Using informal education – Chapter 6: neighbourhood, crime and informal education

using informal education

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Debbie Saddington explores educative practice within the probation service. Reprinted from T. Jeffs and M. Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

contents: introduction · the new focus · neighbourhood-based informal education in practice · aspects of locally based informal education · the personality of the worker · understanding groups · workers, agencies and neighbourhoods · the nature of programmes · dilemmas and limitations · in conclusion · return to main contents


[page 75] The Probation Service has experienced a shift in emphasis from ‘first aid’ to ‘preventative’ work. This effectively provides the framework for involvement in community-based practice and community education at a grass roots level. It also contributes to the wide development of informal and social educational networks, whether explicitly structured or not, within severely disadvantaged communities. The primary objective of such involvement derives from an emphasis upon the need for ‘effective’ and ‘realistic’ crime prevention and reduction strategies. At the same time there is often a desire to achieve long—term qualitative improvements in the lives and circumstances of individual clients and their families.

The new focus

As Stern (1987) suggests, several strands in thinking about criminal justice have come together to produce the new focus, generally referred to as crime prevention and reduction. These entail both community participation and ultimately some form of education. Initially, for example, there is growing recognition that controlling crime in a community is separate and distinct from the process of apprehending and dealing with individual offenders. As the Lord Chief Justice put it:

Neither Police nor Courts nor prison can solve the problem of the ‘rising’ crime rate. By the time that the criminal falls into the hands of the police, and more particularly, by the time he reaches Court, it is too late. The damage has been done. The remedy, if it can be found, must be sought a great deal earlier. (Quoted Stern 1987: 209)

[page 76] Movement towards a more community-orientated crime prevention model has widespread appeal. Stern maintains that one facet of this shift is a diversion of research interest away from individual offenders and how they are dealt with towards a concern with analysing crime as a phenomenon. This encourages a wider and more constructive overview by looking beyond largely uninformative crime statistics, to crime as experienced by individuals and communities and the nature of those communities in which it is most prevalent and from which the majority of offenders derive. Broad (1985) argues that the current trend towards community—based probation projects reflects a shift away from theories encompassing individual pathology towards a wider interactionist approach. The argument is further developed by the assertion by some that, theoretically, both community and probation work can be seen as having the same aims: a concern with effecting improvements in the quality of individual and family lives. However, Broad maintains that mainstream community work differs from what the Probation Service provides in its emphasis on social change achieved by collective action and campaigning. The Probation Service’s emphasis, in contrast, is on personal change achieved via individualized casework.

Probation involvement in community work can be interpreted as a movement away from rigid adherence to the individual/pathological model of orientation. This model has an implicit emphasis upon Social Darwinism and overwhelmingly concentrates on individual inadequacies and individual deviance. The movement has been towards a more structural explanation of crime and delinquency, which places greater emphasis on social and economic inequalities and constraints as contributors to criminal activity. In support of this Bottoms and McWilliams (1979) argue that as crime is predominantly social, so any crime reduction strategy must be socially based, requiring community involvement.

Although treatment strategies as applied to communities are inappropriate for crime prevention, important change can be effected by taking into account microstructural and social integration factors.

Microstructural factors comprise ‘those features of the local situation which appear to be crime producing and on which local residents may have some influence’ (ibid: 191). These include housing policy, employment and educational opportunities, recreational facilities, youth provision, police relations and environmental improvements. [page 77]

Social integration is based upon the proposition that other things being equal, ‘communities with strongly cohesive bonds tend to produce less crime’ (ibid: 191—2).

The primary purpose of introducing of such concepts is to illustrate the way in which the collective working and interagency approach of statutory and voluntary agencies, various groups and local people in extremely deprived and alienated communities can gradually attempt to at least alleviate certain extreme situations of hardship and stress. They may simultaneously engender a more coherent and productive community spirit and self-image.

