Youth Work and Youth Services: Our Shared Future: Doug Nicholls ponders

Ahead of next week’s ChooseYouth event, Our Shared Future, on Wednesday, April 13 in London Doug Nicholls offers these challenging thoughts on the present and future, arguing for a radical change in our thinking and direction –

Youth Work and Youth Services: Our Shared Future

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Some thoughts for our discussion from Doug Nicholls, Chair ChooseYouth

Young people are brilliant. Youth work is brilliant.

Step Forward

The creation of youth services represented a great step forward in the provision of lifelong learning and advanced ways of involving people in collective action and democratic engagement. They help assert fundamental rights and life chances and gave inspiration and joy to millions.

Skilled workers take the side of those they work with. Youth workers are unique advocates of young people’s concerns and they seek to amplify their voice with no prescribed agenda or curriculum. They challenge, nurture and encourage. They enable communities of interest, or neighbourhoods to grow and prosper and fight for social justice.

Our work is political in the sense that it encourages, communal and mutual values, exposes hypocrisy, stereotyping and exploitation and understands that collective solidarity is better than individual suffering. It is political in that it seeks to create and develop positive social relationships. It is truly a process of personal and social education delivered in a popular, participative way.

Democratic work

Our work has been part of the long democratic process of strengthening the voice of the people and empowering them to challenge injustice and develop their knowledge of themselves and their world. It fosters self-confidence and ability and to remove discrimination and oppression.

It gives support, comfort, safety, advice, friendship and help to young people when they need it when other services do not and are not designed to do so.

Because of the struggle of past generations of youth workers the social democratic state was compelled to fund our work. It was never statutory outside Ireland, but it was funded and professionally regarded and publicly inspected through Ofsted.

This led to an infrastructure of services provided by every local authority area linked to voluntary sector providers. Our predecessors fought to end the post code lottery for young people and communities. The idea was that in every area there would be a youth and community service with a senior officer with a budget, a training officer, qualified and experienced full time staff working with part time and volunteer colleagues in well-resourced buildings and in service training and outreach and detached projects.


Youth workers never achieved protection of title and the status of our profession suffered as a result. Student youth workers never received the same level of funding support as teachers and social workers. Despite this the excellence of practice in training and in the field was high.

For the state to fund a form of educational intervention that was entirely based on a voluntary relationship with young people and community groups was a massive achievement and was led over the years by trade unionised workers and voluntary sector organisations and thousands of deeply committed people.

These days have gone.


Undemocratic work

The neoliberal political economy through its dismantling of the previous architecture of social democracy, has sought to privatise and destroy whole sections of what existed before.

Youth work was a conscious target just as the condition of youth and the chances for young people were radically changed. This is the first generation of young people in Britain to have fewer opportunities than those who went before.

Youth services based in local authorities no longer exist in any meaningful way. The resourcing and infrastructure needed for our work has been removed. The final stage in the attack is the attempt to abandon JNC and so remove the particular approach to informal education that it safeguards.

As the money and structures have gone so there has been a move away from forms of youth which seek to emancipate and empower. Outcomes driven, quasi social work ways of working to ‘fix’ the ever increasing number of ‘problems’ that poverty and unemployment and lack of opportunities are forcing on our young people are being developed. New issues like paralysing mental health questions plague young people in every greater degrees and more not less support is needed.

The Youth Service represented a time when society believed that the transition to adulthood was a social thing deserving support through family and public structures, services and culture.

Supported transitions provided the personal and social education that enabled young people to explore ideas, identities, and behaviours. The purpose was the enjoyment of the transition itself, the fun and perplexity of opening new horizons with trusted adults and discovering new life chances. In such a process prejudices that divide and harm common human objectives are challenged.

Social outcomes in an anti-social society.

The outcome of youth work is the happier, more emancipated, more educated, more conscious young person. Youth work outcomes at their best are linked exclusively to the needs of young people. Sometimes the smile on the face of a previously withdrawn and maybe self-harming young person, lacking in self-esteem or clear identity, is the most tangible outcome and inspiring product of months’ of skilful youth work intervention. Youth workers draw out the best in young people.

Youth work’s voluntary engagement with young people was pinnacle of social democratic educational sophistication. Employing professionals to ‘talk’ to young people, befriend them and take their side in communal experiences was a very healthy social development. It expressed social commitments, a communal sense of welfare, a valuing of the young and a way of advancing their interests at a very sophisticated level. Informal education is therefore an advanced, learned skill and set of practices. It was established by practitioners and trade unionists in a long tradition of social learning.

Youth work defends young people and the idea of a social commitment to the young. It defends a progressive, way of working with young people resistant to externally imposed outcomes to meet for example, employers or religious or political groups’ beliefs.

Learning to obey

Its commitment to such values, alongside its precarious position as a non-statutory and always underfunded service, made it particularly vulnerable to the unnecessary political programme of public spending cuts, and to the general ideological drive to transform the educational agenda away from the creation of enlightenment and confidence in human agency to change and improve things, into rote learning, testing and memory of information. Hence the plague of over testing in schools which teachers now look prepared to strike against.

Forms of learning which externally impose notions of competence, conformity and minimal autonomy and self and group exploration, are designed to prepare young people for the precarious jobs market, zero hours contracts and lack of opportunities and dependency on hard pressed families or the shadow economy.

JNC protects our learning to transgress

The current attack on the JNC negotiating committee for the pay and conditions of youth and community workers is at heart a threat to the grading criteria which defend at a national level the unique nature of the youth work method and the professional autonomy of those who define that method. Defence of the JNC is about the protection of an educational approach and set of values. Split this from pay and conditions and qualification and the practice will be fatally wounded.

Waiting for wind and tide to rise?

Youth work depends on public funding. It requires total subsidy. It depends on a social consensus that values young people. Society cannot charge young people for the privilege of voluntary engagement. The generosity of the public funding is an expression of the political will to create a democratic society which seeks to progress with the next generation succeeding and exceeding the strengths of the past. If the neoliberal state, hamstrung local authorities and all political parties have abandoned these commitments in any meaningful way what do we do? Wait till 2020 and hope?

Despite this dreadful background and the daily pounding against working people and professional educationalists, there are thousands of amazing examples of good practice. Youth workers in isolation and in embers of once great services are delivering incredible work still. New forms of delivery are emerging, mutuals, co-operatives, oases of brilliance in depleted authorities, housing associations seeing the sense of employing youth workers and so on.

Privatise or rise?

Many still practice the values and principles of our work which takes the needs of young people and communities first. But how much longer will this survive if we are all working in fragments in precarious places with no national consensus, or support for our work? Can faith hope and charity sustain a modern youth service? Can we rebuild anew? Can we build without £350m of investment per annum? Can a patchwork of voluntary sector providers provide for all the needs?

If, in one sentence, the government can turn back two hundred years of progress and take all schools out of local authority jurisdiction and remove all parent governors and create new Academy schools for McDonalds, and Starbucks and Apple to set up shop in, what chance do we have to rebuild youth and services in the old way as something public and freely available? Shall we let big business and the banks fund it?

We have to rebuild in a new way and protect our work in new ways.

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