On July 10 in Leeds Jean Spence on the platform offered an honest and provocative contribution to the ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ debate, partly based on her experience at the North-East regional, which had taken place earlier. It begins:
Clearly if we feel the need to defend youth work, we must be also feeling that it is somehow under attack. The nervousness, not to say antagonism of some of the managers of local authority services to the North East event highlighted the fact that organising to defend youth work cannot be undertaken naively – it cannot be assumed simply that defending youth work is a straightforward matter of supporting good workers who are working for the good of young people and not being appreciated. Life is more complicated than that. At the very least, if we are discussing attack and defence, we are inevitably engaging in conflict – and there is some need to understand who will be on what side in the conflict, and for what reason.
Throughout her challenging argument she poses uncomfortable questions.
So if we are keen to defend youth work, what do we want to defend? It really is the simple question but it is meaningless without considering what we need to build and what we need to attack and destroy. We can have no chance of answering these questions without engaging in critical and informed debate. So the second question must be:
How can we hope to engage in critical and informed debate if some of us continue to denigrate theory, if we do not acknowledge the value of intellectual understanding and the importance of continuous learning in what we do. So how do we challenge this tension between theory and practice? What can we do about it?
And linked to the need to develop a disciplinary discourse for professional youth work, is the question of where we would like our field of knowledge to reside. How do we think about the core of our practice? Is it within the disciplinary domain of social work, or education or politics or community work? Or is it worth thinking of it as different from all of these and if so, can we build a unique body of theory around its core practices drawing from the related disciplines and professions without being sucked into them as second class actors?
I’m bound to say I think it is near compulsory reading for those of us involved in the campaign. And if we are serious about our commitment to self-criticism, it ought to trigger some interesting replies! Read and ponder the whole.
And, blow me down, now we have Bernard Davies pleading guilty to starting this whole commotion. Find below Bernard’s contribution, ‘What Theory-Practice divide?’, which begins:
Though very late in this debate, I do need to own up: it was me who dared to use the word ‘hegemony’ at the Newcastle ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ meeting in June. It crept in during my presentation as part of a quote I was using to support the argument that ‘market’ thinking had become so dominant under New Labour that it had been applied largely uncritically to fields of activity – especially education and welfare – where it simply did not belong.