Preserving our Humanity as Youth Workers

From the beginning of our Campaign there has been a tension between defending the Youth Service and defending Youth Work. They need not necessarily be the same. In recent weeks the emergence of Early Days Motion 488 and a looming General Election has concentrated minds on the call for statutory youth services funding. Clearly this is a demand that we are doing our best to support, albeit critically. We are organising a seminar in late February to explore a range of ways through which statutory funding might work. And it is looking very likely and promising that there will be a wider NUS-led conference on the issue in late March.

However as we enter a New Year it is worth reminding ourselves about the origins of our Campaign. In essence our birth was a response not just to cuts but to the ideological assault on the soul of youth work, the undermining of its distinctiveness as informal education. In particular we highlighted the insidious impact of prescribed outcomes upon the unfolding processes and relationships of a young person-centred practice. Our original Open Letter carved out what we continue to see as the cornerstones of an authentic youth work, cementing as a foundation:

  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

In recent times it is this very worker, who has been coaxed, cajoled and coerced into risking his integrity and forfeiting her autonomy. In terms of this neo-liberal desire to transform how see ourselves and our work we are far from alone. Well over a decade ago Stephen Ball wrote of the threat to the inner-life of the teacher posed by the terrors of performativity. He argues that new managerial reforms in schools do “not simply change what people, as educators, scholars and researchers do, it changes who they are.” A teacher, Bronwyn is quoted, “I never get the chance to think of my philosophy anymore, my beliefs. I know what I believe,but I never really put them into words anymore. Isn’y your philosophy more important than how many people get their sums right.”

By chance a few months ago I tripped over a piece written by Nancy McWilliams, ‘Preserving Our Humanity as Therapists’. She argues that the tradition of psychotherapy is inherently subversive, critical and questioning in its purpose. However she worries that psychotherapy “is being divested of its humane essence, reduced to a potpourri of technical strategies” targeted on symptoms isolated from the underlying context of a person’s life. The therapist shifts from being a holistic healer to acting as a behavioural technician.

The concerns of both these writers resonate across into the world of youth work. Our revised Statement of Purpose in 2014 reflected upon a worsening scenario, within which “for many workers pursuing their principles is shadowed by contradiction and constraint.They struggle to preserve the integrity of their relationships with young people. They find themselves ‘ducking and diving’, endeavouring to be ‘in and against’ the behavioural modification implicit in the manufacturing of the Young Foundation’s ‘emotionally resilient’ young person,  who ought to be willing to put up with whatever the system throws at them. Workers are pressured to individualise both their own and young people’s situations. They are haunted by colleagues, who have embraced wilfully or otherwise the pseudo-scientific illusions of the outcomes agenda.”

Personally I remember with pain my dying days as a Chief Youth Officer, pursued by a sense of abandoning the person I wished to be. In meeting after meeting, under the pressure to defend the Service and jobs, I spouted the crap I knew the politicians and the bureaucracy wanted to hear. You can try to rationalise that you are being untrue to yourself for the ‘greater’ good, but the self-deceit can go on only for so long. Almost invisibly the danger is that your character does begin to alter, even as you deny it to the heavens. In the event I survived in something like one piece, because of the critical support forthcoming from close friends and colleagues.

In this context the struggle to preserve our individual and collective humanity, to preserve our principles and values in the face of the corporate corrosion of ‘the common good’ is the greatest task facing us. Of course we must battle on the ground for appropriately financed and supported youth work. Yet we need recognise that in the present climate a statutory Youth Service could easily become, to borrow a phrase used by Andy Smart thirty years ago, an imposed ‘Social Re-Education Service’. For this not to be the case requires a thoroughgoing argument about the content and purpose of youth work itself. And we will prove unable to make the argument for an emancipatory youth work if we ourselves are unable to reflect critically together on ‘who we are’ and ‘what we’re up to’, followed by ‘who we want to be’ and ‘what we would rather do.’ To hark back to an old-fashioned youth work way of putting it, if we are not personally, socially and politically aware ourselves, what chance a personal, social and politically aware engagement with young people?

Looking forward to carrying on the debate and our activity in 2015.

Best Wishes for the New Year to all our followers and supporters and thanks to Sue Atkins for this great link.


And there’s a hand, my trusty feire, And gie’s a hand o’ thine, And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught, For auld lang syne

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