The In Defence of Youth Work campaign, of which I was the coordinator has just hosted a Zoom Seminar on Resistance. My dear friend, Sue Atkins opened the event with a tour de force on the 3R’s – Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution. to be found on the IDYW web site. Other contributions will appear in the next few weeks. All of these in different ways pose the question of how we resist the closing down of alternative, dissenting voices in reactionary circumstances.
By coincidence I discovered belatedly the other day an on-line version of the special exhibition, ‘Women in the Miners Strike 1984/85′ which is being hosted in the National Coal Mining Museum. It contains an essay on the significance of women in the Great Strike, photos and a video.
By twist of fate Marilyn and I found ourselves involved closely with the women of the Derbyshire coalfield. Part way through the strike we had moved from Leicestershire where we had been members of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group to Chesterfield. Marilyn was caught off guard, not being a miner’s spouse, by the invitation to join the Chesterfield Women’s Action group. The women decided her heart was in the right place and ‘with her being a clever lass who could type’, she became the Minutes Secretary. It’s a matter of great historical and political regret that the tapes of the meetings she kept were lost.
As for my part I took up the job of Community Education Officer for the district, which contained, amongst others, the Bolsover and Shirebrook collieries. Going to work on my patch meant running the gauntlet of police harassment. In Shirebrook itself the old primary school had been converted into the food distribution centre, housing the supplies brought in solidarity from near and far. At the end of the strike such had been the immense contribution of the women – organising the canteens, ‘womanning’ the picket lines and speaking eloquently from the platforms, here, there and everywhere – the school was transformed into the Shirebrook Women’s Centre, offering a creche run by qualified staff and a diverse programme of workshops and activities. I was proud to have my office tucked away on the first floor and privileged to be swept away in the energy of the first few years.
Inevitably as the neoliberal project to undermine traditions of solidarity and community deepened its hold on society even this partial gain was to disappear, all the more so as employment prospects in the coalfield communities dwindled.
Where is this perhaps romantic nostalgia leading? For now it renders me obliged to visit afresh the legacy of neoliberalism’s ideology of self-centred individualism and to explore whether we are in transition to a form of technocratic capitalism, an anti-democratic rule by experts. In doing so the crucial question is to ponder how we resist collectively the conscious closing down by the powerful of our relationships with each other in the personal, social and political sphere? To be melodramatic how do we fight back against an assault on our very humanity?
Whether I write anything of use is quite another matter but I’ll give it a go.
In the meantime the women and men of the Strike remain an inspiration as does the very best of a youth work practice that knows it does not know what is best.
[ I posted this piece a few hours ago on the In Defence of Youth Work web site. It felt worthwhile to repost here. It’s rushed and the dilemmas deserve more attention but for the moment my sinuses are exploding on account of a Saharan dust storm.]
Department for Education (DfE) guidance issued on Thursday for school leaders and teachers involved in setting the relationship, sex and health curriculum categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech, antisemitism and endorsement of illegal activity.
Put aside for a moment the issue of the impact of this fait accompli upon youth workers in schools I wonder where this leaves an open-ended youth work practice, which seeks to encourage a critical dialogue as to the roots and contemporary manifestations of oppression and exploitation?
Where does it leave In Defence of Youth Work itself, which in its founding letter argues that Capitalism is revealed yet again as a system of crisis: ‘all that is solid melts into air’; which in its cornerstones argues the continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability remain central?
In this chapter we argue that the present state of English youth work exemplifies the corrosive influence exerted by neoliberal capitalism upon its character and purpose. In doing so we hope to contribute to a collective understanding of how youth workers might criticise and resist on a national and international level neoliberalism’s arrogant contention that there is no alternative.
and which closes:
Our starting point is not youth work per se. It is a radical educational praxis, often described as critical pedagogy, which does not belong to any particular profession or institution. At heart it is about the struggle for authentic democracy, about the continued questioning of received assumptions. It is obliged to oppose neoliberal capitalism. Educators committed to this radical praxis do so in a diversity of settings, under differing constraints and across the board.
Is it mere coincidence that in the same month the Tories invoke the threat of ‘extreme political stances’, the American President has launched a scathing assault on the liberal New York Times 1619 Project? It sets out its stall as follows:
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.
In an article by Michael Desmond, ‘Capitalism’, well worth reading, he asserts, in order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.
In response Trump rails against decades of Leftist indoctrination in schools, which have defiled the American Story.
I fear that we are not taking the insidious global slide to authoritarianism seriously enough. To be in conversation with young people about prejudice and injustice, sexism, racism and transphobia, precarious work and trade unions, the environment and climate change, anarchism, social democracy and socialism, all these talking points necessitate grappling with Capitalism’s past, present and future. Doing so is to play a part in the emergence of the critical young citizen, who will, whatever their political leanings, resist being told what they have to think.
[This post appeared first on the In Defence of Youth Work web site.]
My days long past in the Trotskyist movement have rendered me supremely cautious when it comes to calls for an International. Back then we had fierce disagreements about what constituted the authentic Fourth International, which would lead the struggle against Capitalism. The Third was but a Stalinist front. Some spoke even of a Fifth International. I have no desire to sneer at this part of my life. In the main we were committed sincerely to changing the world for the better. However our commitment was always haunted by its elitism. We knew best. None of our proposed Internationals were rooted in the social movements from below.
I’m moved to write this brief preface. which begs many questions, because this very weekend sees the launch of a Progressive International following an initiative from the Democracy in Europe Movement and the Bernie Sanders Institute. We are asked to unite around the following vision.
We aspire to a world that is:
Democratic, where all people have the power to shape their institutions and their societies.
Decolonised, where all nations determine their collective destiny free from oppression.
Just, that redresses inequality in our societies and the legacy of our shared history.
Egalitarian, that serves the interests of the many, and never the few.
Liberated, where all identities enjoy equal rights, recognition, and power.
Solidaristic, where the struggle of each is the struggle of all.
Sustainable, that respects planetary boundaries and protects frontline communities.
Ecological, that brings human society into harmony with its habitat.
Peaceful, where the violence of war is replaced by the diplomacy of peoples.
Post-capitalist, that rewards all forms of labour while abolishing the cult of work.
Prosperous, that eradicates poverty and invests in a future of shared abundance.
Plural, where difference is celebrated as strength.
I find it difficult to believe that any youth worker sympathetic to the politics of In Defence of Youth Work and its cornerstones of practice could be at odds with the above. This said, and given the doubts expressed in my opening thoughts, how many of us will be moved to embrace the call to be involved, expressed eloquently if problematically in Noam Chomsky‘s keynote speech.
“We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake.”
He identifies “the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy as the key issues facing humanity”.
He goes on to assert that “the last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.“
There is much to discuss. I have my disagreements. How could it be otherwise? Crucially though, from an IDYW perspective his emphasis on the imperative of creating a vibrant democracy chimes with our sense of open youth work as both a process of ‘intimate democracy’, the vital need to listen to one another, ‘to look into one another’s eyes’ as David Graeber put it and a process of active, collective democracy, which seeks to question and challenge the growing authoritarianism seeping into so many corners of our existence.
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.
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?
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.
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.