Most of the community work projects within the Probation Service likewise choose a particular geographical entity, focusing on areas brought to their attention because of the high incidence of social and criminal difficulties. One assumption behind this approach can be that people living in the same place have a common sense of belonging and a shared network of activity and community life. This ‘community spirit’ emphasizes the potential for social cohesiveness and the absence of conflict which will enable the officer to link with and work alongside local people to achieve change and improvements (NAPO 1984—5: 1).

Neighbourhood-based informal education in practice

The educative nature of such community-based projects, particularly those which use concentrated and targeted group work and involve community initiatives and liaison, becomes apparent. The main aspects of such an ‘educative’ process can be defined as:

  • helping people to identify needs and to come together as a group;
  • helping groups achieve their goals; and
  • encouraging people to work collectively on problems.

When I was working in an extremely deprived council estate in Newcastle, I concentrated on work in two areas to achieve these aims. The first was intensive group development work. This is an essential prerequisite to achieving long-term change and focuses on specific ‘target’ groups, i.e. women, young people, the young unemployed. Within such a context community work and informal education become inseparable, the mechanism of the group allowing for the provision of much needed social and recreational opportunities. Such a group additionally offers limited alleviation of various stresses and anxieties and allows for the direct establishment of a [page 78] rapport, identification and understanding with the local people involved. In effect, the educative process becomes two-way. Mutual sharing and the exchange of ideas and views take place within a largely unstructured, informal and relaxed atmosphere. However, the importance of activity-based work must not be undervalued. This allows for the development of a more cohesive group basis before tackling more explicitly structured issues and project-based work (i.e. political and social awareness, anti-sexist and anti-racist work, health education). However, the validity of activity based work is also acknowledged as a legitimate area of concentration in its own right, given its stimulus to overall personal and group development and expression. Equally it can emphasize the importance of collective working and decision making, self-awareness and belief in individual and group abilities and potential.

Involvement in wider community development and interagency work is required in an attempt to realistically increase and improve the quality of life within deprived communities. Such involvement requires wholesale local support and cooperation. Group work initially ameliorates certain immediate difficulties for those involved directly within a group. But these are generally on a relatively superficial, limited and symptomatic level, other courses of action are required to pressure for change at a higher and more effective level by tackling structures.

Group work often provides a platform from which local people may gain the confidence and assertiveness to become more actively involved in campaigning for change and neighbourhood improvements. Community education enacted via group and wider development work is, therefore, an essential mechanism by which local people are encouraged to become aware of the control they can exert over particular aspects of their own lives and the change in social conditions which can be achieved by collective action.

The two-way educational process referred to earlier is again highlighted. By locating directly within the heart of a neighbourhood a greater appreciation of the primary areas of need can be developed in conjunction with the local people involved. This contributes to the more effective targeting of available resources and, ultimately, improvements in service delivery, via coordination of community planning and liaison. Clearly there is a danger of using relatively grand terms for fairly small-scale projects. However, taken as a whole a number of agencies and groups working together, within a neighbourhood, can have quite a significant effect, though this is not necessarily always tangible.

[page 79] The increased understanding of the context of offending which community-based practice gives may also enhance service delivery and ultimately reduce crime. Simultaneously, it may lead to the amelioration of certain crime-producing factors. Effectively, only practical experience at a direct grass roots level can engender an understanding of the conditions and environmental circumstances which manipulate and influence individual and group behaviour. Given the nature of areas of severe disadvantage and alienation it is generally essential that group work involves both probation clients and non-clients. Such a focus is an imperative if truly ‘preventative’ work is to take place. There is, therefore, a need to overcome the general perception that probation projects are, or should be, solely client-orientated.

Aspects of locally based informal education

A crucial element of effective education is an in-depth appreciation of the social and cultural life of a community. Without acknowledging and taking such factors into account, group and wider community development work is ultimately doomed to failure and rejection. Within communities, different subcultures and value systems are found. In certain localities a criminal subculture may exist — an ultimate acceptance of the legitimacy of crime, particularly in relation to theft and burglary. Not everyone in the local community holds or condones such attitudes. However, the necessity of committing offences may be seen by many community members, in my experience, as essential not only to supplement income but also as a means of acquiring individual status and reducing boredom. This can engender a deterministic and fatalistic attitude. Many individuals see themselves as occupational and educational ‘failures’, who will inevitably end up in prison or young offenders’ institutions. Life is seen as consisting primarily of blocked opportunities and conflict.

