Young people, informal education and association


Young people, informal education and association. In this paper, compiled for the Young People and Informal Education Conference held at the University of Strathclyde in September 2001, Mark K. Smith argues for the recovery of association as a central theme in work with young people, and the need to re-embrace the notion of the club.

Contents: introduction · the nature of youth work · the threat posed to freedom and choice by the New Labour agenda · the loss of faith in association · informal education, social capital and civic participation · conclusion: reclaiming the club · references

Today I want to briefly explore the essential characteristics of youth work – and the extent to which practitioners and policymakers have lost sight of, and faith in, them. If we look at what is happening in Britain in the name of youth work we can find a large amount of uninspiring and, frankly, misguided practice. There has been a continuing lack of attention to what lies at the core of the work – and an associated inability to articulate its processes and possibilities. The vacuum created has sucked in inappropriate ways of thinking about the work derived from business practice and from other areas of education and welfare. Much of the heart and passion appears to have gone out of the work – and become replaced by dispiriting and low-level talk of ‘delivery’, of being ‘results-driven’, and of targets. Once on this hostile ground it is very difficult to justify or make sense of the work. The writers of the English government report Transforming Youth Work, using the managerialist and outcome-obsessed OFSTED inspection framework, were thus able to conclude that local authority youth services often offer poor quality services.

Of the most recent 29 inspections, nine were considered good or very good, nine were satisfactory and eleven were unsatisfactory or poor. Inspectors found a lack of aims and objectives, an absence of clear outcomes , scant recording of achievements and ‘poor methodologies for delivering youth work (DfEE 2001: 10).

The problem has been exacerbated, as we will see, by the British ‘New Labour’ agenda around young people and social exclusion. As a way of getting back to the heart of youth work I will look to the significance of Robert Putnam’s and others research on social capital – and argue for a recovery of association as central theme in work with young people. In particular, we need to re-embrace the notion of the club as a central working form.

As many of you are aware I do a lot of my writing in partnership with others – and before I start to talk I need acknowledge the contribution of two colleagues: Tony Jeffs and Michele Erina Doyle, to the writing of this piece.

The nature of youth work

It is helpful to think of there being competing and different forms of youth work rather than a single youth work with commonly agreed characteristics (Smith 1988: 51). However, it is possible to identify some key dimensions that have been present to differing degrees in the central discourses of practice since the early 1900s (Doyle and Smith forthcoming). Youth work involves:

Focusing on young people. Although there have been various shifts in the age boundaries, youth work has remained an age-specific activity. Its practitioners claim some expertise in both in making sense of the experiences of youth, and in being able to work with young people (Jeffs 2001: 156). There are significant problems around how we talk about and define youth – and around the sorts of expertise we can claim. In particular, it is vital to look at the commonalities of experience between age groups – and that this can open up some very significant arenas for practice (Jeffs and Smith 1999b, 2001a). However, youth workers have traditionally worked with the ways of understanding the world that people bring. Groups define themselves as ‘young’ or ‘old’ and organize around that – and we need to respond accordingly. We have to work with the ways in which people make sense of the world. In this they may well being taking on the categorization of others, for example, through their participation in systems such as schools where they are managed according to age. As workers we have a responsibility to problematize this.

Emphasizing voluntary participation and relationship. The voluntary principle, as Tony Jeffs (2001: 156) has commented, has distinguished youth work from most other services provided for this age group. Young people have, traditionally, been able to freely enter into relationships with workers and to end those relationships when they want. This has fundamental implications for the way in which workers operate and the opportunities open to them. It can encourage workers to think and work in rather more dialogical ways (op. cit.). It also means that workers either have to develop programmes that attract young people to an agency, or they have to go to the settings where they are. ‘Building relationships‘ has been central both to the rhetoric and practice of much youth work. Two themes emerge with some regularity: education for relationship – the ability to develop good and satisfying interpersonal relationships is seen as the main, or a major reason for fostering learning: and education through relationship. Our relationships are seen as a fundamental source of learning. By paying attention to the nature of the relationship between educators and learners, it is argued, we can work in ways more appropriate to people’s needs (Smith 2001b).

