Youth work, performativity and the new youth impact agenda: getting paid for numbers? – Tania de St Croix



Tania de St Croix


The ‘impactful’ youth organisation relies on self-improving youth workers and self-improving young people – ideal entrepreneurial, neoliberal subjects.

Continuing the debate on the youth impact agenda Tania de St Croix, a member of the IDYW steering group, has published a provocative, yet nuanced, incisive and widely-researched article, Youth work, performativity and the new youth impact agenda: getting paid for numbers? in the Journal of Education Policy. I’d be tempted to say it is robust and rigorous, if that tired phrase had not been done to death and lost all meaning. Its appearance is timely, coming only a few days before the Centre for Youth Impact’s gathering in London, Shaping the future of impact measurement. Her shot across the bows of the ‘impacteers’ is that their fixation threatens to marginalise further open access, process-centred youth work. A distinctive strength of her analysis is that it is grounded in her research project’s face-to-face engagement with part-time youth workers and volunteers, often a silent and silenced constituency.


A growing policy emphasis on measurement and outcomes has led to cultures of performativity, which are transforming what educators do and how they feel about themselves in relation to their work. While most analysis of performativity in education has focused on schools, this article investigates parallel developments in youth work. Youth work is a practice of informal education, in which young people learn and develop through activities, conversation and association. Its evaluation and monitoring have changed over the past two decades, as funding has become tied to targets and measureable outcomes. This article focuses on the English context, where government and third sector organisations are promoting a ‘youth impact agenda’, encouraging organisations to predefine and measure their outcomes. Drawing on data from interviews and focus groups with youth workers, the article argues that the current emphasis on impact risks further marginalising youth work at a time when this practice is already suffering from extensive spending cuts. The article concludes that we need to re-think the purposes and processes of evaluation and accountability – in youth work and beyond – in ways that genuinely value the perspectives of young people and grassroots practitioners.

A brief excerpt to whet the appetite:

Open youth work is particularly unsuited to ‘measurement’ because of its open-ended nature and its basis in peer group learning and informal education. Rather than outcomes being defined in advance, they emerge in negotiation with young people, and the focus is likely to shift and develop in relation to the specific individuals and groups attending, their needs and interests, and the changing social and political context in which they take place. The everyday activities of open youth work can even appear chaotic or purposeless to an outsider: perhaps a rowdy game of cards is in progress in a corner; another group is gathered around chatting and laughing; some people are painting a mural; others appear to be in deep and serious conversation by the kettle. These ‘everyday’ situations are supplemented with more structured elements introduced in negotiation with young people (perhaps an outdoor activities residential or making a film); ‘projects’ that are easier to report on. What is more difficult to describe, let alone measure, is the long-term relationship-based engagement that is at the core of the work, and without which specific projects would be less likely to happen; there is a significant focus in open youth work on process, on what happens ‘between the cracks’ and over time. It is this emphasis on and celebration of the informal and the open-ended that brings youth work into conflict with cultures of managerial accountability and performativity.

My one reservation is that Tania does not pursue what I think is a debilitating consequence of datafication, namely fabrication. Getting paid for by numbers leads to numbers being made up. This tendency is systemic. From my conversations, there is no reason to believe youth work is exempt from this malady.  Perhaps I exaggerate and it would appear that this issue did not emerge explicitly within Tania’s research. Or perchance it remains suppressed.

In a piece, Threatening Youth Work,  I put together with Marilyn Taylor the following exchange takes place.

I’m sure some people will be deeply offended by the implication that results, the need to compete are undermining the integrity of practice.

Without doubt, it is happening. To return to the overall argument made by Toby Lowe, his research into Outcomes-based Management reveals that wherever it is being used – in the Health Service, in Social Services, in Housing – ‘gaming’ occurs. To put it bluntly, the need to meet targets and outcomes leads managers and workers into manipulating and fabricating the data. As Toby is at pains to say this is not about maverick individuals, bad apples. ‘Gaming’, falsifying the figures, is a systemic dilemma. It is the consequence of a flawed approach to evaluating the purpose and quality of practice. As things stand youth work has invested its very soul into the Outcomes project. Whilst workers will talk off the record about malpractice, the cost of blowing the whistle would be enormous. It would be perceived as an act of treason.

New development: The paradox of outcomes—the more we measure, the less we understand – Toby Lowe

UK YOUTHVOICE write to a Prime Minister, who can’t and won’t deliver


Youth voice

UK Youth Voice outside 10 Downing Street. Ta to UK Youth for the photo.


