Developing youth work: Chapter 4 – The demise of the youth service?

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In chapter 4 of developing youth work Mark Smith explores the situation facing youth work and the youth service in the late 1980s. He argues that the youth service will whither away, but that youth work in different forms will develop, but not necessarily grow.

contents: introduction · growing inequality and a new social condition of youth? · welfare crisis? · youth work organization and the development of parallel provision · problems of purpose, theory and practice · thinking about purpose · theory · the demise of the youth service? · bibliography and further reading

When writing this chapter back in 1987/8 I hoped that the prediction of the demise of the youth service would not turn out to be correct. As I write today, the service has certainly withered, but it still remains in most authorities in England and Wales, and still can be found in Northern Ireland. However, just how long it exist in England is an interesting question. Three points need underlining here.

First, what people mean by ‘Youth Service’ has generally shifted. In the past it has been a more encompassing term covering youth work agencies – statutory and voluntary. Today it is more generally used as a term to refer to the youth work undertaken or directly funded by local authorities.

Second, we need to consider the impact of the Connexions strategy – directly and indirectly. Even though the government has claimed a future for youth service (in Transforming Youth Work) a number of authorities have been actively considering the future shape of their services – and there is some indication that some will dispense with a distinctive youth service, opting instead for a more general community development/regeneration strategy.

Third, it is important to note how the lack of attention to the essential qualities of youth work has continued. Theorizing around its purposes, practices and orientation has hardly deepened since 1988. We could argue that the impact of earlier neglect has come home to roost. There is some question as to whether many youth services (heightened by the impact of the Connexions strategy in England) are actively involved in youth work. In particular, there has been a loss of faith in associational forms of work, a move towards certification and vocationalism (and the adoption of more formal educational forms), and a continuing failure to address demographic and social shifts in the experience of ‘youth’.

Sadly, the general direction of the argument in the chapter still hold. An additional twist comes around the notion of ‘youth’ itself. It could be argued that it has a declining usefulness as an analytical concept – and that this further undermines the case for a ‘youth’ service.

Mark K Smith 2001

links: the problem of ‘youth’ for youth work · transforming youth work

There cannot have been a time in the history of youth work when someone did not speak of crisis. Such concerns have involved the ‘problems’ that young people presented, the impact of economic, political or social change upon society in general or young people in particular, or difficulties about the funding, organization and recognition of the work. The idea of crisis is perhaps best exemplified by the case of someone who is ill; it is ‘a turning point in the course of the illness, but also a period of heightened danger and uncertainty. The person may recover, or may die’ (Hill and Bramley, 1986: 78). While the notion of crisis may be overworked, such is the uncertainty both in the environment in which youth workers operate and in the work itself, that the demise of the Youth Service – and along with it certain elements of youth work – now appears a strong possibility. The point has been reached where a relatively smooth continuance looks impossible: the position of young people has worsened; welfare in general has come under attack and there have been major shifts in welfare policy; and there are deep problems concerning purpose and theory within the Service.

Growing inequality and a new social condition of youth?

There is little need to describe at length the scale and nature of the economic restructuring which is currently taking place in the UK. The declining manufacturing base, the relative shift of employment into service industries, the internationalization of production and distribution, the utilization of ever more capital-intensive methods [page 66] of production, and the movement away from the established manufacturing centres have not only contributed to the desolation of whole regions but have also heightened social differences in general. In the first half of the 1980s, unemployment more than doubled and pay differentials widened considerably. At the same time changes in taxation and in the dispersement and overall levels of social security benefits contributed to a real cut in income for the poorest sections of the community (Mack and Lansley, 1985; Rentoul, 1987). This situation has been further aggravated by another shift in housing policy towards the relative subsidy of those buying their own homes:

The problem is not only huge, however, it is also desperately serious for many. Among the 7.5 million people living in poverty, there are some 2.5 million people, including nearly 1 million children, whose lives are diminished and demeaned in every way so far as they fall below the minimum standards of society today. (Mack and Lansley, 1985: 282-3)

In addition to these general shifts, the employment situation facing young people has been worsened by technical advances which have destroyed some traditional teenage jobs, by the allegedly high cost to employers of the wages paid to young workers, and by official policy, which has invested money in ‘training’ rather than job creation (Coffield et al., 1986: 206—7). The scale of the problem has been further exacerbated by Government action, as Allbeson has noted in respect of income maintenance: during the first half of the 1980s a low priority was attached to protecting the incomes of young people; there was an added delay in the recognition of adult independence for the unemployed by the state; and the transfer of support for those on benefit from the state to the family, with little acknowledgement of the financial burden which resulted (Allbeson, 1985: 81—2). This situation has continued (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 51—2).

Whatever the reasons for this apparent lack of priority for youth, it has been argued that the result is a devastation of work prospects, and hence wages, for a large group of young people, which is also a devastation of their future: ‘The wage… is the means to, and promise of a future. It is the crucial pivot for social and cultural transitions into what this society defines as adulthood’ (Willis et al., 1985: 218). In this way the young unemployed have been pushed into a ‘new social condition’ of suspended animation between school and work with an extended period of relative poverty and dependency upon the family and on the state. This process, [page 67] according to Coffield et al., has the effect of intensifying the ‘customary roles of young women as domestic labourers’ (1986: 205). It has confirmed the disadvantage suffered by black young people who experience disproportionate unemployment rates compared with white people, and considerable discrimination in the operation of training schemes (Newnham, 1986: 17—20). The social consequences of all this are still to be calculated: ‘the almost endless adolescence, which for decades has become the lot of middle class youth, is now the daily experience of their working class contemporaries with one critical distinction: for the latter there will be no elite jobs to compensate for the long denial of status’ (Coffield et al., 1986: 205).

