Part-time youth work in an industrial community

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Subtitled ‘an analysis of some underlying assumptions and theoretical and political implications’, this booklet by Bernard Davies (published in 1976) provides us with a wonderful exploration of youth work – and the impact it had upon its practitioners. It reveals youth work as a deeply personal and political experience and practice.

contents: preface · introduction · the place and the people · entering the network · responding to the problems · locating the problem: the effects of organisations and institutions · searching for a youth work response · lessons · present practice – december 1976 · how to cite this piece

Bernard Davies 1981Bernard Davies is a, perhaps the, key figure in the development of thinking about youth work in Britain in the last forty years of the twentieth century. His work, initially with Alan Gibson, was central to social education becoming a defining feature of youth work in the 1960s and 1970s. He made a significant contribution to thinking about groupwork (from an interactional perspective) and, in a series of books, pamphlets and articles, made a lasting contribution to our appreciation of youth work as area of social policy. His recent historical analysis of youth work has continued his seminal contribution and allowed workers to develop a more critical social and historical understanding of practice. 

Part-time youth work in Industrial Community (1976) remains a powerful piece of writing that both catches the experience of working in neighbourhoods and areas where there are major structural issues, and theorizes the encounter. In particular, we find a strong plea to look to the structural and the political, and to avoid ‘blaming’ the individual. In addition, there is a clear call to move beyond traditional professional frameworks. This entails, for example, embracing the forms of work that flow from living in the area where you work, and sharing in the lives of neighbours and friends. 

Note:  All the case—material in this paper is based on actual events and conversations. However, names as well as detail of situations have been altered.

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The focus on this paper is on work done- in this case, on youth work – in a small, unfashionable and neglected town in the industrial north. Mainly by implication, it traces the changes in one part-time practitioner’s ideas and approach which resulted, not primarily from a self-conscious intellectual process, but from the deeply felt experience of seven years’ intensive activity.

What follows therefore is almost inevitably a very personal statement. Moreover, during that seven year period, the number of young people contacted in a regular and personal way never exceeded fifty, although many more were known by name and sight. And no systematic attempt was made to record and analyse the work being done, while it was being done.

And yet, though this paper could not claim to be in any way ‘scientific’, it ends with a series of statements which are deliberately intended to have more than a personal significance. For, from the experience described, conclusions are drawn which I believe to be ‘correct’ at this moment for youth work generally.

The practice itself was of course no different from thousands of other small-scale and unresearched pieces of youth work in this country, past and current. It will therefore, especially in the early sections, appear unremarkable, even naive, to any experienced youth worker. In a sense, this simplicity of approach is deliberate, since it is a central purpose of what follows to present and examine the ‘normal’ and the ‘ordinary’ in youth work.

However, it is also the intention of this paper to go beyond simple description, to seek continually to understand, and be critical of, underlying assumptions about practice and policy. Thus, it struggles to relate micro-and macro-perspectives; to integrate a focus on individuals, families and friendship groups, with one on informal neighbourhood networks, and large-scale and formal professional, commercial and welfare institutions. It has taken a long time to gestate, but is still very far from complete or adequate.

The place and the people

As I had been born and brought up in Manchester, I assumed that my return to the north would be something of a homecoming. Until, that is, we (my wife and I) actually moved into the town (22,000) where, by accident, we had bought a house. Geographically and culturally, it was much more part of ‘the industrial north’ than had been the neighbourhoods of my childhood. The houses near the town centre were old, blackened and terraced, without bathrooms or indoor toilets, and over-shadowed by huge factories. Two council estates housed overspill populations from nearby cities, while some speculators’ developments catered for more affluent and aspirant homeowners.

Though the town no longer had a cinema (converted into a bingo hall), there were a couple of youth centres, a Friday night disco in the town hall (until, that is, the police and complaining neighbours had it closed down) and increasingly expensive bus and train services to the nearest ‘metropolis’ (population: 100,000). For most people over 14, leisure usually meant pubs and clubs. The town, in fact, was in no way exceptional: it was just like hundreds of others in industrial Britain, large as well as small.

In spite of its physical neglect and lack of amenities, the town reflected that personal friendliness and collective strength which northerners traditionally claim for themselves. The tightness and intimacy of the local networks gave the place the feel of a village – an industrial village, to be sure, but a village [page 2] nonetheless. Yet, this often was the strength of its weaknesses. These stemmed in part from its being largely a one-industry one-employer town, which often produced very serious economic and practical consequences; and from the restrictions on self-expression which, as I suggest later, were for individuals at times very oppressive.