On Wednesday, June 20 a deputation from UK Youth Voice delivered the group’s manifesto to 10 Downing Street. Addressed to the Prime Minister the detailed contents of the manifesto are to be applauded. Amongst the demands are:

  • Make youth services a priority public service
  • Enable every young person to take an active role in democracy
  • Provide accessible, high-quality education for all young people
  • End discrimination, prejudice and hate crime towards young people
  • Enable future generations to live in a clean, safe and sustainable

Contrary to a number of pre-election statements from leading youth sector organisations Youth Voice explores these headings in detail. For example the reader will find calls to protect the NHS; for votes at 16; for young people’s involvement in the EU negotiations and the replacement of the Erasmus+ funding stream; free education at all levels plus the cancellation of student debt; equality of pay and an end to zero-hour contracts;  the protection of environmental legislation; and much more.

READ IN FULL at Youth Voice Manifesto

The contradiction facing the young people of Youth Voice is that many of its demands cannot be delivered by a Tory Prime Minister and government, increasingly out of touch with significant sections of society. Indeed it seems that an overwhelming number of 18-25 year olds voted for the revival of social democracy as expressed in the Labour Party’s manifesto and against the failed free market model of neoliberalism. In this context we are very interested in what might be the next political steps for Youth Voice?  To what extent will it be hamstrung by the idea that Youth Voice should be in some contorted way neutral? Is this a moment when it’s necessary for Youth Voice to climb off the fence and pin its colours to an anti-austerity mast?

We look forward to hearing more about how Youth Voice chooses to use its progressive manifesto. For now we wish simply to congratulate Youth Voice on the work it’s put in. Good stuff. And this might just be the beginning.


First International Journal of Open Youth Work online. What about contributing to the Second?

A few weeks ago in Lithuania, a group of us had the pleasure [and pain]  of running a session on the impact of neoliberalism on English youth work. Our argument did strike a chord with a mixed European audience. The occasion was the first conference of the European Research Network of Open Youth Work, entitled ‘Theory and Practice: Understanding Youth Work’, at which the International Journal of Open Youth Work was launched.



Tony Taylor looks perplexed, whilst Malcolm Ball and Pauline Grace try to pretend they’ve not met him before!


The Journal, whose Chief Editor is our own Pauline Grace [Newman University] “aims to privilege the narrative of youth work practice, methodology and reality. It is a peer-reviewed journal providing research and practice-based investigation, provocative discussion and analysis on issues affecting youth work globally. The Journal will present youth work issues and research in a way that is accessible and reader-friendly, but which retains scholarly integrity.”

In a call to both academics and practitioners the Journal’s editorial group’s “commitment to the co-writing process means that they are taking seriously the notion of practice informed by theory and theory based on practice. The community of practice that is open youth work does not operate in isolation: alliances are formed with other professionals and agencies, often through cross-sectorial work, to ensure that the rights of young people are protected and advanced.”

They conclude:

“In the European context, it is easy to become consumed by our domestic crises: shifting political allegiances; an increase in militarism; ongoing financial restructuring; large-scale youth unemployment; reorganization of public sector services; and a seeming impasse over migration policy. All of these issues impact on the lives of young people and demand skilful youth work interventions. Open youth work is a worldwide endeavour and we hope you will be inspired to tell everyone your stories. We hope you agree that the result is a unique resource presenting thoughtful, multifaceted approaches to youth work, which it is hoped can be better understood and recognised.”

The first edition can be found at International Journal of Open Youth Work

It contains the following chapters, which get the initiative off to an impressive and accessible start.

1. Youth work and mental health: A case study of how digital storytelling can be used to support advocacy – Mariell Berg Huse and Anna Opland Stenersen.

2. Managing hybrid agendas for youth work – Mike Seal and Åsa Andersson.

3. The preventive role of open youth work in radicalisation and extremism – Werner Prinzjakowitsch.

4. The high-tech society, youth work and popular education – Professor Ivar Frønes, University of Oslo.

5. Can youth work be described as a therapeutic process? – Luke Blackham and Pauline Grace.

6. Open youth work in a closed environment – The case of the youth club Liquid – Lars Lagergren and Emma Gustava Nilsson.

7. Group work as a method in open youth work in Icelandic youth centres – Árni Guðmundsson.

8. What can youth workers learn from the ethnographic approaches used by Paul Willis and Howard S. Becker? – Willy Aagre.

Information and guidelines here on How to Contribute in detail.

