To many in the sector, education is what takes place in a classroom. It follows regular hours and is carried out in accordance with clear structures and guidelines.
But for thousands of people across Scotland, learning happens in an entirely different setting. It is not organised by their local school, college or university but by members of their community or a voluntary organisation.
It is flexible, can be tailored to their needs, and in many cases combines working for the community, volunteering, gaining life-skills and engaging with education.
This is community learning and development or CLD for short - what used to be covered by the catch-all phrase "community education".
It has often been perceived as the Cinderella service in education provision, its value often going unrecognised and its funding vulnerable to cutbacks.
But the Scottish government has now given it an explicit role in the delivery of its ambitious post-16 agenda. And new guidance, published in June, makes it clear that "CLD is an essential means of delivering Scottish government priorities, in particular Curriculum for Excellence, Girfec (Getting It Right for Every Child) and the government's social policy frameworks for combating poverty, tackling health inequalities and prioritising early years".
As Scotland faces its biggest youth unemployment crisis of recent history, combined with severe public sector budget cuts, the government is pinning high hopes on the innovative projects that come under the CLD umbrella to keep hundreds of people engaged with learning.
These are as diverse as adult literacy and numeracy classes, the national No Knives, Better Lives campaign against knife crime, 16+ Activity Agreements to help young people (particularly the most vulnerable) make the transition into work or further education and training, Youth Bank Scotland in which young people lead community improvements and receive accredited training opportunities, and South Ayrshire's Positive Attitudes to Alcohol Project, set up as a response to young people's alcohol misuse, which sees S6 pupils trained in team-building and leadership skills, alcohol awareness, confidence, child protection issues and classroom management.
But many projects are much more small-scale and it is the fragmented nature of the sector and the vast spectrum of issues and audiences it covers that contributes to the lack of knowledge about CLD in the education world. This is not helped by the fact that the majority of projects have prevention as their aim, which means that results are difficult to measure and publicise.
Recently, however, the government has been training its spotlight on CLD.
Last year's Putting Learners at the Centre policy paper for post-16 education made a commitment to developing a CLD strategy that would focus on widening access, help people take the first steps towards employment and improve their life chances overall; it also confirmed CLD's role in 16+ Activity Agreements. The purpose of the most recent government guidance was to renew the government's "commitment to community learning and development".
Much of it may have sounded familiar to those involved in CLD, and echoes the commitments and the definitions of the then Scottish Executive's 2004 Working and learning together to build stronger communities (Walt) strategy, which defined community learning and development, as well as its purposes and priorities.
The new guidance lays particular stress on the role of community planning partnerships in developing CLD opportunities to ensure that they are embedded across services. So why was it necessary to update it?
Professor Lynn Tett of the University of Edinburgh's School of Education says one reason could be a realisation that many are still not aware of what CLD is, partly due to the wide range of activity it covers.
Community planning partnerships have not been equally effective across the whole country, and provision has been "a bit patchy". There was also a desire to "put communities much more at the centre of this", she says.
And at a time of significant cuts in local government budgets, there was also a fear it could be "difficult to give this kind of area priority".
"One of the reasons for the guidance was to make sure local authorities were aware of how it related to the overall outcomes and to explain in a bit more detail what CLD could do," she adds.
The concerns about CLD's vulnerability seem justified. North Lanarkshire Council is considering making overall savings of pound;1.675 million over the next three years by "downsizing the level of CLD resources currently available to provide the breadth and range of learning programmes and related activities", according to council papers published last month.
"Going forward, service delivery will be required to be further focused on services directed towards the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities, while continuing to address the national CLD standards and principles of early intervention and community empowerment," the report states. It suggests savings of 50 FTE staff in CLD could be made. As local authorities try to make ends meet across their service provision, it is likely this picture will be replicated elsewhere.
Indeed, the new government guidance itself makes reference to the new financial pressures the system is faced with. Its three objectives, it states, are to "align the system more purposefully with our ambitions for jobs and growth; to improve people's life changes; and to ensure the sustainability to our system in a time of inescapable pressures on public spending".