Committing to association. Association – joining together in companionship or to undertake some task, and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association (Doyle and Smith 1999: 44) – has been a defining feature of youth work since its inception. This interest in association was, perhaps, most strongly articulated in the Albemarle Report (HMSO 1960). That Report famously declared that the primary aims of the youth service should be association, training and challenge (ibid.: 36 – 41 and 52 – 64).

To encourage young people to come together into groups of their own choosing is the fundamental task of the Service… (W)e want to call attention to:

a) an opportunity for commitment….

b) an opportunity for counsel….

c) an opportunity for self-determination. (1960 52-54).

However, of late the notion has come under considerable threat as more individualized and professionalized appreciations of the work have come to dominate the agenda. For example, the most visible understandings of young people’s participation are not linked to notions of self-government, but rather as consumers. Within the priorities set out in Transforming Youth Work (DfEE 2001) talk of participation in political and communal life is narrowed to the involvement of young people within the Connexions Service and providing feedback on other systems

Being friendly and informal, and acting with integrity. Youth work has come to be characterized by a belief that workers should not only be approachable and friendly; but also that they should have faith in people; and be trying, themselves, to live good lives. In other words, the person or character of the worker is of fundamental importance. As Basil Henriques put it (1933: 60): ‘However much self-government in the club may be emphasized, the success of the club depends upon the personality and ingenuity of the leader’. The head of the club, he continued, must ‘get to know and to understand really well every individual member. He must have it felt that he is their friend and servant’ (ibid.: 61). Or as Josephine Macalister Brew (1957: 112-113) put it, ‘young people want to know where they are and they need the friendship of those who have confidence and faith’. It follows from this that the settings workers help to build should be convivial, the relationships they form honest and characterized by ‘give and take’; and the programmes they are involved in, flexible. ‘A youth leader must try not to be too concerned about results’, Brew wrote, ‘and at all costs not to be over-anxious’ (ibid.: 183).

Only by the slow and tactful method of inserting yourself unassumingly into the life of the club, not by talking to your club members, but by hanging about and learning from their conversation and occasionally, very occasionally, giving it that twist which leads it to your goal, is it possible to open up a new avenue of thought to them (Brew 1943: 16).

In short, youth work is driven by conversation and an evolving idea of what might make for the well-being and growth.

Being concerned with the education and, more broadly, the welfare of young people. Historically, youth work did not develop simply ‘keep people off the streets’, or to provide amusement. A lot of the early clubs grew out of Sunday schools and ragged schools – and much provision has retained an educative orientation. Training courses and programmes, classes, discussions, libraries and various opportunities to expand and deepen experience have been an essential element of the work since its beginnings. This interest in learning – often of the most informal kind – was augmented by a concern for the general welfare of young people. We can find many examples of clubs providing a range of services including health care, wash and bathrooms, clothing stores, and income support. With developments and changes in state support mechanisms, and the identification of other needs, the pattern of welfare provision has shifted – but has remained a significant element of youth work.

It is through these five elements that we can begin to make sense of the dominant discourses of youth work in the twentieth century and can view youth work as a form of informal education (Smith 1988). However, what is of particular significance for us now, is that the scale of change with regard to these dimensions is such that we face a defining moment in the history of youth work in Britain.

