Posts Tagged 'youth workers'

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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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

What is youth work?

For youth workers and youth work

‘For youth workers and youth work’ by Doug Nicholls

To mark National Youth Work Week here is an excerpt from For youth workers and youth work by Doug Nicholls

Youth work is vitally important within society’s commitment to lifelong learning, inclusion and democracy. It is where informal learning takes place. From the voluntary relationship established with young people a dialogue begins that develops through trust and mutuality into professional friendship and a form of educative and supportive accompaniment. In such a relationship the rights and voices of young people are primary. Youth workers have built a unique public service out of this relationship and it has always been difficult for the state to contain this approach in its wider endeavours to manage the market economy, creating youth unemployment and the necessary demonisation of young people.

Youth work has therefore offered an alternative human vision of the economy. It offers a vision of an economy with human beings at the centre which is greatly significant and much more than a form of benign philanthropy, or a soft sentiment. It is a glimpse today and at a micro level of what could be the possibilities tomorrow globally. Youth work signals the creation of a world of individual human potentialities authentically realised in new forms of social relationships. Just as a nationalised health service free at the point of need or a free education system from cradle to grave signal an advance in civilisation and social cooperation, so youth work represents an advance in social and educational commitments and practice.

Youth work has extended the scope of education beyond the classroom and into life. Importantly for current concerns, it has extended the prospect of education into the development of consciousness and political action.

These lofty descriptions and aspirations do not always fit with the suppressive restrictions on practice experienced every day. But daily practice must always be articulated in a wider context – what does it symbolise and how does it compare with prevailing values and realities? It must be politicised if the benefits of youth work are to go beyond the utopia of a perfectly realised moment in a set of perfectly enjoyable interpersonal relationships. We have to make those principles of voluntary inter-human engagement more universally applicable and also the principles on which the economy is organised.

What links the immediate with the bigger society are the thoughts and beliefs of those who practice in the service of youth. This is why the focus of this book is on the minds of youth workers, looking at how youth workers think about themselves and the world they live in and what they do.

Youth workers have made an empowering profession; now let them empower themselves a little more in these new circumstances. The conservative motto ‘Don’t think, obey’ was turned by some into ‘Obey, but think.’ Now it is time to move onto a real critical alternative, ‘Don’t obey, think, then act.’ If the state was once forced to recognise young people, why is it now demolishing the Youth Service? The answer resides in the new phase of capitalism known as neoliberalism and its failure to plan for the future.

For youth workers and youth work by Doug Nicholls is available to buy with a 20% discount here.


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