Nonetheless, the sense of community and of mutually supportive solidarity was, to outsiders like us, very striking. Our immediate neighbours embodied these qualities most clearly and most personally. Almost without exception, they would have been classed by the registrar general as from ‘manual’, often from ‘unskilled manual’, groupings. Indeed, if we had known the town in advance, or if we had had ‘friends’ already living there, we might have been advised to move onto a quite different, ‘spiralist’ estate, where the houses were marginally larger than the one we bought, a lot more expensive and at least a mile from the nearest schools and shops. Yet, though living there might have eased our passage into social contacts with ‘our own kind’, it could easily have sealed us off from all other styles of life, even in that small town. For, as was demonstrated by the man who cut our lawn each week during the period between our taking possession and actually moving into our house, here were people with a strong and spontaneous commitment to ‘community’.

Entering the network

Within a couple of years, therefore, we were drawn deep into these community networks. This partly followed from our living where we did. But it happened mainly because my wife and I, in a very conventional sense, became youth workers: she as the designated part-time youth leader of one of the local centres, and I (as her appendage) as a voluntary helper. From then on, “local” young people pervaded our lives, including our family lives. They were for example with us, not only in the club, but also as our first child pined over lunch for his afternoon sleep, since youngsters regularly brought in their chips during school and factory dinner breaks. They were around as we went through our two miscarriages. And in close contact as we laboured over nine endless months to produce our second child.

The fact that we lived in our club ‘catchment area’, bought at the same shops, used the same park; drove or bussed up and down the same main roads each day – and shared our domestic pressures and pleasures – made us extremely, and mutually, accessible. In comparison with what we had both done and been allowed to know previously – as probation officer, as school-teacher, even as straight part-time youth worker – our involvement with the young people of this town was extensive and intimate. We were in no sense genuinely ‘indigenous’ workers – how could two such ‘foreigners’ from a different social class claim such a status? But neither were we simply ‘professional’ colonisers – individuals who were involved only because we were occupationally bound to be so and who could retreat entirely to a privatised world once our ‘work’ was done. The line between our ‘youth work practice’ and our ‘personal lives’ was always vague – sometimes infuriatingly so. And this non-professional stance and status undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the lowering of masks (on both ‘sides’) which would otherwise have kept the realities of living in that town much more hidden from us, and would have prevented some vital human exchanges taking place.

Responding to the problems

Almost inevitably, our focus initially was on individuals, families and teenage friendship groups. It was, for example, on a few youngsters who – adolescent though they were – would undoubtedly be labelled now ‘battered children’. The battering might occur because they had come in late in the [page 3] evenings, or had refused to carry out some household task, or in other ways failed to live up to some parental demand. Though occasionally all this led to a youngster leaving home, usually temporarily, on the whole there was no escape from it for either child or parent.

Gaye is in hospital with some mysterious illness. Apparently she collapsed at work … Sal called to see her and she was depressed. Her mother and father had just left and, according to Gaye, they are more upset about losing her wages than her illness, which still hasn’t been diagnosed. They say they’re keeping a note of how much housekeeping she owes them. Somehow, after the beatings Gaye’s had, her collapse doesn’t seem a surprise.

Or again, we were more than once drawn into discussions, with girls, about the way they were intimidated and sometimes actually assaulted by boys. The girls themselves were not above fighting each other over a lad or even at lashing out at the boy himself. But, when a boy suspected ‘his’ girl of ‘fancying’ someone else or when a girl said she wanted to ‘finish’ with a lad, the force which he might use or threaten was much more premeditated, and vicious. Here, clearly were both the effects and the antecedents of another currently fashionable ‘social problem’- wife beating.

Jenny came round to the house tonight. She wasn’t really morose or inarticulate – just very tense, cagey, suspicious. She’s still scared stiff of Geoff but says she’s determined to finish with him. She seems to have good reason to be scared. She says that once he had a razor blade up against her cheek, and that he’s hit her with his fist on more than one occasion.

Harry then started to describe his conversation with the policeman at the station. “He asked me what I thumped her for, so I told him. He said that I shouldn’t hit girls like that, so I asked him if he never beat his wife and he said he didn’t. I told him that he must be kidding!”