The threat posed by the New Labour agenda

Here I want to focus on three key elements of the new Labour agenda: ‘joined up thinking’, surveillance and individualization – and the way I which these are impacting upon informal education in the UK. (These, and other, elements are discussed in more detail in Jeffs and Smith 2001b). Two of the main vehicles for this agenda are the Connexions Service in England and the new community schools in Scotland

State surveillance and control. There has been a long concern with behaviour deemed anti-social or deviant within youth work. As Tony Jeffs has pointed out, this function has granted ‘an enduring raison d’etre for intervention on the grounds that managing anti-social behaviour simultaneously serves the interests of both young people and the “community”’ (2001: 155). Recent English Government papers such as Transforming Youth Work have continued in this tradition: ‘We want to develop young people who add value to their social surroundings rather than subtracting through anti – social behaviour’ (DfEE 2001: 13). However, a very strong concern with surveillance and control runs through the broad strategy for youth that has appeared across the UK – whether this be concerned with schooling, behaviour in public places, or entry into employment. Some of the more obvious examples of increased surveillance include encouraging the use of sophisticated close circuit television systems in shopping malls, attempts at curfews, and the use of welfare workers such as personal advisers within the Connexions Service in England to monitor and record the activities of individuals. Within England there is to be a comprehensive database maintained by the Connexions Service. It has the potential of combining different data streams via elements like the YouthCard, monitoring by personal advisers and others, and even medical records. More covert forms of surveillance have gone almost unnoticed – such as the use of course work for qualification and the monitoring of individual ‘progress’ within schooling. These are what Staples (2000) has termed the ‘mundane practices of surveillance.

‘Joined-up thinking’. Joined-up thinking’ is part of the New Labour mantra and been Government concern with the duplication of, and lack of coordination between, agencies and services has been a significant element in the setting up of the new community schools in Scotland (Smith 1999) and the Connexions Service in England. As Watts (2001) has commented with regard to the Connexions Service in England:

The core of the analysis was the belief that a key cause of the ineffectiveness of current provision was the proliferation of specialist agencies, each dealing with a disconnected part of the young person’s life…Accordingly, there was a widely-held view that the agencies needed to be brought more closely together, and that – as part of this process – there was a strong case for each young person to be linked to a key worker who could form a relationship of trust with them, see their problems as a whole, and ‘broker’ the support of the relevant specialist agencies.

Significantly, we lack hard evidence that ‘joined-up services’ work in this context. It may well be that many partnerships between agencies have not been well planned and ‘suffer from bureaucratic and funding straightjackets which seem to prevent suitable and sensitive partnerships and “joined-up” solutions’ (Coles 2000: 17), but there is some evidence that the Connexions strategy in England, for example, will exacerbate this. It has its own bureaucratic and funding straightjackets (as many agencies within the pilot areas have found). What is more, the notion of ‘joined-up’ services proceeds from a dubious assumption – that young people benefit from dealing with services that share information with one another (see Jeffs and Smith 2001b). While it may make sense to avoid duplication, there is a downside. ‘Joined-up services’ can work to limit the freedom of young people to ‘shop around’. for services. The ‘key worker’ or personal advisor allocated to them may not be competent or appropriate. There is also an issue for those agencies that work on the basis of a ‘fresh start’. They may well not welcome such information. Sadly, they may not be able to avoid making use of it. In addition, when combined with the compilation of comprehensive files on young people, an emphasis on coordinating the efforts of agencies can lead to an depersonalised approach that emphasizes the management of cases rather than working with the young people’s accounts of situations and experiences. (see Jeffs and Smith 2001b).

Individualization. Within government policies there has been a growing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals – we can see this in some of the activities of youth workers within the new community schools, of learning mentors within the Safer Cities Initiative in England and of personal advisers within the Connexions Service. Essentially a form of case management is seen as the dominant way of working. People are identified who are in need of intervention so that they may take up education, training or work. Individual action programmes are devised and implemented. Programmes are then assessed on whether these named individuals return to learning or enter work – rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the process.

The emphasis on surveillance and control, case management, and on individualized ways of working run counter to the key characteristics of youth work that we discussed earlier. There is a shift from voluntary participation to more coercive forms; from association to individualized activity; from education to case management (and not even casework); and from informal to bureaucratic relationships.

moves in youth policy

Unfortunately, in many respects we have brought this upon ourselves – and I want to turn now to a key aspect – the loss of faith in association.

