What is community work?

What is community work? How has it developed in the UK? What is it’s current state? We review thinking and practice in the field of community work, and question the direction it is currently taking.

contents: introduction · the emergence of community work · the gulbenkian report: community work and social change · the community development projects · community work in the 1980s – service extension · community work in the 1990s – economic development, community practice and capacity building · community work today · further reading and references · how to cite this article

linked articles: animation ·associationalism · community · community centres · community development · community education – theory · community organization · community participation · community studies

The term community work has a relatively short history in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the number of full-time practitioners who were described as being engaged in community work by the early 1980s was roughly equivalent to youth work or adult education. Then there appeared to be some 5,365 community workers, 60 per cent of which were employed in the voluntary sector (Francis, Henderson and Thomas 1984). Since then there has been no substantial survey of community workers – and there have also been fundamental changes in the economic and institutional context in which they operate.

In this piece we explore: the emergence of community work in the UK; the impact of anti-poverty initiatives such as the Community Development Project in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the shape of work in the 1980s – here focusing upon the categorisation and definition of community work advanced by David Thomas in his book The Making of Community Work (1983) (also of special importance here is Barr’s (1991) study of community work practice in Strathclyde); the state of practice in the 1990s and at the turn of the century; and the current state of community work.

The emergence of community work

In the late 1950s and early 1960s accounts of practice and theoretical explorations began to appear that viewed community workers as a distinct occupation. Prior to this there were separate groups of workers such as community centre wardens, secretaries of councils of social services and development workers on new housing estates, who did not possess a common occupational identity. As Thomas (1983: 25) has argued, the main orientation was to the educational. Not unexpectedly – given the process-focus of many of the key figures, and the institutional location of much of the funding and work. The Younghusband Report (1959) on social work was a significant turning point. It specifically drew on the North American division of social work into casework, group work and community organization, describing the latter as:

primarily aimed at helping people within a local community to identify social needs, to consider the most effective ways of meeting these and to set about doing so, in so far as their available resources permit.

The first major collection of material (Kuenstler 1961) took up the notion of ‘community organization’, but it was the terms ‘community development’ and ‘community work’ that became popular – and tended to merge. The term ‘community development’ was adopted by many U.K. workers and projects for work that focused on work with local neighbourhood groups to set and meet their own needs. The changes were symbolized in two initiatives – the setting up a study group by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1966 (the first report appeared in 1968) to look at the nature and future of community work in the UK; and the development of the Community Development Projects by the Home Office as part of an anti-poverty strategy. We will look at both in turn.

The Gulbenkian Report: Community Work and Social Change

The Gulbenkian Report was actually focused around training but inevitably spread its net much wider. Community work was taken to include:

helping local people to decide, plan and take action to meet their own needs with the help of available outside resources;helping local services to become more effective, usable and accessible to those whose needs they are trying to meet;

taking account of the interrelation between different services in planning for people;

forecasting necessary adaptions to meet new social needs in constantly changing circumstances (Gulbenkian 1968: 149).

From this the committee concluded that community work had in it aspects of direct neighbourhood work, closer relations between services and people, inter-agency coordination, and planning and policy formulation. In a crucial section they argued:

This community work function should be a recognised part of the professional practice of teachers, social workers, the clergy, health workers, architects, planners, administrators and others. In the modern conditions of social change it is also a necessary full time professional task. (ibid: 149)

The educationalists on the committee had argued for the conceptualization of community work as part of education – especially adult education. Their case rested on a belief that as an intervention it was fundamentally an educational or learning process, in fulfilment of which the use of specialist community workers was only one strategy (Thomas 1983: 29). Thus, the advancement of specialist workers – and the emphasis on the role of workers in making services more effective, and in planning, signalled a significant movement away from the educational position. Further, this report needs to be considered in conjunction with other shifts, especially in social work with the move to generic workers recommended by the Seebohm Report (HMSO 1968). There did appear to be a possibility that community work might become a key element of social work (mirroring the three strands of practice in the North American literature – casework, groupwork and community organization). Thomas argues that:

The most profound effect of the demise of the educational influence was that the process goals of community work were not developed beyond the rudimentary expression they were given in the texts of the 1950s and 1960s… The educational aspects of intervention… have remained rooted in two narrow orthodoxies… The first… was that process goals became associated in the minds of the new practitioners of the 1970s only with changes in individual or personal development. The second orthodoxy was to identify process goals with the rhetoric of ‘raising political consciousness’… The educational goals of community work embrace both these… but they are also much wider. (Thomas 1983: 31)

The opportunity was also lost of developing community work within community centres and the definition of community work continued to be tied to the particular issues of the day (ibid: 32).

In Scotland, the position was a little different. Following the Alexander Report (SED 1975) and the establishment of a new local government structure community education services were formed in most regions. While a considerable amount of community work remained in social service departments in a number of regions (see the later reading by Barr 1991 concerning Strathclyde), there has been a significant lobby for community development within community education (PCEO 1992). Significantly, bearing in mind our earlier comments concerning community associations, the linking of adult education with youth and community work, has meant that the educative core of community development has been asserted.

The process is educational. It is about people in communities creating opportunities for growth and change and deliberate movement towards the ends which they determine and in process of doing so increase their critical awareness, knowledge, skills and attitudes. (PCEO 1992: 7)

The Community Development Projects

During the 1960s and early 1970s there was a growing recognition of the extent to which poverty remained a major feature of UK society (see, for example, Coates and Silburn 1970). There had also been a fairly substantial series of debates around the significance and importance of people’s participation in various aspects of government activity – perhaps the best known being the Skeffington Report on planning (MHLG 1969). Following the efforts of the Democratic administration in the United States of America to wage a ‘War on Poverty’, the UK government sought a similar, but cheaper, initiative. Self-help and resident participation were seen to be possibilities for the improvement of inner city situations.