Attitudes to education mirror this fatalism, although this is hardly surprising given the overall negative experiences most have encountered within the formal educational process. We are not highlighting individual and social group inadequacy here but pointing out that such attitudes and experience are predominantly the result of wider structural factors. It is against such a background and overwhelming odds that informal education most often takes place. Any change in attitudes and behaviour achieved can therefore be accomplished only gradually and is often marginal. [page 80]

The personality of the worker

Challenging entrenched attitudes and value bases is achieved not only via group work but often indirectly during the course of a seemingly unrelated activity, a casual conversation or within the context of a general group get together. In this process a number of factors are of considerable importance. As Foreman has suggested elsewhere in this volume, the personality of the project worker(s) is of considerable significance. Local people often identify initially with personalities rather than principles. The value stance of workers, their flexibility and ability to handle autonomy will have a particular impact upon those they work with. These in themselves may make or break a piece of work. However, other factors are equally relevant. Newcomb (1961) indicated that people will tend to be attracted to others if they believe that the others have values and attitudes similar to their own. From my own experience this has been particularly the case when the worker has displayed a fair degree of partisanship, empathy and personal support for group and individual experiences. The perception by group members that a worker may come from a situation similar to their own (e.g. social class background) can also enhance the development of a constructive relationship. Patterns of speech are a further factor: use of neighbourhood language and terminology may on occasions be productive. However, over-assimilation and identification can lead to ineffectiveness. There is always a danger of workers becoming, or remaining, engulfed within common-sense understandings and emotional commitments. To be able to contribute to the well-being of those that they are working with it is necessary for them to infuse their practice with a critical reflectiveness. In other words, workers have to strive to be both in the situation and outside it. This is not to denigrate commitment to, and identity with, a particular group or neighbourhood. Rather, it is to say that such commitment and identity should always remain open to critical assessment.

The significance of personality raises important questions about how workers are educated. Formalized education and training for community and social work may not produce effective informal educators. Many of the elements required for effective working within informal education can appear to be instinctive and intuitive. Particular personality traits can be as significant as learnt behaviour. These include the ability to make people feel at ease, relaxed, comfortable and to create non-threatening situations. Sensitivity, tolerance and the ability to assess group dynamics and defuse [page 81] aggression and tension, are further factors, as well as a high degree of commitment and personal motivation. Having said this, we should not fall into the trap of dismissing education and training. Reflection on self and practice can bring about major changes in the way in which workers understand themselves and their work. However, this does demand a rather different orientation in training and education.

Understanding groups

Worker acceptance in an area is a vital corollary to project success, while to avoid alienation group work must be properly paced and evaluated. More explicitly structured group working is unrealistic given the general resource and staffing constraints placed upon many community-based projects and the sheer size and scale of the problems to be tackled. It is imperative to set objectives at an achievable level, both in terms of the project worker and the groups being catered for. It is important to avoid creating false expectations and aspirations which would result in frustration, disaffection and subsequent reduction of confidence. This applies to workers, group members and project users.

Informal education, when enacted through the mechanism of the group, implies direct face-to-face work with specific territorial groups; that is, individuals from a predefined physical locality. The nature of the groups targeted is primarily dependent upon the particular social agency involved and the remit, skills, experience and resources of the worker and project concerned. A great deal of ambiguity surrounds the general term group work. In order to clarify its meaning within the context of the above discussion, reference is made here to F. J. Thomas’s work (1967). The orientation and methodology adopted are highly dependent upon the ideological overview held by the particular agency involved and the individual disposition of the project worker. Different models and approaches to group work reflect divergent theoretical and political positions, ranging from an emphasis upon individual change to concentration upon structural intervention through collective action. Brown (1979: 5) highlights the above point by utilizing a definition of the function of the group made by Konopka (1963), who maintained that:

Social group work is a method of social work which helps individuals to enhance their social functioning through purposeful [page 82] group experiences and to cope more effectively with their personal, group or community problems.

