Managing democratically: A contradiction in terms?

Since the turn of the year, I’ve all but abandoned a couple of pieces I’ve been composing, feeling self-indulgently that I’m not saying anything new or that others have expressed the same ideas much better in the past. The first of these focused on the question of hope and despair, which gives you a hint of my mood. Any road I’ve given myself a good talking to and am back on track. However, I’m travelling this next week plus I’m preparing a talk on ‘A World Without Politicians’ for an audience on Crete. Hence, to fill in the gap, I’m recycling a piece from 2007, in which I reflect on the possibility of being a democratic manager. I’ve left it more or less in its original form, which means it opens with an anecdote about Tony Blair – still amusing and relevant, I think. In the midst of the present Brexit mess and the roles being played by Teresa May and the rest of the parliamentary circus, it would be easy to find a parallel example from today.

Ta to globalresearch.ca

MANAGING DEMOCRATICALLY: A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS

Contrary to past hopes and even past successes in the project to create a just and equal society, today’s Britain remains hierarchical and bureaucratic to its core.  Bureaucratic centralism is the order of the day. To take but an example unearthed recently, you may or may not be surprised to hear that in the first eight months of New Labour’s reign the Cabinet took only one collective decision.  Tony Blair had absented himself to attend Church. Thus John Prescott presided over the dilemma of whether or not to go ahead with Millenium Dome. One can only imagine the anxiety expressed in the furrowed brows of ministers, ostensibly let loose to think for themselves.  In the end, the Cabinet decided in a leap of imagination that the final decision was best left to the Prime Minister, perhaps especially because he’d been in touch with his Saviour. According to the Cabinet Secretary of this period, when the Cabinet met the first question was ‘what are the issues of the week?’ as defined by the leadership, followed by the task of identifying ‘what spin should we put on them?’  The cabinet never debated nor determined policy.

Does this suffocating scenario ring any bells when it comes to thinking about Youth and Community Work?  For me, it resonates with conversations with workers across the country, who describe staff/team meetings as ‘being told as much as they are going to tell you and then doing as you’ve been told’.  Critical discussion about policy and practice is increasingly conspicuous by its absence. Of course, you might well rejoinder that this is inevitable. Despite its past and even present rhetoric about participation and involvement, Youth and Community Work reflects increasingly a top-down manipulative model with all its arrogance and waste, symbolised by the embrace of so-called ‘new managerialism’ by many of its officers.


Against this tide of conformity, I want cussedly to argue that it is vital to resist this blinkered way of seeing things.  I want to suggest that it is the obligation of anyone who claims to hold to such notions as ‘democracy’, equality and justice’ to aspire to be a manager committed to openness, to critical debate, to collective decision-making – to making supposed principles of youth and community work a reality.  Now some of you, up to your ears in the mess of practice, might be inclined to think I’ve lost my marbles. Indeed those of you, who know my love of Greece and worried about my mental health, might be excused for suggesting that in return for the Elgin Marbles I should return to my senses. And yet, my proposal is not all talk without substance.  All manner of mistakes and lapses aside, from my first managerial post as a full-time worker back in 1974, through to the strain of being a Chief Youth and Community Officer through the 1990s, I sought consistently to be a democratic manager in practice.

So for the sake of our discussion, and at the risk of over-simplifying complexity, I want first to suggest some essential ingredients in a democratic recipe and then recognise the numerous ways in which the democratic cake can fall apart.

A Democratic Manager:

  • Should refuse the right to manage, the notion that your workers should do as they are told.  For it is necessary to ask in whose interests are you managing. Are you turning in to serve the agenda of Gordon Brown, of the Chief Executive, of the Head of Service or whomever, or to serve the young people and the communities within which you work?
  • Should trust his/her workers.  Call me naïve but you should think the best of them until pissed upon, although you would hope to head off this humiliation!  In this increasingly misanthropic society, where evidently you can trust no one (see the problematic impact of Protection and Risk strategies on the character of Youth & Community Work) the democratic manager should be a philanthropist, from ‘philanthropos’ in Greek, a lover of humanity. But to be philanthropic is not at all to be easy-going, seeking a comfortable life, wanting to be everyone’s mate.  Rather the opposite. For the democratic manager wishes to be part of creating an atmosphere within which everyone feels able to question, criticise and, when collectively strong enough, resist orders from above.  To do this is to make your life far from rosy.
  • Should be committed to furnishing workers with the fullest information about what is going on and, together with them, ensure that a consistent in-service educational programme is maintained, focussed on raising collective understanding and consciousness.  To take a banal example that, say, at every other monthly team meeting, there is a commitment to extend the gathering into the afternoon so that issues can be discussed in depth.
  • Should be committed to telling the truth.  To amend a famous phrase of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, “being able to explore together what might be the truth is revolutionary”.  This is profoundly important to my eyes (and I’ll touch on the dilemmas soon), but just trying to be truthful has significant repercussions. Why?  Because it is the very antithesis of the bureaucratic capitalist managerial outlook within which dishonesty is so deep-rooted that its day-to-day manifestation is barely recognised.
  • Finally, but this list is not exhaustive; the democratic manager must stand by and argue for the collective decisions about how policy and practice should unfold.  She or he should see themselves as the representative of the staff team, accountable to the collective for their actions.

I’ll stop there.  This rough sketch invites perhaps the charge of being fanciful and utopian.  I don’t think so, but it is a perspective which is buffeted by stress and strain from above and below.  My own practice in the hurly-burly responded inevitably to shifting pressures and changing circumstances.

Obviously, the effort to manage democratically will be greeted with hostility by the majority of those in senior management.  They will scoff, sneer, and conspire in attempting to undermine the democratic project. They are without doubt threatened by its presence.  The attempt sheds light on the incompetence of their own authoritarianism. I won’t say much more about these people, ten a penny, as you will all have examples of the bullying that masks their own insecurity and fear.

Ironically though, there will be those with more nous, who will recognise that ‘democratic practice’ if sufficiently monitored and controlled (so that it doesn’t get out of hand) is to be supported.  In the name of ‘recreating civil society’, they are both allies and enemies.  The space opened up should be seized, but alertness to being co-opted, to the seduction of incorporation is vital.

But at this moment what I want to stress most is that the biggest threat to the nurturing of democratic practice is ourselves.  My efforts to be a democratic manager were forever haunted by the responses of the workers themselves. And this brings us to a profound dilemma for all of us desiring radical social and political change.  As of now, the ruling class, its bureaucracy, seem to be in control. Understandably, given the retreat of the social forces which gave capitalism a bad time in the 20th century, they wish to impose their imaginary neoliberal norms onto us.  To put it crudely they want us to settle down as obedient, passive, satisfied but never satiated consumers.  As far as democracy goes, whilst intoning the word endlessly, they are inimically opposed to its resurgence. We can hardly complain that the rulers rule.  That, so to speak, is their function. More pertinently we must ask of each other, why do we allow ourselves to be ruled?

Back to my efforts to be democratic in Youth and Community Work, a constant tension revolved around workers wanting to be managed.  I remember vividly many arguments with workers who demanded angrily that I managed them. ‘For fuck’s sake, Tony, tell me what to fuckin’ do!’  The process of collective decision-making is demanding. It seems to consume time, a constant criticism from those antagonistic to its intent. Although my own opinion is that much more time is wasted under authoritarian direction as workers whinge endlessly about how crap their managers are, basking in hopelessness, utterly demotivated and fed up. On the bright side, my experience too is that many workers gain confidence and strength from involvement in direct and collective democracy, and are bonded by the sense that the decisions are theirs and no-one else’s.

How do we learn to be democratic?  In what ways, through what process can we reach informed judgements on political matters about which, as Castoriadis puts it, there is no science. There is only one way. It is by doing democracy, by way of argumentative debate, by moving to collective decisions, through the experience of putting these decisions, for better or worse, into practice and through a constant process of collective self-criticism.  Thus I think a fundamental task in resisting the bureaucratic view that we are objects to be managed, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, is that we grasp any opportunity to come together as subjects, as creative actors.  For those in Youth and Community Work, the question of how to manage is precisely such an opportunity. I would venture that we have a political obligation to do so. Not to do so seems to me to collude with the powerful. As Malcolm Ball often underlines, the present regime gets away with its behavioural programme because we, the objects of its control, are not the social force we have been in the past. Trying to manage democratically is an important contribution to recreating collective opposition, dissidence and resistance, to becoming again a social and political force.  At the very least it’s a venture worth arguing about. . . . . .

