Are We Being Precious?

The debate about youth work values and core principles continues on the pages of Children and Young People Now In an article ‘Are government policies chipping away at youth work values?’ Janaki Mahadevan collects together the views of ‘a panel of experts’. Now being dubbed an expert does my head in, but we’ll leave this contemporary obsession with experts to another day. Whilst in a related Opinion piece ‘Youth Work must avoid isolationism’ Ravi Chandiramani advises us ‘to be pragmatic, not precious’.

His argument unfolds as follow:

Youth work must avoid isolationism

De Montfort University’s inquiry on the impact of government policies on youth work has added to the sense of unease expressed in Tony Taylor’s open letter, In Defence of Youth Work, that its core principles are under threat.

This week we ask a number of experts to evaluate these concerns.

The anxieties themselves derive partly from the fact that the more eye-catching, headline-grabbing – and crucially, properly funded – initiatives that involve youth workers target certain groups of young people deemed to be “troubled”, “vulnerable”, “at risk” or whatever administrative label is flavour of the month. Our feature this week on non-negotiable support offers one such example of these initiatives. Such targeted youth support defies youth work’s cherished value that the relationship between young person and youth worker is voluntary. It may not be youth work in its purest form, granted, but targeted support calls on a number of youth work skills to build relationships with young people.

The anxieties are fuelled also by requirements for youth work nowadays to demonstrate accredited outcomes, and the feeling that these are dictating practice. However, as London Youth’s Nick Wilkie states, it is entirely reasonable to assess youth work’s impact on young lives, particularly since cuts in public spending are forcing all children’s and youth services to prove their benefit.

What we have at the moment is a bit of a stand-off between policy makers and some sections of the youth work community. From the government, amid initiative after initiative targeting the country’s problematic youth, what is missing is a clear articulation of support for youth work in its purest sense: as voluntary, informal, providing young people with someone to talk to, somewhere to socialise, and activities that boost young people’s confidence.

That said, youth workers have to accept reality. Other professions in the children’s sector – teachers and social workers among them – have had to adapt beyond their core skills base to ensure the young get the services and support they need. At a time when youth workers are being given the opportunity to play a more central role through the youth professional status, some risk becoming isolationist, and marginalising themselves from the Every Child Matters agenda, which has plenty to commend it. They should defend their turf, by all means, but now is a good time to be pragmatic, not precious.

I have responded in the following vein:


This is a curious piece. In order to make your case you are forced to create a Strawperson: a precious youth worker refusing to face reality, devoid of pragmatic intuition, marching off into splendid isolation. Now the DMU Inquiry is not the work of such a fictional character. Bernard Davies and Brian Merton have laboured seriously for decades in both a pragmatic and principled way in support of process-led, young person-centred voluntary youth work practice. If there is a stand-off between policy makers and the likes of Bernard and Brian, it is a situation of the policy makers’ making. It is down to the bureaucracy’s failure to enter into an authentic dialogue with the folk who understand and do the job. Of course I accept that I might be identified as an out-of-touch maverick. However the contradiction is that the Open Letter is not at all a personal statement. It is an effort to distill the mood and thinking of a diversity of practitioners with whom I have been closely involved in recent years. Within the missive we use the idea of ‘democratic and emancipatory’ youth work to describe the form of youth work we favour and wish to defend. For myself, unlike some of my closest friends, I have no desire to claim that what is going on under New Labour is not Youth Work. My problem is that it is a form of Youth Work that is imposed, prescriptive and normative, which doesn’t mean that the people doing it are evil and nasty. It does mean that those, going along with its agenda, have accepted that the purpose of Youth Work is control and conformity.

And it is the question of purpose which is at the heart of the resurgent debate about Youth Work. It has little to do with your confusing reference to skills. If teachers and social workers have ‘adapted beyond their core skills base’, it is not so that they can become better at working with their students and clients, but rather that they become better at form-filling and the like. What has been altered is the focus of education and social work: away from educating a child for life towards a narrow vocationalism, away from social welfare to social punishment. Increasingly within these professions people are protesting that enough is enough. And so it is within Youth Work. Our desire is to contest the meaning imposed on our engagement with young people.

I will outstay my welcome if I respond properly to the mythical idea that the quantitative amassing of accredited outcomes gives some ground-breaking insight into the impact of youth work on young people or that it provides some ‘robust’ defence against public spending cuts. So let me close on the question of pragmatism, which has never been in short supply within Youth Work. In my own case you don’t hold down jobs in senior management in Youth Work for 20 years without sadly having to be pragmatic. But it’s one thing being pragmatic as a necessity in specific circumstances, it is quite another to make of pragmatism a virtue, or even a philosophy. For pragmatism suffers at heart from a lack of vision and imagination.