Such an emphasis is traditionalist and concentrates upon change within the individual, the significance of social roles and only implicitly on social dysfunctioning. The view adopted here goes beyond simply helping an individual with a problem. It places greater significance upon:

action and influence as well as reaction and adaption. The definition becomes more comprehensive if we add: groupwork provides a context in which individuals help each other; it is a method of helping groups as well as helping individuals; and it can enable individuals and groups to influence and change personal, group, organisational and community problems. (Brown 1979: 6, emphasis in original)

The groups with which I have worked have been structured to the extent that they all had a membership which shared common experiences, difficulties and interests — be this as young people, offenders, women or unemployed. This has subsequently assisted in the development of a common purpose and intent; the resultant increase in mutual trust and support, led to greater coherence and, ultimately, a higher level of stress success. Some groups have a clearly defined or explicit membership, while in other cases the boundaries between who is and is not a member are somewhat hazy and can alter radically over a short period of time. Indeed, questions about this boundary can play an important, and often positive, part in the work. It is not only the ‘internal’ dynamics of the group that are important.

By and large the groups discussed here are small, generally with between 3 and 14 participants. Many of these small groups were seen as existing for a particular purpose, however ill defined. Within my experience this has tended to involve confidence and assertiveness building, both individual and collective. Further functions of the group may relate to problem solving, such as the resolving of immediate difficulties with accommodation, relationships or financial worries. The group may, more straightforwardly, act as a basis for developing social networks or recreational opportunities which would otherwise be limited or non-existent. Community-based groups incorporate several aspects.

The groups with which I have had experience, were often difficult to place in specific categories as they incorporated elements from a [page 83] variety of models. This was particularly so when a number of ideological stances were involved. In this instance, an organization, the Probation Service, which, as a result of its historical and practical origins is rooted predominantly in an individualistic and remedial interpretation of social and group difficulties, is set besides my own position as a worker and the project ethos. This sees wider societal factors as more significant in producing social problems and the resultant behavioural patterns than the former.

Workers, agencies and neighbourhoods

The policy context and orientation of a project will frequently have been established before a particular worker arrives. The degree to which workers are able to influence a particular context is especially dependent upon the level of autonomy accorded to them. Value neutrality is a misnomer in group work, and this equally applies to the functioning of the worker. Each personal action and spoken word reflects a particular stance and value base, which will inevitably have some impact upon the orientation of the group, its aims and how the group perceives the worker. The success or otherwise of the group and the informal educative process as a whole is ultimately linked to these factors.

A further area of critical importance is the negotiation of the project and the worker’s role within a community. Linked to such negotiation is the central question of local resident acceptance of an agency’s involvement within community issues. This is particularly pertinent with an agency such as the Probation Service.

It is more important than ever that we maintain our commitment to the values of avoiding interference in other people’s lives except where it is essential. Workers need to acknowledge that dilemmas and tensions are likely to occur if they shift the emphasis of their work into politically sensitive areas. The difficulties are not merely confined to the workers. Many community members will have searching questions about why they, who may well never have had any involvement with the Courts, should be involved with the Probation Service. The negotiation of one’s role in a community can be as difficult as the negotiation within one’s own management. (Drakeford 1983: 15

  • Within informal education it is essential to have explicitly stated objectives, even if these are loosely defined and extremely broad. Objectives may involve articulating issues such as: [page 84]
  • Why is the Probation Service involved in the community work sphere?
  • Which elements of a neighbourhood’s population are to be targeted?
  • Which issues and subjects are to be tackled within the context of the group?
  • Resource availability and limitation in terms of staffing, space, specialist training, financial and material factors, and the degree of autonomy available.

