Blurring the Boundaries conference : Reflections 3

Adam Muirhead, Chair of the Institute of Youth work, posted these reflections on our IDYW conference on his blog, YOUTHWORKABLE, which is always worth a visit. He focuses in particular on the opening session, which in challenging our emphasis on the voluntary relationship raises issues we hope to explore in more depth in the near future.



In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) hosted the conference for what is clearly a large supporter base; 70+ of us were welcomed by Tony Taylor, who opened by updating on recent activities, thoughts and considerations of the IDYW group:

The numbers of supporters engaging online remain very good
There is a need for greater capacity and fresh blood on the steering group – plurality is welcomed
IDYW is transitioning from being a campaign group towards being a force for critical engagement with youth work theory and practice
Storytelling work is going strong and has now been translated into several languages
There is scope to increase the number and variety of posts made to the website, Facebook, Twitter etc



Bernard Davies introduced a presentation from Annette Coburn and Sinead Gormally that had been developed from ideas that came out of a chapter titled ‘Youth Work in Schools’ in the recent Graham Bright book . It challenges the ‘voluntary participation’ principle that, over the years, has become somewhat enshrined in youth work lore. The argument centred around the notion that young people may be within a non-voluntary space (such as a school, prison or hospital) and still be engaged in youth work if the focus of the work is young person centred, emancipatory, the relationship with the youth worker is able to be negotiated and if there is capacity to meaningfully engage.

Annette and Sinead argued that should this new paradigm be accepted it may represent a ‘threshold concept’ for youth work that allows us, with a new perspective, to move forwards with youth work representing ‘an educational methodology’ rather than a profession per se, that could help us to explore new theoretical landscapes.

Tania de St. Croix offered a contrasting response that the voluntary component is fundamental to our practice, especially in settings where sanctions can be imposed for non-compliance or non-attendance. The point was made that there remain so few spaces for young people to choose to come and go and youth work represents a bastion of the principle that this is absolutely necessary.

There was a helpful acknowledgement that power and choice are complicated issues – the ‘choice’ to be at a youth club may be because your mum kicks you out of the house each night and you have nowhere else to go. The power presents itself in different guises, for example, the Hitler Youth espoused principles of voluntary engagement…


The presentations precipitated some interesting reflections from the group at large; deliberately avoiding naming people I have tried to capture some below:

Student placements can’t be refused to those working in non-voluntary settings.
Reassuringly, graduates are going into non-voluntary settings and, with an appreciation for youth work ethics and values, are subverting the practices and creating ‘spaces for youth work’.
There are ‘open-access’ youth clubs that don’t look like they are doing youth work – the power imbalances are left completely unchecked (between genders for example. Conversely some excellent practice exists in school/college settings. Youth workers have colluded with the “give us a job, I can do that” mentality to keep funding. Has this been corrupting?
Is it helpful to consider youth work as separate from youth work skills so that we can ‘set out our stall’ with clarity?
An interesting Chinese perspective was added by one delegate who told of how youth work does not exist in and of itself in China. Those that work with teens outside of school are also known as teachers and the practice of gathering young people in their leisure time bears little significance/meaning in the ways we consider it does – until, that is, individuals take it upon themselves to apply youth work theory. But it’s certainly not permeated social policy at any level in this delegate’s experience.
Others felt that these discussions were quite self-centred on us as professionals; Young people must remain the focus of the discussion as the subject and the object of our work.
Starting where young people are at is key. Back in the day there was nothing else to do but go to the youth club. In this, workers actually had quite a lot of power. We now have to go where young people are at – it represents a new, necessary nature of youth work.
Many new youth workers have their own instincts about being a force for regulation and control and often, only after studying, bring a new emancipatory angle to their work – at the same time as their management try to enforce more control and regulation.
Changing the definition of youth work is the wrong starting place – we have to consider what we feel and know to be good practice (whilst recognising constraints).
We want to train a community of ‘critical pedagogues’ – we then practice youth work in a distinctive setting – after all, a teacher tries to ‘meaningfully engage’ young people…
The critical spaces to iron out these ideas have been in decline.
The setting is less important. Perhaps ‘voluntary’ relationships is a misnomer and an umbrella term should be found to encompass the complexities and multi-faceted nature of this notion?
Yes, youth workers have been guilty of hitting targets or acquiring funding by moving into schools etc – but isn’t it better that youth workers do this than PCSOs or Counsellors?
An interesting exercise may be to conduct an examination of how settings do influence practice. Are these values shared across the UK? Other countries didn’t have an Albemarle watershed…
Sue Atkins shared a funny anecdote about a cleaner at an art college she once knew. One student’s installation had been quite ‘casual’ and this cleaner lady had accidentally cleaned it away overnight. Once, she’d been informed of what she’d done she would go around pointing at rubbish asking ‘is this art?’, ‘is this art?’. There may be parallels now with us wandering confused, asking ‘is this youth work?’

So, perhaps more questions than answers, but I would reflect that delegates seemed to very much value the space provided on the day to thrash these ideas about together – I certainly did.

Thanks to the IDYW team, in my opinion no one creates these spaces better. I look forward to cultivating cooperation with the Institute for Youth Work as we move forwards in solving some of our puzzles!

Notes from the rest of the day may inform a forthcoming post.

Disclaimer – written in this post is my interpretation of people’s meaning and inference at this conference. Please contact me if you would like to challenge any points you recognise as your own that I have misinterpreted.

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