Where Next for the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign? A Discussion Paper

First we must confirm the venues for the two workshops, ‘Where Next for the Campaign?’

On Thursday, November 29 we will be in central London at UNISON , UNISON Centre, 130 Euston Road, London NW1 2AY

On Friday, November 30 we will be in central Sheffield at Youth Association South Yorkshire [YASY], 10a Carver Street, Sheffield, S1 4FS

In both cases the workshop will run from 11.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and will be organised around the themes in the following discussion paper.  It must be emphasised that the paper does not express some kind of definitive IDYW position. It is meant to be a catalyst to debate and criticism. We welcome responses, which are probably best sent direct to Tony at tonymtaylor@gmail.com so he can post them as contributions in their own right. Obviously you can also use the ‘Comments’ function, but somehow this has never worked very well. Comments seem to get lost! Finally please feel free to circulate the paper across your own networks. This is the Word version – Where Next?



Does our campaign exaggerate the significance of the voluntary relationship in our definition of youth work?

Thus, in our discussions with workers forced to operate within imposed and targeted settings, do we come across as precious and out of touch?

In criticising leading youth organisations for colluding with the Coalition’s market-driven agenda, are we ignoring the pragmatic pressures on a management beholden to the survival of their organisations?

In taking an agnostic stance towards the proposed Institute for Youth Work, are we ignoring the dilemmas posed for the youth work training agencies faced by a fast-changing job market, which desires competent, flexible pragmatists rather than principled critics?

Is our critique of the less than innovative National Citizen’s Service getting in the way of recognising its possibilities?

Are we being too dismissive of the rise of the youth experts and young entrepreneurs, busily ‘youth-proofing’ and scrutinising local and national policies?

The language of outcomes has become the undisputed order of the day. Our rejection of its pseudo-scientific pretence is perhaps well-placed, but how do we get our message across?

Doesn’t youth work begin with a conversation, which is uncertain of its destination?

These are but some of the questions facing us as we near the fourth year of our existence. This paper is intended to facilitate debate about where our campaign is heading.

It’s worth remembering that our campaign emerged out of the chaos created by the banking crisis of 2008. The ensuing economic and political turmoil illustrated that the neo-liberal model – its fetish of the market, its animosity to the state, its ‘new managerialism’ – was not the end of history. From our point of view it opened a window of opportunity, through which to challenge New Labour’s desire to transform youth work into little more than an agency of behavioural modification. Four years on what’s changed. Much less than we might have hoped.

The Coalition has pursued relentlessly the targeted agenda set by New Labour. In addition it has propelled the market deep into the heart of services for young people. The demise of local authority youth services is almost taken-for-granted. Commissioning is the order of the day. Advice proliferates about how best to compete to win the contracts.

Certainly there has been resistance and growing criticism. In 2011 under the banner of Choose Youth young people and youth workers mounted a passionate defence of open youth work. On the wider front there have been large, if orthodox TUC marches, whilst the eclectic ‘horizontal’ forces of OCCUPY irritated both the Right and Left of British politics, forcing Andy Haldane of the Bank of England to admit they were correct about corruption in City of London. Increasingly the policy of austerity, the scapegoating of the most vulnerable in society, is revealed as profoundly prejudiced. It is estimated that the tax owed by the corporate rich outstrips at a stroke the budget deficit hanging over ordinary folks’ heads.

Yet, to return specifically to the world of youth work, this scenario of conflict is all but ignored. Our leading executives and managers continue to act as if the present economic and political circumstances are somehow natural and inevitable. From their point of view we must enter the world of entrepreneurial enterprise without a qualm. Those of us, who demur, clinging it is said to worn and weary copies of Freire, are accused of failing to recognise new ways of thinking, clinging to an outdated notion of public service. We can but reply that neoliberalism is a body of ideas concocted in the very late 1930s – hardly that new, certainly deeply divisive. We can but point to our consistent criticism of the bureaucratic character of the state and the need to democratise local government from the bottom upwards. The truth is that those within youth work, who have allowed market ideology to prevail, have failed to encourage critical dialogue and reflection on its ramifications either at a national or local level. In short they have departed from the very core of democratic youth work itself.

Defining youth work

It seems more important than ever to defend our interpretation of youth work, which is rooted in a tradition that employs neither compulsion nor sanction in seeking to relate to young people. All the more so as the last few years have witnessed a conscious effort to blur the boundaries between differing forms of work with young people. Youth Work has been utilised as a generic term to describe what in the past would have been clearly seen as, for example, youth social work or youth justice. Our insistence, that youth work is informal education through voluntary association founded on young people’s agendas, is an insistence on the distinctiveness of youth work as a questioning dialogue in young people’s ‘free’ time. Yet, perhaps, we exaggerate the significance of the voluntary relationship?

