Selling Youth Work to the Market: Commissioning Uncovered

The Department of Education has circulated for discussion a paper, ‘A Narrative for Youth Work Today’ or

An education for the 21st century

The preamble goes as follows:

Youth work is widely recognised as having an important role to play in
helping young people develop the personal and social skills they need to

Tim Loughton MP has commissioned a number of leaders in the youth sector to
write a discussion paper on the role of youth work. The aim of this paper is
to help policy makers and local commissioners to better understand the
impact of youth work, and to offer a basis on which providers of youth work
services can begin to develop a common language to describe their role and

Our thanks go to the authors, including:

*       Doug Strycharczyk – AQR
*       Damien Allen – Knowsley MBC
*       Nick Wilkie – London Youth
*       Susanne Rauprich and Gethyn Williams – NCVYS
*       Fiona Blacke – National Youth Agency
*       Bethia McNeil – The Young Foundation
*       John Bateman
*       Dr Richard Davies – Leicester De Montford University

The purpose of the paper is to stimulate discussion. It does not necessarily
reflect the view of the Department.

The IDYW Steering Group’s response begins below:

This is a disturbing, if predictable document, born of its time. Commissioned by a government committed to commissioning, its authors have bowed to the imperative of commissioning: deliver what the commissioner desires. The backcloth is one of the decimation of public services provided through a welfare state and its replacement by a social market accountable to business and finance. The Minister’s leading proposition is that there exists ‘a lack of an up-to-date description of the role of youth work in supporting the personal and social development of young people…’. This is best read as meaning there is nothing available that fits with the Minister’s ideological agenda. It is an assertion which wilfully ignores a range of recent and influential contributions1, now supplemented by the In Defence of Youth Work’s own This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice.2 It is an assertion that the authors, given their professional roles, ought to have contended. Given their accommodation to the Minister’s myopia their paper emerges as no more than an attempt to provide a rationale for the government’s policy of privatising and targeting youth work provision. It stands in stark opposition to IDYW’s defence of open and pluralist, democratic and emancipatory youth work.

The resulting statement opens ostentatiously, claiming to be ‘a narrative for youth work today’ and to be offering ‘a new understanding’ of the role of youth work. As for the former, creating a narrative requires a sense of the past, present and future. However this document floats free of history, fails utterly to ground itself in the profound social and economic crisis we are currently enduring and is blinkered by its inability to imagine beyond the Coalition’s ideological straitjacket. As for its ‘new understanding’ of youth work, it merely consolidates New Labour’s capitulation to neo-liberalism’s imposition of individualised conformity. The authors propose that the yardstick for our work with young people ought to be whether a young person ‘succeeds’, defined as ‘finding a place within the community offering security, fulfilment and strong interpersonal relationships’. Ironically, given the usual talk about being hard-headed and robust, this notion of individual success is vague and abstract. Conspicuously it lacks any notion of social responsibility and collective obligation, any recognition of youth work’s potential contribution to fostering the active and critical citizens vital to democratic life.

Necessarily the authors pay lip service to tried and trusted tenets from the youth work lexicon [ personal and social development, young people’s involvement ], but it is important not to be misled. Their aim is to codify the instrumental shift over the last 20 years from an open and pluralist engagement with young people to the targeted, behavioural modification of problematic, often demonised youth. Three fixatives glue their argument together:

  • Youth work is distinctive as an educational approach, easily transferable into ‘different contexts’.
  • It is about the transformation of character through the instilling of measurable ‘capabilities’, which lead to desirable social outcomes.
  • Prescribed programmes of activity and intervention are central to this enterprise.

In terms of the first proposal the authors can hardly be chastised for homing in on the idea of youth work as a package of transferable values and skills, the singular property of youth workers, which can be taken into all manner of authoritarian settings without a jolt to its internal integrity. This illusion goes back a long way and deepened across the New Labour years. Forget that you’re working in a pupil referral unit, forget that you’re gathering intelligence on the streets for the police – you’re paid as a youth worker and hey presto you’re still doing youth work. Not surprisingly this promiscuity of principle plays into the hands of the Coalition and its apologists. In fact the assertion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The list of values, albeit distorted, belong to the secular and religious humanist tradition, the communication and group skills identified are practised across the education and welfare professions and indeed beyond. Our distinctiveness is that we argue about values, we introduce our skills into a critical dialogue with young people that begins on their terms and starts from their agendas. It is a voluntary encounter, which, if authentic, cannot guarantee the delivery of the State’s desired outcomes.

As for the ‘instilling of measurable capabilities’, the best way of locating the  authors’ argument is to flip to page four and the section entitled, ‘Realising our shared outcomes’. Here we find introduced the idea of such ‘capabilities’, which ‘ in commissioning terms can be referred to in several ways – as intermediate or perhaps proxy indicators for the kind of wider societal outcomes commissioners, policy makers and all those supporting young people would recognise. Understanding and focusing on the capabilities produced by youth work is vital to unleashing its potential through a commissioning process where such capabilities can be measured and in turn lead to a variety of desirable outcomes.‘ This is brazen propaganda. Do the authors not realise that we are living in a deeply divided society, where there is no consensus about desired social outcomes, where the gap between rich and poor continues to widen? The reality of youth work as a contested site of practice, reflecting societal conflict, which in itself is healthy, if often disturbing, is buried beneath banalities such as ‘through this process the outcomes and success we all want to see for young people can be realised’.

