Ahead of posting our briefing paper on the Government’s so-called policy paper, Positive for Youth, we are pleased to feature Graeme Tiffany’s eloquent questioning of its content and intent.
Positive for Youth; thoughts from a detached youth work point of view
There is much to commend in the language of Positive for Youth, particularly its enthusiasm for young people’s participation in decision-making and the emphasis on challenging the media’s proclivity for demonising ‘youth’. Ironic then that the government is often the worst offender; its analysis of the riots took us no further than a ‘feral, thieving underclass’. One worries then that, like a good deal of the coalition’s rhetoric, it will become a triumph of spin over substance. Worst still, it could mask the plain and simple vindictiveness and fondness for coercion that has become a hallmark of recent policy, as it has revealed itself in practice. Will we see support for youth work as a form of community work, as suggested, or a further extension of targeting with all the individualising (and depoliticising) effects that that entails?
Detached youth workers in particular, whilst always focussing their efforts on those experiencing exclusion, know full well that a social and democratic model works best. This means respecting voluntary association and ‘targeting through universalism’ – making youth work and support available to all but having an eye for those who need it most. This avoids stigmatisation and builds upon the reality that few young people choose social groups homogeneous in the sense that all are ‘excluded’. Targeting undermines the very group work methodologies that seek to draw upon the resources and positive influences of others.
Detached youth workers are concerned also about being further diverted from working in places where young people choose to be – into the institutionalised context of new style PRUs and family intervention. We know well that young people need a space – their space – beyond the home and school, if they are to become autonomous. And we doubt the conclusions drawn about ‘troubled families’ and the ‘underclass’ (as if their ‘aspirations, self esteem and parenting skills’ and lack of ‘character’ is where all fault lies). It’s as if policy makers are influenced more by watching Shameless than the evidence of the structural violence inflicted by policies. The effect of downsizing the public sector, the housing benefits cap, the closure of youth centres, removal of the EMA, and the ‘autonomy’ of the academies programme are all coming home to roost – exacerbating exclusion and child poverty and inhibiting social mixing. Social mobility, typically seen as the answer to everything, is actually in reverse. The youth recognise full well that the subliminal message is that you have to ‘get out to get on’. Wither community cohesion and regeneration.
As privileged witnesses of social reality, don’t doubt that detached youth workers will “feed back to local and central government on the needs of young people from socially excluded groups”. So as cuts bite and it gets even uglier we’ll certainly be looking to work with partners amongst all those identified in Positive for Youth to mitigate the social fall out caused by the wider policy agenda. Let’s hope the government is one of these partners, and resists invoking dodgy ‘evidence’ (watch out especially for a wider narrative on risk factors, pre-birth determinants and the ‘teen brain’ – and the ever earlier intervention and pharmaceutically-based conclusions that are likely to follow). Detached youth workers will continue to state that identifying needs independent of a dialogue with young people is deeply problematic. As ‘outcomes’ have become predetermined though performance and results-led regimes and prescriptive commissioning arrangements (especially those based on measurement rather than values) there is the concern that youth participation will be mere tokenism. And if a profit motive enters the equation there is likely to be further pressure on workers to engage in programme-led rather than negotiated practice. Detached youth workers especially will tell you ‘what works’ depends … on the individual, the community, the context, the culture, and a commitment to democratic ways of working. So let’s start realising that ‘evidence-based’ programmes are often tyrannical and not reasonably transferable to each and every street corner. And that outcomes are what comes out, and can never be pre-scribed or predetermined with the kind of certainty that the scienticism that belies this document suggests. The danger is that an ideological bent will conspire to raising thresholds to services rather than reducing them. If detached work is further pre-scripted its inherent flexibility will be undermined – simply making it less, rather than more, effective. Making interventions more ‘decisive’ and ‘assertive’ can only exacerbate this and undermine the relationships on which all good practice is based. It seems activation rather than education is the order of the day. We should remember that just because something works this doesn’t make it right. We need more low threshold practice, not less. Trust can be secured no other way.
As poverty and social exclusion increases, the danger is that those best equipped to help young people are to be further constrained by policy. We will be left with more rather than fewer young people attempting to navigate the world alone. Detached youth workers will need the freedom being muted for teachers, and tangible resources, if their capabilities are to be best utilised. No doubt what resourcing ‘sufficient activities for the improvement of well-being’ will reveal itself in good time. ‘So far as is reasonably practicable’ may well be the classic opt out clause. Let’s hope not. And let’s have a respect for all youth work as an educational endeavour – rather than, at best, a mere diversionary and compensatory programme; and, at worst, just control in another guise.
What about a small test of governmental sincerity? Just ban the Mosquito device; at least we might think politicians are serious about being Positive for Youth.
This piece can be found on Graeme’s blog at: http://www.graemetiffany.co.uk/
Here it is in Word form – well worth printing out of you are coming to either of the seminars in London and Manchester – Positive for Youth – Graeme Tiffany
Thanks to Jethro Brice for the illustration, which is taken from our book, This is Youth Work.