Jospehine Macalister Brew. Memorial window at Avon Tyrell. Designed and made by Stella Gross

Josephine Macalister Brew and informal education. One of the most ‘able, wise and sympathetic educationalists of her generation’, Josephine Macalister Brew made a profound contribution to the development of thinking about, and practice of, youth work and informal education.

contents: introduction · in the service of youth · informal education · innovations in practice· final days · references · articles and links

Josephine Macalister Brew. Picture reproduced with the permission of UK Youth.If we are not in youth work because of our love of our fellow men we have no business there at all. This burning love of humanity always meets with response, though not always in the ways we most care for, but nowadays as much youth work is ruined by too much restraint as by too much exuberance. Fear to exert undue influence, fear to assert authority when necessary, conscientious scruples about this and that – are all contributory factors. But young people want to know where they are and they need the friendship of those who have confidence and faith. (Brew 1957: 112-3)

Josephine Macalister Brew (1904 – 1957) was an accomplished and innovative educator, whose ‘service to the young was unequalled in her generation’ (Woods 1957). She wrote not just one, but three classic books: In the Service of Youth (1943); Informal Education. Adventures and reflections (1946) – the first full-length exploration of the subject; and Youth and Youth Groups (1957). The last started as a rewrite of the first, but ended up a completely different book, ‘because we live in a different world’ (Brew 1957: 11). She had an extra-ordinary ability to connect with people through her writing and speaking. She was also associated with a number of significant innovations in practice including the growing interest in social groupwork in the UK; the development of ‘residentials’ as an educational form; and the formulation of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (she wrote much of the programme for young women).

Brew began her professional career as a teacher, but was to become involved in youth work when in Cardiff (studying for her Doctor of Law and writing for local papers). In 1936/7 Brew took up an appointment as the youth officer for Lincoln – one of the first local education authority funded youth work posts. She also became the Secretary of the Lincoln Federation of Girls Clubs. With the outbreak of the Second World War there was considerable disruption to the work of the Association, followed by demands that it developed its services. Brew was asked to edit a number of existing pamphlets into a book, the first under her name, which appeared in 1940: Clubs and Club Making. She was also called upon to give talks in various places (many of these talks were later to appear in chapter form in In the Service of Youth (1943). Her career as a writer had really taken off – with various articles appearing in the Times Educational Supplement concerning the needs of young people – and provision for them. She moved to Oldham to be the Youth Officer there but she was encouraged to join the staff of the National Association of Girls Clubs (by Eileen Younghusband among others). She was appointed Education Secretary on June 1, 1942.

In the Service of Youth

Brew’s books display her originality as an educational thinker. While her focus was upon young people, she located what she was doing within a view of education that was lifelong. She also recognized the possibilities of learning in social life. In the Service of Youth, while a product of its time, is the first comprehensive statement of the principles and practice of ‘modern’ youth work (Smith 1991: 36 – 39). Indeed, it was one of the first books to discuss ‘youth work’ rather than ‘boys’ work’ or ‘girls’ work’. It argued for :

  • A commitment to community, citizenship and co-operation. The central vehicle for realizing this being the voluntary association of members – the club. Brew saw in the ‘club’ a means by which people could freely identify with one another and gain the skills, disposition and knowledge necessary for citizenship.
  • A clear focus on process. One of the striking features of Brew’s writing is the attention she gives to the way things are done and what can be learnt from process. ‘A youth leader must try not to be too concerned about results, and at all costs not to be over-anxious’ (1957: 183) she was later to write.

Only by the slow and tactful method of inserting yourself unassumingly into the life of the club, not by talking to your club members, but by hanging about and learning from their conversation and occasionally, very occasionally, giving it that twist which leads it to your goal, is it possible to open up a new avenue of thought to them (1943: 16).

  • A recognition of the social and emotional needs of young people. Brew was a great reader of psychology texts – and she was well aware of the sea change in understandings of emotional, moral, intellectual and sexual development and the sub-conscious that had occurred. She displays both a belief in young people’s abilities to work things out for themselves; and a concern that workers should not be neutral bystanders in this process.
  • A championing of popular culture as a site for intervention. Brew displayed an engaging determination to work with the things that young people themselves value. But Brew was concerned to do more than start from where young people are, she did not want to rate activities on some bourgeois notion of value: ‘True culture is the appreciation of everything, from a plate of fish and chips to a Van Gogh… We must give our young club members a vision, but it must come by way of co-operation through appreciation to creation’ (1943: 15).
  • A recognition of the economic and social context in which work takes place. As with many others within the girls’ club movement, Brew attended to the economic and social conditions that young people experienced. ‘No club on earth will succeed with a programme which bears no relation to the industry, working conditions and economic and social background of the area which it serves’ (1943: 69).

