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Geographies of Education, Volunteering and the Lifecourse: The Woodcraft Folk in Britain (1925-75)


DOI: 10.1177/1474474014536855

Mills, Sarah. “Geographies of Education, Volunteering and the Lifecourse: The Woodcraft Folk in Britain (1925-75).” cultural geographies (2014): 1-17.

p.2: This article extends the current scholarly focus within the geographies of education and the geographies of children, youth and families through an original examination of the Woodcraft Folk – a British youth organization founded in 1925 that aimed to create a world built on equality, friendship and peace. This article illustrates how voluntary uniformed youth organizations had a much wider spatial remit and more complex institutional geographies than have been hitherto acknowledged, with their active involvement in the training of adults (namely parents and volunteers) as well as the education of children and young people. Drawing on archival research and a range of sources, the article explores the Woodcraft Folk’s philosophies and political activities across its first 50 years, and in doing so, makes two central academic contributions to the discipline. First, the article provides a timely focus on training and its analytical purchase for geographers as part of a growing body of work on the geographies of education. Second, the article shows how geographers can account for both children and adults’ geographies in institutional spaces, in this case through mapping out the enlivened historical geographies of voluntarism across the lifecourse. This article demonstrates the complex and often fluid relationship between formal and informal education, as well as the important connections between parenting and volunteering. Overall, the article reflects on the subsequent challenges and opportunities for researchers concerned with debates on education, youth and volunteering within geography and beyond. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

"The specific business of woodcraft is educational"

