Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development – Tony Taylor

In theory, I’m about to have a quiet August, largely free from maintaining the IDYW website, responding to Facebook and twittering. Obviously, you will be devastated at the news, but never fear find below the link to the latest article on the rejuvenated Youth & Policy platform. By chance, it’s a piece of mine, something of a rant about my deep misgivings about the contemporary, neoliberal obsession with measuring the immeasurable and its insidious impact on youth work. I know it’s hardly holiday reading, but if you do get round to glancing at its sparkling prose, comments however caustic welcomed.

Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development

Perplexed as usual – Ta to Justin Wyllie for photo

Tony Taylor of In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) was invited by the Centre for Youth Impact (CYI) to debate with Paul Oginsky at a conference ‘Measure & Treasure’ held on March 16th, 2017 in London. The following is a version of what he would have said if time had allowed. It is structured around the five questions posed in advance of the conference by Bethia McNeil, the CYI’s director.

I begin:

As you might expect there are differing interpretations of what we mean by PSD, but all aspire to be holistic, to be concerned with the whole person, their values, their knowledge, their skills, their emotions and desires. Fascinatingly, from a youth work perspective, half a century ago in 1967, Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson, in repudiating the common-sense idea of an incremental adolescent journey to adult maturity, argued that the fundamental purpose of PSD should be to help young people acquire the social skills of cooperation and comradeship, to develop a commitment to the common good. In stark contrast today’s dominant version of PSD is deeply individualistic, leaning for sustenance on developmental and cognitive psychology with their behavioural impositions of stages, roles, traits and norms upon young people growing up. For my part, I remain committed to the version espoused by Davies and Gibson, later to be summed up in a 1977 Wigan Youth Service Programme of Action as ‘personal, social and political awareness’. Or, indeed, if I am mischievous, PSD is a matter of ‘consciousness’, the very mention of which poses insoluble dilemmas for those wishing to calculate its existence.

Along the way I muse:

My comment on neutrality takes me to a final point regarding the idea of character itself. The pioneers of youth work, the likes of George Williams, Lily Montagu and Baden-Powell, would warm to its re-emergence, confident in their concern to nurture young men and women of good Christian or Jewish character. Explicitly they engaged without embarrassment with two inextricably interrelated questions, which, if we are similarly honest, we cannot escape:

In what sort of society do we wish to live? What are its characteristics?
And, depending on our answer, what sort of characters, do we think, are best suited to either the maintenance of what is or the creation of something yet to be?


In terms of being challenged about what they’re up to, whilst researchers, workers, funders, politicians may want to stand outside of the social relations they are seeking to influence, this is impossible, if oft wilfully ignored. Being involved in the process of personal and social development is not a laboratory experiment. If you wish to measure the resilience of a young person, if you wish to make a judgement on their character, the very same measurements and judgements ought to be asked of yourself, of funders, of managers, of politicians. In my opinion, it takes some cheek for politicians, not notable for their collective honesty and integrity, to pontificate about what they see as the appropriate form of PSD for young people. The same goes for all of us. As they say, we’re all in this together. All our characters are up for grabs.

I conclude with a couple of questions:

Are you measuring how successful you have been in manufacturing an emotionally resilient young person who will put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous social policies, accept their lot, and believes there is no alternative?

Or are we evaluating how successful we have been in creating, albeit tentatively, a critical, questioning young person, who seeks to change their lot in concert with others, who continues to imagine that a fairer, juster, more democratic society is possible, that the present calamitous state of affairs is not the best that humanity can do?


Impact takes a bit of a troublesome knocking and from an unexpected quarter

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks for the concept of impact, so dominant nowadays in thinking about youth work and the youth sector.


Firstly the much trumpeted post-2011 Troubled Families Strategy is exposed as an exercise in wilful deceit.  A scathing study undertaken by an independent research consortium including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research finds that after four years there was no clear evidence that the programme had any tangible effect, despite persistent claims by politicians that it had “turned around” the lives of tens of thousands of families and saved over a billion pounds. One of its authors going so far as to say, “The troubled families programme has no significant impact on any of the key outcomes it was designed to change. As far as we can tell, there’s no evidence at all to suggest the programme had more than zero impact on any of the key findings it was designed to change.”

We drew attention to this state of affairs back in February, ‘Troubled Families is a fraudulent scam’- some thoughts from within’, drawing on a report by Stephen Crossley of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Yet, despite the widespread unease about the programme, pursuing its outcomes agenda has been central to the restructuring of local government services and has impacted significantly on the role of the remnants of the Youth Service. For example in Lancashire the Youth Service is about to be submerged within the Wellbeing, Early Help and Prevention Service and ‘aligned’ to the TFU programme. By all accounts open access youth work will disappear.

 Proposals for Transforming Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help
Services for Children, Young People and Families in Lancashire

This paper describes the implementation plan of the service offer proposals
presented to Cabinet in February 2015. It includes a description of the current state
of the services to be integrated and proposes a future service model to be delivered
within a revised financial envelope of £17,230,000. This represents a £7.4million
budget saving by 2017/18, based on current services spend (2015/16). The paper
outlines the service delivery model proposal to transform and fully integrate a range
of services within Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help Service (WPEHS), which
will be implemented subject to consultation. The resultant integrated delivery model
will align existing core offers for Children’s Centres, Young People’s Provision,
Prevention and Early Help and Lancashire’s response to the national Troubled
Families Unit national programme.