Then there were the relationships which led, almost inevitably it seemed, to unplanned pregnancies, early and often unintended marriages and intense rivalries and hostilities. Here in fact was further evidence to support our society’s conventional wisdom about the disturbance, instability and “antisocial behaviour” of early adolescence. What our experience did not confirm, however, was that this is for all youngsters merely a passing phase: that once they found a regular partner and got married, they came to comply with our society’s dominant values, and “settled down”.

Indeed, our experience in that northern town suggested that for some, the public problems and conflicts of the early teenage years simply turn later into private tensions and woes which previously condemning adults could then afford to ignore. During the early unmarried years of their adolescence, many of the young people we knew expressed their frustrations and uncertainties primarily through under-age drinking  [page 4] and drunkenness, rowdyism, vandalism, fighting on the football terraces, petty theft and so on. There were also, amongst both boys and girls, a good deal of sexual precociousness and experimentation, public displays of “outrageous” dress, what has been called “do-nothing” activity and other behaviour. All of this provided the context for vital peer group relationships and interaction, but some of it at least was intended to provoke adults, and much of it was successful in this aim.

After unintended marriage and parenthood had run its course for a while, “problems” appeared much more in the form of boredom, reciprocated anger and bitterness, a renewed search for relationships outside marriage, both with people of the same sex but also with the opposite sex – and ultimately perhaps as individual and family breakdown. Most of these struggles, of course, took place behind closed curtains, and so, unlike the “crimes” of earlier adolescence, either they could be safely ignored by most adults and even most of the “helping” services, or they could be dealt with solely in terms of what was best for people other than the adolescent.

We asked Brenda about her old friend Diane. She hasn’t seen her for some months – in fact she hasn’t been seen about the town for months. Apparently her baby is being brought up by her mother, though social services seem to be keeping a very close eye on the child.

In tonight’s conversation with Frank and Anne, all sorts of people we haven’t seen for ages came up…. Bill 0, it seems, is as wild as ever – marriage doesn’t seem to have changed him at all. His bike is apparently still his first love. Nancy gets left with the baby all the time and, according to Ann, is in a right state….

Carol was telling us tonight about a hen party she went to on Friday night for one of her mates at work. The girl had been going with a lad for years but he finished with her a few months ago. She was apparently in tears over this lad at the party and has in fact been seeing quite a bit of him anyway.

In practice we too, found ourselves responding to the more public presentations of adolescent problems, and doing so mainly at an individual level. More than once, we argued in court against youngsters (boys in particular) being sent away, if only on the grounds of its futility.

Geoff arrived on the doorstep at 8 o’clock this morning, as I was rushing around getting ready for work. We hadn’t seen him for weeks. Did we know that he was up in court at 10 o’clock? We’d vaguely heard he was in trouble again but hadn’t picked up any more. He wanted one of us to go, or at least write a letter. I couldn’t make it and Sal was in no state to go, so we decided to write to the clerk. But what could we say about Geoff? He was certain to run foul of the police [page 5] again so there was no point in saying how good he’d be in future. So we just pointed out how hopeless sending him away would be and how little help probation had been in the past. The letter could do him more harm than good, but he seemed satisfied with it.

Then there was the endless talk with older teenagers who, because of their conflicts with their parents, wanted accommodation away from home, though still near friends and familiar territory.

I rang Father Graham and asked him if he knew anywhere Johnny might get a room. He laughed, a bit scornfully, but said he’d try one of the families who, as a special favour to him, took kids temporarily. That was the best he could do. There just wasn’t anything more suitable around. Johnny wasn’t very impressed. He’d at least hoped for a furnished room.

Jenny brought Helen around tonight. She’s living in R…ford but works with Jenny and a number of other girls we know. She’s been in care since she was about eight and has a bed-sit now on her own. She’s been looking for a furnished room or something in the town for months but says that nothing ever seems to come up.

And there were also the girls wanting to get help on contraception or, sometimes, V.D.

