Neoliberal Norms see UK Youth and NYA competing and individualising

At the end of last week, I was involved in a debate at the Youth&Policy conference about where youth work has come from, where it’s up to and where it might be going? Within this discussion, it was impossible to escape the impact of neoliberal assumptions on our practice, such as the rule of the market, the necessity of competition and the individualising of our experience. But wasn’t it all a bit abstract?


Within hours of getting home reality responded, ‘not at all’.


The CYPN reports that ‘UK Youth and NYA in running for £1.8m grant.’

Youth work organisations UK Youth and the National Youth Agency (NYA) are to compete for £1.8m of funding to deliver projects to support girls and young women.

Funding charity Spirit of 2012 and the government-backed #iwill campaign have agreed to provide funding of £10,000 to each organisation to develop respective projects intended to empower girls and young women to change their communities for the benefit of other girls.

Either the NYA project called Fire and Wire, which will work with girls and young women in former mining communities or a UK Youth project to offer volunteering opportunities for girls with the British Red Cross will be awarded the full £1.8m.

The Fire and Wire project is being run jointly by the NYA and social action company Platform Thirty1. It focuses on helping girls and young women in former mining communities better understand their potential through neuroscience, psychology and physiology training.

Further information on Fire and Wire is to be found on the Platform Thirty1 website.

Every girl should know her worth and that she is valued for her individuality. Fire & Wire works with girls in former mining communities teaching the basics of neuroscience, developing an understanding of how their brains work and how best they can utilise their physiology and psychology. The project also equips participants with leadership and creative skills, helping them develop their own projects for change at both an individual and community level with younger peers.


Is it just me, who wants to ask a few questions about all of this?

  1. Forgive my naivete, but why are these two leading youth work organisations in competition for the funding, even being pump-primed for the showdown? Would it not have been possible to negotiate a cooperative compromise, in which each took half of the finance available? Or are we to deduce that both outfits desperately need the cash to survive and will fight to the death to win, irrespective of the cost to the loser?
  2.  As for youth workers teaching the basics of neuroscience to young women I’m bound to ask, ‘what are these agreed and accepted basics?’ As best I understand the continuing neuroscience research into how brains work, including, of course, what gets called ‘the teen brain’ [and I do follow it closely] remains full of possibilities, full of contradictions. It remains a contested arena.  And, many, if not most neuroscientists, regret how their provisional, often speculative findings become popularised and hardened into supposed truths about the human condition. In particular, concern is expressed at the prevalence and influence of ‘neuromyths’ in schools. As an example,  the idea of hemispheric dominance (whether you are “left-brained” or “right-brained”) determines how you learn. Some educators split young people simplistically into visualisers and verbalisers, even though this division does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Neuroscience does not float free from ideology. Thus in neoliberal times, it can all too easily be used to confirm an ‘individualist’ agenda, in which young people are assured if they pull their socks up, they can make it, whatever the social constraints. They can even express their individuality, provided it conforms to neoliberal expectation.
  3. Thus Katy Fielding, assistant director of operations at the National Youth Agency announces that “Our Fire and Wire project will support practitioners to enable young women to belong, develop and thrive in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK and we are extremely excited to get started.” The dilemma is that the area of Derbyshire, where the project will be based, has not been disadvantaged by chance or natural causes. The disadvantage remains the consequence of the conscious and vicious assault by the Thatcher government on the mining communities of this area in the 1980’s.  I lived through this period directly as I was the District Youth and Community Education Officer for Bolsover and my office was in Shirebrook. The women, young and old, were at the heart of resistance to the violence wreaked on their communities. Indeed through the efforts of the Miners’ Wives Support Group, the abandoned Shirebrook Primary School was converted into a Women’s Centre, complete with a nursery and creche, essential to freeing up the women to pursue the educational courses on offer. Supportive work was pursued with girls and young women through the youth club, a detached project and a specific young women’s project in Bolsover. Obviously, in the long run, these initiatives failed to prevent the tragic degeneration of these communities. Indeed, as I write, thirty years on, the Bolsover District Council is implementing yet another Regeneration Scheme.
  4. None of this is to suggest that a project such as Wire and Fire is a waste of time.  However a few years ago I returned to Shirebrook, home now of the infamous Sports Direct company. Disillusionment, even despair filled the smokeless air. The young people were not struggling because they didn’t know how their brains worked. Rather they were struggling because of a lack of opportunities, choices and meaningful jobs. Surely, any intervention has both to build individual and collective confidence, at one and the same time as challenging the stifling circumstances. Perhaps I’m not seeing the coal for the coke, but the immediate publicity for the competition and its entrants does feel decidedly up neoliberalism’s street.  The social problems created by neoliberal policies are always outsourced to us as ‘our’ problems and, whilst we run around trying to fix things, the neoliberals smirk.

