The world of youth work remains in turmoil. What might be our future? For much of the immediate past we seem to have been pulling in different directions. We have been at odds about whether to embrace or resist the mantra that there is no alternative to the market-driven policies of either New Labour or the Coalition. We have differed about whether to accept or reject the inevitability of austerity, together with all its consequences for youth provision. However, as we noted in our founding statement, history is an unruly character. She is not enamoured of predictable outcomes.
Thus in the last week or two something is stirring in the belly of our tradition. It is by no means clear where this convulsion is leading. It is full of contradiction, but replete with hope. During this week we will look at the reaction to Gove, the proposed move to an Institute of Youth Work, the Choose Youth Manifesto and the prospect of a open and pluralist Youth Sector conference.
The Gove Gaffe
The very model of a model Etonian, Michael Gove, kicked things off, declaring that youth policy was but a local matter – the cue for a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.
This refrain so perturbed the CEO’s of the leading youth charities that they issued a rebuke to his localism. In an Open Letter signed in retrospect by over a hundred organisations they argued the need for an overarching youth policy guided by central government.
We need central Government to ensure that all aspects of policy – be they health, education, employment, criminal justice and community engagement – articulate coherently a framework that ensures a strong and seamless mesh of support in the often difficult transition between childhood and adulthood. This cannot be left to local government alone but needs to be coordinated and championed centrally.
Close behind the Training Agencies Group [TAG] threw in their pennyworth.
What concerns us [most] is the evident deprioritisation in Michael Gove’s recent remarks to the Education Select Committee of young people’s out-of-school learning and support
Not to be outdone young people have weighed in. Representatives of a diversity of youth organisations, such as London Youth, UK Youth Voice, British Youth Council and the National Youth Arts Network sent another missive winging on its way.
Good youth organisations and community projects are pillars of their communities, offering support in safe and stimulating environments, which we actively choose to go to.
In an heartening move the National Scrutiny Group of fifteen young people has insisted that the next meeting with the government tackles Gove’s remarks.
A lot of people in the group feel that youth policy really ought to be a national concern and something that the Department for Education ought to look at.”
This sense of unity is most welcome. Indeed entering into the spirit we signed up also to the NCVYS initiated letter. Yet inevitably we harbour reservations. If this consensus is to be built upon we need more than ever to argue through the continuing differences lying under its surface.
To take but one significant issue , how are we to understand the Coalition’s approach to overarching youth policy? Obviously Gove was meaning youth services rather than the entirety of youth policy. This emphasis is taken up in all the above responses. However the NCVYS initiated riposte widens rightly the argument, citing the alarming level of youth unemployment. However the Gove remark seems to be interpreted as an example of a laissez-faire attitude by the government to both general and specific youth policy, which “at worst..will risk social unrest”. We will leave to another occasion a discussion about the utterly necessary and legitimate role of social unrest in a democracy.
For now we will pose two issues.
From the victory of neo-liberal economics and politics under Thatcher successive governments across three decades have aspired to implementing a coherent youth policy. Its sweeping ambition was/is to individualise and depoliticise young people [and indeed all of us]. Its goal is to privatise in more senses than one. The privatised individual turns their back on public solidarity. The privatised service rejects public need in the name of the market and profit. The beginning of this process was documented in the mid-1980’s within Bernard Davies’s seminal ‘Threatening Youth : Towards a national youth policy.’ This programme of the massive behavioural and structural modification of both personality and society was not halted under New Labour. In its latest ‘social conservative’ guise it continues to this day. Of course the implementation of social policy is always contested in all manner of ways. Young people are not dopes to be manipulated as the powerful think fit. Yet it is difficult to deny the significant success of neo-liberal ideology in shifting how we perceive the world around us, in seeping through into our individual and collective consciousness.
Thus we need to be cautious about what we mean by saying, “the anniversary of the publication of Positive for Youth offers a unique opportunity to review whether a range of policies are working for young people and what leadership is needed from central Government in areas where we currently fail.” The call for a review is well made, if a tad generous in looking to the Coalition for leadership. Positive for Youth was hardly a benign and neutral document. As we noted in our reaction, ‘Negative For Youth’, a year ago, “the ‘passion for ‘youth’ which this new ‘cross-government’ policy statement constantly proclaims converts into little more than ‘facilitating’, ‘supporting’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘committing to a “one year on” audit’ – and comes with no dedicated money.” As an example of the insidious dominance of neo-liberal ideology, the accompanying ‘A Narrative for Youth Work Today’ is at heart a rationalised acceptance of commissioned, targeted, and prescribed services for young people, written ironically by representatives of organisations signed up to the Gove rebuke.
In returning to these dilemmas we are not trying to open old wounds. Fundamentally we continue to believe that we have failed within the world of youth work to live up to our own rhetoric about process and dialogue. Gove should have kept his gob shut. He’s gone and got us agitated and in conversation. As it is the government has made plain its priority for youth services is the targeting of the troublesome through a mix of multi-agency teams and outsourced projects with open access work disappearing fast. At the local level this policy seems to be pursued dutifully, even at times enthusiastically. We are sure this is not the whole picture, but we are all, we believe, struggling to get a grip on the critical situation facing us. Indeed is crisis too strong a word? We hope that this outburst of collective concern from the ‘sector’ will spill over into widespread support for the open and pluralist conference being planned under the ChooseYouth umbrella [of which more later].