The idea that this is a new social condition needs approaching with care, as it can easily become used as a metaphor for a generation. What is claimed as new looks depressingly old and is brought about by the intensification of existing conditions in times of mass unemployment. After all, racial discrimination hardly began with the onset of mass unemployment. Further, the scale and extent of the condition needs putting in context. Most people in their early 20s are employed, live in reasonable, or at least adequate housing, and enjoy a standard of living which surpasses that which pertained two decades earlier. This is not to deny that large numbers of young people have been disadvantaged significantly over the last decade. Nor is it to minimize the changes that have occurred since the 1950s in terms of young people’s employment, training and education. However, it is only by considering these dimensions, that we can begin to see why increased social disadvantage has not caused undue alarm to successive Conservative governments. From their perspective, the handling of youth unemployment, for example, has been an area of considerable success. The objects of excluding a greater proportion of young people from the labour market and lowering their income levels and expectations, without incurring a major threat to order or undermining the Government’s political base, have been achieved (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 47-56).

Welfare crisis?

Any government faces considerable problems in a recession for, as O’Higgins (1985) has argued, the absence of growth eliminates the augmentation of resources from which increased social expenditure (and thus it was assumed, increased redistribution) could be financed, without cutting into pre-tax living standards. Without growth, redistribution requires real losses for some (O’Higgins, [page 68] 1985: 163). Recession also increases the demands upon the social welfare system and reduces the numbers of people who pay tax and make social insurance contributions. While the costs involved in having over three million unemployed are huge, with demographic changes the government also faces a growing bill for pensions and social services for the elderly (Tinker, 1981: 12—3).

Some, such as O’Connor (1973), have argued that Western capitalist states are experiencing a fiscal crisis, and that there is a continual conflict between classes over the goals and forms of social policy and a ‘contradictory process through time as the growth of the welfare state contributes to new forms of crisis’ (Gough, 1979: 15). Furthermore, the range and depth of criticism directed at the performance and direction of welfare policy would appear to indicate that the broad consensus concerning the mixed economy and the Welfare State, which has apparently characterized many Western societies since the Second World War, has cracked. Writers such as Mishra (1984) have suggested that the Welfare State is faced with a crisis of legitimacy. Keynesian-Beveridge style social theories are judged to have lost credibility. From the right, it has been argued that welfare policies are a massive burden on the economy, that they attract scarce resources away from more productive uses (Bacon and Eltis, 1976) and that welfare programmes are inefficient and indiscriminating in coverage (Harris and Seldon, 1979). The growth of the women’s movement, the continuing development of black political organizations, and the various examples of action regarding disability and sexuality have also contributed to the critique of welfare. Social policy can, thus be examined as ‘a set of structures created by men to shape the lives of women’ (Wilson, 1983: 33). Well-intentioned multicultural initiatives can be seen as ‘functioning as a means of diffusing difficult inner-city school situations and as an attempt to pacify black communities’ (Sarup, 1986: 111). Finally, the extent to which the State has been able, and has the potential, to achieve significant redistribution to those in need is a theme taken up by a number of writers committed to a more equitable distribution, such as Townsend and Davidson (1982). Indeed, Le Grand (1982) suggests that the rich benefit disproportionately from free or subsidized public services. Thus, public expenditure on health care, education, housing and transport is shown to favour systematically the better off and to maintain inequality (Le Grand, 1982: 137).

To what extent all this constitutes a ‘crisis’ in welfare is open to debate. There is a major empirical question mark against the idea of a fiscal crisis (Hill and Bramley, 1986: 87) and it may be, as TaylorGooby (1985) has argued, that it is the continuities rather than the [page 69] cleavages and conflicts that provide the dominant theme. In his view, it is factors outside the Welfare State which are significant, such as the pursuit of a monetarist economic policy (which produces higher levels of unemployment), rather than changes in the constitution and organization of welfare (Taylor-Gooby, 1985: 91). However, the general attack upon welfare, combined with demographic changes and the impact of the recession has had a particular effect upon youth work. First, there are simply fewer young people around. A club with a nightly average attendance of fifty 14—16 year olds in 1971, could expect 37 in 1988. Secondly, as we have seen, particular groups of young people have been affected disproportionately by the economic and social impact of recession. Thirdly, the general attack on welfare spending involved a per capita cut in expenditure upon the Youth Service in the region of 8—10 per cent in the first half of the 1980s (D.I. Smith, 1985). In the wake of the 1987 election and with, a concern to ‘tackle’ the inner-cities, Grant-related Expenditure Assessments for youth work were increased substantially and showed a 38 per cent increase to 1990. However, on the previous occasion such an increase was indicated, following the 1981 riots, it did not materialize. Where additional monies have become available they are often tied to specific initiatives. Fourthly, although privatization and other New Right schemes have not, as yet, substantially infiltrated Youth Service provision, they have affected the context in which youth workers operate. The massive expansion of commercial leisure provision and the targeting of resources away from general youth work into more specialized arenas are aspects of this. None the less, the major voluntary presence within youth work has meant that it could be portrayed as an example of the very welfare pluralism which many on the right wish to promote, and this has perhaps shielded it from some criticism (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 42—3). However, there are, as Shaw et al. (1988) have suggested, a range of possible targets for further privatization attempts. Finally elements of the welfare critique have entered the discourse of youth work and have found some expression in the development of work with girls and young women (Carpenter and Young, 1986) and with young black people (John, 1981). All this can be seen in the way youth work has become organized.