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‘What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work’ in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/youthandpolicy_105-1.pdf

Participation and Activism: Young people shaping their worlds
Kalbir Shukra, Malcolm Ball and Katy Brown in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/y-and-p-archive/issue-108/

We’re being Googled: The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Quite a lot of us are uncomfortable and ambiguous about our relationship with such social media as Facebook, yet its hold is strong. Within youth work practice itself there is concern about young people’s digital literacy. [1] Personally, I’ve felt in danger of being smugly ignorant, content, despite the occasional doubt, to google to my heart’s content. My complacency has been shattered by Shoshana Zuboff’s compelling thesis that we are living through the latest phase in capitalism’s evolution, the emergence of ‘surveillance capitalism’. An excellent introduction to her argument is to be found in a Guardian interview, ‘The goal is to automate us.‘ I would urge you to engage with her thoughts.

‘It [surveillance capitalim] works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.’

Some quotes from Shoshana Zuboff to whet your appetite

Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.

Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.

Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.

Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them. These new forms of social inequality are inherently anti-democratic.

It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.

So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. Speaking for myself, this is why I’ve devoted the past seven years to this work… to move forward the project of naming as the first necessary step toward taming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.

I’ve ordered the book with some trepidation. It’s over 700 pages long. Even when I claimed to be a Marxist, I was of the cultural rather than the economic sort. And I failed Maths ‘O’ level three times. Wish me luck and I’ll report back.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff published by Profile

  1. See Nuala Connolly’s chapter 25, ‘Young People, Youth Work and the Digital World’ in Thinking Seriously about Youth Work – available online as a pdf.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed revisited 50 years on : the relevance of Freire today?

 

Cover image by Robin Sukatorn at drawingdemocracy.com

In the early days of In Defence of Youth Work, we upset the then CEO of the National Youth Agency, Fiona Blacke by criticising the organisation’s embrace of neoliberalism and its outcomes-led, market-oriented agenda. Frustrated by our evident idealism she accused some of us, particularly those of an elderly bent, of ‘drowning in history’, clutching for survival onto battered copies of Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As it was we were quite taken by being so represented. We flirted with the idea of printing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Proud to be a Pedagogue of the Oppressed’, but the mood thankfully passed. Ironically too, in terms of my own political biography, Freire has been a footnote rather than a chapter in the narrative.  Truth is, my copy of ‘Pedagogy’ sits somewhere on my bookshelves in very good condition, not at all well-thumbed.

Encouraged by colleagues, who had qualified through the Manchester Polytechnic Youth & Community course, I did read Freire’s seminal work in around 1977. Leave aside the tortured style I warmed to his argument, the emphasis on dialogue, on a politicised consciousness [conscientização], on the struggle against oppression. However, it was not a revelatory experience. Now this muted response, I will claim, was not born of an excess of arrogance. It was no more than my journey towards some form of radical pedagogy followed a different route. By twist of fate, a cocktail of child-centred teacher training, non-directive counselling and Marxist-feminist education, the latter as a member of a small Trotskyist grouplet lubricated my faltering effort to comprehend usefully the relationship between the individual and society, between agency and structure. If names need to be cited, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, the young Marx, Sheila Rowbotham, Jo Freeman and  Christine Delphy were an eclectic mix of influences – see below.

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Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.

Rogers, Carl. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles Meril

Marx, K. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1973)

Rowbotham, S.  Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Pelican, 1973; Verso, 2015)

Jo Freeman aka Joreen,  The Tyranny of  Structurelessness  at https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

Delphy, Christine, (1977) The main enemy: a materialist analysis of women’s oppression at https://libcom.org/files/delphymainenemy.pdf

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Thus, although I was heavily involved in the creation of what were viewed in those days as controversial part-time youth worker training courses, references to Freire’s work were noticeable by their absence. However, in the mid-1980s, whilst working for Leicestershire’s Community Education department I bumped into Freire once more, courtesy of his greater influence on community work and his significance on the curriculum of the De Montfort University full-time diploma and graduate courses. Indeed one of its lecturers at the time, Paul Taylor was to find prominence as the author of ‘The Texts of Paulo Freire’ [1993] and the INFED piece, ‘Dialogue, conversation and praxis’.