Secondly Paul Oginsky, infamous in some circles for his role as an adviser to David Cameron and as an architect of the flagship National Citizen Service, has evidently seen the light. He declares,

“For many years, people in the youth sector have been looking for a definitive and universally accepted way of measuring the impact of their work.
So many people have tried and so many methods have been proposed that this quest has become known as the ‘Holy Grail’ of youth work. Let us kill this myth now (spoiler alert), there is no holy grail. There is no way of measuring impact on people that is definitive and universally accepted. There is no such thing as a unit of confidence, loyalty, honesty, motivation or any of the characteristics which this kind of work seeks to impact.”

He might have added with a touch of humility, that for many years many within youth work, including leading figures such as Batsleer, Davies, Jeffs, Smith, Bright and Yeung, together with In Defence of Youth Work and a host of practitioners rendered redundant, have been criticising the illusions of the outcomes and impact agenda. They have never got on the horse pursuing this particular Holy Grail.

He continues,

Forget measurement, psychometric testing, pre and post course tick boxes, the best way of assessing the impact of this kind of work is to ask the person themselves to describe if and how they have changed, and then to ask for witnesses verification by those who know them.

Although this needs some serious unpacking we might discern a hint of the story-telling perspective advocated by ourselves – see our designated web site here. Certainly though we need to engage with the arguments contained in the paper, A Way Forward For Character Development: The missing piece of education , published by Personal Development Point, of which Paul is the Chief Executive.

Clearly Bethia McNeil of the Centre for Youth Impact and Phil Kerry of London Youth are of the same mind, finding themselves in agreement with much of Paul Oginsky’s thesis.

 Bethia comments, Paul Oginsky is right that there is no ‘definitive and universally accepted way of measuring impact’. A ‘definitive approach’ implies agreement, a conclusion and a sense of authority. Impact measurement in the youth sector has none of those features. He’s also right that finding this definitive and universally accepted approach has at times seemed like the Holy Grail. This is in part because impact measurement has been connected with sustainability, and the suggestion has long been that the ability to ‘prove’ your impact or worth is associated with turning on the funding taps. A search for the Holy Grail is also motivated by the belief that it exists – that it is possible to find a definitive and universally accepted approach to measuring impact. Again, Paul is right – there isn’t one.

Phil Kerry writes, I read with interest Paul Oginsky’s recent white paper, A Way Forward for Character Development: The missing piece of education. Much of what Personal Development Point says rings true. There is no holy grail to character measurement within our sector and the sooner we all realise this the better. But attempting to condense all of this into one evaluation tool or definition would just be just as much of a fruitless mission. Our sector embraces a brilliantly wide church of practice and thinking and in this lies our strength and not our weakness.

Read their responses in full here.

To repeat the point made above, we can but suggest that a critical caution about imposed templates of universality has been around for ages. Indeed it is caught in youth work’s long-standing acknowledgement that it is a contested ideological space. It is fascinating that this fundamental insight is by and large ignored, even when notions of social change are allowed into the debate. We will endeavour to explain this further in a measured response to the PDP Oginsky pamphlet. Meanwhile there is reason to believe that the discussion about ‘what we’re up to’ is loosening up.



'A reet rum do'! Taking Youth Policy Seriously?

By all accounts last week’s Y & P’s ‘Taking Youth Policy Seriously’ conference was ‘a reet rum do’ – challenging contributions, unexpected praise, decent debate and more than a whiff of self-serving character assassination. For an eye witness account I would recommend Jon Jolly’s  reflections, which begin, “Yesterday I spent a fun and thought-provoking day at YMCA George Williams College for the Youth & Policy ‘Thinking Seriously About Youth Work and Policy’ Conference!” How often do you hear that said in today’s world of slick, stage managed, corporate exercises in how to deliver what’s already been decided?

Other feedback from folk present included:

– The contribution of Gareth Symonds from Surrey posed the question of whether there is still space within local authorities to defend open youth work free from imposed targets. Whilst supportive of the IDYW definition of youth work, he cautioned against ‘agitational’ practice, which seemed contradictory to some in the audience. It would be good to hear more from the Surrey experience. Perhaps there are committee documents we might share?

– Ian Mearns, the Labour MP, restored some belief in the possibility of independent-minded parliamentary representatives, criticising the target culture.

– Paul Oginsky, defying the caricature I’ve painted on the site, was insightful and thoughtful. Within the National Citizen’s Service [NCS] workshop he proved willing to listen and be criticised. Nevertheless the jury remains out on NCS. Why is this familiar mix of youth work approaches – the residential, challenging outdoor activities, community projects and so on – being dressed up and sold as innovative, whilst year round open access to youth provision is being decimated?

The dash of spice to proceedings was provided by Fiona Blacke, Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency, who railed against the incompetence of previous management at the organisation, causing Bernard Davies to leap to the previous CEO, Tom Wylie’s defence. At the height of the fracas Jon Jolly tweeted something like, “I really can’t believe she said that!” To add insult to injury she suggested that older men blocking progress needed to get out of the way of a new generation of young entrepreneurial workers. Thus in one ageist swoop she wrote off the continued commitment of those long in the tooth , whilst irritating immensely the fresh blood at the forefront of both Y & P itself and the IDYW Campaign.

As it is we are saved unnecessary speculation about the contents of her input. I am reliably informed that her latest blog post, ‘New Times Need New Thinking’ is a toned down version of what she said. Having read it, I can but welcome an unusual offering from the contemporary leadership of the work at a national level, one that reveals their purpose and intent.  A riposte is already  shaping up in my ageing brain. We can but echo Fiona’s plea for open dialogue. We will endeavour as ever to play our critical part.