Using informal education – Chapter 2: Personality and curriculum

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Anne Foreman’s important discussion of curriculum within youth work – and the power of personality. Chapter 2 of Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (1990) Using Informal Education 

contents: introduction · curriculum — the youth work approach · youth work and experiential learning · the cult of the ‘character’ · the time factor and learning from each other · informal education and adolescence · strengthening the curriculum content? · references


We see the Youth Service as deeply educational, in the sense that it should be helping young people become whatever it is in them to be. HMSO 1982: 15

[page 24] This affirmation of youth work as an educational process belies its image among other agencies involved with young people. The popular view of youth work as providing leisure activities to keep youngsters out of trouble, and of youth workers as quasi-social workers with a dash of outward bound instructor thrown in, sits uneasily alongside the images of other practitioners engaged in in­formal education. This uneasy position, peripheral to other kinds of informal education, is inappropriate for a service whose prime aim is the personal development of the individual. Such an aim has learning at its core.

On the education stage, the spotlight has centred of late on curriculum: negotiated, development, core, et al. The ambivalence of some youth workers towards the term curriculum, and the lack of an agreed acceptable alternative, has kept youth work in the wings. Such a position, while it may reflect a healthy resistance on the part of youth workers to either aggrandizing or misrepresenting their work, also supports the cause of those who wish to see youth work as leisure or recreation rather than education. It may appear tempting in terms of resources to be outside education, but unless educational criteria are used to evaluate youth work the Youth Service will be on the periphery of leisure provision as well.

Assisting in the personal development of people and enabling [page 25] them to become critical members of society is for many the raison d’être of youth work. To achieve such an aim more definite objectives must be formulated. It is these objectives which many would argue form the ‘curriculum’ in the Youth Service. A large number of youth workers describe such a set of objectives as a ‘programme’ rather than as a ‘curriculum’. Others use the term ‘social education’.

Terminology apart, the Youth Service has a range of activities and processes designed to offer learning opportunities to young people. However, the quality of its informal education provision is uneven. In part this is because of variations in practice, a practice that has developed largely around vague notions of young people’s needs. It is also partly because of the relationship between the personality of the youth worker, the concept of the informal educator and the youth work task. The construction and implementation of the curriculum or programme is strongly influenced by the nature of this relationship; yet it has received scant attention from trainers, work­ers or managers.

It is not simply my personal view that youth work offers an uneven range of informal education provision. The National Advisory Council for the Youth Service (NACYS) has produced a plethora of consultation papers. They have considered a range of curriculum matters, from rural youth work (NACYS 1988d) to the participation of young people in the Youth Service (NACYS 1988a; 1988b; 1988c); from work with unemployed youth (NACYS 1987a) to work with girls and young women (NACYS 1989). Such atten­tion to practice has revealed nuggets of excellence among the ordinary or mediocre. One tangible result of such imbalance is a service strong on identifying the issues affecting young people but less adept at tackling them.

Other factors influence the nature of informal education in the Youth Service. Social and political climates, together with changing views and understanding of the nature of adolescence, have in­fluenced formulations of the youth work task. Indeed, the Youth Service, like other agencies involved with young people, has been carried along with the tide of prevailing views of adolescence; such views have helped determine the style of youth work practice, its content and the allocation of resources.

Youth work practice in the formative years of the Service centred around ‘improvement’ of young people. Youth workers at the time attempted to create an environment where young people were exposed to socially educative experiences that went beyond the socialization processes of family and working life. ’[P]ractice … [page 26] was designed to change the attitudes, “improve” the culture, and thus modify the behaviour of anyone that it was thought would benefit from it’ (Booton 1985: 7). Concern for social order, and a need to improve the standard of health of the population, were factors influencing the direction of practice. The result was a pro­gramme of character—building physical activities through which young people were to be helped to become healthy, law-abiding citizens. The development of a statutory service, located within local education authorities, served to consolidate this style of youth work practice and ensured that it lasted well into the 1960s.

