Does policy matter anyway?

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The IDYW dialogue event in November ended with a presentation by NYA CEO Leigh Middleton following the release of the APPG report on youth work. A heated discussion entailed about NYA’s statement that youth work helped to make young people ‘happy’. After an afternoon of thoughtful and challenging debate about issues integral to youth work, the use of such simplistic and banal language by the national agency no doubt seemed particularly incongruous with the barriers that young people and youth workers face.

And then I went back to work. An immediately forgot where the word ‘happy’ had been used. After all, whether the NYA chose to use this language or not had absolutely zero impact on the work with the young people, who probably had never heard of the NYA. Likewise, many of the dedicated and experienced youth workers I work alongside. This is not meant to be a criticism of the work of the NYA, but rather an example of how far the debates amongst the ‘great and good’ of youth work, ministers and academics can seem from youth work on the ground.

Since Every Child Matters (about which I have mixed feelings), I struggle to think of a single policy that has impacted on my work, other than the decision to severely slash funding to local authorities and all of the cuts to benefits and services that have hurt young people disproportionately. Likewise, what Project Oracle or the like do or don’t do appears completely irrelevant to my practice. The fact that where I work we still have a functioning open access youth service whereas in neighbouring boroughs this has been completely cut appears to be more down to the personal experiences and understandings of the work by senior managers and directors than any national policy or campaign. I know that if one or two people decide to leave their jobs for whatever reason and the narrative about youth work in my area could change radically.

This discrepancy in local circumstances can make ‘defending’ youth work difficult. Would we be better supporting local groups to help local decision makers understand the importance of the work rather than arguing over definitions that no one will read anyway? As a profession, the decisions about our existence are now often made by people who have only a vague idea of the values of youth work, definitely will not read Youth & Policy or visit this website and will only notice the APPG if it means more money. So, running open story-telling workshops with managers, supporting young people to voice the role of youth work in their lives and workers to communicate better what they achieve may actually be a better expenditure of energy than wringing our hands over people not using the language we deem appropriate to talk about the work.

Youth work is endlessly diverse. Even talking to other open access youth centre workers, I often realise that not just our experiences but also our practice is often completely different. This is sometimes down to local policies, but more often than not it is due to our own individual interests, thresholds and personal circumstances. I cannot think of another profession where the day-to-day of two people which the same job title can be so different. This is obviously one of the great strengths of youth work, its ability to adapt to local, personal and group dynamics, both of the young people and the staff. But it does beg the question, what would a youth policy that allows this happen but isn’t just nice, supportive language look like? And do we need one?

These questions are genuine. Please, shoot me down, tell me I’m naïve or missing the point. I am sure that campaigning on policy has made a difference to practice on the ground. And obviously raising the profile of youth work would bring in more money, which would be secured by making youth work a statutory provision. After all, without money there would be far less youth work, no matter what shade. I just can’t see the link between publications by the national actors and what a busy evening at the youth centre I work at looks like. In light of this, how do we best defend open youth work on the ground? And if we do campaign for a national youth work policy, do we need to be careful what we wish for?

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