Offering community to children and young people in schools and local organizations

on the way to school | spoilt.exile | flickr ccbysa2
on the way to school spoilt.exile | flickr ccbysa2

Mark K Smith explores how, in the context of the ‘new normal’, educators, pedagogues and practitioners need to offer community to children and young people. This article is part of a series: dealing with the new normaloffering sanctuaryoffering communityoffering hope]

contents: introductionfriendshipsocial capitalassociational lifesocial changeconclusionfurther reading and referenceshow to cite this piece [This article is part of a series: the new normaloffering sanctuaryoffering communityoffering hope]


One of the striking things about work with children, young people, and adults in the first half of the twentieth century is the number of times we stumble across the idea of ‘fellowship’. The word has remained a part of the vocabulary of many practitioners but has also been joined, or replaced, by ‘community’. In religious and local groups, and institutions like homes and schools, we often find concern that many feel alienated and that they do not belong. Not surprisingly, those within these settings look to work with them to cultivate relationship and a sense of ‘community’.

Many are also focused on offering a sense of belonging and the chance to build networks to use and contribute to. But the work we do moves well beyond this. It also involves creating environments in which friendship can flourish, social capital is developed, and associational life and social change encouraged (see Gilchrist 2019). First, though, we need to be clear by what we mean by ‘offering community’.

‘Community‘ can be used as a way of describing:

  • A place. A local community may be a neighbourhood or ‘locality’.
  • Groupings of people who share a common characteristic other than place. These could be religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation or ethnic origin. In this way, we may talk about the ‘gay community’, the ‘Catholic community’ or the ‘Chinese community’. They are sometimes described as ‘elective groups’ and ‘intentional communities’.
  • A sense of belonging. In its weakest form we can use ‘community to mean a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea (in other words, whether there is a ‘spirit of community’). In its strongest form, ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter – not just with other people, but also with creation (and, for many, God) (See Smith 2013).

All three meanings are part of the experience of religious and community groups. They are based in place, share certain beliefs or practices and look to koinonia or fellowship). Pedagogues, educators and workers with children and young people offer the chance to join others, to be a part of something. We ask people to participate, to share in activity and to make some sort of commitment to each other. At a basic level, this involves sharing interests and working toward some goal.

When we ‘offer community’ we are inviting people to develop an attachment to a group and that involves:

  • Building a group identity and clear boundaries. People need to know what they are belonging to, and what the limits are.
  • Joining networks of relationships that offer provide support, information and access to opportunities.
  • Developing shared norms and habits such as tolerance, reciprocity and trust. (Smith 2013)

Through this, we create a context for the development of friendship, social capital and the bedrock of civil society – associational life. To offer community, we create the space and support to do these things.


Friendship – as Leonard Barnett (1962: 77) put it many years back – is the ‘mutual affection divested of sentimentality’ that is ‘the cornerstone of fellowship, adding both strength and grace to the final structure of personality’. Today it can be argued that we have a poor appreciation of what it entails. For example, Bellah et. al., drawing upon Aristotle, suggest that the traditional idea of friendship has three components: ‘Friends must enjoy each other’s company, they must be useful to one another, and they must share a common commitment to the good’ (1996: 115).

In contemporary western societies, it is sometimes suggested, we tend to define friendship in terms of the first of these elements. Many writers present friendship as private, voluntary, and happening between autonomous individuals. According to this view ‘friendship becomes a special relationship between two equal individuals involved in a uniquely constituted dyad’ (Bell and Coleman 1999: 8).

Yet while our appreciation of friendship may have narrowed, commentators like Ray Pahl (2000: 5) have argued that friendship is becoming increasingly an important ‘social glue’. He suggests that many societies are now held together by quite different social bonds than was the case, say, three centuries ago. Kinship obligations, civic responsibilities and ‘the mutual care of reciprocities engendered by being trapped in communities of fate’ (such as mining, farming and other single-industry communities) have weakened.

Basically, it seems likely that two quite distinct processes are taking place at the same time. On the one hand, friends may be taking over various social tasks, duties and functions from family and kin, simply out of practical necessity…. The second process is the changing meaning of friendship. Our ideas of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, a really close friend or a best friend are changing. Our expectations and aspirations are growing and we are even prepared to judge the quality of our relationships with kin on the basis of some higher ideal of whether we can be closer to them as friends. (op. cit.: 8)

We have little solid research on the strength of these processes – although it is developing (see Denworth 2020). What we do know is that friendship needs time, space and material resources to develop. It will be significantly affected by the social environment and setting in which it arises. For example, as people get jobs, move in with partners, have children and so on, there is an impact on the character of the friendships they can develop and sustain.

