Radical community education

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Tom Lovett explores the development of radical community education and explores different models of practice. Different models of recent work are reviewed and some ways forward suggested. This article was first published in 1994.

Contents: introductionhistorical and international backgroundThe American Labour MovementHighlanderThe Antigonish Movement  • The WEA and NCLCThe radical tradition  • Contemporary initiativesModels of community educationConclusion: ways forward, European developments • ReferencesTom LovettHow to cite this pieceAcknowledgements

Community education is often seen as the Catherine Wheel of adult education; plenty of sparks and action but little sense of direction and inclined to chase its own tail! This particular reading is designed to help you make some sense of the fireworks display. It will argue that such projects and initiatives share common concerns, i.e., working with the disadvantaged and oppressed minorities in society. This concern is accompanied by a similar process, i.e. active involvement in outreach work with local groups and communities. However, despite these similarities, they often have very different social, economic and political objectives. These are based on contrasting views about the nature of poverty and disadvantage and the contribution of community education to resolving these problems.

The reading will attempt to place this debate on its historical and international context before moving on to examine some contemporary initiatives and developments in the UK. These initiatives and projects will form the basis of a typology, a series of models of community education. These models in turn will help us to clarify the social and political objectives of these different approaches to community education and their relationship to community action and community development.

The conclusion will attempt to sum up this analysis and to draw attention to recent developments, particularly in Europe, which may point the way forward for community education.

Historical and international background

Attempts to reach the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the working class with relevant education forms part of the social history of the ‘common people’ and reaches across nations and back into the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century. Since then the search for ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ (Johnson 1988) has occupied the attention of many social, trade union and community activists, as well as numerous committed adult educators. Many of these adult education initiatives were, in fact, social movements with a particular view of the nature of men and women and concerned to help create the sort of society which would develop their capabilities and talents to the full.   Those involved in such movements were committed to removing the social, cultural and economic barriers to a more just society. They believed that adult education had a vitally important role to play in this process of peaceful social change.

However, although many of these historical initiatives were concerned to break down the barriers between education and ‘real life’, between education and action, they maintained very different ideologies, very different views about the nature of injustice, poverty, oppression and the means to remove them. These ranged from a fairly liberal approach, i.e., concerned to free individuals to make their own choices and develop their talents and abilities, to a more radical approach concerned with collective development and major structural changes in society.

Thus, adult education initiatives have, on many occasions, been linked to other activities, e.g., Folk High Schools and co-operatives in Denmark; Scandinavian study circles with Scandinavian social democracy; (Paulston 1980) American Land Grant Colleges with rural development in the USA. The Societa Umanitaria de Milan, founded in 1893, convened the first European conference on unemployment; the first co-operative housing scheme; the first institution for the rehabilitation of the unemployed; trained co-operators; had a large ‘People’s Theatre’; started the Italian People’s Universities; started the first adult education unions; promoted People’s Libraries all before 1910! (Du Sautoy and Waller 1961:46) It’s interesting to note however that, Gramsci the Italian Marxist, was very critical of the People’s Universities. For him such exercises, although radical in method, were essentially reformist. He believed that they would not succeed unless there was a strong link between such institutions and the masses and unless ‘they had worked out and made coherent the principles and the problems raised by the masses in their practical activity, thus constituting a cultural and social bloc’. (Hoare and Smith 1973:330)

The American Labour Movement

The contrast between the liberal and radical approaches in this educational tradition of active involvement in social, economic and political problems and issues is evident in North America where the European Folk High School movement was an important influence in numerous educational movements because of the prominent role Scandinavian emigrants played on the early American labour and trade union movement (Altenbaugh and Paulston 1978).   In Denmark, it had been closely associated, not only with the co-operative movement, but with the growth of Danish nationalism and culture in the nineteenth century. However, in other Scandinavian countries it had close links with the labour movement. In the USA both were important influences in workers’ education and the Labour College Movement in the early part of the century. In 1907 a Work People’s College was established by Finnish socialists in Minnesota. It provided workers with hard intellectual education, within a Marxist perspective, and training in practical skills. The knowledge and experience gained in strikes and other industrial activity were not regarded as interruptions of school work but as genuine education as a result of which ‘students and teachers alike bring wiser judgement and a keener sense of reality to their classes in consequence’ (Altenbaugh 1978:11).

