FORMALISING THE INFORMAL : THE NEED FOR CRITICAL DIALOGUE
We are approaching a watershed in how we understand youth work in England. The Youth Sector Briefing is an explicit attempt to codify and normalise the direction youth work has been taking over at least the last two decades – a profound shift from informal to non-formal youth work.
The troika of UK Youth/NCVYS/AMBITION donning the mantle of leadership of the youth sector make no bones about it. A key objective will be to ‘demonstrate the positive impact of non-formal education on young lives’. This will be achieved through the adoption of a four stage template for practice they term the Social Development Journey, which will be supported by the Centre for Youth Impact. Their expressed goal is to ‘gain recognition of the Social Development Journey as the primary framework to articulate what the youth sector does using a common language.’ The Social Learning stage of the Journey draws on a youth development model, a structured and planned intervention into young people’s lives with identified and intended measurable outcomes.
At a tap on the keyboard the historic English tradition of youth work as informal education, an improvisatory dialogue uncertain of its destination, but rich in learning whatever path is taken, is seemingly erased from the present if not the past. Of course this undermining of a world of contrary conversation and voluntary association has been underway for some time. Its spontaneous and unruly character resists regulation. In particular informal youth work’s emphasis on process rather than product has not endeared it to successive neo-liberal governments intent on implementing programmes of behavioural modification. It is no accident that neo-liberal politicians and managers, distrusting deeply open youth provision and young people’s own peer groups, have pulled the plug on funding.
Against this backcloth it’s hardly surprising that a form of youth work promising to deliver prescribed outcomes has surged in influence. A note of caution though is required. In and of itself non-formal youth work is not necessarily the handmaiden of neo-liberalism. Boundaries are seldom clear-cut. Obviously there has always been a non-formal element in the programmes of the uniformed organisations. I would argue though that even here the pursuit of badges has been secondary to association and relationships. So too in most of Europe youth work remains positioned within non-formal education. However this non-formal tradition goes back over a century and across the years has been informed by competing ideological perspectives, religious and secular, conservative and socialist. Similarly the informal tradition in England has also been a contested space. Crucially both traditions have steadfastly stuck to their belief in voluntary association. Indeed the 2015 European Declaration insists, “ Youth work engages with young people on their terms and on their turf, in response to their expressed and identified needs, in their own space or in spaces created for youth work practice.”
Returning to the place of non-formal youth work in an English context those wishing to strengthen its present grip on practice have at the very least to respond to a range of legitimate concerns, of which these are a few.
- In contrast to the long-standing commitment to the primacy of the voluntary contract between young person and youth worker expressed in all manner of policy documents and core texts, the Briefing is reduced to ‘encouraging young people to take part’. Of course this side-step acknowledges implicitly that a great deal of contact with young people now is referred and obligatory.
- The present move to youth work as non-formal education in England is a relatively recent phenomenon imposed on practice. It is instructive to remind ourselves that in the early 1990’s the massed ranks of youth work, including the three organisations promoting the Youth Sector Briefing, brought together at a series of Ministerial conferences, rejected the Tory government’s attempt to foist uniformity on diversity. Hence, since then successive administrations have tied funding to the achievement of pre-ordained results. Thus, from its emergence at this point, youth work as non-formal education has been infected with neo-liberal aims and values. At a structural level this has manifested itself in the embrace of the market with its acceptance of a neo-liberal goal, the undermining of youth work as a public service. At a pedagogical level it has in Filip Coussee’s succinct phrase sought to ‘formalise the informal’. In neo-liberalism’s instrumental world teachers teach to test, lecturers answer to the market and youth workers abide by outcomes. With a script written in advance, with the organic rhythm of an unfolding relationship disrupted, the youth worker is charged to produce the ‘emotionally resilient’ young person, who is willing to put up with their lot. Absent is the notion that youth workers might participate in a collective response to the anti-social policies towards young people pursued by the government. In this scenario youth work’s rhetoric about social justice is emptied of its meaning. An overarching dilemma for the Youth Briefing’s authors is that the brand of non-formal education they bring to the negotiating table is one of a conformist social pedagogy. It is a far cry from an emancipatory critical pedagogical practice, which is in the main still advocated by the training agencies.
- Despite the avalanche of propaganda the argument that there is an objective, evidence-based measurement of youth work’s value is far from proven. Indeed Bethia McNeil, the Director of the Centre for Youth Impact has observed, “…we need to recognize that context for measurement in the youth sector, even more so that which is shared, is fraught and that much of the distrust is legitimate. The sense of historical discontinuity coupled to doubt from some and resistance from others sharpens the debate to cutting point. Those of us who are persuaded need to contend with those realities, understand our task and take note of the present limitations.” To note her honesty is not to use it as an escape clause from issues of evaluation and accountability, but simply to reiterate that the fixation with data is deeply problematic, reducing young people to no more than the bearers of ‘data for exchange’ in a divisive competition for funding.
There is much more to clarify and discuss, not least because the Briefing is inevitably one of assertion rather than explanation. At this point the most immediate concern is, to what extent is it meaningful to talk of cross-sector alliance and collective impact when the Briefing seems to exclude or ignore important constituencies in the sector and seems impervious to alternative understandings of today’s realities?
And, lest I be dismissed as no more than an ageing irrelevance wandering in the wastelands with a battered copy of Freire’s, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed in his flared jeans’ back pocket, both the missing constituencies and missing analysis are not at all on the fringes of youth work. As for the former the absence of practitioners from the final invitation Windsor meeting – no representatives from the trade unions, none even from the fledgling Institute of Youth Work – is troubling, if not unexpected, given neo-liberalism’s hatred of organised labour. Worrying too is the failure to recognise the importance of a renewed faith-based youth work, often deeply radical in its purpose and content and the courageous efforts of sacked and redundant local authority workers to forge independent, young person-centred projects. As for the latter cutting critiques of the present state of English youth work are not hard to find. Figures, pretty hard to ignore, are less than enamoured of the present state of affairs. Tony Jeffs argues that youth work’s “survival depends, in particular, on it first reclaiming its lost autonomy.” In the most recent book on youth work published by Palgrave, ‘Youth Work : Histories, Policies & Contexts’  its contributors, almost to a person, identify neo-liberalism as the enemy of a liberatory youth work praxis. Our own IDYW commentary across the eight years of our existence adds to a pluralist cocktail of resistance.
The Youth Work Briefing is a powerful presence at a critical point in youth work’s history. But it is far from the only voice in the chorus of concern about youth work’s future. A mere few weeks down the road TAG is organising a series of conferences, ‘Shaping the Future. Our own national conference will focus on ‘Re-ImaginingYouth Work’. We believe ChooseYouth is planning its own parallel event. If anything positive is to come of this latest crisis of identity the youth work sector needs to listen seriously to its plurality of voices. It needs to heed its own principles. It needs to be in critical dialogue with itself.
POSTSCRIPT – I have only spoken of England, because Scotland, Wales and Ireland tell differing stories, which suggest there is more than one tale to be told.