Is the tide turning? UK Youth certainly doesn’t think so. Bernard Davies responds.

 

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Ta to transcripts.org

 

The CYPN headline says it all, UK Youth sets out plans to attract investment in sector. Neoliberal to the core UK Youth, positioning itself to be the voice of the youth sector, argues in its State of the membership 2018 that ‘the sector needs to diversify how it is funded and work more closely with the private sector to ensure it can provide a long-term sustainable service amid cuts in local authority spending’. The report goes on to express its desire ‘to see social entrepreneurial approaches, including social investment, embedded in the sector and is particularly keen to see the formation of long-term partnerships between youth groups and businesses’.

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In the first of our responses, ahead of this Friday’s In Defence of Youth Work conference, Bernard Davies expresses sharply his concern about UK Youth’s direction of travel.

The future for youth work – as seen by UK Youth

 

In only two or three years the world of the ‘traditional’ national voluntary youth organisation has changed beyond recognition. It was in November 2012 that a senior DfE official told a conference whose organisers included UK Youth and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS) that, at a time when the sector was expected increasingly ‘to do more with less’, it needed to consider mergers as a way of protecting itself. Whether as a direct response or not, in 2015 Ambition – once the National Association of Boys Clubs – merged with the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services. Then in March 2016, after absorbing NCVYS, in September last year Ambition itself became a ‘subsidiary’ of – that is, it merged into – UK Youth. whose own many previous titles had included the National Association of Youth Clubs.

 

These high level decisions were not always welcomed by these organisations’ grassroots. In part as a reaction to the 2012 decision by Ambition – by then known as Clubs for Young People – to adopt its new PR-friendly title, a new and independent National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs emerged. This is now providing a range of national sporting, arts and other events as well as infrastructure support for ‘1000 youth clubs in the most deprived communities’ and for over twenty county associations. To fill a perceived gap left by NCVYS’s disappearance, moves are also now detectable to create a new national network for the many local and regional councils of voluntary youth service which are still operating.

 

UK Youth has now published ‘an overview of its membership data as a merged organisation’, based on a careful sampling of the 230 organisations now directly affiliated to it. When partners’ figures in Scotland, Ireland and Wales are added, these cater for approximately four million young people across the UK. Drawing on the government’s own returns and on two Unison reports, its analysis is set starkly in the wider, especially financial, national contexts: the 41 per cent reduction in ‘universal spending’ between 2010-15 and 2017-18; the loss between 2012 and 2016 of over 3600 post, mostly part-timers; and evidence that ‘at local authority level, the most deprived areas have seen the greatest cuts’. With provision now increasingly dependent on volunteers, UK Youth’s conclusion is that ‘the youth sector has transitioned from a largely statutory provision to a largely voluntary sector-led service’.

 

In response to this devastation, in its penultimate paragraph, the report slips in a suggestion that, in order ‘to take full advantage of existing finance’, one possibility to be ‘explored’ is ‘redirecting reduced NCS funding (circa £400 million). Overall, however, such expectations of the state are noticeable mainly by their absence. So too is any analysis of the deeper structural causes of the current crisis for open access youth work, and indeed even more importantly for today’s younger generation. That ‘ideologies’ are shaping these policies is mentioned, as part of ‘the political make-up … of councils’ which has driven ‘the restructuring of statutory youth services’. The comment, however, appears in passing and without any critical explanation of what those ideologies are or how and why they have been so damaging both for a practice like youth work and for young people.

This uncritical stance on the dominant ideas of our times and the power relations underpinning them is signalled on the first page of the UK Youth paper by the inclusion. without comment, of a boxed quote from the minister currently holding the ‘youth’ brief as part of her role as Minister for Sport and Civil Society. In this, as at points elsewhere in the report, youth work in the shape of the youth club – ‘for many young people … their only safe place’ – is immediately conflated with the ‘youth services’ through which they get ‘access (to) mental health services, citizenship education, social mixing and training’. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that another of the factors driving that ‘re-structuring of statutory youth services’ – what are evasively called ‘overall financial challenges in local authorities’ – are never explained as stemming from the minister’s own and previous governments’ policies which, under the cloak of ‘austerity’, have been designed to get the state out of as many public services as possible. Indeed the government seems to garner at least implied praise for what I can only call forms of ‘gesture’ funding in support of the character-building, resilience-developing outcomes on which it insists: £50 million here for cadet forces, £40 million there for young people’s ‘social action’, another £16 million for a Youth Engagement Fund based on ‘social investment funds’ and ‘payment by results’.  

