Opening a Conversation – Is IDYW too political, out of touch? Bernard Davies responds

You will find below the second part of the conversation between Colin Brent, Bernard Davies and myself. Colin’s initial post has within minutes stimulated a number of replies on our Facebook page.


Dear Colin:


Many thanks for your thoughtful and challenging comments. I want to respond from a personal point of view (and hopefully not too defensively) to two of your main points, not least because I recognise they pose real dilemmas for IDYW.


One is how effectively we are reaching out to and actually reaching practitioners. You’ll know that we did some rethinking specifically on this a year or so ago when we were planning for a new round of story-telling workshops. We decided then that we needed to redesign the workshop programme to take into account the radically changed situations many youth workers are now working in. Though we still use the IDYW ‘cornerstones of youth work’ as ‘bottom-line’ reference points, the workshops now specifically ask for examples of practice from workers’ current work settings. They also include a session at the end focused on such questions as: ‘Can the IDYW conception of youth work be sustained, and if so how?’


Ahead of suggesting to the Steering Group that we do another review of the workshops, I have just worked out that the eight I’ve helped facilitate during 2013 have involved around 200 people, with over half held on a weekday morning or afternoon. And though I don’t have hard evidence of how many of those have been face-to-face workers, my guesstimate would be over 50% plus a good number of students doing placements, often in targeted or similar settings. What has also been encouraging is that one of the most consistent bits of feedback from them has been how much workers have valued them as, now, a very rare chance not just to focus on practice but, to use the word they use repeatedly, to ‘unpack’ it and so understand it better for themselves and feel more confident about explaining it to others.


The impact of IDYW’s up-front political stance is, I recognise, a more complex and contradictory issue. Reading your comment about putting some potential supporters off by hard-line politicos, for example, I had an immediate flashback to my son who, after a brief involvement with one of the left groups in the 70s, dropped out of organised political activity in his late teens, never to return.


Your reservations have of course been voiced from time to time by others, including in the story-telling workshops, while we know that some training agencies won’t host the workshops because they see IDYW as ‘too political’. My own starting point here is that IDYW has to make a choice. And for me that choice, especially given the dominant politics of today, has to be in favour of making these explicit and then leaving practitioners and others in the youth work field to make their choice on whether to engage – or not.


What I pick up at IDYW events, however, is that for some people, including practitioners, IDYW’s overt political stance is not just an attraction. It actually comes as a relief to be part of a critical political analysis of what they are currently experiencing in their daily working world. One important result has been that IDYW has provided a forum for debates which seem to be happening nowhere else and in the process confronting some dominant and largely unchallenged conventional wisdoms. Examples this year have been the session at our national conference in Leeds in March on work with girls; Tony’s paper on outcomes; and the Birmingham seminar on ethics and politics and if and how they fit together. What was also striking about that event were the very strong and challenging inputs from a group of recently qualified younger workers who were new to IDYW.


Where, I think, I also differ from you on all this is that, far from being dogmatic, I see IDYW as struggling very hard to stay pluralist on some of the core issues we face. Though I usually explain at some point in the story-telling workshops why the IDYW ‘cornerstones’ remain its bottom lines, sooner or later discussion almost always turns to: ‘So is this or that example of practice really youth work?’ More broadly, within IDYW (including within the Steering Group), views on the Institute for Youth Work continue to straddle the whole spectrum – something which became very clear at a vigorous Q & A session with Maralyn Smith from NYA at the Birmingham seminar. We’ve also discussed recently inviting the Young Foundation to one of our seminars to debate Tony’s ‘Outcomes’ paper.


I personally am only comfortable tackling issues like this in ways which go beyond rhetoric and assertion and encourage evidence-based dialogue and debate. I’m therefore really sorry that you feel there’s an IDYW party line to toe – or that, when you detect one you don’t feel you can challenge it. In the spirit of that hoped-for pluralism, I’m really pleased you’ve opened up this exchange and hope you, and indeed others, will keep it going.


Best wishes





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