Using informal education – Chapter 5: informal education – a place in the new school curriculum?

using informal education

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Dave Burley’s exploration of informal education in schooling. Chapter 5 in Jeffs and Smith (1990) Using Informal Education.

contents: the attractions and distractions of informal education · curriculum · management and financial control ·the relationship of informal education and secondary schooling · informal education through community education · conclusion · return to main contents


[page 61] Teachers’ perceptions of informal education vary greatly. There are those who have a developed view of the contribution of informal methods and contexts to curriculum development; others view their prime purpose as teaching a subject and perceive informal methods as marginal. Finally there are many who are active in extra—curricular activities but who opt not to apply that experience within other curriculum areas. Informal education offers schools the opportunity to inject more relevance than is possible within the existing formal curriculum. For example, Thomas argues that teachers in the pas­toral system are better placed than any of their colleagues to understand the dissatisfaction some students feel with existing curriculum provision:

The reason for suggesting the ‘pastoral’ area as a likely starting point for these initiatives (to combat dissatisfaction) is the change already taking place in this area. Particularly through the use of prepared material in form periods. These activities are outside the formal curriculum and need not be bound by some of its familiar constraints. Indeed, in some respects where personal skills programmes emphasize independence of judgement and co­operativeness they are already engaged in making parts of the schools ‘hidden’ curriculum more open and explicit which is an important first step in challenging practice in the more formal curriculum. (Thomas 1985: 178-9)

In general, informal education in schools tends to be underplayed. Given the supremacy of the examination system and, more recently, the rise of the National Curriculum, informal education is found in [page 62] pockets of activity rather than in explicit policy. However, the term is used to describe different aspects of secondary schooling.

Through the pastoral and welfare system teachers can take a personal interest in students’ general well-being and foster home— school links, as well as being in charge of tutor groups.

Students may opt for modular courses which are not examinable. Teachers may use these sessions as opportunities to share personal interests using informal methods. Examples might include mak­ing a video, producing a community newssheet, improving or learning a new sport, community involvement.

Schools’ councils offer students in some schools opportunities to organize social events or debate issues concerning the running of the school; in some cases they can gain access to agreed areas of decision making on the way in which the school is run.

Much of the curriculum innovation through TVEI and CPVE incorporates informal education aims and methods of developing the personal and social competence required for adult life.

Residential work can be a component of coursework within several areas of the formal curriculum, including pre-vocational work. Within this setting informal education is extensively used.

A large number of schools offer lunch-time clubs and after-school activities which range from the small scale, involving a single member of staff, to activities such as drama and music pro­ductions supported by several teachers.

Many schools have youth wings attached or in close proximity. These often have joint community tutor/leader teacher appoint­ments. The worker may make inputs into the school to support informal education and develop youth provision. This may in­clude residential work and support for disaffected students.

Informal education is frequently used as a way of working with students with special learning needs.

Several things need saying here. Some of these activities fall outside the scope of informal education as it is discussed in the opening chapters. However, they can be placed alongside the tra­ditions of practice described as informal within primary schooling. When approaching such work we need to be clear about the basis upon which it has been defined. Different practitioners are drawn to the same activity with varying aims and objectives. Involvement in informal education by students and staff often flows from a desire to compensate for limitations in the content or methodology of the formal curriculum. Many would argue it is a way of positively [page 63] enhancing that curriculum. It is evident from the examples of informal education given here that it is not generally associated with courses which are externally examined. Yet this distinction has become increasingly blurred with emerging systems of self-assessment and profiling. Students are at liberty to include a range of experiences gained through informal education — not necessarily school-related — within their personal profiles. These may be pro­duced for job interviews. There are obvious dangers that the motives for participating in such activities will be increasingly related to credentialling and validation. Schools could become seduced into producing impressive ranges of extra-curricular activities and optional courses. These might be published in school prospectuses or participation might be expected by potential employers. This emphasis may come to constrain the responsiveness of informal educators to individual learning needs. Under local management of schools, institutions may choose, or be obliged, to offer activities which bring financial reward to the school, with those who are unable to pay being further disadvantaged. In this extreme form, what is labelled as informal education could become as formalized as some other aspects of the curriculum.

