FROM THE ARCHIVE – Lenny Sellars on THE GREAT YOUTHWORK© HEIST

Months ago I promised that I would begin retrieving posts from what we dubbed the IDYW archive. It is belated but hopefully, this is a start.

The challenging piece, ‘The Great Youth Work Heist’ appeared on the IDYW website in January 2010. I had come across the author Lenny Sellars on a youth work forum hosted to its credit at that time by the magazine, ‘Children and Young People Now’, a commitment to debate long past. However, I knew Lenny only by his pseudonym, ‘God’s Lonely Youth Worker’. We bumped into one another in the bar at the November 2009 Federation of Detached Youth Work conference held in a miserably wet Wigan. My recollection is that we were a mite uncertain about one another, our opening exchanges somewhat stilted. We did discover though a common bond from outside youth work, namely the pits, appropriate seeing we were sat at the centre of the once vital Lancashire coalfield. We were both from mining families. Lenny had worked down the pit and out of it during the historic NUM Strike of 1984/85. My dad was the last Taylor to go underground but I had been a committed activist in Leicestershire and Derbyshire during the dispute. Stories swapped we warmed to one another.

Lenny became very involved for some years in the IDYW Campaign. For example, he led a discussion on ‘Where Are We Up To?’ and ‘Where Are We Going?’ at a December 2012 Seminar in Manchester. I reported.

The opening contribution to the first session around the Campaign’s sense of identity and purpose was led by the self-styled ‘raggedy-arsed’ Lenny Sellars from Grimethorpe, home of arguably the greatest colliery brass band formed in the revolutionary year of 1917. His forthright challenge might be summed up as follows:

  • Has our commitment to defending democratic youth work been compromised by our involvement in the wider campaign to defend jobs and services in their increasing plurality?
  • Are the omens for the development of IDYW good or bad?
  • With the demise of New Labour, our initial foe, who or what is today’s nemesis?
  • Is IDYW failing to widen its support because it is viewed as too political and/or too intellectual?

Lenny kept true to this line of questioning and in the end felt that IDYW had lost its way. We parted company on the best of terms. We were poorer for his absence from our ranks.

The following has lost none of its necessary provocations.

THE GREAT YOUTHWORK© HEIST

So… I attended the Federation for Detached Youth Work Conference at Wigan in November last year and I must declare that I became increasingly charged throughout the weekend with a delightful positivity and felt an unusual level of intense inspiration from the radiant enthusiasm and passion of the guest speakers and other attendees. And then Tom Wylie spoke. He charged youth work purists with being hopeless romantics and scoffed at the thought that there was any value in the convivial relationship between youth worker and young person. My positivity plummeted and my hope wilted with every word that fell from his lips. There seemed to be a cruel irony in that a conference with the theme “Positive About The Street” should end with such a negative tone. Nonetheless, I took a lot from the conference and have managed to recoup some positivity by exorcising all those nagging despondencies by writing them down on a sheet of paper (or three) and sharing them with some poor recipient who probably doesn’t deserve the burden. It’s a lengthy diatribe and the first page of overcast reflection was written about 6 months ago so I’m actually recycling despair.

Lenny up a hill if not a mountain

I get the feeling that I’ve been climbing a mountain for fifteen years only to find that the architects of social policy have built another mountain on top, twice as big and twice as steep. Metaphorically the mountain represents the daily grind of wading, chest-high through the formalised social control that is currently trading under the title of youth work©. I’ve got my own vision of the summit and the clarity is startling. But that’s just a vision. The reality is a jumbled mess of strategic clichés.

There’s an enthusiastic buzz in the conference rooms about a new youth initiative. It sits well on the handouts and the power-point presentation is dynamic. The power suits love it. They are impressed. Eagerly they display their new buzz-words and acronyms like kids display the labels on their designer clothes. I look forward to the meeting in 2 months’ time when we hear the feedback that despite the fact that they displayed the posters, posted the leaflets, spent £200 on a buffet, £80 on renting a room and £100 on hiring a scratch DJ… no one turned up. I could tell them now but that would seem arrogant, negative and curmudgeonly.

So I’m looking up at the mountain. The lofty peaks of middle-class strategy; the precarious ridges of output driven work; the sheer-face obstacles of tedious bureaucracy; the harsh climate of prescribed funding…. and I think, why can’t someone just give me the money and the resources to continue delivering the effective, front-line, needs-led work that I’ve been practising for the last 17 years?

Does it sound treacherous to declare my contempt for the ECM agenda and everything it stands for? I have to be careful about this. I feel as though I’m offending the deeply religious principle of some deeply religious disciples.

Something’s got to give. I’ve been at odds with the system for the past 15 years. In fact, we now seem to be walking in opposite directions. I’ve tried to push against it but it’s too big. I’ve even tried to ignore it but it owns the tools that I need to do my work. The system also seems to have become much more aggressive over the years. It wears an imperious sneer as it keeps wasting vast amounts of money on initiatives that defy logic and this is where I am defeated because I have one of those heads that refuses to engage with the illogical. So it isn’t that I won’t play it’s more that I can’t play.

