FRAMEWORK OF OUTCOMES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE : CONTINUING THE CRITIQUE
Following on from Bernard’s initial comments on Young Foundation’s Framework I would add the following general observations.
1. The Framework is in no sense neutral. Its underpinning assumptions are at one with the dominant neo-liberal ideology of the last three decades. This is so, even as this way of explaining the world is in profound crisis. Within its pages financial austerity is a taken-for-granted. This is so, even as many in the mainstream economic journals call for growth. There are references to the public purse, but none to the private purse, which siphons trillions of pounds into tax havens. Tellingly, in the Framework’s Outcomes model, the benefits to society accruing from the emergence of its ’empowered, resilient young people’ will be ‘less need for health services’, ‘ less dependence on welfare’, ‘not subject to the criminal justice system’ and in a tortuous construction, ‘contribute to the economy through labour market participation’. The latter, I presume, means that the Framework’s ‘mentally tough’ young person will work without complaint for whatever pay and under whatever conditions the employer deems appropriate? Or indeed work for nothing , volunteering in the service of the Big Society? It’s not too difficult to sniff a synchrony here between the these ‘extrinsic outcomes’ and the Coalition’s agenda.
2. History gets rewritten to suit the argument. Thus Beitha McNeil tells us that “historically, services for young people have been regarded as ‘self-evidently good’.” As is increasingly the case nowadays we are faced with immediate uncertainty about what we mean by ‘services for young people’. Looking to the past the youth service equalled informal educational work with young people founded on voluntary association. Alongside could be found the Careers Service, the Leisure Service, Social Services and Probation with differing emphases on the needs of young people. Now I’ll speak only about my experience within youth work, but the idea we got the money come what may does not fit. Over the years we’ve struggled to improve local authority budgets, been decimated by massive cuts and forced increasingly to bid for short-term funding. In terms of the latter Beitha is correct to say this caused a shift to the supply of facts and figures – see the emphasis on accreditation. However throughout my career the dominant argument with managers, politicians and funders has hinged around our belief that we contribute to the development of the personal and social awareness of young people – read social and emotional capabilities if you so wish. In fact, given the Young Foundation’s reference to the post-riot return to ‘building character’, I shall be content historically with noting that the overwhelming majority of youth work has been rooted in the ‘character-building’ tradition. Immerse yourself in ‘Scouting for Boys’ and you will find references to leadership, discipline, communication, problem solving etc. in abundance. Spend time with post-Albemarle young person-centred ideas and practice and you will discover similar references abound. Now, let me allow that Beitha might be right in saying we didn’t get our message across, but it wasn’t because we were smug about our ‘do-goodery’ and it wasn’t because we were ignorant about personal and social capital.
Indeed we collided internally across youth work precisely because we didn’t think things were ‘self-evidently good’. Thus women workers in Wigan in the late 1970’s fought against a male-dominated Service for separate provision for young women. In winning this space they were under great pressure to justify to committees of all kinds the efficacy of their endeavours. Their reports were necessarily creative and rigorous with significantly an emphasis on the development hand in hand of both individual and collective consciousness. And, of course, this challenge to the prevailing status quo around gender was mirrored in the parallel struggles around race, sexuality and disability. What is remarkable is that a Framework for Outcomes in 2012 has no sense of youth work [and indeed services for young people] as a contested site of practice, within which what is good is up for argument and interpretation.
3. In his comments Bernard notes that ‘young people emerge as a monolithic undifferentiated group’ in deficit. This is a crucial insight. The Framework’s notion of a general young person, stripped of their class, gender, race and sexuality, takes us back fifty years. In the IDYW’s founding Open Letter we insist on the continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith remain central. With the best will in the world it is difficult to take seriously a Framework for Outcomes that ignores utterly the structural inequality at the heart of contemporary society.
4. As Bernard notes the word ‘power’ itself never appears in the document. To talk of ’empowering’ without an acknowledgement of the relations of power in society is mere cosmetics. The notion of empowerment has been much abused. A dictionary definition suggests it is the giving of authority or power from above to those below. In bureaucratic and business circles management talks endlessly of empowering its employees, all the better to exploit them. Within the Framework we are told that its contents will empower commissioners and providers to deliver what government policy demands. Wouldn’t ‘enable’ be a more accurate verb? A political definition based on the struggles of the oppressed argues that empowerment is the process of taking power in your own name. It is a collective and ever continuing effort to wrest power from the powerful. Thus it is necessary to question the proposal that young people are being empowered as individuals. Certainly they might well improve their confidence, exert more influence on their situations. But if we are to claim that as individuals they are challenging the distribution of power in society, this can only make sense if intimately related to their self-organisation as the young unemployed , as young women, as young black people, as young LGBT people and so on. The Framework has nothing to say about the umbilical relationship between personal, social and political identities. In my opinion this is a fatal flaw.
Hopefully, in a further post, I will look more closely at the cluster of seven social and emotional capabilities and ask if they are useful to an open-ended, necessarily improvised practice, within which there is never a captive audience. As always we would welcome criticism, comments.