The attractions and distractions of informal education

For many teachers informal education complements their work by offering opportunities for getting to know students better and for working with students of different ages across curriculum bound­aries. Some see this as a vital extension of their pastoral role. Many view informal education as a way of gaining greater fulfillment in their jobs, as a chance to share their interests with students, to engage in joint activity with colleagues and to work with other agencies.

Students are attracted to informal education because it provides them with an opportunity to feel recognized for their own worth in settings in which students can influence and control the pace, as well as the content, of their learning. Many feel that they can contribute in these settings in their own way: that they are valued for what they have to contribute and feel a greater ownership of the learning experience. Informal education can offer students a chance to try out new things, to take risks and extend their experience beyond the immediate environment of the school. It can act as a catalyst where it is a departure from more routine experiences.

When informal education appears within the mainstream curricu­lum the response of students will be varied. Some will immediately [page 64] identify with the methods, while others will feel it is a distraction from the pursuit of examination subjects or their core curriculum. Some pupils have great difficulty in coping with the transitions involved in moving from a formal to an informal approach and confusion can block their ability to take part. A particular problem here can be pupils’ association of teachers with some of the more controlling and authoritarian aspects of the classroom. Certain kinds of informal education may actually be perceived by students as primarily punitive or a control mechanism: A way of keeping them quiet, or of sustaining their commitment, however limited, to schooling. Students responses to informal education bear no consis­tent relationship to their academic ability. The key distinguishing factor, however, is the degree and nature of choice which students have over participation, and the quality of relationships developed with staff. If informal education within the curriculum is given a low status by some students then there is no doubt a connection between this and the priorities and resources given to it by staff. As with formal learning, it will tend to have meaning within an institution such as a school only when it has a perceived and explicit relevance.

For many teachers informal education is an essential element of their work. Others may wish their role to be more narrowly defined:

Schools are concerned with the educational development of chil­dren. The proper job of the teacher is to teach. It is dangerous for teachers to get involved in meeting the social and other needs of children and in any case they do not have time. The sole purpose of pastoral care and the promotion of good home school relations is to enable children to have access to education. (Welton 1985: 61)

Welton proceeds to reflect upon the view that many teachers are anxious to limit their pastoral role; for some this will assume a very low priority when set alongside other demands. It is legitimate to feel there must be limitations to a teacher’s role. In contrast, there are a substantial number who view the pastoral system and informal education as critical to their practice. How can these seemingly different positions be reconciled within the curriculum and life of a school?

The relationship of informal education to the overall aims, prac­tices and curriculum of the school must be defined. Clear policy statements must promote a positive understanding of the contri­bution it can offer to the life of the school. An analysis of the various elements of informal education which deal with welfare, recreation [page 65] and social education might be a basis for planning and resource allocation. The contribution of informal method to the formal curriculum should also be considered.

All those with an interest should have an input into policy planning. There is a challenge to schools in the way such policies are constructed. The process of developing a policy provides opportu­nities for teachers and members of the community, as well as young people, to participate in an informal education process. Such policies should clarify the resource needs of informal education and be accompanied by in—service training for teachers and other educators. Particular areas worthy of attention are personal and social education, participation and decision making by young people, counselling, guidance and support. The development of informal education policies in schools might do much to help clarify curricu­lum areas, job descriptions of staff, posts of special responsibility and the organization and support of the work. More explicit informal education policy can provide a framework within which a greater range of resources from within the school and from outside can be tapped and developed. However, the difficulties of achieving this should not be underestimated.

The role of informal education can often get lost in the pressures and dynamics of many of the institutions and systems in which educators operate. It is difficult to create the time to meet colleagues and reflect upon the learning which has taken place. Teachers often work in isolation. For informal education to make an effective contribution to the life of a school, and to benefit individual students, opportunities must be provided for teachers and others involved in it to reflect and analyse and for the result to be fed back to future practice. Periods of reflection and evaluation also provide important opportunities for others to find a role for themselves within the school’s informal curriculum, so creating a structural link between teachers, parents, and personnel from other agencies. This would help youth workers, for example, when they were attached to schools. The cohabitation of youth workers and teachers in many school settings is an example where structural relationships are assumed to exist but do not necessarily imply a shared understand­ing. The youth worker can be drawn into remedial activity, dealing with symptoms rather than identifying causes and can be badly positioned to influence change.