Building relationships with youth workers across the ‘youth’ sector

Drawing a line in the sand raises challenging questions about the relationship of the campaign to the host of workers finding themselves in imposed settings, charged with pursuing prescribed outcomes. Increasingly workers have little choice in the matter. They have been shifted without negotiation into multi-agency teams, saddled often with identified case loads. Or indeed, if seeking work, find that any jobs going are now located firmly in the targeted arena. Of course we know that many will be trying to soften and subvert the situations, within which they find themselves. The campaign needs to defend its principles, whilst reaching out to and hopefully involving workers from this myriad of contradictory settings. In trying to do so, are we in danger of coming across as being precious about what constitutes youth work?


Building relationships with youth organisations across the youth sector

As we have noted the leading organisations within youth work, notably the National Youth Agency [NYA], the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services [NCVYS] and UK Youth have embraced the government’s Positive for Youth script, peppered as it is with phrases such as ‘overcoming barriers to a more competitive market’ and ‘growing the market for social investment’. This collusion is symbolised through the work of CATALYST, the consortium led by NCVYS, involving NYA, Social Enterprise UK and the Young Foundation, which ‘aims to strengthen the youth sector market, equip the sector to work in partnership with Government and coordinate a skills development strategy for the youth sector workforce‘. The familiar themes are to be found here – the capitulation to the market and social enterprise, coupled with the notion of skill shortages. Sadly we have to note that in terms of critical opposition the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services [CHYPS], the senior management within the the field, has hardly put its head above the parapet. Indeed at a local level many of its members have been in the forefront of implementing unquestioningly instructions from above, whilst suppressing any sign of dissidence. Obviously we have criticised this perspective, but are we dismissing too lightly the pragmatic pressures on all those involved at an executive or senior management level? Have they had any choice? Indeed some of our own supporters find themselves having to draw on government schemes simply to keep their small voluntary organisations alive. With this caution in mind we have sought across the summer to bring all parties together in an open and pluralist conference to discuss ‘The Future of Youth Work’, but this is yet to materialise.

An Institute for Youth Work or an Institute for Work with Young People?

Talk of bringing people together takes us to the proposed Institute of Youth Work. Our position remains ambivalent. In our submission to the Education, Training and Standards Committee [ETS] we noted the diversity of opinion across our supporters. ‘Some believe strongly that such a body is vital to the future of the work and the profession. Others are much more cautious about the appearance of the regulatory body with the prospect of a licence to practice dangling on the horizon.’ Our principal concern was to warn against conflating youth work with the diversity of other forms of work with young people.

Clearly we need to think this through more. In particular, what might be the impact upon the youth work training agencies of the shifting landscape in terms of youth provision, the continuing relevance of the classic youth work training curriculum and the changing character of the profession itself?

The National Citizens Service

Miriam Jackson captures popular feeling about the summer programme when she says,

‘it is as if youth work didn’t exist and such programmes had only just been invented, and that until NCS no one was doing informal education and personal support and development work with young people, including outdoor adventure, team building, challenging and problem solving activities and volunteering etc.’ Meanwhile the delivery of the programme exposes the problematic relationships being made by such as NYA, Catch 22, UK Youth and V-inspired as they climb into bed with the infamous, outsourcing outfit, SERCO, to form the NCS Network. To add insult to injury as local authority youth services continue to wither, the NCS providers express concern about continuity for their so-called NCS graduates and begin to make noises about the need for further opportunities and provision beyond NCS, what they deem the NCS legacy. Attention too must be paid to the impact of NCS upon the wages, conditions and opportunities for many qualified youth workers.

Without doubt we need to hear from workers and young people involved in NCS so that we can have a more informed debate about its significance. For the moment we hear only spin and propaganda on NCS websites, what is the reality?

Youth participation and youth-proofing

The talk about NCS graduates throws us into the world of youth participation, young advisers, young entrepreneurs, Youth MPs and ‘youth-proofing’- a burgeoning world of youth expertise. To express caution about these developments is to invite exasperation. How can anyone not welcome a national youth scrutiny group or the sight of young people debating in the Houses of Parliament? The irony is that these initiatives are conformist. The models are either the upwardly mobile individual entrepreneur or the would-be future politician. In this way youth participation becomes commodified, something to be exchanged for status, money or a vote. In this scenario we find little attention paid to youth participation as an expression of independent collective activity by young people.

Isn’t there a need for an open exchange of experience about what’s going on, within which youth participation does not float free from the generally recognised crisis in British and European democracy?