A sixth element is also discernable in the book – that of youth work as a pioneering form of informal education (1943: 173-4) – but more of that later.

Previous writers had, of course, addressed a number of these concerns. What made In the Service of Youth special was that Brew managed to bring these elements into a reasonably consistent relationship and to ground this in the daily realities of practice. Much of the significance of this book lies not so much in what is said as in the way things are put. Her tone of voice, and her descriptions of practice and individuals communicate much about her view of relationships between workers and young people; and where workers should focus their attention. Her attention to form and to process in her writing, mirrors that which she expects in workers.

Informal Education

Informal Education begins by setting out two contrasting methods of educational approach. The first involved ‘serious study’ through schools, university extension classes and organizations such as the WEA. The second entailed ‘active participation in a variety of social units’ (1946: 22). It is the latter with which she is particularly concerned. She argued that education should be taken ‘to the places where people already congregate, to the public house, the licensed club, the dance hall, the library, the places where people feel at home’ (op. cit.). Much of the book is then concerned with how educators can ‘insert’ education into such units (discussed in Smith forthcoming). In particular, she focuses on what we might describe now as the process of creating and exploiting teaching moments.

Again, it was not the individual elements of her approach that were new. Each had been recognized by previous generations of educators. Rather it was the way she brought these together in a persuasive and accessible way. Here I want to note five key elements.

  • Our concern should be with the cultivation of the ‘educated man’. The focus of the work, according to Brew, should be people’s struggle to gain ‘the equipment necessary for the great adventure of living the life of an educated man’ (1946: 375). She suggests that probably the best definition of the educated man is that ‘he is capable of entertaining himself, capable of entertaining a stranger, and capable of entertaining a new idea’ (ibid.: 28).
  • Every human activity has within it an educational value (1946: 27). Brew recognized that the requirement for continuing education could only be met if attention was paid to experiences, events and settings of everyday life. In Informal Education, she explored the educational opportunities that lie in different areas of endeavour. The book is structured around different arenas or approaches where these moments can occur: through the stomach, the feet, the work of the hands, the eyes, the feelings, and through the ears.
  • Work with people’s interests and enthusiams and, if possible, deal with things quickly and on the spot. ‘An activity which is so deeply rooted in the hearts of people is obviously a grand jumping-off point for educational programmes’ Brew (1946: 96) wrote. She argued that often what people need most is encouragement and that the responses that educators make need to be unhooked from the notion of ‘subject’, ‘course’ and ‘syllabus’. Much educational opportunity is lost because of a desire to encourage people to join classes, she (1946: 32) suggested. Things need to be kept simple and be entertaining.
  • Harness the power of association. Brew talked of the power of activities such as sport to deepen civic consciousness, and of the need to link informal education with such interests, along with ‘home interests’ such as parent education, and education in other groups and associations. She had no wish ‘to turn every association into a solemn conclave for “uplift”’, but recognized that there were considerable possibilities for learning in them (1946: 42).
  • Informal educators need to have a wide cultural background and be lively minded. They must be able to engage with themselves, others and ideas, and foster environments where people know belonging and learning. The standards that Brew sets for informal educators are high. Informal educators have to ‘educated’ themselves (see above), ‘lively minded, if unconventional’, able to relate to people and flexible in approach.

One criticism that can be made of the book is that it does not draw upon an explicit or fully worked-through theoretical framework. There is some tension in the way she approaches the notion of informal education. Is it the process of stimulating reflection and active participation (in associations) or is it, more narrowly, the insertion of teaching into different social situations? Brew appears to favour the former – but largely focuses on the latter. This said, Informal Education was a landmark publication – being the first single-authored exploration of this area of educational practice.

Innovations in practice

In the later part of the war and after, Brew was much in demand as a writer, an expert on youth work, and as a speaker. Brew became a member of the Central Advisory Council (England) of the Ministry of Education and also of bodies connected with the Ministry of Labour and the Colonial Office. As a speaker, Brew had that rare ability of being able to connect with an audience, large or small, and to hold it in the palm of her hand. She continued to write for educational journals, but also augmented these with pieces for national papers such as the Daily Mail and the News of the World. Significantly, she also wrote a number of scripts for the BBC Home Service. One of the series she was associated with ‘To Start You Talking’. These programmes were, as the title suggests, designed as starters for discussion. Aimed at, and involving, young people, their directness and freshness proved to be very popular across the age range.

