Leslie Button and developmental group work

Lesley Button feature

Leslie Button and developmental group work. The ideas of Leslie Button were influential in youth work practice and training for over 30 years. He developed a method for both training youth workers and working with young people that became known as developmental group work. He also made a significant contribution to the development of active tutorial work in English secondary schooling in the 1980s. In this piece Sue Robertson assesses his contribution.

contents: introduction · biographical sketch · group work · discovery and experience · button’s framework · developmental group work with adolescents · leslie button and action research · active tutorial work · conclusion · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

Leslie A. Button (1916-1985) was a trainer of youth workers, teachers and social workers in the Department of Education at the University of Wales College Swansea during the 1960s and1970s. He also wrote a seminal text on group work and its use in teaching – Discovery and Experience (Button 1971) and his Developmental Group Work with Adolescents (1974) stands alone within youth work methodology as a coherent system of theory and practice. Button’s methods offer a way of enabling young people to develop confidence and capacity for self agency.

Leslie Button developed his theories and adapted them from thinkers such as Kurt Lewin. He also engaged practically, working with students to develop and teach his methods. His ideas were picked up by, and played a central role in, not only in training for youth and community work, but also in the Active Tutorial Work movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s in comprehensive schools.

Biographical sketch

Leslie Button was born in Romford, Essex on 4th November 1916. After leaving school he worked as a tea taster for an import company. From 1934 to 1940 he was a commercial trainee and departmental manager. During this period he studied part time (in the evenings) for his degree in Economics at the London School of Economic (he gained his degree in 1939). He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and ran a small farm (as part of the war effort) after a short period in jail. In jail he ran the library. Leslie Button was a strict Methodist at this stage of his life but later left Methodism and, indeed, any faith. He also ran a youth hostel (in Saffron Walden) for a while.

Between 1944 and 1947 he was Education Secretary – Adult Education for the Chatham and District Co-operative Society, and from1947 to 1957 he worked as Youth and Further Education Officer for Colchester in Essex. At this time he was also undertaking research for his PhD on the social problems of rural communities – with special reference to North East Essex. His supervisors were Professor A.M. Carr-Saunders and Professor Richard Titmuss. He was awarded his PhD in 1953. A year later he became the Research Secretary and one-time Chairman of the National Association of Youth Officers.

In 1957 Leslie Button left Essex and became County Youth Officer for Derbyshire. It was at this time that he started to develop techniques in group work and training group workers within the youth services. He moved to teach at Swansea University Education Department in 1961 and he was to stay there for over 20 years as senior Lecturer in Education. Button retired to Martock in Somerset in 1983. Sadly he lived only three years after retirement. He was still undertaking research under the auspices of the Department of Education, University of Exeter.

Leslie Button had three children. His oldest daughter became a geography teacher. His oldest son also trained as a teacher and used his father’s methods in group work as a tutor, as a year head and more recently working with youngsters with behaviour problems (Button 2009).

Group work

Leslie Button championed group work with young people and in large youth organisations and schools. He also used it with students as a key means of learning to work with young people. His first publication was a chapter in Spontaneous Youth Groups edited by Peter Kuenstler (1955b), then South Africa Research Fellow in Youth Work at the University of Bristol. The book arose from the discussions of a small and informal group interested in youth work. Meeting first in 1951 they agreed to try to discover more about spontaneous youth groups. Button’s chapter focuses on spontaneous youth groups in the youth service In it Button argues for giving young people responsibility:

Club leaders who hesitate to allow the reins to pass from their hands should ponder well upon this; those who shelter young people from the responsibility that they are capable of carrying imperil the future of the club (Button 1955: 65).

