The Divisive Myth of Youth Work Values

It’s perhaps indulgent, but a promise I made to myself in reviving this blog was that I would take the risk and unearth bits of my thinking from the past, which seemed still to be of relevance and interest. Thus below you will find the transcript of a contribution I made to an In Defence of Youth Work meeting held in Lewisham on September 9, 2010. I’ve resisted making alterations in hindsight, but now and again, in the light of shifting political circumstances, I insert a comment or two.

This morning I want to focus on the vexed question of Youth Work Values. Is this idea a slogan around which we can unite or rather is it a claim, which is potentially harmful and divisive?

The immediate irony is that the Open Letter, ‘In Defence of Youth Work’, never once mentions values. However this has not prevented commentators on the Letter in the pages of Children and Young People Now and The Edge (the paper aimed at local government) arguing that those of us in support of the Letter are calling for a return to core values. So too I know that the supposed exceptional significance of Youth Work values has been raised in one way or another at all of the In Defence meetings held across the country this year. Indeed at the launch meeting of the Letter held in Durham back in early March, I was taken to task for voicing my doubts about the very notion of a special set of Youth Work values.

Thus I will try to explain the basis of my concern as a contribution to the critical debate, which ought to be the lifeblood of our collective activity.

Let me begin by suggesting that ‘values’ are very slippery customers in our market-oriented world. It can be argued that under New Labour [and indeed succeeding governments] we have endured an obsession with values:

  • our common values
  • our community’s values
  • our historical values
  • our British values
  • our decent values
  • our democratic values

without ever seriously disentangling what any of this really means.

My suspicion is that the more politicians, commentators, bureaucrats and managers talk about values, the emptier their vision of the future. Talk of values becomes a smokescreen behind which hide those who wish to preserve the status quo. So for the moment, we have much ado about the problematic nature of greed, but little in the way of a recognition that this is, rather than an unfortunate individual aberration, a systemic ingredient of Capitalism itself.

Trying to find a path through this maze is not rendered easier by the fact that the values intoned so pompously mean everything, something and nothing.

RESPECT
EQUALITY
JUSTICE
EMPOWERMENT

There is a sense in which everyone from Gordon Brown to Barack Obama, from Rupert Murdoch to Berlusconi, even can you imagine, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, can wheel on for their purposes these ideas, these values. [I suspect you can replace these with contemporary characters, May, Corbyn, Tsipras, Zukenberg, Orban and Farage. I’ll leave you to decide.] At this level it is all a matter of interpretation or cynical rhetoric. All is smoke and shadow as the Latin saying goes. The test of what these folk might actually mean by Justice can only be gauged in practice.

The lintel of this Venetian gate in Crete reads ‘omnia mundi fumus et umbra’ (all the world is smoke and shadow)

We are not helped either by the fact that where there is talk of values, there is also talk of principles, beliefs, norms and ethics . . . . . .and it seems that these words are interchangeable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Youth Work literature.

But I’ll resist getting bogged down in semantics. When is a principle a value, or vice-versa and so on. Especially as in documents I’ve perused from the National Youth Agency, from the Welsh Office and from a couple of local councils, nobody seems that bothered. Under the headings of ‘Principles and Values of Youth Work’ we find:

Respect for Young People
Equality & Inclusion
Involvement in decision-making
Empowerment
Support through the transition to adulthood
Promotion of Young People’s Rights
Welfare and Safety
Social Justice
Informed Choices/Fulfilling Potential
Critical Reflection – and last but not least
Voluntary Relationship (to which we shall return later )

Now if these are core Youth Work values (and they are repeated endlessly) I’ve some misgivings. As I have touched on earlier such a list of values, floating at the level of nice ideas in our heads, is likely to gain universal approval by everyone – councillors, managers, workers, young people and communities. Yet this nodding support is meaningless. For example, almost 30 years ago I worked in Wigan, which boasted proudly a Programme of Action, including a commitment to the fullest level of youth involvement in decision-making. When a few of us took this seriously an embryo Youth Council emerged, critical of both the Youth Service and the Local Authority. In the blink of an eye nearly everyone seemed aghast. The management closed it down and we were disciplined. Conspicuously the majority of our fellow workers ran away from us, crying that we had gone too far, too soon. And those were perhaps more liberal times.

How many of you in differing situations have experienced that sinking feeling within the staff meeting when you have sought to challenge your agency’s failure to live up to its values and found yourself attacked by management for being naive, whilst your fellow workers, who agreed with you utterly the day before, shuffled their feet and stared at the floor in embarrassed silence.

Our collective problem is that if Youth Work, if Youth Services were seriously seeking to implement these values in a consistent and committed way, we would not be sitting in this room worrying that Youth Work is losing its sense of self, its identity. We would still be sitting here but in defence of a Youth Service, whose integrity had earned it the respect of many and the wrath of New Labour. In rejoinder, you might well say that there would be nobody sitting in this room because we would all be out of a job!

And if we do for a moment set aside our concern about the gulf between words on paper and what goes on in practice, tell me where is the teacher or social worker who would not sign up at least in theory to:

The centrality of Equality and Social Justice
Respect for Young People
Helping Young People make informed choices
Supporting Young People in a transition to adulthood?