'Shada’, Woodcraft Folk Elder, 1935

p.3: At the 10-year anniversary of the fledgling Woodcraft Folk – a British youth organization – ‘Shada’ rebuffed comments from other committee members that its purpose was political by stressing that education was its primary objective. The Woodcraft Folk still exists today in the United Kingdom, positioning itself as a space of informal education for 6–20-year-olds that is committed to issues of social justice, pacifism and the principles of cooperation, attributes that have distinguished it from other uniformed youth movements since its formation by Leslie Paul in 1925. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.3: First, the article provides a timely focus on ‘training’ and its analytical purchase for geographers through an original examination of the relationship between formal and informal learning spaces. Although this article draws upon historical data from 1925–75, I contend that the need to consider training is vitally important in understanding a range of historical and contemporary sites and settings. A variety of schemes and organizations (for adults and young people) purport that their remit is training, rather than education. Training suggests a particular type of learning: often skills-based, staged, repeated, refined, observed, assessed and perhaps most significantly, is often re-learned – in some cases, after a long period of time and usually with varied age dynamics. It suggests perceived sets of knowledge that are seen to be needed by either young people and/or adults for various vocations or activities, including – as this article shows – training ‘for life’ and ‘the future’. Training, across a variety of spaces, therefore poses questions about the very definitions and nature of work, education, care and everyday life. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.4: The second academic contribution of this article is therefore in demonstrating how geographers can account for both children and adults’ geographies in institutional spaces, in this case through mapping out the enlivened historical geographies of voluntarism across the lifecourse. This article contends that British youth movements such as the Woodcraft Folk trained and enfolded people of all ages into their activities: children, parents and adult volunteers. Furthermore, I show how this institutional space was ‘accomplished’ through familial and community-based ideologies and structures, bringing together work and synergies between the geographies of voluntarism and the geographies of parenting that have been marginalized in the literature thus far. The article makes a specific argument about the complex dynamics of age within this institutional space, in particular surrounding youth volunteering, and therefore attends to Hopkins and Pain’s call for geographers to move away from the ‘social-chronological margins’ and towards more relational geographies of age that tease out some inter-generational connections – in this case between families, folk ‘elders’, adult volunteers and young people. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.4: One question this article poses is what might a focus on training – as a specific type of pedagogical process – give researchers, or challenge them to consider, in relation to debates on education and learning? -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.4: There have been a few important but relatively isolated studies of training by geographers in terms of neoliberal work transitions and re-entry to the labour market, as well as research on wider economic and gendered geographies of skills-based training and ‘lifelong’ learning. These studies are increasingly relevant as the politics of workfare continue to intensify; for example, the recent furore over the UK government’s training programme for jobseekers where unpaid work was pitched as ‘experience’, ‘volunteering’ and ‘on-the-job training’. Here, I show that a geographical approach could be useful in furthering our understanding of diverse training spaces for adults and young people, beyond workfare contexts. In this study, I argue that as a youth organization in civil society, the Woodcraft Folk operated as an ‘in-between’ space of training (after Philo et al.) with a complex and sometimes contradictory position on its educational philosophies and practices. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.5: Christine Milligan’s mapping of the geographies of voluntarism in 2007 captured social and economic research on volunteering and the voluntary sector. Since then, the field has steadily grown; for example, through important studies on global youth volunteering and the relationship between volunteering, higher education and employment. This present article is partly inspired by Fiona Smith et al.’s impassioned call for ‘enlivened’ geographies of volunteering that ‘considers voluntary action as a set of situated, emotional and embodied practices’. Whereas Smith et al. discuss contemporary volunteering practices across different social and welfare settings, here I present an enlivened historical geography of voluntarism. Historians of volunteering and social action have usefully traced the role of the voluntary sector in civil society and wider processes of state formation, but this article brings an important focus on the training of volunteers over time, in this case as part of a youth organization, to illustrate the central role adult volunteers played in the production, maintenance and negotiation of such spaces. Furthermore, the article highlights some unique approaches to age by the Woodcraft Folk through open notions of ‘youth’ volunteering that highlight the complex boundaries between childhood and adulthood. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.6: the article’s central argument is that the Folk was not only designed to attract and educate (train) children, but also embraced adults and parents into its wider pedagogical practices. Elsewhere, I have argued that ‘youth movements utilise and prioritise the liminal period of youth as a critical and necessary stage in the lifecourse in which to harness and secure an individual’s (future) potential and political capital for their cause(s)’. However, here I wish to extend this argument by demonstrating that these spaces also positioned adults as in need of learning and created parallel training systems for adults as unpaid volunteers, as well as extending their moral compass into commentaries on, and instructions for, parents. Here, I draw upon ideas of the lifecourse to analyse the dynamic ways in which the Woodcraft Folk thought about age – for example, how training classes for adult volunteers were completed by some young teenagers, and how the organization considered the most effective adult volunteers to be young ‘at heart’ or ‘in spirit’. In valuing a sense of youthfulness, I argue that the Folk continued to draw on a series of idealized constructions of childhood as desired attributes in their responsible adult leaders. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.6: The Woodcraft Folk was founded by a young person. Leslie Paul was 20 years old when he started the radical youth organization in 1925 and, as ‘Little Otter’, would shape the movement in its formative years. He described that the organization, ‘first considered an eccentricity of importance only to my adolescent self, has become an important national auxiliary’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.6: Leslie Paul’s original vision was to create a world built on equality, friendship and peace, describing the Folk as standing for ‘world peace and co-operation, camping and handicrafts, mental and physical fitness’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: After the Second World War, there were some ‘organizers’ employed on sporadic and unstable contracts to coordinate national youth work, but these were isolated and instead it was through the energy of volunteers and young people that Leslie Paul began to coordinate what he termed a ‘powerful educational instrument’that grew from 70 young people in 1925 to 14,780 by 1975. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: Most British youth movements constructed their archetypal ‘young citizen’ and translated a cluster of moral geographies around duty, nationhood and gender into a weekly, adult-led adventurous programme of activities for young people – the most popular being the uniformed Boy Scout and Girl Guide Movements. The Folk, whilst having radically different political, religious and gender-based ideologies to scouting or guiding – as both secular and co-educational – still embedded ideas of youth training, progress and development as part of their rationale and overarching philosophy. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: However, more broadly, there was an overarching directional leaning towards future adulthood. For example, the organization often referred to their members as ‘citizens of tomorrow’ and upon joining a local group, a young person made a declaration ‘1) to camp out and keep fit in mind and body 2) to work for world peace and co-operation 3) to understand the mysteries of nature and the history of the world, that when I am older I may take my place as an intelligent and useful member of mankind [sic]’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: Not only does this image position young people at a crossroads that they have to ‘arrive’ and progress to somewhere, but that they must make a decision to follow either the path to citizenship or the murky alternative of ‘sloth, greed and indifference’ off the beaten track. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: The Folk also positioned itself as an urgent and necessary space or stage in the lifecourse itself, stating that it could act ‘before the repressions of child life under capitalism have been intensified by industry and commerce into which children plunge after school, before it is too late’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.9: Folk were not radical in their content – a quick look at some of the overtly political overtones in their badge programme, here seen on a membership record card from 1948 for ‘Wild Cat’ – a 10-year-old from Northern England – shows not only popular activities of athletics and crafting, but tellingly, knowledge about political theory and trade unions:

‘Pioneer (folk knowledge), Supple Limb (high jump), Hiker (map reading), Backwoodsmanship, Lonecrafter, Festival Craft, Citizen, Athlete (gymnastics) Helper (master of festival, propagandist, research worker), Social History (struggles for political freedom, comparative current political theory, exploration, agrarian revolution, local history)’

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.9: Indeed, the very fact they had badges during this period – one of the most popular elements of scouting and guiding – suggests the organization still felt they needed these formal tactile rewards for achieving proficient levels of aptitude and skill. This can be illustrated by the criteria for the early ‘World Citizen’ badge that included ‘draw a fairly accurate sketch map of the world from memory’ and ‘write a short essay explaining the objects and work of the League of Nations’ -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.10: At a national level, there were also calls for parents to get involved and negotiate school-based events. For example, in the run-up to Empire Day in 1933 – a popular day of imperial vigour and celebration – Folk helpers across Britain were told that ‘Groups are asked to organize abstention of Pioneers from school on Empire Day ... demand, through parents, that a Peace Day be held in schools instead of vulgar Empire Celebrations’. There is a sense here in which parents were seen as a ‘go-between’ for the Folk, able to move and mediate between school, home, and the Folk meeting place. In this respect, we can see how the programme the Folk provided outside the timespaces of school was not detached or removed from formal learning spaces. The Folk also included parents in its wider educational and social activism, ‘demanding’ in 1930 that alongside ‘sweeping’ educational reforms, such as the raising of the school leaving age, children should be protected from ‘economic and social evils’ that included ‘incapable parents’. Whilst lobbying for a series of reforms in relation to formal, informal and alternative educational spaces, the Folk also advocated that ‘motherhood’ was protected and endowed. This perhaps reflects the organization’s own valued relationship with maternal symbolism; for example, the prominence of ‘mother nature’ in its programme. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.10: It is therefore important to recognize the significance of families within the Folk’s ideology that operated in practice through a series of inter-generational voluntary time-spaces. Kraftl has recently highlighted the role of intra and intergenerational relationships in contemporary (alternative) educational settings. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.13: Overall, the discussion in this article has illustrated that training was at the heart of the Folk’s activities – whether for children, young people or adults. Indeed, the Folk’s business as a youth organization was not just political, but as Shada stressed in that early committee meeting, educational. Clearly though, the two objectives were intertwined in an approach by the organization to train youth for a politically just life. It is important to highlight ‘the political’ here in terms of training and debates on neoliberalism. Throughout the article, examples of tensions between the ideology and practice of the Woodcraft Folk have been presented, some of which can be understood in terms of internal struggles over the organization’s identity and connections to ‘radical’ politics while at the same time striving to be popular and utilize more conventional educational ideas. The very notion of ‘training’ has important political dimensions that whilst often benign, can also be deeply troubling. In a contemporary context, there is great scope to research the relationship between youth organizations and informal education in the context of neoliberal agendas and diverse articulations of ‘the political’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.14: What this present article has illustrated is that notions of qualifications in the voluntary sector are not new and that diplomas, courses, training events and assessed performances were part and parcel of the volunteering culture within certainly this (and anecdotally other) youth organizations in the early to mid-20th century. The need for geographers and other researchers to interrogate the connections between education, volunteering and civil society is pressing. Volunteers have been positioned as a panacea to address the gaps the state has left through funding withdrawals in a range of historical and contemporary contexts. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014