Catch Up, Keep Up, Get Ahead

Book Cover

Philip Coombs is often associated with having coined the term ‘non-formal education’ in his widely read analysis of the ‘World Educational Crisis’ which he published in 1968, following the UNESCO International Conference on the World Crisis in Education held in 1967 in Williamsburg, Virginia, United States.

While Colley, Hodkinson and Malcom have pointed out in their 2003 research report «Informality and Formality in Learning» that the term may have been used in a Unesco report already in 1947 (at least Hamadache claimed so in 1991 without a clear reference), it is certainly true that Coombs delivered the first substantial and comprehensive description of non-formal education – and also the first plead to substantially strengthen non-formal education in the Western World, as you can see on the back side of his 1968 book:

Back Cover

Having said this, let’s consider — just for a brief moment — the history of education in a slightly longer perspective in the words of Helen Colley and her colleagues:

Non-formal education has its roots in practices which considerably pre-date state elementar education.

(Colley, Hodkinson and Malcom (2003): Informality and Formality in Learning. Lifelong Learning Institute, Leeds. Page 18).

“Learning has been non-formal to begin with.”

In other words: Learning has, for the majority of human history, been informal and non-formal to begin with; the word education comes from the Latin educare meaning “to raise”, “to bring up”, “to train”. Obligatory schooling in formal education institutions is a concept which can be traced back to merely the 18th century and has gained decisive momentum with the industrial revolution and the arising need to train many people quickly. So let’s not forget that context when looking back at 1968!

(Btw: The first country to introduce formal and obligatory education was Liechtenstein. They introduced it at national level in 1805.)

Philip H Coombs

Philip Hall Coombs died in February 2006, but his works on education remain provocative, challenging and relevant to date. Before you finally go on to read one of his writings, the historic chapter

«Nonformal Education: To Catch Up, Keep Up, and Get Ahead»

of his book ‘The World Educational Crisis: A Systems Perspective’, let’s just stick for another brief moment with the historical context of his thinking. At the time, the feeling grew that education was failing everywhere in the world – formal education systems did not prepare people for life-long learning in the Western world, and provided no quick solution to the problem of illiteracy in the developing world either.

The following quote of Coombs makes this clear:

The assumption is that the educational system will produce the kinds and amounts of human resources required for the economy’s growth, and that the economy will in fact make good use of these resources. But suppose the opposite happens? Suppose the educational system turns out the wrong ’mix’ of manpower? Or suppose it turns out the right mix, but the economy does not use it well? What then? Doubts then arise about education’s productivity and the efficacy of the investment made in it.

(Coombs, Philip (1968): The World Educational Crisis: A Systems Perspective. University Press, Oxford. Quoted in: UNESCO (1996): 50 years for Education. Unesco, Paris. Page 64)

And Coombs was not alone with his questions and concerns: Others like Ivan Illich also voiced fundamental criticism:

Book Cover

Many students (…) intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.

(Illich, Ivan (1973): Deschooling Society. Penguin, Harmondsworth. Quoted in: Smith, M. K. (2001): Ivan Illich: deschooling, conviviality and the possibilities for informal education and lifelong learning. The encyclopedia of informal education.)

So it was in this phase of fundamental criticism and the hopeful belief that non-formal education would turn out to be a solution for many of schooling’s problems, that Philip Coombs wrote his book, of which we present you an excerpt of his chapter on non-formal education (The text is original but re-typed and any typos are exclusively mine. The quotes are ours to illustrate the text and make it more readable on screen):

Nonformal Education: To Catch Up, Keep Up, and Get Ahead

“A bewildering assortment of activities.”

Up to this point we have made only occasional reference to that bewildering assortment of nonformal education and training activities that constitute — or should constitute — an important complement to formal education in any nation’s total education effort. These activities go by different names — ‘adult education,’ ‘continuing education,’ ‘on-the-job training,’ ‘accelerated training,’ ‘farmer or worker training,’ and ‘extension services.’ They touch the lives of many people and, when well aimed, have a high potential for contributing quickly and substantially to individual and national development. They can also contribute much to cultural enrichment and to individual self-realization.