In some colleges students and staff had to work, as well as study, together – often reversing the usual roles. Special importance was attached to art and drama in the work of the schools. ‘The theatre to my mind is a means to an end. Classified as art, it concerns itself in providing education; as propaganda it provides something to talk about’ (Altenbaugh and Paulston 1978:224).   Students wrote, directed, produced and acted their own plays and the skills associated with drama production were included in the curriculum. The aim of the many Labour College courses is summed up in the following statement of objectives from the Work People’s College:

The school recognises the existence of class struggle in society and its courses of study have been prepared so that industrially organised workers, both men and women, dissatisfied with conditions under our capitalist system can more effectively carry on an organised struggle for the attainment of industrial demands and ultimately the realisation of a new social order. (ibid: 243)

The Work People’s College, and the American Labour College Movement, played an important role in the American Labour movement up to the 1930s when it eventually fell victim to pressure from conservative trade unions and government.


However, another initiative influenced by the Danish Folk High School tradition, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which was established in the 1930s by a radical Baptist minister Myles Horton, has survived to this day (Adams 1975). Highlander played an important role in the growth and development of the trade union movement in Tennessee in the 1930s. More recently it provided an important educational resource for the Civil Rights Movement. Although Highlander was also committed to active physical involvement in the problems and issues facing people in that depressed region of the USA it was not so ideologically rigid as the Work People’s College and the Labour College movement referred to above. It was deliberately vague about the exact meaning placed on its governing concepts – brotherhood, democracy, mutuality, concerted community action – letting the time and the people define them more precisely. It quickly learnt that ideology, no matter how firmly rooted in objective reality, was of no value if it was separated from a social movement of struggling people.

Its axiom was learn from the people and start education where they are. It sought to educate people away from the dead end of individualism into the freedom that grows from co-operation and collective solutions to problems. Its goals were the release of the potential and energies of the people, not the relief of those problems. Like the Labour Colleges it placed great stress on culture and art, particularly local working class culture. However, there was less emphasis on hard intellectual effort and more on education for the will and imagination and creative human relationships. Information and training were provided by linking action to intensive short-term residential workshops. This was supplemented by research support for local activists. Highlander suffered from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other reactionary elements in the South. In 1961 the State of Tennessee seized the school’s property and revoked its charter. However it was quickly reorganised and rechartered under its present name, the Highlander Research and Education Centre, and continues its work on a new site in New Market, Tennessee.

The Antigonish Movement

At the other end of this continuum from the revolutionary Marxist approach of the Work People’s College, through the radicalism of the Highlander Centre was the Antigonish movement of Nova Scotia in Canada (Coady 1980). This was a reformist movement of adult education, self help and co-operative development which became world famous during the 1930s. Again, as with Highlander, the Folk High School movement in Denmark was an important influence and the leading figures were clergymen, Father Moses Coady, and Father Jimmy Tompkins. Coady was the intellectual figurehead of the movement, operating from the Extension Department of St Francis Xavier University. Tompkins was the field worker building the foundations of the movement amongst the poor people of the region in the 1920s.

Antigonish believed that reform would come about through education, public participation and the establishment of alternative institutions, i.e., co-operatives and credit unions. For Coady adult education was an aggressive agent of change, a mass movement of reform, the peaceful way to social change. It was a populist movement, strongly anti-Communist but with vision of a new society. This was the foundation of its educational philosophy and approach. It drew no fine distinctions between action and education. The movement was actively involved in creating co-operatives and credit unions linking them closely with a system of education support which was wide ranging including mass meetings, study clubs, radio discussion groups, kitchen meetings, short courses, conferences, leadership schools and training courses.