The loss of faith in association

In the early 1990s Konrad Elsdon (1995) and his colleagues undertook a survey of local voluntary organizations in Britain. Two things were striking about their work. First, the sheer scale of involvement. Around 12 million women and men were involved in running 1.3 million bodies – and what is especially interesting here is that these were what we might describe as associations – ‘small democracies’ (1995: 39). Second, Elsdon and his colleagues demonstrated empirically the educative potential of voluntary groups. They comment on:

… the great range of learning, change and satisfaction over and above those which are deliberate, inherent in the organization’s objectives, and expected by their members. The one which was given priority almost universally, and reported as being of greater importance than the content objective of the organization, is quite simply growth in confidence, and its ramifications and secondary effects of self-discovery, freedom in forging relationships and undertaking tasks, belief in oneself and in one’s potential as a human being and an agent, and ability to learn and change both in the context of the organization’s objectives and in others. (1995: 47)

Robert Putnam (2000) has argued that there has been a significant decline in associational activity in the United States since the 1960s. Alongside this has come a growing social distance between neighbours, friends and the extended family. The result, he contends, is a significant decline in social capital – social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity.

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever-deeper social engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (Putnam 2000: 27)

In Britain we do not have a comparable study, but a similar pattern does appear to be in operation. As Michael Young (2001: 28) has suggested, there is likely to have been a similar withdrawal from civic and associational life.

If we turn to youth work this pattern is very clear. There has been a significant decline in the membership of youth organizations by those over the age of 11 since the mid 1970s – and this far exceeds what might be predicted by demographic change. We can identify a range of factors at work here including the rise of the home as a centre for entertainment (through the growth in technological possibility, declining family size and the impact of things like central heating); increased participation in education (meaning that large numbers of young people have the opportunity to meet each other); pressures on young people to complete course work; and the growth of commercial leisure opportunities (Smith 1991). The youth club, like the public house, has declined in significance as a place where people meet and spend time.

One response by youth workers and youth services to this movement was to move to alternative ways of working – in particular detached youth work, issue-based projects and, in Scotland, youth cafes. With numbers attending youth clubs and centres in decline there was a domino effect. It was hard to make the case for dedicated buildings, a struggle to generate sufficient numbers of participants for groups and special activities, and often demoralizing for workers who had nobody to talk to but themselves for much of the time. What was more it was increasingly difficult to find people ready to volunteer to work in local groups. The traditional youth club seemed doomed to extinction. The final blow was delivered by a combination of an increasing interest in issue-based work by practitioners (it seemed to offer a clearer and more ‘professional’ framework for action) and a growing emphasis upon concrete outcomes linked to particular welfare concerns by policymakers. We had witnessed a shift from more convivial and participative forms of organizing (Illich 1974; 1977) to more bureaucratic and supposedly professional forms. By the time Council of Europe researchers arrived in the early 1990s, they could only find a few people around youth work who were familiar with the notion of associational life (Vanandruel et. al. 1995: 273).

Informal education and the social capital and civic participation agenda

One of the striking features of the lack of attention to association is loss of benefits communities and individuals. In recent years these have been charted, most effectively, by Robert Putnam (2000). His central organizing idea is the notion of social capital:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital. (Putnam 2000: 19)

He then marshals an impressive amount of material to demonstrate that:

Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital. Trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity within a child’s family, school, peer group, and larger community have far reaching effects on their opportunities and choices, and hence on their behaviour and development (ibid.: 296-306)

In high social-capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier, and the streets are safer. Traditional neighbourhood “risk factors” such as high poverty and residential mobility are not as significant as most people assume. Places have higher crime rates in large part because people don’t participate in community organizations, don’t supervise younger people, and aren’t linked through networks of friends. (ibid.: 307-318)

A growing body of research suggests that where trust and social networks flourish, individuals, firms, neighbourhoods, and even nations prosper economically. Social capital can help to mitigate the insidious effects of socioeconomic disadvantage. (ibid.: 319-325)

There appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. ‘As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining’ (ibid.: 331). Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness (ibid.: 333).

