You will find below our summary of the diverse discussion that has taken place around the question of whether the youth work tide is turning. Events were held in Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Cumbria, Derby, Doncaster, Huddersfield, Lancaster, London Manchester, Northampton and Warwickshire. We hope you will find it stimulating and useful. In particular, we hope it will encourage you to be with us at our national conference on Friday, March 9 in Birmingham. If this is not possible, we would still welcome your critical thoughts.
IS THE TIDE TURNING? A DRAFT SUMMARY OF CONSENSUS AND CONCERN
‘No More Hot Dogs! We deserve better food!’ [Young People’s group, Northampton]
In and around Youth Work Week 2017, In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] organised in partnership with a range of other organisations and institutions a series of events entitled, ‘Is the tide turning?’ These gatherings, comprising differing numbers of volunteers, workers, managers, students, academics and young people, sought to grapple with the question of whether a new political climate, perhaps more favourable to youth work, was emerging. Over 250 people were involved in the process.
Inevitably the discussions were haunted by the past and continued dismembering of Local Authority [LA] youth services, accompanied by widespread accommodation to government diktat, whilst at one and the same time being informed by innovative efforts to keep informal youth work alive.
Against this rich backcloth of commentary on the present state of play, this paper marks another stage in the attempt to identify a set of proposals for the future, which could be used in dialogue with what we term the progressive wing of British politics, those parties indicating a willingness to ditch neoliberalism and austerity – the Labour Party, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and increasingly the Liberal Democrats. By neoliberalism, we mean the forcible imposition of market relations upon public services, an unswerving belief in the imperative of competition and self-centred individualism, underpinned by a deep-seated hostility to social solidarity. In our opinion these fundamentals of neoliberalism are utterly at odds with a young person-centred, process-led, cooperative and collective youth work.
The following is a second draft, following further exploration at a February Youth&Policy conference in Leeds, which will be taken to the ninth IDYW national conference at the beginning of March. The responses to the key questions posed are divided into those of possible consensus and those of potential contradiction.
It is important to emphasise that this summary is our best effort at capturing in a concise form the main elements of the debate. It does not represent in some way an In Defence of Youth Work position. It represents the material that has to be taken into account if IDYW is to formulate a clear and cutting perspective of its own. Indeed our national conference will be asked directly to grapple with the question of whether IDYW is capable of doing so.
Should Local Authority youth services be reopened, or are there different ways that state-supported youth work can be organised?
We should note that several groups felt that the question ought to have been ‘Should Local Authority youth services be reopened and are there different ways that state-supported youth work can be organised?’
Points of consensus:
- There is significant support for the reawakening of youth work within Local Authorities, which is not necessarily the same as the reopening of the Local Authority youth service. The rejuvenation of a distinctive, state-supported youth work focused on inclusive, open access provision in centres and on the streets, together with targeted interventions emerging from this provision, is seen as flowing from a radical and complementary partnership between the local authority and a diverse and pluralist voluntary sector. There is no question of returning to what went before.
- The specific character of the provision should be decided at a local level via ways of organising that eschew the hierarchy and bureaucracy often associated with LA Youth Services, insisting on the democratic involvement of young people and the community, alongside politicians, officers, workers and, very importantly, representatives from the voluntary youth sector with status and ‘clout’.
- Inter-agency working is seen as vital. However youth workers should retain their independence rather than being absorbed into inter-agency teams/schools/youth justice with a subsequent loss of identity. A community development approach is seen as important.
- It is recognised that we need to explore the success or otherwise of alternative models of provision born out of the demolition of LA Youth Services, such as mutuals, foundations and youth boards, the role of Town and Parish councils, not forgetting the reasons for survival of some Youth Services, such as Nottinghamshire. IDYW is at present collecting a range of case studies to inform this exploration.
- Youth Work as informal education should return to its home in the Department of Education.
- Even as Brexit looms youth work should increasingly have an international and global dimension.
- More action research needs to be done on the emergence of digital youth work.
Points of concern and contradiction:
- There is concern that there is no turning back, the shifts and changes, the loss of buildings precluding a renaissance.
- There is anxiety and suspicion about a possible return to Local Authority regulation and dominance. For example the growth in recent years of a vibrant LBTQ network owes much to its independence from the stifling ‘new managerialism’, often dominant in LA’s.
- There is a feeling that youth work’s identity has been eroded to the extent that we now describe in our anxiety more or less any form of work with young people as youth work. The case for youth work as a distinctive practice is being weakened by the understandable shift in recent years to ‘blurring the boundaries’ between it and, for example, youth social work, youth justice, pastoral care and youth counselling.
What principles should underpin the revival of open youth work?