Youth work organization and the development of parallel provision

Within much of the discussion about youth work, the Albemarle [page 70] Report (HMSO, 1960) has attained special significance. It is seen as a watershed, whose importance went beyond the boost it gave to the resources available to the work. Davies, for example, presents it as seeking to adapt youth work’s image, style and philosophy to a new age and especially to a new youth culture (1986: 99). The Report is sometimes advanced as heralding a golden age of youth work, where workers and trainers were confident in their actions, where resources flowed into buildings and staffing, and where there was some intellectual debate about theory and practice. However, as Jeff s has argued, the influence of the Albemarle Report was probably far more symbolic than real, providing the government with a public raison d’être for policies that were largely pre-ordained (1979: 46) and an approach to basic structural problems that was suitably depoliticized. The Youth Service was seen as having two central functions: (i) the socialization and social education of the mass of young people. Much of this became couched in the language of smoothing the transition from school to work; and (ii) the control and containment of a deviant minority (Jeffs and Smith, 1987b). As with much that had gone before, the problems addressed were essentially perceived as concerning working-class young people, although given the prevalent intellectual climate, they were not presented in this way. The chipping away by other agencies at the contribution made by the Youth Service to these two functions has contributed to the non-emergence of a distinctive youth work profession and the impasse that the Service now finds itself in (Jeffs and Smith, 1987b, 1988a). In order to understand the threat now posed to the Youth Service it is necessary to address these arguments.

In 1959 the majority of young people in the designated age range of the Youth Service were in employment. With the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 and increased levels of voluntary staying-on or transference to further education and training, a growing proportion of the client group are now in full-time education. Much of what youth workers described as ‘social education’ became available through the normal school curriculum (see Chapter 5). Further, the re-emergence of mass youth unemployment has led to the creation of a range of programmes designed to ease the transition from school to either employment or unemployment (Finn, 1987). The combination of these with the expansion of higher education means that the large majority of those who had previously been seen as the clients of the Youth Service are no longer within the traditional labour market. Thus, agencies now exist that have the ability to deliver the priorities expressed by Albemarle in a more direct way.

[page 71] Alongside this expansion in formal provision, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of school-based youth work. The advocacy of such provision by the Fairbairn-Milson Report (DES, 1969), the cost advantages which accompany it, and the growing persuasiveness to policy makers of the rhetoric and practice of community education, undoubtedly helped fuel this expansion. Indeed, the Fairbairn Sub-committee (as opposed to the Milson Subcommittee), concluded that ‘the concept of youth service as a separate system should be allowed to atrophy’ (Fairbairn Report, 1968: para 301, quoted in Davies, 1986). While the resulting report struck a note of compromise, Fairbairn’s conclusion looks close to the real situation in the late 1980s, although not necessarily for all the reasons advanced then. In Scotland the Youth Service has been incorporated into Community Education. In England, by 1980, perhaps 30—40 per cent of statutory youth provision was school-based (Booton, 1980: 78). Certainly there has been a major increase in the regular usage of schools for youth work (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 123).

The second element of Albemarle’s vision for the Youth Service, the containment and control of troublesome youth, has increasingly become the property of more specialist agencies. The Youth Service did not deliver what was promised for it, and governments could not be seen to allow the panics about youth to be tackled by an agency that had neither legal powers to intervene nor a history of effective intervention (Jeffs and Smith, 1987b). One aspect of this has been the development of more specialized agencies such as those concerned with Intermediate Treatment (IT) (Adams, 1988). Although IT was initially envisaged as being closely linked to existing youth provision, the involvement of the Youth Service never materialized on any scale. New agencies, notably the local authority personal social service departments, augmented by organizations directly funded by central government, came to play a central role.

When we place the two elements together, three trends are immediately apparent. First, young people are increasingly being accommodated in services with a substantial legal framework, and are increasingly being compelled to undertake such activities. The raising of the school-leaving age, the expansion of further and higher education, participation on YTS, intermediate treatment and attendance orders are examples of this trend. In comparison, the delivery of Youth Service provision looks distinctly hit or miss. Secondly, there has been a growing differentiation and specialization of services and provision. A number of agencies and activities have emerged which claim some unique or defined purpose and [page 72] clientele. In part, this is connected with the third broad trend, the relative development of professional groupings within parallel areas when compared with youth work. While undoubtedly social workers, teachers and probation officers experience many uncertainties and complexities in their work, there is a sense in which they each possess distinctive occupational cultures and a sense of their own importance and purpose. They have benefited from an extension of training and continuing developments in their literature and theory. This is not something that can be claimed for youth work. However, the question of prefessionalization cannot be left there, for there has been a substantial anti-professionalism expressed by key elements of the New Right and the Left. Within youth work, both views have combined to help stifle the growth of a distinctive youth work profession (Davies, 1988; Jeffs and Smith, 1987b). This would not matter if there had been a corresponding emphasis on developing and sustaining the craft of youth work, but unfortunately other factors have conspired against this.

Other agencies have entered the Youth Service’s traditional preserve of leisure provision on a substantial scale. The growth of play provision, often funded through ‘borough’ as against ‘county’ authorities, and sited within a leisure, rather than educationally orientated department is a significant example in this respect. Indeed, it is the expansion of municipal leisure provision, whether in the form of sports and recreation centres, neighbourhood centres, youth-orientated events or through straightforward colonization, that is one of the distinctive features of the period. By the early 1980s, local authorities were spending over £600 million per year on recreational services (Hendry, 1983: 114). This shift of expenditure was apparently reflected in young people’s leisure usage, with one survey showing that while 29 per cent of the young people interviewed regularly went to a youth club, some 47 per cent regularly went to sports centres (DES, 1983b: 74). Paradoxically, the development of school-based youth work has also strengthened this emphasis upon leisure. A large number of school-based initiatives are primarily concerned with encouraging participation and some competence in organized leisure activities, often of a sporting or craft nature (DES, 1986: 5, 1983a: 13; Welsh Office, 1986).

Commercial provision has also expanded spectacularly. While some mass leisure forms such as the cinema and dance-hall have declined, many others have arrived in their place. Television, music, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, tourism and even sex are packaged and presented as commodities to be bought and are often sold as a means of enhancing one’s individuality (Rojek, 1985: 20). Thus, if we take [page 73] just one area of commercial provision targetted at young people, the ‘theme pub’, we can see how they have been designed to appeal to different age ranges within the youth market, and to express different tastes. However, a common feature within this growing differentiation of provision is the attempt to provide young people with the artefacts of ‘adulthood’ (such as alcohol), alongside the provision of environments in which they can associate with their peers, free from persistent intrusion.

