MOVING FORWARD : IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK
The past few weeks have been hectic. The first national steering group meeting was held in Wigan,
whilst Sheffield and Huddersfield hosted differing, but significant gatherings of students and
workers, young and a little older. Regional steering groups have met in the North-East and the West
Midlands with the South-East due to meet any day now. In parallel, dependent upon your point of
view, our endeavours have been complemented or opposed by 'Future of Youth Work' seminars
organised in Manchester, Plymouth and Newcastle by the respective Regional Youth Work Units.
Against this backcloth the following are but some initial and provisional thoughts on how things are
proceeding, intended to inform further discussion.
Indifferent to superstition our initial open national steering group met on Friday, November 13 prior
to the Federation of Detached Youth Work conference. The dozen people in attendance represented
the North-West, North-East, West Midlands, South Yorkshire and South-East regions. The four hour
test of mental stamina might be described as tortuous, but it illustrated our commitment, given
especially the distance travelled by many on the day itself. After all many of us didn't know one
another from Adam or Eve. Certainly there were no imposed outcomes on our deliberations. We are
indebted to Don for his best account of what transpired, which is to be found on the Campaign's
web site and is required bedtime reading. Our principal and unanimous decision was to organise a
National Day conference on Thursday, February 11, 2010 in either Manchester or Leeds. At the time
of writing the venue has still to be confirmed. The meeting agreed that the agenda should focus on
issues within practice around which specific campaigns might be launched, namely:
questioning the emphasis on building centralised Super Centres and the consequent
withdrawal from locally situated provision.
opposing the loss of a distinctive Youth Work identity, unequivocally 'on the side of young
people', within the imposed and compromised world of Integrated Youth Support Services.
challenging the increasing incorporation of youth workers into the policing and surveillance
of young people, symbolised by the spectre of detached youth workers liaising with the
police to combat the recently discovered phenomenon of young people partaking of alcohol
in all manner of places on Friday and Saturday nights!
At the Steering group the North-East tabled a draft pamphlet 'Developing & Defending Youth Work'
intended to expand and clarify the thrust of the Open letter. This was warmly received. As a result
an edited version is to be produced, which will be circulated over the next two months for criticism
and amendment. It is envisaged that a revised document will be debated at the conference with a
view to its adoption as the Campaign's 'set of principles'. In addition we discussed whether the
conference should engage with cuts in Youth Services and touched on whether there is a need for a
new organization, an Association or Assembly of Youth Workers, of which more later. Inevitably
we grappled with the dilemma of where might we secure funding to support our endeavours.
On the following Monday, November 16th the Youth Association South Yorkshire [YASY]
hosted a regional meeting at their headquarters in the heart of Sheffield. Fortified by a beltin'
buffet, a gradely mix of students, workers, and an awkward bunch of supposedly retired yet still
passionate advocates of young-person centred, unpredictable youth work argued the toss. Some
inspirational tales were told, of which again more later. Promisingly the group were keen to meet
again and spread their wings. The lively discussion and the chance to meet old friends and sparring
partners, such as Sue Atkins and Joan Bennett, lifted my spirits.
The Thursday of that week brought the Campaign Road Show to Huddersfield, home of Rugby
league, 'the greatest game', which is, I admit, irrelevant to our concerns. Nevertheless it was
inspiring to see over 120 students and workers from Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees, Sheffield and the
home town itself gathered in the University in search of a challenging debate. It remains to be seen
whether the video will ever see the light of day! After my effort to inspire the troops, Joyce
Thacker, the Head of IYSS in Rotherham was resolute in her defence of the present state of affairs.
I cannot do justice to her articulate contribution. However I found it disconcerting because it
seemed to lack a self-critical perspective. Her advice to a question from the floor about how to
retain a personal sense of integrity amidst the present turmoil was to insist on self-belief. This
struck me as a quasi-religious piece of advice. In my experience none of us retain a personal and
political integrity, outside of our collective relationship with others, who are able to question what
on earth we are up to. In the end Joyce's optimistic picture of events suggested that the rest of us
were in danger of making much ado about nothing. Following a thoughtful, but uncertain view of
where the work is going, given by Sarah Davis, a student at Leeds, Bernard Davies completed the
round of speakers with his pointed account of the DMU Inquiry's 'modest' findings. Despite the
size of the audience a critical dialogue ensued, touching on such recurring themes as policing and
surveillance, the significance of the JNC agreement and international links. It is necessary to thank
Jean Hatton, Graham Griffiths and Caroline Mountain, amongst others, for their stalwart efforts in
staging the event – good too to see the presence of a CYWU stall.
Alongside our agitational meetings several of the Regional Youth Work Units have counter-posed
seminars entitled 'The Future of Youth Work' aimed at senior and middle management.
Significantly, the catalyst for debate has been once again the DMU report, 'Squaring the Circle'. Its
evidence was presented in Manchester, by both Brian Merton and Bernard Davies, whilst in
Plymouth Bernard performed solo. It appears that the officers present seemed sanguine about the
present direction being taken within Youth Work. A further moment in this cycle has just taken
place in Newcastle. It will be interesting to see if the debate there reflects the concerns of managers
expressed in the North-East's draft pamphlet mentioned earlier. Here we read that 'managers feel
restricted in their efforts to deliver services relevant to young people . . . . by a 'top-down'
imposition of policy.'
