Kicking off National Youth Work Week without a selfie, but with a Corbyn eulogy

There I was wondering whether I’d get stick for political bias if I posted this paean of praise to youth work by Jeremy Coburn, when along comes a National Youth Agency newsletter recommending its message. So without further ado.


Certainly, his avowed stance lends weight to the argument that we should be focusing our attention on winning the support of the anti-austerity parties, led by Labour, for a reimagined Youth Service as an integral part of a National Education Service. It will be fascinating to see the feedback from our ‘Is the tide turning?’ events being held this week.



However, I’ve failed miserably to respond to the NYA’s request to be part of the Support youth services with a selfie in #YWW17 – details on the link. I could summon up neither the courage nor conceit to comply. I know I’m a curmudgeon. In an attempt to save face, as I reckoned they owed me a favour or two, I tried the idea out on Glyka, our rescue dog and Leonidas, our rescue racehorse.  My line was that Glyka would look cute and Leo aristocratic with the bonus I could post the pics on Facebook and generate huge numbers of ‘likes’ and giddily appreciative comments. Both of them were scathing in the face of my embarrassing ignorance. Me taking a picture of them did not count as a ‘selfie. With a bark and a neigh I was dismissed from their presence. Anyway if you feel so inclined, you can make up for my abashed surliness. Cheers.


UK Youth and NYA initiate shared services talks

UK Youth



The inexorable pressure upon the leading voluntary youth organisations/charities to rationalise continues apace. This year we’ve already lost the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services [NCVYS], once the proudly independent voice of a host of voluntary youth groups across the country, often organised into local councils. Ambition absorbed its membership services, whilst UK Youth stepped in to protect other functions such as  the management of Muslim Council of Britain partnership. At the time UK Youth indicated that it would be leading on the youth sector Chair’s Taskforce to explore opportunities for further sector partnership and consolidation.  It looks as if the next stage in a process of ‘consolidation’ has been reached as UK Youth and NYA announce they are entering talks on shared services. We recognise and support the sincere desire to protect jobs and provide services in an artificially induced climate of austerity. We remain deeply committed to the necessity of a critical and independent voluntary youth sector voice. In particular those of us, for whom the old National Youth Bureau and thence the National Youth Agency were in their finest hours ambassadors of radical youth work practice, fear for the future.

UK Youth and NYA have initiated discussions to explore the benefits of a shared services model that will enable both organisations to sustain high quality services for young people in the most cost effective way. Our charities are united in their aim to achieve the best possible outcomes for young people and recognise there are a range of innovative ways in which this can be achieved.

The discussions are at a preliminary stage. The Chairs and CEOs of UK Youth and NYA have met to look at the options available. Their initial recommendations have been presented to Trustees of both charities, who are supportive and have each appointed representatives to a small working group which will convene over the next few months to explore a range of possible options, including the sharing of HR and Finance.

Both parties hope these discussions will lead to a positive result that will strengthen each of our respective charities. However, we are also clear that this is a complex process and it may be that we are unable to achieve our vision. If that is the case, we will share our learnings with the sector in the hopes that others can benefit from our efforts.

Our staff and stakeholders will be vital to the success of these discussions and we hope we can count on your support over the next few months.

Anna Smee CEO UK Youth

Paul Miller CEO NYA

Michael Bracey Chair NYA

Anne Stoneham Chair UK Youth

Thoughts upon this scenario from people in the field would be most welcome.

Becoming an entrepreneur – not all it’s cracked up to be!

Ta to

Ta to

A few weeks ago we questioned the National Youth Agency [NYA] call for young people to become more entrepreneurial. Given the character of youth unemployment we criticised this one-sided, indeed weary emphasis, expressed in the setting up of a NYA commission into enterprise and young people. In this context and given NYA’s avowal of so-called evidence-based practice the latest Office of National Statistics employment/unemployment figures ought to be sobering.

About 15% of the work-force is now self-employed, around 4.5 million people. Since 2010 38% of the growth in employment is down to the rise in the number of self-employed. As Christina Patteson notes, “politicians love to call us entrepreneurs as if we are all about to unveil a blue-print for the next Google.” However reality differs. The average income from self-employment has fallen by 22% since the crash of 2008, dropping from an average of £15,000 to under £10,400 per annum, not to mention the lack of sickness/holiday pay with low prospects for a pension.

