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


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



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



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

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

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

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

Noam Chomsky Neoliberalism

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

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

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

[Thanks to James Ballantyne for the link to Brodrick]




Once there were many, now but one? UK Youth and Ambition merge

We got a sniff of this latest manoeuvre in the youth sector the other day and it has come to pass.


Youth work organisations UK Youth and Ambition have merged, it has been announced.

The announcement is accompanied by the usual managerial rationalisations, the two CEO’s vying to outdo one another in a contest of cliche. Anna Smee, chief executive of UK Youth claims, “we feel we are much more credible now as the one leading organisation that works across non-uniformed and, to some extent, uniformed youth organisations.” Emma Revie, chief executive of Ambition, said coming together strengthens both organisations. “By joining forces with UK Youth, I’m confident we have the potential to be greater together than the sum of our parts and I’m excited to see what we can achieve.”

For our part we remain sceptical about the claim that this merger will strengthen the voice and quality of the youth work sector. It will strengthen a particular voice, centralised and still wedded to a neoliberal ideology of self-improved young people and self-improved workers. In the present political ferment a plurality of voices would be much healthier.

As it is, as CYPN notes,

The move comes just two years after Ambition, which was known as Clubs for Young People until 2012, merged with the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services, the organisation for local authority youth service leaders. Ambition also merged with the now defunct National Council for Voluntary Youth Services last year.

And, indeed, a proposed merger between UK Youth and the National Agency was on the cards for a time last year. We won’t hold our breath if this possibility is soon revived.

It’s worth remembering too that the NCVYS once proudly presented itself as the independent voice of the voluntary youth sector.

To complete the exchange of banalities, Tracy Crouch, the Minister of a government, which has implemented a succession of policies antagonistic to the needs of young people, never mind youth work itself, welcomes the corporate move, “UK Youth and Ambition have both done fantastic work supporting young people across the country and I am confident that this partnership will only strengthen their offering.

“Together I’m sure they will continue to lead the way championing youth voices, and supporting innovation and partnerships.”

By now, though, I suppose we are meant to do no more than shrug our shoulders at such empty rhetoric.

Government set to publish three-year youth strategy : We won’t wait with bated breath

CYPN reports that the AMBITION national conference has been home to contributions from the Conservative government and the Labour Party.


Rob Wilson – ta to CYPN

The Tories in the person of Rob Wilson, the youth minister, indulged in the tired promise that a clear narrative and vision is to emerge. Thus we might be forgiven for wondering what happened to the July 2011 ‘Positive for Youth discussion paper: Overarching narrative for the youth policy statement, Department for Education’, welcomed at the time by the NYA and the NCVYS. In 2013 Bernard Davies described a supposed report of its progress as deeply dishonest – see Which Planet Are They On? However history has never been an impediment to neoliberal politicians and their sycophants. Another a narrative, or perhaps the previous one warmed up, is on its way. Any road youth work/youth services/the youth sector, call it what you will, is no longer in Education, it falls into the hands of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Wilson thus argued, “we can use our new position to give young people greater engagement with our sporting and cultural heritage.” Whither youth work as informal education? With tongue firmly in his cheek, given the government’s record on youth policy, witness the rejection of votes at 16, he declared, “if we work together, if we are innovative, if we keep a relentless focus on the needs of young people we will be successful and make good progress.” Inevitably this disingenuous rhetoric was accompanied by the usual crap about doing more with less and the vital role of the private sector and philanthropy.

Evidently, undeterred by the touch of contradiction here and there in Wilson’s bullshit, CYPN informs us  that “youth work leaders welcomed the announcement as an opportunity to reinvigorate voluntary and statutory youth services.” Indeed, Anna Smee, CEO of UK Youth, is so moved as to venture, “the minister’s commitment to help every young person throughout their transition to adulthood needs to be at the heart of a new youth strategy.” Meanwhile the destruction of the Youth Service continues and is resisted – see Save Kirklees Youth Service.

Steve Reed -Ta to CYPN

As for Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, Labour’s shadow youth minister, he argued, that if the government continues to fail to invest in young people then in time the country will face the consequences, before going on to mouth the mantra of investment in prevention and early intervention, and for better and stronger partnership working. Shades of New Labour’s policy, described in a forthcoming piece as, “youth work’s integration into multi-disciplinary teams dominated by child-protection concerns weakened its educational commitment as did policies developed ever more systematically to prioritise ‘early intervention’ and the ‘targeting’ of young people ‘at risk’. Increasingly youth workers were saddled with caseloads of referred young people, causing many to describe their practice as ‘social work-lite’.

In the next few days we will post a variety of youth work voices, which continue to challenge the cliches and the spin, etched deep into these supposedly opposed political utterances.


Thanks to Raj for this evidence of rifts in the Tory ranks. How seriously should we take this as a possibility?

Theresa May under pressure to scrap David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and support young jobseekers

The Government’s social mobility adviser will urge Theresa May to replace David Cameron’s flagship “big society” scheme for 16 and 17 year-olds with high quality work experience and careers advice for all teenagers.

Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission, wants the £400m-a-year budget for National Citizen Service (NCS), which includes summer camps and community projects, switched to boosting the job prospects of all young people.

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.

Lloyds and UK Youth : Isn’t a Debt for Life Programme more honest?


On the one hand, Lloyds Banking announces as part presumably of its magnanimous ‘Helping Britain Prosper Plan’, the axing of 3,000 jobs on top of the 54,000 lost since the 2008 financial crisis, within which the organisation illustrated its glaring economic illiteracy. In the words of one executive at the time, “Sorry, folks, we never saw it coming!” On the other, always with an eye on public relations, Lloyds in  partnership with UK Youth is about to launch a ‘cutting-edge’ programme of financial literacy aimed at young people.

Forget levels of  unemployment, low wages, zero-hour contracts, onerous debt and all the consequences of imposed austerity upon young people, David Rowsell, Head of the Money for Life Programme at Lloyds Banking Group, explains: “Encouraging young people to enhance their money management skills through the Money for Life programme is core to our vision to help Britain prosper. Through working with UK Youth…. we are confident that we will be able to make even more of a difference to the financial literacy of young people and communities across the UK.” Not to be outdone, Anna Smee, CEO, UK Youth, argues: “Young people face a difficult transition towards independent living as they start to manage money day to day and make critical financial decisions about their future. Their financial capability during this transition can have a big impact on their resilience and wellbeing in their adult lives”. Amidst the gushing sycophancy,”the challenges that young people face today are immense. Lloyds Banking Group understands this and through its innovative Money for Life programme it aims to empower young people to build their financial skills to make informed decisions about money,” there are surely a few ethical and political dilemmas for the world of youth work.

Our uncritical involvement in the financial and private sector’s need to revitalise its image, its need to proclaim its rediscovered sense of social responsibility is problematic. Like it or not , in 2009 a case was brought against Lloyds by HM Revenue and Customs on the grounds of tax avoidance, whilst in 2010 the Group settled with the US government to the tune of $350 million to deflect allegations of money laundering. At this very moment Lloyds is being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority over the way it handled customers having difficulty paying their mortgages and has already set aside £350m to cover the costs of mishandling customers in arrears not only with their home loans but also with unsecured debts – so much for ’empowering’ its customers.

Talking of debt takes us to the heart of the matter. Neo-liberalism has lived off the back of increasing debt for over three decades.  Contrary to Shylock it has proclaimed, ‘a borrower and a lender be’, drawing us all into its grasp via loans, credit cards and mortgages. Real wages have stagnated. Indeed the TUC report published this week reveals that real earnings have declined more than 10% since the credit crunch began in 2007, leaving the UK equal bottom with Greece in a league table of wages growth. It would be more honest for Lloyds to talk of a Debt for Life programme.

Today young people face a manufactured life of uncertainty, a precarious future created by the invisible hand of the capitalist market or as Anna Smee prefers to put it, ‘a difficult transition towards independent living’. Does she really believe that a mix of money management skills and a dose of ‘positive’ psychology are the key to a fruitful adult life?The young people, I know, in their desire to be independent yearn for free tertiary education, a job with proper pay and conditions, access to affordable housing, cheap transport,  all backed by the security of, for example,  a public health service based on need not profit. Certainly they are unsure about how these things might be achieved. The children of an ‘individualistic’ society, they are not instinctively collective in temperament. And, youth work does them no favours by being caught up in the delivery of structured , short-term programmes which remain fixated on being individually confident, entrepreneurial and resilient. The fittest will survive.

Fair enough, being able to sort out your personal budget is pretty useful. We used to do Money Matters sessions with the Careers Service on school-leaver residentials forty years ago. Call it financial literacy, if you wish, but it’s not ‘cutting edge’. The much more challenging task relates to political and economic literacy. How, for instance, do we get our heads around the fact that we live in a society with widening inequality? How do we weigh up different ways of doing something about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? How do we do something about zero-hour contracts or loan sharks? These questions and countless more apply to both youth workers and young people. They are the rich content of a critical dialogue called youth work. I’m not calling for political literacy programmes, but there might be some of you keen to pursue that line. As far as workers go I can but say we have an obligation to be as politically literate as is possible, to recognise that the struggle for the common good is collective or it is nothing. Hence we need be cautious about all youth work initiatives focused on the free-floating young individual.

As for the leading organisations of the sector, such as UK Youth, isn’t it time to revive a critical and independent relationship with funders and the government? Doesn’t it feel a mite ridiculous to take Lloyds’ money without a gentle comment on the pretension of its Helping Britain Prosper rhetoric? Isn’t it necessary to speak at least a little truth to power, to suggest that the acquisition of financial acumen means very little if young people have no money or prospects in the first place? I would humbly suggest that the present political turmoil provides a crisis-sent opportunity to be bolder about what we claim to be our values -Social Justice, Equality and Diversity. What’s stopping us?