Contributions to the journal could come from, academic researchers/scholars, youth workers and stakeholders whom is active and/or have a professional or political interest in youth work. The journal encourages joint ventures among them with academic researcher/scholars as one part. The journal consequently opens up for various forms of co-writing where scholars write together with practitioners.

Certainly we would encourage  IDYW readers/supporters to consider seriously telling their stories via this stimulating international project.

Contact Tony at if you want to check anything out.


Trumping the odds : Talking to Young People about the USA Election

Occasionally we’ve posted on issues you might well be chatting to young people about. Thursday’s ‘shock’ result from across the Atlantic seems a likely talking point. How on earth did Trump pull this off? Hence I found myself wondering what I would say, either in response to a young person’s comment or as an opening remark of my own, hoping to get a conversation going. As I did so, I recognised that the chat would be similar, yet different, according to the young person’s gender, race, sexuality, disability, faith and class. Pondering the contradictions I realised that my own perspective was less than sorted out. Indeed throughout today the emphases of my best crack at what’s going on have fluctuated. Let me share a bit of a diary.

8.00 a.m. Whilst walking my beloved mongrel, a neighbour greets me with the news that Trump is President. ‘What is the world coming to?’, he conjectures. I’m almost indifferent, not buying the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument. I need to own up to a decades-long prejudice against the Clinton clan. Is this getting in the way of my judgement?

8.30 a.m. Arrive home to find Trump’s unlikely triumph almost certainly the case. An arrogant, failed business person of maverick disposition with no experience of political office has beaten an arrogant career politician backed by the party machine with a quarter of a century’s experience of high office. Sure Trump is an ignorant asshole [note empathetic American spelling], but Clinton is an amoral hypocrite. Even the Murdock Sky News team, now ensconced LIVE all over the States, seem perplexed. What to think?


Ta to Getty images

9.30 a.m. Access Facebook to be met by comment after comment belittling the Trump support, as thick as turkeys voting for Xmas. I scribble. ‘What to do? I don’t normally cut myself off from the world? On the other hand can I cope with another round of patronising and insulting crap to the effect that all those, who voted for Trump, are stupid. racist, xenophobic etc…? Increasingly across the globe we are witnessing a contradictory and complex expression of anger and frustration with a corrupt political class and a failing casino capitalism. The irony in the USA is that Clinton was widely seen as a the living expression of a system you couldn’t trust and that Sanders might well have been a better bet. In this there is hope. What won’t get us anywhere is a sneering disregard for the complicated motivations of those, who voted for Brexit or for Trump. The enormous task is to move beyond the emptiness of personality politics, two horse races, political parties claiming to know what’s best for us as long as we agree with the entirety of programmes they seek to impose on us and the stereotyping/ categorisation of whole swathes of humanity. Clinton or Trump, May or Corbyn the struggle continues.’

11.00 a.m. Phil Scraton intervenes on FB to underline the political consequences of economic marginalisation and social exclusion across Europe, wherein the Right harnesses the deep disillusionment within working class communities where generations now stare joblessness in the eye with a reactionary ideology of institutionalised racism … hence the continuing mantra, ‘getting OUR country back’.  I respond, Further to Phil – a serious dilemma for us is that the mantra is not just reactionary it contains an authentic desire to wrest control from a globalised ruling elite and in grappling with this we are forced to revisit the national and local state, not to mention local communities. Above all the struggle must be democratic, which demands democratically committed citizens. And I would argue you become democratic by experiencing being democratic, which obviously is far beyond participating in a representative charade every blue moon. My feeling is that such a mutual process of democratic education, which will have to grapple with racism, sexism and so on, will have to be nourished firstly at a local level. The Right have appropriated the notion of taking control. In truth History is a continuous struggle by the exploited and oppressed for autonomy, for taking control of our lives in concert with one another. Hence what might be a way forward? It will certainly have to grapple seriously with patriotism in the struggle for internationalism.

