Tim Caley reviews ‘Grassroots Youth Work – policy, passion and resistance in practice’

The latest Youth & Policy features Tim Caley’s generous review of Tania de St Croix’s book, ‘Grassroots Youth Work – policy, passion and resistance in practice’ 

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Invoking from the 1960’s the literary critic, Richard Hoggart and the ‘on the side of the underdog’ youth worker, Ray Gosling he argues that ‘the critical achievement of her writing is that it gets to the heart of good youth work practice, it digs deep into how practitioners – especially the part-timers – feel about teenagers, how strongly they love their work and how resilient they are proving in the face of political and financial adversity. Based on three years of research and two years of writing, she weaves together the voices of part-time youth workers and young people with a concise (yet coruscating) analysis of the corrosive impact of government policies on youth work and youth services in the last ten years. What’s more, she does it with an eloquent passion and resistance of her own, reflecting the book’s primary themes’.

Nevertheless, he chides Tania for sometimes being overzealously simplistic in her critique. Somewhat defensively he points out that even in the midst of neoliberal constraint there are empathetic managers.  I suppose I’d like to think so too, given I was once mistakenly a Chief Youth Officer. More problematically, in my opinion, he suggests that OFSTED inspections were an accurate arbiter of what constitute the highest standards of youth work practice. He suggests rightly that we should treat seriously the efforts of some charities to chart a positive course through the troubled waters of a shifting economy of youth work. Less persuasively he repeats the tired charge that youth workers fail to provide evidence to funders. From my conversations with workers, they feel they do little else nowadays except furnish data upon data to their bosses. And as for Tania, having devoured its contents, my sense is that her coverage of these issues is nuanced rather than naive.

No matter, books and book reviews, such as Tim’s, ought to stimulate argument and debate. As it is I find myself close to agreeing with the fulsome praise, with which he concludes.

Tania de St Croix has written the best book on youth work since Mark K. Smith’s seminal Creators not Consumers, published in 1980′.

Read Tim’s review in full and, do yourself a favour, beg, steal, borrow, even buy the book itself.  There are few books in the youth work canon that can be said to be a bloody good read. Tania’s is the exception.

 

Making up the Numbers – the elephant in the room

In this piece, Tania de St Croix continues our ongoing and necessary debate about the ramifications of the impact/outcomes/ measurement agenda upon a process-led open youth work.

fiddling

Making up the numbers?

 

Do youth workers ‘make up’ numbers in order to demonstrate measureable outcomes? In a recent article, I argued that open access youth work is disadvantaged by an increasing policy emphasis on measureable impact. (The article is available open access here: Youth work, performativity and the new youth impact agenda: getting paid for numbers?). In a thoughtful post on this site, Tony Taylor responded:

 

“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.”

 

I agree that fabrication and gaming are an intrinsic aspect of the datafication of public and voluntary services. The concept of fabrication is explored by Stephen Ball in his 2003 article, ‘The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity’:

 

“Fabrications are versions of an organisation (or person) which does not exist – they are not ‘outside the truth’ but neither do they render simply true or direct accounts – they are produced purposefully in order to be accountable. Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness… their transformational and disciplinary impact” (emphasis added).

 

In the research for my book, Grassroots Youth Work: Policy, Passion and Resistance in Practice, I interviewed part-time and volunteer youth workers, and reflected on my own experiences as a practitioner. I discussed several instances of what could be seen as fabrication (see chapter 4):

 

  • Youth workers awarded young people ‘easy’ certificates and accreditations for things they could do anyway, irrespective of their youth work participation, and counted these as ‘outcomes’. (Many of these certificates were condescending at best; AQA unit 83522 ‘Making tea or coffee’ was the most striking and oft-repeated example.)
  • Young people were ‘incentivised’ with a trip, pizza, cash, and expensive motorbike competence courses, in return for attending, filling out paperwork, or completing a course.
  • Youth workers exaggerated the nature of their project’s achievements in multi-agency meetings.
  • Managers recorded the results of ‘easy to evidence’ projects, sometimes even creating these projects for that purpose, to enable less ‘countable’ projects to happen.