 

Nor does the UK Youth paper address in any direct way how such policies have affected the lives of young people. It notes for example that ‘only 13 per cent of young people in former industrial areas and 14 per cent in remote rural coldspots progress to university compared with 27 per cent in hotspots’. These blockages, however, conceived in the report as ‘challenges of adolescence’, apparently result simply from the ‘lack of aspiration to peer pressures or issues at home’. None of these, of course, are insignificant matters for young people themselves. What they do not do, however, is explain the glaring educational inequalities spelt out earlier. As a result, for tackling the problems of its members, the youth club, as well as providing that safe space, ends up confined it to ‘enabling young people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives’ and ‘empowering young people to make a positive contribution to their community’.

 

So how, positively, is UK Youth planning to deal with this ‘new context’? Certainly not, it seems, by starting from the proposition that the up to one million young people who have used or tried youth work facilities in the past are citizens now and so entitled to a fair slice of the collective cake. For UK Youth, the answer largely remains ‘to embed social entrepreneurial approaches and secure additional income for the sector, for example through supporting access to social investment opportunities’. (Though these are to include ‘collaborative work with … the private sector’, UK Youth gives no indication of what ethical risks tests it thinks should be applied here).

 

Even as – post-Carillion and the rest – the neo-liberal shibboleths come under renewed searching scrutiny, this paper makes clear that these remain deeply and uncritically embedded in the thinking of our youth sector ‘leaders’. Still not apparently worth any serious consideration, therefore, is an alternative possibility: that the state – albeit in re-imagined more bottom-up forms – might and indeed should again find and allocate resources for open access, informal educational facilities which its young citizens can use by choice in their leisure time.  

Bernard Davies

 

Is the tide turning? Agreeing an IDYW position paper for the political arena?

Further to our series of ‘is the tide turning?’ events and, by twist of fate, fast on the heels of John McDonnell’s pledge to support a statutory Youth Service, you will find below a draft of a possible IDYW position paper to be used in discussions with political parties ahead of a General Election, which may not be long in coming.

Obviously the proposals in the paper are little more than bullet points, which will be backed by supplementary explanation and material if dialogue is forthcoming.

At the beginning of next week’s conference this set of proposals will be presented for debate, agreement/disagreement, amendment or indeed rejection.

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TOWARDS AN IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK POSITION PAPER