The growing differentiation and expansion of leisure provision, both commercial and public, has not only presented problems for the generic youth club, but for the Youth Service in general. The political and professional consciousness around leisure has had important ramifications in the way in which youth work is perceived. For example, a number of policy responses to youth unemployment appear to have worked on the assumption that recreation can be a direct substitute for work and have expected the Youth Service to act accordingly. This places it in a difficult position not only because it is exactly this age group that youth workers have difficulties in attracting to their provision but, rather more fundamentally, because work performs functions that leisure, as it is currently understood, is inherently incapable of fulfilling (Roberts, 1983: 188). Leisure provision cannot structure time and confer status and identity in the way that jobs do. Further, as Roberts (1983) comments, offering the young unemployed leisure skills and facilities is clearly a second-best palliative.

More generally, there are at least two distinctive movements concerning the relation of youth work organization and leisure provision. On the one hand, there is the introduction of informal work with young people at sports and leisure centres, perhaps as a response to problems posed by young people in such provision. On the other hand, existing youth provision has itself increasingly adopted a distinctive leisure ideology and hence facilitated provision on a commercial or ‘activity’ basis. Many existing youth centres are actually little more than public halls, effectively hiring out rooms to particular activity groups and providing informal educational provision for an increasingly small number of people. Redesignating such premises as community or youth halls, replacing full-time youth workers with part-time caretakers and administrators and turning premises for use over to autonomous groups or profit or non-profit making organizations can make a lot of sense to cost-conscious councils. In fact, such action may well increase the overall usage by young people, but in doing so effectively excludes others. Perhaps in recognition of such factors, a number of authorities have [page 74] relocated their youth work under leisure services. Birmingham, Liverpool and Avon being examples of this in recent years.

These developments in youth policy would appear to have led towards vocationalism (and, as a consequence, leisurism), treatment, and policing and punishment. Cohen has argued that the emphasis given to ‘skilling’ in both the secondary school curriculum and 16—19 training provision, is primarily about the inculcation of social discipline. It represents ‘an attempt to construct a more mobile form of self-discipline, adapted to changing technologies of production and consumption, and to link this to a modern version of self-improvement aimed at the reserve army of youth labour’ (1984: 104). The same stress on ‘skilling’ can be found within many of the developments associated with leisurism and it would be a mistake to view the growth in leisure provision as simply providing displacement opportunities for those out of work. Such provision also makes a contribution to social discipline, both as a reward to those who have adopted appropriate values and behaviours and as an inducement to those who have not.

Alongside the emphasis upon vocationalism and leisure, there has been a continuing expansion in what might be termed treatment activities of which IT is a prime example, and a shift away from the welfaring approaches of the 1960s (Rutherford, 1986: 54—66). However, the movement has not stopped there and policing and punishment solutions have gathered momentum. This latter shift is not only concerned with an increased police role in ‘preventative’ activities, but also with, for example, the redefinition of the ‘drug problem’ as requiring a policing rather than medical solution (Davies, 1986: 121).

Crucially, in all this, the central State has adopted an increasingly interventionist role. At a local level, the movement towards more centralized control has been expressed in the workings of the corporate structures of local government with departmental committees and officers losing a degree of discretion. However, it is not simply a matter of corporatism, the most significant developments in terms of youth policy have been the massive growth of the Manpower Services Commission and, more recently, the debates about the core curriculum. The MSC has been important because it:

increasingly defined for all other youth agencies such key problems and concerns as youth unemployment, skill shortages and indeed skill itself. By the mid 1980s, the MSC was. . . breaching some of the most resistant of organizational boundaries. Indeed its activities were threatening to [page 75] undermine the very institution of schooling as handed down from the 19th century and to eliminate the contradictory purposes and relatively relaxed forms of accountability built into these key state instruments for socializing the young. (Davies, 1986: 117)

Whether this is a reflection of a coherent and central youth policy or that governments now have the means to impose a range of centrally determined policies is a matter of argument. Part of the problem is that we have a great deal of circumstantial material concerning trends in different areas of welfare that are directed at young people, but little direct evidence of there being a concrete and coherent policy. There are certain commonalities and distinct trends, the relative power balance between agencies appears to have altered and certainly the impact of MSC thinking and programmes has been profound. However, we must also note the considerable resistance by elements of certain state agencies, such as the DES, to the introduction of some of the measures (Salter and Tapper, 1981). In addition, there have been a number of parallel trends which may contribute towards an apparently growing convergence of welfare practice, but may not, in themselves, be the direct result of government policy. One example of this is the movement towards ‘nationalized’ notions of ‘good practice’ associated with the growing professionalization of the areas under discussion (Shaw et al., 1988). Further, we must ask to what extent are changes in programme and direction more crucially related to the deeper workings of the economy? Are in fact state policies and programmes better understood as arising, in a significant part, from knee-jerk reactions to what is occurring in the economic sphere? The trends would appear to suggest that a broad government policy towards young people does exist, but the extent to which this is coherent and is able to be centrally directed remains questionable.

