Using informal education – Chapter 3: informal education in residential work with adults

using informal education

Mal Blackburn and Don Blackburn explore some key issues and questions that arise in practice. Reprinted from T. Jeffs and M. Smith (1990) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

contents: introduction · the rise of residential care · the shift to community care · behaviourist approaches · normalization programmes and the use of the informal · informal education and residential work · the low status of the residential contribution


[page 36] The two central themes of this chapter, informal education and residential work, are often used as catch alls into which a range of practices and theories are made to fit. Our intention is to offer a partial view, while arguing that there is a coherent relationship between them. This involves briefly examining the development of residential provision and the subsequent debates over community care. In considering residential care the focus will be upon provision for adults categorized as having severe learning difficulties. This term is used rather than ‘mental handicap’, or the more pejorative ‘severely subnormal’. Alternatives occur only in a historical context.

The rise of residential care

The provision of residential care for people with severe learning difficulties began before the asylums and poor law institutions of the nineteenth century. Residential provision was regarded as a model solution to the problem of controlling this group. Segregation of people with severe learning difficulties in institutions enabled the regulation of their relationships with each other and the community. It was sustained by a belief that disability was permanent, young people with such difficulties being removed from schooling altogether, categorized as uneducable but possibly amenable to training.

Conditions within the institutions were poor. Most were built in the countryside, isolating their occupants from the rest of society. With the development of health and welfare services after 1944, provision of residential care for people with severe learning difficulties became the responsibility of the NHS. It inherited the existing [page 37] problems of overcrowding, under-funding and inadequate education and training for staff. No medical justification for NHS control existed, since severe learning difficulties were not a disease or illness. In a climate of competition for scarce resources within the service, the only form of attention given this client group was all too often the management of basic physical needs. A series of reports in the 1960s and 1970s subsequently revealed the extent of the squalor in which many were living. Such reports catalogued a disturbing number of acts of callousness and brutality by staff (HMSO 1969, 1971 a; Morris 1969).

The consequences of the custodial system can be seen in a number of ways. The assumptions which accompany it are that the task is relatively simple, requiring minor consideration, and that the accompanying skills needed, demand little development. Jones (1975) discovered these views among qualified as well as unqualified staff in a large hospital for people with severe learning difficulties. Of the qualified staff 65 per cent, and 93 per cent of the unqualified, agreed that ‘When looking after patients, ability and common-sense are more important than formal training’ (ibid: 87). In addition, 74 per cent of all staff agreed that ‘Kindness is more important than a therapeutic programme for patients’ (ibid: 88).

The task of the worker in this environment can be seen to have three components: to attend to the bodily needs of the resident; to ensure that the procedures of the institution are followed and rules are obeyed; and to accomplish this in a way which, as far as possible, does not make the residents unhappy. The worker is overwhelmingly engaged in managing the conformity of the residents, in the application of a control system appropriate to a factory or barracks, except that in this case there is no compensating pay for those living under the discipline of the regime. Training clearly has a purpose in this framework and as Goffman has remarked ‘we forget how detailed and restrictive it can become in total institutions’ (1961:43).

The critique of this system must avoid merely blaming the caretakers for the dehumanizing and inhumane practices which developed in much residential work. This is not to defend brutality or callousness on anyone’s part. However, the staff themselves were enmeshed in the same ideology as the residents, both in their work and in the way their education was perceived. The structure of the NHS is hierarchical, with the lower tiers not only expected, but required, to defer to those above. Hierarchy is marked clearly by power differentials linked to credentials: medical staff are above [page 38] nursing staff, qualified nurses above the unqualified and patients at the base.

If the tasks of residential care are perceived simply as custodianship plus a modicum of training for residents, then the form of education staff receive will reflect this. The acquisition of skills in the processes of bodily care will be emphasized, alongside a knowledge of the rules of the institution. Workers cannot be involved in reflection upon the justification of rules and procedures (i.e. the ‘content’ of training for residents) since that would undermine the authority relationships on which the organizational edifice depends. If we regard the development of critical reflection as a central component of the educational process, then the programme has to be seen as training as opposed to education.

It might be argued that even within such a framework reflection is possible. For example, workers could be encouraged to consider changes to training programmes where the efficiency of the institution might be raised. Improvements in training people with severe learning difficulties to take care of their own bodily needs might be justified on grounds of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. However, the restrictions upon workers’ criticism of the techniques of training merely reinforce the control emphasis of the system. What ought to be reflected upon is the purpose, content and social relationships of the programme. Otherwise it remains related to the needs of the institution and not to those of the workers or residents involved.