  1. The neoliberal competitive desire to marketise and individualise is utterly at odds with youth work dedicated to cooperation and the common good.
  2. The rejuvenation of a distinctive, state-supported youth work focused on inclusive, open access provision ought to be based on a radical and complementary relationship between the Local Authority [LA] and a pluralist, independent voluntary sector.
  3. The renewed practice should be sustained by statutory funding, the purpose and allocation of which ought to be determined locally via a democratic youth work ‘council’ made up of young people, workers, voluntary sector representatives, officers and politicians.
  4. Inter-agency work is vital, but youth workers should retain their identity and autonomy rather than be absorbed into multi-disciplinary teams.
  5. Youth Work as an integral element in education from cradle to grave should be situated in the Department for Education.
  6. Youth Work should be associational and conversational, opposed to oppression and exploitation, collective rather than individual in its intent, unfolding at a pace consonant with the building of authentic relationships.
  7. Cornerstones of practice should include the primacy of the voluntary relationship; a critical dialogue starting from young people’s agendas; support for young people’s autonomous activity, for example, work with young women, BAME and LGBTQ+ young people; an engagement with the ‘here and now’; the nurturing of young people-led democracy; and the significance of the skilled, improvisatory worker.
  8. Open access, universal provision is more effective than imposed, targeted work in reaching vulnerable and disadvantaged young people.
  9. Youth Work outcomes, not being prescribed in advance, are complex and often longitudinal. Practice ought to be judged and evaluated, but not subject to the measurement of what is immeasurable.
  10. Training and continuous professional development through the HE institutions and local providers is essential for full-time, part-time and volunteer workers in ensuring the quality of practice.
  11. The National Citizen Service ought to be closed or curtailed, its funding transferred into all-year round provision, of which summer activities will be a part.
  12. JNC terms and conditions ought to be the basis for LA employed staff. However, youth work is not the property of a profession and recognition has to be given to other players, such as Faith groups, in the arena.
  13. Closer links ought to be revived and created between the youth work training agencies, regional youth work units and research centres, such as the Centre for Youth Impact.
  14. Youth Work ought to have advocates at a national level and key organisations such as the NYA and UK Youth ought to develop as critical and independent voices.
  15. Irrespective of Brexit, Youth Work ought to embrace the Declaration of the 2nd European Youth Work Convention [2015] and be internationalist in outlook.
  16. Youth Work is not a soft-policing instrument of social control. Its fundamental aspiration is profoundly educational and political, ’for the many, not the few’. It seeks to nurture the questioning, compassionate young citizen committed to the creation of a socially just and democratic society.

TOWARDS AN IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK POSITION PAPER– Word version

Neoliberal Norms see UK Youth and NYA competing and individualising

At the end of last week, I was involved in a debate at the Youth&Policy conference about where youth work has come from, where it’s up to and where it might be going? Within this discussion, it was impossible to escape the impact of neoliberal assumptions on our practice, such as the rule of the market, the necessity of competition and the individualising of our experience. But wasn’t it all a bit abstract?

 

Within hours of getting home reality responded, ‘not at all’.

competition

The CYPN reports that ‘UK Youth and NYA in running for £1.8m grant.’

Youth work organisations UK Youth and the National Youth Agency (NYA) are to compete for £1.8m of funding to deliver projects to support girls and young women.

Funding charity Spirit of 2012 and the government-backed #iwill campaign have agreed to provide funding of £10,000 to each organisation to develop respective projects intended to empower girls and young women to change their communities for the benefit of other girls.

Either the NYA project called Fire and Wire, which will work with girls and young women in former mining communities or a UK Youth project to offer volunteering opportunities for girls with the British Red Cross will be awarded the full £1.8m.

The Fire and Wire project is being run jointly by the NYA and social action company Platform Thirty1. It focuses on helping girls and young women in former mining communities better understand their potential through neuroscience, psychology and physiology training.

Further information on Fire and Wire is to be found on the Platform Thirty1 website.

Every girl should know her worth and that she is valued for her individuality. Fire & Wire works with girls in former mining communities teaching the basics of neuroscience, developing an understanding of how their brains work and how best they can utilise their physiology and psychology. The project also equips participants with leadership and creative skills, helping them develop their own projects for change at both an individual and community level with younger peers.

brain

Is it just me, who wants to ask a few questions about all of this?

