHL) and advice on how to develop it in ways that relate to government policies (improving schools, raising educational achievement, social and school inclusion etc.)

Arthur, J. (2000) Schools and Community. The communitarian agenda in education, London: Falmer Press. 165 + ix pages. Looks at some of the central themes developed by communitarian writers including character-building, the role of parents, the community and the individual, values education and citizenship, community education, and ethos in schools.

Bekerman, Z., Burbules, N. C. and Silberman Keller, D. (eds.) (2006) Learning in Places – the informal education reader, New York: Peter Lang. A resource book exploring the field of informal learning/education and its potential to transform educational thinking. Read the introduction.

Bentley, T. (1998) Learning beyond the Classroom: Education for a changing world, London: Routledge. 208 pages. Argues the case for a focus on learning beyond the formal sector and the need to connect what happens in schools to wider opportunities for learning. The book is rather light on theorization, coming, as it does, from a policy perspective (Demos).

Coffield, F. (2000) The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press. 80 + iv pages. Useful collection of material arising out of ESRC Learning Society Programme. Includes Coffield on the significance of informal learning; an excellent piece by Michael Eraut on non-formal learning – implicit learning and tacit knowledge in professional work; Field and Spence on informal learning and social capital; Barron et al on implicit knowledge, phenomenology and learning difficulties; Davies on the impact of accreditation; and Fevre et. al. on necessary and unnecessary learning.

Dryfoos, J. (1994) Full-Service Schools. A revolution in health and social services for children, youth and families, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 310 + xxiv pages. Comprehensive review of initiatives that explores practice, organizational and funding questions. The main point of reference around full-service schooling.

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Illich, I. (1973) Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Very influential statement concerning the divisive and dampening effect of schooling. Argues for the disestablishment of schooling and the creation of learning webs. See also his (1975) Tools for Conviviality, London: Fontana, for a wider political and economic statement.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2005) Informal Education: conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press. Introductory discussion of informal education that places the fostering of democracy at the core of informal education. Explores the nature of conversation and reflection, organizing the work, contrasts with formal education and the moral authority of the educator.

Retallick, J., Cocklin, B. and Commbe, K. (eds.) (1999) Learning Communities in Education. Issues, strategies and contexts, London: Routledge. 297 + xi pages. (Hardback only). Focuses on schooling – part one examines the nature of learning communities; part two on strategies and processes; and part three consists of five case studies.

Richardson, L. D. and Wolfe, M. (eds.) (2001) The Principles and Practice of Informal Education, London: RoutledgeFalmer. 290 + xiv pages. This introductory text is divided into four sections: exploring education; working with; elements of practice; developing professional practice. It includes chapters on the nature of education, working with, the history of informal education, programme planning, activities, doing projects with formal groups, managing and evaluation.


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Acknowledgement: Picture – Working together by Core Education. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a CCbyNDNC2 licence.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002; 2009) ‘Informal Education in schools and colleges’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Mark K. Smith 2002; 2009.