Yesterday I spent a fun and thought-provoking day at YMCA George Williams College for the Youth & Policy ‘Thinking Seriously About Youth Work and Policy’ Conference!
The focus of the Conference was to look at youth work in the light of government policy and the implications for the sector. There was a good range of speakers presenting on a variety of subjects and I actually really enjoyed myself (while trying to tweet all the sound bites)! I’ll try and summarise each of the speakers briefly below.
Ian Maerns, Labour MP for Gateshead and member of the government Select Committee on Children & Young People’s Services spent some time explaining the role of the committee and his experiences last year when evidence was being submitted for youth services. He reminded us that the role of the committee is not to set policy but to report to government and make recommendations for them to respond to. He quipped that the current government make a big deal about schooling (free schools, baccalaureate, etc) but know nothing of education. He also questioned the notion that “We’re all in this together” by highlighting the numerous policy changes that have disproportionately effected young people and the vulnerable. He claimed that the language of current government policy is telling: young people themselves are seen as problems. Therefore he concluded that our challenge is to enable young people to reach their maximum potential by breaking down barriers and seeking inclusion.
Garath Symonds, Director of young people’s services for Surrey County Council outlined how Surrey had adapted to funding cuts and policy changes. With a background in youth work, Gareth presented a compelling picture of youth work in the county showing the model they had moved to and the commitment made to front line youth workers. He said they have 36 youth centres with a full-time worker in each as well as another full-time equivalent post of part-timers. The line management of these staff (but not payroll, pension, etc) has been commissioned out to other organisations such as voluntary agencies and a housing association. To cut costs, they made 1 in 3 managers and 1 in 2 admin staff redundant becoming more efficient with software Apps for workers on laptops, tablets, etc. He made an important statement that based on current policy, traditional youth work had no place in the statutory sector, but that Surrey were making it work anyway.
While Garath was applauded for his efforts, there was a sense of concern from people which resonated in the questions to him. He was asked about longevity and sustainability of this model with further policy changes and cuts in future – which i don’t believe he really answered. I came away with a sense that he was committed, but perhaps naive or misguided about the impact he was having locally and nationally. Then again, I’m not in charge of a county youth service so what do I know?!
Fiona Blacke, Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency was a last minute addition to the programme. As I understand it, she couldn’t make the whole day but asked to attend a section and present a short talk regarding the NYA’s role. She took the opportunity to suggest that things for the youth sector were very bleak and because there had been no huge outcry, maybe we like it that way. She criticised the same old people chiming into youth work debates and called for new voices (which I think is happening anyway). Then she explained how the NYA had seen a tough few years which they had inherited due to mismanagement by her predecessor, but the organisation was moving forwards again. This was a particularly astounding thing to say in public as Tom Wylie the previous CEO at the NYA was not only in the room, but had been sitting next to her and helped organise the conference as part of Youth & Policy. It is also not true. While I don’t really know Tom, he was always well regarded at NYA and left the organisation with a healthy bank balance. Since he left, cuts and loss of contracts have dealt the NYA some heavy blows, but to publicly and unsubtly blame him for this was shocking!
Overall the talk was negative and personally motivated. At the end, Bernard Davies stood up and defended Tom, deploring the way Fiona had attacked him. This led to much discussion and debate as the conference broke for lunch. Fiona left during the break and so we were not able to question her.
After lunch Paul Oginsky, advisor to the government on youth, Spoke about the importance of personal and social development for young people. He explained there were far too many terms and approaches for this type of work and there is a need for a common language to help policy makers and managers who are commissioning these services. He went on to talk about the model he has developed for personal and social development, and how the National Citizen Service (NCS) is part of this. His goal is to get young people empowered as active citizens.
I’m pretty sceptical of the National Citizen Service as an idea, and Paul didn’t convince me on it. But he was far more engaging and passionate on his ideas than I was expecting, and I found myself admiring his positivity towards engaging young people. He was questioned quite a lot and it was clear that many in the room are against the NCS, but generally he took the criticism well and tried to respond to points raised.
The next session was broken into workshops. I went to one on the role of faith hosted by Nigel Pimlott. While there was good discussion, the session was too short to really get into anything.
Finally, there was a panel discussion with Bernard Davies (IDYW), Lesley Buckland (YMCA George Williams College), and myself. We each presented a few thoughts on the day before opening up to the audience. Bernard spoke on the values of the In Defence campaign and the need to critically scrutinise government policy. He outlined the dangerous trends occurring with our Coalition government and urged action from practitioners – a theme that had come up a number of times during the day. I found myself agreeing with Bernard on many points (at the risk of being called a grumpy old man) and talked about policy implication for practice. At least I think I did! Lesley made a stand for professional values and called out the occasions during the day when ‘professionals’ had taken verbal swipes at others. She also echoed Bernard on asking for the field of youth work to stand up for itself and others.
In all it was a good day and a quiet triumph for the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign. Although IDYW was mentioned a few times, it was the not a big focus of the day. However, their description of youth work and the general values they stand seemed to come through in much of the discussions.
I came away with a greater sense of urgency to stand up for young people and positive work with young people in the light of policy direction.
Did you go? What did you make of it?