I think one of the main problems we now have in reclaiming effective youth work© is that it has been (and still is as I type) travelling in the wrong direction at 100 mph. And to be honest, there’s little left to reclaim. The bureaucracy fears innovation because innovation is unpredictable. Face-to-face youth workers seem to be judged on their ability to gather information and on how much bullshit you can fit on a monitoring sheet. youth work© is aspiring to the same dizzy heights of the Social Services – losing connection with the world outside whilst wallowing in the esoteric ambience of Über-professionalism.

It’s a pretty simple diagram. The more you get involved with the strategic levels the further away you move from the reality of your purpose. The closer to front-line delivery you work, the more ridiculous the strategic aims look.

My own experience has shown me that pre-determined outcomes imposed on youth work© have created a culture of disingenuous motivation, which has also promoted the inevitable course of dishonesty. My heart sinks when I begin to imagine the percentage of accreditations which have been frantically forged by the pressurised youth worker with a target to meet. When you introduce a formal target into an informal methodology you’re bound to create a tension and you will also generate a fear of the consequences of failing to meet these targets. And it is under these conflicting conditions that youth workers start feeding the system with irrelevant and often imaginary outputs.

Prescribed outputs frequently require systems and procedures which have a detrimental effect on the values of youth work©. Youth work© is based on specific values and if you strip away those values in pursuance of achieving outputs then you should not describe it as youth work©. I have lots of personal examples of how this imposed cosmetic formality and tokenistic accreditation has frustrated the youth work© process and jeopardised the effective relationship we build with young people.

History has demonstrated that effective outputs will always occur as a result of organic youth work© processes. So who is really at fault here? Is it youth workers’ inability to define the value of youth work© or is it the inability of the bean-counter to understand it? Why persecute the youth worker for not being able to translate something organic and unpredictable into business language. We sow a seed in a young person’s head and it stands to reason that sometimes the youth worker may not even be around when the seed eventually blooms – a real and meaningful output which will be lost and unrecorded and unquantifiable but will still have a significant impact. It isn’t always possible to predict the outcome of genuine youth work© and it isn’t always possible to measure the true impact because some of the most valuable outcomes don’t always manifest for many years.

Youth work© will always be vulnerable and exposed to the people who seek to bureaucratise it and once youth work© is bureaucratised it becomes something else. And so the very thing that makes it effective will also, in the end, destroy it. There is no room for informality in a social structure dominated by bureaucracy. We satisfy the needs of the systems of bureaucracy rather than addressing the needs of young people. Servants of bureaucracy rather than a practitioner of this cherished craft.

What I value most in the relationships we create through effective Youth work © is the bridge that it builds between marginalisation and the mainstream. The bridge we create is the value of our work. A young person steps on this bridge as soon as you contact them and they walk its span when you engage them in activities and it is this “distance travelled” that I cherish.

You need compassion, empathy, realism, and a good degree of common sense to truly understand the value of real youth work©. I can’t give the bureaucrats any of these qualities and therefore I can’t help them to understand how they are contributing to the demolition of an essential social provision. I think you need to digest and internalise the values of youth work© to actually understand its true worth.

What is the way forward? Well, having travelled this path of disenchantment for about 10 years I have something of a vague bearing.

And so, to the notion of creating a parallel youth service which engages with real young people with real issues leaving the more functional kids to the existing youth service. They can wallow in accreditations and create school councils for every day of the week. I wish.

Youth work© still exists in little pockets scattered around in places where the influence of national strategy can’t corrupt it. I believe the thing to do is to defend the spirit and the name of youth work© by vigorously asserting our heritage. I regularly ask youth workers not to use the term youth work© when they are discussing practice which clearly isn’t youth work©. Not much in the great scheme of things I know but it does help me to preserve the integrity of my profession. I also know many dedicated youth workers who feel the need to override bureaucracy by delivering meaningful youth work© covertly – outside and beyond the remit of their prescribed targets. However, I believe that “youth work© by stealth” just allows the system to take the credit for the work delivered which ends up fuelling its performance indicators. You can’t expose the wrongs by hiding the rights. Documenting examples and statements of disenchantment is essential. If the current path of youth strategy is lined with false and tokenistic outcomes then its malignant structures will be strengthened.

I know in my heart that the proposed services will fail to have sufficient impact on the young people who need the most support. But this is irrelevant to the bureaucrat. As long as services can feed the bureaucratic machinery with the right buzzwords and numbers that “add up” then the machinery will run smoothly. The machinery is concerned with breadth and not depth and it has no empathy with the disaffected and no sympathy with the front-line worker.

What to do? I seriously don’t believe there is any mileage in trying to stop the machinery. We cannot defend Youth Work© in a language that the machinery understands. Youth Work© has been condemned as being too ethereal for the harsh reality of our current social administrative structure and the scope for delivering effective Youth Work© is diminishing.

In real terms, if we are pushed into systems of social control then we must stand up and be counted and speak out and say “I will do this because it is a directive from my employer but I will not call it youth work© and I will not recognise myself as being a youth worker.” I would never call myself a counsellor before, during or after a one-to-one discussion with a young person.

It isn’t easy to be oppositional in this culture of new managerialism. The bravest in this campaign will be the local authority youth workers who are trapped within a system that suppresses and prohibits the freedom and creativity to travel their true paths. But I suggest that instead of trying to chip away at the immovable force of what youth work© has become, we actually support this doomed vessel along its journey towards the iceberg. By all means criticise and expose it but don’t attempt to stop it. It will eventually crash and sink.

Lenny Sellars
[God’s Lonely Youth Worker]

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