Valuing young people, valuing grassroots youth work

Tania and Louise

Louise Doherty and Tania de St Croix

Young people say that more youth centres would make them safer. Looking back on research for ‘Grassroots youth work: Policy, passion and resistance in practice’, Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty argue for a renewed policy commitment to youth work as a youth-centred educational practice – one where the focus is on young people themselves, not on short-term results and pre-defined outcomes (in relation to knife crime or anything else).

When the Youth Violence Commission asked young people “If there was one thing you could change that you think would make young people safer, what would it be?”, the most popular response was the provision of more local youth centres and activities. This wish sits starkly against a backdrop of relentless cuts, closures and redundancies in the youth work sector, with council spending cut from £650 million in 2010/11 to £390 million in 2016/17 (LGA, 2018). It would be simplistic to claim that youth clubs prevent knife crime, which is rooted in a grossly unequal society and the vilification and marginalisation of working class and minority ethnic young people. Yet it has never been clearer that young people need to know they are valued; they need adults they can trust, who will challenge and support them; and they need spaces where they can build positive peer and community relations and a feeling of belonging.

There are tentative signs of a rekindling of interest in youth work amongst policy makers in England (youth policy in the UK is devolved across the four Nations). In August 2018, the Civil Society Strategy recognised “the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have, especially for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage”. In October 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs recommended reinvestment in youth work as an educational process (not as a way of ‘fixing problems’). Meanwhile, the Labour Party have pledged to reinvest in youth services and ring-fence local budgets.

Yet, as researchers who are also experienced and qualified youth workers, we are cautious about this renewed interest in our sector. This is partly because a meaningful policy and funding commitment is yet to emerge; it is also because of a tension at the heart of youth work and its place in policy. Too often, youth work as a response to ‘crisis’ has formalised the nature of our practice, removing the elements that young people most value – its engagement with them on their own terms rather than because they are seen as ‘at risk’ or ‘risky’.

The study underpinning the book Grassroots youth work found that the threat to youth work came both from cuts and a longer legacy of neoliberal market imperatives and surveillance cultures shaping public and voluntary services. The part-time and volunteer youth workers in the study were heavily constrained by funding attached to predefined outcomes and bureaucratic monitoring systems. Crime prevention projects that required them to work alongside the police, or to identify young people ‘at risk of involvement in crime’, were particularly problematic and counter-productive, because they brought youth workers into the realm of surveillance and ‘the establishment’ in young people’s eyes. ‘Proving’ (rather than critically reflecting on) their work wasted money and effort, as they were compelled to focus on meeting immediate targets at the expense of professional judgements and long-term face-to-face practice.

Despite these challenges, the study found evidence of the survival and thriving of grassroots approaches to youth work, based on informal learning through conversations, activities and relationships, chosen by young people in their leisure time. Since the book was written, however, the cuts have continued apace; many of the workers interviewed have lost their jobs and several of their organisations have closed. The confidence of the sector has been undermined by insecurity, leading to professional migration to other fields of labour. We are now in an even more challenging and precarious situation than we were when the book was published in 2016.

Any reinvestment – whilst welcome – must recognise that youth work’s very existence as an educational and professional endeavour has been eroded. Courses for the training of professional youth and community workers have been dismantled across the country, as universities (themselves acting on market pressures) have closed courses or redirected students towards social work and targeted interventions. Staff and managers with decades of experience have been made redundant or accepted early retirement, often feeling burnt out, disillusioned and let down; many are reluctant to return. Those who remain are employed on increasingly precarious contracts, rarely on union-negotiated terms and conditions. And youth work buildings once in community ownership have been sold off to address council and voluntary sector deficits.

We don’t want these negatives to over-shadow the passion and commitment of youth workers and volunteers, operating in extremely challenging circumstances; one of the reasons for writing the book in the first place was to recognise challenges while celebrating youth work. Yet we want to emphasise that policy support for youth work must aim to rebuild the confidence and competence of the sector. It must also avoid demanding short-term results, and recognise the nature and value of youth work as a skilled practice that operates on young people’s terms, whoever they are and whatever issues they want to bring.

We are currently in the first year of a new three-year research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which investigates the evaluation of youth work. We are looking at how a new emphasis on ‘impact’ is shaping the everyday practice and overall provision of services; how evaluation and accountability processes are experienced on the ground; and how these mechanisms might look if they were rooted in the needs and perspectives of young people and youth workers in their local contexts. Whilst the early stages of the fieldwork are hopeful in terms of identifying youth work organisations that have survived, the shape of renewed policy interest in youth work remains unformed. Our research seeks to interact with youth workers and young people to support what could be a renaissance of the practice at a time when youth work is needed more than ever.

Grassroots youth work [FC] 4webGrassroots Youth Work by Tania De St Croix is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.19.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

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