Group work and association were at the heart of much of the early practice of youth work in Britain: the settlement movement; Scouts; and YMCA and YWCA. In the 1940s and 1950s in the US and Britain there was a growth in theoretical literature building upon insights drawn from psychology, philosophy, sociology and social-psychology which drew on the experiences of these organisations. A number of influential youth work writers took up the theme and staff at youth work training agencies following the Albemarle Report sought to include the knowledge base and practice of social group work as a new and effective technique for working with young people (Milson, 1973). At the National College Joan Mathews (1966) considered that social group work should be developed from its social work origins to form the core discipline and method of youth work. Davies (1999) suggests, ‘avoiding didactic teaching, it [the National College] preferred active experiential and small group methods which could nurture….autonomy and self-reliance’ (1999: 65).

There were critics of these methods. Bernard Davies notes the field’s exasperation with what they saw as indoctrination of students with philosophy and a disdain for activities. R. W. F. Keeble, then Principal Youth Officer of the Inner London Education Authority, entitled one of the chapters of his book A Life Full of Meaning (1965), “Not Group Work Again”, stating that this expressed a common attitude of youth workers to social group work. He felt they were exasperated, partly curious and partly contemptuous. A couple of years later in the path-breaking book Social Education of the Adolescent, Davies and Gibson (1967) declared their uncertainty about the value of group work, arguing that method had become more important than responding to the needs of the young people being worked with. One of the difficulties appeared to be a lack of consistency in how the variety of theoretical frameworks: group dynamics; group theory; T-groups; interaction analysis; social psychology and the theory of human needs could be incorporated into a curriculum for training that could effectively be applied to youth work practice. It was this that Leslie Button sought to provide.

Discovery and Experience

Leslie Button’s first full length exploration of the contribution of group work to educational activity focused on its role in the training of practitioners. Discovery and Experience (Button 1971) is subtitled ‘A new approach to training, group work and teaching’. University courses today tend to teach informal education to students of youth work but do so in formal settings with learning outcomes prescribed by a modular structure. Button had no such constraints and looked to work with his students so that they could learn experientially about practice. His ideas built on those of other group work theorists particularly those of Kurt Lewin – though he never acknowledged this in his writing – and other group work writers such as Josephine Klein (1956) and George Homans (1951) (especially for his ideas on ‘group norms’).

Lewin had set up a ‘Laboratory in Group Development’ where people were trained as change agents who could facilitate communication and feedback among group participants. This idea seems synonymous with Button’s concept of the group worker as a social architect.

The inevitability of his role as a social architect is something that the trainee gradually comes to see in the early stages of training. By the time that he has studied the patterns of interaction occurring in his own place of work and under his own influence, he is usually very well aware of his formative role. (Button 1971:75)

Whilst training teachers and youth workers Button had become concerned about the way trainees had received inputs of knowledge, ideas and theoretical concepts. He recognized that these were often not internalised nor changing the trainee’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes and, therefore, practice. ‘It is as if we can receive a flow of precept and knowledge into an insulated container, which we carry under one arm whilst we attend to our professional concerns with the other’ ( Button 1971:2). He believed that knowledge alone would not produce effective practitioners who self consciously use their knowledge, skills and experience to understand and respond to the increasingly complex situations young people were facing in the 1970s.

Leslie Button used the personal biographies of his students in his research into social networks and friendship groups. In reflecting on that process he noticed that new insights into their experiences gained by participants. The knowledge gained from this process by Button and his researchers changed the thinking and understanding of both groups. Dialogue, based on discovery through reflection on experience, was to form the basis of his concept of the professional formation of youth workers.

Button’s thinking was influenced by Reg Batten’s (1967) non-directive approach to community development training. Like Batten, Leslie Button was concerned to prepare workers for the self-reliance and autonomy they would require in initiating action in the field and where they must in turn foster the autonomy of the young people and communities that they served. Personal growth and increasing autonomy were thus at the centre of the rationale for developmental group work.