Points of consensus:
- The IDYW cornerstones of practice are seen as a sound basis, namely the primacy of the voluntary relationship; a critical dialogue starting from young people’s agendas; support for young people’s autonomous activity; engaging with the ‘here and now’; the nurturing of young people-led democracy; and the significance of the skilled, improvisatory worker.
- Open youth work should be universal, accessible and inclusive, which does not mean that, for example, specific work with young women, BME and LGBTQ young people is at odds with this principle. It should be associational, conversational and relational, opposed to oppression and exploitation, collective rather than individual in its intent.
- Ironically it needs to be understood that open access, universal provision is more effective than imposed, targeted work in reaching young people, suffering from the consequences of social policies antagonistic to their needs.
- It needs to be recognised that youth work outcomes are complex and longitudinal as well as simple and immediate. This is the context, within which questions of impact, measurement and judgement need to be debated.
- Youth Work’s fundamental aspiration is profoundly educational and political – to play its part in the nurturing of the questioning, compassionate young citizen, whose existence is essential to democracy and the common good.
Points of concern and contradiction:
- Today’s emphasis on ‘safe spaces’ is in tension with ‘taking risks’, threatening to sanitise practice.
- The dominant tendency to claim that youth work is preventative, for example, reducing anti-social behaviour, together with the attempted monetisation of its interventions, undermines the educational ethos of practice.
- The standards for youth workers recently circulated by the NYA with their emphasis on behaviours, structured programmes and activities lacks any recognition of the improvised, conversational practice at the heart of open youth work.
- A significant number of workers have embraced rather than resisted both a behavioural, individualised practice and been seduced by the attraction of structured day-time employment. Is the tradition of improvisatory youth work being fatally undermined?
- Given limited resources, some voices within the debate argue for prioritising the needs of the vulnerable rather than reasserting the universal.
How can these changes be made feasible in terms of funding, infrastructure and staffing?
Points of consensus:
- There is strong support for a statutory and sustained stream of central and local government funding, informed by a formula based on a specified age range with weightings for disadvantage/deprivation. However both the age range and the character of the weightings needs further debate. In terms of the former, arguments are made to reduce the lower age to 9/10 years old, the upper age to 25.
- However, the purpose and allocation of this funding should be decided at a local level through democratic mechanisms, which favour cooperation rather than competition in terms of distribution and which identify processes of accountability, which value the qualitative above the quantitative.
- The National Citizen Service should be cut or even closed and its funding ploughed into all-year round youth work, which might well include summer activities and residentials.
- Dedicated young people’s spaces are vital, within which dissent is valued. Street work should be expanded. Mobile resources should be developed, particularly in rural areas.
- JNC terms and conditions should return to being the foundation for workers employed by local authorities. Youth Work should be reasserted as a profession in its own right.
- Training and continuous professional development at a Local Authority level is essential and again should be open to significant local influence. Level One to Three training course with flexibility in terms of the curriculum should be available to both paid and voluntary workers from all youth organisations in an authority. Confident, skilled workers are crucial.
- Supervision of workers should be prioritised as the creative means through which practice is interpreted, enhanced and judged.
- The revival of staff meetings as a collective and supportive reference point is vital.
- Much closer links should be built with the youth work training agencies, regional youth work units and research centres, including the Centre for Youth Impact, whilst the NYA should reassert its role as a national, critical youth work voice.
- The renewed local authority youth service in its plurality and totality should have a public relations strategy aimed at the wider community and politicians.
Points of concern and contradiction:
- There is a real danger of underestimating the damage done to the infrastructure and morale of workers by the prolonged assault on youth services across the country. In some areas workers are reduced to ’fire-fighting and crisis intervention’.
- The ‘ metric’ world of commissioning, outsourcing and competition, the insidious presence of the market within the work, is seen as simply normal.
- The insistence on JNC as the reference for qualification, pay and conditions, together with the notion of a closed profession [the license to practice] sit uneasily with the past and present situation, whereby in reality a range of pay scales and qualifications are to be found, together with a host of experienced and capable voluntary and paid workers from other backgrounds.
- Insufficient attention has been given to the role of supposed philanthropy in the creation of provision, witness the Onside Youth Zones initiative, funded by a mix of private and state finance, which advocates for open youth work, even though it emerges on the back of closures and cuts.
There are no conclusions to this summary as it remains the subject of continued debate. Indeed, separate from how it might be used within IDYW, we think it has merit as a catalyst for discussion in all manner of youth work situations, from team meetings to training courses.
However, from an IDYW point of view, we hope that it will stimulate the reader to attend our national conference or failing that to send any thoughts/ criticisms to Tony Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org
The IDYW tide turning Y&P 2nd draft in Word for printing/circulating. Thanks.