The Open Letter : In Defence of Youth Work

The Open Letter, ‘In Defence of Youth Work’, which has sparked this campaign, begins:

Thirty years ago Youth Work aspired to a special relationship with young people. It wanted to meet young women and men on their terms. It claimed to be ‘on their side’. Three decades later Youth Work is close to abandoning this distinctive commitment. Today it accepts the State’s terms. It sides with the State’s agenda. Perhaps we exaggerate, but a profound change has taken place.

This shift has not happened overnight. Back in the 1980’s the Thatcherite effort via the Manpower Services Commission to shift the focus of Youth Work from social education to social and life skills was resisted. In the early 90’s attempts to impose a national curriculum on the diverse elements of the Youth Service ground to a halt. However with the accession of New Labour the drive to impose an instrumental framework on Youth Work gathered increasing momentum. With Blair and Brown at the helm youth workers and managers have been coerced and cajoled into embracing the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes. Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.

To read more go here and in addition to the separate page identified at the top of the sidebar, which contains the whole text at a glance. Evidently having this discrete page makes it easier to circulate around social networking sites such as Facebook.

We wish to encourage the circulation of  this call to arms, so find below two versions, one in Word, the other in PDF, which we hope you might use in spreading the debate.




  1. It would be good to have the whole document on a page on the net somewhere. That way it’s much easier to link to on social networking sites such as Facebook. People aren’t keen on opening documents via links, but are happy to look at a page.

  2. Have circulated this on several mailing lists and forums – it deserves a much wider readership.

    Hope it will help to shake up other professionals out of their complacency by making them take a step back and look at the bigger picture and (who knows?) perhaps even prod them into ending or at least curtailing their collusion with this outcome driven madness.

    Brilliant critique 🙂


  3. Thanks Elaine and Sheila for your support and for spreading the word. I’ve taken Elaine’s advice and created a separate page, which contains the full text of the Open letter. I hope this proves helpful.

    Thanks to Mark as well and he’s well and truly signed up.

  4. Elaine

    The additional page is identified at the top of the sidebar under PAGES, then a bullet point, The ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ letter.

    Hope this is the case.



  5. Dear Tony,

    A few thoughts on the ‘Defence of Youth Work’.

    Might I make a suggestion about the ‘lead-in’ to what is a worthy analysis and set of conclusions that I’d be keen to subscribe to? I’d be inclined to reframe it, perhaps, as follows:

    “All youth workers, and especially those within the statutory sector, acknowledge the significance of their relationship with the state. On the one hand, they recognise that they are often tasked with achieving the aims of the social policy agenda in train at that time. And yet, on the other, they seek to care for the relationships they have with those they work with. The importance of these relationships cannot be understated, as without them engagement is both impossible and unproductive. Youth workers are left then with the eternal dilemma of what it is to have a foot in both the state and civil society. We conclude that our duty is to celebrate policy that befits our professional ethic, of working with people in this trusting, relationship-based way. But this duty also extends to criticising that that we believe is undermining and degrading of these relationships. To be youth workers, we argue, we must be trusted to work both within and against the state, as this tension is the lifeblood of critical and progressive community practice.”

    As an aside, whilst I too have witnessed the “shift in focus of youth work from social education to social and life skills”, I think there is an irony in your defence of the former. I take the aim of social education to be, precisely, educating in line with the norms of society. I guess we would both agree that, generally speaking, these norms are determined by powerful speech communities. But this does not get us away from what social education is, and why others have attempted to assert the value of informal education in its stead.

    Yours sincerely,

    • Graeme

      As ever good to get your critical thoughts. I have little quarrel with the import of the points you make. In responding perhaps I need to say that the Open Letter is not a distillation of my own particular political ‘take’ on Youth Work. Rather it is an attempt based on discussions over the last few years to offer a critique that might be the basis for drawing people together in debate and activity. Obviously I am very happy to be a signatory to its intent and content and it does bear the stamp of my style, , but I have my own questions about some of its assumptions. Perhaps this contradiction is made clearer by responding specifically to the ‘in and against the state’ and ‘social education’ dilemmas you pose.

      1. I welcome enormously the raising of the ‘in and against the state’ relationship. Your reframing is very helpful in pushing us to think afresh about the dilemmas, especially when many in the voluntary sector, ostensibly outside the state, still carry out the state’s agenda. For myself I suspect I did not refer directly to the question as my own practice has been so influenced by the late 70’s/early 80’s arguments about being ‘in and against’, about creating ‘prefigurative’ practices. Indeed my own move into management was motivated by the argument that we needed to get ‘our’ people into key positions so as to act as a buffer between the State and radical practice. In this context I wasn’t sure what resonance the turn of phrase ‘in and against’ has at this moment in the work, especially as there has been little analysis of how useful it has been in guiding practice. I look forward to exploring the conundrum once more.
      2. Your stricture about the use of social education is taken to heart. As you rightly comment social education is a normative concept : its goal is to fit young people into society as it exists. Ironically I remember writing a piece, ‘The Redundancy of Social Education’ for the old ‘Youth in Society’ magazine in around 1982. Contrasting the implications of the verbs, ‘to socialise’ and ‘to politicise’ I argued the case for youth workers to be acknowledged as political educators. Again it would be good to visit this argument again, particularly as I don’t think the notion of ‘informal education’ takes us all that much further and politics remains a dirty word in many youth workers’ eyes.