The result, in 1969, was the launch of the Community Development Projects programme. It was the largest action-research project ever funded by government. The avowed intention was to gather information about the impact of existing social policies and services and to encourage innovation and co-ordination. The projects had a strong and explicit research focus and an emphasis on social action ‘as a means of creating more responsive local services and of encouraging self help’ (Loney 1983: 3). The projects were initially based in 12 areas of social deprivation. These were neighbourhoods of 3,000 to 15,000 people. Each project involved a small group of professional workers and researchers. The emphasis in CDPs on research meant that they produced a range of important material both about the nature of community work and about the social, political and economic condition of particular areas (full listing in Loney 1983).

Workers in many of the projects came to reject the analysis and strategies of the original project proposals. They sought to organise and research around larger questions of inequality and deindustrialisation rather than more localized concerns around community organization. There was often a desire to bring about a much stronger link between the struggles of the workplace and those of the neighbourhood and community; and to develop means by which groups can join together in things like federations to better influence decision making on a city-wide, regional and national basis. As Loney (1983: 23) comments, the community workers who entered the field in the late 1960s and early 1970s frequently rejected the traditional (educational) models of community work. They replaced the process-orientated ‘non-directiveness of Batten and Batten (1967) with a commitment to organizing and a readiness to take up oppositional positions (Baldock 1977). By 1974 the Home Office had largely given up on the projects and they were wound up in 1976.

In some respects, the optimism and enthusiasm with which community work and ‘participation’ were greeted in the early 1970s and late 1960s waned with the realisation that many of the issues the work sought to confront were not resolvable at the local level – a realisation that was underlined by the widespread public expenditure cuts after the oil crisis of 1974. There was a considerable growth in the political awareness of community workers in the mid to late 1970s and this has been reflected in the adoption by workers of very different ideological stances. This is sometimes represented by the contrasting of so called social work or community development traditions of practice, with political action traditions:

The former focused on the community as a social unit or organism, and was concerned with so called ‘soft’ issues such as social disorganisation and the need to build up networks and resources. The ‘political action tradition’ identified the community as a political unit, and emphasised ‘hard’ issues such as oppression and powerlessness. People associated themselves with each tradition, and each was thought to have its own particular organising styles and methods (‘consensual’ and ‘conflict’). (Thomas 1983: 93)

Three further dynamics were also at work: a more general movement away from associational and community group activity (perhaps best articulated in more recent years in the work of Robert Putnam); the rise of managerialism; and the coming to power of politicians who stressed market solutions. All can be seen in developments during the 1980s.

Community work in the 1980s – service extension

In the early 1980s another report sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (and written by David Thomas) suggested that community work had three major aspects:

First, to help people take action on specific issues of importance to them. These issues will almost invariably involve the influence of resources, either those held, for example, by local authorities, or to be found within communities themselves. I have referred to this as the distributive aspect of community work. It is equivalent to the conventional category of ‘product goals’ familiar in community work literature. Influence on the distribution of resources will be terminal goals for the people involved, but I have argued that we should see them also as instrumental in contributing towards:secondly, the development of political responsibility; and

thirdly, that of communal coherence. (Thomas 1983: 102)


David N. Thomas: Approaches in community work

Thomas (1993) isolated five main strands or approaches in his study of community work in the early 1980s:

Community Action focuses on the organisation of those adversely affected by the decisions, or non-decisions, of public and private bodies and by more general structural characteristics of society. The strategy aims to promote collective action to challenge existing socio-political and economic structures and processes, to explore and explain the power realities of people’s situations and, through this twin pronged approach, develop both critical perspectives of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action.

Community Development emphasises self-help, mutual support, the building up of neighbourhood integration, the development of neighbourhood capacities for problem-solving and self-representation, and the promotion of collective action to bring a community’s preferences to the attention of political decision-makers.

Social Planning is concerned with the assessment of community needs and problems and the systematic planning of strategies for meeting them. Social planning comprises the analysis of social conditions, social policies and agency services; the setting of goals and priorities; the design of service programmes and the mobilisation of appropriate resources; and the implementation and evaluation of services and programmes.

Community Organisation involves the collaboration of separate community or welfare agencies with or without the additional participation of statutory authorities, in the promotion of joint initiatives.

Service Extension is a strategy which seeks to extend agency operations and services by making them more relevant and accessible. This includes extending services into the community, giving these services and the staff who are responsible for them a physical presence in a neighbourhood. (Thomas 1983: 106-139)


In a sense these five approaches are far broader than ‘community work’ – especially the last, service extension. As Thomas argues:

The correct relationship is that community work is a contribution to each of these approaches and, perhaps more importantly, we need to be aware of the range of other contributions that are possible and desirable, and whose value may have been obscured by the attention given to community work. (Thomas 1983: 107)

Here, especially, we need to consider youth work, adult education, planning, public health and social work. Social workers, in particular following the Barclay Report (NISW 1982) and the emphasis on community care began to explore the potential of ‘community-based’ approaches.

The nature of community work had shifted. While some workers still had the freedom, and were disposed, to encourage opposition to the social and economic policies of the Conservative government in Britain – and their impact on local communities (especially with regard to the closure of heavy industries, engineering works and mines upon local communities); the context in which many were employed had changed. The language of managerialism had spread through many local authorities recasting much of the work in terms of meeting organizational objectives rather than local community needs. Most particularly, the focus was upon the more effective use of resources and the efficiency of services – especially with regard to housing and care. There was a significant shift away from locating workers in local neighbourhoods in order to sustain and develop local groups and associational life.