Leslie Button wrestled with the problem of ensuring that students were aware of, and could use, these conceptual frameworks in their analytical and reflective practice without resorting again to didactic means. He developed a pedagogic style that used the process of group work, ‘as a means not only of working with groups but also working through groups making use of the opportunities and influences inherent in group situations in order to encourage the personal development of those concerned or to support the objectives being pursued’ (Button 1971:4)

This system of training reflected an earlier interest in the work of Josephine Macalister Brew, one of the foremost promoters of the movement to transfer the learning from the American social group work movement to Britain in the 1950’s. In ‘In the Service of Youth’ (1943) and ‘Informal Education’ (1943) ‘Youth and Youth Groups’ (1957) she demonstrated the same fascination as Button about the possibilities of group work.

Button’s framework

Button developed a coherent framework from ‘a hazy rationale, through a pragmatic approach, where lines of thought only became clear on the journey (Button 1971:16). His methods involved a constant dialogue with those involved and therefore the content and practice were subject to continual amendment by all participants. These methods reflected Lewin’s (1948) original model of action research involving a spiral of cycles of research activity which develop a process of defining, testing, evaluating and refining a problem of social or educational practice (see Kurt Lewin: groups, experiential learning and action research)

The methods engage tutors, students, young people and field workers in a spiral of cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting within self-critical groups, focusing on improvement of youth work practice. This project is collaborative and involves all participants in the development of practice e.g. tutors and tutor teams; tutor teams and trainees; trainees and groups of young people; young people and whoever they want to influence in the wider world.

The objectives for the training were to seek to help students:

  • Acquire a body of knowledge and theoretical concepts which include social, physical and emotional growth, as well as the nature and impact of their social and cultural background.
  • Understand and develop skills underlying successful practice e.g. making contact, developing dialogue, planning and evaluating.
  • Develop a framework of attitudes that support good practice – acknowledging that in some youth work there is inconsistency between public statements and private practice.
  • Develop basic personality traits e.g. flexibility, patience, fortitude and resistance that support effective youth work practice. (Button 1971: 12-14)

The modes of teaching included field studies and experiments, tutorial discussions and open sessions using Socratic discussions to develop theoretical frameworks and formulate new field studies and experiments.

In order to develop confidence and competence in the trainees Leslie Button needed to engage them enthusiastically in their learning and motivate them to understand and apply a wide range of theoretical frameworks to their developing practice. This needed detailed planning. Tutors and students were encouraged to plan their sessions down to the last detail and to design a series of alternative plans in case the first fails. The accusation that his approach (which he described as developmental group work was over-structured, too directive and therefore manipulative was something that Button faced head on in Discovery and Experience

The meeting provided me with a number of new insights, but we finished by settling on a plan which represented only minor adjustments of the plan I had prepared. I asked myself as I travelled home; whether my approach was genuine or had the whole operation been something of a confidence trick in order to gain the acceptance of my pre-arranged plan. I have had it suggested to me several times that the approach I adopt is no less inductive than traditional methods; it is only that I endeavour to use more subtle but equally persuasive methods. (1971:21)

This reflexive account of the development of a coherent rationale for the training of youth workers is characteristic of Discovery and Experience (1971) and establishes reflective analysis through recording as a major component of the approach. Doubts still remained among some of his colleagues in other institutions. In particular Josephine Klein and Joan Tash argued for forms of group work practice that looked more strongly to exploring and engaging with the experiences of those involved.

Developmental Group Work with Adolescents

Button’s second major book Developmental Group Work with Adolescents (1974) quickly established itself as a central text in UK youth work courses. It can still be found as recommended reading on a number. It offers a conceptual framework a repertoire of skills and strategies and guidelines for practice (Faulkner 1975). It aimed to enable practitioners to think more clearly about practice. Leslie Button advocated a style of work standing apart from therapeutic and recreational youth work. He saw this as a difficult balance to strike and it certainly needs a skilled practitioner.

