Bethia McNeil muses on the dilemmas of naming and measuring youth work

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Our relationship with the Centre for Youth Impact [CYI] remains inevitably delicate. We are deeply cautious about the consequences of its perspective for a process-led, person-centred youth work practice. However, we have sought to be in critical dialogue with CYI and this desire has been reciprocated. Hence it’s important to engage with Bethia McNeil’s New Year’s musings on what she sees as key issues in the ongoing debate about the relationship between something we call youth work and the heterogeneous layer of humanity we call young people.

Thoughts From The Centre – to be found in the very useful CYI Newsletter
This month, Bethia has been mostly thinking about…

  • What is the most meaningful language in which to talk about provision for young people? Does it make sense to talk about different ‘fields’ of practice? Or approaches? Or even practices? And what about ethics, values and principles? To what extent is shared learning held back by a lack of common language and/or understanding?
  • What is the relationship between ‘organisational’ or ‘practice improvement’ and improvement in outcomes for young people? Are there common areas of improvement, or is it more nuanced? How much is about systems and processes, and how much about relationships?
  • How can we value the act of measurement as much as the data that we are gathering? It feels like there are fractures on both sides of this issue at the moment: there is widespread antipathy towards the act of measurement and its impact on youth provision, and similarly a scepticism that the data gathered can tell us anything meaningful about our engagement with young people. Where to start?
  • What do we actually mean when we talk about ‘what works’? To what extent is this in the eye of the beholder?

 

If I can get my act together I’ll scribble some sort of response to these pertinent questions in the coming week, but it would be brilliant if other folk contributed.

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Standing up for being counted: The Centre For Youth Impact responds to Tony Taylor’s critique

 

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Photo from the March 16 conference pinched unashamedly from the CYI web site

 

A few weeks ago I linked to a piece I’d scribbled for the new look Youth & Policy – Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development. I must confess to being pleased that the Centre for Youth Impact has felt moved to respond in a generous, yet inevitably critical way in a blog, jointly written by Bethia McNeil, Pippa Knott and Matt Hill, the Centre’s core team – Standing up for being counted: When treasuring is measuring, and why we might need a rethink. Within it, they seek to address the challenges found in the current dominant measurement framework and propose a rethink of the value of measurement in youth work.

The blog opens as follows:

Back in March this year, we hosted an event focused on measurement in personal and social development. We were really pleased to see Tony Taylor’s recent article in Youth and Policy, following up on the discussion, and agree that it would have been most beneficial had there been more time and space to explore the themes. Indeed, these themes are so vital that we felt moved to add our voice to Tony’s in this blog. Overall, we were struck at the many points where we agree with Tony’s forthright critique of the dominant paradigm in impact measurement, but there also remain some areas of fundamental disagreement – perhaps as might be expected in such a complex and contested area.

and comment:

We agree that it might be harder to ‘measure’ the impact of youth work than other more targeted or narrowly defined forms of work with young people – but, for us, this demands that we develop how we measure and understand what really counts about youth work, and via a process that enriches rather than undermines practice.

I hope very much you will find time to absorb their argument in full and, as they propose, join a crucial and continuing discussion.

For my part, I’d like to respond afresh, but for the moment I’m struck by the significance of the position they articulate part way through the blog.

Our stance is that measurement is a fundamentally human activity that is woven into every aspect of our lives, and which helps us make sense of the world around us.

Changing just one word in this sentence captures, at least for me, perhaps the essence of our differing perspectives.

‘Our stance is that judgement is a fundamentally human activity that is woven into every aspect of our lives, and which helps us make sense of the world around us.’

To put it another way, we make judgements all of the time in our daily lives, whilst we take measurements only when appropriate.

And the debate will certainly continue in a week’s time at The Centre for Youth Impact Gathering 2017: Shaping the future of impact measurement

taking place on 11 September 2017, 10:00 – 16:30 at Platform Islington, Hornsey Road Baths, 2 Tiltman Place, London N7 7EE.

I’m not sure if there are still places available, but visit the above link to find out. I’d love to be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development – Tony Taylor

In theory, I’m about to have a quiet August, largely free from maintaining the IDYW website, responding to Facebook and twittering. Obviously, you will be devastated at the news, but never fear find below the link to the latest article on the rejuvenated Youth & Policy platform. By chance, it’s a piece of mine, something of a rant about my deep misgivings about the contemporary, neoliberal obsession with measuring the immeasurable and its insidious impact on youth work. I know it’s hardly holiday reading, but if you do get round to glancing at its sparkling prose, comments however caustic welcomed.

Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development

Perplexed as usual – Ta to Justin Wyllie for photo

Tony Taylor of In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) was invited by the Centre for Youth Impact (CYI) to debate with Paul Oginsky at a conference ‘Measure & Treasure’ held on March 16th, 2017 in London. The following is a version of what he would have said if time had allowed. It is structured around the five questions posed in advance of the conference by Bethia McNeil, the CYI’s director.

I begin:

As you might expect there are differing interpretations of what we mean by PSD, but all aspire to be holistic, to be concerned with the whole person, their values, their knowledge, their skills, their emotions and desires. Fascinatingly, from a youth work perspective, half a century ago in 1967, Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson, in repudiating the common-sense idea of an incremental adolescent journey to adult maturity, argued that the fundamental purpose of PSD should be to help young people acquire the social skills of cooperation and comradeship, to develop a commitment to the common good. In stark contrast today’s dominant version of PSD is deeply individualistic, leaning for sustenance on developmental and cognitive psychology with their behavioural impositions of stages, roles, traits and norms upon young people growing up. For my part, I remain committed to the version espoused by Davies and Gibson, later to be summed up in a 1977 Wigan Youth Service Programme of Action as ‘personal, social and political awareness’. Or, indeed, if I am mischievous, PSD is a matter of ‘consciousness’, the very mention of which poses insoluble dilemmas for those wishing to calculate its existence.

Along the way I muse:

My comment on neutrality takes me to a final point regarding the idea of character itself. The pioneers of youth work, the likes of George Williams, Lily Montagu and Baden-Powell, would warm to its re-emergence, confident in their concern to nurture young men and women of good Christian or Jewish character. Explicitly they engaged without embarrassment with two inextricably interrelated questions, which, if we are similarly honest, we cannot escape:

In what sort of society do we wish to live? What are its characteristics?
And, depending on our answer, what sort of characters, do we think, are best suited to either the maintenance of what is or the creation of something yet to be?

and

In terms of being challenged about what they’re up to, whilst researchers, workers, funders, politicians may want to stand outside of the social relations they are seeking to influence, this is impossible, if oft wilfully ignored. Being involved in the process of personal and social development is not a laboratory experiment. If you wish to measure the resilience of a young person, if you wish to make a judgement on their character, the very same measurements and judgements ought to be asked of yourself, of funders, of managers, of politicians. In my opinion, it takes some cheek for politicians, not notable for their collective honesty and integrity, to pontificate about what they see as the appropriate form of PSD for young people. The same goes for all of us. As they say, we’re all in this together. All our characters are up for grabs.

I conclude with a couple of questions:

Are you measuring how successful you have been in manufacturing an emotionally resilient young person who will put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous social policies, accept their lot, and believes there is no alternative?

Or are we evaluating how successful we have been in creating, albeit tentatively, a critical, questioning young person, who seeks to change their lot in concert with others, who continues to imagine that a fairer, juster, more democratic society is possible, that the present calamitous state of affairs is not the best that humanity can do?

 

Still room at the IDYW conference plus can we measure and treasure character?

On Thursday I’m contributing to a Centre for Youth Impact event, ‘The Measure and the Treasure: Evaluation in personal and social development’ in London. It’s sold out. OK, I accept there is unlikely to be a connection. However I will post next week a report of the proceedings and a summary of my sceptical input into the morning panel debate.

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The Measure and the Treasure: Evaluation in personal and social development

The Centre for Youth Impact is hosting a day-long event on the 16th March 2017 focused on issues of measurement and personal and social development.
The day will explore policy, practical and philosophical debates about whether, how and why we should seek to measure the development of social and emotional skills in young people – also referred to as non-cognitive skills, soft skills and character, amongst other terms. We want to structure a thought-provoking and engaging day that introduces participants to a range of ideas and activities. The day will be designed for practitioners working directly with young people, those in an evaluation role, and funders of youth provision.

Speakers and facilitators include: Emma Revie (Ambition), Daniel Acquah (Early Intervention Foundation), Graeme Duncan (Right to Suceed), Robin Bannerjee (University of Sussex), Paul Oginsky (Personal Development Point), Jenny North (Impetus-PEF), Tony Taylor (In Defence of Youth Work), Sarah Wallbank (Yes Futures), Jack Cattell (Get the Data), Mary Darking, Carl Walker and Bethan Prosser (Brighton University), Leonie Elliott-Graves and Chas Mollet (Wac Arts), Tom Ravenscroft (Enabling Enterprise), Phil Sital-Singh (UK Youth) and Luke McCarthy (Think Forward).