Although it did not embrace the Marxist analysis of the American Labour College movement or the radical political philosophy of the Highlander Centre, the Antigonish movement did succeed in engaging large numbers of workers in an extensive educational programme linked to social action which even today would be regarded as too radical by many adult education institutions! However it appears that St Francis Xavier University was not particularly happy with this active community involvement. When Coady died in 1959 the movement effectively died with him. As is often the case the University effectively ‘institutionalised’ the movement establishing a Coady International Institute to train people from the Third World in Antigonish methods, whilst remaining somewhat aloof from the continuing problems of poverty and injustice in its own region (Lotz 1977).

The WEA and the NCLC

In Great Britain this tradition of active involvement in social movements is historically associated with the National Council of Labour Colleges. The latter, which grew out of the Plebs League and the disagreement with what was seen as the academic and reformist attitude of Ruskin, the workers’ college at Oxford, was in some respects similar to the American Labour College Movement. Up until 1929 it had its own residential college and close links with the trade unions. However, echoing the American experience, as these unions became more right wing they became more a hindrance than a help! It also appears that the rigid Marxist teaching approach of the NCLC was less successful with students than the WEA’s more traditional liberal approach, particularly during the 1930’s when students were interested in the causes of unemployment and practical solutions (Armstrong 1988). The WEA although less dogmatic and more ‘objective’ was more democratic and flexible in its teaching methods, developing a more critical analytical approach in its students. The NCLC was a revolutionary educational movement with some very ‘conservative’ educational methods and techniques which often succeeded because of the high motivation of the students and their commitment to the political philosophy of the NCLC. The WEA was essentially a reformist movement.

However, both organisations trained successive generations of leaders for the trade union and labour movements, although they were less actively involved in seeking practical solutions on the ground than the initiatives in Europe and North America, discussed above. The WEA has survived as the main provider of working class education. It placed greater stress on seeking state support for its work against the emphasis placed on independence by the Labour College movement. Brown has argued that this was the right approach; that it is unwise and unnecessary to ignore the possibilities of using the resources of the state; that such support did not, as the supporters of the Labour College movement argued, weaken its (the WEA’S) commitment to the labour movement (Brown 1980).

That view has, until lately, been generally accepted. It has its origins in developments in workers’ education in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century which stressed the need to demand equal access to educational facilities provided by the state. This became the main feature of popular liberal politics and then of the Labour Party’s educational stance. The debate between the WEA and the NCLC in the early part of this century was thus, in some respects, the final battle in an older debate about independence and incorporation in workers’ education which reaches back into the early part of the nineteenth century.

The radical tradition

There was in fact a popular radical education tradition in the early nineteenth century which was closely associated with the radical political movement and sharply oppositional to all provided and centralised education, including the Mechanics Institute. Benjamin King, a Chartist, commenting on the latter said:

Mechanics Institutes were not intended to teach only as might be profitable to the unproductive. He trusted, however, we should now get working men to inquire how the produce of their labour was so cunningly and avariciously abstracted from them, and thence go on to the attainment of truth, in order to obtain, before long … happiness and community. (Johnston 1980: 85)

This movement was much more informal, flexible and undogmatic than the Labour College movement of the early twentieth century. Educational activities, e.g., communal readings, discussion groups’, travelling scholars, newspapers, were closely related with other activities in the family, neighbourhood and work. There was little distinction between education and non-education. The emphasis was on really useful knowledge and collective enterprise. The strategy was one of establishing alternatives. It was opposed to rigid dogma. Thus there were few organisational orthodoxies, little bureaucracy or division between officials and the rank and file. It found in the life of the masses the source of the problems it set out to study and resolve. It was undogmatic because there was nothing but experience from which theory could spring. All it had was its popularity. Thus the informal and unacademic character of the education. However, education was seen as essentially political, part of a political movement, and the movement conducted an internal debate about education as a means of changing the world.

Contemporary initiatives

There are many similarities between aspects of this tradition of workers’ education (and the others in North America discussed above) and contemporary initiatives in community action and education, e.g. the emphasis on relating education more specifically to the life of the people; the concern for flexibility and informality; the attempt to provide for active community participation and control of educational provision; the efforts to create alternative provision; the concern to link education with the larger labour movement. This had led to debates about the relevance of ‘community’ as opposed to ‘working class’; the dangers of informal education; the problem of co-option by the state; the role of education in social and political movements; the conflict between individual and collective advancement in the process of social and political change (Thompson 1980 and Lovett 1988).

