Education, as a lifelong process which enables the continuous development of a person’s capabilities as an individual and as a member of society, can take three different forms: o  formal education- the structured educational system usually provided or supported by the state, chronologically graded and running from primary to tertiary institutions;
o  informal education - learning that goes on in daily life and can be received from daily experience, such as from family, friends, peer groups, the media and other influences in a person’s environment; and
​o  non-formal education-educational activity which is not structured and takes place outside the formal system.
The main difference between informal and non-formal education is the fact that the first is non-voluntary and mostly passive whereas the latter results from an individual voluntary action and is mostly active.
Non-formal education covers two rather different realities: on the one hand education activities taking part outside the formal education system (for example a lecture on social rights organised by a trade union) and on the other the experience acquired while exerting responsibilities in a voluntary organisation (for example being a member of the board of an environment protection NGO).
A more operational definition by OECD is that “the formal system refers to all those aspects of education within the sphere of responsibilities and influence of the Minister of Education, together with private schools, universities and other institutions which prepare students for officially recognised qualifications. The non-formal sector comprises learning activities taking place outside this formal system, such as those Carried out within companies, by professional associations, or independently by self-motivated adult learners”. This definition is formally correct, but does not take into account the experience acquired in citizens’ groups or voluntary organisations. According to the more practical definition of the European Youth Forum, non-formal education corresponds to a collection of teaching tools and learning schemes that are seen as creative and innovative alternatives to traditional and classical teaching systems. Via personal interaction and flexibility in problem solving, people can discuss matters of relevance to their lives as citizens in society and integrate their knowledge. Different sorts of people take part in this process but the majority is to be found in non-governmental organisations involved in youth and community work.
A Council of Europe "working group on non-formal education" has elaborated its own definition of non-formal education as a "planned programme of personal and social education designed to improve a range of skills and competencies, outside but supplementary to the formal educational curriculum. Participation is voluntary and the programmes are carried out by trained leaders in the voluntary and/or State sectors, and should be systematically monitored and evaluated, the experience might also be certificated. It is generally related to the employability and lifelong learning requirements of the individual person." Non-formal education became part of the international discourse on education policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It can be seen as related to the concepts of recurrent and lifelong learning. Tight  suggests that whereas the latter concepts have to do with the extension of education and learning throughout life, non-formal education is about 'acknowledging the importance of education, learning and training which takes place outside recognized educational institutions'.

Fordham suggests that four characteristics came be associated with non-formal education: ·        Relevance to the needs of disadvantaged groups.
·        Concern with specific categories of person. ·        A focus on clearly defined purposes.
·        Flexibility in organization and methods.

Contrasts between 'formal' and 'non-formal' educational programmes

Simkins analysed non-formal education programme in terms of purposes, timing, content delivery systems and control, and contrasted these with formal educational programmes. The resulting ideal-types provide a useful framework - and bring out the extent to which non-formal education initiatives, while emphasizing flexibility, localness and responsiveness remain located within a curricula form of education (in contrast with those forms driven by conversation). Non-formal education is a way of helping societies to be more democratic and to respect human rights. It is a necessary supplement to formal education. Through involvement in non-formal education, citizens may get a chance to experiment and take on responsibilities. They are able to develop their curiosity and enthusiasm, to learn to work together and to practise democratic decision-making and negotiation, which is an important step towards active democratic citizenship. Moreover non-formal education develops personal, social and professional skills through experimenting in a relatively safe environment.
Through different activities of non-formal education people can obtain experience that can be compared with traditional formal work experience and should be recognised as such. These activities involve democratic decision making and negotiating, participation, personal development and help them to obtain such qualities as commitment, involvement, responsibility, solidarity, democratic awareness, motivation, initiative, emancipation and empowerment, creativity, respect, tolerance, intercultural awareness, criticism, intellectual independence and self-confidence.

Types of non-formal education and those involved

Different forms of non-formal education contribute to democracy teaching in different ways. Community work, which is particularly widespread in Europe, fosters people’s commitment to their neighbours and encourages participation in, and development of local, democratic forms of organisation. This may involve dialogue with local policy-makers setting-up programmes aimed at improving the quality of life in the local area editing community newsletters, developing local opportunities for continuous learning and employment.
Youth work generally focuses on making young people more active in society and committed to furthering their well being.

Activities of non-formal education

Non-formal education activities vary depending on the context of national and local traditions. The best way to illustrate different activities of non-formal education is to give examples from specific national contexts. A major problem in the promotion of non-formal education is its lack of recognition in comparison with formal, academic education. As a result, the importance of non-formal education is not fully recognised and the opportunities to use it are not fully realised. The financial means required for non-formal education are not sufficiently allocated given the increasing demands placed on finite resources and time.
​ While formal education can be quantified and described, this is more difficult in the case of non-formal education, which largely escapes structure and is difficult to assess quantitatively and qualitatively. Hence, funding is a problem. National education planners should reconsider their policy and practice in order to promote non-formal education as a means of increasing skills and knowledge. It is very important to acknowledge non-formal education as an essential part of the educational process and to recognise the contribution that can be made by non-formal educational organisations.