In many respects we have a clearer picture of local activity in Scotland than in England from this time. This is largely due to Alan Barr’s (1991) detailed account of practice in Strathclyde. He brought out a number of significant elements. However, two things in particular stand out. The first is the emphasis on community development and process that the workers studied still had (in contrast with the context in which they were working). This may flow, in part, from the particular cultural, political and social situation in Scotland and the focus that community education provides. That said, the work was located in a social work department; and it is likely that a number of community workers in other parts of the UK would have assented to these concerns at this time. The second, and endearing, feature of this research is that it brings out a great deal of the routine day-to-day activities that go to make up jobs such as ours. One of the significant features here is the relatively low amount of face-to-face work undertaken by senior workers as compared to their assistants.

Community work in the 1990s – economic development, community practice and capacity building

By the early 1990s the position of community development work had become a little battered and activity was reduced (Popple 1995: 30). The squeeze on public expenditure; moves to curtail the activities of local authorities (and even to abolish some – such as the Greater London Council); continued high levels of unemployment and poverty; and movements into community care had all acted to alter the face of the work. As Butcher (1992) argued at the beginning of the decade, ‘community work’ was going through considerable change and redefinition.

By the mid-1990s it was clear that community work approaches were being further harnessed to the development of centrally planned initiatives such as community care; and have become less the province of the traditional concerns of community organization and development. Where people have been able to hang on to some of these concerns – as perhaps has been the case in a number of the rural community initiatives (see Francis and Henderson 1992) – the emphasis was arguably less on fostering democracy than on facilitating enterprise, holding onto local services such as post offices and pubs, and on developing social provision such as housing. There has also been a flurry of interest in rural work (Francis and Henderson 1992; Henderson and Francis 1993) and in children’s work (Henderson 1995; Cannan and Warren 1997).

Instead of looking to community work as an organizing idea, a number of people started to talk of community practice (and this is certainly reflected in the North American literature – see, for example, Hardcastle and Powers 2004). In other words, various areas of work can be seen to have a ‘community dimension’ and that we need to do is look at the ways in which ideas of ‘community’ permeate public and social policies and can be used to create alternatives (Butcher et al 1993).

A further shift in the rhetoric of community development emerged in the mid-1990’s with the turn to ‘capacity building’. Skinner (1997: 1-2) defines capacity building as follows:

Development work that strengthens the ability of community organizations and groups to build their structures, systems, people and skills so that they are better able to define and achieve their objectives and engage in consultation and planning, manage community projects and take part in partnerships and community enterprises.It includes aspects of training, organizational and personal development and resource building, organized in a planned and self-conscious manner, reflecting the principles of empowerment and equality.

The language and direction of ‘capacity-building’ fitted in with moves toward a greater concern with economic development and planning – although a number of those interested in promoting (such as Eade 1997) are aware of some of its limitations. It was deeply inscribed with a technicist orientation – and was a long way from the more radical concerns of community workers in the early 1970s.

The radical tradition has kept alive (in the literature at least – see the material on community participation in particular). Cooke and Shaw (1997) argued for the re-etablishment of the value of and direction of radical community work – but freedom of movement remained limited for many practitioners – and much of the writing remained caught up in the theoretical concerns of the early 1970s (the ‘class of 68’ as Cooke describes it).

Community work today

The state-sponsored community work that has remained following the Banking Crisis of 2007-8, is largely locked into the mix of care, economic development and service delivery improvement work that developed during the 1980s and 1990s. However, three particular areas of state-sponsored work did for a time, and to some limited extent, bring a stronger emphasis upon community-based organization and group-functioning in England.

First, the emergence and growth of tenant management organizations has led to some attention being given to the cultivation of local groups and the deepening of their capacity to develop and run their own organizations. However, this has not been without tensions (ODPM 2002). In particular local authorities have tended to see tenant management organizations as extensions of their management activity whilst those involved are more likely to see themselves as community activists. They have also tended to see them as rivals. The result was that those employed to facilitate the development of tenant’s management organizations and cooperatives often slipped into either representing the view or policies of the local authority to the group or advising them on the technicalities of housing finance funding. The enhancement of local group life was commonly sidelined into a series of courses on ‘how to chair a committee’ and such like.

Second, the New Deal for Communities Programme in England – part of the Labour government’s strategy to ‘tackle multiple disadvantage in the most deprived neighbourhoods’  – involved an emphasis upon local community involvement. (New Deal for Communities was established in 1998 and expanded in 1999 to include some 39 partnerships and involving a spend of some £2bn). However, results from the interim evaluation of the initiative indicate that there is only patchy evidence of increased participation in local networks, neighbourliness and involvement in local groups. In contrast, there does appear to have been a significant increase in the trust invested by local residents in local institutions. As the evaluators stressed, community involvement and engagement takes time (Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research 2005: 67).

Third, the Sure Start programme, originally announced in 1998 and aimed at increasing the quality and availability of child care in selected areas in England, improving the health and well-being of children, and providing support for parents initially involved a significant emphasis upon community development and involvement. Some interesting and apparently successful locally-based work emerged. A strong case was made for this by Norman Glass and others involved in the development of the programme on the grounds that:

… it was necessary, in the case of early years at any rate, to involve local people fully in the development and management of the programme if it was to take root and not simply be seen as another quick fix by middle-class social engineers. “What works” is important, but “how it works”, at least in this policy area, is equally, if not more, important. (Glass 2005)

If people ‘owned’ programmes it was argued, then they would both be more likely to address relevant needs and to engage people. However, the community development orientation also contributed to the effective abolition of the programme.

Community development takes time. Disadvantaged communities have to be persuaded to participate, and their natural suspicion leads them to hang back until there is something to show. So the “local” Sure Start programmes (as the DfES took to referring to them) have always been behind schedule, and – a mortal sin under New Labour – underspent. (Glass 2005)

The governments desire to rapidly extend the programme as part of a larger strategy around child care and parenting involved the establishment of large numbers of children’s centres within what was termed a ‘children’s trust approach’ and the development of interdisciplinary professional teams. The patient, and it was argued, ultimately rewarding business of community development and full participation did not fit in with such a model.

