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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As time goes by, why another blog?

ancient-philosopher

If you happen upon this new blog, Chatting Critically, and you’ve come across my thoughts as Coordinator of the In Defence of Youth Work web site, you might well wonder what I’m up to? Why do I need another outlet for my ramblings?

Three immediate reasons spring to mind.

  1. In my role as coordinator of In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] through the eight years of its existence I’ve sometimes felt trapped between two stools. On the one hand I’ve worried that my perspective has carried too much weight as I comment on the undulations of the youth work landscape ; that I don’t reflect sufficiently [how could I?] the diverse opinions of those supportive of IDYW’s overarching commitment to a young person-centred, process-led practice. On the other I’ve also censured my more outlandish and dissident reflections, concerned that their appearance might damage IDYW’s image. All a bit tortuous, I know.
  2. In addition I’ve increasingly wanted to comment on the wider political scene, especially as the neo-liberal consensus fractures and alternatives, albeit fragile, emerge. Obvious possibilities for a rant are to be found within the turmoil besetting the Labour Party. Am I a Corbynista? More than a few good friends have pinned their colours to this particular red flag. And, am I alone in being deeply irritated at the almost Soviet style propaganda flooding the news channels, in which the parade of Olympian ‘heroes’ serves to mask the day-to-day experience of a deeply divided society? And it’s the fortieth anniversary of the Grunwicks strike, which I’d like to celebrate with a memory or two.
  3. For quite a long time I’ve fancied bringing together in one place bits and pieces from the past, which still seem to resonate. Indeed the title of the blog, Chatting Critically, harks back to my crucial involvement in the Critically Chatting Collective, whose existence through the eighties and nineties was a huge source of strength. Steve Waterhouse, to whom this blog is dedicated, was a challenging, anarchic voice in our debates and activity. As things unfold I hope to post some of our relevant writings from that period on this blog.
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Steve and Dawn fighting the good fight

Hence I’m hoping to use this blog as a medium for my opinionated musings on youth and community work, to which I’ll offer links on the IDYW web site plus my occasional rants on the meaning of life and why neo-liberalism, to borrow a phrase from my fellow Leyther*, Paul Mason, ‘doesn’t give a shit’.

As time goes by here’s hoping you might find stuff of some interest contained within and if you respond, I’ll be well chuffed.

*A Leyther hails from the town of Leigh, Lancashire in the North-West of England