The book may seem dated today, particularly on gender and sexuality issues (his discussion of relationships is solely in a heterosexual context ) but it is still relevant and Buttons system can be used as a framework. His philosophy of group work was:

… about helping people in their growth and development, in their social skills, in their personal resource and in the kind of relationships they establish with other people. Social skills can be learnt only in contact with other people and it is the purpose of group work to provide the individual with opportunities to relate to others in a supportive atmosphere, to try new approaches and to experiment in new roles (1974:1)

From the outset he stressed how the methods advocated evolved from experience, and had been tested on different groups.

He believed group work was so important as for many young people problems stemmed from an inability to make friendships with peers. Peer group relationships are, he contended, the most important ones for young people. He emphasized the need to foster such relationships, rather than criticize them which so much current rhetoric has done (e.g. Feinstein et. al. 2005).

Group work for Button was about enabling young people to help each other: ‘Youth workers might enable young people to help one another much more effectively than they can help them personally’ (Button 1974: 9). He sought to demonstrate the feasibility of using group work in everyday situations. He argued that it wasn’t resources that were required, but commitment, skill and training. He set out the repertoire of techniques needed to practice the work effectively. This included introspective discussion; cognitive tools; friendship studies; sociometry; role-play; and socio-drama. He also set out guidelines on how to apply the methods in wider settings e.g. the community and schools.

Making contact, diagnosis, programmes and techniques

After introducing developmental group work he looked at the process of meeting personal need. From there Leslie Button explored the process of making contact with young people. He looked at the role of reconnaissance; how to observe groups and the process of choosing groups to work with. What Button found in his research was that many workers argued that the concern should not be to ask questions but to ‘just stick around’ (ibid.: 37) . However, he argued that a direct approach worked – young people were very willing to talk.

The character of this approach becomes clear:

It is possible to afford considerable help to young people merely by expressing a kindly interest in them and introducing them to a number of enlarging experiences; generations of men and women have brought the benefits of human warmth and kindness to young people in this unself-conscious way….

No matter what part we play in service to young people, we are likely to work more effectively and economically if our objectives, and the paths to those objectives, are clear… Time and resources are limited, and it is therefore vital that we establish our objectives through a clear and rapid diagnosis (Button 1974: 43)

Leslie Button examines how workers might identify individuals and some key dimensions of their experience, and diagnose issues in relation to groups using methods such as sociograms to explore friendship patterns ( Button 1974 diagram page 55); discovering group norms by individual and group enquiry; identifying roles played by individuals in groups.

This proceeds to an exploration by Button of the use of a repertoire of group work techniques, using examples of practice which powerfully illustrate the methods. For example, Button demonstrated how to take a simple exercise – working in pairs and introducing each other – further. ‘Lets pause for a moment. Are we really in the shoes of our partner? How strong a capacity for empathy have we? —- Feel yourself into the skin of your partner’ ( Button 1974; 84). He explained the use of socio-drama in examining real situations such as bullying, dealing with difficult adults, so that young people act out a real situation from another’s perspective. In the book, Button also examines action research and how the activity can be used to improve social competence, for example young people undertaking community service (ibid.: 65). He does not blame young people for being bored and apathetic, blaming instead the education system for inculcating dependency and a need for direction. He does, however, place importance on personal responsibility. He uses individual stories to bring the theory to life.

Jane was the self appointed clown of the group — she seemed to relish the prominence – even the punishment – that her behaviour brought to her.(ibid.: 25)

Pauline was seen as a hanger – on, as she was always on the fringe of this group of girls and never seemed able to get on with anyone. They role played what happened between them and Pauline in the club situation…. the group revealed to themselves that they constantly submitted Pauline to rebuffs and ridicule (ibid.: 93) .