The main carrier of a concern to cultivate community coherence and local group life in England and Wales at least, were churches and religious groups. The numbers of youth workers employed by local churches had increased significantly during the 1990s and alongside it there had also been a noticeable emphasis placed upon community development. In part this was linked to the need to encourage better use of church buildings and facilities – but there was also a strong theological argument for attention to community life beyond that of the church. A number of Methodist churches, for example, used a community centre model around which to base their activities. Within, and associated with, mosques there developed a significant range of welfare and other networks and services.

In Scotland, the picture was a little different. The community education tradition remained reasonable strong and vocal – adopting, in significant part, the language of community learning. In a Scottish Executive paper this was defined as ‘informal learning and social development work with individuals and groups in their communities. The aim of this work is to strengthen communities by improving people’s knowledge, skills and confidence, organisational ability and resources’. The paper continued, ‘Community learning and development makes an important contribution towards promoting lifelong learning, social inclusion and active citizenship’ (Scottish Executive 2003). There is a real sense in which the educational role of community development had not been lost (as was the case in England in the 1960s and 1970s) (see Tett 2006).

One further important element came into play in terms of debates about policy – social capital. Significant press attention was given to Putnam’s arguments around the diminution of social capital in the USA (and the impact this had upon people’s health, education and happiness). It also encouraged some important debates within academic and policy circles (see lifelong learning and social capital). While there has been some exploration of what a concern with deepening social capital might mean in terms of work in communities (see, for example, Putnam and Feldstein with Cohen 2003) it has been, on the whole, rather disappointing. Part of the problem is that it entails policymakers and practitioners entertaining and making sense of issues within a markedly different frame of reference than that which dominates discussion and policy today. The work involved is long-term, dependent upon process and concerned more broadly with flourishing and happiness.

Austerity bites

Following the banking crisis of 2007-8, the subsequent imposition of austerity policies, and the coming to power of first, the Coalition government, and then the Conservatives, there was a significant retreat from state-sponsored community work. While UK governments may have toyed with ideas like ‘the Big Society’, what resulted was large cuts in funding for local authority services. This found its way through to very significant reductions in support for local community groups and organizations and the decimation n England and Wales of many non-statutory services like youth work, playwork, adult and community education and, of course, community development.

Cutbacks and shifting priorities also resulted in severe difficulties for umbrella organizations. After 50 years of work the Community Development Foundation (CDF) closed in March 2016. It had been a largely government-funded body being both a NDPB (Non-Departmental Public Body) and a charity. However, after the Coalition government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’ it both lost funding and access to government departments, and had to close a number of its national programmes. It managed to continue with a reduced range of services but in the end had to close. Similarly, Community Matters – The National Federation of Community Organizations – also closed in March 2016. Previously known as the National Federation of Community Associations, it was established in 1945 to support the large number of community centres that had developed since the mid-1930s. In many respects this was a bigger blow than the closure of CDF as it provided a range of legal and technical services to local centres and community groups. It had been funded by a mix of payments from it’s membership groups, local authorities and central government. A sharp reduction in support by local and cental government led to its demise.

The impact of auterity policies can also be seen in two developments in practice – the emergence and growth of community-organized food banks and a shift within some services for young people from direct work to enhancing community capacity. A similar movement has occured in some areas where volunteers have taken over the running of libraries.

Food banks. While food banks in US first appeared in late 1960s and took off in the 1980s, it was only in the late 1990s that they began to appear in the United Kingdom. Many of the US foodbanks operate as warehouses supplying local food pantries and soup kitchens, in contrast UK projects tend to be smaller and local, and combine gathering supplies and providing them directly to people. Following the the banking crisis of 2007-8, and, in particular, the imposition of austerity policies and cutting of welfare support, there has been an explosion in the numbers of food banks. The main network of food banks – linked to the Trussell Trust – has over 400 local banks. On top of that around 500 food banks are independent or part of smaller networks. The majority of food banks are hosted and supported by churches. Food is usually donated by a network of local churches, supermarket shoppers, schools and companies. They are often run on a shoestring and rely on a large number of volunteers and organizers.

The heavy involvement of churches has been significant in terms of community work in that on the one hand, they have been able to mobilize growing numbers of local people but on the other, this has involved a redirection of the community work engaged in by churches and local religious groups – in particular away from work with young people and some broader community provision and organization. That said, there has been some development in the services offered by food banks, for example around holiday clubs, tackling fuel poverty and holistic care (see, for example the Trussell Trust’s More than food campaign).

Enhancing community capacity. With cuts to youth services some local authorities have looked to out-source services to community interest companies while some others have looked to enhance community capacity to host and run provision for young people. In Essex, for example, some workers have been redeployed into encouraging and supporting local groups in much the same way that a number of youth and community workers operated in the 1970s. This model involves working alongside volunteers (including young people) and activists to both plan and engage with young people. However, it also involves commisioning services (Essex County Council 2014).

Overall, we can say that over the last decade or so community work in the UK has been battered by events and starved of funds by the state. However, as Keith Popple (2015: 1) has argued:

despite the significant societal changes and assaults on the principles and practice of community work, the activity has remained true to its roots in questioning and, where necessary, challenging the power of the powerful as well as offering an alternative vision for now and the future.

Further reading and references

I have tried to select texts that illustrate the development of the work and contemporary debates. For ease material is themed: the development of community work; principles and practice texts; and aspects of practice.

The development of community work

In this section I have listed some landmark books and reports, plus some histories and overviews.

Batten, T. R. (1957) Communities and their Development. An introductory study with special reference to the Tropics, London: Oxford University Press. Chapters on: Trends in community development; Agencies and communities; Some principles of agency work; Directing change; Aiding community projects; Projects in disorganized communities; Building community; The school and the community; Making people literate; Introducing new ideas; Working with groups; Selecting and training the worker; Making communities better.

