Youth and community work in the 70s – the active society

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Chapter viii of Youth and Community Work in the 70s (the Fairbairn-Milson Report 1969) provides an explicit statement of the sort of society the Committee wanted to see. Drawing heavily on Etzioni’s (communitarian) vision of the active society, they argued for the critical and active involvement of young people in society.

We seek ‘the active society’ in which all are encouraged and enabled to find the public expression of their values, avoiding the extremes of indifference and alienation.

[page 59]

158. In looking at Youth Service critically and hopefully, and seeking to suggest its future course, we have found ourselves compelled again and again to look at the whole of society itself; and this not merely in the descriptive sense that has already been mentioned but in a way that calls for commitment. We find ourselves unable to answer the question ‘What kind of a Youth Service do we want?’ until we have answered a previous question, ‘What kind of society do we want ?‘. In the most stringent sense, we think that a ‘value free’ approach is not feasible.

159. It is the purpose of this chapter to describe the nature of this commitment which, of course, no less than the rest of these proposals, is open to critical examination. ‘The Active Society’ is the best short description we can think of to describe our commitment and in support of our contention we start with a belief, relevant to all educational and social welfare provision, which rests on the twin bases of our view of the present-day society and the development of personality. The sort of society we describe may be a long way off, perhaps unattainable in full. We are anxious to keep our feet on the ground, and this section describes a bearing on which to travel rather than an easily-reached destination. We intend the conclusions and recommendations of our report to be practical ones.

160. In a country such as ours, subject to the changes consequent upon a rapidly developing technology, society needs to engage in an intensive and perpetual transformation of itself, unless it is to respond to tomorrow’s world with yesterday’s activities and modes of organisation. Our commitment is to a society in which every member can be publicly active; for only in this way can society become positively responsive to them, and, in the constant renewal of itself, reflect their values.

161. In the past, our society, in common with others, has responded to the interests of some of its members and, as a result of their pressures, made changes which reflect their values. This responsiveness to the influential privileged has never been without its risks of provoking reaction from the underprivileged. In a situation like the present, where change is not merely an occasional event but a characteristic condition, the exclusion of individuals from decision-making in public affairs, or lack of encouragement for them to be [page 60] engaged, is much more likely now to create a sense of the individual’s powerlessness to influence social policy, so that at best he becomes apathetic and indifferent, and at worst cynical, nihilistic or anarchic. We seek ‘the active society’ (1) in which all are encouraged and enabled to find the public expression of their values, avoiding the extremes of indifference and alienation.

162. One strand therefore of the principles underlying our commitment is that social change is inevitable; and that a society stands more chance of being creatively responsive to all its situations and transforming itself in all necessary particulars, when all can be involved in public activity.

163. It is not, however, only the community which benefits from the active society: there is in it profit for all in their individual capacities. The development of human maturity has many continua, but we would take one of them to be the increasing acceptance of and seeking for responsibility towards oneself and others. In the public sector of our society this growth of responsibility is often either frustrated or ‘bred out’ of the human organism. For many their only political decision is a quinquennial or triennial one: to hand over the political decision-making to others. In industrial settings mass-productive efficiency is too often happiest with controlled robots deciding nothing for themselves except the decision to be acquiescent—both on and off the production lines. Our consumption-dominated society is happiest with those who respond to stimuli, and sink their individual differences in similarity with the mass; where the only decisions are to buy, and, in buying, to be fashionable.

164. Our call then for people to be democratically involved in decision making is the outward and audible expression of the other strand of our underlying principles: that all individuals should grow towards maturity; and that a society in which all can make more and more decisions about more and more things is a more mature society than one in which this exercise of responsibility is reserved for the chosen few (no matter how democratically chosen they may be).

165. Both of these underlying principles have particular relevance to the role of the young in our society, though they are obviously more pertinent for the upper age group of our concern, the ‘young adults’ rather than ‘the young teenagers’: yet at the earlier age some of these elements should be present in our approaches if only to prepare them for the later stage. In the first instance the young are—and, in spite of immigration, are likely to remain—by far the most significant part of the changing membership of society to which we must respond if we are to adapt. In the second instance, the young, more obviously than the not so young, are developing towards maturity, and are naturally [page 61] anxious to travel further on this road, and to accelerate the journey. Furthermore, the young have the energy and aspirations untramelled by past failure to secure some parts of the transformation of society which their elders are not necessarily better qualified to achieve. Their belief that men can will events and not merely be willed by them is a social capital that we ought not to squander.

166. In the past, participant democracies have been seen to rest upon and even pre-suppose the existence of small social and local groups like family networks, the neighbourhood, the parish and small work groups. Today, primary groups of this kind are in some cases almost non-existent, or else seem increasingly functionless in an age of centralisation and mobility. Some would suggest that there is little hope of rejuvenating them. They see the introverted and home-centred form of life as typical of the modern urban community. We, however, would cite the evidence of work we have seen done in existing communities as proof that effective communities based on neighbourhoods or even other shared characteristics can flourish within the modern urban environment. We think of the work we have seen in some, but not all, of the new towns, and in a few older city areas, where emergent groups have been encouraged to play a vital part in the development of policy and provision.

