The Slippery Slope to Specialist Youth Work and the Margins?

Having criticised the NYA for blurring the boundaries about what we mean by youth work, what are we to make of this latest press release, ‘Specialist youth work roles under threat’.

It begins:

“Cuts to budgets and restructuring of provision have resulted in fewer specialist youth work roles, with staff being asked to carry out functions outside their area of expertise.”

Fiona Blacke, the NYA’s Chief Executive, goes on to argue, what we have known for some time past, that youth workers in multi-agency teams are being pressed into a variety of roles. Both she and Alex Stutz, head of policy at NYA, lament the fact that workers in integrated services are becoming indistinguishable from another. They omit to mention that the shift to imposed early or targeted intervention leans inevitably to a youth social, welfare or justice model. The contradiction they face is that they suggest that youth workers are operating outside their realm of expertise, whilst continuing “to bring strong skills which other services within the integrated offer don’t deliver.

Talking to workers on the ground a few days ago confirmed some of NYA’s concerns and gave subjective support to “Figures released last month, which revealed a significant drop in spending on universal services at local authority level. And a survey by CYP Now in August found that, on average, 9.6 youth service posts were lost in each local authority in 2011/12 and 6.8 posts have gone in each authority so far this year.” Some workers are feeling under assault.

However those attempting within their multiple roles to keep open access youth work alive – a couple of sessions perhaps a week- are seen almost as eccentric by some of their colleagues,  are seen as swimming against the tide of targeting. Nevertheless the practitioners still committed to preserving ‘youth work as informal education through voluntary association’ do not call it ‘specialist youth work’. It is but youth work per se.  And by and large they do not feel out of their depth in terms of other areas of their work with young people, more just frustrated with the restrictions it brings.

Perhaps I’m being churlish. It’s good that NYA recognises publicly the undermining of open youth work. However I am anxious that the formulation, ‘specialised youth work’ will marginalise further the defence of youth work as a universal and integral part of the educational opportunities available to young people.

As for Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister, he continues to intone the mantra, embraced for the most part by NYA. “A lot of youth workers in my area are being rebadged and put in other departments. It is happening all over the place. It’s not the department that staff are in or their job title, it’s whether they are doing effective, quality youth work at the appropriate time.”

In this familiar scenario youth work is used as a generic term to describe whatever suits. Is NYA’s introduction of the notion of ‘specialised youth work’ a welcome riposte? Or will it take us down the slippery slope to the reduction of youth work, as we define it, to the periphery of work with young people?

What are your thoughts?

One comment

  1. Yes, it seems bizarre to label open access youth work as ‘specialist’, if that’s what they’re doing. I always think of specialist youth work as youth work for certain groups of people or focusing on certain issues, e.g. mental health youth work, sexual health youth work, youth work in hospitals, LGBT work, etc.

    I don’t actually think NYA mean open access work when they say specialist, I think they are referrign to threats to targeted youth support work too. After all, NYA has previously been generally supportive about the blurring and undermining of open access youth work, and a cynic would wonder whether they are only worried now because it’s getting hard for them to justify their existence. Either way, ‘specialist’ is a strange form of wording. A better term might have been ‘youth work’.

    From the article I guess they are thinking of local authorities such as Hackney, which now employs no youth workers, just generic ‘youth practitioners’ who have a caseload and do a mixture of youth offending and youth support work, with some also managing to keep a small amount of open access youth clubs or detached work going on the side. I know several youth workers who are struggling to keep youth work going, and keep it looking at least a bit like youth work, despite all the challenges. But of course, as we in IDYW have argued for years, it’s a very different power relationship if the person running your youth club is also your youth offending worker.

    There’s another angle worth bearing in mind: some workers from youth offending rather than youth work backgrounds feel that this development is progressive. In their context it probably is – they’re able to have conversations with young people in their community, in groups, and in less formal environments, and to do more preventative work.

    But for open access youth work the change is insidious and hugely damaging. I don’t know whether young people would still think of youth clubs as a place where they can meet adults on their own terms, choosing what to share about themselves. I guess it increasingly depends on how individuals and groups of workers manage their balancing acts. Real open access youth work still happens (perhaps mostly outside of local authority control) but it’s becoming hard to find, and its meaning is becoming increasingly blurry. ‘Specialist youth work’ is not a helpful term in this context. An ongoing debate about what youth work means is important.

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