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Then on Friday it’s our eighth national conference in Birmingham. To be honest the number of people registering is disappointing, well down on previous years. Although, obviously, the smaller audience, around 30 folk at the moment, will make for intense debate. This said, we’d love to see you there so it’s not too late to register or even turn up on the day.

Youth Work: Educating for good or Preventing the bad?

Details on this Facebook page or at this previous post.

Impact takes a bit of a troublesome knocking and from an unexpected quarter

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks for the concept of impact, so dominant nowadays in thinking about youth work and the youth sector.

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Firstly the much trumpeted post-2011 Troubled Families Strategy is exposed as an exercise in wilful deceit.  A scathing study undertaken by an independent research consortium including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research finds that after four years there was no clear evidence that the programme had any tangible effect, despite persistent claims by politicians that it had “turned around” the lives of tens of thousands of families and saved over a billion pounds. One of its authors going so far as to say, “The troubled families programme has no significant impact on any of the key outcomes it was designed to change. As far as we can tell, there’s no evidence at all to suggest the programme had more than zero impact on any of the key findings it was designed to change.”

We drew attention to this state of affairs back in February, ‘Troubled Families is a fraudulent scam’- some thoughts from within’, drawing on a report by Stephen Crossley of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Yet, despite the widespread unease about the programme, pursuing its outcomes agenda has been central to the restructuring of local government services and has impacted significantly on the role of the remnants of the Youth Service. For example in Lancashire the Youth Service is about to be submerged within the Wellbeing, Early Help and Prevention Service and ‘aligned’ to the TFU programme. By all accounts open access youth work will disappear.

 Proposals for Transforming Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help
Services for Children, Young People and Families in Lancashire

This paper describes the implementation plan of the service offer proposals
presented to Cabinet in February 2015. It includes a description of the current state
of the services to be integrated and proposes a future service model to be delivered
within a revised financial envelope of £17,230,000. This represents a £7.4million
budget saving by 2017/18, based on current services spend (2015/16). The paper
outlines the service delivery model proposal to transform and fully integrate a range
of services within Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help Service (WPEHS), which
will be implemented subject to consultation. The resultant integrated delivery model
will align existing core offers for Children’s Centres, Young People’s Provision,
Prevention and Early Help and Lancashire’s response to the national Troubled
Families Unit national programme.

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Secondly Paul Oginsky, infamous in some circles for his role as an adviser to David Cameron and as an architect of the flagship National Citizen Service, has evidently seen the light. He declares,

“For many years, people in the youth sector have been looking for a definitive and universally accepted way of measuring the impact of their work.
So many people have tried and so many methods have been proposed that this quest has become known as the ‘Holy Grail’ of youth work. Let us kill this myth now (spoiler alert), there is no holy grail. There is no way of measuring impact on people that is definitive and universally accepted. There is no such thing as a unit of confidence, loyalty, honesty, motivation or any of the characteristics which this kind of work seeks to impact.”

He might have added with a touch of humility, that for many years many within youth work, including leading figures such as Batsleer, Davies, Jeffs, Smith, Bright and Yeung, together with In Defence of Youth Work and a host of practitioners rendered redundant, have been criticising the illusions of the outcomes and impact agenda. They have never got on the horse pursuing this particular Holy Grail.

He continues,

Forget measurement, psychometric testing, pre and post course tick boxes, the best way of assessing the impact of this kind of work is to ask the person themselves to describe if and how they have changed, and then to ask for witnesses verification by those who know them.

Although this needs some serious unpacking we might discern a hint of the story-telling perspective advocated by ourselves – see our designated web site here. Certainly though we need to engage with the arguments contained in the paper, A Way Forward For Character Development: The missing piece of education , published by Personal Development Point, of which Paul is the Chief Executive.

Clearly Bethia McNeil of the Centre for Youth Impact and Phil Kerry of London Youth are of the same mind, finding themselves in agreement with much of Paul Oginsky’s thesis.

 Bethia comments, Paul Oginsky is right that there is no ‘definitive and universally accepted way of measuring impact’. A ‘definitive approach’ implies agreement, a conclusion and a sense of authority. Impact measurement in the youth sector has none of those features. He’s also right that finding this definitive and universally accepted approach has at times seemed like the Holy Grail. This is in part because impact measurement has been connected with sustainability, and the suggestion has long been that the ability to ‘prove’ your impact or worth is associated with turning on the funding taps. A search for the Holy Grail is also motivated by the belief that it exists – that it is possible to find a definitive and universally accepted approach to measuring impact. Again, Paul is right – there isn’t one.