Certainly, though, my anxiety, probably due to an overreliance upon my amygdala, can be dispelled if the detailed rationale for both bids as a result of the pump-primed development stage is placed in the public arena. As you will suspect I’ll be especially interested in what constitutes the basic neuroscience to be taught to young women.





  1. Is this another one million eight hundred thousand the Tories are putting into youth work independent of the one thousand eight hundred million they are putting into the NCS and the one hundred million plus a year they are putting into the mod cadets ? If so should we be arguing not that the government is cutting funding for youth activities but that is wasting huge amounts of money on ineffective projects ?

  2. Tony – point taken that there is wasteful use of resources. In this case the £1.8 million seems to be Big Lottery in origin.

  3. “The young people were not struggling because they didn’t know how their brains worked”

    Yes. Precisely. Pop-psychology presented as solid empirical science. – The result of an abandonment of serious intellectual standards. (It is not that the world is materialistic, selfish and creates artificial shortages of opportunities – but that there is a lack in your understanding about how ‘how your brain functions’ ). And, self-esteem courses in place of solidarity.

    The driving idea being to (as you say) put everything onto the individual. An extreme form of individualism – and currently the mandated and only permitted way of thought. (Harnessed, quite cleverly, to a ‘progressive’ agenda – which makes it harder to criticize). North Korea is our mirror image.

    Well said Tony – you’re truly are a voice crying in the wilderness.

  4. Its posts like this that drive me to despair about IDYW. Don’t get me wrong, IDYW is a great concept and i for one welcome its continuing voice in the diminishing sector, but come on – your interpretation of the article is unduly harsh. What do you actually know about ‘Fire and Wire’? they might be perfectly placed to deliver this project? Its right to question initiative and motivations but to do so without evidence is unhelpful. And your comment about NYA and UK Youth shows that (as you imply) you clearly are out of touch with current funding application requirements.

    • Hi Alex, sorry you are driven to despair, never much fun on a Friday afternoon! Without meaning to get defensive I just thought that, as one of a number of IDYW-associated folk, I would say (1) there are lots of us involved in IDYW, and some may disagree about some of what is written on the website; do feel free to come to our conference and debate, rather than feeling despair! (2) For me, one of IDYW’s roles is to be critical in relation to organisations and funders that are hard for those of us ‘in the thick of practice’ to be publicly critical about. Not for the sake of criticism itself, but to point out where there are political contradictions, different ways of viewing things, challenge the ‘taken for granted’ etc. (3) Tony does say ‘None of this is to suggest that a project such as Wire and Fire is a waste of time.’ and I didn’t read this post as unduly critical of the proposed projects themselves, rather of the wider context and some of the ways in which they are framed. (4) It is possible to work together rather than compete on funding – yet there do seem to be some dilemmas around the fact that our national sector organisations are, if they are to survive, forced to compete for ‘delivery’ of youth projects in order to subsidise the services they provide to the field. Of course, this is largely a consequence (in the case of NYA at least) of having all their government funding cut in one month in 2010, so it is important to understand the dilemmas folk are operating within. I do think there is merit in questioning some of this, and personally found this post enlightening, especially in relation to neuroscience and ex-mining communities (neither of which I know enough about). Having said all this, it’s good to hear your perspective, do keep commenting, it’s good to be challenged!

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