I was perplexed from the outset at what seemed to be the absence of debate and the utter lack of opposition to the demanded closures of children’s and young people’s provision – from playgrounds through schools and youth facilities to universities. I am being diplomatic. I was pissed off and angry. It was plain that such draconian, disproportionate action would be deeply damaging. The belated acknowledgement in the summer of 2021 that the lockdown was creating serious mental health issues for the younger generation, crocodile tears, merely confirmed my angst. Then, a humble breath taken, I recognised it was easy for me to be so moved. If I was still a practising youth worker. teacher or lecturer what would I have done during the last two years?
Towards the end of the piece I commented:
Certainly in the coming weeks, as the pandemic narrative unravels, it would be revealing to hear the thoughts of UK youth workers, teachers and lecturers about their sense of the impact upon children and young people, upon themselves of the two years lost.
Something unexpected happened in Spring and Summer of 2020. I found myself standing apart from my colleagues. I could understand that in the initial stages of the pandemic, due to the particular threat that Covid posed to the elderly, the government’s decision had been to focus on the protection of older members of the population. But as the weeks wore on and I imagined the harm being done to children across the country, informed both by my training and my professional experience, it was clear to me that too much weight was being focussed on the protection of adults at the enormous expense of the less obvious (but more long-term) damage to the future and well-being of children and young people. And yet those who I would expect to be my natural allies due to shared knowledge and experience remained silent. There was no national, grown-up discussion anywhere about how we might balance the need to protect the most vulnerable from Covid with the interests of the young, and how we could remain faithful to our national commitment to children’s best interests being paramount. Any attempt to introduce such discussion was met with derision and accusations of moral decrepitude. To my astonishment, this was also the case on professional online forums, where it became increasingly difficult to raise concerns. It seemed to me that psychologists, who describe themselves as ‘scientist-practitioners’, should be asking serious questions about society-wide decisions to impose restrictions and mandates that would inevitably harm children and young people (and other vulnerable groups). At the very least, they should all be calling for a broader discussion, which they would be uniquely placed to inform, and at best, an extremely high bar (in terms of cost-benefit analysis) for the introduction of such measures. Yet the general view amongst those working with children and young people – and the official view of most professional bodies including my own – was that the moral responsibility of child professionals was to support government policy (at whatever cost to society and whilst asking no questions – or so it seemed to me) and then to work to mitigate the impact on mental or physical health. The alternative view – that policies that kept children out of schools, cut them off from families and friends, kept them from participating in outdoor sports, normal play, activity and socialising and prevented them from accessing healthcare and other support services should not be in place at all – was anathema. This was disturbing and confusing. I could not understand how, given the values and knowledge we had all shared before March 2020, this had come about.
We always knew what circumstances and experiences children needed in order to thrive, to be physically well and to be mentally healthy, and we knew that the unprecedented social experiment that took place from March 2020 deprived them of many of these things and would put many at risk of serious harm. The collateral damage outlined in all these studies and reports could have been foreseen and warned against by many more child professionals than ever spoke out. In moving into the post-pandemic era, it is essential that we continue to speak of these harms, to measure and describe them and to share these findings with our colleagues and the general public. We need to welcome into the discussion the concerns of many people who, at the time, were persuaded that reduced transmission of Covid trumped everything else, including the safety and mental and physical health of children and young people. It would be good to reach a point where there is full acknowledgement of the harms caused and the catastrophic errors made that led to them. Perhaps the Covid Inquiry will lead society to ask itself how we ever got to a point where children and young people were routinely subjected to harmful and unevidenced interventions and restrictions. As we support recovery, all those working with children and those in government must re-commit to the principles of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child. And we must ensure that we never subject a generation of children to such experiences ever again.
Speaking purely of youth workers, managers and lecturers, fond of proclaiming themselves to be critical practitioners par excellence, to what extent at a local, regional and national level are they coming together to consider what has been going on over the pandemic years? To what extent are they encouraging young people to discuss the rights and wrongs of the authoritarian clampdown on their lives? Or is the profession pretending the last two years never happened? Such collective myopia bodes ill for a future, within which an emboldened ruling class is confident that its diktat will be fearfully obeyed and that amongst its messengers of anxiety will be indeed youth workers, managers and lecturers.
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It 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.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
Across my working life I spent a significant amount of time being responsible for youth, adult and community work, even if the latter was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Whilst Wigan’s Youth and Community Officer in the 1990s I struggled vainly to resist the undermining of Adult Education by the Further Education Funding Council, whose instrumental ideology demanded that classes and courses should be vocational or else. In this context it is sobering and revealing to read Doug Nicholl’s overview of the neoliberal assault on the rich and radical tradition of life-long learning as a whole.
Lifelong learning – dead.
Only publicly funded places of learning, communities of exploration, can instil the excitement to think critically and assimilate knowledge and provide the personal support needed to develop.
Virtual search engines are no substitute for the real investment in real people in real institutions engaging together in a community of learning from birth to old age. Useful knowledge may be gained from a random google or Wikipedia search, but the discovery of truth and real understanding are skills accrued and nurtured with others.
It is an organised presence of educators at every stage of life from pre-school to retirement years that can make lifelong learning a lived reality.
The building of lifelong learning resources and methods has a wonderful history in Britain. Practitioners and academics, local councils and voluntary organisations, trade unions and community groups, sometimes separately, sometimes together, always on very meagre budgets, created in most areas, the architecture of cradle to the grave learning provision.
