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.

 

 

 

LGA/NYA Conference: Proposing a vision from above – a failure of the imagination?

NYA_No_Background

Tomorrow the Local Government Association [LGA] and the National Youth Agency [NYA] are hosting a conference entitled, A New Vision for Youth Services. With such a quest we have no problem. Indeed we have just held a series of ‘Is the tide turning? events, within which the LGA/NYA desire ‘to consider what the youth services landscape looks like both now and in the future’ would have been appreciated.

However, leave aside the usual standard failure to recognise that the changing landscape is not the result of natural causes, but the consequence of almost four decades of neoliberalism, there is a glaring gap in terms of contributors and, almost certainly, of those attending. Whilst young people are given rightly a platform, youth workers and their organisations are nowhere to be seen.  Where are the youth work trade unions or the Institute of Youth Work? Voices from the grassroots will be absent, not least because it costs £345 plus VAT to attend.

LGA-House

I hardly need to spell out the irony accompanying the location of this top-down event, dominated by senior management in one guise or another. It is being held in Transport House, the former headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G), and also originally of the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress. Although I must temper my sardonic tone, knowing that the building was ever the home of bureaucrats rather than workers.

Imagining a future beyond the instrumental and marketised agenda imposed on youth work, reflected uncritically in the day’s programme, for example, the National Citizen Service gets a slot of its own, will require the serious involvement of everyone involved in what has always been at its best a pluralist adventure. Perhaps tomorrow’s conference is a step on the way, but the early signs are not promising. We will be happy to be proved wrong.

logoLGA

Who should attend:
Lead members for children’s services, deputy directors of children’s services, youth work team leaders, organisations delivering youth work

Programme

    9.30 Registration and refreshments
  10.15 Welcome and introduction

Cllr Roy Perry, Vice-Chair, LGA Children and Young People Board and Leader of Hampshire County Council

  10.25 Launch of the LGA’s vision for local government’s role in youth services

Cllr Ryan Brent, LGA Representative on the National Youth Agency Board and Cabinet Member for Children and Families, Portsmouth City Council

  10.40 National Youth Agency

Leigh Middleton, Managing Director, National Youth Agency

  10.55 The role of local government in delivering youth services: panel discussion session

Cllr Ryan Brent, Local Government Association

Michael Bracey, Corporate Director – Children, Milton Keynes Council

Leigh Middleton, National Youth Agency

Matt Lent, Director of Partnerships and Policy, UK Youth

  11.40 Refreshments
  11.55 Keynote speech

Helen Judge, Director General for Performance and Strategy, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Questions and discussion

  12.40 National Citizen Service

Jonathan Freeman, NCS Localities Lead

Questions and discussion

  1.10 Lunch and networking
  1.50 The voice of young people

Bernadette Killeen, Youth Involvement Team Manager, Leicester City Council

Brahmpreet Gulati, Leicester City Young People’s Council

Katie Walker, Leicester City Young People’s Council

Elizabeth Harding, Chief Executive, Youth Focus NW

  2.30 Chair’s closing remarks and introduction to workshops
  2.40 Workshops

W1. Delivery models
Aileen Wilson, Head of Early Help Services, Nottingham City Council
Shelley Nicholls, Strategic Lead for Youth Justice and Family Intervention Services, Nottingham City Council
Sandra Richardson, Chief Executive Officer, Knowsley Youth Mutual
Erik Mesel, Senior Grants and Public Policy Manager, John Lyons Charity

W2. Youth Services in Wales
Tim Opie
, Lifelong Learning Policy Officer (Youth), Welsh Local Government Association

  3.25 Comfort break with refreshments
  3.35 Workshops

W3. Youth Services and Social Cohesion
Elaine Morrison, Head of Youth Strategy, Manchester City Council

W4. Mental Health and Wellbeing
Aaron Mansfield
, Health and Wellbeing Project Manager (Young People), Royal Society for Public Health

  4.20 Conference close

 

 

 

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

nya

 

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 aviser.com.au

Ta to aviser.com.au

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’).

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  • 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?

entrepreneurs

 

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.