Given too that the NYA is fond of telling us that it stands for new ways of thinking, I can but recommend that its ideologues spend some time reading Robert McDonald’s blog, ‘Youth and the Enterprise Culture’, which we produce here, more or less in full. The present Professor of Sociology at Teeside University reflects:

Twenty-five years ago, as part of an ESRC research programme, I interviewed around 100 young women and men – from Teesside, North East England – about their experiences of ‘the enterprise culture’. All were some way along the journey of self-employment: planning to start-up, currently trading or looking back on closed businesses. I wrote the book – Risky Business? Youth and the  Enterprise Culture – with Frank Coffield, (published in 1991) and also published further articles based on this project.

One spur to this blog was another by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn who recently charted the rise of schemes and programmes to inculcate the entrepreneurial ethic in young people. Indeed, the UK government has recently launched its ‘New Enterprise Allowance’; a scheme with almost exactly the same aims and package of support as the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS) of the 1980s, in which virtually all my interviewees participated. Biressi and Nunn outline how ‘entrepreneurship’ is once again ‘promoted as an economic necessity… [as] part of the wider push to re-boot the nation’s economy in keeping with the usual neoliberal beliefs in competition as the driver of wealth … neo-liberalism is … also a social model which insists that we are the authors of our own lives and the architects of our own destinies’. There are many excellent recent examples that interrogate how young people’s ‘aspirations’ and ‘choices’ are (mis)understood under neoliberalism (see, for instance, Lisa Whittaker’s insight into the classed and gendered nature of unemployed young women’s views of celebrity ‘role models’). It is difficult, however, to think of a purer example of the supposed ‘neoliberal project of the self’ than young people electing to ‘become their own boss’.

Risky Business? was probably the first serious, qualitative interrogation of young people’s encounters with ‘the enterprise culture’. What lessons can we learn from it?

  • ‘Neoliberalism’ was much less used in the late 1980s, as a label for the social, economic and political character and condition of the UK. Nevertheless, this was the high water mark of the Thatcherite ideology that pitted ‘the enterprise culture’ against the social and economic drag of ‘dependency culture’. Welfare entitlements were rolled back (especially for youth), the jobless were cajoled to get on their bikes and, if no jobs were to be had, the young unemployed in particular were told to be enterprising and create their own.
  • Participants had very limited political interest in any of this. The Thatcherite discourse of ‘enterprise’ barely touched them, beyond their practical encounters with a burgeoning industry of state agencies and charities that had sprung up, attracted by multi-million pound government grants to deliver ‘the enterprise culture’. Entrepreneurial ‘role models’ were rarely cited. If pushed, Richard Branson was sometimes mentioned (who, in 2011 against the backdrop of rising youth unemployment, called again for a ‘nation of young entrepreneurs’).


  • Motivations were more prosaic: a vague sense that ‘being your own boss’ was attractive and/ or the negative push of high unemployment rates. Typically, interviewees had churned around training schemes, unemployment and crap jobs before ending up on the EAS. One of saddest cases was Malcolm. He had circulated through an alphabet soup of government schemes: YTS, JIG, YWS, CP, ET and others. He had been in ‘business’ for a few weeks when I met him: offering advice and consultancy to unemployed people – about how best to cope with being unemployed. He had not yet had any customers.
  • Businesses were typically service sector ‘micro-firms’ that traded on informal skills or hobbies. Bicycle repairs, clothes design, bespoke knitwear, hairdressing, picture-framing, photography and beauty therapy were popular options.
  • Because of how participants were recruited, the research could not measure ‘success rates’ (one recent survey estimated that after three years, two-thirds of businesses run by young people have failed). It did offer a three-fold typology of the experience of the people interviewed: ‘runners, fallers and plodders’.
    • A handful were ‘runners’. They were, or seemed likely to be, successful. At least one of these – a designer clothes shop – is still going, twenty five years later. Family, social, cultural and financial capital seemed helpful here (e.g. having parents ‘in the business’ or who could provide loans).
    • Most interviewed were ‘plodders’ at the time: emotionally committed to the businesses that were drastically under-capitalized, unprofitable and precarious. Mostly, interviewees had no business training or experience. They survived by undercutting the prices of other local firms and by extreme self-exploitation: working very long hours for no or very low pay (subsidised, for instance, by free ‘bed and board’ from parents). Lillian (22) captured this reality well: “I’m just keeping my head above water. I mean, I’d love to be Richard Branson and the rest but you have to be realistic… you’re never going to be a millionaire, like a big movie star. It’s easier if you come to terms with that. I just see it [self-employment] as keeping my head above water.”
    • Most of the ‘plodders’ seemed likely to become ‘fallers’. These were those whose businesses had closed because of mounting debts (sometimes incurring legal bankruptcy), sheer exhaustion and a growing realization that there really was never much chance of success. After all, just how many mobile beauticians or free-lance photographers can a local economy support?

