Theory and Practice of Work with Young People

‘The group constituted an open air society, a communal gathering which had great importance socially, culturally and economically. ——— During each nightly meeting the young worker, once fully integrated, listened, questioned, argued and received unawares an informal education..’ (Roberts in Smith, 1998:24).
Describing his experience of street groups in the early part of the 20th century, Roberts uses the term ‘informal education’ to describe the accidental learning that took place as a direct result of the interaction between young working men. But can what we call ‘informal education’ in the 21st century be described as accidental? Mark Smith argues that whilst:
‘Learning may at first seem to be incidental it is not necessarily accidental; actions are taken with some purpose. The specific goal may not be clear at any one time – yet the process is deliberate.’ (Smith, 1994:63).

Throughout this assignment I shall be exploring the term ‘informal education’, examining its origins and meanings, its purpose and practice. Using historical information to examine the early roots of present day youth work, I shall asking whether anything has really changed in the past 150 years by exploring the issues that I face in my day to day practice as a youth and community worker.
In 1755 Jean Jacques Rousseau published his work ‘A Discourse on Inequality’ and argued that as civilisations grew, they corrupted:
‘Mans natural happiness and freedom by creating artificial inequalities of wealth, power and social privilege’ (Smith, 2001,
In 1801 Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi published How Gertrude Teaches Her Children.
Like Rousseau, Pestalozzi was concerned with social justice and he sought to work with those he considered to be adversely affected by social conditions, seeing in education an opportunity for improvement. (Smith, 2001). In the first half of the 20th century John Dewey published three books that built on the earlier work of educationalists like Rousseau and Pestalozzi. These works heavily influenced the development of informal education as we know it today since they:
‘Included a concern with democracy and community; with cultivating reflection and thinking; with attending to experience and the environment.’
(Smith, 2001,
In 1946 Josephine Macalister Brew’s book Informal Education: Adventures and Reflections, brought informal education into the realm of youth work. This was followed in 1966 by The Social Education of the Adolescent by Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson. Since then there have been numerous works on the subject of informal education, most notably, in relation to youth work, those of Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith.
So what exactly is informal education? Like many terms in use today, it is widely used to describe an enormous variety of settings and activities. In 1960 the Albermarle Report used it to describe youth work provision as:
‘The continued social and informal education of young people in terms most likely to bring them to maturity’. (in Smith, 1988:124).
Houle (1980) favoured the experiential definition of informal education describing it as ‘education that occurs as a result of direct participation in the events of life’ (In Smith, 1988:130), whilst Mark Smith said ‘one way of thinking about informal education is as the informed use of the everyday in order to enable learning’ (Smith, 1988:130).
In 2001 Smith went further, describing informal education that:
‘* works through and is driven by conversation
* involves exploring and enlarging experience
* can take place in any setting’
(Smith, 2001,
And of its purpose:
‘At one level, the purpose of informal education is no different to any other form of education. In one situation we may focus on, say, healthy eating, in another family relationships. However, running through all this is a concern to build the sorts of communities and relationships in which people can be happy and fulfilled.’ (Smith, 2001,
Whilst I would agree with Mark Smiths definition of informal education there is and has been an enormous diversity of opinions, theories and explanations of exactly what sort of community we need for people to be happy and fulfilled. Smith’s assertion that the role of informal educators is to work towards all people being able to share a ‘common life’ with an emphasis on:
‘Work for the well-being of all, respect the unique value and dignity of each human being, dialogue, equality and justice, democracy and the active involvement of people in the issues that affect their lives’ (Smith, 2001,
involves a commitment to anti-oppressive practice that is expounded in much of the literature surrounding the field of informal education. But this has not always been the case and can we hand on heart honestly lay claim to practicing liberating education in our work today?
Whilst Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Dewey all identified structural inequalities and believed that ‘education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform’ (Dewey in Smith, 2001, the application of their theories were not always applied to the work of those who first began providing services for young people. Indeed early ventures into the field of youth work are often seen as controlling not liberating and as overtly oppressive instead of anti-oppressive.
‘The early youth service history in both England and Wales has been described – as a time when work with young people was characterised by both appalling social and employment conditions and by rapid social and political change caused by the development of an industrialised urban society’ (Jones & Rose, 2001:27)
It is within this context that intervention by middle class societies and organisations in the 1800’s was seen to be necessary in order to rescue, control and/or rehabilitate young, working class people. Concern over the working conditions of children and young people brought into being an array of groups, clubs and educational services and policies designed to rescue and protect young people from the worst excesses of employment practices and the failure of working class parents to provide a suitable and controlled home life.
