Creating a Profession in Fits and Starts

By Charlie McConnell

In 1977, I became a community development educator teaching at a higher education institute (later absorbed by the University) in Dundee, a city on the East Coast of Scotland, which, this year, plays host to the World Community Development Conference. Scotland was the place to be. The Labour government had just published a report on the need for the professional training of community education practitioners and local authorities were creating community work jobs by the hundreds following the reorganization of municipal government across the country. Additionally, the non-governmental sector was employing dozens of community development-type posts, funded in large part by the government’s Urban Program established in 1968 (copied from the American War on Poverty). A small country of barely five million was taking community development and community education ideas to its heart.

I became a lecturer in the Department of Community Education and Social Work, having had a work background in both. With the government’s professional training report to guide us, over twelve months we designed new undergraduate and postgraduate programs. The former provided access for mature students who had prior experience as community activists. The postgraduate course was for applicants with a degree and, in some cases, another professional qualification as well as some proven community action experience. Around 30% of the course involved practice-based placements in grassroots agencies supervised by experienced development workers. I was keen we designed programs that would provide students, who had a passion to help disadvantaged communities, with an understanding of the structural causes of poverty and inequality, as well as practical toolkits for interventions as community organizers and educators, with what might now be called a “head, hands and heart” approach.

That same year my first book, The Community Worker as Politiciser of the Deprived, was published. It was influenced by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, as well as the growing canon of community development/ education literature primarily coming out of America and Britain. My book focused upon the politicizing role community workers could play working in poor, urban communities. In doing so, I wanted to point out that this was a different role of that of the political activist, and needed to be informed by professional ethics, knowledge, and skills.

Since the early 1970’s, the British National Institute of Social Work, the Routledge/Association of Community Workers book series, the Community Development Journal, the British government’s twelve action research Community Development Projects (CDPs), and reports from the Gulbenkian Foundation were creating a homegrown, as well as international teaching and learning resource library of case studies, research, and more theoretical scholarship. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s 1973 report, Current Issues in Community Work, had recommended a discrete community work profession in Britain, and probably made the most important single contribution to the creation of our new profession. It was the Gulbenkian report, together with an article by John Benington about the work of the CDP in the city of Coventry in 1973, that convinced me that this was the field I wanted to enter.

Community development was not a new idea in British public policy. For two or three decades it had been promoted overseas across the Commonwealth, as part of Britain’s supposedly benign preparation of fifty or so countries for independence, social and economic development, and democracy building. But its adoption as an intervention to support the regeneration of Britain’s towns and cities recovering from wartime damage, and as a political commitment to replace C19th slums, was new. It was a product of a social democratic and managerialist belief in public participation in town planning and in an interventionist national and local state. Community work was also seen by the Labour government as a way of harnessing the energy of the post 68 generation of student community activists into public service. Whatever the motive, I was hooked into a career where I could be (or at least speak) radical and get paid for it.

The two decades from the mid1970’s to the mid-1990’s in Britain, and especially Scotland, were ones where we built the architecture of a new profession. Several graduate and postgraduate courses were set up across Scotland, including on-the-ground apprenticeship schemes that directly linked higher education training with community work in situ, thus widening access for working-class activists into a paid job. By the late 1970’s, the Scottish Association of Community Workers had more than a quarter of membership of the wider UK ACW (England has ten times the population of Scotland). A rich stream of publications based upon Scotland’s experiences in community development came on tap as teaching and learning resources, including the Scottish Journal of Community Work and Development and the Scottish Journal of Community Education Practice Theory (CONCEPT). I became the first chair of the Scottish Community Work Trainers’ Forum in 1979 and, in the 1980’s, played a central role in creating the UK Standing Conference for Community Development.

