"A club is neither a series of individuals... nor is a club a club leader. A club is a community engaged in the task of educating itself."

camdenutd.JPG (11407 bytes)The setting for much of our work as informal educators is a special kind of group. For example, we may be working in church or community groups, or in enthusiast or interest groups. The latter may be in schools and colleges or free standing. They could be focused around sports, the arts, or enthusiasms such as gardening or computing. There are several things about such groups that make them good sites for education - and can help to build democratic communities.

First, these groups usually have an associational structure. That is to say, institutions such as churches, tenants groups, village halls and enthusiast groups h ave elected officers and committees. They also have other ways of giving space so members can have a say. Such local groups are also often part of a national organization or movement. As such they allow people to come together to influence larger political processes. Local groups are the means through which most of us engage with the traditional political arena. By encouraging people to become involved in the running of such groups, we help them to enter organized politics; to engage in public life.

Second, such groups usually involve a commitment to others. They carry within them some valuing of co-operation, and some readiness to help other members. When we join a fishing club or church, for example, we are admitting that our own pleasure or well-being depends on our acting with others. For this to happen, as we saw above, there has to be some commitment. Further, such readiness to work with, and help others usually goes beyond the initial or immediate focus of the group. If someone is ill or is going through a 'difficult time' then there may be some expectation among members that they should help.

Third, many groups are mutual aid organizations. They involve people joining together to produce goods and services for their own enjoyment and use. Relationships are informed by ideas of 'give and take'. Groups may range from swimming clubs to bee-keeping societies and stamp collecting circles; from farming or allotment associations to basketball teams. While an enthusiasm or interest may provide a focus for activity, such groups are far from being wholly concerned with 'doing things'. Much of the reason for their success is that they also fulfil social needs.

Last, and linked to the above, such groups help provide a sense of belonging and identity as well as a setting to meet and make friends with people. In saying who or what we are we often make reference to the groups to which we belong. Even the routine activities of such groups, e.g. around c atering, meetings and finance, provide us with ways of shaping our world.

The Albemarle Report on association

The power of association has also been understood within youth work – but not made a priority in practice. Perhaps the best known example comes from way back in 1960. Then, the Albemarle Report famously declared that the primary aims of the youth service should be association, training and challenge. The Report had the following to say about association:

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.... Basically the group should provide ideals as well as activities and a w arm and friendly atmosphere in which a young person can feel wanted and understood.

b) An opportunity for counsel... Only too rarely do young people feel enough confidence in an older people and more experienced person to seek advice… We believe the good youth group should try to cater for these needs…

c) An opportunity for self-determination… We value very highly the active participation of the young and their own leadership of groups which they bring into existence themselves.

Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales ('The Albemarle Report'), London: HMSO, pages 36 - 41 and 52 - 64.

Sadly, this aspect of the Report was neglected. Instead services focused on provision for young p eople rather than with or by them.

Struggling with the ups and downs of associational life can be time consuming and wearing. It is easy to see it as chore rather than an opportunity. As Josephine Macalister Brew once said: 'A club is neither a series of individuals... nor is a club a club leader. A club is a community engaged in the task of educating itself'. Our task as educators is to work alongside people so that they may learn and organize things for themselves. This is a major challenge for many of us. Coming to terms with informal education involves containing the impulse to always be the provider. There will be times when we do put on special activities and groups. For much of the time, though, our central concern should be to work with others so that they may organize and take responsibility.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 18, 1999. Last update: October 18, 1999