11.30 a.m. Walking round thinking that my comments are in danger of being abstract, which doesn’t deter me from a final generalisation on FB. ‘And a last thought on the Trump victory, given a torrent of comment, fearful for the world. On foreign policy Trump is isolationist with little appetite for interventions abroad. To chance my arm further his cautious attitude towards Putin might be welcome if you’re worried about nuclear conflict. As for Clinton her track record as secretary of state was aggressive and war-mongering, witness her role in the overthrow of Gaddafi and the consequences in terms of fuelling terrorism and exacerbating the refugee crisis. In Syria there is every possibility she would have worsened relations with Russia. Of course the situation is more complicated, but, you must, forgive me, if I don’t immediately see Trump as a threat to world peace, which doesn’t exist anyway’

1.00 p.m.It’s certain Trump is the President-Elect. As I take this in, munching a corned beef buttie [comfort food?], a series of further posts on FB plus links to a fast growing number of attempts to explain WTF’s been going on bring me back to earth. Trump has ridden to power on the back of a brazen mix of misogyny, racism and Islamophobia, tapping into, at one and the same time, a deep resentment towards the establishment amongst a ‘forgotten’ working class. As to the former it’s necessary to recognise the trepidation felt by many faced by Trump’s Mexican Wall, real or imagined, and the threat to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. It’s necessary to be anxious about a potential attack on a ‘Woman’s Right to Choose’ and LGBT rights. As for the latter Trump’s promise to restore manufacturing to the heart of the US economy via a strategy of protectionism and import tariffs is problematic. Although there is much support for his commitment to pour money into improving the country’s infrastructure. And this is to overlook, for a moment, Trump’s desire to end Obamacare and increase levels of surveillance and policing.

3.00 p.m. Grappling with this reality on the ground is disturbing. Significant sections of American society have reason to be fearful. As one Pastor observed the danger is that prejudice becomes normalised and the new orthodoxy. Back in 1974  Gil Scott-Heron sang,

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it’s hoping
Hoping for some rain
And I see the robins
Perched in barren treetops
Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor
But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams
Never had a chance to grow
Never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter
It’s winter in America
And all of the healers have been killed
Or been betrayed
Yeah, but the people know, people know
It’s winter, Lord knows
It’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your souls
From Winter in America

4.30 p.m. Given this anxiety am I changing my mind about Hillary Clinton? In truth, not at all, if anything my aversion is deepened. Why? Because, in close company with Blair and New Labour, the Clintons and the Democratic Party embraced with passion the destructive ideology of neoliberalism. Dressed up as a Third Way they imposed an obsessive individualism, which undermined crucially bonds of collective solidarity. Naomi Klein suggests,

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.

For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.
Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain. So do all of the rising far-right parties in Europe. They answer it with nostalgic nationalism and anger at remote economic bureaucracies – whether Washington, the North American free trade agreement the World Trade Organisation or the EU. And of course, they answer it by bashing immigrants and people of colour, vilifying Muslims, and degrading women. Elite neoliberalism has nothing to offer that pain, because neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.

6.30 p.m. I’ve had a bit of tea, a piece of cheese on a crumpet and if I was a proper youth worker I’d be getting ready to to go to the youth club [if it was open] or onto the streets on my own, if it was allowed. All of the above is still whirling around my head, some of it sorted, some unsorted, but plenty to be going on with. As ever it all depends on the mood of the evening. Will they be up for it, interested or will they say we’ve had enough of that crap, what’s it got to do with us? We’ll have to see.

7.30 p.m. Bluff called. I’m at home, dreaming about what I would have done if…….

10.30 p.m. Bluff called a second time.  Just received a message from proper workers on the ground.


Probably not much use, but in case you’re posting on Trump I attach a photo from youth club tonight. We discussed the presidential election result (nothing special, just discussed informally as part of club) and invited young people to make print posters in response. Most young people knew about it and were worried about an escalation in racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Bit hard to read, the slogans include ‘be you’, ‘be proud’, ‘no one is illegal’ ‘be yourself’.

Noam Chomsky on the Perils of Market-Driven Education

In posting this interview with Noam Chomsky as a possible weekend read I’m underlining my steadfast belief that the defence of youth work is rooted deeply in the wider struggle to renew  critical and democratic forms of education. It’s one of the reasons I remain anxious about the continued slide to seeing youth work as the preventative arm of social work rather than an informal wing of life-long education.


Ta to

Noam Chomsky on the Perils of Market-Driven Education

An educated public is surely a prerequisite for a functioning democracy — where “educated” means not just informed but enabled to inquire freely and productively, the primary end of education.

It is worth remembering the early years of the industrial revolution. The working-class culture of the time was alive and flourishing. There’s a great book about the topic by Jonathan Rose, called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. It’s a monumental study of the reading habits of the working class of the day. He contrasts “the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts” with the “pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy.” Pretty much the same was true in the new working-class towns in the United States, like eastern Massachusetts, where an Irish blacksmith might hire a young boy to read the classics to him while he was working. Factory girls were reading the best contemporary literature of the day, what we study as classics. They condemned the industrial system for depriving them of their freedom and culture. This went on for a long time.