Batten, T. R. and Batten M. (1967) The Non-Directive Approach in Group and Community Work, London: Oxford University Press. Provides a clear description of a more process and group-oriented approach to community work. See, also, T. R. Batten’s earlier, and very influential, text: (1957) Communities and their Development. An introductory study with special reference to the Tropics, London: Oxford University Press.

Broady, M., Clarke, R., Marks, H., Mills, R., Sims, E., Smith, M. & White, L. (ed. Clarke, R.) (1990) Enterprising Neighbours. The development of the community association in Britain, London: National Federation of Community Organisations. 209 + ix pages. Chapters examine community associations as a people’s movement; roots and influences; early days; high promise and disappointment: fifteen post war years; community associations in changing society: 1966-1980; local groups and community development; group activities and personal development; retrospect and prospect.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1968) Community Work and Social Change. A report on training, London: Longman. 171 + xiii pages. First substantial report focused on community work. Surveyed the position of community work in the late 1960s; examined functions and aims; and argued for the development of training.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1973) Current Issues in Community Work. A Study by the Community Work Group, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 180 + xii pages. Follow-through report from the 1968 report based on the activities of various sub-groups. Chapters on the scope and value of community work; community work methods; community action; analysis and evaluation; community workers and their employers; trining; some present needs and proposals for meeting them.

Cannan, C., Berry, L. and Lyons, K. (1992) Social Work and Europe, London: Macmillan. 181 + xii pages. Has chapters on social Europe; social policies and social trends in Europe; social workers, organizations and the state; branches and themes of social work (concentrates on Germany and France); French social work; participation; and social action. Includes material on community work.

Cockburn, C. (1977) The Local State. Management of cities and people, London: Pluto Press. 207 pages. Important critique of the ‘turn to community’ in local government and how it may serve to strengthen corporatism.

Francis, D., Henderson, P. and Thomas, D. N. (1984) A Survey of Community Workers in the United Kingdom. National Institute for Social Work. 30 pages. Useful snapshot of the state of community work in the early 1980s.

Henderson, P., Jones, D. and Thomas. D. N. (eds.) The Boundaries of Change in Community Work, London: George Allen and Unwin. 243 + xii pages. As the title suggests, a collection that looks to community work as a boundary activity (particularly within or on the boundaries of the agencies that employ workers). Sections on: the context of community work practice; case studies of practice; and influence, organization and professional growth. Good chapters by Baldock on the origins of community work, practice and theory (Tasker) plus some useful case studies.

Henderson, P. and Thomas, D. N. (eds.) (1981) Readings in Community Work. George Allen and Unwin. 198 + x pages (A4). Good collection of material with sections on the nature of community work; key ideas in community work (community, need, poweer, ideology, change); interventions in the practice of community work (neighbourhood work, policy and organizational change, education in the community, promoting participation; and the idea of strategy in community work (tactics, role, sponsorship, evaluation).

Henderson, P. Wright, A. and Wyncoll, K. (eds.) (1982) Successes and Struggles on Council Estates. Tenant action and community work, London: Association of Community Workers. 232 pages. Good collection of case studies of practice in the early 1980s. Sections on generalist community work on council estates; city-wide action; community work methods; and linking practice to social policy.

Jones, D. and Mayo, M. (eds.) (1974) Community Work One, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 277 + xvi pages. This book, from the Association of Community Workers, was the first of eight published by Routledge and Kegan Paul. It provided a significant pointer to developing practice and contained a number of important articles. Part one dealt with change, conflict and the grass roots; part two: making services relevant and responsive; part three: training; and part four: strategies for change (two critiques by Marris and Bennington). The editors also put together (1975) Community Work Two, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 202 + xiv pages. It had sections on community work participation and politics; training and the development of community work as a profession; work in progress / developments in the field; research; and consumer organizations. Other titles in the series were:

Mayo, M. (ed.) (1977) Women in the Community. Community Work 3, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Curno, P. (ed.) (1978) Political Issues and Community Work. Community Work 4, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Craig, G., Mayo, M. and Sharman, N. (eds.) (1979) Jobs and Community Action. Community Work 5, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Smith, L. and Jones, D. (eds.) (1981) Deprivation, Participation and Community Action. Community Work 6, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Ohri, A., Manning, B. and Curno, P. (eds.) (1982) Community Work and Racism. Community Work 7, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Craig, G., Derricourt, N. and Loney, M. (eds.) (1982) Community Work and the State. Towards a radical practice. Community Work 8, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kuenstler, P. (ed.) (1961) Community Organization in Great Britain, London: Faber and Faber. 164 pages. The first substantial British collection of material – drawing on the (1959) Younghusband Report’s definition of community organization. Contains some fascinating material – an overview of community organization in Britain (Kuenstler); the needs of old urban areas (Mays); new estates (Smith): new towns (Taylor); councils of social service (Littlewood and Clements); community associations and centres (Milligan); community and sociology (Dennis); and conclusions (Goetschius). Includes a useful bibliography.

Leaper, R. A. B. (1968) Community Work. Common ground explored in an experimental course, London: National Council of Social Service. 211 + vi pages. Provides a nice snapshot of thinking and brings out the then central focus – of working with community groups. Chapters on ‘community’, surveying, administration, techniques and principles, process and learning. Various useful appendices.

Loney, M. (1983) Community Against Government. The British Community Development Project 1968-78: a study of government incompetence. Heinemann. 221 + vii pages. Definitive study of the Initiative and how the twelve local projects variously developed a radical critique (and came to a sticky end). Chapters deal with the context for the Initiative; the development of the CDP proposal; establishing local CDPs; the first four projects; issues of practice; developing difficulties in the central administration; the emergence of the radical CDP; CDPs and the politics of urban change and conflict; and the decline and fall of rational incrementalism. There is an extensive bibliography.