‘Working class adolescents were thought to be most likely to display delinquent and rebellious characteristics – because it was widely assumed that working class parents exercised inadequate control over brutal adolescent instincts’ (Humphries 1981 in Smith, 1988:9)
This moral underclass discourse lays the blame for social inequalities, poverty and disaffection solely on the shoulders of the working class themselves because:
‘The problems faced are then seen not so much as structural but as personal. The central deficit is often portrayed as emotional or moral’ (Smith, 1988:56).
And it also suggests that:
‘Their behaviour, without coercion and control, will mean that they will remain unable to join the included majority’ (Payne, 2001: handout)
By the end of the 19th century, compulsory education and a growing number of welfare statutes meant that youth workers focus shifted from welfare and rescue to a concern with the moral character of young people which was underpinned by the growing influence of Victorian family ideology.
‘The Victorian middle class had very definite ideas about the ideal family and the desirability of imposing such an ideal upon the whole of society.’ (Finnegan, 1999:129)
This was:
‘Not just a family ideology but also a gender ideology. It was a careful and deliberate attempt to reorganise the relations between the sexes according to middle-class ways and values and then define the outcome as somehow being natural’ (Smith, 1988:4)
Thompson says of this view:
‘To describe, for example, the traditional male role of breadwinner as ‘natural’ adds a false, pseudo-biological air of legitimacy.’ (Thomspon, 2001:28)
This was at a time when the ‘discovery’ of adolescence by Hall and Slaughter and a biologically determined explanation of human behaviour meant that:
‘Those who saw it as their duty or job to intervene in the lives of young people, now had a suitable vocabulary of scientific terms with which to carry forward their intentions’ (Smith, 1988:9)
The Biological determination of human behaviour further justified differentiated gender roles within the family as well as creating an:
‘Ideology of adolescence marked out (by) a biologically determined norm of youthful behaviour and appearance which was white/anglo, middle class, heterosexual, able bodied male’ (Griffin, 1993:18)
However, just as family ideology was a driving force in determining social relations at the beginning of the twentieth century; it is just as powerful here in the twenty-first.
Roche & Tucker say that:
‘It is through the use of the representations (discursive messages and images) contained within ‘family ideology’ that social policies and educational and welfare arrangements are constructed and maintained.’ (Roche & Tucker 2001:94)
Gittins agreed:
‘Family ideology has been a vital means – the vital means – of holding together and legitimising the existing social, economic, political and gender systems.’ (Gittins in Roche & Tucker 2001:94)
This is significant if Driver and Martell are correct in asserting that present day ‘Labour increasingly favours conditional, morally prescriptive, conservative and individual communitarianisms’ (Driver & Martell, 1997:27) which Etzioni believed would right the social problems of today that are attributable to the ‘failure of people to exercise social and moral responsibility’ (Etzioni in Henderson & Salmon, 1988:22). Etzioni emphasised the role of the traditional nuclear family in inculcating in children the right moral standards and he described communitarianism saying:
‘Communitarians – call for a peer marriage of two parents committed to one another and their children’ (Etzioni in Henderson & Salmon, 1988:22)
Like the Victorians, present day government can be seen as equally keen to legislate into being their ideology of the nuclear family through the use of stricter divorce laws and punitive measures imposed on single parents. The decision to cut lone parent premiums from income support and child benefit in 1998 are examples of a willingness to impose their ideology on society as a whole despite the fact that what they are proposing as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ is not bourn out statistically.
‘The ideological norm of the nuclear family is often presented as if it were a statistical norm whereas, in fact, only 23% of households follow the nuclear family pattern of biological parents with their dependent children.’ (Thompson, 2001:28)
Michael Anderson also points out that despite the belief that the traditional family has only recently become fragmented, marital break up was a regular feature of 19th century Britain and is not peculiar to the 20th century. Comparing marital dissolution caused by death in 1826 and by death and divorce in 1980, Anderson concluded that:
‘The problem of marital break-up is not then new – (it) was clearly, statistically, an equally or even more serious problem’ (Anderson in Drake, 1994:73)
However, this desire and determination to bring about a particular kind of society influenced by a set of morals and ideals is reminiscent of Mark Smiths definition of the purpose of informal education as:
‘A concern to build the sorts of communities and relationships in which people can be happy and fulfilled.’ (Smith, 2001,
The only real difference lies in the definition of what makes for community fulfilment and happiness. Smith says that informal education:
‘Involves setting out with the intention of fostering learning. It entails influencing the environment and is based on a commitment to certain values..’ (Smith, 1999:19).