I’ll finish with the words of Lynne, a 28 year-old single mother, whose fruit and vegetable market stall had failed. Hopefully her story provides some balance to the shiny words, fake promises and renewed clamour for a ‘youth enterprise culture’; to claims that ‘entrepreneurial ambitions are unequivocally good’. Lynne reflected on her time self-employed at the end of the 1980s:

 “It was something I had to try. I was going nowhere … I wanted to climb. I wanted self-esteem. Looking back, it’s been totally the opposite. I’d had two relationships that’d failed. My life has been a failure since leaving college to now. I needed something to succeed. As it happens, I failed in that too. Perhaps I’m just a born failure! But at least I’ve had the experience. I haven’t just sat back moaning on the dole. I’ve tried to get out of the poverty trap. Fine, it didn’t work but … Now, a year later, I have £10,000 debt, rising with interest …  I’ve had the County Sheriff on my doorstep with a Possession Order. Because he was a nice chap and he saw I had a kid, he left the furniture … I’m between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea … I’m stuck, just waiting for the axe to fall … I’ve went through hell mentally with it. Strait-jacket time. St. Nicks’ here I come…”

Thanks to Patrick Ainley, Sumi Hollingworth, Kim Allen and Rob McDonald for the links


Youth Workers to advocate entrepreneurialism, to become today’s Careers Advisers?



The effort to to redefine youth work continues apace. Nowadays paid youth workers, if they’ve still got a job, are the Jacks and Jills of all trades. Youth social work, youth justice. pastoral care, play and recreation – the list goes on. The latest addition, the latest dilution of our distinctiveness, comes courtesy of the NYA’s contribution to a Tory Party fringe meeting.

According to a CYPN report the deputy chief executive of the NYA argued, ‘train youth workers to support young entrepreneurs’. Not surprisingly his proposal that “we think youth workers need better training to think about how they can support young people to be more entrepreneurial” went down well with his audience. Conservative MP, Chloe Smith, who heads up a NYA Commission into enterprise and young people, exclaimed “this is a great opportunity to enable youth workers to do something new”. However, whilst ostensibly supporting the idea, Councillor David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, exposed its confused and contradictory character. He noted, “one of the criticisms that comes back from young people is how fragmented careers advice is – the system is completely different in Cornwall than, for example, Teeside.” Rather than youth work what we are discussing here is the provision of careers support and guidance. As it is Simmonds is only too happy to suggest “we need to have a coherent national strategy around that [supporting young people to develop social enterprises] and for the youth work profession to develop into that role would be fantastic.” And thus in this fantasy the Youth Service is transformed into the Careers Service – forgive me using such old-fashioned notions, but you get my drift.

Let me pose a few issues to ponder.

1. There used to be a local education authority structure, within which Schools, FE Colleges, the Careers Service and the Youth Service worked together, in partnership to use today’s buzz-word. It was far from perfect, but in some places it worked very well.  It was a structure to be improved, not demolished. At its best, within it, the youth worker’s strength was her relative autonomy and the absence of a prescribed agenda for her work. Young people knew that she was the person in the jigsaw with no statutory axe to grind, with no predetermined notion of what the young person might identify as needs or priorities. This meant sometimes she was very involved in a young person’s concerns about their future careers, about being unemployed, but only as this need emerged out of her relationship with the young man or woman. In no way was preparation for work or indeed enterprise the raison d’etre for her practice.

2. This attempt by NYA to ‘careerise’ our work is profoundly ideological.  In arguing for youth workers to become the teachers of entrepreneurialism the NYA swallows whole a neo-liberal agenda, which over recent decades, has created a generation of young people with little in the way of a future. Even as I write the Tories impose even greater austerity measures, targeting in particular youth. Young people will be banned from receiving housing benefit until they are 21 and those between 16 and 21 out of employment six months will be forced to do ‘community work’ in return for benefits. Given this stifling scenario what price the chances of many so-called ‘disengaged’ young people breaking through to set up their own social enterprises? Inevitably there will be some individual successes, but what does this really mean in the wider picture?