Some CDP Reports and Publication

Selected by Popple (1995: 123-124)

Benwell CDP (1978). Slums on the Drawing Board, Final Report No. 4. Newcastle: Benwell DP.

Birmingham CDP (1987). Youth on the Dole, Final Report No. 4. Birmingham and Oxford: Birmingham CDP Research Team and the Social Evaluation Unit, Oxford University.

CDP (1978). Leasehold Loopholes, Final Report No. 5. Birmingham and Oxford: Birmingham CDP Research Team and the Social Evaluation Unit, Oxford University.

Butterworth, E., Lees, R. and Arnold, P. (1980). The Challenge of Community Work,

Final Report of Batley CDP, Papers in Community Studies, No. 24. York: University of York.

Canning Town CDP (1975a). Canning Town to North Woolwich: The Aims of Industry? London: Canning Town CDP.

Canning Town CDP (1975b). Canning Town’s Declining Community Income. London: Canning Town CDP.

Canning Town CDP (1976). Growth and Decline: Canning Town’s Economy 1846-1946. London: Canning Town CDP.

CDP (1977a). Gilding the Ghetto, The State and The Poverty Experiments. London: Community Development Project Inter-project Editorial Team.

CDP (1977b). The Costs of Industrial Change. London: Community Development Project and Inter-project Editorial Team.

CDP IIU (1975). The Poverty of the Improvement Programme. London: CDP Information and Intelligence Unit.

CDP IIU (1976a). Profits against Houses. London: CDP Information and Intelligence Unit.

CDP IIU (1976b). Whatever Happened to Council Housing? London: CDP Information and Intelligence Unit.

CDP PEC (1979). The State and the Local Economy. London: CDP PEC and Publications Distributive Co-operative.

CIS/CDP (1976). Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits?). London: Counter Information Services and CDP.

Corina, L. (1977). Oldham CDP. An Assessment of its Impact and Influence on the Local Authority, Papers in Community Studies, No. 9. York: University of York.

Corina, L., Collis, P. and Crosby, C. (1979). Oldham CDP. The Final Report. York: University of York.

Coventry CDP (1975a). Coventry and Hillfields: Prospetity and the Persistence of Inequality, Final Report, Part 1. Coventry: Coventry CDP.

Coventry CDP (1975b). Background Working Papers, Final Report, Part 2. Coventry: Coventry CDP.

North Tyneside CDP (1978a). North Shields: Working Class Politics and Housing 1900- 77, Final Report, Vol. 1. Newcastle: Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic.

North Tyneside CDP (1978b). North Shields: Organizing for Change in a Working Class Area, Final Report, Vol. 3. Newcastle: Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic.

North Tyneside CDP (1978c). North Shields: Organizing for Change in a Working Class Area: The Action Groups, Final Report, Vol. 4. Newcastle: Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic.

North Tyneside CDP (1978d). Women’s Work, Final Report, Vol. 5. Newcastle: Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic.

North Tyneside CDP (1978e). In and Out of Work: A Study of Unemployment, Low Pay and Income Maintenance Services. Newcastle: Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic.

Penn, R. and Alden, J. (1977). Upper Afan CDP Final Report to Sponsors. Joint Report by Action Team and Research Team Directors, Cardiff, University of Wales, Institute of Science and Technology. Cardiff: University of Wales.

Some other publications

Lees, R. and Smith, G. (1975) Action-Research in Community Development, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 202 + xi pages. Collection of papers written by people involved in the projects. Sections on the national community Development Project; establishing local prjects; action in the local areas; and action and research strategies. Some useful materialon community education.

Thomas, D. N. (1976) Organizing for Social Change. A study in the theory and practice of community work, London: George Allen and Unwin. 199 pages. Chapters on the relevance and value of neighbourhood resources; criteria for intervention; community actors and the organization and structure of the Southwark Community Project; opening moves in neighbourhood work; residents; community workers; material resources; working with service agencies; and assessment of Southwark Community Project.


McConnell, C. (ed.) (1996) Community Education. The making of an empowering profession, Edinburgh: Scottish Community Education Council. 372 + viii pages. Very useful collection of documents, articles and extracts that detail the development of community education in Scotland. Includes material from the Alexander Report, and from many of the key writers on Scottish community education since the mid 1970s.

Midgley, J. et al (1986) Community Participation, Social Development and the State, London: Methuen. 181 + ix pages. The book begins with an excellent overview of community participation and is followed by chapters exploring community participation in health, education, rural development, urban development and housing, and social work. Midgley completes the collection with an examination of community participation, the state and social policy. Good for placing ‘community work’ within a wider context of practice thinking.

Popple, K. (1995) Analysing Community Work. Its theory and practice, Buckingham: Open University Press. 131 + x pages. Provides an introductory overview with chapters on: the development of British community work; community work theory; models of community work; community work in practice; conclusion and future directions. The models are basically those of Thomas (1983) with the addition of community care; feminist community work; and Black and anti-racist community work.

David N. Thomas (1983) The Making of Community Work, London: George Allen and Unwin. 324 + x pages. The first major review of community work in the United Kingdom since the 1960s and really the best historical overview. Chapters on the 1960s and 1970s; participation in politics and the community; the contribution of community work; practice in the 1980s; training for community work; employing and funding workers; communication, research etc.

Willmott, P. (1989) Community Initiatives. Patterns and prospects, London: Policy Studies Institute. 110 pages. Important review of developments that charts the use of ‘community in policy initiatives – community policing, community care, etc. Was an expression of the turn to ‘community practice’ that happened in the early 1990s.

Community work – principles and practice texts

Here I have tried to pick out some of the more popular and contemporary texts that have appeared. Material on community development and community organization can be found elsewhere. Earlier material is signposted in the section on the development of community work.

