Reporting back from our Voluntary Youth Sector seminar



The state, the market and the voluntary youth sector

18 September 2014, 11.00 for 11.15– 4.00

Brunswick Parish Church Centre, Brunswick St, Manchester, M13 9TQ


Thanks to Bernard Davies for what he himself dubs a highly subjective report and the photos.


The seminar was attended by 24 people – voluntary organisation youth workers, volunteers and managers, youth and community work course tutors and the CEO of a regional youth work unit. Though most were based in the north of England, four workers came from Ireland – from the Limerick Youth Service.


At a number of points over the day it didn’t pass unnoticed that we were meeting as the Scottish referendum was happening, with its suggestions of possible shifts in popular political engagement.


The programme included four 15-20 minute inputs. Two in the morning focused on broader policy issued and contexts:

The national voluntary youth sector: in whose interests?’

Bernard Davies (IDYW and National Coalition for Independent Action), based on an April 2014 Youth & Policy article ‘Independence at risk…’

Neo-liberal policies and their impact on youth provision’

Ian McGimpsey (University of Birmingham), drawing on his research into the effects of the financial crisis on the funding of youth work provision.

In the afternoon two Manchester-based practitioners reflected on the financial and ethical dilemmas which this national picture posed for them and their organisations.

‘Does the piper ever get to call the tune?’ by Helen Gatenby, M13 Youth Project

‘Survival of the fittest: ethics, conviviality and the economic imperative’ by Tess Gregson, 42nd Street




Two hour-long discussions in small groups and a final plenary highlighted a number of issues.

Our language

  • It is important we don’t just take for granted our basic terms – eg neo-liberalism.
  • Rather than just rejecting some language as ‘bad’/’dangerous’, can we collectively reclaim some terms – eg ‘resilience’ as a basis for protesting, thriving?

Commissioning and commissioners

  • Commissioners – seen as having considerable power – often do not understand (or, it sometimes seems, do not want to understand) youth work. They are liable particularly to disassociate ‘good outcomes’ from the need for ‘good relationships’.
  • Might there however be a somewhat more contradictory situation beginning to emerge within these processes as for example:
    • some commissioners themselves begin to experience value dilemmas within the dominant commissioning regimes;
    • it becomes clear that (as has been shown in its much longer history in the US) contracting-out often turns out to increase costs; and
    • high profile political and policy events such as the report on the Rotherham child abuse scandal provide evidence of the special role youth work can play in reaching and gaining the trust of young people out of the reach of other services.
  • The need therefore to look for ways of educating key adults such as commissioners about youth work and its defining values.

Big nationals, small locals and the place of the youth worker

  • The big national voluntary youth organisations were seen as colluding increasingly with the ‘marketisation’ of the youth work field, and as displaying great reluctance to upset commissioners.
  • Not only were smaller local youth and community organisations seen to be losing their ability to campaign. For many their very existence was under threat – pointing for example to the need from some organised ‘crowd-sourcing’ of funds (?perhaps via IDYW).
  • It was suggested by one participant that workers’ voices are weak in these debates because – unlike those in other professions – they often come from working class backgrounds (‘The poor working with the poor’)?

The big trusts

  • Many grant-giving trusts were seen as colluding with the marketisation agendas. This suggested a need for work aimed at connecting with some – eg the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the JRF trusts, Rank – which just might be points of change. (?‘An alliances seminar’). Interest in doing some follow-up groundwork on this was expressed by 2 or 3 participants. (The Institute for Youth Work was also mentioned in this context).

And IDYW in all of this?

  • One youth and community work course tutor reported that IDYW is now an important resource for a final year module focused particularly on ‘the core values of youth work’
  • It was reported that IDYW critiques seemed to be received by some in the field as personalised even though quite explicitly IDYW’s focus is on organisations, their policies, their public statements and their public actions and not on individuals working for them.

All raising a variety of challenging questions:

So where are the values?’

Indeed, where do our values come from? From youth work itself? Or is youth workers’ practice where they express values developed elsewhere in their lives and experience?

How do we find the space for intellectual critique when the neo-liberal ideology and language is so strong and pervasive?

Where does the courage come from to challenge dominant value frameworks and their expressions in policy and practice – especially given that the daily struggle to survive can undermine the capacity to be brave?

How de we make our voices heard when we lack access to those in power, to the media?

Do we ‘disconnect’?

Or, Alinsky-style, confront?

In everyday practice, are there tactical possibilities to, for example, use ‘critical imagination/critical reflection’?


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