Problems of purpose, theory and practice

The future would look less problematic if the Youth Service itself did not possess severe ‘internal’ difficulties. In this respect, HMI Reports on youth work provision make depressing reading. Ritchie concludes, after reviewing a number of these, that:

Given the lack of policies, aims and objectives, and criteria for evaluation that the Inspectors have identified, it comes as no particular surprise that youth club programmes everywhere are characterized by “ad hoc recreational activity”. They are [page 76] … usually dominated by sport and physical recreation. This is a particular concern since these activities are often just played for themselves and not for any underlying, or even remotely visible, educational objectives. The Inspectors seem to be unhappy with most of what goes on in youth clubs and centres, finding the activities traditional and unchallenging – with one or two well-documented and admired exceptions. (Ritchie, 1986: 2—3)

Perhaps one of the best indicators of the malaise in practice is the consistent failure of the bulk of provision to address the requirements of young women and girls (Nava, 1984; N. Smith, 1984). Research conducted by ILEA (1984) in the first half of the 1980s showed that the position had not changed much since the last significant piece of research undertaken some 20 years earlier (Hanmer, 1964), even though there had supposedly been a growth in awareness concerning young women’s needs and the ways in which youth workers might intervene. The researchers concluded that ‘there is considerable sex stereotyping of activities — both in provision and in the extent to which one sex predominates in participation’ (ILEA, 1984: 11). They found that many girls were not happy about the activities provided at their clubs and centres. Girls ‘complained that most of the activities were dominated by boys and that boys would not allow them to participate. They also complained that the activities were orientated towards the interests of boys rather than girls’ (ILEA, 1984: 16). On the whole there does not appear to have been substantial dialogue with young people concerning the provision of which they are a part.

Hanmer had earlier commented that the ‘difficulty of catering for girls’ in clubs was not a problem of knowledge, but one of attitudes, values and expectations (1964: 17). She suggested that the tendency of workers to think in mutually exclusive categories such as passive/active, clubbable/unclubbable implied a system of values which gave approval to boys and non-approval to girls, and this stood in the way of girls being catered for in clubs. This process of putting things into one of two ‘boxes’, of tending to think in an ‘either/or’ way, limits the ability to act and is somewhat reminiscent of something that Goodman once wrote about America:

In our society, bright lively children, with the potentiality for knowledge, noble ideals, honest effort, and some kind of worthwhile achievement, are transformed into useless and cynical bipeds, or decent young men trapped or early resigned, whether in or out of the organized system. . . it is desperately [page 77] hard these days for an average child to grow up to be a man, for our present organized system of things does not want men. They are not safe. They do not suit. (Goodman, 1960: 23)

Perhaps it is that the expressed needs of young people do not fit youth workers’ ‘organized system of things’? By this I mean that many practitioners’ whole way of thinking may well be at fault. (Much as Goodman’s was when he talks of ‘men’ rather than ‘adults’.) Thus, while young women have consistently stated what they require of youth work, their voice has remained essentially unheard. What they have been saying has not fitted the way most workers, trainers and policy makers see the world.

Thinking about purpose

Those unfamiliar with the Youth Service will often comment upon the apparently confusing array of purposes which organizations profess to serve. It is a feeling not confined to the passing observer, while, for example, the Review Group on the Youth Service in England was able to report that the submissions displayed ‘a remarkable unanimity about the aims and philosophy of the Service’ (HMSO, 1982: 27), as soon as the surface is disturbed, highly contested and under-conceptualized features appear:

Virtually all the respondents saw the Youth Service as an educational one. While the term social education was not usually defined, the aim of the process was clearly seen as helping the young person on the path to maturity, with part icipation in leisure-time activity as the main agent. (HMSO, 1982: 27)

Unanimity can only be sustained when statements such as this are kept at a high level of generality and when they are recognized by participants as rhetoric. This is amply displayed by the Review Group Report which, no more than a couple of paragraphs after declaring unanimity about aims and philosophy, finds that submissions ‘frequently stated . . . a lack of cohesion and sense of direction in the Service prevented the resources that were available from being used to the greatest advantage’ (HMSO, 1982). This is a situation echoed by many local policy reviews (D.I. Smith, 1987), which is hardly surprising, given that within each of the main youth work traditions there will be a disposition to rather different views of youth work’s essential purpose (see Chapter 3), and given the contradictory nature of many State activities (Jeffs and Smith, [page 78] 1988a: 14—40). Here we will focus on the impact of this upon the front-line.

In much of the discussion about purpose, key words appear such as ‘leadership’, ‘adulthood’ and ‘maturity’. Such words are important not so much as guides to action, but as symbols which provide some identity to the tradition in which the work is located (see Chapter 3). It is only by thoroughly interrogating the tradition that some direct and operational sense of purpose may appear. This can be highly problematical for workers. What should be a key reference point in their practice gives little direct guidance and for them to go further can entail considerable effort. This is an effort made doubly difficult by the lack of appropriate theory to which notions of purpose would have to connect. The fact that there is not an adequate theory or definition of social education, for example, does rather devalue any statement of purpose which includes the notion (see Chapter 5).

Moreover, of course, the simple fact that youth work organization is ‘there’ and ‘doing something’ (combined with a worker’s immersion in the daily routine of activities, programming and administration) tends not to encourage reflection about purpose. When that daily routine is disturbed, when there is some form of crisis created by, for example, falling membership or ‘trouble’ in the sessions, then debate about direction may follow. A further factor here is the part-time and voluntary nature of the vast bulk of the labour force. Groups of workers may be operating in relative isolation, relying on commonsense understandings and with little time for what they might perceive as the luxury of thinking about aims.

In addition, full- and part-time workers generally do not have clear strategies for managing the practice and policy of their organizations, as do few local authorities. In reports this has often been expressed as a lack of management skills (see HMSO, 1982: 87—93). While there may indeed be a skill problem, there is also the question of identity and orientation, i.e. the extent to which workers perceive themselves as managers — whether of self, others, or an organization. Those individual face-to-face workers who understand they have a responsibility to manage their own interventions with young people will be more likely to ask questions about purpose.

Furthermore, and whatever the rhetoric may proclaim, there has been a general, although not universal, drift towards the idea that youth work exists to provide safe opportunities for young people to enjoy themselves. The movement towards recreation, with its hedonistic connotations, is rarely free from some lingering desire for [page 79] the encouragement of improvement. It is also hedged around by other concerns, e.g. sexual behaviour, gambling, the use of drugs and stimulants such as alcohol, tobacco and other illegal substances, and a general protection from some forms of exploitation. Youth workers have never been able to pursue enjoyment with quite the single-mindedness that commercial operators might. As Roberts has commented, ‘the staple role of leisure provision is offering environments where young people “can do their own things”. The commercial sector has never found leadership a profitable formula’ (1983: 178).