As local authorities face difficult decisions on where to direct their resources, the guidance stresses they will be expected to "provide clear leadership and direction, and to drive the action needed to ensure we maximise the contribution of CLD partners in the reform of public services".
Howard Sercombe, professor of community education at the University of Strathclyde, stresses the variability of service across Scotland: "Local authority provision for young people, community capacity building and adult education is uneven and patchy, and in some places, negligent.
"There is also a tacit acknowledgement that CPPs (community planning partnerships between councils, the voluntary and private sectors given a statutory basis in the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003) generally have failed to consistently include grassroots constituents and the voluntary sector. They have been great for local authority managers and bringing together representatives from statutory bodies, but local people and the third sector have been excluded."
He says the updated guidance will have a positive impact and demonstrate "a shift from the understanding of CLD in Walt as a `way of working' that `anyone could do' to recognising the requirement for a professional core which supports and integrates volunteer and community effort, as well as community based CLD-like intervention by health, school, police and emergency services".
This is reinforced by official recognition in the guidance of the Standards Council - an organisation similar to the General Teaching Council for Scotland which manages the processes of professional registration for the CLD sector - while the recognition of pre-service training and CPD as an issue adds to that picture, Professor Sercombe says.
The guidance creates greater capacity for central government to audit and challenge delivery against local government service outcome agreements, and it "corrects a range of conceptual problems in Walt and actual problems in its implementation", he adds.
The work of Education Scotland with regards to CLD will also change as a result of the new guidance. Currently, it is responsible for inspecting CLD providers, up-skilling the CLD workforce, raising awareness, and working to improve practice.
It will now pilot new approaches for learning community inspections, including updated draft quality indicators, says Maureen Gore, assistant director with responsibility for CLD.
"We will be taking a closer look at the impact of approaches to prevention, such as family learning, in addition to partnership working and workforce development. The inspection will include a focused look at how well services in the area are working together. We will also evaluate how well the school works with others to make a difference to all learners," she adds.
Other changes include a "structuring and planning of all of our support activities to fit with the strategic guidance, rather than focusing on the three previous organisers for CLD, which were adult learning, youth work and community capacity building. This should result in a more coherent approach across the sector," Mrs Gore adds.
But will the guidance in fact be enough to protect, streamline and strengthen CLD practice in Scotland? Professor Tett says many practitioners had hoped it would go further by setting delivery targets for local authorities to make CLD less of an easy target for cuts.
She suggests legislative measures may be necessary to "properly embed" the guidance.
Professor Sercombe agrees, arguing local authorities are still not sufficiently accountable for making sure that young people and vulnerable populations are provided for.
"This might come through in the legislation, but the government has not yet shown any appetite for intervening when whole divisions of service have been shut down," he tells TESS.
Jim Sweeney, chief executive of YouthLink Scotland, welcomes the CLD strategic guidance, as well as Education Scotland's pilot inspections, which he feels should "offer some insight into how well the guidance is being recognised and included in practice".
He adds, however: "It is currently too early to judge how much of it has penetrated into the thinking of local authorities and the planning of other agencies. To be effective, the guidance will need to be embraced and its message will have to be translated into concrete actions for youth work, adult learning and community development activities at both a strategic and a local level."
Barry Fisher, director of the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards in Scotland, agrees: "The guidance is a high-level document. What we look forward to is the youth work strategy coming out in the new year, and which hopefully will take account of the guidance."
National organisations continue to be concerned about the focus within the guidance on community planning partnerships as a delivery mechanism. CPPs are operated on a local level, which can lead to inconsistent approaches, says Mr Fisher.
Much is riding on the success of the government's CLD strategy - that much is agreed. YouthLink Scotland estimates that Scottish voluntary youth work organisations support 300,000 people across the country, while a workforce survey by the now-defunct research organisation, Lifelong Learning UK, in 2010 counted 9,460 individuals, including paid staff and volunteers, involved in the delivery of CLD in Scotland.
"It seems to me that CLD is education for and by communities," Professor Tett tells TESS. Its strengths are "its effectiveness, its impact and its value for money. The sort of funding that goes into CLD is minute, but it does have a big impact."