  1. Forgive my naivete, but why are these two leading youth work organisations in competition for the funding, even being pump-primed for the showdown? Would it not have been possible to negotiate a cooperative compromise, in which each took half of the finance available? Or are we to deduce that both outfits desperately need the cash to survive and will fight to the death to win, irrespective of the cost to the loser?
  2.  As for youth workers teaching the basics of neuroscience to young women I’m bound to ask, ‘what are these agreed and accepted basics?’ As best I understand the continuing neuroscience research into how brains work, including, of course, what gets called ‘the teen brain’ [and I do follow it closely] remains full of possibilities, full of contradictions. It remains a contested arena.  And, many, if not most neuroscientists, regret how their provisional, often speculative findings become popularised and hardened into supposed truths about the human condition. In particular, concern is expressed at the prevalence and influence of ‘neuromyths’ in schools. As an example,  the idea of hemispheric dominance (whether you are “left-brained” or “right-brained”) determines how you learn. Some educators split young people simplistically into visualisers and verbalisers, even though this division does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Neuroscience does not float free from ideology. Thus in neoliberal times, it can all too easily be used to confirm an ‘individualist’ agenda, in which young people are assured if they pull their socks up, they can make it, whatever the social constraints. They can even express their individuality, provided it conforms to neoliberal expectation.
  3. Thus Katy Fielding, assistant director of operations at the National Youth Agency announces that “Our Fire and Wire project will support practitioners to enable young women to belong, develop and thrive in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK and we are extremely excited to get started.” The dilemma is that the area of Derbyshire, where the project will be based, has not been disadvantaged by chance or natural causes. The disadvantage remains the consequence of the conscious and vicious assault by the Thatcher government on the mining communities of this area in the 1980’s.  I lived through this period directly as I was the District Youth and Community Education Officer for Bolsover and my office was in Shirebrook. The women, young and old, were at the heart of resistance to the violence wreaked on their communities. Indeed through the efforts of the Miners’ Wives Support Group, the abandoned Shirebrook Primary School was converted into a Women’s Centre, complete with a nursery and creche, essential to freeing up the women to pursue the educational courses on offer. Supportive work was pursued with girls and young women through the youth club, a detached project and a specific young women’s project in Bolsover. Obviously, in the long run, these initiatives failed to prevent the tragic degeneration of these communities. Indeed, as I write, thirty years on, the Bolsover District Council is implementing yet another Regeneration Scheme.
  4. None of this is to suggest that a project such as Wire and Fire is a waste of time.  However a few years ago I returned to Shirebrook, home now of the infamous Sports Direct company. Disillusionment, even despair filled the smokeless air. The young people were not struggling because they didn’t know how their brains worked. Rather they were struggling because of a lack of opportunities, choices and meaningful jobs. Surely, any intervention has both to build individual and collective confidence, at one and the same time as challenging the stifling circumstances. Perhaps I’m not seeing the coal for the coke, but the immediate publicity for the competition and its entrants does feel decidedly up neoliberalism’s street.  The social problems created by neoliberal policies are always outsourced to us as ‘our’ problems and, whilst we run around trying to fix things, the neoliberals smirk.

Certainly, though, my anxiety, probably due to an overreliance upon my amygdala, can be dispelled if the detailed rationale for both bids as a result of the pump-primed development stage is placed in the public arena. As you will suspect I’ll be especially interested in what constitutes the basic neuroscience to be taught to young women.

 

 

 

Rod Norton responds to Bethia McNeil’s pertinent musings

At the end of last week, we asked for responses to Bethia McNeil’s musings upon key issues in evaluating our practice, Here they are again.

Thoughts From The Centre – to be found in the very useful Centre for Youth Impact 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?

judgement

Thus we are really pleased to post a reply from Rod Norton, a long-time youth worker and the former Chief Officer of a local authority Youth Service.

 

Tony’s call for people to engage in the debate with the Centre for Youth Impact got me thinking that his distinction between judgement and measurement is fundamental to the discussion. Let me explain ….

 
One way to look at youth work is that it is about helping young people to engage with, and change, the world about them. It is therefore about values, relationships, debate, discussion and above all about the active engagement of young people in their communities – it is a process, not an outcome. Predefined outcomes are therefore problematic as, from this point of view, the very purpose of youth work is to help young people gain the insights, skills and confidence necessary to change the world in ways that have meaning for them and not necessarily in ways that have meaning for workers or funders. Youth work therefore inhabits the realm of politics (in the widest sense of the word, we’re not talking about party politics here) and had its heyday under the Social Democracy of the post-war period where a commitment to process driven, user-focussed services was fairly mainstream. Evaluating youth work in this context involves making judgements about the work that are based upon transparent and contestable moral and political values. In the end, the fundamental question is whether the work advances the common good – which makes it political.