      As I scribble these thoughts I hear that a Yorkshire regional might well be on the cards. More info to follow asap. Hope very much you can make one of the gatherings over the next few weeks.

      Best wishes


  6. FAO – Tony Taylor

    I read with interest your letter in The National Youth Agency’s ‘The Edge’ (Issue 25) and would like to add to the conversation.

    Our Charity began as an Outreach Project in 2001, delivering arts education for the purpose of rehabilitation of eight young offenders in West Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. I engaged as a volunteer until 2005 and we raised £360,000, to transform derelict factory premises in East Gateshead (Pelaw) into a facility where alternative education methods could be used to work with a range of young people.

    By 2009, we were engaging an average of 1,000 young people per year, using visual art, performance art, environmental volunteering and social conscience development as our methods of involvement. I use the word ‘involvement’, as the young people arrived at the facility either through their own choice, or by way of referral from a youth project or organisation. Our stipulation from the beginning was that the projects and organisations representing the young people ask the young people what they want to become involved in (as this was often not the case). We then acted as the next step and engaged a large number of volunteers and Freelance Tutors/Positive Role Models.

    Our next step initially involved engaging the young people in a workshop that lasted one day. The project or organisation would buy into our service, having entered a funding bid (generally) to allow this to happen, or where Local Authority funds were made available.

    What became apparent to us, in 2006, in direct relation to your letter in The Edge was :

    i) Where young people were being ‘looked after’ by services, often overseen by Local Authority, there was little focus towards encouraging young people to advance themselves beyond a single day of activity, i.e. focus on stabilising but no focus toward progression routes
    ii) Where staff were in place to look after the young people, i.e. to encourage them to progress in their lives, we found that a large number (70%+) of staff in these roles were not capable of seeking ‘real’ solutions in terms of motivating the young people because they had not received the training themselves to advance the young people in ways that would fully benefit them

    Our Charity has personally worked with hundreds of organisations and has day to day contact with the supervisors and youth workers. We feel that society in general has little understanding of what youth work actually is (or should/could be), where becoming a Youth Worker can, quite often, be regarded as a role to take when no other route to employment is available.

    iii) You mention “conversations with young people which start from their concerns” in your letter. We started to put this into effect in 2008 and we created a ‘Types File’. The file contains a number of study papers into :

    Types of young people
    How effectively they are being managed/engaged
    What their aspirations are
    What system is in place to assist their progression
    The progression routes being sought on their behalf/or where they are being encouraged to seek
    The views of the young people in relation to where they’re at and where they want to be
    The steps our Charity can take towards meeting their needs

    We have identified more than 30 ‘types’ of young people. And whilst it was neither our intention to categorise nor seek to engage every ‘type’, we did this as our service was approached by the individual or the organisations representing, of where we targetted specific ‘types’ we felt the need to engage. This allowed the Charity (2008-2009) to gain a real perspective as to the level of who we were dealing with (and who wanted dealt with), what their needs were and what methods we could use to assist toward meeting these needs.

    To return to your “conversations with young people starting from ‘their’ concerns”, what we found most alarming, was that simple questions had not been put to the young people, whose ‘types’ ranged from : Potential Young Offender, Young Offender, Homeless, Sexually-Abused, Autistic, ADHD, Dyspraxic, Dyslexic, Less-able-bodied, Tourettes, Mentally-unstable, Not in Education, Employment or Training.

    We then devised a series of questions that started with :

    1) How are you ?
    2) How do you feel about your life ?
    3) What difference do you feel you could make in your life ?
    4) How can we assist to the point of helping you to believe in yourself ?

    In January of this year we engaged a number of young people from the Local Authority ran Behaviour Support Service. Two youth workers (supervisors) turned up at our premises with seven young males. The young people were said to be extremely disruptive and all excluded from mainstream education.

    Rather than take the suggested route of engaging them in DJ’ing/Aerosol, we decided to engage them one on one and start the ‘conversation process’, taking them away from both their supervisors and the group itself.

    The result was that, within fifteen minutes with each young person, we had all the information we required, i.e. it was evident that all had reasons why they were not ‘connecting’ with society. One of the group was in Foster Care, having been thrown out of his family home. His Father was a drug dealer and his Mother was an addict. He broke down crying (in the 15 minutes) and revealed “None of them know what goes on in my head even before I’ve left the house. Nobody gives a f**k.”