From the mid-1980’s, I had returned to the field helping to create the Community Development Foundation and then, as CEO of the Scottish Community Education Council, both national support institutes for our field and advisers to governments in Britain and Scotland, respectively. In 1999, together with the professional associations, trades unions, employer associations, and training agencies, we established the UK Training Standards Organization for Community Learning and Development – PAULO – named in honour of Freire. This was the British government-funded agency that established the first National Occupational Standards for our profession; I became its first chair. In Scotland, its work on Standards was taken on by the Scottish Community Education Council and, later, by the Community Learning and Development Standards Council.

Some of that support architecture has since disappeared—due to changes of government in the UK and Scotland and severe public investment cuts post 2010—or has changed in name. But most in Scotland still exist through the work of the Scottish Community Development Network, Community Development Alliance Scotland, the Scottish Community Development Centre, and the Community Learning and Development Standards Council Scotland. In contrast—tragically almost—all of the architecture of our profession has disappeared south of the border in England over the past decade. Why did this support architecture dissolve so quickly in England in contrast to Scotland? The chief reason was huge cuts in state investment for community learning and development-type jobs and agencies and the growing influence of anti-state conservative politicians. Scotland didn’t avoid cuts and the neo-liberal wave but has more successfully ridden them.

Some responsibility for the failure to sustain the profession in England was self-inflicted. Much community work practice, funded by the state, became highly critical of local and national government. The British CDP Program is a case in point. Prolific in its output of writing and influence, it did much to undermine support from civil servants and local authority officials. Not because its criticism was wrong, but it came off as “biting the hand that fed them” and, in my view, disempowered many local practitioners. And, since the 1970’s, we have had a vociferous minority of practitioner’s hostile towards the idea of community development being a profession, fearing it would distance a professionalizing community development field from disadvantaged people. The creation of the Community Development Foundation in the late 1980’s is a case in point. This was created in the face of opposition from some in the field who felt that the creation of a national institute would lead to government control and interference in community development’s role of speaking “truth to power”.

The ACW (Association of Community Workers) conferences and some of the literature became a battle ground between those seeking a stronger profession and those opposing it. Many practitioners and academics, supposedly experts in community organizing, proved unable or unwilling to organize practitioners collectively, precisely because they feared that a community development profession would primarily voice its own interests and distance itself from the powerless in society.

Scotland, too, has seen challenging public expenditure cuts and huge increases in poverty, as well as growing sustainable development challenges over the past decade. Community development language, policies, and practice not only hold on, but are engaging more and more stakeholders precisely because it has forged and maintained a strong (and relatively open) professional support infrastructure that can and does speak based upon extensive experience of what does and doesn’t work. The field has also handled the critical relationship with state and employers in a less confrontational way. The creation of what is now called the Community Learning and Development profession in Scotland over four decades has allowed for career progression and for the appointment of people with community development knowledge and experience into senior roles, some within the civil service and as senior managers within local government and other agencies. These government and agencies are willing to promote and drive CD ideas and approaches across public policies and fund programs, even during times of challenging public investment cuts.

Internationally, Scotland also punches above its weight. This is in large part due to IACD being transferred there twenty-one years ago; because Scottish practitioners, managers, and scholars have played such a leading role within IACD ever since; and because the profession in Scotland has become the best organized of any country in Europe. I don’t believe this is a co-incidence. Scotland’s approach is resonating and getting traction in countries where people are keen to rebuild or, for the first time, build a profession for our field, such as Kenya, Georgia, Ethiopia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Nigeria. The recently published International Standards for Community Development Practice report was the direct result of IACD’s close partnership with the Community Learning and Development Standards Council Scotland.

For More Information

You can find out more about the development of the profession in Scotland in The Making of an Empowering Profession available to download free from the Standards Council uk/about-cld/history/.

Charlie McConnell Past President, IACD He was the Head of Community Learning and Development with the Scottish Government and held many leading roles in some of the listed agencies for much of this period.


McConnell, C. (2019). Creating a Profession in Fits and Starts. Community Development Education around the world. Issue 12, 7 – 9. Retrieved from

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