 
The type of society that has developed over the past thirty years is very different to Social Democracy and is based upon very different foundations. The neoliberalism which now dominates our lives doesn’t value politics, it values economic efficiency. For neoliberals, what matters is success in the marketplace and here politics, morals and values are largely irrelevant. Neoliberalism therefore has a desire to turn social activities, such as youth work, into products that can be traded in the market in order to make a profit, or at least to save money spent elsewhere. As products always have to be sold, the key driver for the work under neoliberalism becomes the wants and needs of the buyer or funder – the views of young people are secondary. And, of course, funders always want proof that they have received what they have paid for, so the emphasis of evaluation shifts to the measurement of outcomes and to the generation of savings or profits. Youth work thus risks becoming a value free commodity, delivering only funder defined outcomes. The natural tendency under these influences is for youth work to move away from an open access, user led and process-based format, towards more individualistic and formal models delivering predetermined behavioural change to passive young people.

 
Of course, these two models of evaluation based on political judgement and economic measurement have been contrasted here in very stark terms, whereas in reality the two usually merge into each other in some form of messy compromise. But, in the exchanges between Tony and Bethia over the last couple of years it is Tony who inhabits the world of political judgement whereas it is Bethia who, even though she valiantly struggles against their worst economistic excesses, is more influenced by models based on the measurement of economic efficiency. It is therefore Tony who is trying to move beyond neoliberalism whilst it is Bethia who is trying to find some kind of progressive accommodation with it.

 

IDYW National Conference, Friday, March 9 in Birmingham – put the date in the diary

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ADVANCE NOTICE

THE NINTH IDYW NATIONAL CONFERENCE 

FRIDAY, MARCH 9 at THE BIRMINGHAM SETTLEMENT

‘Swimming with or against a turning tide? Where should youth work be heading?’

from 12.30 – 4.30 p.m.

Towards the end of last year a series of regional ‘Is the tide turning?’ events were held around the country. As a result, we are attempting to draw out of these diverse discussions a coherent set of proposals and demands that might be put to what we see as the progressive wing of British politics, those parties willing to ditch the damaging legacy of neoliberalism – namely Labour, the Greens, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru and increasingly the Liberal Democrats. The conference will be our collective opportunity to debate and revise both the purpose and content of such a policy paper.

As last year we are organising on the basis that the starting time will help those travelling longer distances and that you will have consumed your lunch in advance.

PROVISIONAL PROGRAMME

12.00 Arrivals, socialising – drinks available. Participants responsible for own lunch.

12.30 Welcome, housekeeping 

12.45 – 1.05 Presentation of the major themes in our draft set of proposals. These will have been circulated in advance. 

1.05 – 2.00 Small group discussion about and responses to the proposals

2.00 – 2.15 Break

2.15 – 3.00 Responses to the proposals from invited representatives from the wider youth sector, such as the National Youth Agency, UK Youth, the Training Agencies Group, UNITE/UNISON and the Centre for Youth Impact

3.00 – 4.00 Further small group exploration of how our proposals might be taken forward

4.00 – 4.30 Taking a collective breath as to what we might do next?

 

More information soon. In the meantime please spread the word, knowing the conference as ever will take place in the supportive and reflective atmosphere, that characterises IDYW debate and is deeply appreciated by participants. And that the conference fee will definitely not break the bank!

 

 

Hope for the best, fear the worst – Grandma, Gramsci and Youth Work

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If you’re looking forward to a chirpy, uplifting post welcoming in the New Year, sorry, you probably need to go elsewhere. Someplace where the present and future seems always to be exciting and amazing.  The UK Youth website might be a good start. The charity, which has now absorbed the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services and Ambition, is full of itself. Preening with corporate confidence under the slogan. ‘We Build Bright Futures’, it claims to be uniquely placed to tackle low levels of social mobility amongst young people. And without pausing for reflective breath, without a hint of embarrassment, it quotes approvingly the government’s approval of its fantastic work. Being awkward I find myself thinking, surely praise from the latest in a line of neoliberal parties from New Labour via the Coalition to the Tories, whose policies have widened social inequality, is at the very least to be treated with a touch more caution.