And, as for the third underpinning assumption of this ‘narrative’ – the central place accorded to prescribed programmes of activity and intervention – the authors tie themselves in knots trying to justify their programmatic imperative, using a tortuous rewriting of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, in which they wilfully mix up programme and process in a spiral journey, wherein – surprise, surprise! – accreditation is but one step from the summit. Further intellectual rigour is evidently provided by a recourse to Oginsky’s model of intervention and reflection, which reveals little understanding of the experiential nature of youth work as informal education. No matter, Oginsky was/is, by chance, adviser to Cameron on the widely agreed aberration known as National Citizen’s Service.

Throughout the document anomalies and absences cry out to be acknowledged. Here are a few.

  • The authors dare to talk about youth work as developing the social and functional capital necessary to empower young people”. The very ideas of social and functional capital are at odds. The latter is profoundly conformist. It is about having the necessary capabilities to fit into, be successful and accept the status quo. In contrast empowerment in its original sense refers to the recognition by those with less power of their collective ability to resist. It is not something that can be granted from outside by youth workers or anybody else. Sadly in recent times the notion of empowerment is used willy-nilly, here, there and everywhere, often describing what we used to call confidence-building. Obviously this is important, helping individuals exert more influence over their lives. But it is not about power. Power is exerted by collectives. Power is resisted by collectives. Empowered young people dissent. They do not necessarily do the State’s bidding.
  • In their talk of power relations the authors cast aside the greatest contribution of the era of radical youth work in the 70’s and 80’s, its recognition that who young people are is deeply influenced by their gender, race, sexuality, disability, faith and class. Youth is heterogeneous and talking about individual difference misses the point.
  • Inevitably the document stresses transition to adulthood as if the latter is a state of grace. In our IDYW statement we argue that youth work should illustrate “a commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and -now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions”. We reject the transitional view of young people as half-formed, as characters to be transformed. It is patronising and pompous. In this context we are tempted to suggest ‘adults, heal thyselves! You have much still to learn, not least from your own children’. None of us are fully fledged.
  • Strikingly, but mistakenly, the authors use the example of employment as an arena in which youth work can demonstrate its mettle, helping ‘young people deal with career choices realistically balancing their expectations [from basic security through to fame and wealth] against new financial realities [ the costs of further/higher education and a more volatile labour market]’. We are asked to note the changing nature of employment and calls for ’employability’ skills. Some of us think we’ve been here before – shades of the late 1970’s, the Great Debate and the rise of youth opportunities programmes. As ever young people are blamed for the system’s irrationality. Thus our distinguished authors apparently write in complete ignorance of or indifference to the almost one million young people aged between 16- 24 ‘not in education, employment and training’, – that is, unemployed. We are told simply that a persistent group of young people is being left behind. If only the million would keep up! Their message is that youth work can step in with a more inclusive learning and development offer. To do what we have no idea? Somehow we suspect that involvement in the campaigns to oppose the ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the hike in student fees or indeed the closure of youth centres is not what the authors have in mind.
  • Finally, if not exhaustively, the writers of this exercise in bowing the knee to authority pluck out of the thin air of Business Administration or so-called Psychological Science the supposedly clinching concepts of ‘resilience’ and ‘mental toughness’, which young people need and youth work can provide. We are forced to wonder if the authors possess any sense of contradiction. To argue that  young people need to become resilient and mentally tough  as if these concepts are not deeply ideological is disingenuous. We might ask why not replace them with ‘collectively committed’ and ‘intellectually curious’?

A fuller analysis of this opportunist and sycophantic acquiescence to the government’s agenda will emerge. What for now is most shocking about this paper is that it has been written and circulated – and with such aplomb – to a field, within which youth work and youth services are being savagely cut, transformed without negotiation; at a time when young people themselves are up in articulate arms about what’s happening to services they cherish; and at a moment when the very ideology the authors choose to support is facing a profound and debilitating crisis.

1 See, for example:

Janet Batsleer, (2008), Informal Learning in Youth Work, Sage

Janet Batsleer, and Bernard Davies (eds), (2010), What is Youth Work?, Learning Matters

Jeremy Brent, (2004), ‘Communicating what youth work achieves: the Smile and the Arch’, Youth & Policy, no 84

Bernard Davies, (2005), ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto for our Times’, Youth & Policy, no 88

Maurice Devlin and Anna Gunning, (2009), The Purposes and Outcomes of Youth Work, Irish Youth Work Press

Tony Jeffs, and Mark Smith (eds), (2010), Youth Work Practice, Palgrave

Viv McKee, Carolyn Oldfield and Jo Poultney, (2010), The Benefits of Youth Work, Lifelong Learning UK/Unite the Union

Jon Ord, (2007), Youth work Process, Product and Practice, Russell House

Jean Spence and Carol Devanney (2006), Voices of Practice, NYA


  1. Obviously I like your piece because it’s loaded with the type of “withering criticism” that you often accuse me of delivering. I’d like to have at least seen some kind of apology written into ‘A Narrative for Youth Work Today’. How dare they brazenly rewrite the value system of youth work as if they own it? You would hope that at least one member of the commissioned advisors would have expressed the shame and disgrace of overtly butchering and crucifying the last remnants of ethical pride left under the battered banner of “youth work”. I suppose though that queuing up at the front of the line for your privileged meaty morsel of “youth work” commission that scruples are best left in a separate place along with your pride.

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