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?


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?


Building the British Spirit : Labour’s Educational Target for schools [and youth work?]

Ta to

Ta to

In January a small group comprising amongst others, Pete Sims, initiator of the 38 Degree petition, Piers Telemacque, National Union of Students and Julie Hilling, MP, former youth worker and past President of CYWU is meeting with Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary to discuss the need for a statutory funded, universal Youth Service. Of course there is the pressing question of much needed finance for youth work, but there is also the crucial issue of educational philosophy. What do we see as the purpose of education, formal and informal?

For now I will merely post some extracts from a speech made by Hunt earlier this week and ask if we ought to be a touch concerned.

“The great British spirit comes from our ability to overcome adversity and setbacks.”

“Character, resilience and the ability to bounce back: it’s what makes us British.”

“As our young people face growing rivalry for jobs, high-status apprenticeships and the best university places, it becomes more and more important for schools to coach pupils about character.

“Because we learn best from the knockbacks that we receive, that is the message that schools must send to pupils.

“I want to see the great British spirit in all our classrooms.”

Mr Hunt was speaking at a conference calling attention to the present government’s £5 million pound Character Innovation Fund, which, amongst other things, will allow former armed service personnel to run eight projects across England to develop self-confidence respect and leadership in disadvantaged young people. Those involved in youth work across the decades will be in raptures about the remarkable initiative being made by DEMOS, one of those robust and rigorous think-tanks we hear so much about.  Its Chief executive Claudia Wood has announced that a number of pilot projects are investigating how extracurricular activities such as sport, social action and volunteering could transform pupils’ self-esteem and self-reliance.

“People might call it grit, resilience or skills for the 21st century, but there is a growing consensus from all parties that character matters, and that policymakers can help develop it from childhood,” argues Ms Wood.

scouting for boys

Now far be it for me to suggest that the notion of character might be a contested concept. For now I’m off to read afresh a favourite book of mine, Baden-Powell’s ‘Scouting for Boys’, full of contradictions, full of humour. Our earnest researchers and populist politicians could have saved themselves a lot of time by buying the excellent new edition of this classic youth work text!

For another slant on Tristram Hunt’s call –  see ‘We don’t need Winston Churchill in the classroom.’