This debate is well summed up in a European evaluation of pilot experiments in this field. It draws a distinction between collective education for individual development and collective education for individual and collective development:

the aim of social advancement is to reduce individual inequalities but the social environment which produced them is left intact (on the assumption that those inequalities are due to an inadequate education effort on the part of individuals, or the state, or to inequality of education gifts). The aim of collective advancement is to give individual education and at the same time influence the social context in which the individual lives. An effort is made to involve as many persons as possible in the education campaign. It will always be based on the concrete problems encountered by communities in real situations … without collective advancement there can be no genuine individual advancement but only uprooting. (Council for Cultural Co-operation 1974: 53)

The report especially recommended the Dutch Folk High School system as a prime example of collective education for collective advancement, linking education to social action by working in various communities and providing a residential educational element. It suggests that this system is helping to create an educational underground, separate from existing provision and asks the question:

Can it be said … that side by side with individual education a system of collective education which pursues complementary and distinct objectives is appearing, or are we confronted with the beginnings of a system of continuing education for adults which will supersede the former in due course? (Ibid: 63)

It concludes that, whatever the answer, there is a strong trend towards this sort of work and that it should be studied in more detail.

The proliferation of community education projects, community arts workshops, community research and information centres (often allied with a variety of community action initiatives concerned with a wide range of social and economic issues at local level) bears witness to the strength and variety of this trend. Its strength is underlined by the importance attached to it by a number of adult education agencies and in reports prepared by international bodies like the Council of Europe referred to above.

The International Council for Adult Education, for instance, established an international project in participatory research, involving groups in four continents. It focused on the active involvement of the people themselves in researching issues and problems relevant to their lives in their community and work. In a working paper on the project, it is stressed that ‘the research process should be part of a total educational experience which serves to establish community… its object should be the liberation of human creative potential and the mobilisation of human resources for the solution of human problems’ (Hall 1978: 11). Of course such a process is not new in adult education even in the liberal tradition. It can be criticised for its naiveté: its belief that research alone can bring about change; its stress on researching the community rather than those responsible for making the decisions which affect the community. However, that debate went on within the project and is indicative of the general reassessment of the role of adult education in social and political education which is taking place in adult education circles.

Another report published by the Council of Europe stresses the need to considerably broaden the definition of art and culture to encompass, not only initiatives in community art and media, but also those ‘cultural’ activities designed to allow people to play a larger and more active role in their society.

Culture is now a frankly political area. From another standpoint, it has become crystal clear that if the great mass of the people are to make a cultural democracy for themselves, a prime objective of any development policy must be the promotion of political awareness amongst them so that they can take what is, in the broadest sense, political action to achieve command of their own culture and control of the socio-economic forces which affect it, surmounting the crises of a world in crisis. Political competence, social commitment and community participation are among the essential characteristics of a man of culture. (Simpson 1976: 34)

The Council has promoted a variety of experiments in community arts over the last decade and published numerous reports and assessments of its work. It must be said though that often the practice does not live up to the rhetoric. There is a certain wooliness in the analysis of social problems and injustices, personified in the following statement from the author in his introduction:

I believe in the desirability and feasibility of a liberal and egalitarian society, I do not see this in terms of this or that constitution or these or those political and economic structures, but in terms of a new life of human relationships and social behaviour. (Ibid: 8)

In essence, it is a reassertion of the liberal assumptions about art and culture concerned to broaden the definition of adult education to include a range of cultural’ activities.

Finally a report by the Universities Council for Adult Education in Great Britain on Education for Participation reasserts the need to consider seriously the role of political education (UCAE 1980). Referring to the Hansard Society Report on Political Education (which stressed the need for education in political literacy in schools to proceed though examining issues rather than conventional “citizen education”), it points out that the limitations of the classroom and the age of the audience make this sort of political education essentially an adult education task. The report emphasises the important role adult education has to play in a revitalised and participating democracy and stresses that it will cause educators to question the nature of education and the basis of existing institutions.