The vacuum that all this creates does leave Youth Service organizations highly susceptible to demands that some response should be made to whatever the current moral panic concerning young people may be (Marsland, 1978: 143). If youth work agencies are unclear about what their primary task is, then it becomes extremely difficult to judge whether a prospective piece of work is worth doing. Things are rushed into because they seem like a good idea – a common rationalization being ‘we are trying to meet people’s needs’. Given that any action is capable of being justified as meeting someone’s needs somewhere, this is a more than suspect approach. Indeed, it is often the desire for organizational survival, rather than any perceived purpose in connection with young people, that is the major motivation for action. There is often money available for those who can be seen to be contributing to a quick ‘solution’ of a moral panic, but therein lies the catch. When, for example, the Albemarle Report (HMSO, 1960) offered youth work as a ‘solution’ for adolescent deviancy, it considerably added to the hole that appears likely to swallow the Youth Service up. The sort of solution that youth work could offer had little to do with the deeper structural and social changes that underpinned the panic. Thus, the performance of the Youth Service would or could then be measured against criteria over which it had fundamentally no control and little influence.

One way of rationalizing the moral panic approach and the lack of coherent thinking about philosophy and purpose has been the adoption of ‘issue-based’ approaches by some local youth services. In this they have been further encouraged by the way in which pockets of central government money can be obtained for particular pieces of work. Certain phenomenon such as unemployment, school non-attendance, drug abuse, racism and sexism are defined as an ‘issue’ and become the focus for resource allocation. This is sometimes accompanied by a shift from generalized person-centred rhetoric into that associated with the correct stance on the issue. The [page 80] inherent dangers in this movement are threefold. First, as the shift is rarely based on coherent political analysis or even an adequate understanding of youth work, the result is often a riot of posturing, a few bright spots of practice and for the rest, business much as its usual muddled self. Many of the bright spots would have occurred anyway, for they are invariably the result of workers possessing a more substantial political understanding and identity (Jeff s and Smith, 19881,). Here the Women’s and various black political movements have been of special significance in terms of workers’ understandings and have been shown in more directed practice. Where attention has been paid to the relationship of the personal to the political, as is the case in much feminist practice, the work is also more likely to be person-centred. Keeping things at the level of ‘issues’ can mean that priorities remain informed by surface debates rather than by deeper political principles and realities. As a result, there is a tendency to treat issues as unique and separate, rather than springing from living within a particular social, economic and political system.

Secondly, treating racism or sexism as an ‘issue’ is particularly suspect. It can all too easily patronize, undermine and marginalize the efforts of those seeking to address fundamental ills. As Reeves and Chevannes have noted, ‘in order to express their political aspirations, black students have had to form parallel organizations in their youth clubs, churches, associations and supplementary schools, thus contributing to their relative isolation from mainstream schooling activity’ (1984: 182). The very existence of projects outside the formal sector that are engaged in the construction of a relevant education for black young people allows policy makers to slip away from tackling the fundamental problem of racism in the school and its curriculum. They can always argue that they are already doing something through the Youth Service or whatever. It is one thing to allow difficult or contested aspects of education in a marginal sector, quite another to face it in schools.

Thirdly, the adoption of issue-based approaches can actually weaken youth work because they do not play to its strengths. This will be dealt with at some length in Chapters 6 and 7. Here it is only necessary to note that in issue-based approaches there is often a resort to cultural aggression and imperialism, wherein workers attempt to gain acceptance for the correct position (as defined by them) rather than making the culture of those worked with the starting point. When placed in a class perspective it begins to look much like the child-saving of early youth workers, seeking to combat the ‘nastiness’ of working-class culture.

[page 81] As a solution to the problem of purpose, defining particular matters as issues (and then directing resources at work which claims to offer some kind of solution) looks questionable. The fact that such approaches can be heralded as an advance is indicative both of the lack of thought given to essential purpose and the relative absence of any lasting tradition of analytical rigour within youth work.


Little sustained and critical attention has been devoted to the development of the craft of youth work. Many of the factors already identified as hampering front-line thinking about purpose apply generally to the state of theory-making within youth work. Furthermore, it has to be recognized that the reflectiveness of practitioners and trainers has remained largely rooted in one plane. This can be seen in the value that is placed upon experience within the work. At one level this can simply mean that people are not listened to if they themselves have not actually ‘worked at the coalface’. ‘Being there’ is more important than ‘understanding’. At another level it is sometimes expressed in the form that the only good theory is that which derives from experience, anything else can be dismissed as jargon. Thus, in training, students may be pushed to explore their feelings and practice and asked to develop theories that ‘explains’ things. This is fine in as far as it goes, but what can then happen is a failure to address questions and issues that established theories may pose, and the understandings students develop. In other words, the theoretical tools that are brought to bear are limited and the result is that there is not only a constant danger of reinventing the wheel, but also of never advancing theory and therefore practice. Youth work appears stuck in the realm of feelings, personal experience and immediate empirical perception. The non-theoretical cannot go beyond immediate appearances (Hall et al., 1978: 52). To borrow from Gramsci, not only do youth workers have no precise consciousness of their historical identity, they are not even conscious of the historic identity or the exact limits of their adversaries (1971: 273).

