It’s good to get Tania’s thoughts on ‘where we’re up to’, influenced by her attendance at last week’s DeMontfort University seminar on the ‘Future of Youth Work and Young People’s Social Rights’, partly funded by the Council of Europe. Tania shared a platform with Fiona Blacke [NYA] and Tony Gallagher [OFSTED]. amongst others. She would have been doing a double act with Pauline Grace, but the latter fell foul of a nasty virus and couldn’t be there.
This piece ends with my reflections on elements of the ‘What next’ discussion paper and responses, but started off life as a report on the DMU social rights seminar, so I’ll do that first! The seminar brought together an interesting mix of people, drawn from voluntary and statutory sector youth work practice in the UK and other European countries, campaigning and global education groups, and higher education. The first day was spent reflecting on the state of youth work in the UK, particularly with regard to young people’s access to social rights and the European dimension. This included a round-table discussion with Fiona Blacke from the NYA, Tony Gallagher from Ofsted and myself representing IDYW (unfortunately Pauline was ill and unable to come). I found the set-up a little intimidating at first but I went for it, helped by lots of smiles and nods from people in the room. Briefly I focused on cuts, predefined outcomes, managerialism, privatisation and surveillance as barriers to youth work that might involve young people in not just ‘accessing’ social rights but also in exploring, debating, challenging and campaigning on social rights. Lots of interesting comments were made and questions asked, and my overall impression was of continuing widespread support for IDYW throughout the two days.
Sonia Thompson, reporting on the first day, drew out three key emerging themes, or debates:
- Resistance, or picking your fights: which fight do you choose?
- Voluntariness of youth work (the voluntary principle): is it essential in youth work? Can we educate young people around social rights if young people don’t have a choice about whether or not they are there?
- Global youth work, learning from the global South, political education.
On the question of the voluntary principle or free association, she reflects:
One, picking up on one of Sonia’s ‘emerging themes’, is the voluntary principle debate. In particular I’m interested in this debate with regard to its relevance to who is and who is not ‘counted’ or recognised as a youth worker, and how that might feel. In one of the small group discussions I was in we debated and discussed this, and came up with what felt like some agreements. I might well be biased in my summary or selective in my memory, and I must be extrapolating to some extent, but our points of agreement went something like this:
- The voluntary principle might be better explained as a choice principle: it is about young people’s free choice to take part or to leave. (Some people, especially those from outside the UK, found the terminology confusing and thought incentives for young people / payment for staff / not being in the voluntary sector might mean not following the voluntary principle).
- While recognising that choice is not straightforward (e.g. young people may attend because friends persuade them, parents compel them or another agency refers them), for it to be ‘youth work’ (as opposed to ‘work with young people’) young people must have the choice to leave the session if they want to.
- Youth work in schools, colleges, prisons, reparations and targeted support services might or might not include a real choice over whether to take part – we cannot have a blanket assumption about certain forms of work being youth work or not – and in some cases it will always be debateable.
- ‘Youth worker’ does not just mean ‘someone who does youth work’. There is a professional or personal identity ‘youth worker’, which may be to do with identification, loyalty or qualification, and which may remain if someone is not doing ‘youth work’ at present (for whatever reason). Someone can be a youth worker even if they’re not doing youth work; their youth work experience, knowledge and skills may inform other areas of their lives.
- A belief that the voluntary principle (or choice principle) is an essential feature of youth work does not equate to a judgement about quality or value. It should not be a dismissal of (or disrespect for) other forms or settings of work, e.g. in schools, colleges, prisons – someone working in these settings may be doing great work – and someone basing their work on the voluntary principle may not be doing good work! The voluntary / choice principle is meaningful in terms of the power balance of youth work, but it is not the only thing that’s meaningful.