Youth work offers real empowerment for change

Linda Jack
Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jason Pandya-Wood sparked controversy last week when he appeared to blame the workforce for cuts in youth services. I have a certain amount of sympathy for his view. A few years ago at a CYP Now conference I crossed swords with Fiona Blacke on the issue of evidencing the impact of youth work. However, shortly afterwards the education select committee was raising the same concerns.

We all have anecdotal examples of the difference we have made to young people's lives. Only recently my daughter met someone I worked with 25 years ago who, on finding out who she was said "your mum changed my life". But we have not benefited from the consistent robust evaluation that, for example, early years education, has. A body of evidence that has strongly influenced government policy regardless of political persuasion. However, in my view, that is only half the story – as commentators on Jason's article have pointed out.

I recently read an excellent discussion on youth work and politics between Colin Brent and Tony Taylor and found myself very much in agreement. As Tony argues: "What youth work has failed conspicuously to do is support young people in organising collectively about their grievances. I’d suggest that this is because youth work in the main has been scared of engaging with class politics. It has in its time grappled with the politics of race, gender, sexuality and disability but never class."

I think it is also about the reality of fear of consequences. Having been threatened with disciplinary action because of my support for young people campaigning against the war in Iraq, it is also a risky business supporting young people to take on the powers that keep you in a job!

But Tony is right – youth work should not just be about ticking a load of boxes relating to government targets, forcing workers to go for the “low hanging fruit” – it is also of enormous value for its own sake. It's about real empowerment to change things, its about serendipity – those precious unexpected outcomes that can change a young person's life forever.

So, as well as being better at being able to articulate and evidence the difference good youth work can make to young people's lives, we must also be prepared to support young people to make their voices heard, to organise collectively and stop being ignored. The postcode lottery that youth services have become is in part a demonstration of where youth workers have been able to do this successfully.

And we need to understand the political landscape both locally and nationally if we are to effect a change in attitude. When I was a local councillor, lack of facilities for young people often came second only to potholes as a major concern for residents. And nationally, I had a real battle to get a statutory basis for youth service in the Lib Dem youth policy – but that argument needs to be fought and won in all parties.

The bottom line for me is that we have an education system that fails too many of our young people – good youth work can offer so much to enrich and develop a young person's social education but also rekindle a love of learning. I continue to make that argument at every opportunity, I trust you will too.

Linda Jack is a member of the Parliamentary Policy Committee for Education, Young People and Families, and former member of the Federal Policy Committee