Amidst the tragic debacle in Rotherham a young person-centred, process-led youth work holds its head high

Ta to andyclow
Ta to andyclow

Back in September we reported on the ignored significance of youth work in the Rotherham scandal. We were sensitive to being accused of making capital of the Jay report in the midst of such human tragedy.  With today’s publication of the Casey report, which has led to the resignation of the Rotherham Council’s cabinet, it’s a time to praise youth work. In doing so we turn again firstly to the independent observation of Alexis Jay upon the specific youth work project, Risky Business.

Risky Business adopted an outreach approach based on community development principles. That is, it started where the young person was; it concerned itself with the whole person and addressed any issues that the young person brought to the relationship; it did not prescribe or direct. Its methods were complementary to thoseof the statutory services. Its success depended upon the skills of the individual worker and the level of trust which young people were willing to commit to it. Its operations could be volatile, unpredictable, and even ‘risky’. Nevertheless, it was performing a function which services with statutory responsibilities could not fully replicate.Any semblance of the statutory worker had to be set aside in order to create and retain trust.

In today’s Inspection Report informed by its own political agenda and not so neutral, Louise Casey, nevertheless, has to acknowledge the special character of the Risky Business perspective.

Risky Business and those that established it, supported it and worked alongside it had, in the course of a decade, gone from a progressive and innovative project to one that was marginalised, reshaped and eventually closed down.


More broadly in its preface the Report argues:

Child abuse and exploitation happens all over the country, but Rotherham is different in that it was repeatedly told by its own youth service what was happening and it chose, not only to not act, but to close that service down.

To say the least the situation is riven with contradictions. A Government bent on destroying the Youth Service bewails the closure of a Youth Service. A Government hostile to the unpredictable character of a holistic youth work, suspicious of youth work practitioners, suddenly sings its and their praises.

From our point of view we need to gather our thoughts about what all this might mean in the present straitened circumstances. If we are the self-reflective ‘profession’ we claim to be, there needs to be some serious self-scrutiny throughout our ranks, but particularly at the top. The dominant line for at least two decades from the leading national youth organisations has been that there’s no option, but to embrace the behavioural and outcomes-led agenda. Insidiously youth work has been diluted as a practice, melting into any and every form of work with young people, particularly youth social work and youth offending. It has been stifled within the multi-agency imperative.Those doubting this shift have been dubbed unrealistic and out of touch.  The Rotherham case puts paid to these opportunistic criticisms. The Rotherham case highlights the continued significance of a young person-centred, process-led youth work that cannot be regulated in advance; that cannot dance to the tune of the bureaucracy or the market.

There is an opportunity here for the youth work community to argue afresh for its distinctive and complementary role within both education and welfare. In doing so we will not claim that we can necessarily prevent sexual exploitation or render young people more employable. We will argue that if we are allowed the space and time to develop relationships with young people, to be in a free, yet critical dialogue with them, something worth respecting will emerge. It might not be easy to measure, but young people are more likely to be the critical citizens democracy needs, they are less likely to be oppressed and abused.


  1. I totally agree with the writer of this piece. I also read the Jay report and was heartened that, in the middle of some really negative and frightening information, Risky Business shone through.
    A similar thing has happened in Bradford with people with short term memories forgetting how much worse the riots could have been without the positive relationships which had been built up over years by youth workers. Still the sweeping cuts were put in place!

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