Further issues arise when an attempt is made to define the aims of informal education in a neighbourhood context. For example, whose aims are effectively adopted where several protagonists are involved: those of the worker, the individual agency(s), the group members or the community? Conflict over aims may also arise not only between the worker and group members but also between the worker and agency. Again this relates back to ideological position and value base. Any one of these will produce different perceptions of, and proposed solutions to, particular problems and situations. For example, with Probation the view may dominate, on an organizational level, that group work, and ultimately informal education within a community context, should be geared towards change in delinquent and anti-social behaviour. Here the desired outcome will be to produce law-abiding and socially responsible citizens. Ideologically such a view is criminological in origin. Within extremely disadvantaged neighbourhoods such objectives would effectively require emphasis upon deference, subordination and subservience —an acceptance of an individual’s, family’s or community’s ‘lot’. The criminological perspective is, therefore, highly individualistic and in many respects inappropriate for community-based working and the effecting of wide-ranging qualitative improvements. The worker, in comparison, may not only want to emphasize the development of the individual within collective situations but also be oriented towards certain collective outcomes.

The nature of programmes

As previously stated, the groups with which I have been involved have incorporated elements of both the individualistic and collective models. Working with women and an unemployed group has not only involved analysing issues such as offending behaviour but also examining issues such as social inequality, discrimination and social group positions. Within such group work emphasis has been placed [page 85] to a greater or lesser extent upon person-centred and developmental goals. These attempt to encourage individuals to analyse critically, and respond creatively, to their circumstances and experiences.

The mechanisms used to achieve such aims have included role-play, the use of guest speakers and group discussions. All have attempted to focus upon individual members’ experiences and feelings about such issues as single parenthood, offending, perceptions of their own communities, organizations and institutions which have bearing upon their lives. Group workers play a central role within such sessions, acting as catalysts during the discussion, introducing new topics, supporting group members and suggesting new angles for exploration.

Once a degree of coherence and trust has been established within a group, it has proved constructive to set in train, special projects which highlight particular aspects of members’ lives. The client-based women’s group referred to earlier, after meeting for a period of nearly two years, undertook a photography project. This aimed to develop particular skills and collective forms of working and to construct, through photographs, views of how the women perceived themselves, their families and circumstances. This led them to analyse the most important factors in their lives, the community within which they lived and the facilities or otherwise which existed. The project also examined intergenerational change within particular group members’ families and dominant images of women and motherhood as portrayed in the media, together with the pressures such images bring.

A similar project was undertaken in relation to the young unemployed group and involved several members in painting a mural. The theme was entirely chosen by them. The project allowed the group worker and community artist to spend a considerable time discussing, informally, a range of issues that affected the lives of the group. In several respects the mural itself was actually secondary to the primary objective, which was increased contact and interaction among group members. The mural effectively facilitated discussion with a particularly difficult and disaffected group by deflecting the intensity of the discussion itself. Previous contact with the group had primarily been on an activity basis, outside the project building. Attempts at group discussions within the confines of the community project had been largely unsuccessful before this. However, the art project allowed, for a limited period at least, productive contact with several members of the group for a relatively prolonged period. This produced far stronger personal bonds between individual group [page 86] members and the group worker and facilitated honest and constructive discussion of feelings and actions. In this particular group, a great deal of the discussion focused on offending, because criminal activity was a central aspect of the lives both of the group members and other young men on the estate. Discussions subsequently revolved around such topics as the need to steal everything in sight and why members of their own community should be victimized. The intention of focusing on such issues was to prompt individual members to take a more considered approach to their actions and rationalize the likely outcome.

