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.
Across my decades involved in youth work I have bemoaned its failure to engage seriously with the impact of class division and struggle upon both our own and young people’s lives and futures. After forty years of neoliberal capitalism’s relentless assault on the common good most youth work remains in denial.
In this context I’m posting a piece, ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, which appeared in ‘Essays in the history of youth and community work : Discovering the Past’, one of Youth & Policy’s publications, which appeared in 2009. I don’t think the thrust of its argument has been deflected in the following period, which has seen New Labour give way to Coalition and Conservative governments, all of whose policies have increased social inequality and rendered existence increasingly precarious. Yet the re-imagining of a radical class politics, briefly and frustratingly hinted at by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn, remains a fragile venture, undermined by both Labour’s desire to govern in its own name and the collective weakness of the social movements in the face of co-opted, individualistic identity politics.
Indeed only a few weeks ago I attended the Sheffield Rally held to commemorate the 35th Anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, marching behind the sound of brass band and swirling trade union banners borne on the wind. And as I applauded rousing socialist speeches and the singing of the anthem, ‘Women of the Working Class’ I knew that these outpourings of passion looked back to the past, yet, at one and the same time, looked forward with hope.
The eight hundred or so women and men present are not outdated relics of the 1970s and 80s, as the weary jibe suggests. Rather they are struggling to build links and alliances in the best tradition of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike with its rainbow network of Support Groups, captured in the film ‘Pride’, which depicts the unfolding of the relationship between mining communities and gay/lesbian activists.
Thinking about this reminded me of a section in the piece I’m posting, which argues:
In focusing on a notion of the Class Struggle and its absence from Youth Work discourse I risk being seen as a geriatric Leftie, trying stubbornly to resurrect the discredited idea that class is primary, relegating the significance of other social relations. This is not at all my desire. My point is no more and no less than that the political struggle for equality, freedom and justice must have a rounded and interrelated sense of the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. None of them make proper sense without reference to each other. If this inextricable knot is recognised, the silence about class within most Youth Work is deeply disturbing.
If this concern strikes a chord I hope you might read my thoughts in their entirety. They begin.
This chapter will seek to explore the relationship between Youth Work and Class, Youth Work and Class Politics, Youth Work and the Class Struggle, albeit with trepidation. Today simply to mouth the phrase ‘the class struggle’ is to invite derision and disbelief, particularly perhaps from those within Youth Work (and I was taken a bit aback by how many there were), who danced in the streets over a decade ago as New Labour came to power. The renovated, former socialist party’s message was clear – class politics were redundant and irrelevant, consigned to the dustbin of history. The then revitalised, now sometime reviled leader, Tony Blair declared, ‘the class war is over’ [BBC 1999]. This evidently persuasive posture seems to be today’s common-sense. Against this backcloth you may be forgiven for wondering whether the following impressionistic history is clinging on to the past for fear of the present. For example, is there any relationship between my participation in the incredibly emotional Durham Miners’ Gala in 1985, the first after the Great Strike, the ranks of unbowed working class men and women surging through the crowded streets in the wake of Lodge banners and brass bands, and my involvement in Youth Work? Is there any connection between the rhythm of the struggle of Capital versus Labour and the changing character and content of Youth Work? Is it possible to wonder whether the defeat of the Miners foreshadowed the retreat within Youth Work from social education to social engineering? These may seem absurd and irrelevant questions, reflecting no more than romantic sentiment, whether for a fighting working class or for youth workers committed to ‘voluntary association’. With the ‘end of history’ it seems that both are deemed to be dead .
The chapter closes.
In one way, it would be refreshing never to mention the Class Struggle in a separate sense ever again. For the title of this chapter could have been ‘Youth Work & Politics: The Relationship That Dare Not Speak Its Name’. By politics is not meant tiresome gossip about the personality clashes inside New Labour’s Central Committee, the contemporary version of the wrangles of the Elizabethan court. Rather we mean the crucial questions of who has power, in whose interests do they use that power, what power do we have to change the situation if we disagree and so on. At this historical moment, we are led to ask, specifically in terms of Youth Work and the Youth Service – What power do youth workers have in terms of the purpose and content of the work? – What power do young people have in terms of arguing the case for what they see as their needs in a critical dialogue with youth workers and the State?
Despite the recurring rhetoric about participation it would seem very little. Leave aside the situation facing young women and men, the profession itself seems reluctant to oppose this state of affairs. By and large youth workers are perceived to be doing as they are told. Yet history illustrates that obeying orders is a class and political question. There is the world of difference between a Capitalist system in which the greed of Capital is contested at every turn by Labour; in which the right of management to manage is questioned and resisted; in which a male hierarchy is challenged in the name of Girls’ Work [back 30 years ago!] and a Capitalist system within which there is severely diminished working class opposition; in which management does as it wishes; in which the gains of the past, such as Girls’ Work and Black Youth Work, are divested of their radical edge, recuperated and rendered safe. In this latter scenario, which corresponds to the situation today, the powerful, their self-serving political and bureaucratic sycophants, and even layers of Youth Work management itself, are imposing an increasingly instrumental agenda [Smith 2003].
