Youth Work & Policy Reflections

16 March 2012 — 12 Comments

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?


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

12 responses to Youth Work & Policy Reflections

  1. Some Friday reading for you! My reflections on the Youth & Policy conference yesterday. #youthpolicy #youthwork

  2. Thanks for these reflections. Interesting to see personal and social development being discussed by Paul Oginsky and the NCS.
    Just sad that they are re inventing the wheel here a bit. Not sure that the funds have been allocated in the correct response for young people at a tim of Ecconomic downturn and that the NCS scheme will be able to address the social impacts on young people in a six week programme?
    As for the defence campaign I feel it’s not about defending its a time for defining youth work practice in changing field. I understand some will view us as under threat and when people are threatened they see the right to defend. We are not under physical threat it’s more suttle than that, so that’s why I believe we need to have the discussions and dialogue that defines youth work in 2012 due to the changing landscapes practitioners are navigating.

    Thanks in for your reflections

    Darren Farmer

  3. ‘Youth Work & Policy Reflections’ from @bobweasel : those from #IDYW were definitely not the most agitational ppl there

  4. Good succinct overview of the day!

    I found myself reflecting on the train home about this, and today’s conference at Oasis. I came away thinking Y&P seemed (generally) about trying to tear down things that people didn’t like. And that seemed to be based upon a relatively narrow idea of what youth work is, and any deviation from that (say, for example, it being lead by the voluntary sector rather than the statutory) met a lot of cynicism.

    By contrast, today seemed (generally) about people trying to reinforce and build up the things they liked. People were looking for points of contact with other youth workers, rather than trying to force assent to a particular view.

    Which I think puts the IDYW campaign in an odd position. If people who comes into contact with the campaign leaves feeling slightly alienated from it because they don’t share exactly the same opinions as some of the louder voices, how will it ever become an agent for real change?

    Maybe that’s too simplistic an understanding of the two days!

    • Naomi Stanton 17 March 2012 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks Jon for these reflections, and interesting to read people’s comments.

      Peter, thanks for coming – it was good to meet you and also really interesting to hear your take on the day. I do think we have a lot of Y&P ‘regulars’ and we can have a tendency to assume we all think the same as the dominant voice. That is why it’s particularly interesting to hear from people who haven’t been to Y&P events before.

      I am a little disappointed that you felt some views were not able to be voiced. It’s difficult to encourage positive debate when the topic is something like policy (especially at the moment)but we tried to get a range of views in the speakers and Tom was keen to start the day with a challenge to people to consider solutions not focus on what is lost. I do think us youth workers have a tendency to mourn the ‘good old days’ but let’s not forget IDYW was actually created in a time of relatively generous state funding for youth work. Do the good old days actually exist? I wasn’t a youth worker in the time of Albemarle, often cited as its golden years, so I can’t really say.

      I kept quiet on the day as I wanted to leave the floor for others to speak but I do get annoyed at the view that only those with statutory experience understand what youth work really is. Let’s not forget that youth work began as a faith-based philanthropic venture that was later exploited by the state to deal with problems, and thus why youth work has dominantly taken on a defecit approach. State-based youth work has been inherent with tensions since its inception – how can a learner-defined process like youth work be applied to deal with specific state-defined problems? My experience of statutory work is that it is rife with tensions and cross purposes. However my research into Christian youth work also finds similar tensions exist in many cases between youth workers and churches. Thus I think the issue is that we try too often to apply youth work to an institutional agenda rather than doing it for youth work’s (or perhaps young people’s) sake.

      My reflection on your distinction between the 2 events you attended this week is this. The Y&P conference was attended largely by those interested in the statutory agenda for youth work thus holding a certain dominant view, whereas the Oasis conference was attended by Christian youth workers and therefore the dominant view was that of Christian youth work. At Y&P we have tried to engage faith-based youth workers (especially since my arrival on the board) but if they are not there, their view won’t be heard. Christian youth workers are the largest group of paid youth workers in this country and I really feel they should be part of the wider debates about youth work than just Christian-focused discussions. Yet Christina youth work conferences thrive and are packed out yet we struggle to engage them even when hostying faith-themed eventzs. I’d be interested in your thoughts on why this is. It may be beacuse the perceived ‘dominant voice’ at events like ours puts them off, or is there a deeper reluctance to engage with the wider youth work field? Or, given that they arguably are the wider youth work field now, then maybe they simply (and perhaps justifiably) don’t think they need to have these debates with other youth workers.

      We are launching a book on youth work and faith later this year that Jon, among others, are contributing to and we are hoping to put on a launch event(s) looking at the relationship between youth work, faith and civil society in which we hope to have a mixed audience where some of the book’s contributors can disseminate their ideas. We’ll be engaging in discussion with some of the faith-based workers who are involved with Y&P about how best to publicise and put together the event(s) but any thoughts welcome.

      • Hi Again,

        Well first, I must make sure you are completely aware that I very much enjoyed the debate on the day, have left very much provoked (even, agitated?), and would certainly sign up to the next conference!

        And I don’t have anything against youth work veterans having their opinion heard at all – after all, it is their books we generally base our practice on!

        But I find the whole statutory/voluntary debate kind of self defeating (surely we’re all on the same side?). I find Bernard’s manifesto to be an entirely positive statement of belief (creed, if you like) for what good youth work should be, but on the day I wondered if we had lost sight of that, and sunk to the lowest common denominator (which, in youth work, is hating the Torys and their policies!) I accept, though, the only way to redress that balance is to speak up! Maybe next time I’ll be less timid 🙂

        You are, of course, right to say that the two days had entirely different agendas – and maybe aren’t even really comparable. But the two organisations – the ‘Christian Youth Work Constituency’ and IDYW – are both fighting for the things that are important to them in very difficult times. Imagine if there was a vision for youth work that could incorporate both, and there was some dialogue between the groups?

  5. Naomi Stanton 17 March 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Sorry me again.
    More thoughts.

    I did think that Lesley’s point on the day was really interesting that one concern over youth work being taken on bu vol orgs is that is wasn’t part of a democratically elected process. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective and need to mull this over some more.

    I also think that the ‘conflict’ that occured just before lunch was not helpful in keeping us positive and focused on solutions because it immediately created an ‘us and them’ environment, and a permissiveness to be negative. However I am glad that what Fiona said was challenged, and it showed great integrity on bernard’s part because he and Tom are often not of the same view around youth work and how it should be measured, funded, etc.

    And finally, I am excited that the voluntary sector has an opportunity to grab youth work by the horns again. Sadly, from my observations of church-based youth work, I don’t know whether they will overcome the tension between whether youth work is there to meet church or community needs in a timely enough fashion to take advantage of the opportunity. I hope that they do.

  6. Hello, just thought I’d mention in reply to one of Peter’s comments about IDYW – the dilemma of people being potentially alienated by louder voices. As an IDYW activist I’m really interested in this, how we work out the balance of having a strong position which we are not afraid to state clearly, while also being willing to listen, learn and adapt.

    One of the main things we’re doing at the moment is using our book ‘This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice’ as a resource to offer free workshops to groups of youth workers to discuss the issues from their perspectives. Having been involved in a few workshops, they have felt like a genuine opportunity for dialogue – a way of staying grounded in diverse practice environments. This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming pluralist – I would challenge anyone who wanted to pursue a market-led agenda, for example, but I would still listen and hopefully learn something. Anyway I just thought I’d mention this in case anyone reading this might be interested in hosting workshops of this kind or if anyone has any thoughts on this method.

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