The concern throughout the report is on relating education to real life situations, and on the role of community education in this process. It recognises that work with community groups poses, in an acute form, several of the problems which occur in other aspects of adult education for participation, i.e., very demanding, difficult to justify in conventional terms, raises sensitive political questions. Nevertheless the group felt that such work was profoundly important and was the basic education element of education for participation, demanding more of educationalists than conventional adult education. This could mean providing practical assistance, e.g. equipment, computers, photocopying equipment, video etc., for community groups, or creating new sorts of learning material (particularly utilising the media) suitable for work with adults in this field. However, although the report stresses the potential of local radio, it admits that it has not yet fulfilled expectations that it would stimulate local democracy. Finally the report places special emphasis on the role of university adult education departments in this field and the need to see themselves, and their institutions, as resources for the community.

Models of community education

The end result of all this debate and activity is that, as indicated in the introduction, community education is often regarded as difficult to tie down and define. What many outside the field see is confusion. What they ignore is diversity within a common process.

In fact many projects share a common concern with removing social and economic injustice and a similar process of active involvement and outreach work in local working class communities. However they often have very different social, political and educational objectives. These are based on very different views about the nature of injustice and oppression and the role of community education in combating the latter.

There are, in fact, a number of very different models of community education which reflect these different ideologies, different views about the world and the role of adult education in the process of social change. Generally speaking these can be placed in relation to the following models:

  • Community Organisation
  • Community Development
  • Community Action
  • Cultural Action
  • Social Action

Obviously in practice these models become blurred at the edges, one merging with another and, on occasions, moving from one model to another as a result of reflection on action. They form a continuum from the liberal individualistic approach at one end to the radical collective approach at the other end; from a concern with individual change to an emphasis on structural change; from radical individualism to radical structuralism.

What I want to do in the rest of this essay is to briefly outline the chief characteristics of each of these models, to illustrate with examples from contemporary practice, and to indicate how they connect up with similar initiatives in the past.

A community organisation model

The first model is one which attempts to combine aspects of community ‘organisation’ and community ‘work’ and relate these to adult education provision. This entails concentrating on the effective co-ordination and delivery of the wide variety of educational resources available to meet local needs and interests. It usually implies appointing out-reach workers – community education tutors to work outside institutions in local communities where there is little or no take up of adult education provision, thus linking the community to the latter. This, in itself, is nothing new. It is the traditional WEA tutor organiser role, and it has been successfully adopted by some community schools and Colleges of Further Education. It differs however in a number of respects:

i) the concentration on specific working class communities;

ii) the attempt to provide not only for working class participation but control of the programme;

iii)  the comprehensive nature of the resources now available for adult education and the extent to which these can be co-ordinated in an educational ‘network’ and related to local needs (Lovett 1982).

A good example of this model is the Pioneer Project in Leeds, England (Ward and Taylor 1986). This project, based in the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Leeds University, successfully pioneered the provision of adult education for a range of deprived groups and communities, e.g. women, the unemployed, retired people and black groups. In fact, in many instances, all of these groups were to be found in working class areas of Leeds and Bradford where the project team worked.

The team used a combination of community work and a network approach, i.e. using existing networks in working class communities to make contact with local adults and to seek their support and assistance for educational provision. Then, after initially providing courses and classes, they attempted to involve a range of other providers in a co-ordinated comprehensive approach to meeting local needs and interests. In less than three years, 343 Pioneer Courses had been organised in Leeds and Bradford, all offered free of charge. The total number of people attending two or more sessions was 3,969 (ibid: 68).

The range of courses provided encompassed recreational and liberal studies subjects, i.e. welfare rights, social policy, economic, psychology, sociology, music, video, photography, women’s courses and courses on local issues, e.g., ‘You and the Police’, ‘Know the System’.

The project team was in no doubt that working with, and in, local communities was the most successful approach in terms of actual provision. Work with institutions and trade unions was not so successful although they were useful as ‘resources’ for work in the community. The emphasis throughout the report on this work is on reviving the liberal education approach, making it broader, more relevant and accessible to working class adults. They defined the notion of social purpose in liberal education in educational, not social, terms, with an emphasis on enabling process concerned with assisting working class people to develop both individually and collectively.

