Popular Education Programme (PEP)


Building on traditions of ‘people’s education’, social movement/action education and education for transformation, the Popular Education Programme (PEP) was launched in 2011, in Cape Town. It works mainly in the Western Cape but also offers workshops and course in other provinces. It comprises three components:

(1) Popular Education Schools (PES) open to any members of communities who wish to critically explore and analyse issues that affect their daily lives;

(2) Popular Education Development (PED) workshops aimed at community-based and organization-based practitioners who wish to improve their facilitation skills in order to do their work more imaginatively and effectively;

(3) Popular Education Practitioner Circles (PEPC) for experienced popular educators. Workshops are designed in collaboration with participants and are often led by visiting educators from other parts of the world. Circles offer a supportive space for critical reflection and exchange of ideas, practices and action.


Past participants of PEP courses have described their experience as ‘a taste of real education’: Popular education is a vine to let the spirit of knowledge grow unconditionally, a way to acknowledge those who are less educated and help them to reach for a dream. For them PEP has offered a space where they experienced support for acquiring a critical consciousness, for imagining an end to domination and for planning action for change.

Broadly, the purpose of PEP is as follows:

  • building / supporting a critical citizenry as the foundation for active participation in everyday public life
  • advancing / deepening democracy as a process and way of relating to each other and the earth
  • organising and mobilising for fundamental social, political and economic transformation
  • promoting and building social justice by sustaining / rekindling belief in equality and responsible human agency

Target participants

PES classes are open to all youth and adults interested in extending their understanding of the world we live in and in challenging the powers that resist transformation. Participants are youth and adults from excluded and marginalized communities. They are often unemployed and live under conditions of extreme violence where substance-abuse and gang-related activities pose substantial risks to personal and livelihood security. There is a majority of women participants; this reflects the role of women as family and community care-givers, and often head of households.

Focus areas

PEP is rooted in the interests and struggles of working class people and aims to contribute to building social, political and economic justice. Therefore, curricula of PES are established together with participants: they define the issues they most want to learn more about. All courses and workshops are underpinned by attempts to assist participants to make connections between their world and broader local and global dynamics; to better understand the relationships between interest and power; to gather and analyse information necessary to make informed decisions and to act on these in the interest of greater justice for all.

Topics include social issues such as violence and substance abuse; community-building and mobilizing; co-operatives; food security and GMOs; parenting and communication skills; problem analysis and planning for action.


Education begins with the daily realities of participants. Through a process of creating knowledge collectively by critically analysing issues, making sense of new information, democratic and challenging dialogue and working together in practicing other ways of relating as different but equal, participants begin to imagine alternatives. This leads to participants working towards planning action that can transform their lives and those of their communities.

Tools and processes

PES courses constitute ‘virtual’ schools in that they use existing premises that are centrally located with easy access to public transport. Premises range from containers to garages and public halls to contingency arrangements in make-shift spaces. Classes are generally run on a weekly basis, for 2-3 hours, over 12 weeks (3 months) at a time convenient for participants.

PED utilises a wide rage of participatory methods and tools, drawing on examples from PE all over the world. Tools used range from games to case studies, films to group discussions, simulations to reading and analysis, role play to demonstrations. For example, the starting point of a 2-hour session may be a warm-up game, followed by a brief role-play. This is ‘unpacked’ in small buzz groups and plenary, asking participants to relate what they have seen to their own worlds, and making connections to larger contexts and dynamics. After that, new information is added so that interrelationships between interests and power positions become visible. Finally, participants may engage in a body-sculpting exercise to explore how to transform unequal power relations towards more equitable ones.

Sessions are designed with language and literacy skills in mind, employing much oral and visual communication. Facilitators draw on Freirean methodology (using codes) and theatre, as much as more conventional academic approaches for giving information.

Decisions on activities are informed by each particular group of participants and there is a strong focus on ‘unpacking’ and reflection on the process. At each step of each activity, participants are encouraged to critically analyse the purpose and process and name the ‘ingredients’ that make an activity useful (or not): How did the tool fit the purpose, and was there enough new information to construct useful knowledge and insights? Can participants name the insights gained – and how can this be usefully employed in education? Workshops are designed with reflection in / on action in mind and there is an emphasis on variation with regards to tempo, mood, collective and individual tasks.

Workshops build on existing abilities and knowledge. Participants are invited to story-tell from their own practice; they facilitate energisers and role play-processes, they use their theories to challenge proposed ones, and they compare notes on tools and materials. Setting participants design and facilitation tasks, both in the workshop and beyond/ outside it, is part of the process.

The safe environment of familiar co-participants, a space in which uncertainties and mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities, the chance to analyse and draw conclusions from the experiences turn PED workshops into model practice spaces.

Understanding of popular education

In its broadest sense popular education aims at developing people’s socio-historical knowledge and consciousness so that they are better able to participate in and contribute to maintaining or establishing participatory democracy. This involves analysing power relations and structural constraints, imagining alternatives and defining possibilities for individual and collective action.

PEP defines popular education more specifically as follows:

(a) its curriculum comes out of the concrete experience and material interests of people in communities of struggle;

(b) its pedagogy is collective, focused primarily on group learning and development;

(c) it attempts to forge a direct connection between education and social change.

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