My conversation with Clare started quite by accident. I met her in Tescos and asked her how her holiday had been. She’s just back from two weeks at Butlin’s and had one story after another about long nights and short days, the lads, the problems of sharing a chalet. One thing led to another – though it’s not the first conversation like this we’ve had – and I eventually asked her if she took any precautions. She said she doesn’t but she wished sometimes she could go on the pill. She’s terrified of getting pregnant, mainly because of what she thinks her dad would do to her. But she says her mum would go mad if she found out she was on the pill. Anyway, she’d be scared stiff of going to the doctor – he’d want to examine her, wouldn’t he, and what if he told her mum? She couldn’t imagine he’d be willing to help, anyway. She’d only vaguely heard of the FPC and didn’t think they’d see her as she wasn’t married…. She said she’d call in to see us sometime, and perhaps Sal would go with her the first time to the Clinic.

[page 6] Jenny was obviously very worried tonight. She’d been with one of the fair lads last time it was in town and she knows what a reputation they have. And then she’d seen the VD film! I got her an appointment at the clinic but it means going into R…ford straight after work. She was worried what she’d tell her mother about where she was that day. And she didn’t fancy the idea anyway. Sal said she’d try and go with her.

And, inevitably, there were the young single pregnant girls, some wanting to marry the lad but finding it difficult to tell parents; some not wanting to get married but wanting to have and possibly keep their baby; some wanting an abortion, or ready to consider one once they could believe it was a real possibility. This last response was always difficult, mainly because the NHS locally – G.P’s and consultants – usually assumed that abortions were wrong or unavailable. Girls and their families therefore needed help to deal quickly with the first shock of discovery, to raise up to £80 at short notice, to organise themselves to transport girl and maybe mother 250 miles or more to a suitable nursing home – and perhaps to conceal the whole operation from family, neighbours and employers.

Marie arrived with her parents. They were all tense and Mr. K. in particular seemed very reluctant to talk. Most of the early conversation was about whether Marie should have the abortion and what Marie herself had told us was strongly confirmed. All three seemed genuinely in favour. We then moved into arrangements – getting an appointment in Birmingham; Mrs. K. and Marie taking time off work, where the nursing home might be. And then finally onto money. This was a great embarrassment to them all as they couldn’t think where it might come from. We eventually worked out how they might raise it in time without too many people hearing about Marie.

Sal and I had another discussion with Wendy tonight. Her parents were still pressing her very hard to have an abortion but she just doesn’t know. And she feels time is pressing on her too. We went over and over the arguments, for nearly two hours…. She sees so clearly what having a baby will do to her life and freedom. She fears that, if she had it, she wouldn’t be able to give the baby up but can’t imagine herself becoming a mother – she doesn’t like kids all that much anyway. My guess is she’ll decide to have the abortion, but the fact that it is so complicated to get from here could just swing the decision, by itself, the other way.

Other “personal” problems cropped up, too. Parents or youngsters sometimes had difficulty with Social Security, or with the Council over housing, and welcomed support or some additional information. In our capacity as youth club “leaders”, we struggled to reach young people in groups, to do what others called “preventive” work. This latter was in fact often of the crudest “keeping the kids off the street” variety, with numerous youngsters floating in and out of a building and never contacting any adult in any personal way, and with the adults justifying their contribution to them in terms of “availability”. At times, this

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work had, for us a much clearer purpose: the best example was perhaps the series of sex education films we showed. And all the time we were trying to use the opportunities which both club and neighbourhood contacts offered to understand the nature of the “ problems “ being faced by these young people and to deepen the trust amongst us.

Locating the problem: the effects of organisations and institutions

All of this, as indicated at the very start, will undoubtedly seem boringly familiar to youth workers, both part-time and full-time, with the naïveté which underlay it only slowly being recognised, and challenged. In time however, as experiences accumulated, patterns began to emerge which led us increasingly to question, not only the effectiveness of what we were doing but, much more fundamentally, why we were doing it in the way we were, and indeed what it was we thought we were dealing with. This questioning, in the currently more self-critical climate within social work, education and youth work, will to many also now seem very commonplace. Nonetheless, for us, though it occurred only gradually, it presented a major challenge.

For, we increasingly came to feel that often (not always) we were confronting the wrong issues, aiming at the wrong targets, dealing with the wrong people – trying to solve the wrong problems. Above all, our responses, when examined for their underlying assumptions, seemed repeatedly to imply that these problems were self-evidently and exclusively located in “our” young people, rather than in others in their network of relationships, or- even more seriously – in the organisations with which daily they were forced to contend.