 

When workers shared such tactics – many of which I have used myself – it was often with a palpable sense of embarrassment, sometimes even shame. Blatant ‘making up’ of numbers was not discussed; perhaps it was hidden, but in most cases it was probably just unnecessary. After all, the best lies are usually those that are closest to the truth. It seemed to me that workers were pressured to ‘get their numbers up’, and they were probably expected to use gaming practices, but these were left deliberately opaque (thus it was often grassroots workers left to take most of the risk):

 

“Part of the ‘game’ is knowing which fabrications are desirable and which are unacceptable. Workers are kept guessing: how far should the truth be pushed and made to bend? Should we prepare a special session when the inspectors are due? Should we add a young person’s name to the attendance list if they only popped in for a moment? Should we share our doubts and false starts when we attend a neighbourhood meeting, or focus only on our achievements? Knowing which compromises are acceptable and which are straying too far from the truth requires a deep and habitual familiarity with systems of judgement. These games are complicated; cheating is frowned upon, but providing wholly honest versions will not make the grade.” (Grassroots Youth Work, p.91).

 

Fabrication is a useful concept, precisely because it shines a light on the murky area between truth and lies; it also makes me think about the (sometimes overlapping) impulses of conformity and resistance that are often characteristic of a commitment to youth work. Workers feel compelled to engage in inauthentic practices they do not believe in, yet to some extent this ‘gaming’ of the system is also a form of rebellion that buys space for ‘real’, ‘meaningful’, and less measurable forms of practice.

 

Like Tony, I am interested in what kinds of fabrications will become systemic under the influence of newer impact mechanisms such as ‘pre and post tests’, comparison groups, and Randomised Control Trials. Working these days in a research institution, my sense is that such methods – especially when carried out without the academic rigour of ethical approval processes and peer review – are highly vulnerable to distortion. A number of tactics come to mind, including but not restricted to:

  • focusing practice – or at least its evaluation – on the ‘most engaged’ and ‘most amenable’ young people;
  • measuring a large number of indicators, in the hope that some will ‘prove’ significant;
  • exaggerating the importance of small effect sizes;
  • burying negative evidence; and,
  • presenting data in inaccessible or incomplete ways.

 

The feelings invoked by numbers and ‘scientific’ data in a field are important here. Without clear and transparent communication, numbers can act to obscure, legitimise, and exclude. As a consequence of the neoliberal fashion for measuring and monetising everything, we can be almost certain of a continuing increase in the emphasis on targetted ‘projects’ and ‘interventions’ at the expense of open youth work. If I was a youth work manager now, I might well feel compelled to ensure that we had some easily ‘measurable’ projects, with clear and achievable ‘outcomes’. Of course, I would do my best to make space for grassroots youth work too; but this means that open youth work will continue to exist only where passionate individuals fight to make space for it, rather than being available to young people by right. Surely this is not acceptable.

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

Voice of Youth co-op looking for volunteers

Message from Tania de St Croix

Hello friends,
We need some new volunteers for our fantastic youth workers’ co-op in Hackney, London. We are writing to you because we think you might be interested yourself or know somebody who might be interested – if so, please see below, forward this email to anyone who might be interested, and put up the attached PDF or Word poster version if you have anywhere to put it. Ideally we would love to hear back before mid-August as we would like to organise a volunteer induction session before the autumn.
Thanks so much!

voy-logo

S.O.S. Voice of Youth!!!
Volunteers needed for youth work co-op in Hackney

Be part of something amazing!
No bosses, great mutually supportive team including local young people – experience genuine co-operative working!
We are looking for experienced youth workers who want to support our way of working…
… and for people who want to gain experience in open-access youth work!

Voice of Youth is a special organisation. We do things differently: we work cooperatively, our work is rooted in young people’s needs and wishes, and we avoid funding that involves meeting targets or defining young people as problems. We were set up in 2011 by local young people and youth workers. We are a committed group of volunteers, we have around 30 fantastic young people aged 8-18 taking part each week, and funding for a project using creative activities to get young people talking about social issues. But we need more volunteers to help us stay open!

Interested? You would need to be available all or most Wednesday evenings, 5:30-9:30 pm, term-time from Autumn 2017. Our work relies on trusting relationships with young people and within the staff team, so we ask you to commit to 6 to 12 months if at all possible. Have a look at our website to find out more about us: http://www.voice-of-youth.org

Still interested? Send us an email and we’ll have an informal chat and tell you more! Please contact tania1.voy@gmail.com or any VOY volunteers or youth workers you know, preferably by mid-August ‘17.