3.  For a moment it’s revealing to ask why hasn’t the NYA set up a commission to look at public service and young people? Why are we not hearing a NYA spokesperson call on youth workers to train young people to become public servants, to become teachers, nurses, refuse collectors …..indeed, even youth workers, contributing to the common good? Whilst these questions are utterly legitimate, they may seem naive. Some would argue that it’s impossible for the NYA to adopt a more critical relationship with the government and the private sector. Yet what risks would the NYA have been taking, if alongside its commission into enterprise and young people it had run a commission looking at public service and young people. At the very least the latter commission would have thrown up a differing perspective on the qualities needed to be a prospective ‘public servant’ as opposed to ‘entrepreneur’. Instead of the Young Foundation-derived emphasis on being a resilient individual favoured by the NYA we would have to explore the enormous significance for the individual of collective solidarity, collective resistance and collective obligations.

Lest I be misunderstood I’m not advocating that youth workers do mount specific training programmes focused on becoming a public sector employee!! This would be bizarre. It would run counter to our insistence that youth work is relational, conversational and negotiated, starting from young people’s definitions of their worlds. What I am questioning is the continuing abandonment of this distinctive tradition by those, who should be in the forefront of its defence.


The Centre for Youth Impact launch – more pseudo-scientific posturing in the service of competition?

Ta to the Cabinet Office

Ta to the Cabinet Office


The Cabinet Office is providing start-up funding for the Centre for Youth Impact (CYI). This initiative will help organisations that work with and for young people to measure and increase the impact of their services. TheNational Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS), Project Oracle, and the Social Research Unit at Dartington will lead the new CYI.

The CYI will provide overarching support for all impact measurement initiatives that are relevant to the youth sector. It will signpost to existing resources, and provide bespoke, practical help.

Understandably the first reaction to this news from IDYW followers on Facebook was one of anger and frustration. Terry Mattinson exploded, ‘there is nothing to assess? Cuts have left nothing – no youth services to assess in both voluntary & statutory!!”!””!!!’ However that the government is in denial about cuts and closures in youth services is par for the course. As usual too we can spot the sleight of hand in terms of what we are talking about – work with and for young people, youth services. The government and its partners will point out that they are talking about the youth sector as a whole and not at all the scattered remains of the local authority youth service. Of course this doesn’t stop them invoking a notion of youth work if and when it suits. Not so surprisingly a definition of what constitutes the youth sector is hard to find, making it a flexible and oft misleading concept. For the moment let’s recognise that it includes at its heart a plethora of imposed, referred and targeted outcomes-led practice, most usefully understood as youth social work or youth justice or indeed pastoral care. It is these instrumental forms of work with young people that attract the attention of the less than neutral social researchers of such outfits as Dartington. It is these forms of practice that are up for measurement and up for sale.

The centre will offer:

  • national leadership, being a central point for information and communications, and a forum for discussing how to measure impact in the youth sector
  • an online source of impact measurement resources for youth sector organisations, with guidance on how to use them
  • support in managing evidence for 3 ‘early adopters’, to help them improve their own impact measurement work, apply the benefits across the sector and support organisations less familiar with impact measurement
  • train-the-trainer workshops

The CYI will work closely with important sector partners such as theNational Youth Agency, the Early Intervention Foundation, and Inspiring Impact. This will ensure that the initiative builds on existing resources, and meets the diverse needs of youth sector organisations. It will build on the work of the Catalyst Consortium, ensuring that resources like the Framework of Outcomes for Young People remain accessible and relevant.

As it is we have produced what we think is a powerful critique of the Framework of Outcomes, which traveled well, ringing many bells, when placed before an Australian audience a few weeks ago in Brisbane. In passing within it we touch on the motivation for the obsession with data and impact to be found in the National Youth Agency/Local Government Association document, The Future for Outcomes. In their own words, “collecting the right data will help separate your project from the crowd and illustrate your leading role.” Indeed, they stress, it will be the key to competing in a future of payment-by-results. We might surmise that impact measurement has little to do with young people, everything to do with an organisations’s performance in the market place.

The Cabinet Office ‘will formally launch the initiative at the Creative Collisions conference, hosted by leading youth sector organisations, on the 6 November 2014.’

We hope to be there in order to provide our readers with further information and analysis. We know you’re already drooling at the prospect!




Bernard Davies asks, ‘So where’s the youth work then…?’

Thanks to Jethro Brice

Thanks to Jethro Brice

So where’s the youth work, then… ?

