A TEXT FOR OUR TIMES
A (partial) review of Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts (2015), edited by Graham Bright, published by Palgrave
This piece makes no claim to being a full review of this important book – a welcome and, these days, all too rare addition to the literature on youth work. Doing full justice to (in this case) thirteen papers written by fifteen different contributors on topics ranging from ‘Uniformed Youth Work’, ‘Youth Work and the Church’ and ‘Questioning “Muslim Youth”’ to ‘Relocating Detached Youth Work’, ‘Youth Work in Schools’ and ‘Youth Work in Digital Spaces’ – that, it seems to me, is a hard act to pull off in two-to-three thousand words. What follows therefore are some personal reactions to the first six chapters and the concluding chapter which, taken together, provide a valuable updated and critical overview of youth work’s development. In particular they focus our thinking on the role of the state from tentative beginnings via significant expansion to, now, swift decline; its shifting relationship with the voluntary youth sector; and the wider policy terrain on which youth work is now operating.
In offering even this partial review, I need to start with a clarification – or is it a confession? I read nothing about youth work these days without sooner or later finding myself asking: so is this article or paper or book locating its discussion within the policies which frame and so often constrain the practice? Is it, furthermore, confronting the politics of those policies – first recognising and then at least to some degree explicitly seeking to unpick and explain their underpinning values and their inbuilt power relations and dynamics? Or does it duck and dive around these questions by taking as a given – even perhaps as self-evidently benign – the wider contextual and especially structural realities: the sense of entitlement of privileged and powerful interests to determine what should and should not be done, and how; and, defined often by class or gender or race, the greatly narrowed if not actually blocked room for manoeuvre of most other individuals, groups and communities?
The sections of the book reviewed here, I have to say, not only avoid this ducking and diving. Chapter by chapter, they each adopt up-front political perspectives well supported by analysis and evidence, some based on the author’s original research. Graham Bright, the book’s editor, sets the overall tone in the opening paper – on youth work’s emergence as a distinctive way of working with young people. In a chapter tellingly headed ‘Our contemporary need for history’ he for example asserts:
Understanding the heritage of any profession is of key importance to critical reflection, and to shaping the direction of future policy and practice.
– adding that
… youth work is highly susceptible to the changing tides of policy, which increasingly appear to marginalize it in the wake of the neo-liberal drifts.
Importantly, too, he reminds us that;
… the meanings and discourses attached to “youth” are socially constructed and change over time
– with the very notion of adolescence having been constructed at a particular historical moment in response to the changing economic and especially industrial conditions and demands of the later nineteenth century.
Other contributors then consistently reinforce this kind of wider contextualisation. Simon Bradford, in surveying youth work’s development over the nearly sixty years up to 1996, in part entitles his chapter ‘State beneficence or government control…?’. He then goes on to suggest that
Governmentality designates a political rationality in which power is exercised over social and cultural space to create and sustain order and stability over time.
Tania de St Croix, in her exploration of the impact on youth work of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, comments that:
New Labour’s brand of neo-liberal youth work was broadly directed towards social control.
Pat Norris and Carole Pugh’s chapter on ‘Local Authority Youth Work’ notes how under the Coalition ‘neo-liberal agendas provide an ominous backdrop to the current position’. And in some detail Ilona Buchroth and Marc Husband, in their contribution ‘Youth Work in the Voluntary Sector’, track how all recent governments have for their own strategic purposes corrupted voluntary organisations’ independence by corralling them into something they have rebadged as ‘the third sector’ – that is, as third in line to the state and the market – while at the same time (like it or not) requiring them to be closely integrated with both. What often also becomes clearer from reading this and other chapters is how the market has in effect now been constructed as ‘the first sector’ with the state struggling to retain its ranking even as number two.
In his chapter ‘In the Service of the State: Youth Work under New Labour’, Howard Sercombe spells out some of the values underpinning of all of this. He points for example to New Labour’s
… fundamental belief in the efficacy of the market as a way mediating human interactions of any kind, and facilitating the best and most efficient effort (or ‘maximising goods’) of any kind, including time, emotion, commitment and kindness, as well as objects and commodities’.
He then goes on to pair this neo-liberal stance with what he calls – and what attracts comment in other chapters – its ‘methodological’ underpinning:
… the application of New Public Management techniques in order to control and govern processes within government and across domains over which the state had substantive control.
In his concluding chapter ‘In Search of Soul: Where Now for Youth and Community Work?’, Bright seems barely able to conceal his anger with all of this:
Political presumption in pronouncing collective social values is staggering; it conditions by drip-feed narrow and often illiberal views concerning society at large and young people in particular. It says ‘our’ values are right while assuming they are universally shared. Yet, such attitudes … are unable to recognise the sheer hypocrisy that these ‘values’ … not only reproduce, but also exacerbate structural inequalities, and further impoverish social conditions.