YOUTH SERVICE: The End of Youth Work?

By MARK SMITH

| 05 February 2003

The Transforming Youth Work Government initiative has been welcomed in most quarters. But Mark Smith believes it could spell the end of youth work as we know it

It must have seemed as if Christmas had come early for English youth services when the latest instalment of Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services appeared on 18 December, promising resources, a statutory basis, and recognition of youth work values and methods.

But as the feel-good effect wore off, a rather different mood emerged among some youth workers. They had grasped the scale of the changes proposed.

As one worker who responded on the informal education web site bulletin board (www.infed.org) said: "The Government has given us what we wanted, but also completely taken away what we are and do."

Unfortunately, while youth work within local youth services is certainly being transformed, it is into something less than excellent and not youth work. Four areas of concern have developed.

The Connexions agenda

The first is the requirement that all work with the 13 to 19 age range in each English youth service is "integral to the Connexions service, its objectives and is a key partner in delivery".

But for all the talk of personal and social development, Connexions basically equates wellbeing of young people with participation in schooling or training, and in the economy.

This is a narrow and demeaning vision. We know, for example, that once basic material needs are met, the greatest contribution to wellbeing comes through satisfying relationships with friends and neighbours and in families. People are more likely to flourish if they are members of groups and networks, and such associational work has been fundamental to youth work.

But it is effectively sidelined within the Connexions strategy. And there are worries that the freedom to respond to young people is limited by the degree of central direction of Connexions.

Accreditation

The requirement that 60 per cent of young people worked with in the 13 to 19 age range must "undergo personal and social development that results in an accredited outcome" has far-reaching implications. It alters the focus of activity in a way that severely undermines the informal and convivial nature of youth work and the ability to work with people 'where they are at'.

One youth worker responds on www.infed.org: "Once youth workers have to start 'selling' a certain number of accredited courses, the whole nature of the work changes and, therefore, the relationships we have with young people within it."

Workers will increasingly be viewed at best as trainers or tutors and at worst as employment and training brokers.

Delivery rather than relationships

Third, there are concerns about the ways in which the new requirements look to a managerial model of delivery rather than relationship.

Organising work around targets, outcomes and curriculum endanger what lies at the heart of youth work: friendship and association. We know that pressures linked to the meeting of targets in other sectors have meant a reduction in the amount of freewheeling time that practitioners are able to spend with people.

Surveillance and bureaucratisation

Last, there are big worries about the level of surveillance and bureaucratisation involved. More detailed records will have to be kept on an increasing number of young people, so that participation can be accredited and the monitoring requirements of Connexions met. The result will be further pressure on the time youth workers can devote to face-to-face work.

One worker puts it this way: "It will be interesting to see how 60 per cent accredited courses, 'crucial outreach work' and God knows how much more form-filling will leave any time for associational or being work."

Furthermore, there are important social and political questions about the increased level of surveillance that young people are subjected to. Should youth workers be party to this?

And to what extent does the whole idea of joined-up services undermine people's perception of youth workers as being on the margins of the system, people who can be turned to and trusted?

Service workers or youth workers?

The shift towards accreditation and delivery will tip the balance away from the forms of relationship and informal approach that have been central to the development of youth work.

Those working within such services may do some youth work, but it will be difficult to justify calling them youth workers.

With the advent of the Connexions strategy, local youth services have lost their distinctive position on the margins of the formal education and social work systems.

We can only hope that agencies and groups within the voluntary sector keep their distance from this strategy, and that there are enough workers and managers around to keep the spirit and practice of youth work alive.

MARK SMITH

Mark Smith is the Rank research fellow and tutor at the YMCA George Williams College, east London, and a visiting professor in community education at the University of Strathclyde. He has written a number of books, and edits the informal education home page. To follow the Transforming Youth Work debate, visit www.infed.org.

Working in partnership with the Rank Charities and around 60 UK agencies, Smith has been involved in numerous practice development initiatives.

His books include Creators Not Consumers (1982), Developing Youth Work (1988), Local Education (1994) and Informal Education (1996, 1999 with Tony Jeffs).

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