Informal education the sleeping giant wakes

The Community and Youth Workers’ Union (CYWU) has become over the last eighteen months the biggest provider of in service training in the youth and community sector. This transformation of a trade union to expand its training role has reflected the impact of the government’s new lifelong learning policies which have encouraged employers and employees to re dedicate themselves to promoting the learning culture in and out of work and beyond the classroom. In our case it also reflects a fascinating dilemma in England which the new Learning and Skills Act gives a basis for resolving. On the spectrum of learning from formal to informal, informal learning has been the most neglected by governments. The Act could change this once and for all.

Our education system has been stereotyped as residing in schools, colleges and universities and as something delivered through the formal mechanisms of teaching, lecturing and research. In fact the strength of our system has been that it includes this tangible infrastructure of learning, alongside a massive, diverse and vibrant community learning sector. This has encompassed adult education, play work, youth and community services and community development and education. The fact that we are politically a sleeping, patient giant is another matter.

Our sector is not a Cinderalla in educational terms. It has been seen as a slightly odd C stream that refuses to wear a uniform, or a casually dressed professional colleague in trainers to refer difficult cases to. In fact our sector has pioneered education techniques that improve formal learning, active citizenship, co-operative values, anti discrimination and communication skills.

A number of factors contribute towards the huge popularity of community based learning. These factors have been put in place politically and professionally over the century from the grass roots up. They can be assessed on one of education’s most important websites Our success relates to key factors like the relationship between the learner and educator is voluntary, learners chose to be involved. This fundamentally alters the dynamic of teaching and learning. It also explains the popularity of our sector and the fact that many more people are involved in its diverse activities and programmes than in the formal sector. Our learning is negotiated and person and process related. Its curriculum emerges from its local setting. There are no grades and exams; there is a deep commitment to equality of opportunity. There is a wide range of subject areas determined by the learner. It could be drugs awareness, it could be political education and empowerment.

All very seventies you might say. But the truth is the skills of JNC qualified youth and community workers have never been in greater demand by such a wide range of organisations in such a range of contexts. Hard-nosed employers know young recruits need self-esteem and communication skills. There is no national school curriculum for this outside of the youth service in which youth workers develop these capacities in young people every day. Neighbourhood renewal strategists and local authorities know they need articulate community organisations and civic leaders to work with on the new economic regeneration and social inclusion plans. Group work and community organisation are at the centre of JNC training. Childcare planners know that children need more than child minding after school and increasingly look to the sophisticated and successful methods of play workers in boosting learning in the early years.

The biggest challenge therefore to the new Learning and Skills Councils will be the extent to which their Board members can engage community educators and their millions of learners in a truly comprehensive education system in which there is parity of esteem between the play worker and the professor, the plumber and the philosophy course. Lifelong Learning means provision from the cradle to the grave evenly and without funding favours.

The ‘animateur’ of the child, or the sensitive community worker working with pensioners, both draw on a seam of educational approaches which represent the advance of the extension of educational entitlement more than simply comprehensive schools. In taking on this challenge outcome driven skill sharpening, so easy to assess in funding bids, should become more balanced against the bid that urges intense group work intervention through detached youth workers on the streets. The tyranny of tick box competences that often conveys the illusion of learning, will have to give way to a restored sense amongst the business plan authors that the appropriate word of encouragement, maybe said in a joke on a residential event by a learning mentor, could transform the life of a teenager more than hours of structured advice across a desk.

For too long in our culture those excluded from formal education have chosen to learn through youth and community organisations yet been ignored by the funders. Indeed, the Youth Service is the only part of the education service not to have received any new government money since 1997 and it suffers under the Act. Yet people keep coming back and JNC qualification courses are increasing in number every month. Formal education institutions, particularly schools, have been subject to new policy initiatives almost daily for two decades. By contrast our sector has remained very stable, very solid, in great demand and delivering value added education. For every pound put in at least eight pounds worth of volunteering is generated for example. Engage this sector, learn from it, fund us coherently, ensure professional parity and the new Act will really achieve something.

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