The group workers role is then to challenge this behaviour and help the young people to change it

Having examined the worker’s repertoire of techniques, Leslie Button then turned to questions of strategy. He gave an example of how sub groups were developed by a worker with a large group outside a chip shop. There were about 36 people in the group and normative controls had developed that prevented any one individual or group from doing anything that the whole group could not do together. The worker ‘adopted the strategy of doing some fairly intensive work with two sub-groups… she induced these two groups one of boys and one of girls, to meet as separate entities at her flat’ (ibid.: 106-7). These two groups were then helped to organize a conference for the whole group to examine the group situation through Socratic discussion. They finished by committing to change the situation.

Group norms

A central concern for worker’s according to Button, should be to recognize group norms and influence them whilst bearing in mind that many are unhelpful for young people. Leslie Button is critical of workers who fail to challenge or try to change certain group norms. For him a youth worker is clearly an educator and must help groups break free from unhelpful controls. It may, however, be difficult to change young peoples’ attitudes, because these are mixed up with their personality or are reinforced by the climate around them. Encouraging responsible behaviour he argued can often be best done at a tangent by not looking at the actual behaviour but engaging young people in consultation. This consultation process is a tool of the group worker. It means asking those affected by an action to make suggestions about what should be done and how. To make this work young people need to be encouraged and trained, Button argued, to take responsibility, so that they could undertake their own enquiries. The group might conduct an enquiry into situations outside their group, such as the provision for young people in an area, using the techniques of action research not only to discover what was happening around them but also within their group. Leslie Button suggests that anything that stirs the members of a group can be the focus for an enquiry and gives an example of how the use of a sociometric study of the group might lead to a discussion on loneliness and a group enquiry into the problem in their community (1974:86) . He also gives an examples of the sort of enquiries that young people could undertake about their own group, asking questions such as who is in the group, what it does and what it might do in certain situations such as meeting other groups, one of the group damaging something or playing truant. Button explored with young people their behaviour in groups, in the situations in which they operated. He did this by asking questions like: How long have you been friends? When do you meet? What do you do together? Why do you do that? in order to tease out roles and norms.

Larger youth organizations

As Button (1974: 130) notes, ‘The structure of the large group with which the youth worker is concerned may be very complex indeed’ – and it had been the tradition of British youth work to bring together young people in fairly large numbers. It was, thus, important to consider the role and nature of group work in these larger units and, in particular, youth clubs which were open and informal in style. In these, young people gathered together in groups of their own choosing and it was through these groups that the youth worker must seek to have an influence. Leslie Button believed that, ‘the youth worker responsible for a large organization is inevitably a group worker, as his main instrument of influence is through groups of various kinds and what these groups do together (Button op. cit.). The structure of these groups and their relationship to the whole can be complex. They may be friendship, task or associate groups and individuals will probably move between several during the course of an evening session. Button suggests that within this setting the youth worker serves as a social architect, the worker designs and creates interactions as an architect might design a building.

The youth worker will influence the situation whatever they do however, the choice is, according to Button, whether to be a skilled architect and work knowingly or to allow situations to develop without attempting to make the experience an educational one for young people. Commitment to group goals can be a very powerful force. Button asked, ‘How much personal significance will they gain from membership of an organization that makes no demands on them?’ (Button 1974: 138). For him increasing the self-esteem of young people was an important aim. He saw this as happening through groups, for the status of these can reflect glory on individual members who can feel proud to belong.

Patterns of interaction

The value of association was stressed in the Albemarle Report (Ministry of Education 1960) and Button was interested in how association took place. He viewed interaction as the basis for any relationship. When it occurs people are forced to cope with each other and form some kind of relationship. He gives an example of the sort of interactions that occur in youth clubs (Button 1974:30-33) and how these may be studied and plotted. Leslie Button suggests many youth workers talk about a ‘good atmosphere’ in a club, but often don’t think about how to foster the productive interactions that create this. In his view, workers need to ask themselves questions such as: What happens at the entrance? How are newcomers received? How does the coffee bar function? What interaction is caused by playing games? How is the club governed? How are decisions communicated?