Change in schools is currently taking place at two key levels: one in relation to the curriculum, the other, regarding the form of financial and management control. Both have implications for [page 66] informal education. The National Curriculum inevitably means that less time will be available for teaching staff to participate in informal education within school hours. Changes in management and finan­cial control will also have an impact on the extent to which informal education can develop in schools and in association with them.


There has been a substantial rethinking of the examination system in recent years and a more rigorous pursuit of outcome goals in education. In part this has been associated with an increased concern with skills and the new vocationalism. This shift in emphasis has a particular impact upon informal education, where it is process and not outcome that is generally important. Activities take on the cloak of informality which conceals tight behavioural objectives. Informal situations might be used to enable young people to gain certain social skills. When they demonstrated these skills they would presumably have completed the process. It is perhaps best not to think of this as informal education. Informal situations do not per se constitute informal education. The opening chapter of this book argued that tight outcome goals were incompatible with informal pedagogy.

While many of the current developments may not be classed as informal education, they do utilize a number of elements which run parallel with certain familiar concerns. Teachers within the GCSE structure are central to the assessment process, while the develop­ment of student self-assessment has the potential to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Curricu­lum innovations, such as TVEI, supposedly emphasize ‘sound preparation for life in a technological society both in work and leisure’ and encourage methods which are well known to informal educators, such as ‘alternative learning strategies based on active participation including work experience and residential experience’ (DES 1987b: 2). TVEI has attracted the interest of staff and students, encouraging an appetite for new approaches to learning. Within TVEI students are:

offered a core experience in tutorial time which includes units of work on careers education, study skills, group projects, work experience and management shadowing. There are also two core modules chosen from IT or business studies, and political aware­ness or performing arts. (DES 1987b: 4)

[page 67] I am not suggesting that TVEI or CPVE are synonymous with informal education: they are not. But, together with other develop­ments, such as GCSE, they indicate the potential within some parts of the curriculum to restructure learning methods and styles, as well as relationships between students and teachers. It would be surpris­ing if the start which has now been made does not lead in the longer term to a more radical investigation of the organization and purpose of schooling. TVEI, CPVE and other curriculum innovations, have enabled and encouraged teaching staff to spend time out of schools on an unprecedented scale. Ideas and new perspectives have been shared with colleagues and there has been extended contact with industry and other sectors. Initiatives such as TVEI have involved schools in using outside funding, both time limited and focused. The benefits of this should not be underestimated: it is one of a number of mechanisms which are helping to open up schools and broaden their contact with other agencies; schools are becoming less insular.

The introduction of the National Curriculum will have an inevit­able impact on the place of informal education in schools. The National Curriculum covers three core subjects (mathematics, English and science) and seven foundation subjects (history, geogra­phy, a modern foreign language, music, physical education and technology). Those which are not explicitly included within the core and foundation subjects are expected to be fitted into the limited ‘minority time’. Some fear that this curriculum will lead to some subjects being viewed as optional extras which may survive only if parents are willing or able to pay.

The implementation of the National Curriculum must inevitably direct the attention of schools to securing student competence in given areas, particularly in core subjects. This will encourage schools to concentrate resources and time still further upon the examinable areas at the expense of what may be regarded by some as non­essential. The criteria by which schools may be judged as ‘good’ suggest that participation in extra—curricular activity is a significant benchmark. There are inherent contradictions between these two positions. The onus is on schools to clarify their own policies towards extra-curricular activity as well as the small part of the school day which is designated as available for other than the core and foundation subjects.