Yet, despite this proximity, I continued to keep Freire at arms-length. Ironically he fell foul of my growing rejection of Marxism as a quasi-religious dogma, complete with its own holy scripts, defended by a hierarchy of authoritarian leaders and obedient followers. Stimulated by Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt ….to elucidate the world’, I became increasingly cautious about the way in which theory stagnates into no more than the reiteration of established beliefs, passed down from gurus of one sort or another. Despite Freire’s insistence upon the centrality of reflective practice – Marx too demanded ‘the merciless criticism of everything that exists’ – his adherents seemed often less than self-critical and more than self-righteous about their practice, not so different in their blinkered outlook from my erstwhile revolutionary comrades. I decided I was neither a Marxist nor a Freirian.

None of which means I’ve no time for either Marx or Freire, far from it. It might though reveal that I’m guilty of reiterating mindlessly a seemingly dismissive perspective on Freire, which I haven’t questioned for decades. In the case of the latter this can’t continue, given the welcome publication of the latest edition of the Scottish Community Education journal, CONCEPT, a ‘Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

For now, I’m tangling with the challenging consequences of reading the truly fascinating diversity of articles that make up this celebration of the 50th anniversary of ‘Pedagogy’s’ publication, whilst contemplating Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw’s conclusion to their editorial.

We regard the Special Issue as a fitting tribute from a range of distinctive voices to perhaps one of the most distinctive, compelling and (still) contemporary voices in popular education.

I hope you will find the time to explore the contents and even join in a discussion about Freire’s legacy. A few immediate thoughts spring to mind.

  • The special issue underlines the continuing importance of Freire for community education and community development, particularly rooting this assertion in the Scottish experience. To what extent is this optimism that ‘the Freirean road remains open and full of hope’ mirrored elsewhere in today’s disUnited Kingdom?
  • Significantly none of the articles speaks directly about youth work, posing the question for youth workers, past and present, what has been or is the influence of Freire on their every-day engagement with young people and perchance the community?

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Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

CONTENTS

Editorial – Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw

Why Freire still matters – Jim Crowther and Ian Martin

Reclaiming the radical agenda: Paulo Freire in neoliberal times –  Margaret Ledwith

Northeastern Brazilian: Memories of Paulo Freire – Budd L Hall

The road not taken: The road still open – Colin (withGerri)Kirkwood

What Freire means to me •Lyn Tett•Louise Sheridan•Christina McMellon

Pedagogy of the oppressed and the power of big words – Nicky Bolland and John Player, CAMINA

Pedagogy of courage: For a spiritual materialist praxis of humanisation in critical pedagogy – Joel Lazarus

Freire at the ceilidh! Community dance as a training for dialogue – Stan Reeves

Why Gramsci offers us a framework for understanding the work of Freire: And why their work is crucial at this time – Keith Popple

In solidarity: international reflections

Freire at the University – Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Reflections on popular education in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean – Viviana Cruz McDougall

Celebrating Freire: A message of solidarity from South Africa – Astrid von Kotze

Review: The student guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Antonia Darder, (2018) – Bill Johnston

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Thanks to everyone at Concept for bringing together this collection. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

 

RIP Roy Bailey – not just a beautiful voice, a radical spirit in common cause and shared values

Thanks to roybailey.net

I first met Roy Bailey in person in the dim and freezing toilets of Shirebrook School in Derbyshire. He was having a pee in a cubicle unbeknown to me and I waxed lyrical to a fellow at my shoulder about both Roy’s mellifluous tone and his commitment to the cause. At which point Roy appeared, somewhat embarrassed, thanking me for my kind words. We parted a trifle awkwardly, he to get ready for his second set, me to rejoin Marilyn Taylor, Steve Waterhouse and young people from the Shirebrook Youth Centre, ‘getting off our knees’ to dance to the Housemartins, then riding high in the charts.

The occasion was a fund-raising event in support of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Great Strike of 1984/85.