The major criticisms of this model (echoing the Council of Europe report referred to above) is that, although it can be very successful in encouraging working class adults to participate in education, encouraging personal development, and possibly providing a ladder out of ‘deprived’ communities, it leaves the position of the general community unresolved. It does nothing for the problems of poverty and inequality which community development strategies seek to eliminate.

A community development model

The second model is one which attempts to meet this criticism by concentrating on a mixture of community work and community development. Adult educators operate like Schön’s ‘marginal men’, (Schön 1971) working in local communities in a variety of community projects providing information, resources, advice and, when the occasion arises, opportunities for more systematic learning and training in specific skills and techniques relevant to such action. In this community development model an effort is also made to educate the institutions and organisations concerned with the provision of services and resources for the local community. They are provided with a ‘community’ dimension in their training and education, i.e., how ‘they’, see ‘us’. Thus courses are provided for local councillors, clergy, police, planners, social workers, etc., as well as professional community workers and local working class leaders.

The early work at the Liverpool Institute of Extension Studies was important in

developing this model in which community development and community education were viewed as processes which could involve the whole community in a concerted effort to resolve local problems (Jackson 1970). It is an extension of the liberal/reform tradition, one more actively involved in local affairs working closely with community groups and institutions. It accepts the nature of the pluralist society and concentrates on improving communication and understanding between the various conflicting groups in an effort to improve local community problems. It is a model which owes a lot to that early Gulbenkian report of Community Work (Gulbenkian 1968).

The major weakness in this approach is its assumption that the problems found in deprived areas can be resolved by such cooperation, co-ordination and improved understanding at local level. As many of the Home Office sponsored Community Development Projects in the 70’s soon realised, this view rests on certain naive assumptions about the nature of poverty and deprivation

The usefulness to the state of defining the urban problem to the residents of the older industrial areas as a sickness to be ‘treated’ hardly needs stressing. It fits neatly alongside the idea that it is a marginal problem to be solved by increased discussion … The emphasis on ‘tackling social needs’ in isolation inevitably distracts attention from the root causes of the problem by focusing attention upon personal deficiencies. The people themselves are to blame for the problems caused by capital. (CDP 1977: 55)

A community action model

The third model places the stress on a combination of community work and community action, i.e., assisting local people in setting up their own, alternative social and economic structures, a form of community economic development and popular planning. Some of the work of the Community Action Research and Education Project in Derry in the late seventies was concerned with this approach, i.e., helping local residents in the city establish their own co-operative (Lovett et al 1983). This was an active process of learning through doing, involving local residents in actually getting the coop successfully off the ground. Education in the formal sense was restricted to those occasions when information, advice and skills were needed during the active learning process.

This model has obvious links with the work of the Antigonish movement. It has been criticised because, it is argued, the problems facing working class communities cannot be resolved by such local alternatives since the problems are structural and large scale. Recently however there has been an upsurge of interest and involvement in the idea of collective attempts to regenerate working class communities, economically and socially, through a process of community economic development (Adams 1988).

Those involved argue that larger social movements for structural social change can only emerge and grow if they have roots in a philosophy and practice of collective effort and fraternalism in working class communities similar to that of the 19th and early 20th Century labour movements.

These first three models have much in common with the work of the Societa Umanitaria de Milan referred to above. Many initiatives in community education share that very broad approach. Generally speaking Community Action is often the dividing line between the reformist and radical models.

A cultural action model

This model owes a great deal to the work of Freire (Freire 1972). It stresses the need to engage working class and other oppressed groups in a process of discussion and dialogue about ‘themselves’, about their cultures and way of life. Thus the initial emphasis is not on action but on assisting people to become engaged in a process of reflection on the major themes in their lives.

In terms of educational methods this implies dialogue and discussion about changes in everyday life, i.e., family, neighbourhood, personal relationships as well as the wider world of employment, education, politics, etc.

