A Re-invigorated Role for Youth Work?

In these times of austerity, continuing deficit reductions and the closure of so-called ‘lesser priority’ services have seen the position and value of youth work severely questioned. The true reality of this depends very much, of course, on locality and positioning within either public or third sectors. Does this then foretell the end for youth work?

My view would be that it depends, to some extent, on your perspective. Without question, youth services, especially in the public sector, have been closely scrutinized and, in many cases, either removed completely, commissioned out – fully or partly – or today resemble a shadow of their former selves. It is also true that services provided by voluntary sector partners have also been subject to associated ‘austerity’ consequences.

However, have such events been more to do with manipulating organizational and infrastructural constructs to save money, somewhat akin to re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than youth work per se; and, do those changes necessarily imperil the continuance of effective youth work?

From my perspective as Chair of the UK’s first youth mutual, Circle Crew for Change Limited, I’d argue for a stronger focus on youth work and less concern on the constructs for its delivery. This is because a strong focus on youth work has enabled the young people of Delves Lane, Consett, with some adult support, to address some long-standing and specific tensions in the world of youth work. Those long-term tensions include:

Visionary v Pedestrian ~ for too long and even now, adults have controlled the youth agenda and directed young people in terms of what was seen to be needed, rather than focused on what young people actually wanted. The young people of Consett wanted change and they wanted it on their terms … and the creation of the youth mutual took off.

Developmental v Instrumental ~ the debate over social control and social change has existed since before I entered youth work in 1972. Youth work broadly, in my experience, still functions largely as an agent of social control. Youth work as has been practiced with Circle Crew has seen young people grow and develop, and accept and exercise responsibility and accountability. It has been developmental.
Targeted v Universal ~ the arguments against the evils of targeted work remain fatuous in a climate which will never again embrace ‘universalism’, if it ever really did? Resources have always been scarce in youth work and have always been ‘targeted’ in my direct experience. The real debate has been about who controls those targets? Surely all good youth work delivering quality outcomes for young people will meet any ‘target’ you care to name? Young people at Circle Crew understand the reality of the modern commissioning agenda, the nature of austerity, and the consequences for them in articulating a case for funding, from wherever this may arise.

Current Evidence v Judgment ~ the debate about professional judgment versus hard-edged evidence has also raged incessantly. I believe both have their place and should be utilized. The youth sector was very slow to adapt to changes in performance management initiated in the 2000’s, largely because we were not used to being held ‘accountable’. I chair a Management Committee on which young people have a 60+% holding. We each hold the others accountable and fully recognize the need to evidence what we do, including the quality of what we deliver.

Development v Protection ~ whilst with good reason, the advent of Safeguarding has increasingly caused local authorities to become ever more risk-averse. I have experienced the full spectrum from the free and easy days in the late 1970’s to risk assessments in triplicate of the 2000’s. Youth work practiced well, however, enables young people to engage in calculated and agreed risk that broadens their development, whilst ensuring their protection. Young people at Circle Crew own the company. It is a legal entity. They are responsible and accountable. They understood this moving through the formation process. That’s why they wrote in the constitution that we would have a focus on learning for all, particularly those directly involved in the management process.

Enabling v Ensuring ~ local authorities across the 1990’s and 2000’s moved increasingly towards becoming ensurers, rather than enablers of services to young people … and many of us would argue they didn’t do that well enough either. Our development process for the mutual has enabled young people to engage, in their own way and at their own pace. This process is still on-going, as new members come and go.

Empowering v Controlling ~ youth work was always seen by me as an empowering process. What I often saw throughout my career however was a lot of adult control, often manipulatively so. I’ve always sought to empower young people and staff wherever I’ve worked. The decision-making processes for Circle Crew are young people governed, as decided by them through the creation of their constitution. That is a powerful tool for really enabling empowerment.

Partnership v Insularity ~ the youth work sector has always been highly competitive, particularly within the third sector. Funds are limited and demands are many, even more so in this current climate. Aristotle once wrote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In the modern environment that makes greater sense than ever before. Insularity has its place, but developing more effective partnerships is an absolute necessity nowadays. Circle Crew is now moving forward on this agenda, both locally and more widely in the Consett area.

Addressing these tensions has brought our organization that much closer to a stronger focus on a youth work approach that remains highly relevant in the modern climate, captures young people’s voice, enables their proper engagement and involvement, and provides them with full decision-making capability in determining what is developed to meet their needs.

I’d pose two further questions to close this post. Will the approach we are adopting preserve and strengthen the essence of youth work? Will it also really improve services and outcomes with and for all young people in our community?

Time will tell. As a relatively young organization, incorporated in March 2013, we have some ways to go yet! However, pursuing the process developed thus far has been a revelation and the response of the young people has been remarkable.

In my next post on this subject, I will describe in further detail some of the key challenges we have addressed along the way and our simple blueprint for continuing forward with our development.


About John Thurlbeck

A highly experienced, articulate and effective leader, manager and consultant; 25 years in public sector leading and managing change in ‘turnaround situations’; and, 13 years as a proactive OD consultant, trainer and interim manager with strong coaching and presentational skills working across UK and Europe. Recognised for great results, expertise, sense of humour and high integrity, John is an inspirational and empowering people and organisation developer, underpinned by a passion for lifelong learning. He thrives when delivering projects that yield multiple business benefits to the client.
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