For the sake of some sort of continuity I’m publishing here my final post from the In Defence of Youth Work website. It contains themes emanating from the authoritarian imposition of the COVID measures, which I will continue to take up in one way or another on this blog.
Below you will find the lead contribution I made to the final IDYW Steering Group meeting held on Friday, October 8th in Manchester. As it was the train of my thought was often, necessarily and fruitfully interrupted by the musings and memories of those present. These interventions made for a challenging yet always supportive critical, collective conversation. Unfortunately I can’t do justice to that process. Hence you are getting no more than my opening and closing remarks. The substance of my offering was an effort to trace major events and significant themes in the life of IDYW since 2009. These are to be found, now archived on this site.
Thinking About the Past, Present and Future of IDYW.
I’m anxious about this bit of an opening presentation, which might well seem ridiculous. I long ago gave up paid work, selling my soul to the State with all its attendant tensions. Why the disquiet!? The principal reason for my apprehension is that I’ve scoured back through all the IDYW website posts since March 2009. I stopped counting at 1500 plus. What riches, what a turmoil of contradictions, hope and despair and what a plurality of offerings. I was bemused. How could I possibly do justice to this fascinating potpourri? My confusion was not eased in finding myself listening to the videos of the first National Conference in February 2010 – Janet Batsleer welcoming us to an ‘unauthorised space’, Kev Jones introducing my rant, Tania de St Croix warning about surveillance and Bernard Davies making the youth work case. Thoughts and sentiments that would not be out of place today. In thinking about the inaugural Conference I remembered also meeting Sue Atkins on the Didsbury campus in the dark the night before. We had something to sort out. I remember not what. It might well have been 20 years since we’d last crossed paths. A tear in our eyes it was as if we’d never been apart.
So forgive me if my recollection of IDYW’s history is riddled with absences. If there isn’t a book there is certainly an MA, even, a PhD to be found in the IDYW archives. Although on second thoughts a PhD collecting dust on a shelf would hardly move us forward.
So why did IDYW emerge in late 2008 on the back of the Open Letter I penned. It ventured:
Thirty years ago Youth Work aspired to a special relationship with young people. It wanted to meet young women and men on their terms. It claimed to be ‘on their side’. Three decades later Youth Work is close to abandoning this distinctive commitment. Today it accepts the State’s terms. It sides with the State’s agenda. Perhaps we exaggerate, but a profound change has taken place.
The shift has not happened overnight. Back in the 1980’s the Thatcherite effort via the Manpower Services Commission to shift the focus of Youth Work from social education to social and life skills was resisted. In the early 90’s the attempt to impose a national curriculum on the diverse elements of the Youth Service ground to a halt. However, with the accession of New Labour, the drive to impose an instrumental framework on Youth Work gathered increased momentum. With Blair and Brown at the helm youth workers and managers have been coerced and cajoled into embracing the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes. Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Of course, the idea of the Letter did not spring out of the blue. It was not at all my individual creation. The inspiration for challenging the neo-liberal consensus goes back for me to the late 1960s. I want to argue that IDYW was but a particular expression of a post-war liberal/social democratic belief that education ought to be child/young person-centred, process-led, holistic and questioning in its desire. IDYW was born too out of a frustration that this humanistic perspective had struggled to dent a behavioural tradition focused on social control and conformity. In my own experience back in the late 1970s, Roy Ratcliffe and I were disciplined for supporting the autonomous voice of an embryo Youth Council. We wrote about this setback and the lack of support from fellow professionals in a piece to be found within the Inner London Education Authority’s ‘Schooling & Culture’, entitled ‘Stuttering Steps in Political Education’. As the Youth Service Training Officer in Wigan, I fought a bitter battle with Youth Service officers and workers to rewrite a part-time youth worker training course that sought to introduce Carl Rogers to Karl Marx, to question liberal taken-for-granteds by way of socialist and feminist understandings. Over in the newly created Community and Youth Workers Union, the Women’s Caucus emerging from the social movements turned the organisation upside down, Stimulated by the sisters Roy and I (in perhaps the best thing I’ve ever done) drafted a member-led and democratic constitution which directly challenged in practice both hierarchy and bureaucracy. Yet despite the radicalisation of full-time training courses, behaviourism was reasserting itself by the late 1980s as the servant of neo-liberal ideology. Indeed some former advocates of a radical grass-roots agenda were to the fore in advocating the managerial imposition of its tenets.
To say the least, this analysis is sweeping. I’ve always tended to be that way inclined. Yet, as an example of the shift, when I went in 1990 as the Wigan Chief Youth Officer to a Confederation of Heads of Youth Services national conference with perhaps 100 managers in attendance I sat in a corner over a drink with at most half a dozen fellow travellers. The majority embraced prescribed outcomes and the accumulation of data as the only way to save the Youth Service and Youth Work.
