With struggles over the future of youth work going on concurrently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the enthusiasm for youth work in England seems to run out fastest at some of the highest levels of policy making. In part this may be because the policy makers have failed to understand its potential in work with young people. However, it is possible too, that the ministerial ambivalence stems from the opposite – a sense that the way youth work goes about its business may not be wholly supportive of key government agendas.
And so, asked by a youth worker to clarify where youth work might best fit into the structures emerging from the new Children Act, England's then Minister for Children and Youth judged this as “symptomatic of a flawed attitude” and of a reliance on “a silo approach”. Even within a generally affirming ministerial policy statement on youth work, “evidence” which purports to show youth club attendance as a potentially negative influence is preferred over very recent and substantial findings by direct studies of youth work, such as The National Youth Agency/ Joseph Rowntree Foundation's A national study of street-based youth work, and Bryan Merton's An Evaluation of the Impact of Youth Work in England, the latter funded by the Minister’s own Department.
Even more soundly-based national policy analyses can display similar blank spots about youth work. Thus, in a search for more effective responses to disadvantaged 16 to 25-year-olds, the Social Exclusion Unit is examining “practical approaches that get results by successfully considering how young adults think and behave”, that is, practices which start where young people are starting, intellectually and emotionally.
One of this paper’s main arguments is that such starting points, broadly defined, constitute a key defining principle – even the raison d' être – of all youth work. Given the downward pressures from central government, these absences of mind are, not surprisingly, being replicated in local policy-making and provision. In England, even as extended schools are being pushed as the hub of all community provision, “youth workers” operating within school settings can still find themselves simply filling resource gaps in the teaching or counselling of lower stream pupils or in sports coaching. In the name of “community safety” youth workers are constantly being pressed to douse teenage “hot spots” in local neighbourhoods.
In the longer run, the demands of Children and Young People’s Trusts (CYPTs) heavily committed to younger children and to child protection, threaten even more distorting effects. Indeed, even as the trusts were forming, anxieties were being voiced by leading commentators that “hungry predators from education and social services will train their beady eyes on Youth Service money”. However, money, though vital, is not always the organisational predator’s only prey. Especially in the days of target-driven, partnership-based service delivery, the scent of adaptable methods can also be attractive, not least for those policy makers and managers with strong territorial instincts. When the chase is over, some of the most easily digestible parts of youth work may have survived. But again the question has to be asked: will these filleted extracts still be recognisable and effective as youth work? And, perhaps even more telling ultimately, how much will be left of the Youth Service – the only agency which, with all its flaws, has had an explicit public remit to nurture and develop this practice as a distinctive way of working with young people? Nor, within all of this would it be wise for the voluntary and community sector organisations to be too complacent. In the context of increasing uncertainty, not to say pessimism, within statutory services, government (central and local), may seem to be offering them a bright new (and secure) future by courting them to take over whole services. Ultimately however, the same bottom-line principle will operate here too: that the piper calls the tune. Who then will guarantee that the practice they are expected to deliver is recognisably “youth work”?
Interrogating practice: towards a clarification of youth work’s defining features:
Have young people chosen to become involved – is their engagement voluntary?
Is the practice proactively seeking to tip balances of power in young people’s favour?
Are young people perceived and received as young people rather than, as a requirement, through the fi lter of a range of adult-imposed labels?
Is the practice starting where young people are starting – particularly with their expectation that they will be able to relax, meet friends and have fun?
Is a key focus of the practice on the young person as an individual?
Is the practice respectful of and actively responsive to young people’s peer networks?
Is the practice respectful of and actively responsive to young people’s wider community and cultural identities and, where young people choose, is it seeking to help them strengthen these?
Is the practice seeking to go beyond where young people start, in particular by encouraging them to be outward looking, critical and creative in their responses to their experience and the world around them?
Is the practice concerned with how young people feel and as well as with what they know and can do?