Of course, a teacher or social worker works in different circumstance and under differing constraints, but to suggest that a belief in Equality is especially a Youth Work value doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now it is this very ambiguity which led us in the Open Letter to eschew talk of values. The Letter contends that we need to reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, whose cornerstones are:

  • The sanctity of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from Youth Work as they so wish.
  • A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
  • The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
  • A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and-now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’.
  • An insistence upon a democratic practice, within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
  • 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.
  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

In this context what might be special about Youth Work (although I think Community Work and Adult Education walk hand in hand with us) is the voluntarily negotiated space, an educational setting within which the young person and youth worker are involved in a mutual critical dialogue about the world in which they are both living. It is a space upon which prescribed targets and outcomes ought not to be imposed. It is a space in which the youth worker is both privileged and astute enough to face up to its volatility. It is a space where the unexpected is cherished. It is a space with no guarantees.

This leads me to propose to you that what we are defending most crucially is not a cluster of values, but a distinctive place and space, a setting and site of practice founded on the voluntary relationship, where an unpredictable process, hugely rich in its possibilities unfolds at whatever pace seems fitting.

And this distinctive setting, if it is to be used for a democratic and emancipatory practice, does require youth workers of a particular kind, improvisatory educators who are capable of both seizing and letting go of the myriad of passing moments that are thrown up by simply being with young people.

This said I must acknowledge that this distinctive place has always been riven with tension. For what it is worth across almost 40 years from being a part-timer in 1970 I have always felt to be in a minority when struggling to be a democratic youth worker. And I’ve felt this even though the version of Youth Work presented in the Open Letter is in many ways a respectful if politicised acknowledgement of the practice promulgated by the training agencies since Albemarle. Indeed back in 1980, together with Roy Ratcliffe, I wrote a piece analysing the hostility to a piece of political education in which we were involved. We commented ruefully, “Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which has negated liberal theory.”

Nevertheless, over the ensuing years, many of us have ducked and dived to preserve that space, within which both conformist and radical approaches to the work argued with and suffered one another. The significance of the last decade has been the way in which this space has been policed. This sense of the increasing censorship within practice has been conveyed by practitioners’ responses to the Letter, which often paint a picture of an isolated worker surrounded by colleagues who have settled for obeying the diktat of Every Child Matters [the 2003 government inter-agency initiative on children and family services], whilst still mouthing their allegiance to Youth Work values. It appears that many in Youth Work are of the ‘both sides buttered’ persuasion.

My argument is that our defence of Youth Work should not be based on the supposed possession of a separate and unique set of Youth Work values, which is preposterous. It should be based on the defence of a distinct voluntary educational relationship and setting. That claiming a special relationship to what are universal and indeed contested social and political values divides us from those with whom we should be making alliances – for example, other education and welfare workers in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Frankly, it is pompous and pretentious.

We are running a workshop on the In Defence campaign at the Social Work Action Network [SWAN] conference in Bath. For my part, I will be criticising both the idea of an exclusive set of Youth Work values and the correspondingly unhelpful notion of a Social Work value base, which is promoted by SWAN. My stress will be upon the joint pursuit of a democratic practice by both youth and social workers. My concern will be to clarify the differing constraints experienced by youth and social workers in struggling towards an emancipatory practice. In doing so I will underline the ways in which the distinctive terrain occupied by youth workers has been increasingly closed down under New Labour.

As the Letter notes this squeezing of the space is seen in:

  • The shift from locally negotiated plans to centrally-defined targets and indicators.
  • The growing emphasis on identifying the potentially deviant or dysfunctional young person as the centre of Youth Work’s attention.
  • The increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people, perceived as a threat to social order.
  • The insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalised and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.
  • The distorting effect of identifying individuals as suitable and urgent cases for treatment and intervention, ‘to be worked on rather than worked with’.
  • The changing role of the youth worker, from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur, submitting plan after bid after plan, selling both themselves and young people in the market-place.
  • And finally, but not exhaustively, the delicate issue of to what extent professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service [see Jeffs and Smith 2008: 277-283].

Our argument is that the struggle to defend a democratic Youth Work, to resuscitate a radical Social Work, to revive an independent voluntary sector,- amongst other things- are all part and parcel of a common battle against the authoritarian legacy of three [and now four] decades of neoliberal politics.

I know it’s easy to say this, to spout the rhetoric. I know that for many of you it remains difficult to express dissent and criticism. Whilst our masters and managers have had a rough time recently they are already regrouping to defend the status quo. But we have made a start and I hope we can maintain some momentum and gather strength from each other.

Of course, I’m not sure that we can. There are no predictable and guaranteed outcomes when it comes to social and political struggle. But if we do hang in together, play a part in reviving a collective commitment to the creation of an equal, just and democratic society then we will have something of which to be proud. And what, as youth workers, we might contribute is not some abstract set of values, but something far more intimate and meaningful. At our best, we offer an insight into a way of being with others, a way of making and sustaining relationships, which ought to be at the heart of all human activity.

I’m reminded as I come to this perhaps pompous conclusion of a dear friend of mine, a miner recently passed away, who would urge us to keep arguing and struggling. His favourite saying was:
“Those who stand up and are counted, while the rest remain silent, they are the salt of the earth.”
Let’s help one another to stay on our feet and to make our voices heard.

Thanks for listening.

References:

Ratcliffe,R. and Taylor, T.(1981) ‘Stuttering Steps in Political Education’ in Schooling and Culture (9)

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (2008) Valuing Youth Work in Youth & Policy (100)

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