Defending Democratic and Emancipatory Youth Work

The In Defence of Youth Work initiative was set in motion in late February with the circulation of  the Open Letter. This missive argued that the implosion of neo-liberalism, the so-called credit crunch, opened up perhaps an opportunity to question afresh the state of Youth Work today. There has been a supportive and widespread response to the thrust of the argument, which can be read in detail on the discrete page.

At the Youth & Policy History of Youth and Community conference in Durham {March 6-8}, a group of  those attending agreed to organise in the coming months regional meetings to explore ‘where things are up to and how we might move forward’. This meeting of minds and hearts was not just stimulated by the Open Letter, but also through a challenging workshop led by workers from North Tyneside.

This Blog will seek to keep everyone interested abreast of what is happening; will continue to welcome signatories to the Letter;  will be a place where critical dialogue can continue and prosper; and will report on wider struggles to defend and extend the existence of  democratic and emancipatory education.

Additional Points, March 31:

  • After some discussion about the process of signing up to the Letter, we’re sticking with the recommendation that supporters contact Tony directly at

This method allows us to build a list of e-mail contacts, which will facilitate the circulation of information about for instance the forthcoming regional meetings. Obviously we will check out with people if they are happy for their addresses to be shared.  In doing it this way we apologise to Mike at the Late Breakfast Society for failing to rise to his effort to drag us into the present century

  • As we move forward we’ve contacted both the major unions representing youth workers, the Community and Youth Workers Union [UNITE] and UNISON. We’re pleased to say that Doug Nicholls, the General Secretary of CYWU has been very positive about the In Defence initiative, whilst Tim Price is pursuing a response from UNISON’s National Committee. In waxing lyrical about Defence we need to be aware of immediate attacks at a local level on jobs and services, witness the present situation in Coventry – see
  • It is becoming clear that to move things forward we need to identify people, who would be happy to be regarded as a sort of regional coordinator. Again please contact Tony if you think you’ve the energy and a sliver of time. He can still do the major share of administrative tasks.

It is time to rally round together against the instrumental and behavioural agenda imposed upon Youth Work particularly in the last decade. As the classic slogan goes, it is once more a time to ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise’.


  1. Just to say Hi to all like-minded people who might be dropping by! Looking forward to sharing thoughts and views.


  2. Thanks for saying hello, Julie, and here’s hoping other folk will share their thoughts and views. Should be putting up an initial list of signatories tomorrow.


  3. Just a quick aside. The Open Letter references the “sanctity” of the voluntary nature of youth work. While I totally understand where the reference is coming from, I feel that too often youth work defines itself by its “voluntary” nature when, in reality, quite a proportion of what we do is not strictly voluntary. For example, how often do staff sit and puzzle over how to structure a session so that we can get young people to do the “hard work” that they are not actually keen on doing? How often do we put together a programme with a nice big activity or trip at the end to try and persuade the young people to attend sessions they otherwise would probably not be bothered about? Of course, as I think the Open Letter correctly suggests, they are still voluntary in a sense as young people can still choose whether to participate or not, but the whole process, as well as that of other elements of youth work, is not necessarily free of coercion or manipulation (not that this is not necessarily wrong in the circumstances).

    • Learn,
      If they are not keen on doing it, why are you doing it? If you organise something with a carrot at the end of it because they are not otherwise bothered about it, then why not do something they are bothered about? These are the questions I feel the voluntary nature of the work is about. If it’s not their interest or desire then who own the agenda for the work?

  4. Looking forward to a more regional event to talk about this some more. As I said on my blog, whilst I agree with the sentiment of defending youth work, I’m not yet convinced by the aggressive political nature of this campaign. Maybe it will get things moving though!

  5. Damn – just wrote a long reply then lost it!

    To try and right something a bit shorter, I think what themethatisme says is definitely a valid response. To explain the typical situation I’m thinking of – we’ve currently got a group of young people who wanted to form a group and selected one particular issue as something they wanted to look at. Realistically, while they’d rather work on that issue than any other, its fair to say they’d rather be playing pool than doing anything remotely like work. As a result, a certain effort goes in to making sure the sessions are as fun as possible and the young people “buy in” through the odd trip being thrown in.

    I suppose it could be fairly stated that if they would rather play pool then we should let them do that. The difficulty is, in this particular situation, that the group are unused to any issue-based work whatsoever, with the argument being that if we do not start introducing it then they won’t begin to be interested. Secondly, there’s the fact that, at present, if it was left entirely up to the young people we’d run pool and computer nights almost continually, with only one or two being interested in issue work (with putting this on therefore being deemed as “not economical”). In the area in which I work getting any sort of funding for a project simply offering this type of work would not be possible.

