Blurring the Boundaries conference : Reflections 3

Adam Muirhead, Chair of the Institute of Youth work, posted these reflections on our IDYW conference on his blog, YOUTHWORKABLE, which is always worth a visit. He focuses in particular on the opening session, which in challenging our emphasis on the voluntary relationship raises issues we hope to explore in more depth in the near future.



In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) hosted the conference for what is clearly a large supporter base; 70+ of us were welcomed by Tony Taylor, who opened by updating on recent activities, thoughts and considerations of the IDYW group:

The numbers of supporters engaging online remain very good
There is a need for greater capacity and fresh blood on the steering group – plurality is welcomed
IDYW is transitioning from being a campaign group towards being a force for critical engagement with youth work theory and practice
Storytelling work is going strong and has now been translated into several languages
There is scope to increase the number and variety of posts made to the website, Facebook, Twitter etc



Bernard Davies introduced a presentation from Annette Coburn and Sinead Gormally that had been developed from ideas that came out of a chapter titled ‘Youth Work in Schools’ in the recent Graham Bright book . It challenges the ‘voluntary participation’ principle that, over the years, has become somewhat enshrined in youth work lore. The argument centred around the notion that young people may be within a non-voluntary space (such as a school, prison or hospital) and still be engaged in youth work if the focus of the work is young person centred, emancipatory, the relationship with the youth worker is able to be negotiated and if there is capacity to meaningfully engage.

Annette and Sinead argued that should this new paradigm be accepted it may represent a ‘threshold concept’ for youth work that allows us, with a new perspective, to move forwards with youth work representing ‘an educational methodology’ rather than a profession per se, that could help us to explore new theoretical landscapes.

Tania de St. Croix offered a contrasting response that the voluntary component is fundamental to our practice, especially in settings where sanctions can be imposed for non-compliance or non-attendance. The point was made that there remain so few spaces for young people to choose to come and go and youth work represents a bastion of the principle that this is absolutely necessary.

There was a helpful acknowledgement that power and choice are complicated issues – the ‘choice’ to be at a youth club may be because your mum kicks you out of the house each night and you have nowhere else to go. The power presents itself in different guises, for example, the Hitler Youth espoused principles of voluntary engagement…


The presentations precipitated some interesting reflections from the group at large; deliberately avoiding naming people I have tried to capture some below:

Student placements can’t be refused to those working in non-voluntary settings.
Reassuringly, graduates are going into non-voluntary settings and, with an appreciation for youth work ethics and values, are subverting the practices and creating ‘spaces for youth work’.
There are ‘open-access’ youth clubs that don’t look like they are doing youth work – the power imbalances are left completely unchecked (between genders for example. Conversely some excellent practice exists in school/college settings. Youth workers have colluded with the “give us a job, I can do that” mentality to keep funding. Has this been corrupting?
Is it helpful to consider youth work as separate from youth work skills so that we can ‘set out our stall’ with clarity?
An interesting Chinese perspective was added by one delegate who told of how youth work does not exist in and of itself in China. Those that work with teens outside of school are also known as teachers and the practice of gathering young people in their leisure time bears little significance/meaning in the ways we consider it does – until, that is, individuals take it upon themselves to apply youth work theory. But it’s certainly not permeated social policy at any level in this delegate’s experience.
Others felt that these discussions were quite self-centred on us as professionals; Young people must remain the focus of the discussion as the subject and the object of our work.
Starting where young people are at is key. Back in the day there was nothing else to do but go to the youth club. In this, workers actually had quite a lot of power. We now have to go where young people are at – it represents a new, necessary nature of youth work.
Many new youth workers have their own instincts about being a force for regulation and control and often, only after studying, bring a new emancipatory angle to their work – at the same time as their management try to enforce more control and regulation.
Changing the definition of youth work is the wrong starting place – we have to consider what we feel and know to be good practice (whilst recognising constraints).
We want to train a community of ‘critical pedagogues’ – we then practice youth work in a distinctive setting – after all, a teacher tries to ‘meaningfully engage’ young people…
The critical spaces to iron out these ideas have been in decline.
The setting is less important. Perhaps ‘voluntary’ relationships is a misnomer and an umbrella term should be found to encompass the complexities and multi-faceted nature of this notion?
Yes, youth workers have been guilty of hitting targets or acquiring funding by moving into schools etc – but isn’t it better that youth workers do this than PCSOs or Counsellors?
An interesting exercise may be to conduct an examination of how settings do influence practice. Are these values shared across the UK? Other countries didn’t have an Albemarle watershed…
Sue Atkins shared a funny anecdote about a cleaner at an art college she once knew. One student’s installation had been quite ‘casual’ and this cleaner lady had accidentally cleaned it away overnight. Once, she’d been informed of what she’d done she would go around pointing at rubbish asking ‘is this art?’, ‘is this art?’. There may be parallels now with us wandering confused, asking ‘is this youth work?’

