In Defence of Youth Work was launched in March 2009 with an Open Letter to the youth work field designed to counter the UK New Labour government’s growing managerialist approach to youth work. This started from the assertion that youth workers were failing to do what was increasingly being expected of all public services: ‘evidence’ their ‘impacts’. It then demanded that they focus on the government’s handed-down ‘targets’ for, for example, recorded and accredited ‘outcomes’ and that they deliver pre-set programmes aimed at young people labelled as ‘NEET’, ‘at risk’ and ‘anti-social’. As youth workers increasingly experienced these requirements as seriously distorting their practice, a defence of youth work’s defining features – set out in the Open Letter as its ‘cornerstones’ – was seen as more and more urgent.
An early proactive response to these policies was the decision of the first IDYW national conference in February 2010 to run a project –The View from the Grass Roots – to provide evidence of the qualitative impact of youth work on young people’s lives. In doing this it sought also to demonstrate an approach which both, in the words of one of the contributors to this resource can ‘sit within the ethos of youth work’ and challenge the ‘tick-boxing’ and ‘statistical measurements’ then (as now) dominating so many government-inspired monitoring exercises. The project focused on gathering ‘stories of practice’ – youth workers’ and young people’s narratives of their direct experience of youth work in action. Stories came from a variety of sources including through two ‘story-telling workshops’ whose format and process drew heavily on the Socratic Dialogue approach to debate and analysis initiated by (amongst others) Professor Sarah Banks of Durham University (see Story-telling with Experienced Youth Workers).
The result was a book – This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice – which, with very generous financial support from the Unison & Unite/CYWU unions, was launched in Parliament in October 2011. They presented twelve stories, vividly illustrated by Jethro Brice and supported by the voices on a DVD of a group of young people reflecting on their experience of youth work. With a thousand copies circulated, the book has been widely recognised as an innovative contribution in its own right to the understanding of youth work as a distinctive practice.
Immediately after its publications, IDYW began to build on this response by using the book as a resource for workshops which focused on supporting a practice rooted in the Open Letter’s ‘cornerstones’ and which thereby gave ‘open access’ workers opportunities to reaffirm their youth work identity. However, as after 2010 the UK Coalition government’s assault on youth work gathered pace, it became clear that the focus of the workshops needed to be broadened if they were to connect with the increasing number of workers based in ‘targeted’ settings where young people were required to attend. The workshops then concentrated on generating and analysing (‘unpicking’) examples of participants’ practice in their current work settings in order to clarify if and how this was youth work as defined by the IDYW ‘cornerstones’ and how the struggle for such a practice could be sustained.
Between 2011 and 2014 IDYW ran 27 of these workshops, attracting around 600-650 face-to-face workers, managers, students and tutors. (See Review of Story-telling Workshops: 2013). In that time story-telling has also been used with young participants in a youth project; with young volunteers; by a voluntary organisation aiming to strengthen its youth work identity; by at least one local authority Youth Service to support its monitoring and staff supervision arrangements; by tutors on higher education youth and community work courses in their teaching and student assessment; and by a voluntary youth project wanting to engage its users in evaluating its work.
This resource is the product of the individual and collective experiences of a small group of IDYW activists. While some of the material suggests satisfying achievements and evidence of further possibilities, it also reveals something of contributors’ struggles, of ‘unfinished’ processes and questions still to be addressed. In recognition of the latter, IDYW’s commitment is to go on seeking out and then addressing other areas within the youth work field – including beyond the UK – where story-telling would seem to have a potentially valuable contribution to make to practice, training and relevant aspects of management.
Though, to preserve authenticity, some of the sections are presented in the first person, in the interests of confidentiality all are written anonymously.
For making this resource possible, thanks are due to:
- The practitioners who have offered examples of their practice at workshops and then responded so openly to colleagues’ questions and challenges.
- The many other workshop participants who have contributed to these discussions and debates.
- The organisations and individuals who have hosted story-telling workshops.
- Alex Rankin for providing such striking and relevant visual images.
- All the members of the IDYW ‘Book 2’ group who have spent many hours planning this Resource, written most of the material and helped to bring the whole thing together – in particular Paula Connaughton, Bernard Davies, Tania de St Croix, Paul Hogan, Susanna Hunter-Darch, Debbie Marsden, Colin Brent, who has designed the website and uploaded the material onto it, and others who wish to keep their contribution anonymous.