“Grass roots praxis: youth workers’ reflect on ‘fighting the corner’ and ‘giving value for money’”

At the very worst we hope to carry a review of Tania de St Croix’s new book,  ‘Grassroots Youth Work’, before Christmas. Meanwhile we are very pleased belatedly to post a brief account of a parallel and complementary research project undertaken by Paula Pope with the support of the Keele University. It is heartening and necessary to hear the voices, often stifled, of workers on the ground fighting their corner in the teeth of contradiction. We hope that Paula will be able to publish a fuller and more detailed exploration of her thoughts and findings in the near future, which will speak, we are sure, to our ongoing discussion about the future of our work.

Ta to prlog.com

“Grass roots praxis: youth workers’ reflect on ‘fighting the corner’ and ‘giving value for money’”

A presentation handout by Paula Pope for Liverpool Hope University Conference on ‘Children and Young People in a Changing World, Action, Agency and Participation’, June 2016.

This paper draws on qualitative research into social relations and practices of professional youth workers. This research inquiry, approved by Keele University in 2013, involved 17 JNC qualified and practising youth workers from two districts in NW England. Thematic analysis of transcripts from focus groups and interviews suggested continuing misconceptions of youth work, funding difficulties and managerial practices that conflicted with professional values

There was limited recognition of the generic potential of youth work at the macro level where government youth policy focus was on the National Citizen Service for 16-17 year olds. Some support for professional youth work continued at the meso level in some local councils and organisations, with youth work roles included in the portfolio of provision. Unsurprisingly, youth work was having most impact at the micro level with individuals and in some communities.

It was recognised that youth workers were persevering despite significant funding worries at the grass roots level. In practice, youth workers were continuing to listen to young people, build relationships that started where the young person was at and which at times managed to catch young people when they were in danger of slipping through the net. Youth workers were frequently standing up for young people and advocating on their behalf though this could cause difficulties when it was in conflict with agency expectations and funding constraints.

Among the challenges facing youth workers was the emphasis on targeting certain young people in ‘hot spot areas’ and getting them through a form of accreditation as a way to show youth work had value. For one worker it felt like becoming ‘Tesco’s police’ while another analysed the approach as ‘squeezing’ rather than ‘celebrating’ the usual relationship building activities. Another difficulty was the loss of experienced colleagues in the service cutbacks that left some workers feeling isolated in new organisational structures, particularly when youth work was not well understood by new professional colleagues or managers.

Youth workers were continuing to be passionate about youth work and to reflect on their practice and identify ways to know that their youth work was working:

“I know that my youth work is working because what that means is the relationship is working, and it’s not working because I am getting on really well with them, it is working because they’re trusting me… with unprovoked, voluntary enquiries… asking for help and advice or guidance about something in their life” (Carl)

Explaining youth work ways of working and the difference it can make was not always straightforward. This emerged in workers’ accounts of ‘fighting the corner’ to stay true to their values in inter-agency work:

“We were doing that developmental work with the young people and we had them on side quite quickly but the police, when we were there, what the police wanted us to do and the other agencies wanted us to do was a little bit different than what we were actually going to do” (Greg)

It suggests that youth workers are finding themselves in similar positions to teachers who are operating in realms of “principled infidelity” (Hoyle and Wallace, 2009). The authors argued that ‘principled infidelity’ was a noticeable pragmatic response by school teachers to changes in education policy that appeared to conflict with their professional values. The gap appeared to be widening between external views of what mattered and the views of those on the ground:

“You can see the glaring sort of problems with you know you’re recognising some work that is not completely ethical, do you know what I mean, and that’s, that’s hard. OK, well should we sacrifice our ethics and sort of morals to get the job done and to be recognised for it and that’s, that’s a difficult challenge as well” (Greg)

It was generating worker uncertainty over whether to comply or dissent from the dominant discourse and contributing more nuanced and complex forms of professional identity (Baxter, 2011). This tension is sometimes associated with creating ‘third space identities’ in the emerging middle ground:  

“The third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive, and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility” (Meredith, 1998, 3)

Being active in this middle ground may contribute to affirmations of professional worth. A sense of feeling valued came through in workers’ accounts when they broached new ground. They spoke of taking a risk with new projects, leading informal education initiatives in new settings that prompted formal education to wake up to the benefits of informal education and raising the profile of youth work in new arenas such as police custody suites. Sometimes, small changes could make quite a difference as one worker found on reviewing his work schedule to create the space for more continuity in relationship building with young people:     

“Our funders wouldn’t necessarily have said within that work they wanted us to do any schools’ work but what we’re saying is, well if we do the schools’ work that’ll give us continuity with young people; they’ll see the same staff on a regular basis over 12 months so whilst we’re not in their ward, we’ll still be seeing those young people” (Andy)

It was recognised that the youth and community sector was undergoing dramatic change, yet the research participants continued to express commitment to youth work values and belief in the efficacy of their practice. They offered an optimistic view of future prospects:

“There are huge changes structurally and organisationally, huge changes, but when we look at what we actually do, I think we sell ourselves short and I think that we’re already doing a lot of the things that we’re being asked for; it just takes thinking about it a little bit differently so yea in answer to the question, there is light at the end of the tunnel” (Jessica)


Baxter J. (2011) Public sector professional identities, a review of the literature, The Open University, UK http://oro.open.ac.uk/29793/  

House of Commons Education Committee (2011, June) ‘Services for Young People’, Third Report of Session 2010-2012, Volume 1, London: The Stationary Office, Ref HC 744-1 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/744/744i.pdf

Hoyle E., Wallace M. (2009) ‘Leadership for Professional Practice’, chapter 17 in S. Gewirtz, P. Mahoney, I. Hextall, A. Cribb (editors) Changing teacher professionalism, international trends, challenges and ways forward, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Pope P. (2016) “‘Handing over our ethics?’ Youth work conversations in times of austerity’, Ethics and Social Welfare, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17496535.2016.1185795

Website: National Citizen Service http://www.ncsyes.co.uk/  

Footnote: A thank you to the participating youth workers whose voices can be heard giving insights into today’s fieldwork practice. The quotations have been anonymised to protect confidentiality. For further information, contact Paula Pope: p.m.pope@keele.ac.uk

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