To take a relatively simple example first. Most of the delinquent boys we knew had moved through the usual scale of judicial “punishments” and “treatments” – police warnings, conditional discharges, fines, probation. Once they got that far they were of course in great danger of “going down” if they committed further offences. But how did the probation service in the area see them and deal with them? Unlike some others in the country which, however intuitively, are at least looking for a wider range of responses, this office took each youngster on his (or occasionally her) own, or in his family. It expected him to come regularly to a “reporting centre” each week or fortnight, to sit in an office and to talk with an officer about his individual and discrete problems, to adjust his relationships with parents, teachers or employers, the police, the probation officer – and therefore not to commit more crimes.

But, for the youngsters, the “real” action was not primarily where the probation officer apparently thought it was, but in the pubs, on the streets and other public places, and – centrally – within his own friendship groups. The outlets here were neither plentiful, nor, where they actually existed,, very exciting:

Yesterday (Sunday) was a grey, miserable day. Sal was feeling pretty lousy and Neil was really ratty. After dinner I decided to take him onto the hills behind Sh…   We drove past Jenny and Helen sitting on a bus-stop bench, and all four of us went for the walk. They came back afterwards for a cuppa. Sunday afternoon is an absolute vacuum for them – nothing to do and nowhere at all to go. [page 8] Ann said she went with her mother to bingo every Tuesday. At least, she says, it’s something to do.

Nonetheless, for any treatment method (as probation conceived itself to be) to have any chance of success, contact would have to be made with and within these arenas of experience. And the targets for change would have to be, not simply individuals and families, but – as a very basic minimum – extrovert and often alienated peer groups, congregating and acting out in deficient and alienating housing estates and in silent and deserted town centres.

Yet, irrelevant though the “help” given (through probation) was to them, when these young people did get into more “trouble”, it was they and they alone who were held responsible – who got charged, appeared in court, were lectured by magistrates (and perhaps parents), told to change and eventually sent down. At no time, in all the years I knew those youngsters, was any judicial or official comment made on the probation service, or on any of the other “helping” services, or on how adequately they were “serving” these young people.

Dave and Phil were talking tonight about their PO. They really dislike having to turn up each week and “talk about fuck all”, and they seemed pretty contemptuous about Mr. L   anyway. This followed a long discussion about the trouble on “the green” last night – they seem to have been right in the middle of the stone throwing and just missed getting picked up.

I went to get Neil’s prescription at the late chemist tonight. Dave, Geoff, Gary and Bill O. were already hanging around the market. They were sitting on one of the stalls, kicking their legs. They looked fed up, but they called a loud hello as I rushed past.

We heard tonight that Geoff has been sent to Detention Centre. Our letter didn’t seem to help much.

Of course, I am not saying that these young people, as individuals, were blameless. And they themselves would often be the first to assert personal responsibility: “It was my fault, really”; “I just can’t resist a giggle”; “I can’t help being such a flutter”. What I am questioning is the total responsibility which others unthinkingly thrust on them (and perhaps also their families) for their ultimate arrival in a courtroom, as if they had acted in some social and organisational vacuum. The process was far too heavily weighted towards personal responsibility, and lacked any critique of institutions.

Beyond such relatively clear examples, the process of interaction between these young people and the structures around them seem increasingly complex. Still in the area of delinquency, it was possible to see how deviant orientations and self-expectations were reinforced and possibly amplified by police practices and expectations. Boys who were picked up were rarely dealt with according to the Judges Rules, and sometimes were dealt with very roughly indeed.

The conversation between Bill and Wally was very matter of fact. “That Jones is the worst. He really hits you if you don’t answer him proper.” [page 9] Wally added: “And he knows where to do it so it don’t show”. Bill then commented: “Mind you, I can’t stand that Sgt. R… He never hits you but the way he talks and laughs at you makes me want to really go for him”.

Once in court, they received minimum legal support – a sort of professional going-through-the-motions – which itself often apparently assumed, firstly, that if they were not guilty this time then they might well have been, and secondly that if they were guilty then, again, the fault was all theirs.

I asked Bill if he had a solicitor. He said he couldn’t afford one. When I talked about legal aid, he still made excuses. I couldn’t persuade him to do anything about getting legal representation. In the end he made some comment about how useless the solicitor had been last time. “He didn’t seem to give a bugger”, was his final comment.

I rang Mr. J….,   Dave’s solicitor. I said I knew Dave quite well and could I help? He was very vague about who Dave was, but eventually said he’d ring back if I could do anything. I think I’ll send him something on Dave anyway.