Roy’s version of ‘Hard Times in Old England’, which he sang that night, echoes down the years.

However, I’d come across Roy a decade before in print upon discovering the book, ‘Radical Social Work’, which he edited with Mike Brake. At the time, a would-be radical youth worker I despaired at the conformity of the Wigan Youth Service, in whose employ I found myself. Looking for inspiration I found little solace in the individualist focus dominant within the youth work literature available. Bailey and Brake’s book, if not a godsend, was a present from Marx and Freire. Fundamentally its contributors argued that it was crucial to situate ourselves and the people, with whom we work, in the underpinning circumstances of our lives, in the limitations imposed, even if resisted, by the relations of class, gender, race and sexuality. In 1978 Colin Pritchard and Richard Taylor argued with one another in the insightful and challenging, ‘Social Work: Reform or Revolution? Whilst in 1980 Bailey and Brake edited a follow-up, ‘Radical Social Work and Practice’, which included chapters on feminist Social Work,  radical practice in Probation and Beyond Community Development.

It was only at this point, the turn of the decade, that youth work writing, responding to radical social work’s analysis and propelled in particular by women and black workers on the ground, began to take serious account of the structural. In 1981 Gus John produced ‘In the Service of Black Youth: A Study of the Political Culture of Youth and Community Work with Black People in English Cities’. By 1982 the first edition of Youth and Policy had appeared, featuring articles on social democracy, girls’ work and racism. By the mid-1980s Tony Jeffs and Smith had collaborated to edit, ‘Youth Work’, which included a rather pompous chapter by myself, ‘Youth workers as character builders: Constructing a socialist alternative’. My pretentious argument fell on stony soil! Bernard Davies broke new ground in his own writing with the publication of ‘Threatening Youth’ [1986], which interrogated social policy’s impact on young people’s lives across the board. In ‘Young People. Inequality and Youth Work’ [1990] Jean Spence explored Youth Work and Gender, Peter Kent-Baguley Youth Work and Sexuality, Don Blackburn Youth Work and Disability. Indeed it might well be argued that by this time critical thinking in youth work had caught up with that of social work.

In a fascinating contradiction as neoliberalism in its Thatcherite garb took a hold on the economy and culture as a whole, both youth work and social work full-time courses embraced a radical agenda. Indeed, during my close relationship with the Manchester Metropolitan University in the 1990s, which included lecturing there, the explicit collective commitment to an Anti-Oppressive and Anti-Discriminatory Practice brought youth work and social work students together in common cause. There was no sense of there being separate youth work or social work values.

Twenty years on I think this history needs to be remembered and respected. In the crisis faced by Youth Work over the last decade and more, youth workers have found themselves employed in other services and agencies, for example, social work and juvenile justice. There is no doubt that youth workers have much to offer in these settings. However, both leading youth organisations, such as the National Youth Agency, and increasingly youth workers themselves feel the need to argue that they take into these different workplaces a unique cluster of values, ‘youth work values’, unbeknown evidently to anyone except themselves.  By and large, they seem reluctant to clarify what exactly these values are.  I’ve dug out an old set of notes musing upon this topic further, which I might revive.

I am sometimes criticised for what is perceived as my pedantic and semantic, even obsessive hostility to the mantra of exclusive youth work values, skills and methodologies –  see Blurring the Boundaries. However, it is my contention that this presumptuous declaration of exceptionalism undermines building bridges with all manner of other professionals and volunteers within welfare and education. More than ever, at a time of social disintegration and rising authoritarianism, we need to revive our solidarity with one another, to be bound together by a shared commitment to the common good, to the struggle for social and political equality.

I’ll leave the last word to Roy, a song recorded only a year ago, ‘Refugee’ – a heartfelt humanitarian plea.

Roy Bailey, academic and folk singer, born 20 October 1935; died 20 November 2018

This Guardian obituary gives a sense of his rich contribution to the struggle.

The perils of privatising social care

I’m posting afresh this blog ‘The perils of privatising social care’ from Justin Wyllie, who has been very supportive of In Defence of Youth Work over the years.

care
Thanks to sott.net

The New Observer

This is a story in the Guardian about how children in care are treated as commodities in a market-system of placement.

