Straws in the Wind

Find below the Executive Summary of the second modest inquiry into the state of youth work practice undertaken by Bernard Davies and Bryan Merton – plus a link to the whole document. It is well worth drawing its attention in particular to youth work managers, who are in denial about the way things are going.

Full Report at

Straws in the Wind

The State of Youth Work Practice in a Changing Policy Environment (Phase 2)

Bernard Davies and Bryan Merton

Executive Summary

This is a report of the findings of a second modest Inquiry into the way policy influences the practice
of youth work. It follows an earlier report published in 2009. In both we sought to learn how youth
work is being conceptualised and applied in response to the emerging policies of a government that
had shown a very high degree of interest in the lives, challenges and achievements of young people.
Our particular focus has been on the interventions made by professional youth workers designed to
identify young people’s aspirations and help them to achieve them.

In 2010 we returned to some of the themes with which we concluded the earlier report. We sought
to dig a little deeper into the impact of some of the flagship policies that had been introduced
towards the end of the New Labour administration. We visited a very small number of local
authorities and there met with service managers, front-line staff and young people themselves from
both the local authority and voluntary and community sectors. We asked similar or the same kinds
of questions that we had asked in the first Inquiry. We encountered considerable turbulence and
churn in the system but nevertheless were able to spend a day in each of eight services and gain
some useful insights into the inter-relationship between policy, practice and outcomes for young

In both Inquiries there were wide discrepancies of perception, experience and view reported to us.
From this qualitative evidence it has been hard to pull together consistent and coherent messages.
Within the same area we typically found managers and front-line workers drawing on different
frames of reference to make sense of what they believed to be taking place in the service and in the
sector more widely. Nevertheless, it has been possible to identify some key themes and patterns,
using the testimony of those we met to illustrate and enliven them.

Two years on from the first Inquiry we found that many of the dilemmas we encountered then still
persist and indeed have intensified. Services remain pre-occupied by targets, requiring youth
workers to measure the value of their interventions by the numbers they reach rather than by the
quality of the relationships and opportunities they create. The meaning of voluntary participation
has become more not less ambiguous as partner services and agencies call upon youth workers to
devise and run programmes that young people are required to attend. The challenge for youth
workers of converting a sense of obligation in young people to one of active choice has never been
more urgent. Perverse incentives have become evident as projects hang on to young people as a
means of protecting and preserving funding for their work.

There are also reasons to be positive. The stock of youth work is still high, judging by continuing
referrals from other services (schools, police, health). Youth workers continue to make an important
and distinctive contribution to the integration of support and development services. They have
found creative and flexible ways of responding to government policies, for example by extending the
provision of positive activities at week-ends. Under constant pressure they adhere to tried and
tested principles and involve young people themselves in shaping programmes to meet their own
needs and aspirations.

Strong cultural differences persist between professions over operational matters such as the sharing
of information. Sensible planning and provision of youth work opportunities are blighted by actual
and anticipated shortfalls in funding. The independence of the voluntary and community sector is
being put at risk by its reliance on limited funding from the national and local state. The policy of the
new coalition has cut off key funding streams that had put resources and decision-making in the
hands of young people the better to determine the provision they wanted in their localities. And as
managers dwindle in number and get distracted away from day-to-day direct management of teams
and resources, the gap in perceptions between themselves and those they manage widens rather
than narrows. This process has been intensified by the tendency to draw this smaller number of
managers, some of whom do not have a background in professional youth work, into more strategic
roles with its attendant tasks of alliance-building and information sharing. As the policy and funding
climate become more volatile change, uncertainty and complexity proliferate and people
communicate with less frequency, clarity and confidence both up as well as down ‘the line’, with the
result that they find it hard to keep each other in the loop.

As service budgets are cut policy makers and funders are turning more to supporting services that
target already identified individuals, groups, localities and issues. Distinctive youth work methods
are rationed to programmes and projects that become the preserve of those who are seen by policy-
makers as needing them most. Educational principles and purposes have become increasingly hard
to safeguard as ones in favour of ‘child saving’ and youth control are increasingly prioritised.
Spontaneous and ‘on the wing’ interventions and the preventative properties of open access youth
work become harder to defend. The demand for evidence of the positive impact of the use of scarce
resources tends to encourage a narrow focus on those interventions that lead to more immediately
demonstrable outcomes.

These straws in the wind signify cold comfort. It is hard to find cause for celebration. With resilience,
resourcefulness and resolve – the characteristics it seeks to engender in young people themselves –
as the profession’s hallmarks, a determined, creative and sustained defence of good practice is
increasingly going to be required, by managers and field practitioners, if – when we return for a third
phase of the Inquiry – we are to find that youth work continues to make its distinctive contribution
both to young people’s wellbeing in their here-and-now and to longer-term positive outcomes.

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