The first question asked by the NYA on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group.
What is the role of youth work in addressing the needs and opportunities for young people?
There are many different versions of youth work and it is highly likely the Committee will hear about many of them. It is a term much used and much abused, reduced in recent times to mean more or less any form of work with young people. In contrast ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ argues that youth work takes place in a distinctive, open and free setting outside of the formal and imposed institutions of society, for example, schools, social services and youth justice. It starts from young people’s identification of their needs. It is holistic in intent, rooted in meaningful association and challenging conversation. Above all, it is based on the building of relationships with young people, which can be neither prescribed nor imposed. So often now, youth workers are directed to work with young people because they are perceived by others to have a problem, or to be causing a problem, or to be deficient in some way. This work demands predetermined outcomes, to be achieved within a set timescale. It may well be appropriate in other settings, but it contravenes an essential ingredient in the youth work process. The rhythm and pace of our interaction with young people are under their control.
Thus we reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, founded on cornerstones of a practice, which:
- works in non-stigmatising with young people as young people who choose to be involved;
- takes place in open-access settings – physical, social and cultural spaces which young people can ‘own’ and experience as safe;
- is rooted in mutually respectful and trusting relationships amongst young people and between young person and adults;
- offers young people informal educational opportunities and challenges which recognise their strengths and potential and start from their concerns and interests;
- within boundaries of consistency and reliability, responds flexibly and creatively to young people in their here-and-now as well as to their ‘transitions’;
- works with and through their peer networks and wider shared identities, in the process identifying and responding as appropriate to individual needs and concerns;
- at times deliberately blurs personal and professional boundaries in order to communicate as openly and honestly as possible with young people;
- uses activities both as vehicles for young people’s personal development and as opportunities in their own right for individual and group achievement and affirmation.
If youth work is to be renewed in the interests of young people and the common good, it is essential that state and voluntary sector policy-makers and providers start from this kind of positive definition of the practice, its purpose and role – as an educational and developmental provision for a wide range of young people who choose to engage in their own leisure time. On the other hand, if in the present political, media and funding climate the Committee makes the case primarily on the grounds that youth work could help reduce knife crime or drug-taking or school drop-outs, important as these issues are, what will almost certainly get ‘revived’ are ‘youth services’ that once again are ‘targeted’. As a result, most of those up-to-a-million young people who have been most directly affected by the systematic deconstruction of local Youth Services will get little if any benefit.