The Guardian often does these kinds of stories quite well. However; they never draw the obvious conclusion. The system is not ever going to be fixed by a worried / outraged article in the press and some more regulation / money.

The problems described in this article are the inevitable result of bringing the profit system into the field of social care for looked after young people. Of course if you do this calculations are going to be made on the basis of profiteering and of course this will not result in the “best care” for young people.

There may be some fields where the profit-motive can produce results which socialised production cannot. An obvious example is the case of any field in which technological innovation can be stimulated…

View original post 655 more words

Blurring the Boundaries: Youth Work and Policing

archives

As I play around with what I might post on this revived blog I’ve been exploring what I might call pretentiously my archives – stuff I’ve written over the years, not yet consigned to the waste bin. An obvious dilemma is how well has such scribbling stood up to the test of time. I’ve decided not to worry unduly about this question. If the argument falls flat, I’ll just have to dust myself down and have a rethink.

With an IDYW dialogue event, ‘What is Youth Work?’ about to take place this coming Friday, November 2 in Birmingham I thought I’d revive this 2012 response to NYA’s call to make youth work training for police officers a more systemic and universal practice. At the time Fiona Blacke, the CEO ‘said she wanted to see more teachers and nurses, as well as police officers, trained in youth work skills. “They need to understand some of the nature of adolescents, how to create a relationship with young people and the tensions of being an adolescent in 2012,” she said. Blacke added that, by using youth work skills, police officers would have to revert to their statutory enforcement powers on fewer occasions. “It’s got to be a good thing,” she said.’

softpolice

BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES: Youth Workers as Soft Police or Vice-versa?

Rotherham Council has announced that two police constables have qualified with the council to become youth workers. The officers will work in partnership with the council’s youth services department and in youth centres throughout the area.

 
Thus the blurring of boundaries about what is meant by youth work and what constitutes a youth worker continues to worm its insidious way. When and where are our two constables youth workers? When and where are they coppers? Can they be both youth worker and copper at one and the same time? Funnily enough, despite the nowadays obligatory claim that the Rotherham initiative is trail-blazing, versions of these questions about the relationship between young people, youth work and policing are not new.

 
When I first came into the work in the early 1970’s the appropriate local bobby sat on the management committees for two of the centres, for which I became responsible. The post-war consensus that we were in it together was just about holding. By the end of the decade as unemployment rose and youth harassment became the norm we wouldn’t let the police across the threshold of our centres. In the mid-80’s my office was in the old primary school of Shirebrook, a Derbyshire mining village violently invaded and occupied by Her Majesty’s constabulary, playing its crucial part in intimidating the NUM’s opposition to the rule of the market. In the aftermath young people and the community rejected any involvement in the local Police Liaison Committees. As struggle died down I found myself in the 90’s working with the Inspector of Community Affairs in Wigan around the spectre of youth troubled ‘hot-spots’. We created a Youth Mediation project, employing a team of youth mediators, explicitly neither youth workers nor police, who refereed between young people, the local community and the local State. There was agreement. The roles of youth workers and police ought not to be confused. Youth workers ought to be on young people’s side. The police represented law and order, even when this law and order was demonstrably unjust. And, as an aside, I was a tutor on a year-long part-time youth worker training course in 1978 with two constables as students. Their desire to be part-time youth workers was ridden with contradiction but was not further confused by them wanting to be seen as hybrid Youth/Police Officers.

 
However, as you might know by now, today’s Chief Executives suggest that these qualms are but the dilemmas of a past best forgotten. Rolling out a ‘systemic’ programme of youth work training for police officers across the country is simply a good thing. Time has moved on. All that stands between young people and a trust in the police is the emergence of a couple of empathetic coppers. Forget Stop and Search, it’s now Stop and Smile. And their sensitivity will trickle down through the pores of the Police’s collective authoritarian psyche, even reaching its Metropolitan heart. Except that in the last few years some things don’t seem to have changed that much. Young people protesting against the end of EMA and the hike in tuition fees were kettled, frightened into feeling that resistance is career-ending. Whilst, by anyone’s account, last year’s riots were partially a consequence of the systematic hostility towards young people, especially black youth, displayed by these very forces of law and order.