    Focussing on, as mentioned in your letter, “attending to the here and now”, we continued with our ‘isolation method’, i.e. removing the young people from the group and from supervisor contact, where we engaged them one on one. We found, within three sessions (one day per week over three weeks) that each individual did aspire to be something and create something with their lives, but ALL were :

    a) Uncertain
    b) Lacking confidence or support
    c) Feeling like cattle within a system where they felt worthless
    d) Had little respect for their supervisors and no confidence in their ability to improve their life situation
    e) Felt there was no option other than turn to a life of mispect activity
    f) Pressured and confused

    By Week Four of working with the young people from Behaviour Support, our (two) staff found each of the ‘seven’ a traineeship with an employer that they identified as wanting to work with. Note, if we had followed what the young people were ‘supposed’ to be booked in for, we would have been left with seven young males with a greater knowledge of DJ’ing or how to spray an aerosol, with no productive direction gained from the money spent or the time wasted engaging them.

    Whilst alternative arts education is used by our Charity to ‘unlock potential’, it was completely irrelevant to the ‘real needs’ of these young people. And a vast amount of funds are being wasted in this area, where activity is used for the purpose of ‘improving lives’ where it does little towards creating solutions in the long term.

    You mention in your letter “the essential significance of the youth worker themselves”.

    We feel that it is time that Local Authorities begin to think seriously about their recruitment process and perhaps redefine the term ‘Youth Worker’ to become ‘Young-people Motivator, Life-planner, Mentor or Guide’, where the focus is more towards encouraging the young person to get towards A to B, rather than supervise them playing pool at a local amusement arcade, or taking them to the cinema and filling their bellies with McDonald’s, just to keep them happy (actually fuelling their often confused and hyper-frustrated state of being).

    Young people require youth workers who are trained counsellors. As well as requiring youth workers who have a knowledge of society, i.e. to be able to pick up a telephone and signpost them towards College, or towards a mentoring scheme, or potentially into training or employment.

    You mention “the changing role of the youth worker from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur” and that we need to question “the increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people, perceived as a threat to social order”. It seems ridiculous that funds are being used to ‘supervise’, like a shepherd watching over goats, where the emphasis ‘should’ be towards creating ways of motivating young people and really getting on their side and providing them with tools that apply as being relevant to their lives, not somebody elses.

    Our Charity has a range of study material that we are still developing. As we advance towards 2010, we are developing a brochure (funded by Awards For All £3,388) that is as much a best practice education tool to share our views on how we feel the picture should developing, as it is a marketing tool to promote the service we provide. The brochure contains our findings for 2001-2009 and will be released in January 2010.

    As an independent Charity, we perhaps have greater freedom to explore, as we’re on the ground day to day and we’re influenced only by those we engage on a day to day basis, i.e. the young people.

    We feel that with simple communication methods as the starting point, great breakthroughs can be achieved. And if this can become a shared opinion, from the ground up, then youth work could take on a whole new focus and be taken more seriously. Society seems to be unnaccepting of the fact that by supporting young people in the right way will lead to a much improved society in the future. In saying that, perhaps if we sought to control less and hand over the reins of so-referred power and listened to young people at a greater democratic level, we could vastly improve society in general, again, from the ground up.

    As I feel that local authorities and funding bodies need to raise their own awareness of what is going on ‘on the ground’, so they can make clear decisions in relation to how their funds are being allocated, I’ve copied a number of third parties in on this email. If this could encourage greater levels of communication that would be fantastic.

    I would like to offer my signature to the Open Overture, on behalf of our Charity. I feel that our Trustees would do the same. As well as a number of our Tutors and regional partners.

    Our website is available at (developed by a young-individual called Nathan, because it’s what he chose to do and we supported him in that).

    Kind Regards
    Tor Bruce
    Chief Executive
    Eye Of The Fly

  7. I agree with the open letter, as a fairly new Youth Worker and having attended youth clubs as a young person, some 25 years ago, I recognise how far away the youth service is moving away from working with Young people as human beings and not crosses on a statistical tick sheet.

    I wanted to work with young people as individuals to engage, to listen, to support, to encourage and assist them with “their tranistion to adulthood”. Nonetheless I feel that I am sometimes in a lab. being forced to test and measure human behaviour and expected to have a clear outcome, to provide measureable data in order for the youth service, in which I am employed, being able to qualify and quantify their work in order to gain state funding.

    I agree that Young people require youth workers who are trained counsellors. As well as requiring youth workers who have a knowledge of society, i.e. to be able to pick up a telephone and signpost them towards College, or towards a mentoring scheme, or potentially into training or employment. However whether the aforementioned is attainable in an informal education role in a youth club setting is questionable.

    I would like to see the doors of the youth club opened to Young people with a voluntary ethos. If, as a youth worker I can assist a Young person who seeks advice, guidance, support or direction then that is fine. Thus if they just want to engage in playing on the pool table, then that should also be acceptable. There can still be an opportunity to motivate and get on the side of the young person, playing pool, through conversation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.