Four papers have appeared in the last couple of months which youth workers might reasonably have hoped would offer some words of encouragement for their distinctive practice. Two have broad focuses and indeed rather grand ambitions: the Local Government Association’s Our ambition for children and young people, released in June; and A 21st Century Education System, published by Compass, which started as a pressure group inside the Labour Party and now describes itself as ‘a home for all those that want to operate within a different kind of politics’. The other two are focused very specifically on youth work: Unison’s The Damage: the UK youth services and the National Youth Agency’s Vision for Youth Work in England to 2020.

Far from affirming much that youth workers see as central to defining their work, however, each of these documents, albeit in different ways and to different degrees, again concentrates our minds on why we need to continue the struggle for a practice whose rationale is primarily educational, which is self-chosen by young people and which is publicly available to them as a citizen’s right.

For youth work, what is most significant about both the LGA and the Compass documents is its total or near-total absence. The former does manage a token reference on its last page to ‘providing youth services and positive activities for young people’. And the latter expresses a strong commitment to education ‘as lifelong’. However in staking out the ground for this as ‘a continual, joyful, rewarding and enriching part of the whole of our lives’, the Compass collective never apparently considered that more attractive ways of offering it to some young people might be available beyond ‘colleges, universities, companies, workplaces, community centres, various civil society organisations, at home and increasingly through digital technologies’.

The two reports with a specific youth work focus do make some welcome nods in the direction of some of youth work’s defining characteristics. The Unison document – whose prime purpose is to present new and stark evidence on the damage wreaked on local authority Youth Services by the Coalition’s cuts – talks of ‘building up relationships of trust’; ‘working in (young people’s) communities’; ‘helping them to make their own decisions’; ‘developing their confidence’. It also makes the case for open access provision on the grounds that this is where ‘young people want and need to socialise in a safe and secure environment’. The NYA vision also includes endorsement of ‘an educational process that extends and deepens a young person’s understanding of themselves, their community and the world in which they live and supports them to proactively bring about positive change’.

Tellingly, however, neither of these papers explicitly acknowledges what is perhaps the defining feature of this practice: young people’s voluntary engagement. Nor can this gap be explained away as mere absence of mind. Rather, it has to be seen as the logical outcome of these papers’ felt need to represent youth work as ‘early intervention’, to be aimed at ‘groups and individuals with specific needs’, at ‘challenging’ and ‘vulnerable’ young people and at ‘preventing anti-social behaviour’. NYA is particularly upfront here, repeating a position on which it went public as far back as 2010: that services provided or commissioned by local authorities will ‘typically … be preventative/targeted’, with open access being left to the voluntary sector. Indeed the NYA ‘vision’ comes close to morphing into fantasy when it argues strongly for social impact bonds to ‘be repaid when agreed outcomes, that deliver long term costs savings to the state, are achieved’. Moreover, given that such outcomes will presumably have to be defined in advance and above all by the investors who will be risking their money, what is never made clear is whether or how they will take into account those bits of NYA’s definition of youth work which see it as ‘built from young people’s lived experience and their personal beliefs and aspirations’.

At times the Unison paper too risks overstating what youth workers can promise its funders when it lists the ills from which they will help save society: ‘more disengagement and crime, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, obesity, higher youth unemployment, and the marginalisation of young people by society’.

What also characterises the NYA and LGA reports is their taken-for-granted endorsements of a neo-liberal world in which ‘the demands of a globalised economy’ and the need to ‘creat(e) the workers that tomorrow’s companies will need’ are seen as self-evidently high priorities, to be realised by those favourite market processes – ‘commissioning, scrutiny and audit’. For the LGA, ‘public, private and voluntary’ are thus repeatedly run together as if inevitably and unproblematically interwoven. In the NYA ‘vision’, such assumptions are even more central. Amidst all its rhetoric about ‘young people as partners’ and about ‘co-production’, no consideration is given to the structurally-embedded imbalances of power between them and the ‘corporates’ which will be expected to provide funding – nor, it should be added, to what ethical risk tests will be applied when these donors turn out to be the Barclays and the Sercos of the corporate world. When linked also to the heavy emphasis on targeted work, what this reliance on this world and also on private donors masks, too, is the application of a twentieth-first century version of the deserving poor which the wealthy and the privileged will have the power to impose and define.

Despite some of the important data they contain, therefore – particularly the Unison report – and the lofty visions of the others, these papers again further blur the image of youth work as a developmental endeavour focused above all, not on obsessing over the deficits of young people, but liberating their potential.

So where’s the youth work then..? [pdf version]