If you follow In Defence of Youth Work’s history and indeed my own critical response to the ‘Impact Agenda’ of the last decade in such pieces as ‘Treasuring but not measuring: Personal and social development’ our opposition to the imposition of inappropriate frameworks of measurement is obvious. However, especially in my case, the criticism has been sweeping in its scope, overly preoccupied, some would say, with the insidious consequences of neoliberal ideology for youth work practice. To what extent have my feet been on the ground?
Hence it’s stimulating to be brought down to earth by the first article flowing out of the research project, Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work. Entitled ‘The everyday and the remarkable: Valuing and evaluating youth work’ , published in Youth & Policy, the authors, Louise Doherty and Tania de St Croix, root their analysis in Phase Two of their continuing study, in which they visited eight youth work settings around England on a consistent basis, participating in and observing youth work sessions and meetings, alongside undertaking an extensive dialogue with managers, workers and young people.
Their overall thesis highlights ‘the tensions in measuring and evaluating youth work and argues that the way practice is recognised and valued by young people and youth workers is disconnected from the way it is measured, monitored and evaluated‘. Their research focus is ‘specifically and deliberately on ‘open youth work’ in England’.
Their conclusion is that ‘in looking critically at youth impact, we are not denying the need for accountability or evaluation; however, we assert that there are significant limitations to much of the evaluation currently required by funders and called for in policy. When inappropriate mechanisms are introduced in youth work settings, they distort the distinctive relationship between youth workers and young people, and fail to capture either the everyday value and influence of youth work or its remarkable contribution to the enrichment of young people’s lives.
Rather than seeking to ‘measure’ practice, a grassroots democratic approach to accountability would attempt to create the conditions in which high quality practice can be nurtured and developed. These conditions must include less hierarchical relationships within the youth sector, funding bodies and policy-making more generally, to allow for the development of evaluation processes that enhance practice, are anti-oppressive, build trust, and not reductive of the complexity and subtlety of what happens in youth work settings.
More fundamentally, perhaps, there is a strong argument that the conditions for high quality youth work do not centre on evaluation exclusively, but also on long-term investment, support for professional training and education, the valuing of staff through decent contracts, and halting the sale of buildings and the closure of popular grassroots facilities. Appropriate youth-centred evaluation is needed but what is most important is the rebuilding of an adequate and proportional youth work sector that is able to have an everyday value and a remarkable impact on young people’s lives’.
I cannot speak too highly of this first expression of Louise and Tania’s research and would urge you to read the article in full and engage with its argument. I am sure they would love to hear your reactions.