The Albermarle Report (HMSO 1960) had an important impact on the youth work curriculum of the 1960s and 1970s. One of the tangible consequences of the report was the injection of some £40 million into the Youth Service. These funds resulted in purpose-built youth centres. Large sports halls, coffee bars, social areas and art and craft rooms ensured that a curriculum was constructed around the learning opportunities such building design afforded. But though the range of activities expanded, the personal develop­ment of young people was still largely concerned with the transition from school to working life. It was suggested (Davies 1979; 1986) that the interpretation of social education at this time was a product of the ‘never had it so good era’ — a time when continued economic growth was assured and the only difficulties facing the young were how to make the most of the new opportunities. The informal education of young people was concerned with individual fulfillment and adjusting to the adult status that came with full—time employment.

By the late l970s, however, a very different picture had emerged. The economic crisis resulted in cutbacks and restrictions in what was being done with and for young people. Lack of employment opportunities, the changing face of leisure in relation to work and a changing welfare benefits system put economic independence out of reach of large numbers of young people. Day-time youth provision attempted to cater for those without paid employment. Such pro­vision ranged from a social and life—skills training approach, information/advice giving and specialist counselling, to drop in leisure and ‘soup kitchen’ type facilities.

Curriculum — the youth work approach

Before we explore the relation between curriculum and personality some clarification of the youth work curriculum is required. Youth [page 27] work is primarily concerned with the personal development of young people. Such development is enhanced by an environment that encourages and enables participation in learning opportunities. These opportunities take the form of a programme of educational activities that provide the basis of curriculum content. The youth work curriculum is, however, more than the programme or prac­tice: it includes everything that enhances learning. The design and layout of a building, its resources and accessibility, the personality of the workers, the times of opening and charges: these are all curriculum matters.

What, then, are the characteristics of good informal education in youth work? Can the relationship between personality and curri­culum be altered to strengthen curriculum content?

Youth work practice invokes both formal and informal education. Social workers, adult education tutors and trainers all work in a variety of ways that respond to the experiences of young people. Youth work does not simply acknowledge the experience of young people, however: it starts from how young people experience the world. In youth work, ‘learning begins with what immediately confronts the learner’ (Rosseter 1987: 53). It is this stance of working with how young people experience the world that underpins the youth work curriculum.

The wide range of organizations that make up the Youth Service include autonomous groups with their own aims, such as the Guides and Scouts. The curriculum of such groups is directly related to their declared aims. The youth work curriculum described here belongs to that network of clubs, centres and services provided for young people by local authorities. Involvement in the Youth Service should offer young people the sort of learning opportunities afforded by access to such activities as art, drama, sport, music, health education, decision making, residential experiences, political education, com­munity action and adventure education.

Such activities and concepts have much in common with those of other educators located within Social Services, Adult Education, the Careers Service and other training agencies. There will, for example, be both planned and unplanned learning outcomes and a dialectical relationship between method and content. The planned learning outcomes will be those skills or abilities that increase through participation in the curriculum. The unplanned learning outcomes are more likely to differ in their emphasis. One of the planned learning outcomes of ‘Upholstery for beginners’, for example, might be the ability to recover a chair seat; an increase in personal [page 28] confidence or the making of new friends might be unplanned outcomes. Nevertheless, the curriculum of ‘Upholstery for beginners’ will be directed towards the acquisition of specific skills and the interventions used by the educator to increase those skills will shape the methodology. The youth work curriculum differs only in that it reverses this order. It cannot pre—plan such interventions, but it has to create situations where learning can occur. The planned learning outcomes for the young people involved in improving their music skills, for example, may be to increase the ability to cooperate with others and foster decision—making skills. These, rather than im­proved musical ability (though it may provide a springboard for this), are where the emphasis lies. The youth work curriculum, therefore, like those in which other informal educators are involved, demands a high degree of skill in enabling young people to reflect on their experience and learn to develop their own capacities.

Youth work and experiential learning

Young people become involved in the Youth Service because they choose to, and the curriculum is influenced by their experience of the world. Other agencies involved in informal education use the ‘learn­ing by doing’ process known as experiential learning. This process encourages the learners to think about what it is they are learning. It requires them to be active rather than passive recipients of infor­mation or instruction. Some form of activity is used as a vehicle for learning and the immediate life experiences of the learner are acknowledged and utilized. Reflection upon what has taken place is the element in the process that facilitates learning. ‘[I]t is through reflection that young people learn about their capacities and responsibilities and how to evaluate their circumstances’ (DES 1987a: 5). The educator’s knowledge of the learner’s situation contributes to the content of the the process. Class, race, gender and environmental questions are considered within the context of the educator’s percep­tion of such issues. The experiential learning process takes account of how such issues affect the daily lives of young people. Effective youth workers have to be able to understand and use the immediate and individual experience of young people, while retaining an overall sense of direction and purpose.