The Outcomes Illusion

The discourse of outcomes has come to dominate thinking about evaluation, to be almost beyond question. Its most recent manifestation the Young Foundation’s Framework is being widely touted as the impartial answer to the sector’s need to evidence impact. Unfortunately the framework is partial and flawed. Its politics and proposals are rooted in an acceptance of neo-liberal ideology. Its key product, the empowered, resilient young individual, stripped of their class, race, gender and sexuality, will, it is hoped, have less need for public services, be self-sufficient and willing to work in whatever capacity within a world in which power relations and structural inequality have remarkably disappeared. The framework’s fashionable return to character building, its construction of a matrix of emotional and social capabilities, tells us nothing new. From its origins youth work has focused on character, on leadership, discipline, communication, problem solving, on grit and resilience! However, over the years, we recognised that these concepts are contested and that in a would-be democracy these differences are healthy and necessary. The Young Foundation has no truck with such pluralism. It claims that by dipping into an eclectic mix of allegedly scientifically proven psychological tests we can provide robust, objective evidence of our significance. This is illusion dressed up in pseudo-scientific garb. The danger is that this illusion gains the appearance of reality if all those involved, particularly managers, workers and employers, buy into the fantasy that categorising young people via the crude completion of inappropriate tests is a step forward, somehow useful and meaningful.

Revealing our collective inferiority complex, our ambivalence about making the case for the improvisatory youth work, hasn’t our capitulation to the idea of the curriculum and latterly the ideology of outcomes undermined our place in the history of a person-centred, dissident educational practice? Doesn’t youth work begin with a conversation, which is uncertain of its destination? Isn’t the discourse of outcomes, the very discourse of social and life skills training, we struggled against in the name of defending social education three decades ago?

Organising ourselves

  1. At the heart of a democratic youth work is a commitment to an egalitarian and non-hierarchical way of viewing the world. Our campaign must mirror such a commitment. We must embrace diversity of opinion and analysis. For example, take the issue of outcomes, some of us will remain utterly antagonistic, whilst others will feel it is possible in the interests of young people to ameliorate its worst excesses.

  1. Such differences do not mean that we lack a sense of vision or purpose. Our campaign aspires to playing a humble part in the creation of a just, equal and democratic society. Yet, for some of us, this means going beyond capitalism, the present exploitative state of affairs. Whilst, for others, this remains possible under a responsible capitalism. About this divergence we will argue passionately. However it does not mean we cannot work together today and tomorrow in defence of democratic youth work.

  1. Utilising our well-received book, This is Youth Work, sponsored generously by the unions, UNISON and UNITE, has borne real dividends in terms of working with a range of organisations over the past year. Participants in our workshops have welcomed the increasingly rare opportunity to argue about the meaning of practice. At this juncture we are reflecting upon this experience and exploring alternative ways of using a revised version of the stories in the book as a response to continued overtures from the field.

  1. Crucially we need to take every opportunity to build links with other groups struggling against the tide. Throughout we have been an active partner in the Choose Youth Alliance, seeking to be in close touch with the youth and community work trade unions. We continue to enjoy a supportive relationship with the National Coalition for Independent Action [NCIA], the Social Work Action Network [SWAN] and the Federation for Detached Youth Work [FDYW] as well as contributing to the long-standing critical journals, Youth&Policy and CONCEPT. Most recently we have backed the Generations United initiative. Spreading our wings we have been involved centrally in a European proposal to form an organisation of workers committed to open youth work. We will be attending an inaugural conference in January.

  2. London and the North-East apart we have failed to encourage local and regional IDYW networks. This is no surprise. Many of our supporters are just about keeping their heads above water. Survival is the name of the game. A consequence too of fighting back, but losing, is sometimes a retreat into the personal, into a sense of hopelessness. To deny this is to bury one’s head in the sand. Nevertheless we should continue to make the powerful case for workers coming together under their own steam as a critical source of support.

  3. Nevertheless the Campaign has had an impact beyond many an expectation. Nearly 500 folk are signed up to the regular mailing, over 850 people are members on Facebook, nearly 300 people follow on Twitter, whilst our website receives an average of well over 500 visits per week.

All in all we think many youth workers are glad we are here, saying what we are saying. In this light we will carry on speaking ‘truth to power’, hoping that more people will rally to the cause. We hope very much to see you at the forthcoming seminars in London, November 29 and Sheffield, November 30 and/or at our national conference, which will take place on Friday, March 8 in Leeds prior to the Youth&Policy History event [ see http://www.indefenceofyouthwork.org.uk/wordpress/]

Tony Taylor [IDYW Co-ordinator]

[Throughout the discussion paper I have used the collective pronoun ‘we’. I have done so, because I have tried to capture a perspective beyond my own. However this piece is certainly not some sort of IDYW party line. It is my, it is our fervent hope that supporters will join in a critical dialogue about where the Campaign is up to and where it might be going.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.