So, perhaps more questions than answers, but I would reflect that delegates seemed to very much value the space provided on the day to thrash these ideas about together – I certainly did.

Thanks to the IDYW team, in my opinion no one creates these spaces better. I look forward to cultivating cooperation with the Institute for Youth Work as we move forwards in solving some of our puzzles!

Notes from the rest of the day may inform a forthcoming post.

Disclaimer – written in this post is my interpretation of people’s meaning and inference at this conference. Please contact me if you would like to challenge any points you recognise as your own that I have misinterpreted.

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.


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

ChooseYouth and Institute of Youth Work April Events


Whilst we have announced the postponement of our national conference at the beginning of April there’s still plenty going on, with which we’re involved. For example Bernard Davies is the keynote speaker at the Institute for Youth Work conference – see below.


choose youth logo

On Wednesday, April 13 ChooseYouth is organising a forum, ‘Youth Work and Youth Services: Our Shared Future’ at the UNITE offices in London.

The fledgling youth service was nearly abandoned by funders in the late nineteen fifties and all those concerned banded together and not only rescued it, but they created the modern youth service with public funding, national collective bargaining through JNC a respected professional qualification and training and support structures for part time worker and volunteers.

Unfortunately, as we all know, this once world leading infrastructure and set of professional practices within personal and social education has not just been cut, it has been so severely affected since 2010 that all providers are struggling and the essential education and support that youth work offers is being destroyed. This adds immeasurably to the pressures young people face at a time when they need youth workers more than ever.

The unity of purpose evident amongst all those who built the service two generations ago is much needed again and we reflect also that at times of danger to the service in the eighties and nineties it was only alliances of the main organisations concerned about young people that pulled us through.

Since 2010 ChooseYouth has successfully flown the flag as a broad alliance. At our January meeting there was a strong feeling that we need to create a new opportunity for every concerned organisation to get together and see what more can be done to secure a future for youth work and youth services.

We therefore invite all interested parties to an open forum to discuss what more can be done together to protect and enhance essential services for young people through youth work.

Full details and registration at Our Shared Future



On Saturday, April 16 the Institute for Youth Work, together with the London Metropolitan University, is organising a conference, ‘In the Service of Youth’.

Adam Muirhead, Chair of the Institute for Youth Work


Áine Woods, Senior lecturer/Course Leader Youth Work, London Metropolitan University

Would like to invite you to our joint conference this year, entitled ‘In the Service of Youth’ on Saturday 16th April 2016, hosted at London Metropolitan University
This national conference aims to bring together youth work practitioners, policy makers and commentators to discuss contemporary issues for the youth sector and develop actions for the Institute of Youth Work (IYW) to lead on over the next year.

We would love to see as many of our members attend, to meet the team, hear about developments and engage in shaping the future of the IYW.

London Metropolitan University hope to promote a collaborative discussion relating to the current position of the services on offer to young people. London Met are keen to provide a platform to showcase initiatives and examples of good practice across a range of services for young people.

Key discussions will include: promoting anti-oppressive practices nationwide; LGBTQ youth work; tackling racism; exploring the pressures that young people engaging in gang culture face, as well as new funding initiatives.

Projects, clubs and individual practitioners are welcome to display their work at our best-practice marketplace.

Those considering a career in youth work will have the opportunity to meet current students and practitioners.

Let’s keep our services for young people alive, celebrating work with young people.