The cult of the ‘character’

Youth work practice has been determined by, and has reflected, prevailing social and political trends and attitudes. The needs of [page 29] young people have been, and to a large extent still are, identified by adults with a concern for social order As has been described earlier the Service received, post—Albemarle, a considerable injection of funds. The fruits of this legacy can be observed in the numbers of purpose—built centres, with their coffee bars, sports halls and social areas, dotted around the country. The maintenance and adminis­tration of such buildings is absorbing more and more of the time and energy of youth workers, as is the question of how to adapt such buildings to contemporary requirements. This is a task that requires no small degree of ingenuity, imagination and creativity. The post—Albermarle years also saw an increase in the number of training courses designed to ‘professionalize’ the service. What remains of this legacy?

‘Youth Club Workers were not like other adults’ (DES 1983: 40) according to one survey of young people’s views. This notion of appearing ‘different’ because of their work with young people will be familiar to other welfare workers and caring agencies. In youth work it can be linked to the use of activities as a medium for working with young people. Activities continue to be the bedrock of youth work and can be sports— or arts—based, be centred on religion or politics or concerned with advice and information giving or counselling. Most people bring to their work some particular skill or interest, be it photography or pot holing, mural painting or mountaineering. They need to be enthusiastic about their interest to capture the attention of others. Such people often become identified with their own particular brand of work — they are ‘arts’ people or ‘sports’ people — and they frequently go to great lengths to improve or develop skills in their field.

This absorption with one area of work can cast young people in the role of audience rather than learners. The worker should ensure that co—workers are selected to counteract this possibility and to enable young people to have contact with a diverse range of person­alities. Otherwise learning will be constrained rather than enhanced by the youth worker’s activities. This is not to denigrate the pursuit of excellence in specialist areas; but the concern for the personal development of workers and their training opportunities, while laudable in its intent, has contributed to this cult of the ‘character’. ‘Characters’ have a particular accomplishment which becomes honed to such an extent that it becomes all-consuming and takes centre stage. This changes youth work from being a vehicle for young people’s learning to being a means of meeting the needs of youth workers.

[page 30] There is some truth in the notion that people who have had the opportunity to spend time on their own personal development and growth will be more effective workers. However, personal development and training need to be linked more closely to the requirements of the job. More specifically, workers’ training should be about how to benefit young people. Otherwise the aura of goodwill, energy and concern to help that is the hallmark of many workers is likely to mask a lack of basic skills in planning and implementing informal education.

The time factor and learning from each other

Informal education in youth work also differs from that of other agencies in that there is often no clear end to a piece of work. The seed of an idea for a project can germinate into a range of activities designed to meet differing needs. Some young people may stay with a project through all the stages in its development. Others will opt in or out at various points. The skills of the worker lie in anticipating some of the outcomes, understanding the nature of the relationship within various peer groups and ensuring that participants have opportunities to reflect upon and learn from their experience. It is in reflecting upon their experience that individuals may learn about their own capacities and apply this knowledge to their own position in society.

The capacity for learning from each other is also a factor that underpins informal education in the Youth Service. Both these characteristics — the time factor and learning from each other —together with the relationship between the personalities of the workers and curriculum construction are illustrated by the following examples drawn from centre-based youth work.

The music workshop. The worker in charge knew there was a great interest in music in the club. One of the senior members was in a band that had just started to get some gigs. The band occasionally rehearsed at the centre and this aroused the interest of members who dropped in to watch. Members of the band felt unsure about letting others loose on their equipment so another way of offering the chance to make music was needed. Eventually a worker, complete with keyboards and acoustic drums, was found. Along with his musical skill came an unconventional [page 31] appearance, a bit of a ‘posh’ voice and an evident political awareness. How would members and co-workers react?