Friendships – ranging from ‘close friends’, to ‘mates’ and to what might be called ‘acquaintances’ – play an important part in children’s and young people’s lives. They are a voluntary part of social networks. In part, because they are chosen, friendships provide children and young people with crucial experiences of sharing, companionship and affirmation. They can provide support when going through difficult or trying times. The quality of relationships with peers appears to have great significance both in terms of how they feel about themselves now – and what they might become. For example, from the research we do have it does appear that the nature of the relationships we are able to form as children and young people can have a significant impact on the nature of the friendships we are able to make in adult life.

Ray Pahl (2000: 99-101) has set out a tentative model to describe the various stages:

Aged 3/4. Children start to use the term ‘friend’ to describe playmates

Aged 4/7. Children start to appreciate that own views and identity is different from others

Aged 6/12. Children start to be able to ‘put themselves in other peoples’ shoes’.

Aged 9/15. Children/young people are able to take on the perspective of a ‘third person’; to look at interactions and, thus, to work on relationships.

Aged 12+. There is a recognition that individual friendship is part of a larger network of relationships – and that friends are linked with others in ‘personal communities’.

Models like this are open to debate – and can lead to rather wooden interventions to ensure that children have reached the appropriate stage. It is also important to recognize that the effect of childhood experiences is not set in stone. Relationships in adulthood can change us. However, this doesn’t take us away from the central point. ‘Fellowship’ and friendship are entwined and for most people, it seems, friendships bring happiness and a sense of wellbeing (as well as all sorts of duties and worries).

For these reasons the cultivation of friendship between children and young people, and the offering of a form of friendship (a friend ‘to’ rather than ‘of’) on the part of educators, pedagogues and workers have been a fundamental aspect of social pedagogy with vulnerable young people (and general youth work up until the last quarter of the twentieth century). It has been both an aim (facilitating and educating for friendship), a way of describing participants, and seen as an educational process (Doyle and Smith 2002). It is also seen as a means of providing affirmation and support. The act of befriending young people – especially those who may feel they have few friends – can be experienced as significant. As many writers have commented over the years, pedagogues and youth workers are often one of the first adults that young people and children choose to be friendly with.

Social capital

Here we use ‘social capital’ to refer to ways in which ‘networks and their properties (including norms and trust) comprise a resource for their members’ (Field 2017: 45). The basic thesis is that interaction allows people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people. People living in communities where there is plenty of social capital are more likely to be healthier, better educated, less prone to crime and happier (see Putnam 2000).

Debates around social capital provide us with some useful insights. Of interest is the difference between bridging, bonding or linking social capital. Michael Woolcock (2001: 13-4) has described them as follows:

  • Bonding social capital… denotes ties between people in similar situations, such as immediate family, close friends and neighbours;
  • Bridging social capital… encompasses more distant ties of like persons, such as loose friendships and workmates; and
  • Linking social capital… reaches out to unlike people in dissimilar situations, such as those who are entirely outside the community, thus enabling members to leverage a far wider range of resources than are available within the community.

These differences can be applied to the approaches to ‘community’ that appear within civil society organizations. Where there is a focus on one to the detriment of the others an unhealthy situation can develop. For example, where there is an emphasis upon bonding (or ‘exclusive’) community will tend to be inward-looking and ‘tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups’. It can increase antagonism to those outside the group. The upside of ‘bonding’ relationships is that they are good for cultivating reciprocity and mutual aid among members. On the other hand, a focus on bridging (or inclusive) community while being good for sharing beliefs, ideas and information with others, for making links, and for creating broader identities, it can make our ‘home base’ less viable. As Robert D. Putnam (2000: 23) has put it, bonding social capital provides ‘a sort of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD40’. In a similar fashion, a lack of attention to linking means that a group is not able to access important resources or to share their experiences with others outside their immediate circle.

Associational life

Association – joining together in companionship often to undertake some task, and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association (Doyle and Smith 1999; Smith 2012) – has been a central concern for many pedagogues, workers and educators for over a century. Those concerned with association have tended to look beyond the utility and practical benefits of being a member of a club or group. They present it as ‘a chosen means to pursue some common purpose and that in doing so, through fellowship with others, the individual enhances his or her personal capacities’ (Hirst 1994: 49).

For many pedagogues, workers and educators, association – and its concrete expression in the idea of the club – has also been a strong feature of their thinking and it is important to review why. Three main arguments have been made for the fostering of associational life.

Associational life as affirming and uplifting. Groups can become a clear point of reference, a way of helping people to locate themselves. By naming ourselves members of this group or organization, or that, we can feel more at home in the world and less isolated. At one level by belonging to a group we are saying that we are like the other members in some significant way and that we are doing is significant. Studies of voluntary groups and associations repeatedly report on the growth of confidence and of belief in oneself that is involved in active membership (Elsdon 1995; Hemmings 2011).

Associational life as education. Not only do associations allow members to follow enthusiasms and take part in activities and tasks that would not be possible as individuals but they can also be places where people can have the experience of learning to live and work co-operatively. Indeed, they can become ‘learning communities’.  Associational life helps to create ‘habits of the heart’: mores that allow people to connect with each other and the wider community. Of interest here to pedagogues and practitioners, is the extent to which associational life helps to foster virtues such as cherishing the members of this ‘community of friends’, serving others and being hopeful.

