In Praise of Emancipatory Youth Work

“Thirty years ago youth work aspired to a special relationship with young people. It wanted to meet young women and men on their terms. It claimed to be ‘on their side’.  Three decades later youth work is close to abandoning this distinctive commitment.  Today it accepts the state’s terms. It sides with the state’s agenda. Perhaps we exaggerate, but a profound change has taken place”. 

Back in March 2009 the venerable corridors of the Ushaw College in Durham overheard this sweeping assertion, which propels the argument of the Open Letter, In Defence of Youth Work. The occasion was Youth & Policy’s History of Youth and Community conference. The audience embraced a diverse mix of academics, practitioners and students. As such the presentation was low-key and somewhat anxious. Whilst those of us involved in the long-running discussions kindling the Letter’s  passion felt the time was propitious, we worried about how it might be received.

Evidently a leading establishment figure had already written us off as dinosaurs, apparently clinging on to the past for fear of the present. In the event our effort to reflect critically on the state of youth work resonated with the mood of the overwhelming majority at that first small gathering. We felt alive rather than extinct. Since then, our collective sense of looking forward rather than backwards has increased, of which more later. For now the Letter continues:

“This metamorphosis has not occurred overnight.  Back in the 1980s the Thatcherite effort via the Manpower Services Commission to shift the focus of youth work from social education to social and life skills was resisted.  In the early 90s attempts to impose a national curriculum on the diverse elements of the Youth Service ground to a halt.  However, with the accession of New Labour, the drive to impose an instrumental framework on youth work gathered increasing momentum.  With Blair and Brown at the helm, youth workers and managers have been coerced and cajoled into embracing the very antithesis of the youth work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes.

“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.

“For many within the work this has been a painful period.  For many there has seemed to be no alternative to making the best of a bad job.  But history is an unruly character.  In the space of only a few months everything has been turned upside down.  Capitalism is revealed yet again as a system of crisis: “All that is solid melts into air”. Society is shocked into waking from “the deep slumber of decided opinion”. The arrogant confidence of those embracing the so-called ‘new managerialism’, which has so afflicted youth work, is severely dented.  Against this tumultuous background alternatives across the board are being sought. We believe this is a moment to be seized.

Fundamental Beliefs

“Our contention is that we need to reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic youth work, whose cornerstones are:

  • The sanctity of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from youth work as they so wish.
  • A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
  • The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
  • A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and-now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’. 
  • An insistence upon a democratic practice, within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
  • 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.
  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

Concepts to Question

“Such a definition is at odds with much that passes for youth work today.  But, as we have suggested, this is the time to challenge anew the new managerial attempt to make youth work the servant of the market.  To give some examples, we need to question:

  • The shift from locally negotiated plans to centrally-defined targets and indicators.
  • The growing emphasis on identifying the potentially deviant or dysfunctional young person as the centre of youth work’s attention.
  • The increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people perceived as a threat to social order.
  • The insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalised  and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.
  • The distorting effect of identifying individuals as suitable and urgent cases for treatment and intervention, ‘to be worked on rather than worked with’.
  • The changing role of the youth worker, from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur, submitting plan after bid after plan, selling both themselves and young people in the market-place.
  • And finally, but not exhaustively, the delicate issue of the extent to which professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service [Jeffs, A and Smith, M. [2008] Valuing Youth Work, Youth &Policy, 100:277-283].

“Of course it is easy to spout rhetoric on paper.  Doing something solid with this analysis is another matter altogether.  This is especially the case, given the very different settings occupied by youth workers today. Without doubt the space to duck and dive, to argue and criticise, varies enormously.  Yet this very diversity lends weight to the proposal we would like to make, which is quite simply that we must come together to clarify what is going on in all its manifestations; to understand better how we can support each other in challenging the dire legacy of  these neo-liberal years”.

Next Steps

The response to this challenge has been encouraging. We have passed initially the litmus test of whether we are prepared to meet and organise.  Regional meetings have been held in Newcastle, London, Birmingham, Preston, Leeds and Rotherham, where attendances have been high as 90 and plans are afoot in one way or another to hold further events. Importantly steering groups have been set up in the North-East, West Midlands and London/South-East as the first step in creating a representative structure for the In Defence campaign. At the time of writing the next London regional is to take place on Wednesday, September 9 in the Deptford Town Hall, whilst the North-East group is meeting on Monday, September 21 in Newcastle. In both these cases strong support to the campaign and practitioners on the ground is being given by lecturers from within Higher Education.

