FROM THE ARCHIVES JUNE 2009 -Youth Work Values Under Threat

More or less every month I’ll dig into the archives for pieces that might be of interest or pertinence. I’ve settled on doing so chronologically from the emergence of IDYW in 2009. The following post dates from June 2009. Sadly the links don’t work. There may be a possibility of unearthing the report, ‘Squaring the Circle’.

Youth work’s values under threat is the title of a new piece in Children and Young People Now focused on Squaring the Circle , the ‘modest’ inquiry into the state of youth work practice led by Brian Merton and Bernard Davies.

The report says: “This inquiry has strengthened our view that these dilemmas are being rendered more acute as the state’s interventions become increasingly prescriptive, intrusive and insistent.” It also fears the distinctive style of youth work is being threatened by the use of accredited outcomes.

Davies said: “Anyone who has their ear to the ground picks up lots of anecdotes about what is happening in youth work. There is a lot of anxiety and anger that the core principles of youth work are under pressure and under threat by some policies, including Aiming High and Youth Matters.

“It is important to get beyond the anecdotes and establish more clearly what is going on,” he added.

More from Janaki Mahadevan’s report here.

The close timing of the appearance of our In Defence campaign and the DMU Inquiry is perhaps fortuitous. But as both Thomas Hardy and Karl Marx agreed, twists of fate or plain accidents play an important part in history. Indeed Janika is pursuing a further article for CPYN, exploring this resurgence of questioning about what’s going on within the arena of Youth Work.  This can only be good for the opening of critical debate.

As part of the research, Janika posed the following questions:

I would like to ask you about some of the concerns/ questions that have been raised in both the inquiry and the letter. I would be most grateful if you would answer the following questions for me.

1) Do you think that current policy frameworks are tipping the balance of youth work from open access to targeted provision? If so do you think this is something that is compromising the nature of voluntary engagement and why?

2) Is the relationship between youth worker and young person and the notion of confidentiality being threatened by the requirement to pass information to others and what impact is this having on the nature of youth work?

3) Is the process and intent of youth work being compromised by the pursuit of targets and accredited outcomes? Is it making youth work too prescriptive and why?

As is my failing my reply was less than straightforward, but went as follows:

Before answering your questions directly a few words on principles and ideologies. In arguing for the Defence of Youth Work the Open Letter is at pains to define a form of youth work that is democratic and emancipatory. The core principles of such a liberatory practice are set out in points 1-6 in the fourth paragraph. However, there are other competing forms of youth work, notably an approach to young people that is hierarchical and conformist. Indeed there has been a long-running tension between the two, hence the classic essay title, ‘Is Youth Work an agency of social change or social control?’ In the three decades after the Second World War the model of social change was increasingly favoured at least at the level of policy and rhetoric, caught in the sentiments of the Albemarle Report [1959] and in its last gasps the Milson-Fairbairn Report [1974]. Youth Work desired to be involved in the creation of critical citizens concerned with the common good. Of course, how far this commitment was carried out in practice is a matter of continuing debate. However, with all its warts, this optimistic view of young people’s individual and collective potential has been eroded gradually and insidiously since the late 1970s. It has been replaced by the hierarchical and conformist in its neo-liberal guise, determined to thrust the values of the market into every nook and cranny of our existence. Dominated by a managerial outlook, obsessed with the technical and behavioural, it seeks to mould young people into being individualistic, compliant and never-satiated workers and consumers. This is the ideology behind the social policy proposals of the New Labour era. However this way of viewing the world is in crisis, hence the beginnings of debate across all corners of society – in our case within Youth Work.

As to your specific questions:

1. Voluntary engagement is thoroughly compromised by New Labour’s emphasis on the compulsory targeting of ‘problematic and demonised’ youth. An authentic voluntary encounter is uncertain on both sides of what might come out of the relationship. This does not mean that the democratic youth worker should be not be prepared for all sorts of tangents. Being able to improvise on the spot requires great skill and preparation. But the managerial demand that the youth worker goes out with a predetermined agenda is utterly at odds with the uncertainty of voluntary contact. As for the issue of open access and targeted provision, I don’t want to dodge the reality that the form of youth work I advocate has sometimes prioritised work with particular groups e.g young women, and black youth. However this ‘targeting’ has been premised on the negotiated identification of needs and rights by young people discriminated against within the system. It would be dishonest, given scarce resources, to deny that this commitment has sat uneasily besides a desire to be ‘open’ and inclusive. This said a democratic youth work rejects the present hierarchical view that those targeted are somehow deficient, dysfunctional and anti-social. To borrow from Jeffs and Smith, a democratic youth work works with young people, whereas hierarchical youth work works on them.

2. The delicate issue of confidentiality is abused by the managerial imperative to collect and circulate information. There is growing anxiety generally about the growth of a surveillance society. In this context, to my mind, a principle of democratic youth work is that you don’t grass on a young person, who has trusted you enough to chat about the mess they’re in. This commitment should only be set aside in exceptional circumstances. The push to integrate services uniformly undermines the distinctive character of differing agencies and undermines worker autonomy. I have been in situations, where working closely with a teacher, social worker about a particular young person’s situation has been enormously helpful. I have been in situations where to do so would have been disastrous. A profound problem with social policy is that it fails to recognise the intimate and complex picture of professional relationships on the ground. To put it crudely I’m not going to share information about a young person with someone I don’t trust personally or politically!

3. Obviously I think a target-led and outcome-driven model of youth work undermines a creative and improvisatory, democratic youth work. This is rendered all the more so when these prescriptions for practice are imposed from above with no democratic debate between politicians and the workforce doing the job. As for accreditation, there’s always been a section of the work that gave certificates and badges, symbolised by D.of E. It was/is a choice for some young people. But this is very different from the pursuit of accredited outcomes becoming the driving force of practice. And this emphasis again profoundly changes the direction of the work. It does so because [and its advocates stress this point] it makes Youth Work the servant of the Market and the Employer. Now Youth Work with its inferiority complex has dabbled in the past with ‘preparing young people for work’. I remember school-leaver courses in the mid-70s, but until the last decade we have tried to fend off becoming social and life skills instructors in obedience and conformity. It is a measure of New Labour’s success in transforming Youth Work that we are now forced to make the case afresh for youth workers as social educators striving through a critical dialogue to educate both themselves and young people in the struggle for democracy and equality. It is a measure of New Labour’s failure to fashion a more just society that we are able to raise the purpose and the principles of Youth Work anew.

As always your critical thoughts are welcomed. 


Thanks to Diane Law for tracing this link to the Squaring the Circle report.

It’s the first article in this Y&P issue

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