Developing youth work: Introduction

developing youth work

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So much of what is said about youth work either seeks to conceal or is the product of lazy or rhetorical thinking. The ahistorical, apolitical and anti-intellectual attitude of many in this area has meant that practice is peculiarly prone to influence by moral panics, fads and fashions. As such, the work is further threatened both by the development of very different forms of practice directed at many of the areas that youth workers have claimed as their own, and by the growing diversity of organizational settings in which workers are located. Yet youth work has much to offer and certain strands of practice have the potential to make a major contribution to the well-being of young people. If youth workers are to make that contribution and retain a unique identity and distinctive forms of working, they must address a number of fundamental philosophical and political questions, and develop the necessary theory.

In what follows I hope something of the potential of youth work and how it may be developed is demonstrated. I have attempted to place youth work in time and context, explore actual as against idealized practice, and set out basic principles. This may sound ambitious, but the time seemed right for something ‘big’; it is some 20 years since the last attempts (Davies and Gibson, 1967; Milson (1970)) to reconceptualize youth work practice in this way.

The book begins with an examination of the development of youth work and the crisis it now faces. Chapter 1 explores some of the key factors that led to attention being focused on youth and, in particular, on the behaviour and attitudes of working-class young people. I have attempted to show how the notion of adolescence came to be important and has to be seen as a bourgeois construction. [page xii] From this I chart the ‘discovery’ of bourgeois youth work and the forms that it took.

With the development of modern leisure forms, the emergence of organic approaches to youth work and changes in what the middle classes expected of intervention, there was a significant shift in the generalized character of practice in the 1930s and 1940s. The leadership and membership of many clubs and units became recognizably working class and what might be termed popular youth work became established. It is the making of this practice which is the focus of Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 explores the clusters of key ideas that appear to inform the ways that youth workers see their tasks. Six broad bodies of customs, thoughts and practices that are recognizable in what workers and commentators have said and written about youth work over the last century are then suggested. The durability of form within these provides some sense of stability and legitimacy, while at the same time allowing considerable difference and change.

In Chapter 4, I examine the nature of the crisis facing youth work and the Youth Service. Britain has become a more unequal and divided society, in part because of economic recession and restructuring, but also as a result of government policy. It has been argued that the social condition of young people has altered. Within this context, three broad sets of interrelated questions are seen as central to youth work’s crisis. First, the rationale and practice of welfare has come under attack. Secondly, the relative development of other forms of provision for young people, both public and commercial, has pushed the Youth Service into something of a corner. Thirdly, the lack of attention to theory and purpose has left youth workers vulnerable to a range of questions concerning their practice. While it is possible that the Youth Service will wither away, there are vibrant strands of practice which will continue to evolve, whatever the administrative categories policy makers may use to handle them.

From this I then examine in Chapter 5, the notion of social education and its deficiencies as a rationale and ‘method’ in work with young people. In particular I question the usefulness of notions such as ‘growing up’ and ‘maturity’. The personalist orientation of much of its practice is also examined. I argue that social education should be abandoned as a way of conceptualizing the aims and methods of youth work.

What then is to be the purpose of youth work? Chapter 6 suggests that practitioners should set out to enable individuals to pursue autonomously their own well-being. In particular, they should seek [page xiii] to enlarge young people’s understanding of their own well-being so that they may weigh their own needs with those of others, help them to display civic courage, and enable them to gain the knowledge, skills and disposition necessary to think and act politically. Not only does this represent an argument for a basic shift towards educative practice, but also asserts that the primary focus in youth work should move away from a near-exclusive concern with the self and immediate others.

Having established what might be the purpose of youth work, I go on to examine informal education as a method. At the centre of such an approach is the idea of a critical dialogue between workers and learners, and among workers themselves and learners themselves. Finally, in Chapter 8, I explore some of the central questions associated with the development of popular youth work and the implementation of good practice. I suggest that major advances can be made by workers themselves. In particular, I argue that emphasis should be placed upon approaches which stress mutual aid and self­organization.

These conclusions cannot pretend to be anything other than tentative. The understandings developed are, to some extent, confined by the existing vocabulary of youth work and informal education as that language has become mine. If practitioners want to develop practice for good ends, then the words they use to describe what they do~and why they do it will require careful interrogation. For this to happen they will have to engage in a critical dialogue with each other and with young people. In the end, the exercise youth workers may have to set themselves is the creation of a new vocabulary concerning informal work with young people. This may even involve renaming themselves.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

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

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