Who can be a VOY volunteer? Anyone aged 16+. We aim to reflect the community we work in, and we particularly welcome Black and Minority Ethnic applicants, local young people, and EVERYONE of ANY background who is keen to work with young people on their terms, valuing their views and perspectives. All volunteers need a DBS (criminal record) check – an unrelated criminal record is no problem, but please discuss this with us in advance. Travel expenses available, please ask for details.

Celebrating Youth & Policy 2 – Tania de St Croix bidding goodbye to NCS?

Y&P

The second of our pieces from the new-look Y&P sees Tania de St Croix continuing her incisive and provocative analyses of Cameron’s vanity project, once called by Tim Loughton in a phrase of utter ignorance ‘the fastest growing social movement in Europe’, namely, the National Citizen Service. Tania gave a version of this argument to our recent IDYW seminars in Manchester and London. Certainly, its sense of the contradictions within NCS will feed into a discussion paper we are preparing, which will seek to explore future scenarios for youth work in a turbulent political climate.

Time to say goodbye to the National Citizen Service?

 

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Tania de St Croix

 

 

Tania writes:

Until recent political events, the practice of re-imagining youth work – thinking in a utopian way about what youth work could, or should, become – may have been a creatively rich exercise, yet it sometimes felt futile, at least beyond the very local scale. In the light of the recent general election campaign and results, and without over-romanticising the possibilities for electoral politics, it is now not only reasonable but even urgent for practitioners, activists and researchers to think seriously and practically about what kind of youth work policy and practice we would like to see, and how we might get from here to there.

She asserts:

In this context, reviewing the NCS may not appear to be the most pressing priority for the field. However, a re-imagined youth policy that does not question the basis of NCS would be both problematic and contradictory. Just as local authority youth services were, quite rightly, the target of robust criticism by progressives in the past (for example, for being overly bureaucratic, too ready to see young people as ‘problems’ to be ‘fixed’, insufficiently self-critical, and too quick to conform to the policy priorities of the day), today the NCS receives the bulk of government money and support for youth work. As such, it must be subjected to critical scrutiny.

 

Cor Blimey! A first chance to reflect on what the Mayhem might mean for youth work – Manchester June 14 and London, June 23

 

mayhem

Ta to the Liverpool Echo

 

Given the shockwave created by the General Election result, the possible implications will now feed into the discussion at our forthcoming seminars, which will be one of the first opportunities to take a breath about what’s happening. Bernard and Tania will attempt at short notice to take the present mayhem, chaos and promise into account in their opening contributions!

WHAT FUTURE FOR STATE-FUNDED YOUTH WORK?

Manchester seminar: Wednesday 14th June 1-4pm at M13 Youth Project

Brunswick Parish Church Centre, Brunswick St, Manchester, M13 9TQ

A short walk or bus ride from Manchester Piccadilly. See map and directions: http://www.brunswickchurch.org.uk/contact–location.html

London seminar: Friday 23rd June, 1-4pm at King’s College London

School of Education, Communication & Society, Rm 2/21, Waterloo Bridge Wing, Waterloo Road, SE1 9NH.

Five minutes from Waterloo station (but slightly confusing to find!) See map and directions: https://www.kcl.

In the light of the general election campaign and results, we are looking forward to meeting to discuss its possible implications for youth work – and in particular, on this occasion, for state-funded and state-organised youth work. The slightly tweaked programme is below. Please note that there is no lunch break. You are welcome to bring your lunch and eat during the session. Please arrive on time – or feel free to arrive early, anytime from 12:30 pm. Bookings are still open: please email Rachel@yasy.co.uk or indeed turn up on the day.

1- 1.10: Introduction to the proceedings.

1:10-1:30: Views from the field: Reflections from participants on the general election campaign and results. What does it mean for young people and for youth work?

1.30 – 2.30: Bernard Davies re-imagines how youth work might be supported and provided by the state – beyond the neoliberal mindset (15 min talk followed by discussion).

2.30 – 2.45 Break.

2.45 – 3.45: Tania de St Croix argues that the National Citizen Service is top-down, prescriptive, and pro-neoliberal, and should be replaced (15 min talk followed by discussion).

3.45 – 4.00: Feedback on the session and ideas for future seminars and action.

Hope to see you at either of these gatherings.