If nothing else, this high level of activity, influenced directly and indirectly by our Campaign,
illustrates that, although we have been dubbed 'romantics', we have resuscitated a wide-ranging
argument about the character of informal work with young people. A democratic and emancipatory
form of Youth Work is not ready to be buried under the dead weight of bureaucratic demands. But
the encouragement of discussion brings its own dilemmas. It brings to the surface uncomfortable
and difficult questions. As we move with energy and passion towards a National Conference, the
following are but some of the thorny issues emerging from the past few weeks:
On Association and Organisation
I have been caught off guard by a significant feeling amongst some supporters that we need a new
professional association for youth workers; that there is a collective organisational void; and that a
powerful independent voice is lacking. For what it is worth I had not seen beyond the development
of a campaigning network. Ironically too I have been reading Doug Nicholl's fascinating account of
the Community and Youth Workers Union's journey from professional association to trade union.
Indeed I remember back in the late 70's clashing within the then Community and Youth Service
Association with members, who opposed the shift to becoming a trade union. In this context, is talk
of a professional association a step backwards or forwards?
The Trade Unions
All of which brings us to the youth work trade unions, primarily CYWU [UNITE] and UNISON.
The first thing to say, on an individual level, is that the Campaign has received support from
members of both these unions and indeed many belonging to neither. From the point of view of the
organisations themselves CYWU has been much the more positive. Early on, Doug Nicholls, the
General Secretary, signed up to the Letter and has continued to publicise the campaign within the
union. In the last few days the union has succeeded in obtaining the support of the UNITE national
industrial sector conference for a resolution backing the In Defence campaign. Better late than never
we are informed that the UNISON Youth and Community Work panel has submitted a resolution in
support of the campaign to the national Local Government conference. In addition Doug Nicholls as
secretary of the JNC staff side has drafted a statement, 'in defence of youth work', drawing on our
Open Letter, which is to be discussed with UNISON in the next week.
And yet within the In Defence meetings held across the country there has been an ambivalent
response to the role and significance of the trade unions. Now I've been in and of the trade union
movement for long enough to be deeply frustrated by the cry from passive trade unionists, 'what's
the union doing for us?' However the tension between the workers' organisations and the workers
seems to run deeper than simply an unwillingness to be involved. I do not know what is the level of
unionisation across Youth Work. Does anyone? Contradictorily or not some of the workers most
critical of the trade unions are the most politically conscious. Others are more worryingly simply
Ironically within the In Defence debates there have been few references to the pay and conditions of
workers themselves. The focus of the interchange has been upon the character and purpose of Youth
Work itself. There have been exceptions. I have sympathised with part-time CYWU members,
fearful of the undermining of their JNC conditions, whilst I have heard UNISON members on N JC
conditions point out that they claim TOIL [Time off in lieu] and are paid overtime for weekend
work. However, certainly for CYWU, the defence of youth work equals the defence of JNC. This is
powerful and plausible, except that it fails to take account of the thousands of youth workers on
other pay scales. From the point of view of the Campaign , Sue Atkins [ in her time a leading figure
in the CYWU] spoke in Wigan about the need to separate 'the job from the work'; that a
commitment to the principles of a democratic youth work practice is not confined to one particular
group of professionals.
Training and Routes to Qualification
Her controversial insight leads us inexorably to the issue of who ought to be allowed to do Youth
Work. Lurking round the corner we have a further tightening of the professional belt. For many the
move to a graduate profession and the introduction of a licence to practice are simply good things,
beyond argument. Yet within our meetings thus far many a contradiction has surfaced. On an
impressionistic level those struggling still to work with young people in an emancipatory way are to
be found in a diversity of setting, are in possession or otherwise of differing qualifications and are
employed on different conditions. At the very least the arguments return us to some classic
chestnuts. Ought there to be a diversity of routes to qualification? What is the role of the part-timer
and the volunteer ? What are the dangers of professionalism itself? The North-East pamphlet
indicates that workers feel 'there isn't adequate, informed training/education for youth workers that
leads them to question and be critical thinkers.' In saying this they criticise the NVQ road, but to
what extent do their concerns impact upon the wider arena and, for example, the proliferation of
JNC approved courses? Indeed hasn't there always been an uneasy tension between Youth Work
theory and Youth Work practice? And in today's climate, isn't this gulf symbolised by the
suppression of critical argument within the corridors of Youth Work itself, a silencing carried out on
many occasions by workers and managers, who are not from the outside, but approved and signed
up members of the profession itself?
Telling Stories Out of School
A myth perpetuated by the 'new managerial' school is that their apparatus of prescribed targets and
outcomes provides a superior insight into what Youth Work does. They deceive themselves that an
array of quantitative information means they know what youth workers are up to. They are in denial
that a notable part of the evidence is fake. On our side we know that over the years insufficient
attention has been paid to documenting stories of practice in all their untidy complexity and
contradiction. Of course too our anecdotes could lapse into fiction. For the time being the first task
is to begin the collection of material. This was talked about at the Sheffield meeting and several
parties are exploring the possibility of a Youth Work 'Oral History' project, which would seek to
carry out a range of interviews with youth workers and even, if possible, young people grown older,
to whom they related. Please get in touch if this idea sparks your imagination.
Even as I scribble these belated thoughts, events overtake me. In particular an important discussion
around the 'set of principles' document is looming. I forgot to mention that at the Federation of
Detached Youth Work conference it was agreed that the Federation and the Campaign would
maintain a close and supportive working relationship. And it is heartening to hear that a South-West
In Defence meeting is being organised in Plymouth on January 8.
I'll close with these heartfelt words from Lenny, who warns us not to be too hasty with one another.
The debate is only just starting.
“Real youth work will always be vulnerable and exposed to the people who seek to bureaucratise it and once
youth work is bureaucratised it becomes something entirely different. And so, the very thing that makes it
effective and unique will also be the thing that makes it obsolete. There is no room for informality in a social
structure dominated by bureaucracy. ”
Doom, doom and more doom! Ha! I’m never sure about the way forward. I think there’s a long debate to be
had yet and the Taoist in me tells me that something will unfold organically.