It is acknowledged that this historical account of the influence of class politics on Youth Work is highly subjective, fragmented and incomplete. However, it is hoped, that whatever its shortcomings it might encourage others to interrogate the past, present and future with class in mind. For instance,
it would be fruitful to investigate further the relationship between the rise and fall of municipal socialism in the ’80s and the fate of Radical Youth Work. Certainly, reflecting on Youth Work and Class underlines the urgency of [re]creating networks and collectives committed to critical argument and resistance in the face of the ‘Enemy Within’ – capitalist values, ideas and practices. Forgive the invocation of an old class struggle slogan, but yet again it’s time to ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise.’
If by chance anyone wants to reference the chapter.
Taylor, T. (2009) ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ in Gilchrist R, Jeffs T, Spence J and Walker J (eds), Essays in the history of youth and community work – Discovering the past, Lyme Regis, Russell House.
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’ , which interrogated social policy’s impact on young people’s lives across the board. In ‘Young People. Inequality and Youth Work’  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
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.
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. 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. It seems we cannot contemplate an encounter with young people that is not scripted in advance.
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. 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.
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.
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’.
Following on from my post, impact evaluation – a brisk intro, a few folk asked whether I could write up the scribbled notes I used for my half hour rant to the Plymouth conference. Well, if I’m honest, a grandson, my faithful dog, Glyka and a couple of sheep did. Others muttered, ‘if that bloke mentions neoliberalism again, we’ll puke’. Be this as it may, Jon Ord, the driving force behind the conference has ridden to my rescue, having painstakingly drawn together recordings of a large number of the contributions made over the two days. These are gathered together via the conference website and the link within the panel, ‘Recordings of Conference Talks’.
There are 68 recordings in total, reflecting a rich range of analysis and opinion. I would recommend trawling through the three pages to get a feel for this diversity.
For example, to give you no more than a flavour:
Accountability in Youth Work in the USA – Susan Matloff-Nieves & Dana Fusco
Reflections on the Impact of Youth Work in Finland – Juha Nieminen
Exploring youth work outcomes in Japan – Maki Hiratsuka (et al)
Evaluating young people’s participation in Australia – Tim Corney
Questioning the outcomes of youth work in Ireland – Mairéad Cluskey
The Impact of Youth Work in Finland – Lasse Siurala & Eeva Sinisola Juha
Youth work in Malaysia – Jufitri Bin Joha
The impact of youth work in Italy – Daniele Morciano
Evaluating Well-being – Kaz Stuart (UK)
Centre for Youth Impact – Bethia McNeil (UK)
Evaluating Youth Empowerment in Spain – Anna Planas & Pere Soler
Measuring Youth Work in Scotland – Susan Hunter & Kelly McInnes
The Impact of Youth Work in France – Marc Carletti
Reflections on Malta’s National Youth Policy – Joanne Cassar
Building Bridges in Flemish Youth Work – Els de Ceuster & Jo Clauw
Enabling Spaces for Youth Activism in Egypt – Mohamed Yassein
Youth Work and Prevention in the Netherlands Judith Metz & Jolanda Sonneveld
My recording, if you’re interested, is to be found on the third page. As you will hear the first two minutes are taken up with Tony Jeffs, the chair, organising the masses pouring into the room!
Indeed it is two years since I rambled on about starting a new blog, alongside continuing in my role as Coordinator of In Defence of Youth Work – As time goes by, why another blog? In the event, the demands of doing my best as IDYW Coordinator coupled with personal upheaval meant nowt happened on here.
However, I’m about to withdraw from my role as IDYW Coordinator, taking something of a back seat in the forum’s activities. Indeed my last ‘official’ appearance as Coordinator will be at the forthcoming Transformative Youth Work conference in Plymouth, September 4-6. I’ll be offering a paper, ‘Resisting Impact – a neoliberal tool of social conformity’ and be a supposed ‘expert’ panel member, reflecting critically on youth work evaluation.
Title: Resisting Impact – a neoliberal tool of social conformity
For four decades neoliberalism has mounted an extraordinary behavioural modification project, seeking to manufacture in its own image the self-centred, possessive individual, the satisfied, yet never satiated consumer. Few of us have escaped completely from its clutches. In its armoury of manipulation, we find the discourse of impact with its outcomes-fixated agenda and its relentless pursuit of comparative data, unveiled in the early 1990’s as the means ‘to do more with less’, nowadays crucially used as the means of changing how youth workers see both themselves and young people. The casualty in this shift to the imposition of a prescriptive, supposedly measurable script in advance of practice has been an open youth work founded on voluntary relationships and improvised conversations, ungoverned by time, which take place on young people’s terms and, dare we say it, for their own sake. The neoliberal impact agenda abhors the unruly, the unpredictable, the ‘wild spaces’, within which the youth worker and young person are educated by one another. As Filip Coussee argues, it strives ‘to formalise the informal’, to impose order.
Given youth work is never ideologically neutral and is fundamentally concerned with how young people understand themselves and the world they occupy we will tangle with two inextricably interrelated, immeasurable questions.
In what sort of society do we wish to live? What are its ‘characteristics’?
And, depending on our answer, what sort of ‘characters’, do we think, are best suited to either the maintenance of what is or the creation of something yet to be?
No surprises there!
In my next post, I’ll pull together links to a number of articles critical of neoliberalism’s insidious influence upon youth work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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