Non-formal education became part of the international discourse on education policy

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Within policy debates a common differentiation has been made between different forms of provision. Informal, non-formal, and formal programmes have been viewed as very different. Here we explore this categorization and some of the forms of work that exist under the non-formal label in southern countries.

Non-formal education became part of the international discourse on education policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It can be seen as related to the concepts of recurrent and lifelong learning. Tight (1996: 68) suggests that whereas the latter concepts have to do with the extension of education and learning throughout life, non-formal education is about ‘acknowledging the importance of education, learning and training which takes place outside recognized educational institutions’. Fordham (1993) suggests that in the 1970s, four characteristics came be associated with non-formal education:

  • Relevance to the needs of disadvantaged groups.
  • Concern with specific categories of person.
  • A focus on clearly defined purposes.
  • Flexibility in organization and methods.

In many northern countries the notion of non-formal education is not common in internal policy debates – preferred alternatives being community education and community learning, informal education and social pedagogy.

The idea of non-formal education

As Fordham (1993) relates, in 1967 at an international conference in Williamsburg¬† USA, ideas were set out for what was to become a widely read analysis of the growing ‘world educational crisis’ (Coombs 1968). There was concern about unsuitable curricula; a realization that educational growth and economic growth were not necessarily in step, and that jobs did not emerge directly as a result of educational inputs. Many countries were finding it difficult (politically or economically) to pay for the expansion of formal education.

The conclusion was that formal educational systems had adapted too slowly to the socio-economic changes around them and that they were held back not only by their own conservatism, but also by the inertia of societies themselves. If we also accept that educational policy making tends to follow rather than lead other social trends, then it followed that change would have to come not merely from within formal schooling, but from the wider society and from other sectors within it. It was from this point of departure that planners and economists in the World Bank began to make a distinction between informal, non-formal and formal education. (Fordham 1993: 2)

At around the same time there were moves in UNESCO toward lifelong education and notions of ‘the learning society’ which culminated in Learning to Be (‘The Faure Report’, UNESCO 1972). Lifelong learning was to be the ‘master concept’ that should shape educational systems (UNESCO 1972:182). What emerged was an influential tripartite categorization of learning systems. It’s best known statement comes from the work of Combs with Prosser and Ahmed (1973):

Formal education: the hierarchically structured, chronologically graded ‘education system’, running from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialised programmes and institutions for full-time technical and professional training.Informal education: the truly lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment – from family and neighbours, from work and play, from the market place, the library and the mass media.

Non-formal education: any organised educational activity outside the established formal system – whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity – that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives.

The distinction made is largely administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations; and informal covers what is left, e.g. interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. (See, for example, Coombs and Ahmed 1974). The problem with this is that people often organize educational events as part of their everyday experience and so the lines blur rapidly. As Fordham (1993) comments, these definitions do not imply hard and fast categories. In particular, there may well be some overlap (and confusion) between the informal and the non-formal.

Just how helpful a focus on administrative setting or institutional sponsorship is a matter of some debate. Once we recognize that a considerable amount of education happens beyond the school wall it may be that a simple division between formal and informal education will suffice. It has certainly been the argument of Jeffs and Smith (1990) that the notion of non-formal education has limited use when thinking about process.

So why the term’s currency?

Just because something does not make sense in terms of process, does not mean an idea doesn’t retain its currency. It has been a convenient way of talking about funding rather than the actual process. As Graham-Brown (1991: 64) says, dividing formal education from out of school education or so-called non-formal education is artificial in many ways. But in some countries, this division reflects the gulf between government provision through the school system, on the one hand, and the needs and interests of marginal populations who are most alienated from the system on the other.

The range of initiatives and programmes that have adopted the title ‘non-formal’ are many and various. They include literacy and basic education for adults and young people, political and trade union education, ‘catching-up’ programmes for school drop outs, pre-school education for young children, political and trade union education and various kinds of educational work linked with development initiatives including agricultural extension and training programmes and health education. They also shade over into various examples of both state and private vocational training programmes. The McGivney and Murray (1992) collection Adult Education in Development gives a good feel of the sorts of initiatives this might include. They look particularly at health education, literacy, rural development and the role of women in development. However, it can be confusing to use terms like adult education in the context of Southern education – given the age distribution of populations and the large numbers of young people involved in non-formal programmes.

What is also apparent from the literature is that it was politically useful to use a term like non-formal education. As Shukla (1985) has argued by the mid 1960s it was becoming clear that an education system based around schooling could not be sustained because of the sheer cost to already fragile economies. A search for ‘new’ techniques was therefore on. Second, within the north it was becoming clear that the school was only one amongst many potential educative elements. Concepts such as ‘the learning society’ were gaining some currency. Third, there was the impact of movements such as that of deschooling (after Illich).

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