Monday, 1 November 2010

Youth Work: what now?

Should there continue to be a discrete statutory youth service in Britain, and is it appropriate for the state to take the lead in what has always been seen as informal social education? This has been bothering me since long before the bankers did us all in and the new British coalition government came to power.

Youth work has always been vaguely defined, sometimes deliberately but too often sloppily so. However, I think there are two broad approaches to it that are worth looking at here. It's not about adopting either one or the other, but about the balance between them within youth work as a whole, and what kind of youth work should sit where in the mix. I don't have an answer, but I do know that we are trying to ride them both at the moment. It's not pretty to watch - or comfortable to do.

As I see them, these are the two approaches:

1. Youth work as informal social education under conditions of universally accessible and voluntary association in which young people decide where they want to go. Most youth workers would agree that this is the ideal. I've always thought that youth work is one of the very few mainstream state services that isn't dominated by remedial agendas but should by its very nature have people's positive development as its prime aim. So far as possible I've sought to preserve this ideal against what I suppose I shall have to call 'deficit models of youth' emanating from both Right and Left as well as from the massed ranks of post-political, candy-floss Stalinists who have long had their tree-hugging hands around the throat of public service in this country.

2. Youth work as harnessed to remedial agendas, employing informal education techniques to support ends considered socially desirable and stymie socially damaging behaviours. This requires a priori judgements about what we should be doing and the targeting of young people perceived to have problems or be at risk of them, but employs youth work methods to attain the desired ends. This is the more utilitarian view and compromises many of the principles youth workers hold dear. Nonetheless, from drug and alcohol work to sex education and even the current therapeutic obsession with correcting low self-esteem (don't get me started!), this is in fact what youth workers spend a lot of time doing already.

If the balance is to favour the first model - that is, openly accessed developmental work - why should the state deliver it at all? Does youth work really fit there? Wouldn’t it be better to restore the responsibility for informal social education to the formal and informal institutions of civil society? The state is compelled to formalise the informal and tacit, is dominated by written procedures from which it scared to depart for fear of prosecution, is necessarily prescriptive and is subject to ideological, discursive and party-political agendas. Its institutions are cumbersome and its targeting and data collection methods invite an often fraudulent culture which, in a vicious circle, skews the very data on which future policy is based.

In defence of the state, insofar as it can avoid party political agendas, it can be an honest broker - if often a slothful, incompetent and wasteful one - and better able than civil society to guarantee equity in the reach and uniformity in the quality threshholds of what is provided. Leaving things to civil society also puts youth work at the mercy of enthusiasts - of which there are good and bad varieties.

If the balance is more in favour of targeted and remedial work, I think this is in principle a legitimate concern of the state, although particular governments' policies and assumptions may be open to question and I am sceptical of constructions of young people as either criminals or victims, with not much space in between. If this model predominates I see no reason why this kind of youth work can't be done by suitably trained informal social educators within state organisations (for example, youth offending and social work teams). I'm no expert, but I believe that this type of social pedagogy is close to the model followed in European countries like France and The Netherlands.

However, it begs the question whether there should be a discrete "Youth Service" at all rather than a corpus of professional competencies and techniques that can be applied to different situations. This raises further questions about the increasing subjection of young people to professional intervention - not least in what are supposed to be informal interactions - but perhaps this would be appropriate in this context. It would also requires a very robust civil society to provide for the developmental social education of all young people if the state were to withdraw.

Either way, I think that the justification for having a “Youth Service” - as opposed to people who do youth work - looks very shaky indeed. I am erring on the side of getting non-remedial youth work out from under the state's wing altogether, but my goodness it's a huge risk, because there isn't a Big Society out there worth the name right now.

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