This collaboration is symbolised by a proposed November joint training event in the North-West supported by the North-West Regional Youth Work Unit and staff from the Manchester Metropolitan University. Looking further ahead a number of national planning meetings are to take place, culminating at the Federation of Detached Youth Work conference in November. The primary task by this point will be to set the agenda, date and venue for the first National Conference of the In Defence campaign, which is likely to be held early in the New Year. There are understandable mutterings that by then we ought to be less defensive, adopting perchance a new ‘offensive’ name for our collective activity!

Agenda for Debate

In the closing lines of the Letter a plea for support is tempered by the observation that “in doing so, you are not agreeing to some party line. There is so much to  think through together.” A lively and healthy debate within our ranks is proving this point. Amongst the questions being debated are:

–        Is there a distinct set of youth work values? Intriguingly the Open Letter never mentions values, preferring to talk about cornerstones of practice.

–        If we are to argue for the existence of a youth work profession, what is its particular knowledge base? How do we square this necessity with the problematic and long-standing anti-theoretical and anti-intellectual tradition within the work? Where does this leave the host of ‘amateur’ volunteers involved in youth work?

–        Should the In Defence campaign embrace community work as well? Aren’t the principles of practice the same?

–        How are we to forge a democratic collaboration with young people themselves?

–        As Bernard Davies, co-author of the recent De Montfort University Inquiry into the state of youth work, puts it in a forthcoming article, “Can youth workers, but perhaps particularly senior managers, now imagine a world without targets?”

–        In what ways can we utilise the Internet and social networking sites to move forward, especially in maintaining our contact with isolated fellow travellers? There are already a main Blog, a Facebook site and a Google group. To what extent do the social networking sites sustain either activity or passivity?

–        Are we in danger of being a movement with a critique, but little else? Do we need a manifesto, a programme of demands?

A Joint Campaign

At the heart of the Letter is the belief that in fighting back against the neo-liberal legacy we are not alone.  Gradually organised and dissident resistance is growing. Thus we wish to make links with other workers and campaigns. In a small way we hope to play a role in the [re]creation of the social and political forces crucial to a radical, democratic transformation of society. At this juncture we are pursuing the following initiatives:

–        We are presenting a workshop at the Social Work Action Network conference, Social Work in a Time of Crisis standing firm with social workers, who have endured the worst excesses of bureaucratic interference and victimisation in their struggle  to support children and young people.

–        As part of our involvement with the National Coalition for Independent Action, which desires to reassert the autonomy of voluntary groups, we are preparing a policy paper on youth work and the importance of the voluntary sector.

–        Many of  our supporters are in the youth work trade unions, of which the CYWU/UNITE has been prominent in its backing for the Open Letter.  Given the threatening prediction that public services face a decade of pain,we will be working in partnership with the unions at a local, regional and national level to strengthen the struggle to defend jobs and conditions across the diversity of work with children and young people.

–        We are keen to be in dialogue with other collectives within the world of youth work. Thus we are in close contact with the Federation of Detached Youth Work, which has always defined its members as democratic educators. We hope that the embryo Federation of Informal Educators will grow. Outside of the English setting we are inspired by the Scottish Community Education tradition and are at this moment building relationships with individuals and groups from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Eire, who have responded positively to the thrust of the In Defence campaign.

Social Pedagogy

I am conscious that this edition of Children Webmag is focused on social pedagogy, which remains half understood and too little debated within British youth work, but see Mark Smith’s critical introduction. However in closing this piece I would like to quote Lorenz’s classic definition of the social pedagogical dilemma.

“Is social pedagogy essentially the embodiment of dominant societal interests which regard all educational projects, schools, kindergarten or adult education, as a way of taking its values to all sections of the population and of exercising more effective social control; or is social pedagogy the critical conscience of pedagogy, the thorn in the flesh of official agenda, an emancipatory programme for self-directed learning processes inside and outside the education system geared towards the transformation of society?” (Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe, London: Routledge. 1994: 93)

It is obvious that those of us within the In Defence of Youth Work campaign desire to be critical thorns struggling to imagine and create an emancipatory and transformative educational practice. If you have sympathy with our argument we would love to hear from you.  It would be especially informative to receive criticism and comment from outside of the British Isles. To what extent does our analysis make any sense in terms of what is happening internationally?

Keep abreast of developments at our IN DEFENCE site.

Tony Taylor

mailto:[email protected]


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