It was agreed that it would be insufficient just to provide a music workshop. Time was needed for members to meet the worker and get to know him. For several weeks he came along regularly to the open youth club and sometimes got out the piano and started playing. This aroused a lot of interest. Next came a series of small eye—catching posters around the club advertising a chance for a limited number of members to have a go on keyboard and drums. The first meeting of those interested was set up. The worker declared his terms. The group must include young women and young men and be limited to six. This was duly considered and members countered with some terms of their own. The session sounded too long, they came to the club to do other things as well. A booking system of twenty-minute slots was devised. An atmosphere of negotiation was established. Special interest activities that take place on an open club evening can easily be scuppered by other members or non co-operative staff. In this instance the work done in the preceding weeks reduced the likelihood of this and the music workshop became an accepted part of the club evening.

Conflict soon arose when an unpopular club member booked into the session and was included with members the worker judged most able to handle the situation. Much discussion and argument went on amid the music making but the unpopular member stayed, as did the others. If this were fantasy, the unpopular member would emerge with new friends and understanding. But life is not like that and this did not happen. Nevertheless, all those involved had the chance to reflect on the responsibility they had for their own behaviour and its consequences in relation to other people. The worker, of course, had engineered a lot of what happened. An apparently unstructured event was prepared in a careful and systematic manner. The worker’s own skill and interest in music did not override the focus of the session on learning opportunities. A straightforward music workshop, offered as a ‘class’ rather than as part of the youth club night, would not have made the same input into building relationships before the event. Nor would there have been the same degree of dialogue with the participants. A spin off from this was that the lack of facilities for young people to enjoy hands-on experience of music was brought to the attention of local councillors on the management committee of the centre. [page 32]

The appeal. The second illustration is related to the time factor which is one of the distinguishing features of informal education in youth work. The youth work curriculum is usually designed as a means of access to learning opportunities rather than as an end in itself. It does not, therefore, slot neatly into the pattern of either timetables or term times.

The appeal certainly did not start out as a carefully structured learning experience. Initially it was a spontaneous individual re­sponse to a local fund-raising foundation that resulted in a year-long project involving fifty young people. The foundation had a target of £30,000 to be raised for meeting the costs of specialist medical treatment for a local child. The fact that the parents of the child were two ex—club members generated the interest of members and the initial one—off event raised a little money. Once it was clear that this was something that members were keen to support, the youth workers had a close look at the opportunities it could offer for informal education. It was agreed that, in addition to the aim of having fun and raising money, the greater involvement of the members in the club would also be an aim. This was to be monitored and in the course of the year members attended regular meetings, sold tickets, and planned, organized and publicized events. Three members became voluntary helpers in the club, made decisions on the content of events and the ratio of staff to members required.

Throughout the year members tapped in and out of the project and varied the degree of their involvement. The workers encouraged members to learn from each other and there was a high level of interaction among them as skills and experiences were exchanged. For the worker in charge, a local, experienced part—timer with a thorough knowledge of the community, this meant submerging her own fund-raising talents and focusing on the youth work aims of the project. If it had remained a strictly fund—raising affair her organizational skills alone could have raised more money in a shorter time than the combined efforts of all the club members. She knew that the enjoyment, sense of achievement and increased responsibilities undertaken by some members came from focusing on the content and method of working with each other rather than on fund raising as an activity in itself.

The curriculum content of the project and the way it was im­plemented were heavily influenced by the knowledge and appreci­ation the worker in charge had of both young people, the local [page 33] community and its networks of communication. The time span of the project allowed the young people involved to develop their individual commitment at their own pace. For some this involve­ment was superficial. Others responded to the timely interventions of the workers by becoming involved in action within their com­munity. This heightened their understanding of wider issues, of a National Health Service powerless to support a local family and the awareness that parenting made emotional demands far beyond the ephemeral pleasures of a baby to dress up and show off. More specifically, members displayed an increasing ability to cooperate with others, to make decisions and consider their implications. They demonstrated organizational ability and handled money and publicity responsibly.

Informal education and adolescence

The illustrations above are drawn from the stuff of which centre-based youth work is made, the week-by-week pattern of youth club activities. There is another aspect to the relationship between the personality of the informal educator and the construction and imple­mentation of the curriculum which has more serious implications for the way it affects young people. This is the link between the prevailing views of adolescence and the way young people experi­ence the world. There is a sense in which concepts of adolescence which emphasize its transitory and developmental nature influence a style of youth work geared towards enabling young people to ‘get through’ it and emerge at the other end as worthy citizens. This sort of youth work has in many ways become indistinguishable from social and life—skills training and is committed to coping with life as it is, accepting it rather than making any critical response.