Francis, D. and Henderson, P. (1992) Working with Rural Communities, London: Macmillan. 160 + xiv pages. Compact guide in the Practical Social Work series and focused on the UK. Chapters on rural development and community work; communities and people in rural areas; developing a strategy; a model of rural community work; working from a distance; focused, indirect work; direct community work; management in rural community work; and rural community work in the 1990s.

Gilchrist, A., & Taylor, M. (2016). The short guide to community development. 2e. Bristol: Policy Press. An excellent introduction to community development.

Harrris, V. (ed.) (1994) Community Work Skills Manual 2e, Newcastle: Association of Community Workers. Thoroughly updated and extended, the handbook provides practical guidance on a comprehensive range of questions affecting community work. 24 sections deal with matters such as roles, skills and responsibilities; tacking inequalities; empowerment and participation; gettin to know a community; working with groups; meetings;volunteers; training; supervision; surveys; campaigning; funding; organizing conferences and events; handling information; publications; evaluation; managament committees; and local government. Within each section there are briefing sheets dealing with different aspects. Accessible and designed for use with local activists.

Henderson, P. and Thomas, D. N. (2001) Skills in Neighbourhood Work 3e, London: Routledge. 296 pages. This remains the standard treatment of neighbourhood work in the UK. Although somewhat dry and ‘technicist’, the book’s strength lies in its comprehensiveness and focus on process. Chapters examine some of the ideas around which the book is organized; entering the neighbourhood; getting to know the neighbourhood; needs, goals and roles;making contacts and bringing people together; forming and building organizations; helping to clarify goals and priorities; keeping the organization going; dealing with friends and enemies; leavings and endings; and a little more about process.

Pearse, M. and Smith, J. (1990) Community Groups Handbook, Nottingham: Journeyman. 119 +viii pages. Handbook for community groups (first published in 1977) with sections on how community groups work;community groups and public authorities; and taking action.

Popple, K. (2015). Analysing community work: Theory and practice. 2e. Maidenhead: Open University Press. This book provides a good overview of developments in community work since the 1980s and the context in which it operates.

Robertson, C. and Shaw, J. (1997) Participatory Video. A practical approach to using video creativity in group development, London: Routledge. 256 pages. Very much a practical guide to using videa in group development work. Features over 60 exercises and advice on workshop planning; video equipment; and running long-term projects.

Skinner, S. (1997) Building Community Strengths. A resource book on capacity building, London: Community Development Foundation. 136 + xiv pages. Part one is an introduction to capacity building; Part two deals with developing people; Part three: developing organizitions; Part four: developing community infrastructure; and Part five: developing plans and strategies. A practical guide and rather ‘listy’.

Twelvetrees, A. (1982; 1991; 2001) Community Work, London: Palgrave Macmillan. 224  pages. Popular practical guide with an emphasis on working with community groups. Chapters on what is community work; contact making, analysis and planning; practical considerations in working with groups; psychological considerations in working with community groups; working towards institutional change; and survival.

Brief guides

The Community Development Foundation have produced a number of short guides/briefing papers arising from UK community work practice:

Clinton, L. (1993) Community Development and the Arts, London: Community Development Foundation. 35 + vi pages.

Francis, D. and Henderson, P. (1994) Community Development and Rural Issues, London: Community Development Foundation. 45 + x pages.

Gilchrist, A. (1995) Community Development and Networking, London: Community Development Foundation. 42 + x pages.

Heaton, K. and Sayer, J. (1992) Community Development and Child Welfare, London: Community Development Foundation. 47 + viii pages.

McDonald, D. and Tungatt, M. (1992) Community Development and Sport, London: Community Development Foundation. 42 + x pages.

Smith, J. (1991) Community Development and Tenant Action, London: Community Development Foundation. 42 + x pages.

Taylor, M. (1991) Signposts to Community Development, London: Community Development Foundation. 36 + x pages.

Community work – aspects of practice

Barr, A. (1991) Practising Community Development. Experience in Strathclyde, London: Community Development Foundation. 184 6+ xii pages. Rare study of the actual practice and thinking of workers which makes for fascinating reading. Dispels much of the radical rhetoric around the work. Sections look at the study; the nature of community work; workers views of their practice (includes aspirations; workers and managers; politicians, and community groups); and ‘reflections’ (community work and local government, the state, planning and participation; local interests).

Butcher, H., Collis, P., Glen, A. and Sills, P. (1980) Community Groups in Action. Case studies and analysis, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 290 + xiv pages. One of the few substantial studies of community groups and community initiatives. The book combines five substantial case studies with a thematic commentary and analysis. The latter looks at: groups and their environment; goals and foal achievement; organization: process and structure; strategy, tactics and resources; the role of the community worker.

Butcher, H., Glen, A., Henderson, P. and Smith, J. (eds.) (1993) Community and Public Policy, London: Pluto Press. 281 + xv pages. Part one deals with concepts and context: methods and themes in community practice, social change, community policy. Part two looks at community policy in practice: youth work; community arts; community enterprise; community policing; community government; community care. Part three offers some critical perspectives.

Cannan, C. and Warren, C. (eds.) (1997) Social Action with Children and Families. A community development approach to child and family welfare, London: Routledge. 225 + xiv pages. This book looks beyond the usual narrow confines of British social work texts – looking at more community oriented forms of engagement (especially family centres) and drawing on traditions of practice from the UK, Germany and France. There is some recognition of the potential of more educative approaches and a concern with local networks and institutions.

Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The new tyranny?, London: Zed Books. 224 pages. Popular and useful overview of community participation and participatory techniques.

Cooke, I. and Shaw, M. (1997) Radical Community Work. Perspectives from practice, Edinburgh: Moray House. 187 pages. Examines the changing context of radical community work in Scotland. Chapters examine partnership; campaigning; housing work; community care; disability; women and community work practice; lone parents; anti-racist work; and community arts.

Craig, G., Derricourt, N. and Loney, M. (eds.) (1982) Community Work and the State. Towards a radical practice. Community Work 8, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 166 + ix pages. Part one looks at thinking politically about practice; part two: issues and strategies; and part three: radical developments outside the UK.