As the Education and Training Adviser to the National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls Clubs she not only designed the Association’s training schemes for club leaders and members but was also the founder and director of the associations ‘residential courses for girls working in industry and commerce’. It is this latter area of work, along with her championship of mixed clubs, her involvement in the promotion of groupwork, and her work on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, that mark out her enduring contribution to the field post Informal Education.

Mixing. Brew, along with many other staff members at NAMCGC, was a strong advocate of mixed work: ‘our business is not with the encouragement of boys’ clubs, or girls’ clubs, but with the welfare of boys and girls, and this welfare is surely best served by the mixed club’ (1943: 56). She talked of those who opposed mixing as being either lazy or fearful, and argued that mixed clubs and groups, properly led, contributed to the building of healthy relationships between young women and young men (1957: 151-57). Brew argued that boys and girls brought ‘different gifts to enrichment of club life’ and that mixing did not imply homogenisation but rather the fostering of differing identities (1957: 155-56). She very clearly saw that young men and young women required different opportunities – and that there was a case for some forms of separate provision (see below).

The Girls in Industry Programme. Once unfairly described as the ‘poor girls finishing school’ (see Allcock 1988: 23), these NAMCGC courses designed and run by Brew were targeted at young women working in industry and commerce. Young women were released, and usually paid for, by their employers to undertake one of the courses. Based around a residential experience – usually at one of the Association’s centres such as Avon Tyrell – the courses used almost stereotypical ‘girls interests’ such as homemaking, fashion and beauty and sought to open new vistas. As one person who worked on these programmes put it, Brew wanted to encourage adventures of the mind’. The courses, which began in 1952 , were innovative and proved to be very popular with their participants. They continued well into the 1970s at NAYC as ‘Macalister Brew Courses’.

Groupwork. Brew was part of the movement to popularise social groupwork in Britain. She was a member of the group chaired by Peter Kuestler that produced ‘a first contribution to the literature of social group work in Britain’ (Kuenstler 1955: 7). Both In the Service of Youth and Informal Education explored in different ways, ‘the fascinating possibilities of “education through the group”’ (Brew 1955: 89). She now bemoaned the tendency in youth work to pay too much attention to individuals rather than groups, and the extent to which group work among adolescents is regarded as a social palliative, rather than as ‘a new and exciting form of informal education (op. cit.).

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. The idea of a nationwide scheme of awards for young people grew out of an initiative by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1955 (the scheme itself was announced in 1956) (Wainwright 1966: 89). From the start it was assumed that the Girls’ Award would be different from the Boys’, and Brew was approached to chair a drafting committee to prepare the syllabus. What emerged in particular was a section, ‘Design for Living’, with an emphasis on ‘home-making’. Unfortunately, as with the Girls in Industry Courses, it was too easy for this to be interpreted in a rather domesticating way by those running the scheme. Dick Allcock described her vision as ‘very much to do with giving girls the time, space and skills to make the best of themselves. Those who interpreted this narrowly in terms of face, fashion and food missed the point, which was to aim for a broader, deeper expression of womanhood in every respect’ (1988: 24). The pilot Girls’ Award scheme was launched in 1958.

While working on the new Award scheme, Brew reworked In the Service of Youth. Significantly, the new title was Youth and Youth Groups (1957). Given her interest in groupwork this change was not surprising. In the new book she argued that it was in the area of the promotion of healthy relationships that youth groups had the most to offer to the well-being of communities: ‘[T]he revitalized youth group, far from being an anachronism, can have a very important part to play in the general education of many young people for whom the continuing school pattern is not psychologically satisfying’ (Brew 1957: 103). The interest in democratic living and association remained, but the needs of young people became more clearly, at least in the book’s organization, the starting point for the work.