It would not be difficult to describe the efforts of the middle class in the 19th century in such a way although with our 21st century eyes we now believe we can read the intended control and oppression of working class communities behind their ideals.
But in the 21st century are we actually doing much better? If our suspicions concerning the intentionality behind the actions of Victorian middle class youth workers are correct, can we say our own intentionality is any purer?
If intentionality can be understood as power as defined by Bertrand Russell when he says that power is the ‘production of intended effects’ (in Jeffs & Smith, 1990:5), we could be accused of wielding power in order to create the sorts of communities and relationships in which people can be happy and fulfilled’ (Smith, 2001,, according to our own philosophies, beliefs and current hegemonic principles, in much the same way that we accuse the middle class philanthropists of the 19th century. Is the ability to wield power to effect change in the lives of others conducive with a practice that has at its heart a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice which:
‘Means recognising power imbalances and working towards the promotion of change to redress the balance of power’ (Dalrympole & Burke, 2000:15).
As professional workers we can also be considered middle class? All of which begs the question, have we more in common with our predecessors than we like to think?
It is certainly possible that they too thought they were operating with the same ‘moral authority’ that Jeffs & Smith describe as part of an informal educators role in:
‘Being seen by others as people with integrity, wisdom and an understanding of right and wrong’ (Jeffs & Smith, 1999:85)
Especially in their desire to provide a ‘strong guiding influence to lead them (young people) onward and upward socially and morally’ (Sweatman, 1863 in Smith, 1988:12).
No doubt they would also have agreed with Kerry Young’s description of youth work as supporting ‘young people’s moral deliberations and learning’ (Young in Banks, 1999:89).
But early youth workers cannot be described as concerned with equality and anti-oppressive practice. On the contrary, their work was:
‘Contained within particular class, gender, racial and age structures: a woman’s place was in the home, to be British was to be best, betters were to be honoured and youth had to earn its advancement and wait its turn’ (Smith, 1988:19)
This made life extremely difficult for anyone who did not fit the stereotypical image of British youth. Tolerance and respect for other races and religious systems was not a feature of informal education and, for example, the estimated 100,000 Jewish immigrants that arrived in Britain between 1840 and 1914 had great difficulty:
‘Maintaining a distinctive culture in a climate of oppression and restriction – (coupled with) pressures – to acculturate to middle-class norms’ (Pryce, 2001:82)
So what of my practice, of my intentionality? Do I operate from a moral underclass ideology that blames homeless young people for their situation or do I work from a redistributive discourse that sees the issue of poverty as central to the exclusion these young people experience? Can what I do in my day to day practice be termed informal education? Am I concerned with oppression and anti-oppressive practice?
Much of what I and Nightstop as an agency do in our work involves enabling young people to live within a system that is discriminatory, unfair and biased towards a particular form of family ideology that suggests that young people should remain dependent on their parents until financially independent or aged 25 which means that they are entitled to lower rates of benefit. Even those young people who work find themselves living on lower wages than their older colleagues. Christine Griffin argued that the discovery of adolescence:
‘Emerged primarily as a consequence of changes in class relations as expanding capitalist economies demanded a cheap and youthful labour force’ (Griffin in Roche & Tucker, 2001:18)
Even today the notion that young people deserve less pay than their elders finds voice in the policies of the minimum wage which offers no restriction on wages for 16/17 year olds and a lower rate for those aged 18-22.
Our continued involvement in teaching them to budget their reduced incomes could easily be described as an expression of an ideology that believes that it is the lack of skills these young people have that cause them difficulties in surviving the benefit and pay systems rather than a belief in the failure of the systems to provide adequate means of survival. And if this was all that we do we could not be described as informal educators if part of the formulae for informal education involves:
‘Equality and justice, democracy and the active involvement of people in the issues that affect their lives’ (Smith, 2001,
However, whilst enabling young people to develop the skills necessary to live independently we also encourage them to question the inequalities they face and the ideologies underpinning them. By engaging young people in conversation, which Jeffs and Smith say is ‘central to our work as informal educators’ (Jeffs & Smith, 1999:21), and asking ‘is that fair’ and ‘why do you think that is’ we encourage them to question things they take for granted as normal and natural and involve them in what Freire described as ‘problem-posing’ education which encourages people to critically examine the world so they may:
‘Perceive the reality of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform’ (Freire, 1993:31).
