At the end of our Birmingham conference in March, we were more than pleased to host an informal launch of Bernard Davies’s magisterial new book, ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’. Although we couldn’t resist suggesting that the title might have been snappier! After Bernard had taken us through the process of its creation, Jon Ord, Janet Batsleer and Naomi Thompson offered their warm responses to its appearance in print.
This book provides a definitive, detailed and exhaustive account of the impact that the decade of austerity has had on youth work. It is meticulously researched and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the full impact of this devastating period of public policy. Although it stands alone as a text in its own right, it is of course implicitly the fourth volume of the History of the English Youth Service written by Bernard Davies. Anyone who is new to his writings should be encouraged to explore these other volumes for more essential insights into the development of youth work and youth services – that, of course, this current period has attempted to destroy. Let us hope that this volume goes some way to drawing a line in the sand to delineate the practice of youth work – shine a light on what has been undermined and lost – and thereby perhaps go some way to ensuring its rejuvenation.
Bernard Davies’s book ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England is masterful, as might be expected from a writer and analyst whose work has tracked the development of the Youth Service in England – and now its deconstruction- from the middle years of the twentieth century to the present day.
Davies’s writing has accompanied my own engagement in the field of community-based youth work from the beginning and each decade has brought important new contributions to the literature of youth work. He has written on both the development of the practice of youth work – in which he has engaged from the beginning with questions of how personal and social education is practised- and, at the same time, he has engaged with policy directives as they emerged from all points on the established political spectrum, asking the sharp question of whose interests these policies are serving. From his early recognition that a focus on social and life skills in Youth Employment Programmes was redirecting practice away from a person-centred developmental approach, his overview of Youth Policy in ‘Threatening Youth’ through to the ‘Modest Enquiry’ which highlighted the impact of targeted provision in formerly open access, universal services, Davies has been an advocate for a humanistic, questioning, democratic and above all young person-centred Youth Service.
Given this history, his achievement in this latest of four books tracing in detail the history of The Youth Service in the UK is not surprising, but it is at the same time astonishing. I think it is the best of the four. It is astonishing above all because he has been able to marshall successfully all the facts, policies, political and organisational twists and turns of the period 2007 -18 and demonstrate just how devastating their combined impact has been. This required a much greater focus in writing than the earlier books, precisely because the intensification of the impact of the neoliberal turn has been to further and further deconstruct, fragment and disorientate what was, in all the earlier periods, which the earlier books covered, still a relatively unified field of practice. All the more remarkable therefore is the coherence of this book, in which the careful and scholarly attention to detail is supported by an uncompromising narrative arc, so the reader cannot but be convinced of the truth that devastation of a universal public service has ensured. The tone and voice of the book is oddly old fashioned …much contemporary academic writing values the subjective and the personal. But Davies’s commitment to the historian’s craft of basing his account on carefully marshalled evidence and the consequent objectivity of his narrative voice means the book will stand the test of time and be recognised as a significant source of evidence concerning the destruction wreaked by neoliberal economics and policy and the grounds therefore from which the desperately needed re-imagination of a public service ‘In the Service of Youth’ must occur.
My conversion to youthworker-ism happened at the height of the New Labour revival. I was a young and enthusiastic recruit. I started my JNC-qualifying degree programme aged 18 in the year 2000 with only limited experience and obtained my first permanent contract for the Local Authority as a senior youth worker to manage a youth club in 2002, just as the Government’s second Transforming Youth Work document, REYS, was published.
When I read the early chapters of Bernard’s book, it was if I was reading those early years of my career in youth work – the publication of Transforming Youth Work, then the production of local youth work curricula before Every Child matters effectively became the national curriculum for Youth Services. Then the shift from thinking about youth work to Positive Activities – a not so subtle shift from relationships between worker and young people as significant to simply the activities provided as important. As I read these chapters, I also recognised the critical voice with which Bernard examines these policy shifts.
Given my youth, enthusiasm and introduction into youth work during the height of New Labour funding, I reflected as I read these chapters on how I emerged from my training with a critical voice of my own. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the development youth work curricula being incompatible with open access youth work and informal education. When I published a version of it in Youth & Policy in 2004, a senior manager in my Local Authority Youth service said it was questionable whether I was an asset to the service!
So how did I develop this critical voice? It was from the influence of scholars such as Bernard throughout my studies and he featured heavily on my reading lists, not least for his manifesto for youth work published in 2005, and for his comprehensive volumes of youth service history.
Bernard has been keen to emphasise that this latest book is not a 4th volume of his history books. And, I have to say I am immensely relieved about that – partly because I feel like I am holding the decades of my adulthood in my hands and I am not ready to think of that as history yet! But also, more importantly, because Bernard’s critical exploration of the New Labour years, the Austerity era and through to the present raise pertinent lessons for us to respond to now not to think of as history or completed or done with.
Bernard’s contribution to our field is immense – with the publication of this latest book, he has effectively been the only person to write the entire post-war history of the Youth Service in England. And his charting of these decades has involved immense amounts of research – the sheer amount of work that has gone into just this latest book is incredible – no stone has been left unturned in uncovering the policy and practice developments of the last two decades. But Bernard has not written this from an ivory tower. His experience in the research and academics of youth work is apparent – but just so is his role in the policy and practice of it – and also as an activist. His defence for the distinct features and principles of our field of work comes through in the text and the delivery – most notably perhaps in the final chapters in his case studies of youth-led activism against the deconstruction of the youth service.
I am privileged to be able to read this book and to know Bernard. I am proud of the influence he had on my own articulation and understanding of youth work, both back when I was a student and he was a core feature of my reading list, but now when I am also proud to call him my friend.
The book is published by Palgrave and available in softback and on Kindle via https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030038854
As we write Amazon is offering a 20% reduction.