Given the constant pressure for youth work to prove itself, I’ve often found myself thinking, ‘never mind youth work, how do you ever prove that the arts in schools are worth doing?’ Faith in the oft hidden benefits of the creative process is required, hence, given their instrumental view of the human condition, the neoliberals’ disregard for music education in schools or their hostility to the humanities in Higher Education. In this light, the latest piece in the revamped Youth and Policy by Frances Howard is revealing.
Drawing on findings from an ethnographic study of three youth projects, which used the young people’s Arts Award, her article, ‘The arts in youth work: A spectrum of instrumentality?’, explores the tension between the instrumental and the expressive in our practice.
The current emphasis on structured activities, achievable measurable outputs and providing value for money for both youth and arts projects are situating them in risky terrain. Public-funding and evidence-based policy-making since New Labour have meant that arts and youth work programmes have become increasingly instrumentalised. The arts are frequently referred to in youth work as a ‘tool’, vehicle, medium or means, however we should be highly critical of any relationship between cause and effect that may ignore the often unaccountable complexities within young people’s lives.
We need to be more critical about informal and arts education’s claims of impact and consider that an emphasis on achievable measurable outputs and value for money can endanger the sustainability and future funding of both youth and arts projects. It is important that we interrogate key assumptions about the arts and young people as a ‘social project’ and that we consider how to influence future policy, so that it begins to value more human factors in its measurements. But, how can the academic field influence these measurements and weave new pathways towards demonstrating the value of young people’s journeys rather than outcomes? It might be that engaging with the expressive arts is an ideal way of doing just this.
As ever it would be smashing to get some responses to this analysis, especially from workers, for whom the arts are an integral part of their practice.