CONCEPT -Vol. 11, Covid-19 Supplementary Issue, 2020

I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.

Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history

Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.

Editorial – Mae Shaw

This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.

The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.

A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!

Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.

Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.

The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.

Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact mae.shaw@ed.ac.uk

ARTICLES

POETRY

Resisting a Return to Normal and a Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now

Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.

It ends.

In closing I’ll propose that as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of impact.  Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.

At the risk of being melodramatic this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot  afford to let slip by.  Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.

Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.

—————————————————————————————————————-

What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?

Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.

Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now

We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.

To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom  and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging.  The main purpose is to find out What is happening here?  And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months.  So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (www.massobs.org.uk)

We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May)  from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with.  We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May.  In addition, we invite short reports (memos)  on the following themes:

  • Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
  • Who is missing?  How is outreach work happening?
  • Crisis points and meeting basic needs
  • What is happening online?  
  • Improvisation?           Emotions?
  • Community networks? 
  • Fears  and hopes for the future of  your organisation/youth project ?

Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see  what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.

This will be an independent citizen led research project.

Those involved will  be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry  to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic.  They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.  

Janet Batsleer  Manchester    J.Batsleer@mmu.ac.uk  (please contact Janet to join)

Christine Smith Hull

Tania de St Croix   London

Kevin Jones   Manchester 

On the Negligence of the Ruling Class: Roy Ratcliffe waxes lyrical

As I prevaricate as to whether I’ve anything useful to say about the present crisis, my old friend and once fellow youth worker, Roy Ratcliffe is on to his seventh response to COVID-19 and its implications. In this one in particular Roy introduces his analysis with an appealing and revealing reworking of an old nursery rhyme.

For the want of…..?

With each update of news since the Pandemic commenced, I have been reminded of a childhood story told to me about how a king lost a war against an invader. The story went something along the lines of; For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost; for the want of the shoe a horse was lost, for the want of the horse, the rider was lost, for the want of the rider, the message was lost, and for the want of the message the battle was lost. I also remember reading the story to my young children from a Ladybird book and then explaining its meaning to two four year olds. Later I reminded them of the moral when something occurred which illustrated the point from their immediate experience and not something only relevant to childhood fiction.

Surely this moral is, in one narrative form or another, a universal story based on many chains of cause and effect with costly negative consequences. If it was taught to at least two generations of working class kids in a moderate sized industrial town in Lancashire, surely it cannot have passed by the Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge trained elites, many of whom sit atop our governmental, medical and scientific institutions. Are we not informed that they are in receipt of jaw-dropping salaries, perks and pensions precisely because they are the most intelligent and far-sighted individuals we have on this sceptered isle?

Perhaps future children should be taught a more updated narrative based upon events and elite incompetence so far but making the same obvious points of the consequences of a lack of foresight and due diligence. Such as;

For the want of compassion – bush meat was bled.
For the want of diagnosis – a virus was spread.
For the want of restrictions – a pandemic was fed.
For the want of protection – doctors and nurses were dead.

For the want of precautions – the contagion went wide
For the want of hand gel – infection came like a tide
For the want of testing – people were herded inside
For the want of ventilators – weak patients then died.

For the want of hospitals – empty buildings were sought
For the want of health workers – volunteers were taught
For the want of truth and honesty – excuses were thought
For the want of an alternative – a bailout was bought
.

For the want of humanity – big-business came first
For the want of a home – some were not nursed
For the want of a carer – many victims felt cursed.
For the want of a conscience – not much was reversed.

READ IN FULL ROY’s FURTHER ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION at

Forever Young? Youth Work Then and Now

I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.

Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.

Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?

Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:

This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK.  It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.

ARTICLES

FULL ISSUE (PDF FORMAT)

Are Young People no more than ‘bare life’ to be forgotten, ignored or killed?

Sitting in my simple, but comfortable house set beautifully, even romantically on a Cretan hillside it is easy to turn in on myself, to indulge my narcissistic desires. And, yet with all its dilemmas my access to social media precludes my withdrawal from reality. Over the last few days harrowing stories of the plight of refugees on the Greek islands have emerged afresh out of the silence imposed by the mainstream media’s short-term attention-span.

On Samos, new arrivals set up camp where they can. Thanks to Gemma Bird for the photo

Just the other day Symi, a small island in the Dodecanese, a haven of mine 30 years ago as I escaped every summer my paid labour, saw 400 refugees arrive. The mayor Eleftherios Papakaloudas at his wits end cried, “children are sleeping on the streets, wandering, crying. There is no doctor, there is no food. The people depend on the kindness of the local tavernas. The government is not interested.’