167. A major part of our platform, therefore, is that such groups should be encouraged to expand both themselves and their activities. This is the work of ‘community development’ and since it is the means by which a participant democracy can be fostered, is the basis of our approach. It may be defined as an approach which helps groups to identify their own needs, to meet those needs, and to contribute towards the formation of a comprehensive and coherent policy for development. It should be sharply distinguished from ‘community provision’ which is the term for the buildings, centres and facilities provided by institutions and organisations for people, into which they are expected to fit.

168. We should also distinguish between ‘community organisation’ and community development. The goals of both approaches are the same, but community organisation may be seen as the co-ordination of the effort of existing groups rather than the direct involvement in stimulating groups to action. Whenever in this report we speak of community development we have this distinction in mind.

169. We have been helped in our study of this question by an examination of the scope of community development already made by Mr R. A. B. Leaper, Senior Lecturer in Social Administration at the University of Swansea (2). Discussing common elements in the definition of the term, he says: ‘People [page 62] themselves meet and reach a common agreement about their community needs; plan with common consent what they are going to do; carry out by their own efforts the major part of the plan on which they have agreed and are assisted by the expert advice and technical help given to them by outside agencies with greater resources than themselves’. He points to the relevance of community development in industrialised and mainly urban countries like Britain as well as in so-called underdeveloped and rural areas of the world. Indeed, he says that ‘we may well argue that community development methods are all the more necessary to provide personal involvement when there is an inclusive statutory provision for the basic social needs of communities’. He quotes Dr. G. Henriks (Netherlands Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Recreation and Social Welfare Department) on the aims of community development in highly-developed countries: ‘to create the conditions whereby a community in a specific area can achieve the maximum balance between the needs of the population and the available means of assistance, thereby helping to ensure that the groups and individuals in that community participate to the fullest extent in transforming it into a satisfactory environment for both the individual and the various population groups’.

170. This entails an essentially non-directive approach by those who work with the community. In this connection we have noted the work done in this field by Dr. T. R. Batten of the London University Institute of Education published in ‘The Non-Directive Approach in Group and Community Work’ (3)”. He regards a directive approach (one where the community worker tries to direct, lead, guide, or persuade people to accept his judgement of what is for their betterment) as relevant in certain crisis situations, e.g. when people are homeless or hungry or diseased or in no position to help themselves. In other situations, however, ‘the case for stimulating people to think and act for themselves, and thereby develop themselves, i.e. the case for the non-directive approach, becomes correspondingly strong’. Through such a non-directive approach workers with the community ‘stimulate people to think about their needs, feed in information about possible ways of meeting them, and encourage them to decide for themselves what they will do to meet them. The theory underlying this approach is that people are far more likely to act on what they themselves have freely decided to do than on what a worker has tried to convince them they ought to do.’

171. In an active society, constantly in the process of change, it is no longer adequate to regard education as a process which is largely completed when people are young. No institution can provide in advance for all the complex needs in terms of learning opportunities for young adults or indeed adults of [page 63] any age; opportunities for learning, both formal and informal are needed throughout life. Therefore as NAYSO said to us, ‘. . . the Education Service must strive by its methods and approach to bring together people of all ages, of all backgrounds, in an attempt to prepare for the certainty of change.’ The task of the educationalist ‘must be to encourage discrimination, choice, and the re-interpretation and adaptation of the traditional values to meet the needs of our present society’. This concept of life-long education is becoming increasingly accepted among many nations as having great potential in the task of helping to secure the best use of human resources.

172. If education is to be as the 1944 Act would have it: a means of developing the moral, spiritual, mental and physical well-being of the individual being educated, then a powerful mode of securing such development can be the individual’s active participation in the learning process as an agent in his own learning rather than merely a passive recipient. In social education, opportunities to ‘learn by doing’ and to exercise choice in the form and content of what is learnt, are as important to the adult, and the young adult, as they are to the child. By learning we mean not only the accumulation and expression of information, but more especially the formation and assimilation of ideas.

173. However, while the concept of community development is immediately relevant to the work of the educationalist, it has not always been observed. Unfortunately educational organisations as a class have greater degrees of authoritarian attitudes in their relationship to ‘out-groups’ than many other organisations. There are still too many institutions and offices where the arrival of a single parent is a threat, the arrival of a group an insurrection. If not ironic, it is at least a curious paradox, that, in some places, the mode of securing efficient education has not itself contributed to the development of the community, but has encouraged it to remain in, or return to, a state of passivity, dependence, subordination, and unawareness of itself.

174. Since we are advocating community development, we are advocating a development towards situations in which public organisations become more responsive to the varying needs and views of those whom they affect. And since we see education being used to further this development, then the statutory educational organisation will itself have to be responsive, not only in justice, but essentially, otherwise the whole movement is soured. We would echo the Seebohm Committee (4) recognition that ‘there is certainly a difficult link to be forged between the concepts of popular participation and traditional representative democracy.’ We regard the forging of that link as essential and urgent especially for the education service.


(1) The phrase is A. Etzioni’s, see ‘The Active Society’, The Free Press, 1968.

(2) R. A. Leaper, ‘Community Work’, NCSS, 1968.

(3) Oxford University Press, 1967.

(4) Report of the Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services, (Cmnd. 3703), 1968.

How to cite this piece: Department of Education and Science (1969) Youth and Community Work in the 70s. Proposals by the Youth Service Development Council (The ‘Fairbairn-Milson Report’), London: HMSO. Extracts in the informal education archives,

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First placed in the archives: April 2003. Updated June 2019.