I do not believe the same can be said for the work of early youth workers and much of the work they undertook can be understood as designed to maintain the status quo, to silence the witnesses to oppressive regimes and to control the masses that were beginning to organise themselves via the emergence of trade unions. Emile Durkheim described this type of education as ‘simply the means by which society prepares, in its children, the essential conditions of its own existence’ (Giddens, 1972:203), which can be understood as a form of social control.
` The process which enforces values and maintains order is termed social control`
(Hoghughi, 1983 in Hart, 2001,
Again the question arises, as informal educators in the 21st century are we doing much better? Sean Hart believes we may not.
Social control within a context of community work may be regarded as a process of continuity. Indeed much community work, especially that of those with right wing political ideology, involves self-help and making the best of what you have. Thus, it could be argued that this kind of work reinforces the current hegemony and deflects from attempts to challenge the oppression it creates.
(Hart, 2001,
The difficulty in this for my work is that the young people with whom I work must learn to make the best of what they have and the daily grind of finding enough to eat means that they have little energy left for dismantling oppressive regimes.
As Friere said:
‘One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings consciousness’ (Freire, 1993:33).
And as they struggle with meeting their most basic of needs I sometimes find it difficult to justify my continuing commitment to educate them about inequality when their overwhelming deprivation is viewed from my comfortable, middle class life style. The inescapable ethical dilemma is very clear since their need pays for and justifies my existence as the manager of Nightstop. As Mark Smith says the welfare professions:
‘Provide a rich source of desirable jobs – for members of elite and middle class groups where such groups can enjoy varying degrees of power, privilege and freedom in their work’ (Smith, 1988:58).
And I certainly do have power, not only within my own organisation but within local government departments who actively seek my input on the development of services for homeless young people. But in order to ensure that I do not ‘help to maintain the system which supports (me)’ (Smith, 1988:58) I now encourage those systems to interact directly with the young people for whom services are being designed at the same time as encouraging young people themselves to play an active part in service development by helping them develop their social intelligence. This can be described as:
‘An understanding of social rules which govern our interactions and an ability to follow or manipulate these to achieve our ends.’ (Graham in Hunter, 2001:75).
and although this means that I favour David Clarks model of community ‘as a collection of social systems and of individuals in community as affected by different systems’ (Hunter, 2001:20) and of community development as ‘opening systems up to each other’ (Hunter, 2001:112) this does not fit with Freire’s view that:
‘The solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves’ (Freire, 1996:55).
However, I also believe that young people themselves have the ability to transform the structure by virtue of their active involvement within it since I do not see young people as incapable of making a vital and valuable contribution to their communities. In this I seek to avoid the accusation that I have a ‘lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want and to know’ (Freire, 1996:42).
The same cannot be said of the youth workers in the early 20th century who felt it necessary to improve young people but without the welfare and rescue focus found it necessary to have other ways of encouraging young people to attend. This was resolved in so far as young people were to be attracted by leisure opportunities whilst support from the ruling classes could be enlisted via the aims of moral improvement so close to their heart. Baden-Powell’s identification of citizenship as an answer to problematic youth in 1907 enabled him to offer up scouting and its emphasis on:
‘Observation and deduction, chivalry, patriotism, self-sacrifice, personal hygiene, saving life, self-reliance, etc’ (Jeal, 1995:382)
Claiming this would produce a new generation of young people who would fit more closely the ideals sought. In other words he described his practice in terms likely to fit the dominant ideology of the day in order to secure the support he needed to continue the work. Again reminiscent of today since:
‘Attempts to attract changing sources of funding have usually been accompanied by promises to elicit from young people whatever behaviour was required by the particular funding body’ (Young in Banks, 1999:78).