Training agencies must take their share of the blame for this anti-intellectual and atheoretical current that runs through youth work. Here particular attention has to be paid to the work of the National College for the Training of Youth Leaders which was established following recommendations in the Albemarle Report (HMSO, 1960). It is significant for three main reasons. Firstly, its staff made a major contribution to the literature of youth work in the 1960s and [page 82] early 1970s (Davies and Gibson, 1967; Leighton, 1972; Matthews, 1966). Secondly, following its closure in 1971, many of its staff were involved in the development of initial training courses in other higher education institutions. Not surprisingly, certain characteristics of the National College were reproduced in their respective courses. In addition, some of its staff went on to set up YSIC, the forerunner of the National Youth Bureau. Thirdly, just under 1100 people gained their qualification at the College during its 9.5 years of operation. A significant number of these students are now in officer, senior worker and training posts and thereby have an important influence upon the Service.

Ewen, in a much quoted commentary on the work of the College in the 1960s, argues that while it purported to have no particular slant, it was clear that the professional ethos that emerged included such attitudes as non-judgementalism, non-directiveness, acceptance and so forth (1972: 6). Such an ethos all too easily deteriorates into an uncritical attitude to theory. Indeed, the emphasis in such training upon attitude can occur at direct cost to theory-making. As well as a concern with attitude and personal development, the major assumptions underlying the course were directed towards particular skill areas such as using activity and social group work (Watkins, 1972: 7—8). It is perhaps indicative of the College’s attitude to established bodies of theory, that lectures were abolished in the late 1960s and increased reliance put on seminars (Watkins, 1972: 35).

Following the decision of the DES to do away with the ‘narrowly based’ National College (DES, 1969: 112) and to relocate youth work training, little of any theoretical consequence has appeared from trainers (Jeffs and Smith, 1987b). Further, an investigation of the various course documents submitted to CETYCW, reveals that, aside from the ritual addition of some discussion of the latest run of moral panics, the content of those elements of courses specifically devoted to developing an understanding of youth work is remarkably unchanged from the 1960s.

The overall emphasis on experience was underpinned by the strong influence upon Youth Service training of humanistic psychology in the guise of human awareness training and the like. Leigh and Smart comment that by the late 1970s many Youth Service trainers had gone overboard on the approaches suggested by such trainers as Pfeiffer and Jones (1969), Rogers (1967, 1969, 1973) and the various writers in the transactional analysis tradition:

in the excitement with which the Service embraced some [page 83] apparently powerful methods, it once again lost sight of purposes. In our experience, these ‘person centred’ approaches — with their typical emphasis on the realm of feelings and their characteristically non-directive, facilitative approach to issues of leadership — are widely employed whatever the subject matter. In the extreme any thinking or analysis is stigmatized as task-centred, and construed as evading the one true realm of feeling. (Leigh and Smart, 1985: 53)

This situation has been given a further twist by only a minority of the full-time youth work labour force being specialist trained. Kuper (1985) found that 43 per cent are qualified teachers, 17 per cent qualified by alternative routes, 13 per cent are unqualified and that only 27 per cent have received specialized training. While the makeup of the labour force would appear to indicate that a significant proportion of new entrants will have some grounding in education theory and the social sciences, the majority will not have had any sustained exposure to thinking about informal education. In addition, the fact that people gain their qualifications (and hence a significant part of their socialization as workers) in such different ways will not encourage the development of a shared language and occupational culture, and particularly of one that values analytical rigour. This position is further aggravated by the diverse and dispersed nature of youth work provision, where it is rare for full-time workers to work together in any substantial way. What often occurs when they get together is a sharing of frustrations, rather than deep attention to purpose and practice.

Problematic as it is, the position could have altered in some way if the various national agencies in youth work had paid attention to the state of youth work theory and to the sorts of research required. Unfortunately, a key body such as NYB became enmeshed in a peculiar mix of advocacy and servicing, based upon funding which directed attention away from the heartland of Youth Service activity and into the arenas of intermediate treatment, youth action, unemployment projects and youth counselling. While there may have been some important contributions to the work of these individual areas (Adams et al., 1981; Lawton 1984; Burley 1980), the only substantial direct additions to the general discourse of youth work have been made in the form of a number of research papers by D.I. Smith (1979, 1980, 1985), the research undertaken by Butters and Newell (1978), and the work associated with the Panel to Promote the Continuing Development of Training for Part-time and [page 84] Voluntary Youth and Community Workers (Bolger and Scott, 1984; Harper, 1983, 1985). In comparison with a body such as the National Children’s Bureau, this is a very sorry record.

Other national agencies have done little better. In terms of writing about, and encouraging the development of ‘good practice’, only one agency, NAYC, stands out in the 1970s and early 1980s as making a direct contribution on any scale. However, much of this work has only made a limited addition to theory and is derived from limited-term project work. The major source of sustained reflection upon practice was the Working with Girls Newsletter, which NAYC shoddily closed in a cost-cutting exercise in 1987. Most of the other initiatives and developments have come from organizations and groupings outside the national framework such as the Youth Development Trust and Youth and Policy, or from academics outside initial training. In the case of the latter grouping, the balance of the contribution here has been towards a historical and sociological understanding of the area and to questions of policy.

In short, theorizing about the purpose and practice of youth work is highly deficient. The key institutions that could have been expected to make a significant contribution in this area, have largely failed to make thinking a priority. As a result, there is not an adequate body of knowledge to help workers, officers and trainers to name, predict and act. This is clearly demonstrated by the parlous state of thinking concerning the supposed centre of youth work — social education (see Chapter 5).

The demise of the Youth Service?

Overall, the position looks bleak for the Youth Service. While there may be occasional peaks of optimism, perhaps as a minister throws the Service a few pennies as a means of demonstrating the government’s commitment to ‘solving’ some political problem, the underlying trends suggest its demise. From what has been argued here and elsewhere (Jeffs and Smith, 1987b, 1988a), the intellectual, organizational and political basis for the Youth Service looks distinctly shaky. The broad attack on the idea of welfare, moves towards privatization, the lack of government priority given to youth, the massive expansion of parallel provision, and the failure to develop the thinking necessary to further the craft of youth work, leave the Youth Service and significant elements of practice in a perilous position. This is further aggravated by the relatively stronger intellectual, institutional and practical bases of much parallel provision. These trends in youth policy indicate that the [page 85] government sees the Youth Service as marginal to their central concern to ‘skill’ the youth population and to secure their allegiance. They would appear to suggest a withering away of a distinctive statutory service.