Phil Kerry writes, I read with interest Paul Oginsky’s recent white paper, A Way Forward for Character Development: The missing piece of education. Much of what Personal Development Point says rings true. There is no holy grail to character measurement within our sector and the sooner we all realise this the better. But attempting to condense all of this into one evaluation tool or definition would just be just as much of a fruitless mission. Our sector embraces a brilliantly wide church of practice and thinking and in this lies our strength and not our weakness.

Read their responses in full here.

To repeat the point made above, we can but suggest that a critical caution about imposed templates of universality has been around for ages. Indeed it is caught in youth work’s long-standing acknowledgement that it is a contested ideological space. It is fascinating that this fundamental insight is by and large ignored, even when notions of social change are allowed into the debate. We will endeavour to explain this further in a measured response to the PDP Oginsky pamphlet. Meanwhile there is reason to believe that the discussion about ‘what we’re up to’ is loosening up.

 

 

After the conferences : Bernard Davies reflects

In the aftermath of a series of youth work conferences and events concerned with the future, Bernard Davies offers these immediate reflections.

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Some personal reflections on the struggle for a future for youth work

Three events in a month run by organisations with mandates as different as the Training Agencies Group (TAG), ChooseYouth and the Institute for Youth Work (IYW). Attended in total by around 240 people ranging from very experienced practitioners working on the front line and youth work students struggling with non-youth work placements to the Chief Executive of UK Youth and university heads of departments. And all dedicated to reflecting on the question: what future for youth work and the Youth Service? Out of the contradictions, the confusions and – yes – the conflicts, what clarifications, lessons and thoughts for possible action has all that left me with?

The diversity of the attendance was both a positive and a challenge. Given that neither ChooseYouth nor the unions that have done so much to sustain it or indeed IYW, were on the invitation list for last December’s sector collaboration conference part-sponsored by UK Youth, the up-front contributions to the ChooseYouth event of two senior UK Youth staff members certainly felt like a important step forward in alliance building.

On the other hand, the range of attendees’ roles and work settings also brought to the surface some significantly contrasting, if often taken-for-granted, perspectives on what the practice requires. For me this was captured in one discussion which produced both vivid descriptions by workers in open access settings of their struggles to negotiate managers’ demands for ‘measured outcomes’ and the apparently wholly unproblematic request from another practitioner working in a targeted programme for guidance on how, as straightforwardly as possible, to record the personal details of the young people they were working on their computer.

Nor was this the only issue to emerge where consensus seemed elusive. Many – especially, it seemed, experienced qualified workers who have for years run up against the disdain of other professions – remain keen on some form of nationally recognised ‘protection of title’/‘licence to practice’ or even a formal registration process. For others howevernot least voluntary workers – this clearly smacked of exclusiveness and even of threatening to define what they were doing as lower status.

And then, and most fundamentally, was the question: so what now do we mean by ‘youth work’? Given what has happened to the sector over the past six years, it is hardly surprising that the notion that any ‘work with young people is youth work, especially if it can make some claims to being ‘informal’, has bitten deep into the consciousness of the workforce – practitioners as well as policy-makers and managers. For such committed workers, in whatever settings they now find themselves, there seems to be no alternative but to see their use of their ‘transferable youth work skills’ as confirmation of deeply embedded personal as well as occupational identities?

So where does all that leave a ‘defence of youth work’? On the premise that we

– the sector – will be stronger together than apart, my own very personal starting point has to be to try and identify some core issues around which pluralist responses might rally. Out of my reflection on these three recent events – and recognising that as immediate ‘successes’ are now very unlikely, mid- long-term perspectives are needed – might collaboration with, for example, ChooseYouth, with TAG, IYW and the Centre for Youth Impact perhaps focus on:

  • Continuing to make the case for local all-year youth work provision which young people choose to use – arguing that case on the evidence going back decades that those facilities are likely to be attended regularly and/or sampled by anything up to a million 13-19 year olds, and that – contradicting the presumed constraints of ‘austerity’many could be funded out of the £89M currently spent on the 58,000 16-19 year olds enrolling in the NCS.
  • Supporting university courses which, as part of their efforts to maintain recruitment, are reaching out to FE students – particularly those on access courses; and also getting the word out in more systematic ways that, even in the current tough graduate employment market, their students are getting jobs.
  • Highlighting the appropriateness for youth work of qualitative forms of evaluation focused on the ‘how’ of the practice (on its process and methods) and not just, as so often now, on its impacts including perhaps by seeking funds for a collaborative piece of research into how the kinds of youth work story-telling which IDYW has been developing could contribute to this.

Not much to go on, perhaps – but maybe something to help concentrate our debates on what, beyond the rhetoric often running through these three conferences, collaboration’ and ‘alliance-building’ might actually look like on the ground.

Bernard Davies

April 2016