“A shadowy other system of education.”

There is, therefore, a wide general agreement that this shadowy ‘other system’ of education is important and warrants greater attention. Yet one gathers from the scanty evidence that the many bold words about the matter have seldom been matched by equally bold deeds. One evident reason for this is that in contrast to the relative neatness and coherence of the formal education system, Nonformal educational activities are an untidy mélange that defies simple description, or the diagnosis and measurement of systematic planning. Few nations have even a moderately good inventory of their present activities in this realm, much less an assessment of future needs and how best to meet them.

“Undefined clientele, unclear aims…”

The aims of these activities are often unclear, their clienteles undefined, and responsibility for their management and funding scattered across dozens of public and private agencies. They spring up spontaneously, come and go, at times succeed brilliantly but just as often die unnoticed and unmourned. Nobody in particular is in charge of monitoring them, of keeping their evolving pattern in over-all perspective, of identifying gaps that need filling and projecting future requirements, or of suggesting priorities and better ways of harmonizing them and boosting their efficiency and effectiveness.

“A beclouded matter?”

The matter is further beclouded if one fails to distinguish clearly between the needs for nonformal education of the more industrialized countries and those of the less advanced ones.

“The basis of life-long learning!”

The industrialized countries of Europe and North America have increasingly come to recognize that formal education — to whatever level — must be followed by appropriate forms of ‘continuing education’ throughout each person’s life. Life-long education is essential in a rapidly progressing and changing society for three primary reasons: (1) to ensure the employment mobility of individuals, and to make unemployable ‘drop-outs’ of the past employable; (2) to keep already well-trained people abreast of new knowledge and technologies essential to their continued high productivity in their respective fields; and (3) to improve the quality and satisfaction of individual lives through culturally enriching their expanding leisure time. In this perspective, the continuing education of teachers, at all levels, is of special strategic significance; if they fail to keep up with the frontiers of knowledge they will be giving yesterday’s education to tomorrow’s citizens.

“An astonishing network.”

In response to these several requirements, there has evolved very rapidly in most industrialized countries an astonishing network of ‘continuing education’ programs. It is entirely possible that in some countries (e.g. the United States and the Soviet Union) the aggregate of economic resources and human energies already committed to these part-time programs approaches the total involved in full-time formal education.

“At least three informal educational systems.”

The full truth of the matter here is unknown, but an effort by Professor Harold Clark of Columbia University to take stock of the situation in the United States led to some startling conclusions. He found that, in addition to the ‘formal’ education system, there were at least three ‘informal’ educational systems, largely hidden from view but extensively engaged in teaching many of the same things. One was run by private business, a second by the military establishment, and the third embraced a motley assortment of educational activities sponsored by private voluntary organizations.

“The full truth of the matter is unknown.”

Some giant industrial firms, as nearly as Professor Clark could calculate (the accounting records are never clear on these matters), were spending about as much on the high-level training of their employees and customers as the instructional budgets of some of the nation’s largest universities — often on the very same subjects. He found also that the amount of ‘Sunday school’ space in the churches of some communities equalled the classroom space of local public schools. An incidental discovery he made was that private yacht clubs were giving the same navigation courses as the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and that their students often did better than the future naval officers in the same examinations. The military services, on the other hand, were providing such good civilian technical training to military personnel that they were rapidly losing them to private employers.

“In-service learning and military training.”

Much the same phenomenon has occurred in Western Europe, though not yet to the same extent as in the United States. The accomplishments of the Scandinavian countries in the field of adult education have been noteworthy. The French government has lately given increased attention to special training and retraining programs for adults. Adult education in the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom, largely through private auspices, has taken on new life since 1945. Industrial firms throughout Europe are stepping up their in-service training and career development programs (though apparently too slowly to keep pace with their needs). The military services are training computer programmers, electronics technicians, and the like, who end up in civilian jobs.

