IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK
STATEMENT ON THE RIOTS
In the painful aftermath of the riots youth services have been much talked about, often mentioned as an ingredient in the cocktail of explanation. This might seem a chaos-sent opportunity for our campaign to shout from the rooftops the need to halt the carnage of cuts and indeed invest afresh in youth work. However a measure of humility and caution is required. Amongst the crudest of the government’s ideological prejudices is the notion that the problematic character of young people today is a reflection of a society and educational system gone ‘soft’. The irony is that for at least two decades the overwhelming emphasis across education has been one of imposing conformity and control. Indeed our own campaign was born out of opposition within youth work to the overwhelming shift from social education to social engineering. In the face of short-term behavioural modification programmes based on prescribed outcomes it has been a fraught task for workers to hang on to a young person-centred practice, which starts from young people’s definition of reality and not the State’s.
Against this backcloth we need to be wary of increased support and funding for youth work as ‘soft policing’, yet alert to the possibility of renewing youth work as democratic and emancipatory. But in advocating the latter we must be open to a critical and challenging debate with young people, communities, youth workers and politicians about what we mean. Looking ahead in a climate of consternation and contradiction we hope to use our forthcoming publication, This is Youth Work, as one contribution to a series of events in the forthcoming months, ranging from a Lobby of Parliament organised by ChooseYouth to both national and regional gatherings organised in creative ways to attract the broadest audience.
It is becoming ritualistic to intone a commitment to listening to young people, yet it must be our starting point. And we need to emphasise that in recent months young people have mounted innovative resistance to cuts and closures. The politicians have failed to listen. Indeed in Oxfordshire, Cameron’s backyard and Haringey, deep in the heart of the disturbances, where young people organising for themselves have been especially vocal and articulate, the youth service has all but disappeared. This said, perhaps the greatest challenge of the moment is to locate and hear the voices of ‘the unheard’. So long as they knew their place most of us ignored their growing rootlessness. Having announced their presence in such a deeply disturbing show of strength, endangering their own communities and bringing the uneven weight of a hypocritical judicial system upon their heads, they are not holding interviews and press conferences.
We continue to believe that that reaching out to the ‘unheard’ and supporting the ‘ignored’ is best achieved through an informal educational conversation founded on an open and voluntary relationship. It is a democratic practice, within which all involved have influence and are given respect. Across the coming months this is the form of youth work, which, alongside young people, we will defend and fight to extend.