A training emphasis rather than an educational approach means that the methods applied to the residents can be applied in the same form to everyone. Because the subject matter is the same for all, i.e. the rule system, or daily living routines, it can be assumed that they may be learnt in an identical way. If the training programme can be applied uniformly, then the trainers can be taught the method uniformly. It is not merely the content of training programmes that is placed beyond critique by the workers: the form of their own training and their own practice is also set beyond their reach. So a division is created between theory and practice. The organizational structure discourages reflection, while the workers’ own training is not conducive to the development of theory. Given this alienating system, staff find it difficult to respond to the residents’ educational needs, that is their cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. [page 39]

The shift to community care

Donges (1982) concluded that residential care based on central government direction had, for this group of people, failed. The alternative of locally organized services was preferable even though there might be a cost in terms of a lack of coordination between different initiatives. The range of provision described as ‘residential care’ was becoming more flexible, stretching from ordinary houses in the community to larger purpose-built units, as well as more traditional forms of accommodation. Underpinning the movement to community care was a more optimistic view of the possibilities for education and training. Rather than seeing severe learning difficulties as a static condition, the environment or context within which the person lived was now assumed to have a significant impact on individual development. The 1971 White Paper (HMSO 1971b) reflected this when it argued for a planned response to the assessed needs of individuals, with the involvement of families in the assessment process.

The Barclay Report went further (NISW 1980: 62):

clients’ preferences and perceptions of their own needs should always be taken seriously when admission to either residential or day care is being considered; there should be a continuing dialogue between clients and service providers about needs and preferences.

The concept of development involved here was more concerned with education than with training. It recognized that change is possible in the individual. The goals of the programme were implicitly flexible, with both individuals and their families being involved in their specification. This implied that the methods of teaching would be sufficiently flexible to reflect the range of goals identified.

The Barclay Report recommended that residential care should not only provide basic physical well-being but also group and individual experiences which were satisfying and contributed to learning and development. The commitment to continuity of care, through the maintenance of links with other service networks, could be facilitated with a key worker system, the key worker being a named member of staff with responsibility for ensuring that the resident’s needs as a whole were met. This was considered to be particularly important when several agencies might be involved in delivery.

A rather non-problematic view of care in the community has often been propagated. According to this view an individual is able, as a [page 40] result of a carefully constructed programme of training, to make the transition from institution to the kind of everyday life that other people are assumed to enjoy (Gunzberg 1963; Kiernan and Jones 1977; Jeffree and Cheseldine 1982; Whelan 1984). But the individual programme designed to teach the skills and knowledge which it is assumed are required can have more to do with the expectations of others than with the expressed wishes of the individual. The formal training programme becomes an obstacle course for the individual to traverse before release. When the programme is completed the transition can be made. The individual is expected to change to meet the criterion of ‘normality’, rather than the community being expected to demonstrate tolerance.

Behaviourist approaches

The methodology which has gained widespread favour in the construction of programmes for people with severe learning difficulty is based to a considerable extent on behaviourism. According to Woods and Shears (1986), the latter has become orthodoxy in relation to the education and training of young people and adults with severe learning difficulties. It offers a particular conceptualization of the goals and methodology of the teaching programme. Goals are specified in terms of the observable behaviours which a student will carry out at the end of the programme. Method is related to the reinforcement of the desired behaviours. This process is legitimated by the claim that people with severe learning difficulties do not learn spontaneously from experience (Mittler 1979; Penn 1976; Gardner et. al. 1983). Systematic teaching is therefore required. There are a number of objections to this, not least the validity of the evidence on which the statement is based. It also often contains the rider ‘unlike normal children’, thus implying a significant difference in the learning patterns of people with severe learning difficulties. Even if the statement were true, it would not necessarily follow that ‘systematic teaching’ is equivalent to behavioural approaches: indeed, it is difficult to conceive of teaching which is not systematic. If an activity does not have some purpose and procedure it can hardly be described as teaching.

Alongside the rhetoric has developed a plethora of ‘curricula’, which consist of lists of behaviours which are assumed to comprise the skills required for independent living. A central difficulty here is the conflict between the stated aims of such programmes, those of autonomy and independence, and the technological rationality [page 41] which underpins the managerial programme. Woods and Shears (1986) have pointed to the facile conception of independence which behaviourists put forward. The autonomy of the person is perceived as an accumulation of skills and behaviours — a Legoland model of human development. It appears to be little more than a barely sophisticated version of the habit-training programmes of the large institutions. These programmes contribute to a process of deskilling the educators. Little thought or reflection need be given to goals since the lists of behaviours are preset.