There is a small charge for the event

Further details and registration at In the Service of Youth

In the Aftermath : Thoughts and Initiatives – Institute for Youth Work speaks out

IYW new

IDYW was involved as a ‘critical friend’ in the early stages of the setting up of the Institute for Youth Work [IYW]. Since then it’s been quiet on the IYW front. We’ve no idea of how many people have signed up to the project. However the organisation is stirring as it journeys towards independence . Its Council has issued the following statement.

Statement from IYW Council on the General Election 

The Institute for Youth Work (IYW) recognises the deep concerns that much of its membership has for the profession of youth work following the general election results last week.  

It is expected that as outlined in Friday’s Children and Young People Now Article further cuts to unprotected departmental and local authority spending will follow.  The continuation of cuts to Local Authority spending will see our profession challenged such as never before.   The Institute for Youth Work is  fully committed to the protection and promotion of the values of youth work and that together we will  engage with decision makers to ensure our profession  and the impact it produces receives the recognition it deserves.

The IYW supports the efforts of the Choose Youth campaign to gain statutory funding for youth work and would like to see services across all sectors protected from any further cuts in funding. . 

We recognise that there are many disillusioned colleagues presently who are looking for strong leadership, a strong voice and a strong message in the public arena.   The IYW seeks to be the professional home for youth workers and as a membership organisation will speak up on behalf of our members; so it is at this point we ask you to join us and spread our membership offer so that we may be stronger in developing our strategic voice and speaking out on behalf of our profession, supporting individuals and organisations to continue to develop and deliver their crucial services to the young people who need them

The IYW has been parented by the National Youth Agency through its inception but is now taking its first steps as an independently constituted organisation.  You will see changes and more activity from us over the coming months as we grow in strength and numbers with the ultimate aim of improving and supporting quality in youth work.

Adam Muirhead, Vice-chair, Institute for Youth Work

The IYW Code of Ethics : Stifling rather than Encouraging Debate?



Back in November at our Politics and Ethics event in Birmingham we suggested to the NYA and the fledgling Institute for Youth Work [IYW] that it would be beneficial to open up the debate about the IYW Code of Ethics to all interested parties. As things stood you had to sign up to the code and join the IYW before being allowed to enter the discussion. This seemed counter-productive. Unfortunately nothing has changed in the interim. Evidently there is to be a two day event on the 26th and 27th of February publicised under the heading, ‘get involved in revisiting our code of ethics’. However details are apparently only available to IYW members as access to information on the web site is restricted.  Evidently recruitment to the IYW is proving sluggish. Against this background we remain perplexed at the premature creation of an IYW ‘closed shop’. Throughout our involvement with the IYW process we have argued consistently for the widest debate about its purpose and character. Whatever stance you take up, confining discussion doesn’t seem to make sense.

Youth Work : Not so much an Identity Crisis, more a blurring of Identity

A couple of people have suggested that I transfer this post to the site from Facebook, where it first appeared.  It was an immediate response to a piece in Children and Young People Now –

Youth work ‘identity crisis’ behind low take-up of institute membership


Howard Williamson suggests the low take-up in terms of the fledgling Institute for Youth Work is to do with an identity crisis within youth work. One central dilemma is certainly that there has been a conscious effort by such as the NYA to blur the definition of youth work so that it can be applied to all manner of work with young people- from youth social work to surveillance to recreation. As Bernard notes in his comment on the CYPN site, if anything Howard adds to this blurring of the boundaries. We have proposed to NYA/IYW that they reconsider seriously the title if the IYW is to reach out to the diversity of settings within which youth workers find themselves. As Bernard hints an Institute for Work with Young People could be a pluralist organisation, within which youth workers doing youth work retain their identity, whilst rubbing shoulders and being in dialogue with youth workers and others delivering targeted casework, youth justice, school inclusion work etc….. In this context we could overcome some of the tensions related to the supposed superiority or otherwise of different forms of work with young people. What our Campaign continues to defend is youth work as a distinctive practice, which takes place in a specific setting founded on the voluntary relationship and the unfolding of a creative process, which does not impose outcomes from above. Obviously this draws in a host of workers in the voluntary sector and poses issues around professionalisation, which have still to be teased out seriously. The IYW don’t seem to be listening though.


Since I posted these thoughts there have been a couple of passionate responses from volunteer workers, which deserve to be taken very seriously.