Button believed that the tradition in British youth work of offering activities to enable young people to gain skills, versatility, a sense of achievement, and incidentally, companionship’ (Button 1974; 139) had become less fashionable and replaced by an emphasis on opportunities for members to come together in associate groups of their own choosing. He felt it was not obvious they had gained from this shift. The foci for interaction had become fewer and more limited. As a result addressing the personal needs of young people needed a much more deliberate and intensive approach than many workers were adopting. The job of the youth worker was not only to serve young people who needed ‘remedial treatment’; it needed to offer opportunities to a broad range of young people to develop their innate potential. If young people were to be given real opportunities for personal growth they needed to be caught up in the kind of experience that extended them. Consequently, the time that many spent in clubs was dull, repetitive and boring and represented a suspension of movement rather than a time of personal development. Leslie Button believed youth centres lessened their value to young people by not making demands on them. The latter implied they were not important enough to require commitment. Containment rather than education was often the case. Button asked – why is influencing young people a dilemma? If you don’t want to influence them why go into youth work?

While Leslie Button acknowledged the difficulties of doing developmental group work in large organizations, he argued that more effective staff training would have enabled more to be done. If managers were really concerned with social education then units needed to be organized creatively. Full-time workers needed to act as a group worker with their staff – all of whom should carry a small group work caseload. Part-time staff had to be trained to have the confidence to intervene creatively.

Leslie Button and action research – Brooklands Youth Centre

In 1975 Button began an action research project into the application of developmental group work to schools, youth work and the social services. Called Institutional Team leadership it involved approximately 70 youth clubs and centres. Fourteen panels were formed in Britain and Ireland, comprising youth workers, teachers, social workers, health education specialists and other professionals working with young people. Each panel mounted a training programme to ensure participants were secure in their group work skills. The panel members were largely team leaders and recruited colleagues as a second generation of trainees. In the first year the 250 people involved each worked closely with a small group of young people. Thereafter they engaged in the training and guidance of colleagues, involving between five and six hundred people in the second year. Many of the approaches adopted emerged from research into the dynamics of adolescent groups. A structured programme of articulate steps was built up with the growing self determination of young people as its core. Techniques included communication and support building exercises, role play, action research and socio-drama.

The evaluation of the work undertaken (Button 1977a) was highly positive indicating that young people grew rapidly in social competence, but the potential of this opportunity was not widely taken up. Some youth workers found it difficult to operate in this more intensive, developmental way within their own organizations. This was partly to do with the organization of the club but also to do with the full time worker’s role within the setting which made it difficult for them to give individual attention to developing group work. This realization led Button’s team to move into an application phase of the programme. In this he used a large youth centre in Colchester – Brooklands – as an example of what could be achieved.

The lessons of Brooklands

At Brooklands there was a new full time worker/warden who had been part of Button’s original Institutional Team Leadership programme. They had set out to run the whole centre using developmental group work methods. Initially the warden engaged the staff in a group enquiry about the centre, looking particularly at the kind of young people attending. A staff training programme was developed and new staff employed and inducted into group work methods. Students on placement demonstrated skills in group work and each helped a part- time worker develop these.

The work at Brooklands’ grew to become part of a wider project covering centres throughout Essex in September 1975. A county-wide training programme was set up for full time workers. Many of the groups that were run at the centre were activity-based but with skilled staff involved these groups became more developmental and the young people were supportively critical of each others performance. The main difficulty was in freeing staff to undertake group work. The concept of a co-ordinator was developed with the role of handling keys, money and phone to free up the warden for professional contact with staff. This left others free to engage in face-to-face group work and allowed the warden to be available to give staff individual support throughout the sessions. The system is explained in detail by Button (1977a). Trained staff as a consequence of this approach achieved a new sense of direction and progression. There was an emphasis on small group work but what comes across particularly is the clear role for staff and the priority given to young peoples needs:

Try to be cheerful and lively – remember this is a place where people come to enjoy themselves. Often bad behaviour stems from personal worries or frustrations – discuss them – why he feels fed up? And what can be done about it? (Button 1977; Appendix II p. 1)