“U.S.S.R. has gone much further.”

The U.S.S.R. and other socialist countries of Europe have all along attached high importance to ‘continuing education’ and have made impressive strides in pursuit of it. They appear to have gone farther than most Western nations in breaking down the artificial barriers that have perpetuated for too long an unwholesome separation between formal and nonformal education. As a result, there is a continuing dialogue in the socialist countries between the universities and technical schools, the industries they serve, and the pioneers of industrial research. Two questions are central to the dialogue: (1) the adequacy of the existing educational programs, and how they might be improved, and (2) what new types of manpower will be needed for new types of technologies still on the horizon, and hence what innovations are needed now in educational programs in order to meet these new needs. Beyond this, the educational systems in these countries have forged an unusually close relationship between work and study. Thus about half the students enrolled in university engineering programs in the Soviet Union are part-time students with regular jobs. They do much of their learning by correspondence, and more recently by television as well, along with periodic study periods at the university. There are numerous opportunities for an able and ambitious worker in the Soviet Union to advance himself by ‘going back to school,’ without heavy personal sacrifice. University professors, in turn, are obliged, and given time off, to keep pace with relevant new developments in their own fields, such as computer programming, in order to keep their research capabilities from growing obsolete. Other professionals, such as doctors, are obliged and enabled to keep pace with new knowledge and techniques in their respective fields.

“Evident need, strong motivation.”

This proliferation of shadow systems of education will surely continue apace in the industrialized countries. The need is evident, the motivation is strong, and the resources can be found. Besides keeping people up to date, these more flexible programs are compensating for the deficiencies of the formal educational system which stem from its failure to adapt rapidly enough to changing needs.

All this underscores the importance of evolving a more coherent view of the ‘nonformal educational system’ to facilitate a more effective co-ordination of its many parts with each other and with formal education.

“Fundamental redefinition of formal education.”

The same conditions that created the need for ‘continuing education’ in these countries have also made necessary a fundamental redefinition of the role of formal education. In this new context of rapid change, the prime role of formal education — as we have several times stressed — must be to ‘teach people to learn for themselves’ so that they can later absorb new knowledge and skills efficiently on their own. Even the greatest universities cannot hope to turn out ‘educated’ people — in the sense that the have ‘completed’ their education. Their aim and hope must be to turn out educable people, well prepared for a life of learning — which is a quite different matter.

Alone the last paragraph of this chapter is worth the effort to re-type this all. Don’t you ask yourself like I do: Why is this statement still so true – and yet seemingly unheard – almost 40 years after it was written?!





2 responses to “Catch Up, Keep Up, Get Ahead”

  1. Athanasios (Sakis) Krezios Avatar

    Hey Andreas,

    it’s been incredible to have me re-discovering this article after some years!

    I’ve been reading chapters of the Coombs’ quoted book (after I bought it for 1 USD!) for the last two years and of course I repeatedly go back to read the Chapter of all Chapters! :)

    Needless to speak about Ivan Illich’s work “Deschooling society”; a masterpiece. Re-reading is (constantly) required. Not least for his very sophisticated vocabulary (btw, 1 USD also!)

    I updated my Here2Stay publication ( on the occasion of its printing (limited copies though, few monies) and more and more I am thinking of where should I go towards to after that; articles like this one, illuminate my way. Thank you.

    By the way, this link: doesn’t work and if it does, then it’ll be great!

    And wowwwwwww! The UNESCO report of 1947 available! I am reading it now; the “find” function of AAR is not spotting any term like non-formal, non formal or nonformal. Need to go on the harsh way!

    Keep the fire burning !


  2. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Hiya Sakis,

    Thanks for spotting the faulty link, it is corrected in the article and should be – a remaining hiccup owed to the recent update, no doubt!

    I have never found the reference to anything nonformal in the 1947 Unesco Report as alluded to by Hamadache, but haven’t read the whole thing in full yet. Curious to see whether you do…

    If you have a print copy of Here2Stay, drop one in the mail for me will ya?