 
None of this is to dismiss the important question of how the police interact with society, but this raises issues around race, gender, class, sexuality, disability as well as age. If we believe the police can be sensitised to the significance of these social and political divisions, the implication is that the whole workforce, not some scattering of token individuals, has to be on board. If we take race as an exemplar it is clear that this is an enormous task. The Metropolitan Police started race relations training in 1964. In 1984 following the Scarman investigation into the 1981 uprisings a revamped Community and Race Relations programme was put in place. Nevertheless, the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence declared that the Met was institutionally racist. Over a decade later the 2012 riots following yet another black death in custody signalled at the very least that awareness training has its limitations.

 
None of which is to suggest we fold our arms and do nothing. It is though to suggest we proceed with caution and humility. On the contrary, we are told by the NYA in a fit of some pretension and hubris that, as well as police officers, teachers and nurses could do with an injection of youth work skills. What might be these mysterious skills unbeknown to others? “They [need to] understand some of the nature of adolescence, how to create a relationship with young people and the tensions of being an adolescent in 2012.” A deep breath is needed here. Of these three areas, only one is about skills, namely creating relationships. The other two relating to how we understand adolescence are about theoretical explanations, be they psychological or sociological. None of these – Communication Skills, Developmental Psychology or the Sociology of Youth – are the property of youth work. In one form or another, they are taught, for better or worse, across the people professions.

 
So, what’s going on here? For what it’s worth my feeling is that this exaggerated desire to be indispensable to others, stemming from a collective inferiority complex, is a result of abandoning the very basis of our distinctiveness. If we have been, still are special, it is not to do with some fantasy about our unique values, skills or methodologies. It is to do with meeting young people without the security blanket of compulsion or sanction. It is to do with meeting young people in a mutual exploration of what the fuck is going on. This creative dialogue knows no pre-determined outcomes, carries no guarantees. It is this authentic uncertainty that distinguishes youth work from other forms of work with young people, which demand the pursuit of prescribed outcomes. For the moment many within the youth ‘sector’ seem intent on brushing this distinction deep under a carpet of conformism. Evidently, in their eyes any engagement with young people can be called youth work – even an encounter on the streets between a young person and the police, provided the latter have done their youth work training.

[August 2012]

Outcomes, Outcomes, Outcomes – a last word for now

Back in September 2013 Marilyn Taylor and I wrote up an interview we’d recorded on the subject of youth work and outcomes. At the time I used it as the basis for a number of contributions to a range of events, notably the Youth Affairs Network Queensland annual conference in Australia, where participants seemed to warm to its argument. Since then in written form, it has languished on the In Defence of Youth Work site within the Background Reading page. However, the proximity of the recent Plymouth ‘Impact’ conference gives me an excuse to dust off the cobwebs and share the piece afresh. I don’t think it is past its sell-by date, but I might not be seeing the outputs for the inputs.

TTappeal OYC
Begging the audience to agree with me in Vilnius, Lithuania. Malcolm Ball and Pauline Grace looking far from convinced

It begins:

THREATENING YOUTH WORK: THE ILLUSION OF OUTCOMES

Tony Taylor, the Coordinator of the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, is interviewed by Marilyn Taylor,  a youth worker for some years herself before lecturing in Social Psychology.

Obviously, I’m conscious that your hostility to the discourse of outcomes goes back a long way and is at the core of the Campaign’s founding Open Letter. Like it or not, though, the National Youth Agency [NYA] and the Local Government Association [LGA] have just this year produced further advice on justifying youth work utilising the Young Foundation’s [YF] framework of outcomes for young people.[1] Don’t the advocates of outcomes-based practice remain very much in the driving seat.

Too true and in danger of driving youth work over a precipice of their own making. Stifling in its repetition the mantra of outcomes threatens to drown out alternative voices. It is the taken for granted common-sense of our time.  Those who peddle its propaganda, argue that we need to show that youth work works, that we must define and measure what it is we do. They claim that there is no other option. They cannot allow that their utilitarian project might be undermined by a profound contradiction. Not everything that is vital to being human can be mathematically measured and compared, not least, as we shall see, the very make-up of our personalities ‘who we are’ and ‘who we might become’. Nevertheless, Bernard Davies was moved – following a piece of research he did a few years ago – to ponder whether there is a youth work manager left who might envisage a  practice with young people not harnessed to prescribed outcomes.[2] It seems we cannot contemplate an encounter with young people that is not scripted in advance.