Informal education within the neighbourhood is very different. The situation is finely balanced and involves compromise, consensus, group and community acceptance and role negotiation. The worker has to find a place within the environment of the group members and operate in the context of local socio-cultural factors. In the community projects which I have been involved with, group attendance has rarely been compulsory. Individuals attend if they find that the group is useful and has something to offer. This requires compromise, consultation and negotiation and loose agreement on group aims. Although a group in a community setting is not as organized as it would be in more formal educational surroundings, some element of structuring is inevitably involved: there have to be ground rules on group membership, boundaries and other essential matters. Such structuring allows the worker to operate in a more coherent, systematic and effective fashion than would otherwise be possible. Informal education may involve the existence of some form of contract of agreement, either verbal or written. Ground rules may cover such issues as:

  • making explicit the general or specific aims of the group;
  • acknowledging the expectations of individual group members and their perception of the group, its purpose and function;
  • the basic orientation of the group and its methodology (i.e. activities, role play, discussions, games, special projects);
  • practical arrangements covering time, place and length of group;
  • other conditions (the open or closed nature of group, defined membership etc.);
  • accepted behaviour (i.e. regular attendance, non—violence, sup— portiveness);
  • confidentiality.

Openness and honesty are also significant. Group members are expected to give something of themselves in terms of insights and [page 87] feelings. The same can fairly be expected of the worker. However, the degree of self—disclosure must be carefully weighted and aimed at assisting group members to achieve personal and social goals. There have been rather too many examples of workers using such opportunities to explore their own personal concerns and problems with little apparent interest in the requirements of the group. Appropriate disclosure can be positive both in its content and in the provision of opportunity for role modelling.

Dilemmas and limitations

At this point it is vitally important to acknowledge, once again, the limitations of informal education and the relatively marginal impact which group and wider community development work has upon the problems being tackled. Objectives must be set at a realistic, achievable level. The terms ‘individual and collective consciousness raising and confidence building’, for example, would be highly misleading if they implied the wholesale politicization or radicalization of those with whom the informal educator came into contact. More achievable objectives might be to increase individuals’ self—belief sufficiently to enable them to make a phone call which involved direct and controlled contact with an ‘authority figure’.

After a proper recognition of the limitations of the approach, a further dilemma presents itself. Intervention within a community context can be divided into two main levels. Henderson and Thomas (1987: 35) illustrate this process and product dichotomy.

A continuing dilemma is whether your interest lies essentially in assisting the self—learning process of individuals through their participation in community groups, or whether it focuses on the achievement of specific tasks which can bring material or psychological benefits to neighbourhoods.

Product models stress the practical gains involved in, for example, tenants’ associations, while process models are predominantly concerned with the impact various stages of the process may have on the consciousness, self—esteem and skills of group members themselves. Achieving aims can, of course, lead to further learning, or reinforce existing understandings and skills. However, the informal educator will tend to focus upon process and learning rather than the concrete product. This is not to minimize the significance of product, simply to recognize that the educator is centrally concerned with learning, while the community organizer focuses upon the achievement of [page 88] concrete gains and facilities for the neighbourhood. This dilemma is very real when the community-based organizer is the Probation Service, which seeks primarily to reduce offending. It can often mean that the worker has to adopt, and somehow reconcile, two different roles — that of educator and organizer. These, in turn, have to be accommodated within that of the Probation Officer.

A further limitation arises from the extent to which informal education and community engagement are tokenistic interventions on the part of the agency. Broad (1985) pinpoints how often ‘community’ (and subsequently community education) can be used as a ‘convenient prefix’ to make activities look more humane, desirable and progressive, when in reality such activities lack resources, accountability and direction.

In conclusion

The examples offered in this chapter are in many ways not typical. To engage in this kind of practice the Probation Services need to adopt a rather different approach: to restructure roles, to pay attention to terms of entry and objectives and be ready to negotiate. Given the resource constraints and the scale of the problems and situations being faced, it is important to be realistic and acknowledge that any change achieved is generally marginal and piecemeal. Finally, given the inseparable nature of informal education and community-based practice it is essential to perceive the ‘educative’ process as a mutual one, involving the sharing of ideas and the development of knowledge and strategies. Without such an approach any attempt at social change and improvements through the medium of informal education in the community would probably be doomed to rejection and create further alienation.

© Deborah Saddington 1990

For details of references go to the bibliography

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© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith 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.