In 2007, as part of her own research, 600 adults involved in literacy and numeracy programmes across more than 100 institutions were interviewed and the results demonstrated the connection between the involvement of adult learners in CLD programmes and growth in their self-confidence. After engaging in the programmes, learners went out more regularly, became clearer about what they wanted to do with their lives and gained confidence. Many also went on into further study.
If CLD is indeed the Cinderella service of education, this may well be the moment for its fairy godmother to appear.
100+ - The number of youth work organisations in Scotland supported by YouthLink.
4,328 - The total number of paid staff in Scotland. (Source: 2010 workforce survey by Lifelong Learning UK)
300,000 - The number of young people supported by Scottish voluntary youth work organisations.
(Source: YouthLink Scotland)
90,000+ - The number of youth work opportunities provided by local authority CLD services in Scotland in 2007.
(Source: Scottish government lifelong learning directorate-learning connections)
`THIS IS FOR LEARNERS OF ALL AGES'
One of the weaknesses in the community learning and development sector has been that many of its courses have been unaccredited and therefore seen as lacking value.
However, in an attempt to redress this, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is currently helping a number of CLD providers to get their provision recognised officially.
Over the next three years, a total of 30 organisations could benefit from the government-funded scheme, and 10 projects from across Scotland have already been accepted.
Applicants have to show their projects are outcome-based, last a minimum of 10 hours, can be formally assessed and quality-assured and that learning is non-formal and defined by the learner's own aspirations. They also have to prove enrolment is voluntary.
Following a round of applications earlier this year, 10 projects from across Scotland were chosen, including ones run by the Scottish Community Mediation Centre, the Volunteer Centre Edinburgh and Children 1st.
These organisations will now receive SCQF credit rating training, receive help in establishing quality procedures, and SCQF staff will hold one-to- one support meetings with their staff at their own centre.
They can then make submissions for credit rating, with SCQF supporting the organisations in providing the information required by the relevant bodies.
Ryan Reed, project officer at the SCQF Partnership, says that one of its key aims is to support access to appropriate education and training for learners of all ages and circumstances.
"Often learning in the community, sometimes in a more informal environment, is more appropriate for learners," he says. "Therefore, by having this type of provision recognised on the SCQF, it ensures that there is a wider choice of credit-rated learning provision being offered in that context.
"CLD organisations have found it difficult to engage with the SCQF in the past due to either a lack of staff capacity or funding to have programmes credit rated on to the framework."
The government funding will now enable them to get involved and receive support.
`YOUTHS LEARN IN DIFFERENT WAYS'
YouthLink Scotland, the national agency for youth work, has launched a new resource that demonstrates the many ways in which youth work can help deliver Curriculum for Excellence.
The booklet has been produced by the agency, with the Scottish government and Education Scotland.
Thirteen case studies from across Scotland are featured in Building Capacities through Youth Work, which is aimed at young people, teachers, youth workers, parents and employers.
"This document highlights that all youth work activity contributes to Curriculum for Excellence by providing young people with the experiences and opportunity to fulfil their full potential as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors," says Jim Sweeney, chief executive of YouthLink Scotland.
Aileen Campbell, the minister for children and young people, adds: "Young people learn in different ways and can flourish in diverse learning situations. This publication is an excellent example of how the youth work sector can support learning under Curriculum for Excellence by bringing schools, youth services, colleges and the voluntary sector together."
One of the projects included in the brochure is the Positive Alternatives programme in East Dunbartonshire, which combines engaging youngsters with the CfE focus on health and well-being with helping them to gain accredited awards.
The project is funded by the Big Lottery Fund for five years and delivered by youth workers. Over that period it aims to support almost 600 young people, including young offenders, care leavers and young people with additional support needs.
Youngsters receive information about sexual health and relationship issues, substance misuse, mental and emotional health while working towards awards like the John Muir Award, REHIS food hygiene, and HSE First Aid.
Original headline: Strategy aims to bring education's Cinderella service in from the cold