Such technology is legitimated by its effectiveness. The behaviour described on the checklist is observed in the trainee at the end of the programme and the programme thus appears to justify itself. The efficiency rating accrued invariably appeals to managements everywhere; the effectiveness of staff becomes amenable to evaluation; and the cost of genuine staff education and development avoided. The niggling snags that remain are explained away by the nature of the learning difficulties of the trainee. Shortcomings in the transference of the skills acquired to novel contexts are portrayed not as the fault of the approach but as a consequence of severe learning difficulty.

Normalization programmes and the use of the informal

An alternative to the above practice has been described by Bank-Mikkelsen (1976) as ‘normalization’. If learning is to take place, the service should provide a minimally restrictive environment rather than ‘normalizing’ the resident. Within this model, people with severe learning difficulties live in small units within the community. Support is provided by staff to enable the occupants to develop their full potential and take an active part in the neighbourhood in which they live. This approach genuinely involves individuals in setting their own goals for learning. When carried out in ordinary daily living situations they have the opportunity to reflect upon their own performance and the basis for grounded intervention becomes clear. In this sense the educational process is informal.

Although the goals of the programme can broadly be defined in advance, the chance to acquire the knowledge, abilities and attitudes needed for living in the community will depend on the wishes of the person and the opportunities which present themselves. For example, there are clearly a finite number of ways of greeting other people; but the appropriateness of action can be judged only in a real context. The learning of a repertoire of actions to greet other people should be developed through reflection on experience.

[page 42] The term ‘informal education’ in the context of residential work used to indicate the negotiability of the process, both content and method. But this does not necessarily mean that residents should be left to their own devices when the programme is under way.  Unfortunately, the concept of informal education has too frequently been invoked to utilize an individualistic perception of the learning process, where the student is expected to interact with the context and create understanding without help.

Informal education and residential work

As far as informal education in residential work is concerned, the negotiable aspects of the programme are genuinely that. This does not mean that the residential workers abrogates responsibility to be involved in that negotiation. In reality the worker is involved in, and is part of, the context in which the resident lives and about which he or she is learning. The extent to which it is possible for residents to have control over, and learn about, their own abilities, will be constrained in part by the way that the workers choose to act or are allowed to act by the organizational structure.

If freedom of choice is not available in what the resident does, then this is clearly a recipe for institutionalization. This can be simply illustrated by considering the everyday activities of people within residential agencies. The resident may be faced with a routine at breakfast time which has the tables set (perhaps the previous evening), the choice of food limited to staff-selected cereals on the table and even the seating arrangements ordered by the workers. The space for the resident to display initiative and choice is curtailed. There is no need or opportunity for the resident to select the crockery or be involved in food preparation.

Issues like this are often regarded as trivial and hardly worth consideration in a discussion of responses to need. However, it is in these very areas that the institutionalization of people is at its most powerful. How can individuals learn to act in appropriate ways when they have little experience of taking control over the fairly mundane aspects of their own existence? The routines of residential settings can in many cases prove to be the most difficult to change yet the content of the learning programme is often concerned precisely such daily activities.

Routines often operate as a consequence of the organization’s needs and limited staffing cover. There is pressure to standardize responses to need in the interests of efficiency. This can affect all [page 43] aspects of daily lives from the timetable of activities to the menu. The involvement of residents in making choices and decisions clearly conflicts with standardized care. There may also be pressure on staff to ensure that the range of tasks involved in caring for people who may have a high dependency are completed during their time on duty. In the short term, involving residents in learning to do things for themselves can be more time consuming than the staff performing those tasks themselves. This particular issue is highlighted by Shearer in her discussion of the relationship between professionals and disabled people and is one that she describes as being based on a ‘cycle of expectation’:  ‘. . . residential staff can be handicapped by their assumption that people whose disabilities are as severe as this “ought” to be a candidate for their care’ (1981: 109). This tendency to make the client dependent on the staff and establishment was also addressed in a study by Rosen (1972) who found that many self-care tasks were performed by staff rather than allowing people with severe learning difficulties to learn for themselves. The assumptions and beliefs about severe learning difficulties can clearly be as constraining within voluntary and local authority provision as they ever were within the health service framework. In this sense, then, an informal educational approach necessitates a move away from an organizationally defined routine to one based upon individual needs, which can then provide everyday activities as opportunities for learning to make judgements and choices.