After the conferences : Bernard Davies reflects

In the aftermath of a series of youth work conferences and events concerned with the future, Bernard Davies offers these immediate reflections.


Some personal reflections on the struggle for a future for youth work

Three events in a month run by organisations with mandates as different as the Training Agencies Group (TAG), ChooseYouth and the Institute for Youth Work (IYW). Attended in total by around 240 people ranging from very experienced practitioners working on the front line and youth work students struggling with non-youth work placements to the Chief Executive of UK Youth and university heads of departments. And all dedicated to reflecting on the question: what future for youth work and the Youth Service? Out of the contradictions, the confusions and – yes – the conflicts, what clarifications, lessons and thoughts for possible action has all that left me with?

The diversity of the attendance was both a positive and a challenge. Given that neither ChooseYouth nor the unions that have done so much to sustain it or indeed IYW, were on the invitation list for last December’s sector collaboration conference part-sponsored by UK Youth, the up-front contributions to the ChooseYouth event of two senior UK Youth staff members certainly felt like a important step forward in alliance building.

On the other hand, the range of attendees’ roles and work settings also brought to the surface some significantly contrasting, if often taken-for-granted, perspectives on what the practice requires. For me this was captured in one discussion which produced both vivid descriptions by workers in open access settings of their struggles to negotiate managers’ demands for ‘measured outcomes’ and the apparently wholly unproblematic request from another practitioner working in a targeted programme for guidance on how, as straightforwardly as possible, to record the personal details of the young people they were working on their computer.

Nor was this the only issue to emerge where consensus seemed elusive. Many – especially, it seemed, experienced qualified workers who have for years run up against the disdain of other professions – remain keen on some form of nationally recognised ‘protection of title’/‘licence to practice’ or even a formal registration process. For others howevernot least voluntary workers – this clearly smacked of exclusiveness and even of threatening to define what they were doing as lower status.

And then, and most fundamentally, was the question: so what now do we mean by ‘youth work’? Given what has happened to the sector over the past six years, it is hardly surprising that the notion that any ‘work with young people is youth work, especially if it can make some claims to being ‘informal’, has bitten deep into the consciousness of the workforce – practitioners as well as policy-makers and managers. For such committed workers, in whatever settings they now find themselves, there seems to be no alternative but to see their use of their ‘transferable youth work skills’ as confirmation of deeply embedded personal as well as occupational identities?

So where does all that leave a ‘defence of youth work’? On the premise that we

– the sector – will be stronger together than apart, my own very personal starting point has to be to try and identify some core issues around which pluralist responses might rally. Out of my reflection on these three recent events – and recognising that as immediate ‘successes’ are now very unlikely, mid- long-term perspectives are needed – might collaboration with, for example, ChooseYouth, with TAG, IYW and the Centre for Youth Impact perhaps focus on:

  • Continuing to make the case for local all-year youth work provision which young people choose to use – arguing that case on the evidence going back decades that those facilities are likely to be attended regularly and/or sampled by anything up to a million 13-19 year olds, and that – contradicting the presumed constraints of ‘austerity’many could be funded out of the £89M currently spent on the 58,000 16-19 year olds enrolling in the NCS.
  • Supporting university courses which, as part of their efforts to maintain recruitment, are reaching out to FE students – particularly those on access courses; and also getting the word out in more systematic ways that, even in the current tough graduate employment market, their students are getting jobs.
  • Highlighting the appropriateness for youth work of qualitative forms of evaluation focused on the ‘how’ of the practice (on its process and methods) and not just, as so often now, on its impacts including perhaps by seeking funds for a collaborative piece of research into how the kinds of youth work story-telling which IDYW has been developing could contribute to this.

Not much to go on, perhaps – but maybe something to help concentrate our debates on what, beyond the rhetoric often running through these three conferences, collaboration’ and ‘alliance-building’ might actually look like on the ground.

Bernard Davies

April 2016

Plus ça change? UK Youth absorbs NCVYS functions

CYPN reports on further developments in the relationship between UK Youth, AMBITION and NCVYS, the latter, formerly the independent voice of the voluntary youth sector, disappearing from the scene sadly on April Fools Day – not much to smile about all round. As we noted in our last post on the subject, The NCVYS closure, we are unclear as to where this takeover of NCVYS’s functions leaves the necessity for a critical and independent voluntary youth sector voice.

UK Youth


UK Youth to take on NCVYS functions

A UK Youth spokesman said: UK Youth actively promotes collaboration across the youth sector and, following the sector consultation carried out with Ambition and NCVYS, UK Youth will also be leading on the youth sector Chair’s Taskforce to explore opportunities for further sector partnership and consolidation.

“UK Youth very much looks forward to working with Ambition to continue to tackle the challenges which the youth sector faces, to promote the value and impact of local and regional youth projects, and to secure the additional sources of funding needed to sustain the sector.”