Sure start and other early years provision sowed seeds. Play work nurtured the growing mind in beautiful ways. Youth work, also a British pioneering methodology, engaged and promoted young people in an empowering and much underestimated way. Community development work involved and educated often the most beleaguered and brought social coherence and social justice, hope and joy.
Adult education, arising originally from a long tradition of democratic practice in dissenting churches, brought us the opportunity not just to have second chances to learn, but to transform our lives and thereby our world. In the workplace, intense exploitation and discrimination and brutal working conditions would be more prevalent today were it not for generations of trade unionists learning negotiating moves, but importantly too, history, politics, economics and philosophy.
In terms of funding these strands of lifelong learning were always seen as Cinderella services. In reality their widespread popularity and effectiveness in developing confidence and capability put them at the forefront of advanced pedagogies.
I am using the past tense. The lifelong learning house has been pulled down. Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoe string, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.
A requiem for Coleg Harlech was produced as a documentary last year. This was a dynamic place that brought so much education to those who had had too little, the premises were sold off. Unfortunately there will be more property developers looking at the remaining English adult residential colleges. A new unfair government funding regime has already seen the iconic Ruskin College end its residential offer to students. This is representative of a new, deep assault on the best of adult learning opportunities and the Labour and community movement links behind them.
Most people do not go to university and relative to our life span and the number of hours in the day, we spend little time at school. Lifelong learning services have been the main provider of education for our people for generations. It’s where most of the learning linked to enlightenment, collective action and social purpose has taken place, and where some of our greatest educators have worked and the environment where some of our keenest intellects have been created. Not to mention some very important community and political leaders.
Lifelong learning opportunities have disappeared and now two relatively small yet extremely impactful and important components of the national offer are up for the chop. The government has proposed to end its funding of trade union learning despite its demonstrable success in delivering the upskilling agenda.
But I want to draw attention here to the imminent, potential complete demise, of adult residential education.
University is not for everyone so for over a hundred years trade unions, co-operative organisations, the Labour Party, faith groups, community organisations and educational associations have found ways of creating residential learning opportunities for adults. This has provided a range of options from essential skills development, preparation for university, specialist higher education courses, short residential programmes, community leadership training and so on.
Just as some have their public schools and elite universities, so we, the majority, have had our special places of useful and inspiring learning. The founders of Ruskin deliberately built this in Oxford, not just to give students access to the Bodleian library, but to ensure women and men from the UK and all around the world exercised their rights to access the best learning environment.
Unions, community networks and churches would pay for members to go to colleges like Ruskin, Hillcroft, Northern, and Fircroft. Miners, steel workers, shop workers, railway workers, you name it, they would get an education because of their union giving them grants to spend two or three years growing through learning.
My own organisation funded particularly women to go to Ruskin as long ago as the 1940s. And many went from there to University, including the dreaming spires, and most came back to serve trade unions, community organisations, governments, political parties or caring professions like social work. I can think easily of many leading academics today who came through this route too.
As the quality of education was so good tens of thousands of students from overseas came to Ruskin and returned home in some cases to lead their countries. At least one British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, was a Ruskin tutor.
Residential provision not only gave time and space to learn how to learn for those who had left school at the youngest age and been rejected by formal learning, it gave a welcoming environment with colleagues from all over the world to broaden horizons and enjoy cultural and academic variety to stimulate the imagination.
Special debates and initiatives could be held in the safe exploratory spaces of these colleges and many examples can be given, but at Ruskin we celebrated recently the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Womens’ Liberation Movement there. We also celebrated last year our 120th anniversary and many moving stories of personal transformation from over the years were shared.
Pedagogically the adult residential experience was exceptional as many detailed studies have revealed, most recently by Professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford in their report. Economically, like all its relatives in the other strands of lifelong learning, adult residential education represented champagne at lemonade prices as all cost benefit research reports have shown as John Schifferes showed.
The adult residential financial settlements, previously agreed by Ministers of all stripes, who appreciated the vital role the Specialist Designated Institutions, as they are referred to in the Further and Higher Education Act, were never generous, but adequate. The formulae that underpinned them, agreed at the time by Ministers, seems to have been forgotten by the notoriously forgetful Department for Education, and new rules have been introduced which, for the main provider at least, have led to the closure of residential provision altogether.
Not only that, the current government is seeking to claw back spending from previous years in such a way as to prevent any future growth or sustainability. They are trying it feels to force complete closure and the remodelling of specialist designated institutions into merged FE providers. Punishment is being meted out for providing education (the quality of which Ofsted have consistently applauded) to students who would have had no other chance.
Such manoeuvres fly in the face of the most significant report on adult education for a hundred years published last year under the stewardship of Dame Helen Ghosh, The Centenary Report into Adult Education. They ignore too the report by Dame Mary Ney reviewing college financial oversight where she says the ESFA and FEC should take a more nurturing and developmental, supportive approach.
Adult education, as even the 1919 national Adult Education Committee report said, is a permanent national necessity. Moves afoot now are closing its vital residential component just at the time when all those residential providers are at the front line of supporting some of the most significant initiatives to retrain redundant workers, and reskill others keen to be at the heart of building back better.
The pattern is clear: destroy education and institutions designed to create new generations of Labour Movement leaders.
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