The World Bank (1999) has also brought together a range of statistics to make the case for the social and economic benefits of social capital. For example they argue that there is evidence that schools are more effective when parents and local citizens are actively involved. ‘Teachers are more committed, students achieve higher test scores, and better use is made of school facilities in those communities where parents and citizens take an active interest in children’s educational well-being’. They also indicate some negative impacts, for example, when disgruntled local elites joined together to close health clinics in Uttar Pradesh. Child mortality rates soared as a result (The World Bank). Gauthier and Furstenberg (2001) found that in those countries where the state invested most in cultural and sporting facilities young people responded by investing more of their own time in such activities. The research literature strongly indicates a positive outcomes from engaging with education, in the broadest sense; structured leisure activities; good social contacts with friends; and participation in the arts, cultural activities and sport. The higher the score relating to each of these the enhanced the overall performance in terms of education and lowered the likelihood of involvement even in low-level delinquency (Larson and Verma 1999). There is really nothing unique in this outcome – for similar engagement amongst older people also produces improved health and well-being (Rowe and Kahn 1998; Putnam 2000).

Robert Putnam’s discussion of social capital provides informal educators with a powerful rationale for their activities – after all the classic working environment for the informal educator is the group, club or organization. These settings are central to the generation of social capital within communties. That is to say they are primary means for . cultivating social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness. His evidence and analysis also provide a stunning case against those who want to target work towards those who present the most significant problems and tie informal educators’ activities to the achievement of specific outcomes in individuals. Several points need underlining here.

First, from the material marshalled by Putnam we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on individual health and well-being. Working so that people may join groups – whether they are organized around enthusiasms and interests, social activity, or economic and political aims – can make a considerable contribution in itself. Encouraging the development of associational life can also make a significant difference to the experience of being in different communities. Here we might highlight the case of schooling. Educational achievement is likely to rise significantly, and the quality of day-to-day interaction is likely to be enhanced by a much greater emphasis on the cultivation of extra-curricula activity involving groups and teams.

Second, informal education’s longstanding concern with association and the quality of life in associations can make a direct and important contribution to the development of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that is usually involved) and the strengthening of democracy. Informal educators interest in dialogue and conversation, and the cultivation of environments in which people can work together, take them to the heart of what is required to strengthen and develop social capital. Their ethical position also demands they attend to the downsides of networks – in particular, the extent to which they are oppressive and narrowing. A focus on tolerance and the acceptance, if not the celebration, of difference is required. There is a place for both bridging and bonding social capital.

Third, there is very strong argument here against those who wish to concentrate the bulk of resources on groups and individuals who present the strongest social problems (currently the received thinking among many policymakers – see, for example, the Connexions strategy in England). If we follow Putnam’s analysis through then we can see that, for example, crime can be reduced, educational achievement enhanced and better health fostered through the strengthening of social capital. Significantly this entails working across communities – and in particular sustaining the commitment and capacities already involved in community organizations and enthusiast groups, and encouraging those on the cusp of being actively involved. The majority of the people we are talking about here cannot be classified as suffering from multiple disadvantage, will not be engaged in criminal activity, and will be (or have been) engaged with education systems and/or the world of work. In other words, open and generic work needs to be afforded a far higher priority – and so-called ‘issue-based’ work needs to be more closely interrogated as to the benefits it brings.

Robert Putnam has done us a great service, and while aspects of his argument will no doubt be disputed over the coming years, his central message is surely true. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric.