    I’m certainly not trying to state that youth work is entirely involuntary – I just think that its a principle that an awful lot of youth work is unable, if they’re being totally honest, to match up to.

  6. Forgive me, a bit knackered so off to bed voluntarily, but do I sympathise with Leam! This last year I’ve lost a couple of profound [perhaps, but not likely!]pieces of writing. Definitely does your head in! And I’ll sleep on the issue of whether the In Defence campaign is politically aggressive.

  7. Hi all..Oh isn’t this awfully exciting? Well done to you all who are aggressively fighting in defence of youth work, it really has to be done, if not then what we will soon have is a charade of a range of people from other non-traditional youth work organisations parading our streets, snooping into communities & pretending to be doing ‘youth work with young people’..all to aid thier own professional business, whilst at the same time holding no youth work ethics or principle of engagement for young people other than to prevent them from being just that..young people in their transitions to adult-hood.

    With regard to the voluntary nature..Youth work process is voluntary for young people who step in & out of it at their own free will at times & in places suited to them. If people feel theirr practice with young people is not voluntary, then quite simply it is not youth work.

    There has always been the principle of engagement in education as a core & that is delivered through pool tables & computers as well as a range of other activities and discussion types. What is being lost is the principle of equality of opportunity for all, now that is a crying shame, how many of you can really say you activley seek to engage young people of all difference in your projects, my impression of a lot of centre based practice is that it is very heterosexist in delivery, many challenges needed to help educate young people are missed as too many youth workers tip toe round, possibly as they hold fear with their own knowledge base & confidence to challenge appropriately…mmm food for thought anyway!

  8. Hi Tony – a simple method you can use is to create a spreadsheet in google docs. In the spreadsheet create a form which you can then embed into your blog. You can also embed the spreadsheet itself meaning that people can easily add themselves just by using the form and the spreadsheet itself will automatically update wherever you choose to display it.

    Its not as complex as it might sound and you can see how to do it here: (ignore the stuff about wordclouds but follow the stages for creating and embedding the form):

    If you want to do and get stuck feel free to email

  9. Mike

    Now you’ve really called my Luddite bluff and in public. It’s going to be embarrassing if I can’t sort this out, but I’ll have a crack later today.

    Thanks for the advice.


  10. Hi Tony
    Great to see a campaign that is challenging the prevailing ideology and questioning the direction that youth work is taking.As the credit crunch bites I predict that, regardless of which party wins the next election, we will see a massive reduction/cuts in public services in an attempt to offset the billions of £s poured into the banks and other financial institutions. I also fear that one of the areas that will bear the brunt of the cuts will be Youth Services.We need look no further than Coventry, Wolverhampton and Bury to see the start of this. I also predict a massive rise (already being evidenced)in youth unemployment and ever growing levels of debt for young people choosing to progress to university.With this in mind I feel the IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK ‘campaing’ needs to begin to engage and involve young people alongside Youth and Community workers. I know it is still ‘early doors’ but I feel that the moment has to be seized if we are to launch an effectivechallenge. I would also be prepared to support and help coordinate the campaign in the north east. Sorry if this appears to be aggresive politics Bobweasel !!!!!

  11. Hi all,

    Perhaps my term ‘politically aggressive’ was inaccurate! As I said above, I totally agree with the description and values being expressed here and am also concerned with the state of statutory youth work. My only question was about how best to effect change. I felt that the wording of ‘In defense…’ was quite aggressively charged and I personally prefer to avoid conflict and work towards change through dialogue. On reflection though, I do think that a line has to be drawn and we have to stand up and be counted or nothing will change. So, thank you Tony for getting things rolling!

  12. Norman/Bob

    Sorry for the silence – problems with my internet connection for well over a week.

    I’m going to post above a wider response to Norman’s highly significant question about the relationship of young people themselves to the notion of defending Youth Work. Indeed would they want to?

    As for the issue of being ‘politically aggressive’, I’ll suggest that our position needs certainly to be politically assertive.

    And as Greek Easter is dawning, the bells are tolling and an enormous Bonfire is being erected outside the local church [who will be Judas this year, given the demise of George Bush?], my atheism aside, can I wish all our supporters the classic Greek greeting, ‘Xronia Polla’- may you live many good years, both for yourself and crucially for others!


  13. Hi Tony.
    In light of the now released Unleashing Aspirations Report and it’s damming inditment of careers advice nationally and its recommendation that “the current Connexions service be broken up, leaving a residual specialist service free to focus on young people not in education, employment or training” I was wondering what, if any impact, you feel this will have for youth services who are now part of IYSS alongside Connexions.

  14. George

    Such a good question that I’ve moved it into a new post, ‘Unleashing Aspirations: Shackling Youth Workers?’on the site, have posted it on the In Defence Facebook and will circulate it round the new Google mail group!



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