I encounter the dilemma between the needs of my organisation for funding and the desire to end the stereotypical classification of homeless young people on a regular basis as I am frequently required to describe homeless young people in terms that are labelling and oppressive in order to meet the criteria and therefore the ideology of funders which suggests that young people should be capable of independent adult life but whose efforts are actually ‘ consistently thwarted by (their) relegation to the status of a dependent underclass’ (Henderson & Salmon, 1988:30).
The new youth service of 1900s found that:
‘While clubs have exploited the need for recreation among working class adolescents, and combined this with their being vehicles for a conservative ideology, they did not necessarily attract large numbers’ (White early 1900’s in Smith, 1988:14).
Concern with the numbers of young people attending youth provision is no less today than it was then. The continued need of sponsors, whether statutory or voluntary, for statistical information concerning the use of facilities and opportunities, means that we are ever pushed towards quantifying our work for evaluation purposes instead of concentrating on the quality of provision. Mark Smith says that:
‘Part of the reason for the failure to attract working class young people lies in the tension between social provision and improving aims’ (Smith, 1988:14)
and although he was describing the dilemmas of early youth workers I believe this is also present today. If informal education has purpose then it cannot be anything other than improving, even Jeffs and Smith say that informal education works to the ‘betterment of individuals, groups and communities’ (Jeffs & Smith, 1999:83).
And if we are not honest and open about our improving aims, can young people be said to be participating voluntarily from a position of informed consent?
The need to ‘improve’ and ‘socialise’ young people has continued to be a recurring theme throughout the 20th century within government policy. The Education Act of 1918 gave Local Education Authorities the power to spend money on the ‘social training of young people’ (Smith, 1988:34). Circular 1486, In the Service of Youth (Board of Education, 1939) which said that youth services should have ‘an equal status with other educational services’ (Nicholls, 1997:8) talked of the disruption the ’14-20 age group had suffered in its physical and social development’ (Smith, 1988:34).
Circular 1516, The Challenge of Youth said the aim of an LEA should be to ‘develop the whole personality of individual boys and girls to enable them to take their place as full members of a free community’ (Nicholls, 1997:9) whilst Circular 1577 (Board of Education 1941) required young people to register with their LEA and ‘be interviewed and advised as to how they might spend their leisure time’ (Smith, 1988:35).
In 1960 the Albermarle Report portrayed ‘the main job of youth work as being to help young people to become ‘healthy’ adults’ (Smith, 1988:49) although Mark Smith argues that the ‘second element of Albemarles vision for the youth service (was) the containment and control of troublesome youth’ (Smith, 1988:71). In 1966 the Home Office Children’s Department began planning: ‘Community Development Projects – to aid work preventing family breakdown and juvenile delinquency’ (Nicholls, 1997:20) which effectively takes us back 100 years.
Informal education since then has taken on many guises, from concern about dwindling numbers of young people attending provision, to a growing awareness that there are young people who do not attend at all, the ‘unattached’ youth. However it is the continuing response to a problematic discourse that has characterised the series of moral panics about young people that has in the past and continues today to shape youth work.
Although a growing political awareness of the needs of young people who have been marginalised and excluded by society because of their race, gender, disability, sexuality and class etc., led to targeted work that was and is ‘issue based’, youth work has, throughout the past 150 years, maintained its associational character (Smith, 2001). However, recent work has begun to concentrate more on the individual than the ‘social groupwork’ (Smith, 2002, Smith says is fundamental to informal education.
The linking of the youth service to the Connexions Strategy with its emphasis on surveillance, control and containment, coupled with an individual, case work emphasis will mean that:
‘The concern with conversation, experience and democracy normally associated with informal education is pushed to the background’
(Smith, 2002,
Working to state led objectives and targets that are fed by a communitarianist ideology that focuses on the family mean that what informal educators do in the twenty-first century does not differ greatly from the work undertaken in the 19th and the assumption that adults have a right to intervene in the lives of young people, from a variety of hidden agendas and purposes continues unchallenged. In 1944 Paneth asked:
‘Have we been intruders, disturbing an otherwise happy community, or is it only the bourgeois in us, coming face to face with his opponents, who minds and wants to change them because he feels threatened? Or do they need help from outside? (Paneth, 1944 in Smith, 1988:37).

The post Theory and Practice of Work with Young People appeared first on Academic Pals.

Ask your questions to our best writers for quality and timely essay answers. Learn smartly and seek help from our solution library that grooms your concepts with over 150 courses.

From essays to dissertations, we have experts for all your writing needs!