hotpot

Hot-pot

I can hear some folk muttering, ‘Taylor must have fallen out of bed the wrong way on New Year’s morn, the miserable old soul. Too much alcohol, far too much neoliberal this, neoliberal that, too little in the way of acknowledging the efforts of the youth sector’s leadership, too few thanks to the grassroots’.  In my immediate defence, I can vouch that the Taylor household did not venture out on New Year’s Eve, preferring to consume traditional Lancashire hotpot with mashed carrots and turnip in front of the fire, fueled by only a few glasses of the local red. Indeed we were in bed before midnight, which, I allow, is pretty miserable. Hence, walking the dog on the first day of 2018 found me in sober mood, thinking of a grandma, whose favourite homily was ‘hope for the best, fear the worst’. Now she spoke only in dialect and had never read the dialectics of Antonio Gramsci, but it struck me her message didn’t seem all that different than the Italian Marxist’s argument for ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’.

Gramsci

 

Granted, though, my grandma’s advice is passive, ‘what else can we do but pray for the best?’, whereas Gramsci implies that it’s necessary for us to struggle to achieve the best, ‘what else can we do but act to bring about the best?’ In this context, UK Youth might understandably ask, ‘why are you giving us a hard time? We are ‘doing hope’, doing our best’.

Whilst this is a fair point it begs the question, how are we to understand hope? For twenty years or more hope in its neoliberal guise has been thoroughly individualistic and competitive. New Labour’s version stressed the need for young people to be aspirational. For the Conservatives the emphasis continues to be rooted in a notion of self-improvement via which the young person will deserve to climb the ladder of success. Absent from this way of seeing things is the social, which makes it all the more ironic that the term social mobility has such wide currency.  Thus UK Youth can make the remarkable claim that it can increase young people’s social mobility with apparently no sense of contradiction.

I don’t think it’s out of order to ask UK Youth if it considered the following dilemmas before announcing it was ‘tackling social mobility’? After all youth work is supposed to be a bastion of self-reflective, critical thought and practice?

  1. As touched on above the discourse of social mobility is individualistic, linked to the revived myth of meritocracy – you get what you deserve. It ignores utterly structural constraints on young people’s opportunities, underpinned still by class, gender and race inequality, expressed in poverty, inadequate housing provision etc.
  2. As Patrick Ainley has pointed out, ‘the Tories have dramatically increased social mobility. However, it is general, absolute, DOWNWARD social mobility that has increased, whilst the limited, relative, upward social mobility of the post-war, welfare state period is nowadays so statistically insignificant as to be exceptional.’
  3. Social mobility itself is a deeply problematic concept. It is at odds with social equality and social justice. What does it mean to suggest that a working class young person ought to better themselves? How many young entrepreneurs and vloggers as opposed to care workers and gardeners does society need? On what grounds are these socially crucial working class jobs paid less and given less status? The youth sector hosts many a seminar on becoming a competitive entrepreneur. I’ve yet to see a parallel series of workshops on becoming a cooperative public servant. To paraphrase John McLean, the great Scottish socialist, ‘why not rise with your class, rather than out of it?’

Noam Chomsky Neoliberalism

Of course the issues I’m raising go far beyond UK Youth. They express the way in which neoliberal ideas are the common-sense of our times. Despite the fact that the neoliberal economic model is broken they express the way in which its individualist, ‘dog eat dog’, market-driven ideology has been insinuated deep into the soul of youth work – so much so that is hardly ever questioned. For my part I’ll carry on banging on about its destructive consequences for youth work. I’ll pursue further the way in which it has incorporated and distorted concepts such as empowerment and social justice. That’s my New Year’s resolution, tempered by the recognition that I need a few more jokes.

Let me end with the first part of a proposal from William Bodrick, which has resonance, in my opinion, for youth workers of all persuasions.

We have to be candles,
burning between
hope and despair,
faith and doubt,
life and death,
all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place
where people must always find us.

[Thanks to James Ballantyne for the link to Brodrick]

 

 

 

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

 

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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.

Abstract

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