As it is I fled the scene at the end of the 1990s because of Marilyn, my wife’s serious illness. However, I was not quite finished. With Malcolm Ball, Steve Waterhouse (tragically both no longer with us) Deb Ball, Tim Price and Steve Monaghan we formed the minuscule Critically Chatting Collective, continuing to question what was going on through a website and tiny gatherings. For example, I remember back in 2005 Bernard Davies addressing a central London meeting of no more than six people – hardly an indication of mass support for our meanderings. Be that as it may, this continuation of a critical perspective was essential to my subsequent scribbling of the Open Letter which was rejected by the National Youth Agency’s organ, ‘Young People Now’ as being too heavy for its readership. I declined the offer to rewrite.
Thus we circulated the Letter at the 2009 Youth & Policy History Conference in Durham, knowing that Y & P itself stood for an open and serious appraisal of the State’s relationship with young people. I have failed to track down the place where the signatories are housed, well over 700 as I remember. In short, the Open Letter opposed the behavioural and instrumental, the imposition of rules, norms and outcomes upon practice. As I argued, “we described a clash between the process of ‘becoming a person, individually, socially and politically aware’, which held good for ourselves and young people and neoliberalism’s desire to manufacture self-centred conformism and unquestioning obedience to the status quo amongst both ourselves and young people”.
All of which preamble leads to a specific engagement with the history of IDYW itself. As I have more than hinted there is a book to be written. I will have to content myself with a limited number of memories.
At this point in my contribution to the meeting, I began to explore all that we had done across the life of IDYW. In this context to do so here would come across as a list with little in the way of explanation and exploration. Hence, for now, I can only ask the reader to interrogate for themselves the IDYW archive. For my part I am committed monthly, if not more frequently, to post afresh gems from the archive and hope you might keep your eye on their appearance. Amongst the themes I touched upon were:
The Annual Conferences
The Regional Seminars
The range of questioning articles and books produced by IDYW activists
Our unstinting support for wider initiatives, exemplified by our involvement in Choose Youth and ‘Is the Tide Turning’
Our input into the European Youth Work debate
Given I’m somewhat retired from the fray I don’t want to overstay my return to a discussion about IDYW’s future or indeed claim that my finger is on the pulse. My piece on ‘Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety’ conveys still much of my perspective.
Firstly, IDYW was born out of a spirit of resistance to and dissension from the mainstream behavioural narrative besetting our relations with young people.
Secondly, therefore, my question is whether IDYW remains a critical voice, given that the formalisation of the informal within Youth Work has continued apace? Or has it been slowly sanitised, swallowed up safely into the mainstream as symbolised by a Facebook page dominated by exchanges and requests far removed from the philosophy and politics of the Open Letter?
Finally, in my opinion, neither Youth Work nor IDYW itself can sidestep facing the implications for both young people and society as a whole of the consciously created COVID pandemic. As best I can see the profession meekly and unquestioningly complied with a flagrantly undemocratic, disgracefully unethical, utterly one-sided governmental response to a virus which, if placed in context, has been far from the 21st-century Great Plague predicted by that methodological absurdity, the Science, its cynical experts and obedient stenographers. We witnessed the overnight abandonment of a holistic, measured, informed Public Health Policy and the character assassination of those brave souls, who pointed this out.
In particular, youth workers and education professionals as a whole ought to examine on what unevidenced grounds they cooperated with the closing down and stifling of children and young people’s provision and ask themselves to what extent they were complicit in the transmission of the fearmongering propaganda disseminated by the behavioural psychologists and their ‘nudge, nudge’ advertising arm? For what it’s worth, even if this emergency dies down and the covid zealots retreat, I don’t think it’s possible to proceed as if not much has gone on, to accept their New Normal.
Above all, a supposed democratic and emancipatory youth work is now put to the test in terms of its own integrity. Is it possible to abandon the pursuit of truth and critical reflection with hardly a whimper, then as the dust settles, claim to be its principled advocates? I ask this with some pessimism as more than ever in the light of the pandemic I believe that the struggle to defend and extend the power of the people against the technocratic authoritarianism of the ruling class and its supporters on both the Left and Right is now the overwhelming political struggle of our time. Indeed it is a struggle, which transcends simplistic political categories. It is a struggle, within and without youth work, which demands a renewed critical dialogue across a veritable diversity of voices. IDYW in its time sought to do so but fell short. Crucially we never developed a vibrant, living network of local and regional IDYW support groups. It falls upon a younger generation in particular to revive the spirit of its intent.