Politics Reclaimed, Ethics Reframed : Part 1

Last week a packed Board Room at UNITE’s offices in Birmingham was witness to a lively and challenging debate on the place of politics and ethics in youth work. In the morning Tony Taylor and Sarah Banks offered critical contributions, insights into which we will post in the next week or so to keep the discussion churning. Certainly there was agreement that politics and ethics are inseparable. Sadly Howard Sercombe, author of Youth Work Ethics, could not be with us because of family bereavement. His formidable presence and his acute perspective were sorely missed.

After the morning talks – thanks to Sarah for what she terms ‘scrappy’ notes

  • People (politicians) who have power may not realise they are powerful
  • Economics has taken over from politics
  • Can we link ‘why are the police battering down my door?’ with global issues in Vietnam?
  • Three levels described by Tony are reminiscent of Neil Thompson’s Personal, Cultural and Social levels of anti-oppressive practice
  • How young people are seen – demonised, We need courage to challenge this
  • The statement that politics is driven by responses to injustices is rather negative. It would be more postive to frame it in terms of advocating for the common good
  • Ethics is a more acceptable way of talking about politics
  • Ethics is not the same as professionalism
  • Ethics can be used to suppress/repress challenges
  • The code of ethics is not from youth workers
  • Ethics is subjective. Yet the local authority has rules. How does one cope with this? Feeling of being all over the place

In the afternoon Maralyn Smith, who is leading on the Institute of Youth Work at the National Youth Agency, opened proceedings with an account of the IYW as a ‘work in progress’. In the aftermath she fielded a diversity of questioning responses with a calm patience.

After the afternoon input – further ‘scrappy’, but very useful notes!

  • The NYA is going to revisit the statement of principles (Ethical Conduct in Youth Work) independently of the IYW code.
  • Where are the politics in our discussions of the IYW?
  • ‘I never thought about ethics and politics as separate issues. Ethical issues were buried in my politics’
  • There  is a need to confront the conflicts and power struggles in the youth work field in the context of the IYW. There seems to be an avoidance of differences.
  • What’s the NYA’s reaction to the political strategy to change the landscape of youth work?

As a result of the afternoon’s discussion we have written to Maralyn from IDYW to express both the following concerns and our desire to be a conduit for continued argument about IYW as a ‘work in progress’.

– There was a strong feeling that the IYW needs to reconsider the process whereby workers can contribute to its creation. As things stand it is necessary to sign up to the code of ethics in order to be fully involved. We believe it would be fruitful and inclusive to relax this demand. At this juncture workers showing an interest, but still uncertain, should be encouraged to make their voice heard.

– We believe the ‘work in progress’ continues to be haunted by the dilemma of declaring that the Institute is one of Youth Work when, in reality if is to recruit widely, it needs to be an Institute of Work with Young People or to preserve the acronym, an Institute of Youth Workers. For ourselves we do not go along with the received wisdom that we cannot define youth work. Our own definition, revealed in our cornerstones of practice, continues a coherent tradition of voluntary, young person-centred practice that goes back to its founding parents. However we do recognise that in today’s situation many youth workers find themselves in pastoral care, social inclusion, youth social work, youth justice and so on. In our opinion, dedicated to the defence of youth work as a unique site of practice, these workers are not doing youth work. This is not to argue their work is somehow inferior, but that its imposed constraints and demands render it a different undertaking. However we do want very much to be in a critical and supportive relationship with  workers across what is termed the ‘youth sector’. A broad church of an Institute, which acknowledges the diversity of work with young people without collapsing it all under the banner of youth work, thus emptying youth work of its meaning, could bring us together in a positive and respectful dialogue.

– In terms of the Code of Ethics itself we concur with  Sarah Banks in proposing that a commitment to the collective struggle for social justice needs to come to the fore; that it is necessary that workers are supported in challenging employers/policy makers regarding injustices, lack of resources; and that there needs to be a much greater acknowledgement of contradictions and conflicts inherent in our work, the tensions between care, control, education and empowerment. So too there needs to be much more exploration of management and the employers’  commitment to the Code of Ethics as a guide to good practice.

In closing our response to the IYW we underlined that the IDYW web site and Facebook remain utterly open to carrying information about the ‘work in progress’. We hope that the IYW will use our channels of communication to further the debate.



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