Associational life as community-building and growing civil society. The fostering of associational life among children and young people, it has been argued, is of great significance for community. Some start with the obvious argument that activities that bring children and young people into contact with local groups and communities are vital for the survival of society. Second, there is the power of encounter or meeting. It is not only that adults and young people can learn from each other – but in that meeting, they can glimpse beyond the everyday. Furthermore, one of the significant features of associations is that they provide a structure and form that allow their members not only to organize themselves and to set norms of behaviour, they also provide a means of relating to other groups within the community and bodies beyond it.

The thing about associational forms like the club is that they aren’t just preparation for participation in civil society; they are civil society – the array of voluntary, independent groups, associations and institutions that lay beyond the boundaries of the state, family and market (see Edwards 2014). As one writer has put it, ‘These groups are voluntary – some are more structured than others, some are more effectively permanent than others – but they are all made up of unrelated individuals who come together to pursue a specific common interest or concern’ (Beem 1999: 13-14). They both provide their members with considerable benefits, and they mediate between the state and the individual.

Strengthening civil society and deepening associational life have been a necessary counterbalance to excessive individualism on one hand, and totalitarianism on the other. Indeed, there are those who argue that civil society should have a far greater role to play if people are to flourish. Democracy can be seen more as a way of living than a set of representative voting arrangements.

Social change

A number of those involved in early work did not want to leave things at that. Living in communities and societies within which there were deep inequalities and severe limits on freedom, they wanted social and political change.

One of the most significant, but largely forgotten, figures in developing this thinking was R. H. (Harry) Tawney. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s he came to be deeply critical of much church charity work, labelling it as ‘mere ambulance work for the victims of class privilege’ (1953: 184). He argued for a much stronger educational experience and for working with people so that they may organize themselves both to develop mutual aid and to campaign.

Like John Dewey, Tawney wanted to build a common life – to embrace all those in a community. Unlike Dewey, however, Tawney understood the political and social transformations that it might entail. Fellowship or comradeship, thus, was not just a matter of feelings, ‘but as a matter of right relationships‘ which are institutionally based‘ (op. cit.: 267).

Tawney also came to recognize that capitalism could not, in the end, provide a suitable environment for the formation of ‘right relationships’: that the institutions it fostered were not conducive to the good life for all. It generated a ‘faith’ in acquisitiveness and a loss of social cohesion. Tawney judged that as capitalism developed, facilitating community and mutual aid would become more difficult. Other currents were also running against his vision, in particular the ebbing away of religious belief in Britain and many other countries. However, there were pockets of possibility. The noblest aspect of popular movements in Britain, Tawney commented, ‘has been the unbreakable spirit of comradeship embodied in them’ (op. cit.). The same could be said of more recent organizing such that involved in Extinction Rebellion (see Klein 2019; Smith 2020). Within movements, Tawney argued, ‘[R]ight relationships among free and equal individuals’ could be encouraged and facilitated and comradeship made possible. However, it could not be organized for others – it had to arise out of the activities of those involved’ (op. cit.: 267-8). He viewed it as an end – the ‘right condition of life for human beings’ (op. cit.: 199).

The challenge for schools and community organizations and groups is how to facilitate these things, for it is the knowledge that things can change – and then the experience and feeling of making change – that allows hope to grow.


Elsewhere we discuss some of the practical steps forward, and the way that community connects with sanctuary and hope. To finish it is worth highlighting that these cannot flourish within schools and community organizations unless we attend to the orientation of educators, workers and managers. For these things to be valued, we have to move beyond a narrow view of what schooling or local organization involves.

We must recognize the central role of pedagogy as against the inculcation of understanding (what is often talked about as didactics in continental discussions of teaching). Pedagogy, which can be viewed as a process of accompanying people, and:

  • bringing flourishing and relationship to life (animation)
  • caring for, and about, people (caring); and
  • drawing out learning (education) (Smith 2012; 2019a).


In other words, schools and local organizations need to focus on the flourishing or well-being of children and young people, rather than on their ability to undertake certain tasks or tests, or on their worth to the organization.

Further reading and references

The new normal series
Dealing with the ‘new normal’. Offering sanctuary, community and hope to children and young people in schools and local organizations. This provides an overview of the context, and an outline of the way forward for schools and local organizations.
What is sanctuary? How can we offer it to children and young people in schools and local organizations.
Offering community to children and young people in schools and local organizations.
What is hope? How can we offer it to children and young people in schools and local organizations?


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Acknowledgements: The interest in community and education comes from much further back – work undertaken as part of a Department of Education Science (England) developmental project on political education – and from ongoing work with Tony Jeffs (see Jeffs and Smith 2020).

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2020). Offering community to children and young people in schools and local organizations. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2020