While it must be hoped that schools can continue to offer a varied curriculum within the national framework, it may well be that it is the quality of teaching (and use of more informal means) that will [page 68] differentiate the ‘good’ school from the ‘bad’. An alternative response might be for a school to recognize the importance and value of informal education but plan to deal with it outside the framework of the formal curriculum. This approach could frustrate the develop­ment of many of the links between the formal and informal pedagogy discussed in this chapter, especially where it is some other body such as the Youth Service or separate community education service which is seen as responsible for such provision. There are many examples on the continent of separate informal education provision at the end of the formal school day. While this might ensure a positive place for informal education at a time when it is in danger of being given a low priority, it does hamper a holistic understanding of the school.

Management and financial control

The National Curriculum is an integral part of a package of reforms designed to shift responsibility for schools from local authorities to individual institutions and central government. Complementary to this discussion is the implementation of those clauses of the 1986 Education Act which give more powers to parents and governors, alongside heads, for the management of the curriculum. In conjunc­tion with this schools are now obliged to develop schemes of local financial management (LFM). Individual institutions are required to control their own finances based on a single budget administered through the LEA. The budget covers all aspects of running a school. Under LFM the governing bodies are also responsible for the appointments of all staff. Within these arrangements- schools will have greater flexibility to determine how they raise and allocate funds. This includes accruing the benefits from letting where dual use of premises takes place, as with adult education and community groups.

Schools are being encouraged, and given incentives, to enter a commercial market in which they will be expected to compete with one another and to generate revenue over and above what they get from statutory sources. Given the requirements of the National -Curriculum it is increasingly likely that these funds will be used (as they are already to varying degrees in most schools) to support the formal curriculum. In such circumstances informal education could be subjected to new pressures. It could, as is currently the case in some schools, be used as a means of income generation to support the prescribed curriculum. Schools could become partially [page 69] dependent on financially lucrative leisure-directed Services to support their legal obligations. The payment of teachers’ salaries and incentive allowances could increasingly be identified with income generation. Under these conditions informal education would be leisure-and consumer-oriented and valued for its financial rather than educational contribution. Another view might be that LFM, and hence the determination of staff salaries at the school level, could possibly place even greater pressure on staff to engage in informal education as a route to promotion and increased salary. This could be enforced as a condition of their contracts, as it is in the USA.

Some schools are extending the logic of LFM into opting out of local authority control altogether. Headteachers and others are being required to consider more rigorously how the schools in which they work are promoted to parents, to students, the community and industry. With falling rolls and covert pressure for selection, few working within the education system would deny that an environ­ment of competition now exists. The nature and focus of account­ability is also changing. On the one hand, it can be argued, the movement away from local authority control in favour of governing bodies and headteachers represents increased local autonomy. Equally, the trend epitomized by such developments as the National Curriculum may be taken as indicative of movement in the opposite direction towards the centre, leaving schools as agents of central government policy. In other words, the rhetoric may belie reality. This tension is reflected in two conflicting perspectives within community education. Foreman (1987: 2) argues that:

Governing bodies are also being forced to play a much more active role. Political appointments will be fewer as parents along with teachers and co-opted members become the majority. Alert schools will ensure wide representation from the community. Governors must now report to parents on their stewardship.

In contrast, Richards (1986: 2) maintains of central government that:

The intention quite clearly is not to offer more choice, but to exercise greater control over the workings of teachers and schools, through finance, market forces and curriculum demands. I sug­gest these initiatives have nothing to do with the principles of community education. Quite the reverse, they are designed to promote a subject centred approach, and it denies any attempt to develop a learner centred one.

[page 70] The impact of all this upon community education initiatives, and various elements of informal education provision placed within schools, but not necessarily funded or managed through main-line budgets, such as youth work, remains unclear. There has been a move in many authorities to separate youth work more clearly from school or college funding in order to retain direct local authority control over budgets and staff. It should additionally be noted that LFM has obvious contractual implications for youth workers and community educators who are employed in schools.

The relationship of informal education to secondary schooling

At this point it is helpful to clarify a number of key questions regarding the relationship of informal education to secondary schooling. When does formal education end and informal begin? How much does the compulsory nature of schooling until 16 affect methods, styles and intentions of informal learning? How is infor­mal learning in schools identified and how is it linked with other workers and agencies such as the Youth Service? What effect does a commitment to informal learning have on a school’s relationships with other bodies?