There is thus more concern with ‘culture’ in its widest sense; on value, rather than issue, based groups and organisations; on bottom up dialogue and consciousness raising using Freire type methods; reinforcing ties of culture, trust and community within groups, and focusing on a sense of ‘we’ rather than ‘them’. ‘People feel concerned about the loss of traditional guidelines, culture and values in their lives and are as able to talk about this as they are to complain about the garbage in their street or the needed stop sign on the corner’ (Perlman 1980: 25). Groups involved in this process are concerned to ask the right questions; to build up a process of popular education; to combine an exploration of the ‘why’, the ‘what’, and the ‘how’ before embarking on any form of community or social action.

The most successful application of this method is in the women’s movement, particularly in radical women’s education groups. The Women’s Education Centre in Southampton and its Second Chance for Women programme is one example (Thompson 1983).

Building on earlier experience in outreach work in local working class communities in Southampton this programme emphasised the need for a strong feminist perspective in education for women, starting where women are and moving to show how they are the victims of a process of cultural invasion, victims of a culture of silence.

A similar approach was adopted by the CARE Project in Northern Ireland although aimed at a wider audience of working class women, men and youth. Using local radio as a medium this project produced a series of thirty community education programmes concerned with the general theme of working class community in N. Ireland (Lovett et al 1983). The same medium, local radio, was used by the Southampton Project.

It is possible to discern in this approach an attempt to re-establish some elements of the early 19th century radical approach where education was very much a part of everyday life. However, although there is an emphasis on illustrating how ‘culture’ is related to wider social, economic and political structures, it requires links with a wider social movement if it is to be successful in changing the latter. The fifth and final model attempts to tackle this problem.

A social action model

This model is closely identified with the later work of the Liverpool Institute of Extension Studies in the Vauxhall project (Ashcroft and Jackson 1974).

It placed greater stress on motivation and content; on hard educational effort; on social, rather than community, action; on ‘working class’ rather than ‘community’ education. It was suspicious of the view that community action is, in itself, a learning process, or that just because an educator is involved in providing support and assistance for a particular local initiative it is an educational process. Education must be more structured and systematic. Educators must however act in solidarity with local people, aligning themselves with local community action, seeking to provide specific forms of educational support which illuminate the problems which local people seek to resolve.

There is more emphasis on locating, through education, the origins of local community problems in the larger social, economic and political structures in society. This is to be done not through informal dialogue and discussion but by strengthening motivation so that working class adults are prepared to undertake such hard intellectual effort. Workers must be convinced of their ability to undertake what is, to many of them, a daunting educational ‘journey’, by boosting their confidence and self image. This is a model which reaffirms certain aspects of the liberal tradition found in the trade union education work pioneered by some University Extra-Mural Departments; i.e., hard sustained intellectual study in which workers are given the best that is available and treated as adults who are willing, and capable, of undertaking work of a university level. It differs in its rejection of an ‘objective’ stance by the tutors concerned, and its more open commitment to, and links with, radical social action. However this does not imply, as in the Labour College tradition, a rigid dogmatic approach to education. It is much more open and critical, less concerned to ‘convert’ than educate, a combination of the best in Highlander, the WEA and the Labour College traditions.

However, it has been criticised for its narrow interpretation of education and the possible dangers of creating an educational elite.

Courses on the political economy of cities are fine, but very few community activists are at the point where such phrases mean anything to them. Such courses are more often run for the benefit of left-professionals (including community workers) with perhaps a couple of token working class activists or trade unionists. (Smith 1978: 28)

That last comment is somewhat pessimistic about the possibilities of engaging community activists in hard sustained education as the Second Chance to Learn Project in Liverpool has proven (Edwards 1986). That particular initiative faced certain contradictions indicated above, i.e., that it can become too narrow and can be used as a ‘ladder’ out of the community. However the project was extremely successful in engaging a wide range of mature students and community activists in its programme. It built on the earlier work of Jackson (1970), Ashcroft (1971) and Yarnit (1980). The latter recognised the tension in the programme between individual and collective needs: education which exists exclusively for the struggle is necessarily limited in its scope. Second chance has always had to come to terms with the tension between the interests of the politically committed, who form a coherent and vocal minority of the students, and the needs of often minimally class conscious students. We have recognised the advantages, for both types of student and for tutors from this mix but we also hold that adult education for the working class has to offer stimulus to both “committed and uncommitted” (Yarnit 1990: 190). The CARE Project in Northern Ireland (Lovett et al 1983) attempted to deal with the same tensions and contradictions with a variety of educational responses with a radical perspective.