Active Tutorial Work

Button’s attention to group work in schools, and the structured nature of his approach was to find expression in the flowering of Active Tutorial Work in the early 1980s in English comprehensive schools. Leslie Button developed his case for group work. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he sought to encourage teachers to develop supportive groups to enable change for young people. He believed that ‘the teacher is inevitably a group worker, albeit unconsciously so’ (Button 1969a: 33). He developed and reviewed programmes of group work for form/tutor groups. While he was to write two books on group tutoring for the form teacher (Button 1981; 1982), it was work emerging out of a Lancashire in-service training programme in the mid-1970s that really extended Button’s influence. The organizers of this programme had seen the work developing in the Institutional Teams (see above) and had sought to devise a teaching programme for pastoral work which could facilitate pupils’ growth and development through their own active experience (Jones and Southgate 1990: 23-4). They drew Leslie Button into the project to run training courses along with his colleague from Swansea – Douglas Hamblin (who had expertise in counselling and pastoral care). Alongside this, the Lancashire education authority appointed two development officers – Jill Baldwin and Harry Wells – who began to create a series of activities and foci for tutorial periods across the first five years of secondary schooling. Such was the reaction to these materials and the courses that they were made into a national project – and resulted in a series of publications (Baldwin and Wells 1979a; 1979b; 1980a; 1980b; 1981). Jill Baldwin and Andy Smith were the national directors for the scheme – and in the evaluation of the programme their strategy and methods were seen as ‘exceptionally effective’ (Bolam and Medlock 1983 :49). However, while Active Tutorial Work was clearly influenced by developmental group work, the books produced by Baldwin and Wells had a different emphasis. As the evaluators comment, ‘the books include an explicit statement of objectives , frequently expressed in behavioural terms yet it is a premise of developmental group work that the objectives should be generated from the group in collaboration with the teacher’ (op. cit.: 50). Furthermore, the books tend to concentrate more on the day-to-day events of school life rather than on the interactions and relationships that are more to the fore in developmental group work. This said, the national training programmes tended to have a stronger group work focus.

Active Tutorial Work proved to be a fairly brief intervention in secondary schooling. It had a clear impact at the time both in extending curriculum activity within the pastoral sphere, and in encouraging a significant number of teachers to have more of a concern with process and with group work. However, this impact was limited by the marginal nature of pastoral care in relation to what were seen as the main areas for intervention – performance in key subject areas and discipline – and the traditional resistance of secondary school teachers to explorations of pedagogy and process (Bolam and Medlock 2003). The introduction of the National Curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1988 effectively ended the experiment. Consistent and developmental use of form time remains something sadly lacking in British schools, although the concept of ‘Circle Time’ in primary schools has some of its roots in Button’s work (Curry 1997).


The large building programme following the Albemarle Report gave young people premises – and, increasingly, staff from training courses trained in group work. However, the buildings were often relatively big and designed to cater for large numbers. As a result they needed high levels of staffing both to open them and to undertake the sort of group work Leslie Button envisaged. The resources that a centre like Brooklands could call on in the 1970’s would be unheard of today. Furthermore, many buildings opened in the 1960’s were never maintained properly as budgets were subsequently cut. Today’s full-time workers are often members of integrated children’s services, working across an area, managing detached teams, and operating in schools rather than concentrating on developing club work (Robertson 2005). Many centres are now only open two or three nights a week. However, Button’s work illustrates that it is possible for centre-based work to be planned and purposeful and based on young peoples needs, while providing them with the fun and space that they need.