All these questions relate to the ways in which informal education in schools is perceived. The new curriculum innovations, such as TVEI, CPVE and GCSE, have led to a more critical appraisal of what is taught in schools. These innovations have affected the methods used, the nature of relationships between staff, students and, in some cases, parents, members of the community and indus­try. Experiential learning has the potential to engage students, teachers, and members of the community in some shared learning and interaction within the remit of the formal curriculum. As such methods develop and become integrated within the curriculum, there is at least the potential for the erosion of the barriers between informal and formal approaches. Some teachers’ roles could theoretically change from concentrating on the dissemination of knowledge to a more centrally acknowledged role of organizing learning experience identified in dialogue with students and other relevant parties. This would, in practice, bring teachers closer to the role and orientation of colleagues in other parts of the education service, and for that matter, with many people in industry and the voluntary sector who have an educational and developmental role. It need not be assumed that this learning will always take place within a [page 71] school building. Greater commonality of role and function across schooling and other agencies has the potential for developing new alliances and allegiances and, consequently, more varied learning settings and styles.

The implication here is that unless teachers, heads, and governing bodies understand and appreciate the need for informal education and recognize examples of good practice within their own institu­tions, no amount of instrumentalism from outside can effect endur­ing change. Good informal education practice should encourage students to learn directly from their experiences and offer space for reflection and review. Residential experiences, work experience schemes and community involvement opportunities cannot be ends in themselves; they are material on which new learning can be built. Within them there may be both formal and informal opportunities for students to reflect and review as well as plan. One formal development in this respect, has been the framing of criteria for records of student achievement. This has been a significant step in spelling out learning objectives within schooling. While these rec­ords are something of an anathema to process-focused informal educators, one benefit is that their use in individual subject areas can lead to increasing debate about cross-curricular competences. The more this happens the more education will move from the traditionally-orientated acquisition of information to skills acqui­sition. One significant outcome of the use of student profiles, for example, is that they can lead to greater student autonomy in the student-teacher relationship. The Northamptonshire 14—16 Project was able to report (1987: 10):

At school level records of achievement are being logged by pupils and staff in consultation. Initially these discussions tended to be dominated by the teacher, but there are reports that pupils are now beginning to be more active in discussions and genuine negotiation is beginning to occur.

It would be misleading to suggest there has been a revolution in all schools; but there is movement and it is one which informal edu­cators should note. The significant thing about the change is that key aspects are generated from within the secondary schooling system itself. Discussion of change is being conducted in a language which teachers have chosen to adopt and feel they can apply. It may be worth comparing this with attempts to integrate aspects of youth work into schools, directly or in association with them. A degree of tolerance may well exist between services and workers; but this [page 72] seldom gives rise to integrated work, a view echoed in a LEA community education review (Clayton 1987: 22) which noted that:

The language used by community educators to describe their educational perspective is frustrating to principals and indeed to -day school staff trained and experienced in work undertaken in more structured learning environments. Furthermore ‘outreach work’ and ‘networking’ are notions which hard pressed principals and teachers have little time to explore. They want more immediate and practical outcomes from community education staff One principal commented ‘we have a long way to go to develop mutual understanding’.

It is clearly difficult to develop informal education policies and processes within schools and colleges in a way which makes sense to teachers and managers, particularly as the language and apparent form of some of the new formal initiatives mirror some aspects of informal pedagogy, but often have a very different starting point. The more the skills associated with informal education are openly acknowledged as being shared by both teachers and other prac­titioners, the more chance there is of dialogue between exponents of the different approaches and the possibility of a common purpose  and language. However, major problems remain, especially with regard to differing orientations to product and process. Where formal educators have begun to approach the curriculum through a process perspective, the basis for a shared understanding with informal educators is heightened. On the other hand, those who are orientated to product and the setting of tight objectives for the learner, will, no doubt, remain unmoved by the claims of informal education.