Life—skills training focuses on individuals and their personal effec­tiveness. It suggests that individuals are responsible for what hap­pens to them and offers a deficit model of adolescence that needs to be made good by training. It does little to validate young people’s own experience and values them for what they might become rather than for what they are. The political issues that shape our lives are ignored. A youth work curriculum that leans this way rejects the life experience of young people and ignores the external factors that limit their horizons.

Theories of adolescence tend to regard teenagers as one homogeneous group. Of course they are not. Adolescents as a group may well be the corporate victims of political and economic [page 34] strategies that result in a shared experience of unemployment, for example. But even a large—scale issue such as this is experienced differently according to class, race and gender. If a youth work curriculum is to contribute towards the transition from adolescent to adult, then it must turn away from a life—skills training approach and centre on the educational processes involved in increasing political awareness and taking collective action against forms of oppression that constrain young people. Such a curriculum cannot be con­structed or implemented by workers unable to relate to young people’s experience of the world or connect that experience to the political forces that limit young people’s development. Empathy of itself is not sufficient: a worker cannot become a sort of ‘honorary’ young person by merely understanding the feelings of young people. Political education is the key that can unlock the process of working in an effective way. One of the clearest examples of such a curriculum is to be found in the development of work with girls and young women within the Youth Service. Within this curriculum informal education is characterized by a high level of dialogue between the learners and the educators and an active appreciation of the way young women experience the world (see also Francis in this volume).

The Girls’ Club movement was a major casualty of the professionalization of the Youth Service referred to earlier. Early training courses were male strongholds and it is only in recent years that a commitment to a more equitable gender and race balance of students on training courses has emerged. Work with girls and young women does not generally start with the premise of a deficit model of adolescence; it has evolved through the collective experience of the oppression of girls and women in society. The girls’ work curricu­lum is one that centres around common aspects of the lives of the learners and educators and focuses on collective action. The shared experience of fear for safety, for instance, may result in the incor­poration of assertiveness training and self—defence instruction in the curriculum. Such action by young women can extend their range of opportunities within the Youth Service and, by challenging the power relationships within that Service, has contributed to a re­allocation of resources.

Strengthening the curriculum content?

Can the relationship between the personality of the educator and the curriculum be used to strengthen the curriculum content? There is a [page 35] danger here that focusing on curriculum content will result in its prescription. If the curriculum in youth work is intended to provide a means of access to informal education, as has been suggested, then particular attention must be paid to the process.

The Youth Service remains one which young people come to voluntarily and which they use on their own terms, which may or may not include thoughts of learning or education. A too clearly defined curriculum is the antithesis of the concept of participation which is enshrined in so much Youth Service thinking. Where attention has been paid to the curriculum in youth work, it has too often been at a remove from practice rather than evolving from it; constructed, for example, as in—service training and slotted into existing provision.

Content can be strengthened by paying attention to the rela­tionship between curriculum and the informal educator. Workers need to be able to draw on and appreciate the world of young people; to have a sense of direction in their work rather than a concern for the minutiae of content. Content will fall into place if there is a dialogue between learners and educators. The multifaceted role of many workers results in poor deployment of human resources. As a consequence they spend a disproportionate amount of time on the administrative tasks associated with the running of a building and liaising between different user groups (Stone 1987). The particular skills workers have in operating with young people can suffer from lack of application, and the cutting edge of political awareness is easily blunted by struggles with bureaucracy. It is not detailed attention to content that is needed but an understanding of the processes of how people learn and a comprehension of the political and social context that shape their lives. A clear sense of purpose facilitates the confidence that allows for continuous critical analysis of the effectiveness of informal education provision within the Youth Service.

Informal education in the Youth Service should remain pioneering and challenging. The performers who cast learners in the role of audience must give way to those workers whose informal education practice is underpinned by a philosophy of political education.


For details of references go to the bibliography

© Anne Foreman 1990

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith 1990
Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

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First published in the informal education archives: February 2002.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by