The development or continuance of youth work within schooling, further education, leisure, social work, and within those settings concerned with counselling and advice appears likely. Within these areas the uncertainties concerning purpose and theory have, to some extent, been alleviated where practitioners have reinterpreted the different traditions of practice in order to fit the institutions where they are placed. Many of the ‘new’ tasks that it is suggested youth workers may undertake, e.g. around school and YTS drop-outs, can easily be approached from institutional bases other than the Youth Service. Even the government’s somewhat belated interest in inner-city youth following the 1987 election can apparently be accommodated in leisure departments and community and further education sections. In many respects youth work appears to be set for the sort of locational diversity that community work has experienced.

What may remain as a distinctive ‘youth’ entity is some facility that governments and local authorities can use in order to be seen to be doing something about particular moral panics. Clearly, the State will continue to respond to such panics and will require some means of expressing their ‘concern’ and perhaps even of doing something about the ‘problem’. Organizationally it is not necessary to have a department of ‘moral panics’, but the responses are usually required to adopt a reasonably high profile. For this reason local authorities sometimes choose to set up special committees or commissions to deal with issues, often of an inter-departmental nature. In some authorities, the Youth Service may live on in the form of a coordinating committee to deal with the successive waves of moral panics associated with youth. There may even be a future for detached ‘action-researchers’ in order that the committee deliberations may be informed.

What of the future for voluntary youth organizations? First, those organizations with a strong identity and clear ideology are likely to develop, although not necessarily grow. For as long as there exists within any social movement a clear rationale for work with young people, then it is likely that such work will carry on. Thus certain churches will continue to see that they have a mission concerning young people and political movements will similarly wish to get their message across and gain converts. However, when we turn to examine some of the youth organizations that are movements in [page 86] themselves, such as Scouting and Guiding, then some questions do remain. Within these movements there has been some discussion as to their distinctive contribution and the extent to which this has changed since their inception. In particular, within Scouting, there appears to have been a shift away from more full-blown notions of improvement into a concern with healthy enjoyment. However, this debate has remained within the traditions of character-building. The fact that there is a coherent and common tradition within the work, combined with a clearly structured and common series of programme options and rules, does mean that questions of identity and ideology are less problematic than within other organizations which have adopted more generic programmes such as the YMCA.

National youth organizations with a clear identity and structure, and those organizations firmly rooted in social movements (with the exception of the Boys’ Clubs), have only ever made passing reference to the idea of a Youth Service and, in terms of day-to-day operation, make very little use of the services offered by local authority Youth Services. They usually have their own training systems, a full range of local, regional and national activities, financial arrangements that call for little state funding (other than subsidized use of school halls and the like), and recruitment, both of workers and young people, through their own networks. In addition, their political power is usually exercised outside the Youth Service. For these reasons, while there may be some ritual mourning of the passing of LEA Youth Services, such organizations will hardly notice their disappearance.

Secondly, there would appear to be a future for the local or neighbourhood club or group, run by volunteers or part-timers, which aims to provide a safe, social and communal environment for young people. While in some areas this may be threatened by the development of commercial provision, a number of factors would appear to indicate its continued health. One of the central features is its ‘local’ nature, which means that provision is both close to home and is identified with the locality. This, combined with the presence of workers from the same area, and who are often connected with local community organizations such as religious groups and village and tenants halls, can make for some sense of belonging to a community, which is valued. That sense of community is further enhanced where there is a shared culture and a distinctively Greek, Bangladeshi or ‘mining’ club or group can emerge. In addition, such provision is often small-scale and cheap. Finally, notions of safety are also important in the minds of many parents and young people when choosing how to spend their leisure time. Localized provision, run by people or organizations known in the community and whose [page 87] scale and nature makes for a fair degree of interaction between workers and young people, will remain an attractive option.

Such local groups have historically made rather more use of their Youth Service than have the movement-based organizations. A number of authorities have, in effect, recognized the significance of localized small-scale provision in the deployment and location of youth workers. Of some significance here is the withdrawal of workers from sustained face-to-face work with young people into so called ‘area’ or ‘support’ roles, where their task is to maintain and improve the services offered by voluntary groups or smaller units. However, from the perspective of the policy-maker, there is not any particular reason why such servicing should be the prerogative of a separate youth service. Depending upon how a particular authority labels such work it could easily be housed within a leisure, community education, social service or community work section.

What all this adds up to is further diversification and specialization. Certainly youth work associated with schooling and FE looks likely to continue, as does that located within personal social services and leisure provision. The future for certain other forms of provision looks especially rocky. In particular, it would appear that larger youth centres and clubs, with one or more full-time youth workers, are often not attracting young people on a substantial enough scale to informal sessions to resist pressure from policy-makers for more cost-effective provision. Even where large numbers are attracted to more formal activities, these could frequently be run without the day-to-day attention of full-time workers. In this respect the health and potential of communally organized leisure provision such as that associated with sport, hobbies, arts and crafts is beginning to attract policy-makers’ attention (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 123). The relative shift into small-scale convivial provision or larger-scale or more specialized leisure provision looks set to continue. From the evidence presented, the rationale for a distinctive, educationally-based, Youth Service is now increasingly seen by policy makers as rather weak. Other provision can seemingly offer what the Youth Service promised in 1960, but has failed to deliver since.

If the Youth Service faces its demise, what is the future for youth work? The remainder of this book suggests how we can move beyond current practice to develop a popular youth work based on informal education and mutual aid.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

Reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton: Keynes: Open University Press.

First placed in the Archives in April 2001. Refreshed July 2019

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