Conclusion: ways forward, European developments

During the 80’s the influence of the more radical models discussed above waned under pressure from the general assault on collectivist approaches to tackling social and economic inequalities. The emphasis changed from community development to community enterprise and community service, i.e., support and resources for local businesses in the community and the involvement of local people in the delivery of social services.

However, during this same period there was a major initiative in adult education and community development undertaken by the Council of Europe (James 1985). This involved 14 countries in a range of pilot experiments concerned to explore the role of adult education in efforts to regenerate groups and communities in disadvantaged and impoverished regions of Europe. The emphasis in all the initiatives was on a community education/development approach to social, economic and cultural regeneration.

Within the projects’ remit adult education has been geared to the overall development of communities by being integrated into social, economic and cultural progress. Initially on this process, education was an act of community awareness. But, through self-motivation and a perceived need for change, a sufficient powerful head of steam has been built to create a sense of shared destiny. (Council for Cultural Co-operation 1987: 14)

The final report on this exercise stressed the need for a co-ordinated and integrated approach to such regeneration with local communities at the centre of such development playing a pivotal role in a new partnership with government departments and agencies and local/regional authorities. ‘From the outset, the overall control of the scheme should remain in the hands of local communities rather than be on a tight rein directed by outside, conventional institutions’ (ibid: 17). It also stressed the role of community education in this whole process suggesting that community education and community development were themselves, two sides of the same coin. ‘The progress of local development is also a process of education and training.

Likewise education and training cannot be amputated from community development’ (ibid: 23).

In many senses this model attempts to combine features from almost all of the models discussed above, i.e., an emphasis of co-ordination of community education services and resources; an integrated approach to community development involving all the local groups and government agencies; an awareness of the need to explore alternative structures and the importance of ‘learning through doing’; an emphasis in the cultural, as distinct from the social and economic, aspects of change.

It is obviously less confrontational than the social action model; less concerned with social movements, more concerned with social partnerships. Only time will tell if that partnership is an illusion or a reality. The report admits that ‘there are no regulations on the statute book to fund on a long term basis the type of community development envisaged and described by this report’ (ibid: 18).

However, it does point in the right direction in terms of the need to see community education as an integral part of a wide range of activities concerned with social change and combating poverty and disadvantage. … one of the most salutary lessons of the initiative is that community education and development provide prolific working answers to a decaying social fabric and an uncertain future’ (ibid: 13).

That vision of the role of community education and development is one shared by many people involved in this process throughout the world. However it will require an act of political will, a social movement of struggling people, supported by community educators, to make it a reality.


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Tom Lovett

Tom Lovett (1936-2012) was Professor of Community Education and Director of the Community Research and Development Centre at the University of Ulster. After retiring from that post in 1997 he was involved in community development and community regeneration work in North Belfast. Hewas also chairman of the Ligoniel Village Neighbourhood Partnership and Ligoniel Community Enterprises.

Among his publications were Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class (1975) Adult Education and Community Development, (1982) Radical Approaches to Adult Education (1983), and Youth Work and Working Class Culture. Rules and Resistance in West Belfast (with N. Gillespie and W. Garner) (1992). For more on Tom Lovett read John Field’s appreciation: https://thelearningprofessor.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/tom-lovett-1936-2012/

© 1994 YMCA George Williams College. This item was originally produced as Unit 3, Item 4 in ICE301 Lifelong Learning for the BA/BA(Hons) in Informal and Community Education. Reproduced here with permission (2015).

Acknowledgements: The picture ‘Happy colors in the sky’ is by rogilde and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic). flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/42903611@N00/495216454/

How to cite this piece: Lovett, T. (1994). Radical community education. The informal education archives. Originally published by the YMCA George Williams College (1994). [https://infed.org/mobi/radical-community-education/. Retrieved: insert date].

Last Updated on May 19, 2020 by infed.org