The final days

Not long after Easter in 1957 Brew had been very sick on a flight to Northern Ireland. She had not been well for a time, and had put off going to the doctor. This convinced her. She was quickly referred to a specialist who admitted her straight to the Jubilee Hospital in Woodford. Told she had a stomach ulcer (although she feared worse) she knew she required operating upon. Brew worked on the foreword to the Award scheme in the short time she waiting in hospital for her operation. She had just learnt that she had been awarded a CBE. Josephine Macalister Brew died on May 13, 1957. The specialist knew before the operation that what he was looking at was cancer rather than an ulcer – but he didn’t want Brew to know. In the end there was little that could be done. There was a private funeral at the West London Crematorium at Wanstead. She was remembered in a memorial service at the St Marylebone Parish Church on June 14, 1957 (which was close by the headquarters of the National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls Clubs). A stain glass window was commissioned for Avon Tyrell to commemorate her work.

Jospehine Macalister Brew. Memorial window at Avon Tyrell. Designed and made by Stella Gross

Memorial window at Avon Tyrell. Designed and made by Stella Gross

One of Brew’s favourite texts was ‘I have come have come to you and you will have life’ – and that is exactly what she had and gave – life. Wolfenden commented that she was ‘absolutely unsparing of herself and her energies, and there can be little doubt that it was her burning zeal for young people that burnt her up’ (op. cit.). Josephine Macalister Brew wasn’t just one of the most able, wise and sympathetic educationalists of her generation, she made a profound contribution to the development of thinking about, and practice of, youth work and informal education generally.

A fuller version of this paper will appear in T. Jeffs (ed) (2001) History of Youth Work: Papers from the 1999 Conference, Leicester: Youth Work Press.


Allcock, D. (1988) Development Training. A personal view, Stoneleigh: The Arthur Rank Centre.

Brew, J. Macalister (1940) Clubs and Club Making, London: University of London Press/National Association of Girls’ Clubs.

Brew, J. Macalister (1943) In The Service of Youth. A practical manual of work among adolescents, London: Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1945) ‘Only one living room’, ‘When should we be treated as grown up?’, ‘All out for a good time’ – dramatic interludes in C. Madge et al To Start You Talking. An experiment in broadcasting, London: Pilot Press.

Brew, J. Macalister (1946) Informal Education. Adventures and reflections, London: Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1947) Girls’ Interests, London: National Association of Girls’ Clubs and Mixed Clubs.

Brew, J. Macalister (1949) Hours away from Work, London: National Association of Girls’ Clubs and Mixed Clubs.

Brew, J. Macalister (1950) ‘With young people’ in Bureau of Current Affairs Discussion Method, London: Bureau of Current Affairs.

Brew, J. Macalister (1955) ‘Group work with adolescents’ in P. Kuenstler (ed.) Social Group Work in Great Britain, London: Faber & Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1957) Youth and Youth Groups, London: Faber & Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1968) Youth and Youth Groups 2nd. edn. revised by J. Matthews, London: Faber & Faber.

Jeffs, T. (1979) Young People and the Youth Service. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M. (eds.) (1990) Using Informal Education. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Kuenstler, P. (ed.) (1955) Social Group Work in Britain, London: Faber and Faber.

Madge, C., Coyish, A. W., Dixon, G. and Madge, I. (1945) To Start You Talking. An experiment in broadcasting, London: Pilot Press.

Ministry of Education (1945) The Purpose and Content of the Youth Service. A report of the Youth Advisory Council appointed by the Minister of Education in 1943. London: HMSO.

Montagu, L. (1904) ‘The girl in the background’ in E. J. Urwick (ed.) Studies of Boy Life in Our Cities. London: Dent.

Pethick, E. (1898) ‘Working Girl’s Clubs’ in W. Reason (ed.) University and Social Settlements. London: Methuen.

Piaget, J. (1932) The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: Harper and Row.

Smith, M. (1988) Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Smith, M. (1991) ‘Classic texts revisited: In the Service of Youth’, Youth and Policy 34: 36-39.

Smith, M. K. (forthcoming) ‘Classic texts revisited: Informal Education’, Youth and Policy.

Wainwright, D. (1966) Youth in Action. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme 1956 – 1966, London: Hutchinson.

Woods, S. H. (1957) ‘Josephine Macalister Brew’, The Times May 31.

Young, A. F. and Ashton, E. T. (1956) British Social Work in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Articles and links

Josephine Macalister Brew – Why clubs at all? This 1943 piece written by Brew and others explores the rationale for youth club work.

See, also: Josephine Macalister Brew, youth work and informal education

Image: Jospehine Macalister Brew. Memorial window at Avon Tyrell. Designed and made by Stella Gross

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Josephine Macalister Brew and informal education’, ‘The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education’. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2001

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