Informal education through community education

Community schools and colleges have to varying degrees already gone some way towards reconciling the differing educational tra­ditions of formal schooling, youth and community work and adult education, providing mechanisms by which informal education can be expanded and developed. Many community schools remain little more than dual-use institutions; yet there has always been a strong move towards an integrated institution which acknowledges ‘that education is in the business of contriving that people form their value systems and learn the art of social involvement in the shared common predicament’ (Toogood 1980: 162).

[page 73] Leicestershire, among a number of LEAS, has tried to institu­tionalize ways in which the limitations of the dual-establishment can be reduced by attempts to widen the number of teachers engaged in community activities. In five of their community colleges the com­munity teacher scheme has been introduced. Secondary teachers were contracted, as an integrated part of their job, to work at evenings, weekends and holidays in educational programmes involving all age ranges (Clayton 1987). There has been a tendency within the scheme for teachers to find themselves as potential part-time community workers without appropriate training and support. Teachers have not always naturally gravitated towards youth work and many indicate that they encounter difficulty in giving their ‘10 per cent’ the priority it deserves. Schools have found it hard to identify and maintain appropriate structures through which work can be supported. Development work undertaken on the basis of approximately half a day a week is likely to achieve only limited results. There is variation across colleges in how the work is organized but generally teams cover areas such as youth work, sports and recreation, continuing education, parent support and new projects. While one college has appointed a full-time trainer to support and develop the community teacher scheme, and another has made a part-time appointment, there is a general feeling that not enough priority has been given to looking at the support needs of teachers or how the extended role fits in with their mainstream work.

Experience of working with community teachers indicates that there is only a limited value in expecting teaching staff to dip into work that remains outside their predominant training and orientation. It is far better to assist them to do the job they are already engaged upon and help them to extend it, or look at it in a different way, rather than adding on alternative activities. It is prudent for those wishing to develop informal education to find ways of making it more central to the curriculum and culture of the schools. It is inappropriate to rely on goodwill alone. This would marginalize the work at a time when it requires a higher profile. The developments mentioned in this chapter refer to starting points for informal education which begin with the experience of the school and which, for example, youth and community workers might wish to engage in. [page 74]


Informal education exists in schools whether or not it is open recognized by the staff, students and parents who use them. At present it is a diverse process with varying aims and objectives and a variety of intentions and contexts, but arguably offering a common purpose: that of self-development. The benefits of informal educa­tion are felt to be more participation, choice, independence and a sense of fulfilment for students and staff alike: a recognition of ownership of their learning and work.

The current period of financial and curriculum change has coincided with a time when education itself is changing from within. We may be at a watershed in terms of the possible future of schooling and hence not only of the place of informal education within it but also of the relationships of others, not least youth workers and the Youth Service, with the school. Within the school those with a concern for informal education are increasingly adopting similar methods of intervention, which involve negotiated learning, group -work, guidance, counselling and support and the promotion of skills in cooperation and problem solving. Roles include being a facilitator and an organizer of learning experiences and require the educator to adopt the role of resource person. This experience is complemented within the formal arena. TVEI has provided opportunities for teachers to adopt some of the roles of informal educators, a signi­ficant departure from the traditional role of the classroom teacher. However, it is a matter of some urgency that staff agree on those elements of informal education which they wish to develop more centrally within the curriculum and culture of the school.

There needs to be a more open and explicit advocacy of the contribution informal pedagogy makes within the school. This should provide a firmer basis for other informal educators to become involved in and associated with the school. The relationship of the school with its community will, therefore, be critical; this relationship will increasingly legitimate a school’s philosophy and activities. The school’s ability to reflect local interests will depend on the nature of the dialogue between local people and the school. A school’s policy on informal learning should be an important con­tributory factor in determining the quality of that dialogue. The informal dimension of the curriculum could thus assume a high profile in the eyes of parents and others, not least young people, when they select the appropriate school.

© Dave Burley 1990. Reproduced with permission from Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. First published on the informal education homepage: May 2001.

For details of references go to the bibliography

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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.