The routines of residential work have also traditionally influenced the way that staff job descriptions have been constructed. Staff have been largely seen as unskilled or semi—skilled manual workers, with a demarcation between carers, cleaners, cooks and officers. Staff training needs within this framework have been seen as relating to the task—based job descriptions. However, a system which was based upon an educational approach to residential work would necessitate the removal of these task—based distinctions between staff, since all should be concerned with the skilled work of facilitating the development of residents rather than the routine tasks of the institution.

In addition to the organizational constraints on staff, and assumptions about disability, the taken-for-granted nature of everyday activities can place them beyond question. It can be challenging enough for staff to develop alternatives to well—established practices and routines if they themselves have little power and the routines are strongly legitimated by apparently better qualified and experienced staff. It is difficult to be critical in a clean, well—ordered setting with [page 44] friendly relationships and good quality food. Staff may themselves have beliefs and values about the way in which everyday events should be ordered and how individuals should act. These may range from the times at which events should take place to the way residents should eat. A critical approach to the values and practices of the agency cannot be divorced from a similar approach to one’s own values and practice. This is intrinsic to the informal education of staff.

The concept of care is inadequate if it remains at the level of providing good hotel facilities as a response to the needs of individuals. Care has to be based on a dynamic understanding which accommodates the development of individuals as social beings, able to learn to take control over their own affairs. This has implications for residential settings in that the opportunity to manage many, if not all, of the aspects of the setting should be afforded to residents and not merely restricted to some of those defined as staff. If staff themselves have little control within the establishment how can they be expected to involve residents in this process? An informal educational approach, with its implied notion of developing autonomy for residents, requires flexible management structures, with in—built opportunities for decision making by all staff and residents.

There is thus a clear relationship between the educational needs of staff and those of residents, a point underlined by the Wagner Report (HMSO 1988a: 89).

We see the goals of an effective staff development and training policy as being. . . an ethos in which the needs and interests of the residents are paramount. This in turn requires the staff to be constantly seeking to change and adapt their own responses to the changing and varied needs of the residents. It further requires a commitment by staff members to learning as a continuous process .

The development of residents and staff are not simply related, in this argument, but are in fact dependent on each other. The recommendations of the Wagner Report (ibid: 67—8) emphasize this mutual relationship. The review of research for the report (Atkinson 1988) also reinforces the need for delegation of responsibility to, and autonomy of, care staff in providing a high quality service. This is to be set within the context of clear policies and a statement of aims and values for the agency.

The necessity for an informal approach is related to the self-confidence and self-image of the resident. The relationship of the worker to the resident is not envisaged here to be merely that of [page 45] instructor. It is not sufficient for residents to demonstrate competence at particular tasks to satisfy the appraisal of a staff member. An approach to education based upon a training model involves an implicit power relationship between the trainer and trainee. The competence of the former is contrasted with the incompetence of the latter. The differential between the two is not merely one of skills but is also related to self-confidence. Brown has shown in one study that people with learning difficulties ‘could not resist even mild social pressure, even though they showed competence in many vocational and social skill areas’ (1977: 392). A subsequent programme involving informal decision making markedly improved the performance of people in this respect.

This issue has not necessarily been addressed by recent developments. Much of the contemporary debate has injected a welcome focus on the needs of individuals and their involvement in the planning of agency responses. The construction of Individual Programme Plans (IPP) has been seen by some agencies as one way of organizing this process. However, the IPP approach has also often included an assessment framework, based upon the kind of behavioural schedules outlined above. Although people with learning difficulties may be involved in a choice of educational goals when constructing an IPP, the choice is effectively constrained by the menu of skills provided in the assessment. Where these assessments have been adopted for use across a local authority, there would seem to be a rather ironic relationship between the conception of individuality set within a standardized review of need. Implied by this process is not merely a lack of competence in living skills but also an inability on the part of people with learning difficulties to make judgements about their own needs. In addition, the conception of individuality is not set within a social framework. Autonomy is concerned not merely with behaving as other people expect but with choosing to act in ways which are consonant with one’s own knowledge, understanding and beliefs about both self and society. Education and development are fundamentally social in terms of the knowledge involved and the opportunities which are available to choose to act.

