What is non-formal education?

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 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.

At around the same time there were moves in UNESCO toward lifelong education and notions of ‘the learning society‘ which culminated inLearning to Be. Lifelong learning was to be the ‘master concept’ that should shape educational systems. 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. 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 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).

These were essentially ‘western’ concerns. At the same time a number of socialist countries initiated large programmes for changing the consciousness, skills and organizations of their populations. They typically used many of the forms that we now label as non-formal education:

Specially trained educators (maybe for 4 or 5 weeks) (not teachers) sent out to local villages etc to set up and run programmes and recruit further helpers and group members.

The use of mass media such as radio and television, things like newsheets and comics.

Provision on a mass scale – a whole region or country is targeted.

Sometimes formal, sometimes informal sanctions against those who did not participate.

Many of these programmes apparently met with considerable success. In this respect Russia, Cuba, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua were often quoted as having organised successful mass campaigns – particularly in respect of literacy (Coles 1987: 38).

By the mid 1970s a number of non-socialist countries were beginning to turn to the idea of mass non-formal education. It was clear that there remained a large scale and apparently growing problem of illiteracy. It was also clear that economic and social development depended on bringing about changes in many people’s thinking.

The development process is in fact an educational process, or rather it should unfailingly be viewed as such. We cannot therefore conceive of development in the absence of education any more than education in the absence of development.

How, for example, were people to learn to plant new crops or varieties or to farm in ways that might increase production?

There was a further shift amongst the donor agencies working in the South. Whereas there had been a great emphasis on the provision of plant, and particularly prestigious projects, there was a growing realization that development primarily depended on the people themselves and that much more stress should be placed on improving their quality of life. This called for new approaches to formal education; it also gave considerable impetus to non-formal education, and especially to basic education for those who had been largely neglected – the urban and rural poor. The problem was that these sorts of programmes had not been tried in the market and political conditions associated with Southern capitalist societies.

Contrasts between ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’ programmes

Simkins (1976) analysed non-formal education programme in terms of purposes, timing, content delivery systems and control, and contrasted these with formal educational programmes. The resulting ideal-types provide a useful framework – and bring out the extent to which non-formal education initiatives, while emphasizing flexibility, localness and responsiveness remain located within a curricula form of education (in contrast with those forms driven by conversation).

Ideal-type models of normal and non-formal education






Long-term & generalCredential-based

Short-term & specificNon-credential-based


long cycle / preparatory / full-time

short cycle / recurrent / part-time


standardized / input centredacademic

entry requirements determine clientele

individualized / output centredpractical

clientele determine entry requirements

delivery system

institution-based, isolated from environment.rigidly structured, teacher-centred and resource intensive

environment-based, community related.flexible, learner-centred and resource saving


external / hierarchical

self-governing / democratic


(Adapted by Fordham 1993 from Simkins 1977: 12-15)

‘Top down and bottom up’

One of the enduring themes in the literature of non-formal education, according to Fordham (1993), has been that the education provided should be in the interests of the learners and that the organization and curriculum planning should preferably be undertaken by the learners themselves: that it should be `bottom up’. It is also often argued that this should empower learners to understand and if necessary change the social structure around them. Fordham (1993) continues: ‘Examples where there is a genuine sense of ownership are not easy to find; and almost all have an element of community outreach as part of the general organization’.

informal education - formal education continuum

On the other hand examples of top-down non-formal programmes are all too common. Almost all employer-led and State provided training falls into this category. This can be seen as paralleling the distinctions that Jeffs and Smith (1990, 1999) make between formal and informal education via curriculum. In this way formal education would broadly approximate to top-down curriculum formation (c); non-formal to bottom-up or negotiated curriculum formation (b); and informal education would arguably be a non-curriculum or conversational form (a).

Pointers to the success of non-formal programmes

As Graham-Brown has argued in respect of literacy programmes there are a number of dimensions that have proved to be crucial to effectiveness:

Training and motivation of literacy workers.

The quality and relevance of materials.

The reinforcements of literacy.

It is clear from the studies of literacy campaigns that both the commitment and skills of literacy promoters are very important. Enthusiasm is not enough. It is not that straightforward to facilitate learner participation in dialogue and discussion. Certain skills are needed to put across ideas and so on. Many of the literacy workers are young (mostly between 18 and 25 in the successful Botswana campaign). This meant that they need not be automatically accepted or appreciated. In some campaigns there has been a considerable effort to try to recruit older workers and those who are known and held in good regard in a locality. In many campaigns workers are paid, and the job accords them some status (although not necessarily accreditation or certification). Where volunteers are recruited, for example in the Kenyan initiative, and who live in the local communities, the main incentive is often the hope that this might lead to a full time job.

There has also been an emphasis on developing appropriate materials. Most of the various national literacy campaigns have had some central unit which developed materials etc for the workers etc. to use. To this must be added things like the production of regular radio programmes to support initiatives. However, this is both expensive and sophisticated and it is not proved that easy, for example, to update and change materials quite as has been needed.

Then as Graham-Brown suggests, once people achieve basic literacy, whatever its precise form, the process creates further demands for post-literacy education, whether to ‘catch up’ on missed formal education, or to develop organizational or practical skills. At this point things can become quite expensive and complex. The demands are now more sophisticated.

To these specific questions must be added some further problems. To begin with, given that initiatives involve voluntary participation – how are people to be attracted on sufficient scale. This is much less of a problem in systems where there is large scale schooling some legal basis for attendance. The successful campaign in Botswana, for example, touched about 20 per cent of the population – it still left quite a few people illiterate.

In addition, unless the school system is discredited for some political reason, a lower valuation tends to be put on non-formal education, especially for young people. They do not hold the same status (they are local and not special) and often do not lead to accreditation.

In conclusion

The notion of non-formal education has been a significant feature of policy debates around education in southern countries for three decades. It has drawn attention to the importance and potential of education, learning and training that takes place outside recognized educational institutions. There are questions about usefulness of the notion when looking at the process of education. It has also gone in and out of fashion. Fordham (1993) comments that if we try to correlate the flourishing of non-formal education and political change then the 1970s can certainly be described as the decade of non-formal education . Similarly the 1980s saw the neglect of non-formal education and Fordham suggests that this was in tune with the politics of the decade, accompanied by greater inequalities both within and between countries. Given the extent to which notions of lifelong learning and associated ideas have gained ground in recent years it will be interesting to see how the language of policy debates will change over the next few years.

Source: Infed