Politics Reclaimed, Ethics Reframed : Part 1

Last week a packed Board Room at UNITE’s offices in Birmingham was witness to a lively and challenging debate on the place of politics and ethics in youth work. In the morning Tony Taylor and Sarah Banks offered critical contributions, insights into which we will post in the next week or so to keep the discussion churning. Certainly there was agreement that politics and ethics are inseparable. Sadly Howard Sercombe, author of Youth Work Ethics, could not be with us because of family bereavement. His formidable presence and his acute perspective were sorely missed.

After the morning talks – thanks to Sarah for what she terms ‘scrappy’ notes

  • People (politicians) who have power may not realise they are powerful
  • Economics has taken over from politics
  • Can we link ‘why are the police battering down my door?’ with global issues in Vietnam?
  • Three levels described by Tony are reminiscent of Neil Thompson’s Personal, Cultural and Social levels of anti-oppressive practice
  • How young people are seen – demonised, We need courage to challenge this
  • The statement that politics is driven by responses to injustices is rather negative. It would be more postive to frame it in terms of advocating for the common good
  • Ethics is a more acceptable way of talking about politics
  • Ethics is not the same as professionalism
  • Ethics can be used to suppress/repress challenges
  • The code of ethics is not from youth workers
  • Ethics is subjective. Yet the local authority has rules. How does one cope with this? Feeling of being all over the place

In the afternoon Maralyn Smith, who is leading on the Institute of Youth Work at the National Youth Agency, opened proceedings with an account of the IYW as a ‘work in progress’. In the aftermath she fielded a diversity of questioning responses with a calm patience.

After the afternoon input – further ‘scrappy’, but very useful notes!

  • The NYA is going to revisit the statement of principles (Ethical Conduct in Youth Work) independently of the IYW code.
  • Where are the politics in our discussions of the IYW?
  • ‘I never thought about ethics and politics as separate issues. Ethical issues were buried in my politics’
  • There  is a need to confront the conflicts and power struggles in the youth work field in the context of the IYW. There seems to be an avoidance of differences.
  • What’s the NYA’s reaction to the political strategy to change the landscape of youth work?

As a result of the afternoon’s discussion we have written to Maralyn from IDYW to express both the following concerns and our desire to be a conduit for continued argument about IYW as a ‘work in progress’.

– There was a strong feeling that the IYW needs to reconsider the process whereby workers can contribute to its creation. As things stand it is necessary to sign up to the code of ethics in order to be fully involved. We believe it would be fruitful and inclusive to relax this demand. At this juncture workers showing an interest, but still uncertain, should be encouraged to make their voice heard.

– We believe the ‘work in progress’ continues to be haunted by the dilemma of declaring that the Institute is one of Youth Work when, in reality if is to recruit widely, it needs to be an Institute of Work with Young People or to preserve the acronym, an Institute of Youth Workers. For ourselves we do not go along with the received wisdom that we cannot define youth work. Our own definition, revealed in our cornerstones of practice, continues a coherent tradition of voluntary, young person-centred practice that goes back to its founding parents. However we do recognise that in today’s situation many youth workers find themselves in pastoral care, social inclusion, youth social work, youth justice and so on. In our opinion, dedicated to the defence of youth work as a unique site of practice, these workers are not doing youth work. This is not to argue their work is somehow inferior, but that its imposed constraints and demands render it a different undertaking. However we do want very much to be in a critical and supportive relationship with  workers across what is termed the ‘youth sector’. A broad church of an Institute, which acknowledges the diversity of work with young people without collapsing it all under the banner of youth work, thus emptying youth work of its meaning, could bring us together in a positive and respectful dialogue.

– In terms of the Code of Ethics itself we concur with  Sarah Banks in proposing that a commitment to the collective struggle for social justice needs to come to the fore; that it is necessary that workers are supported in challenging employers/policy makers regarding injustices, lack of resources; and that there needs to be a much greater acknowledgement of contradictions and conflicts inherent in our work, the tensions between care, control, education and empowerment. So too there needs to be much more exploration of management and the employers’  commitment to the Code of Ethics as a guide to good practice.

In closing our response to the IYW we underlined that the IDYW web site and Facebook remain utterly open to carrying information about the ‘work in progress’. We hope that the IYW will use our channels of communication to further the debate.