Leslie Button’s legacy lives on in the individuals who were influenced and trained by him. Opinions on his work amongst ‘Buttonites’ are often strongly felt. Especially critical are those who subsequently found therapeutic rather than developmental models of group work more valuable. Key individuals such as Eileen Newman (who was the worker contacting young people outside the chip shop) have sought to bring his work to the attention of practitioners – both through her activities as a youth work teacher and through workshops e.g. at the History of Youth and Community Work conferences (see Newman and Robertson 2006). An understanding of social group work remains essential both in terms of appreciating the influence a group has on its members, individuals influence on the group and the inter relationships within groups; and upon making appropriate interventions. .

The question remains as to whether a methodology designed in the 1960s and applied and affirmed in the 1970s can have any relevance to major changes in society that have taken place since Button wrote his second book in 1974. Beck (1992) and Giddens (1991) describe how changes in modern society have led to the need for young people to construct their own ‘social biographies’ and make their own decisions about risks. Success in negotiating these new pathways depends to a large extent on the personal resources or self-agency of young people. Developmental group work still has an effective role to play in these situations. It is an ideal methodology for working with young people in a reflexive, participative way to develop alternative strategies for developing their capacities in the areas of emotional literacy, social competence, self efficacy; self confidence; and motivation to learn. Group work is also something that young people enjoys doing. It may be difficult to introduce at first, but the opportunity to talk about themselves and examine issues which are extremely important to them is usually eagerly grasped. Work in outdoor education has also increasingly used group work exercises alongside activities to enable young people to reflect on what they have learnt.

Button’s methods deserve to be given renewed critical attention – not least because his focus on the exploration of experience and reflective action research in work with his students could provide a healthy counterbalance. Leslie Button viewed adolescence as a time of questioning and a unique period of transition. He emphasized the creative function this could have for the wider community. He very much a saw young people as situated in their community. The importance of group membership is now recognised sociologically and politically (Putman2000) and was vital to Button, especially development of peer groups and friendship. There are now new opportunities and applications for developmental group work and hopefully an explanation of the philosophy, ethics and theoretical basis for the method, as well as a critical appraisal of its application to practice will stimulate a renewed enthusiasm for the work.

Further reading and references

Button, Leslie (1971) Discovery and experience : a new approach to training, group work, and teaching. London: Oxford University Press. 222 + vii pages

Button, Leslie (1974) Developmental group work with adolescents. London: University of London Press. 208 pages.

Button, Leslie (1981) Group tutoring for the form teacher: a development model Volume 1: Lower secondary school: years one and two. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Button, Leslie (1982) Group tutoring for the form teacher : a developmental model. Volume 2: Upper secondary school: years three, four and five. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Other works by Leslie Button

Button, Leslie (1955) ‘Spontaneous youth groups and Youth Service’ in P. H. K. Kuenstler (ed.) Spontaneous Youth Groups. Bristol: University of Bristol Institute of Education.

Button, L (ed.) (1956) Youth service: the contribution of the local education authorities; a report of a national survey. London: National Association of Local Education Authority Youth Service Officers.

Button, Leslie (1967) Some experiments in informal group work (Department of Education. Group studies series. Occasional papers;no.2.). Swansea: University College Swansea.

Button, Leslie (1965) Friendship patterns of older adolescents (Department of Education. Group studies series. Occasional papers; no.1). Swansea: University College of Swansea.

Button, Leslie (1969a) ‘Training for School Based Youth Work’ in Debate: a collection of professional papers on the future of youth and community work in the 1970’s. Leicester: Youth Service Information Centre. pp 12-17.

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How to cite this piece: Robertson, Sue (2009) ‘Leslie Button and developmental group work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/leslie-button-and-developmental-group-work/ Retrieved: insert date].

About the writer: Sue Robertson is the author of Youth clubs: Association, Participation, Friendship and Fun! (Russell House Publishing 2005) and of several articles on youth work. She is currently researching the careers of women youth workers. Her own career in youth work started as a part time worker in 1978 which led to full time youth work, youth work management and more recently lecturing in youth and community work. She used Button’s group work methods as a youth worker and has introduced his methods to students.

© Sue Robertson 2009