Conclusion – reclaiming the club

Josephine Macaliser Brew (1943), in her classic statement of youth work, argued that the ‘club’ was a means by which people could freely identify with one another and gain the skills, disposition and knowledge necessary for citizenship:

The club at its best creates a society of personalities with a community sense, which is the essence of good citizenship… We are not concerned with the making of ‘good club members’ or ‘well-organized youth groups’, but with a much wider issue, the making of good citizens. This can only be done in a society where each member is important, where each one is given a chance to contribute something to the life of the group – the leader no more and no less than the member. It is for this reason that self-government is so important in club work. (Brew 1943: 12)

The use of clubs in this way was not new and had been articulated most notably within the Boys’ Club tradition by Russell and Rigby (1908) and Henriques (1933), and by Pethick (1898) and Brew within the girls and mixed club movement. Brew was prepared to embrace looser organizational forms such as the ‘in and out’ clubs and to engage with ways of organizing which were more of young people’s, rather than leaders’, making. It is to this tradition that we need to appeal today. Here I want to briefly highlight three areas for exploration.

Working with ‘spontaneous’ youth groups. The Albemarle Report is usually associated with the promotion of open youth centres (‘places of association’). However, there was also a recognition in the Report of the significance of spontaneous groups, ‘which may spring up and passionately absorb the energies of their members… and then fade away as the members grow out of them’ (ibid.: 54). Writers like Peter Kuenstler (1955a; 1955b) had charted the potential, and significance, of informal groups of friends and enthusiasts for youth work in the 1950s – and it is something that we need to return to now. Such groups may come into being for a one-off activity, or for a more sustained period of time. Often they do not have a formal structure, but they have other ‘club-like’ qualities. We need to see more time given to the encouragement of such groups – both for the overt benefits they bring in the form of mutual activity, and for the way they can build social capital and add to individual feelings of well-being. Two significant elements here would be the development of funds with a simple application systems to which young people can apply if they want to organize an activity or event; and the availability of informal educators both to encourage activity, provide help with the practicalities of organization and to encourage reflection on the experience.

Organizing around enthusiasms. As Bishop and Hoggett demonstrated some 15 years ago, there is considerable potential in exploring and enhancing mutual aid in leisure. Some groups organized around particular interests such as hobbies, sports, arts and crafts will be spontaneous and short lived, but many become full associations. As such they provide a means by which people can share information and specialist products; undertake collective projects (such as exhibitions); and develop friendships and commitments (Bishop and Hoggett 1986: 33). They are also both a training ground for democratic engagement, and the means by which most of us connect with political systems. For those concerned with young people there are two obvious areas of direct development. The first is the cultivation of interest in different areas – whether it be bird watching, painting or snow-boarding. The second is working with groups of young people to organize around their enthusiasms.

Working for associational space. A further, crucial, dimension of practice must be working to open up associational spaces for young people in existing organizations and groups. This might involve, for example, working with interest and enthusiast groups so that young people are more readily attracted to them, and can find room to develop and express their interests. It will certainly entail exploring and exploiting the potential for organizing around enthusiasms and interests in schools. Associational life in UK schools has taken a considerable battering since the early 1970s. Key elements here have included a declining readiness on the part of teachers to be involved in extra-curricula activities; the grinding requirements of the national curriculum and coursework; the corporatization of schools (with the adoption of business models and frameworks); and specific measures to curtail the involvement of young people in the governance of schools. With the spread of learning mentors within schools, and a renewal of interest, in Scotland at least, in community schooling there are at least some avenues for activity. Research such as that of Putnam (2000) may well provide some motivation on the part of heads. However, real progress will not be made until policymakers can be unhooked from the crude Taylorism that has dominated educational policy for the last decade, and until teachers are given space, and gain the ability, to respond to the needs of those they are working with (Palmer 1998; Horne 2001). Last, but not least, it is important to audit existing youth provision for associational activity and potential. There remains an underlying disposition to treat people as consumers rather than creators (Smith 1981).


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Acknowledgement: Picture, ‘Dragon tail in action at Harrow Youth Club’ is by Goodimages. It was sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Young people, informal education and association’, the informal education homepage,

© Mark K. Smith. First published September 2001.