Ravi, I think your advice is wide of the historical mark. With politicians and policy makers on the run, spewing in their breathlessness chunks of rhetoric about democracy, the devolution of power and the crisis of the body politic, our arguments about the need for an open, democratic and pluralist youth work will not isolate or marginalise us. More and more folk are saying similar things about their particular turf in all parts of the State and civil society. Now is a precious time, not to be wasted, to be principled and imaginative, not passively pragmatic.


As ever your criticisms and comments welcomed. Are we in danger of being isolated?


  1. In danger of being isoloated?
    I’m not so sure we were ever included.

    The isolation was good. No-one else understood but no-one cared either, except the young people. We are better able to take their side against the things that society inflicts upon them when we too are on the outside with them. A handful of shekels may be very pragmatic but not at the expense of your soul. ‘Precious’? – I shoudl damn well hope so.

  2. In Praise of Preciousness! Must say I’m quite drawn to this as a slogan – lots of possibilities for irony and double-entendre! And I do think there is a serious debate to be had about at least some workers being on the outside with young people.

  3. Sorry to come over all postmodern – but who is to say the core values of youth work are fixed? Were not these discerned around 20 years ago by the NYA? Of course, they delved into the rich history of the social professions, but they are still articulated into a particular time and place which has now moved on.

    125 years ago, if the social pioneers (such as the Baden-Powells, Octavia Hill, Basil Henriques, Samual Becket, et. al) were to devise the core values of youth work, adherence to Christian or Jewish morals and values, maybe even faith, would have been included. But times, and culture, change – and the inclusion of such a policy in a predominantly agnostic-humanisitic workforce would seem radiculous.

    Rather than throw around our four core values as gospel truth, maybe the time has come to reinvent the values? Not to be homogonised into part social worker – part trainer/teacher, but to discover what good, sound, dynamic youth work should look like now.

  4. Pete

    You are quite right to argue that all values and concepts need to be historicised, grounded in their particular time and place. This said, as an old-fashioned modernist I must throw the ball back into your post-modernist court. I don’t think, for my part, that the core values constitute the gospel truth. Indeed I don’t use the notion of core values. All I do is outline seven cornerstones of a democratic and emancipatory practice, which remain in my opinion pertinent. For sure these must remain provisional and forever open to criticism and change. In this sense I am more than interested in your critique of the cornerstones and the way in which they fail to address the contemporary situation. And, thus, of course in your crack at reinventing the values as a contribution to the debate of ‘what good, sound, dynamic youth work should look like now’.

    Thanks for the shot across the bows.


  5. Tony,

    Unfortunatly I am not one of youth works biggest thinkers, so I don’t have any big answers! Nor, I’m afraid, am I aware of the 7 corner stones (could you link where I can find out more?)

    But – again with the postmodernism – maybe that’s part of the problem! My education in youth work has lead me to believe the definition of ‘youth work’ (opposed to other work with young people) is a commitment to inf. ed., voluntary participation, anti-discriminatory pracitce, and equality of opportunity. But someone elses education may have lead them to 7 corner stones, or any other number of definitions.

    Now of course these are not going to differ wildly! Any arguements about what is and is not youth work will be finely nuanced, not a complete re-writing of the definition. And I am perfectly happy to believe the 7 cornerstones, or 4 core values, will come out trumps. However I think it is time for those in the relevant positions to review them. Maybe ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ will kick start that (btw – I have signed up for Newcastle in a couple of weeks).

    Do I have an answer? I set myself up for that! Unhelpfully, no. In my situation, my youth work is based around citizenship (although I’d never use that word!). Teaching citizenship in formal education seems a little counter productive, almost indoctrinatory, yet there seems a need to ensure young people learn about the rights and responsibilities of being an active citizen – and I believe that can only be done through sound adult role models young people voluntarially enter into a relationship with, and by offering young people opportunities to serve the community.

    The current participatory agenda seem to pander to what young people want – much too consumerist for my taste – rather I would like to see young people spotting the needs of others in the community and being willing to serve them.

    But these conversations a all good and timely I feel!

  6. Hi Tony,

    I came across these definitions of key features of a theoretical framework which may or may not fit with what you have written…what do you think?

    A focus on the child as a whole person, and support for the child’s overall development;

    • The practitioner seeing herself/himself as a person, in relationship with the child or young person;
    • Young people and staff are seen as inhabiting the same life space, not as existing in separate hierarchical domains;
    • As professionals, (youth workers) are encouraged constantly to reflect on their practice and to apply both theoretical understandings and self-knowledge to the sometimes challenging demands with which they are confronted;
    • (Youth workers) are also practical, so their training prepares them to share in many aspects of young people’s daily lives and activities;
    • Young people’s associative life is seen as important resources: workers should foster and make use of the group;
    • (Youth work) builds on understanding of young people’s rights that is not limited to procedural matters or legislated requirements;
    • There is an emphasis on team work and on valuing the contribution of others in ‘bringing up’ young people; other professionals, members of the local community and especially parents;
    • The centrality of relationship and, allied to this, the importance of listening and communicating.”

    (brackets are mine)


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