It concludes:

  • A very recent and stimulating piece by Dana Fusco from New York, who spoke at a July IDYW seminar in London, explores the clash between the hierarchy’s desire for certainty and the shifting dynamic of practice across the professions.[24] She notes that social workers are calling for a ‘stance of creative ambiguity’, which is comfortable with nuance and uncertainty. Speaking of being a teacher she quotes Van Manen, whose description highlights the commonality of those I wish to describe as ‘democratic educators’. Such practitioners need “moral intuitiveness, self-critical openness, thoughtful maturity, a tactful sensitivity towards the child’s subjectivity,an interpretive intelligence, a pedagogical understanding of the child’s needs, improvisational resoluteness in dealing with young people, a passion for knowing and learning the mysteries of the world, the moral fibre to stand up for something, a certain understanding of the world, active hope in the face of prevailing crises and, not the least, humour and vitality.”

There are a few things I’d like to explore there, but it is an uplifting if daunting portrayal of what we should aspire to. A last word on outcomes?

I won’t prolong the agony except to say that the outcomes-led attempt to dissect and categorise our engagement with young people poses an enormous problem. We cannot deliver on its terms. Of course, we can continue to deceive ourselves and others. In reality youth work impacts on young people’s lives in a profusion of ways, to greater and lesser degrees. We can provide a range of evidence related to this potential impact. We cannot provide proof.  Our task is to argue afresh that many conclusions and decisions in the making of a democratic society will be provisional, the best we can make at any given time. In a crucial sense that makes them all the more important as nothing is ever decided for good.

Speaking of good in a different way I am conscious of coming across as describing a Manichean battle between Good and Evil, between those of us committed to democratic education and those committed to social engineering. In practice, there will be many in the Outcomes camp, who believe genuinely that they are ensuring the survival of youth work by turning it into a commodity, which people want to purchase. In doing so they believe they are retaining its values and skills. What seems to be woefully absent is a willingness to enter into critical dialogue about whether this claim stands up to scrutiny.

As Malcolm Ball put it at an IDYW seminar in October 2012, “ the youth work process I pursue hopes to enable young people to become the people they wish to be in circumstances not of their own choosing. It is not about a process of ideological modification guaranteeing outcomes congruent with the present society.”

The ideological clash, which cannot be avoided, is between an open or closed view of the future, between a belief that another world is possible and a conclusion that history has run its course.

The Outcomes agenda makes a pact with the latter, accepting the thesis that this is as good as it gets. It is the servant of a politics without vision or imagination, a politics without hope. For those of us, who continue to believe that humanity is capable of a much better shot at creating a just and equal society the means must reflect our hopes and dreams. Hence we cherish a prefigurative youth work practice founded on dialogue, doubt and democracy, even if we have often fallen short of this ambition.[25]

As we stated in our Open Letter the neoliberal ideology informing the Outcomes project “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.” We need to continue to think, improvise and organise against this threat and its illusions.

The full piece is to be found at Threatening Youth Work: The Illusion of Outcomes

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For a complementary analysis see also Jon Ord’s Aristotle’s Phronesis and Youth Work: Beyond Instrumentality, which appeared in Youth & Policy, 112 [2014].

Abstract

This paper attempts to address some of the fundamental problems which underlie current attempts to bring youth work to account. Firstly it is argued that the accountability agenda with its emphasis upon outcomes and outputs misunderstands the process by which they emerge. Rather than youth work being portrayed as a linear process, it will be proposed that there is an indirect ‘incidental’ relationship between what youth workers do and the outcomes that emerge out of a process of engagement; such that simplistic accountability measures are inadequate. Secondly, it is argued that given the essentially ‘moral’ nature of youth work interventions and the resulting outcomes, ie. whether their decisions and actions enable young people to live ‘good’ lives. We need to develop a methodology for youth work evaluation which reflects this. It will be suggested that much can be gained from an application of Aristotle’s concept of Phronesis, not least because of the importance placed on ‘context’.

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