The move to community care and the emphasis on education is, therefore, not necessarily marked by increased independence and autonomy for the person with severe learning difficulties. In fact it highlights the tensions within the residential task between the need to educate and the need to protect. The strategy of community care necessarily brings this conflict into the open. Education for independence [page 46] involves an element of risk taking which can only be assessed in practice and for which there can be few standardized procedures. The first time an individual crosses the road without supervision or uses public transport, the outcome cannot be specified with certainty. Staff themselves need the confidence to engage in this kind of risk taking.

The low status of the residential contribution

The fact that it has been difficult for residential staff to develop either their own skills and knowledge, or the quality of service in this field may be due in part to the low esteem the work has amongst other professionals. As Barclay stated (NISW 1980: 52),

many social workers in the field regard it as one of their primary objectives to keep people out of residential establishments wherever possible. Yet a person who leaves home for another place remains the same person, with the same human needs and the same emotional links with the family or community.

The negative view of residential provision within social work is explored by Davis (1981). The author argues that this perception of residential work is reflected not only in the low status of staff and residents but also in the lack of training opportunities for staff. In fact more than 80 per cent of staff in residential work had no relevant qualification at the time of the Barclay Report (1980). This situation has not significantly altered in the intervening period.

Of residential and day care staff, only 7.5 per cent working with adults and 11.5 per cent working with children have a social work qualification; these percentages increase to 24 per cent and 34 per cent respectively if non-social work qualification, e.g. in teaching or nursing are included. These figures compare with 57 per cent in field social work who have a social work qualification, and 71.5 per cent when other qualifications are included. (HMSO 1988a: 87)

It may be argued that this is a consequence of residential provision in a segregated environment still being seen as an end in itself. In other words, the role of staff remains wholly or mainly custodial. Another factor may be the necessity for sponsorship by local social services in order for staff to have access to many of the educational programmes in social work. There is little possibility of staff engaging in educational programmes on their own initiative. Governmental constraints [page 47] on local authority spending may also have resulted in authorities placing different priorities on the education of workers in the various social work sectors.

The Wagner Report also commented upon the links between the low esteem in which residential work is held and the educational needs of workers in this area.

It would seem that many courses for the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work (CQSW) have yet to develop programmes that meet the specific learning needs of prospective residential practitioners. (HMSO 1988a: 85)

The Report argues that the factors involved in determining the status of residential work are material ones in the first instance (Chapter 8.13, Chapter 9.2). It goes on to point to the double bind that this can create in responding to the educational needs of the staff (85): ‘Regrettably, because of the failure to improve the standing of residential work, a CQSW is seen as a passport out from low status and low paid work, involving unsocial hours’.

Given this lack of opportunity, it is difficult to see how staff can construct a critical practice or develop their own work. The perception of the job as an end, rather than a means towards development, combined with the managerial approach to training both residents and staff, reinforces the powerlessness of both groups to affect change. The informal education of staff at work in developing a reflective and dynamic practice has to be reinforced by an extension of the more formal educational opportunities leading to credentials through an extension of access to further and higher education. It is also necessary for staff in institutions of further and higher education to take seriously the possibility that informal education of staff in residential work might be recognized as a valid route to some form of credential.

This chapter has examined the relationship between education and residential care for people with severe learning difficulty. It has argued that changes in that provision and practice reflect shifting definitions of need, which in their turn may reflect differing ideologies about the nature of human development. In this process the educational needs of both staff and residents can be seen to be interdependent and should be underpinned by the same principles. An educational approach, whether formal or informal, is essentially optimistic about the possibility of people developing understanding and control over both their own activities and their social context.

[page 48] Until the 1960s practice was legitimated by the belief that people with severe learning difficulties were unlikely to develop in response to either education or a nurturing environment. Recent practice is now linked to the assumption that development is possible, given the right conditions and opportunities. However, the particular form of much of what is described as ‘education’ for people with severe learning difficulties bears a strong resemblance to the older training perspective which accompanied institutional provision. The way that the needs of people are defined has changed radically and is still evolving. Whether the right conditions and opportunities can be offered in relation to both education and residential provision is a question which needs to be addressed both at the level of the individual worker and at that of policy making. It is a moot point in this process whether the use of the term education, informal or otherwise, has received sufficient critical attention in recent developments.

For details of references go to the bibliography

© Mal Blackburn and Don Blackburn 1990. Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. First published in the informal education archives: February 2002.