Curno, P. (ed.) (1978) Political Issues and Community Work. Community Work 4, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 264 + xvi pages. Collection explores dilemmas of community work and ideology; local politics and community work;and perspectives for development.

Dominelli, L. (1990; 2006) Women and Community Action, Bristol: Policy Press. Overview of developments and contemporary practice. See, also, Dominelli, L. and McLeod (1989) Feminist Social Work, London: Macmillan.

Elsdon, K. T. with J. Reynolds and S. Stewart (1995) Voluntary Organizations. Citizenship, learning and change, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. 168 + viii pages. Important report of a six year research project in England, Scotland and Wales. Examines the nature of voluntary organization and the educative possibilities of associational life. An overview of the 31 case studies that formed the basis of the research is included. The study also produced three useful collections of case studies plus an overall study of voluntary organization in Retford.

  • Elsdon, K. T. (1991) Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations. Volume 1: case studies 1 and 2, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. (A group of the National Women’s Register plus a rural community association)
  • Stewart, S., Reynolds, J. and Elsdon, K. T. (1992) Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations. Volume 2: case studies 3 – 15, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education. 236 pages. (Includes the Percival Guildhouse, Rugby; self-help groups; a Women’s Institute, and an arts centre).
  • Elsdon, K. T. with Stewart, S., and Reynolds, J. (1993) Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations. Volume 3: case studies 16 – 30, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education.
  • Reynolds, J. et al (1993) A Town in Action: Voluntary networks in Retford. Volume 4 of Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education.

Ellis, J. (1989) Breaking New Ground. Community Development with Asian Communities, London: Bedford Square Press. Study of a number of projects and initiatives that spreads light on developments in practice in the late 1980s.

Goetschius, G. W. (1969) Working with Community Groups. Using community development as a method of social work, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 250 + xix pages. Exploration of work undertaken with housing estate community groups. Close and thorough account of practice with chapters on: the background to the study; factors affecting the development of the service; development; examples of field-work; the role of the worker; conditions of fieldwork practice; further considerations and conclusions.

Henderson, P. (1995) Children and Communities, London: Pluto Press. 203 + xvi pages. While not specifically oriented around community work – common themes run through the contributions. The book is split into four parts: care and protection; environment; education; and neighbourhood.

Henderson, P. and Francis, D. (1993) Rural Action. A collection of community work case studies, London: Pluto Press. 178 + xi pages. The book is split into three parts: remote rural areas; areas of industrial change; and issue-based work. Includes a number of chapters on less explored aspects of the work e.g. village halls; rural housing and adult education.

Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (eds.) (2004) Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? – Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development, London: Zed Books. 304 pages. Helpful debunking of simplistic critiques of community participation as largely rhetorical or tyrannical. Explores different examples of practice and examines recent convergence between participatory development and participatory governance.

Hoggett, P. (ed.) (1997) Contested Communities: experiences, struggles, policies, Bristol: Policy Press ISBN 1 86134 036 2. £15.95. Following introductory essays on contested communities (Hoggett) and neighbours (Crow), this book has sections on community and social diversity; local government and community; and community participation and empowerment. The book uses a set of case studies to examine the sources of community activism, the ways communities define themselves and defined by outsiders, and the room for partnerships with different agencies. Internal conflicts within communities are also examined.

Jacobs, S. and Popple, K. (eds.) (1994) Community Work in the 1990s, Nottingham: Spokesman. 177 pages. Includes chapters on the values base; socialism as living; community work praxis; Black British to Black European; women, community work and the state; feminist work; Black empowerment; rural community work; community organizing.

Lupton, R. D. (2005) Renewing the City: Reflections on Community Development and Urban Renewal, London: InterVarsity Press. 240 pages.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 540 pages. Groundbreaking book that marshals evidence from an array of empirical and theoretical sources. Putnam argues there has been a decline in ‘social capital’ in the USA. He charts a drop in associational activity and a growing distance from neighbours, friends and family. Crucially he explores some of the possibilities that exist for rebuilding social capital. A modern classic.  Chapter One of the book is extracted on-line at the Simon and Shuster website (Bowling Alone).

Tett, L. (2006) Community Education, Lifelong Learning and Social Inclusion, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press. 96 pages. Explores the contribution in Scotland of community education to social inclusion and lifelong learning. Lyn Tett draws from a range of contexts including detached youth work, family literacy, health education and community regeneration programmes.

Van Rees, W. et al (1991) A Survey of Contemporary Community Development in Europe, The Hague: 7 Opbouwteksten. 148 pages. Chapters examine community development and the ‘Community’; community work as a professional strategy; combatting poverty; social networks; integrated apporaches to development; work experience; evaluating innovatory social projects.

Other references

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Alinsky, S. D. (1971) Rules for Radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals, New York: Vintage.

Baldock, P. (1977) ‘Why community action? The historical origins of the radical trend in British community work’, Community Development Journal 12(2) also reprinted in P. Henderson and D. N. Thomas (eds.) (1981) Readings in Community Work, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Beveridge, W. H. (1948) Voluntary Action. A report on methods of social advance, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Brierley, D. (2003) Growing Community: Making Groups Work with Young People, Carlisle: Authentic Lifestyle.

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Butcher, H., Glen, A., Henderson, P. and Smith, J. (eds.) (1993) Community and Public Policy, London: Pluto Press.

Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University (2005) New Deal for Communities 2001-2005: An Interim Evaluation, London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. http://www.neighbourhood.gov.uk/publications.asp?did=1625. Accessed February 2, 2006.

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Acknowledgements: Picture: The Aylesbury Estate by sarflondondunc | flickr ccbyndnc2 licence

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2006, 2016). ‘Community work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [www.infed.org/mobi/what-is-community-work/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 2006, 2016