Whilst, feeling hopeless, easing my conscience by donating to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, I came across the latest piece to flow from the always challenging pen of Hans Skott-Myrhe, entitled ‘Homeless Young People under 21st century Capitalism are Disposable!’

It begins:

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are surrounded by reports and images of abandoned and neglected children worldwide. From images of drowned immigrant children in Europe and the U.S., to young people in cages at the U.S. border, and youth living on the street in barrios, favelas, ghettos and urban centers across the planet, the 24-hour news cycle presents us with a flood of images demonstrating, in the harshest terms, our social brutality towards the next generation.

We have great rhetoric about the importance of young people as the future, but just as we seem to have lost interest in genuinely caring for the future in ecological terms, we also seem to have lost interest in caring for the next generation. There appears to be a cynicism driving my generation that precludes taking the necessary material actions necessary for care of anything or anyone other than ourselves. We go on and on about the importance of “self” care, while abandoning any “other” to the whims and mercies of a rapidly deteriorating social and biological milieu.

Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Hans ponders whether ‘in our current system of unbridled and ever-proliferating erosion of material care for living things, including young people, I have to wonder how many of us and the next generation have become “bare life.” – bodies that can be killed [or I would add, forgotten and utterly ignored] without transgressing the laws of 21st century global capitalism.

He ends:

There are powerful hints that we have entered a new era of feudalism in which the wealthy decide who and what is valuable and worthy of continuance and support. As the late Toni Morrison said in a conversation with Angela Davis, we have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers and in that shift we have lost our sense of collective force and accountability to each other. Our worth is no longer measured in terms of our social contribution, but only in terms of our ability to generate wealth for the ruling class.

And what of those bodies that fall outside the parameters of wealth generation? What of those whose skills and inclinations don’t fit within the system of perpetual training and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of low-wage jobs? Those bodies whose families already face the social devastation of addiction, the corruption of generational care, the violence of endlessly deferred expectations? The young people whose hopes and expectations are bound to a world already past or a world that has not yet arrived?

These are our homeless children and youth. Some of them literally without a home, living on the streets or shifting from place to place without stable or safe shelter. But these are also those young people seeking asylum, bodies flowing across borders, forced into refugee camps and subject to the bullets and bombs of those who seek death for death’s sake. These are the ways that we treat the next generation as disposable bodies, as bare life. But they are not and never have been disposable or dispensable. They are valuable beyond measure. They are us and we are them and if we are to avoid extinction, we must affirm the living force we share together.

READ IN FULL AT HOMELESS YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DISPOSABLE

Hans Skott-Myhre is a professor in the Social Work and Human Services Department at Kennesaw State University, is cross-appointed to the graduate program in psychology at the University of West Georgia and holds appointments at Brock University and the University of Victoria.

Bernard Davies blogging historically

I’m pleased to have played a part in persuading my dear friend, Bernard Davies to enter the world of blogging. Indeed I’ve lent a helping hand in setting up the blog, ‘Youth Work’s Living History’.

Find below the opening post, which outlines the reasons behind Bernard taking this step into the contrary world of social media.

Introducing the Blog

LIVING HISTORY

YOUTH WORK (DE)CONSTRUCTION – UPDATED

Doing the research for my book, ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’; actually writing its 100,000+ words; and then waiting for it to find its way through the publishers various editing and production procedures – all that took well over two years. Given that the book’s main focuses are a constantly evolving educational provision and practice set within wider policy contexts which also change all the time, it’s hardly surprising that nine months after it was finished some of its content has been overtaken by events – by new facts on the ground, shifting ideas and priorities, re-considered analysis, revised perceptions and interpretations.

So… as an alternative to even contemplating a ‘sequel’ which would itself also soon fall behind the times, what follows is the first of (hopefully) a series of occasional pieces on one of the areas covered by book which in my judgement merits – needs – ‘updating’ and even perhaps extending. By the very nature of the exercise, how often these will appear is unpredictable since – a key defining feature, surely, of any ‘living history’ – researching and then writing them will depend not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.

Topics which however could justify and so would get similar attention might be:

  • Young people and their ‘condition’
  • Other youth policies and provision, including what I call in the book ‘gestures policies’
  • NCS and ‘youth social action’
  • The voluntary and community sector
  • ‘Youth voice’
  • ‘Outcomes’
  • Youth work training and qualifications.

As my plan is also from time to time to update the updates, critical feedback to davies@vip.solis.co.uk or via the Comments facility is welcome and indeed needed – not least on gaps, new evidence (with sources) and examples (with where appropriate quotes and again sources).

It may be too that I begin to post some of my past writing, which seems to retain a measure of interest and relevance.

Bernard Davies
July 2019

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)