Once released from detention centre or borstal, these youngsters were immediately the centre of intense police attention which at times clearly spilt over into harrassment. It was virtually a game whose rules and rituals seemed understood by both “sides” but which still often created great resentment in the young people.

Wally was very subdued in the club tonight. Not like him at all. Even Meg couldn’t cheer him up. He’s worried what will happen in court – he’s sure he’ll get sent down this time. Meg says that since he came out on bail the police haven’t left him alone. They were just sitting in the park last night when suddenly two cops descended on them and more or less accused Wally of having done another job. They said, according to Meg, that if he didn’t admit to it, it would be worse for him when he did come up in court. Meg concluded: “They’re bastards”.

Almost whatever they did – or tried not to do – contact with the police seemed for these youngsters to be continuous and inescapable. Once they did appear in court, however, it was taken for granted that they simply got themselves there and that the police were above criticism.

To take another example of the same sort of process: the engagement of these young people with the medical establishment. This was seen most dramatically amongst the girls, some of whom were having intercourse from at least their early teens, and, as we have seen, were continually in danger of getting pregnant. Few were “promiscuous”, if that is taken to mean moving unfeelingly and in some pathological way from boy to boy, though many did change partners pretty freely and frequently. [page 10] (What difference any of that should make anyway, I never did understand). Hardly any of them actually wanted to get pregnant, of course, and yet only a minority of them took deliberate steps to protect themselves.

Part of the problem seemed to be that the very idea of “taking precautions” is based on a set of wider assumptions which hardly applied to their lives. It implies, for example, that a woman feels she can control her future to some degree, and that she wishes to do so rather than just to rely on “fate” or “luck”. But what if, as was true of many of these young women, (and men), there is virtually nothing in her life experience which creates such a feeling, or actively confirms that it is valid? What if it has usually cast her in the role of “object” – of “sex object” certainly, but also of “thicky” at school, of “hand” at work and ultimately of “victim”? Fundamental changes of self-perception and attitude seem essential if suddenly she is to act in a decisive way to control her own fertility.

These young people, like others in that neighbourhood and culture, rarely took themselves to doctors anyway, Despite their reputation for “abusing” the Health Service – calling doctors out on the slimmest excuse, expecting prescriptions for everything and so on – many of them often “lived with” minor or even quite serious illnesses for weeks. Contending with a doctor’s secretary, making a special appointment, entering a surgery or a clinic – all these apparently simple acts could call for a very special effort of will for some of them, since it was tantamount to crossing a major cultural divide. For many of the girls deliberately and independently to have taken this step, especially when they were not actually ill, was unthinkable – and unthought-of.

Clare’s hesitation about going to her doctor to get put on the pill (p.5). is an example of this. But there were others:

Carol finally picked up courage tonight to ask her doctor to put her on the pill. She’s 17 next month and enjoys her Friday and Saturday nights out. He said no and gave her a little lecture on morals – how she should wait till she was married.

Brenda is off work again, with her old trouble. Sal called in to see her. The poor kid was in a right state really gasping for breath. Sal asked what the doctor had said, but apparently he hadn’t been called because on the last two or three occasions he or his secretary had said it wasn’t worth his coming as he couldn’t do anything, or that Brenda should come into the surgery. Brenda and her mother seemed reconciled to the situation.

As we finished our conversation about the abortion, I tentatively asked whether being catholic made any difference. Maria’s mother answered with real bitterness. She described how she’d been refused sterilisation after her last baby. She claimed the Church had interfered; “In this area, the priests and the doctors are iii league.”

And so, when these girls did get pregnant, whose “fault” was it where did the “problem” lie? Simply in their morals, in their fatalistic attitudes, in their ignorance about sex and their indifference to contraception? Or, at least in part, in a “professionalised” medical regime in that town which was entirely [page 11] unself-critical about how it provided service; itself ignorant about, and indifferent to, what was blocking contact with its potential clientele; rigid in its own behaviour and patterns of practice; itself fatalistic in its attitudes to what could be achieved; and/or protecting a status quo which was extremely convenient and comfortable for its own practitioners?

Many other examples emerged during our seven years in that town of such structural impediments to desirable social and educational outcomes. And all seemed to us to demonstrate that “problems” were by no means located only in the youngsters’ personalities or in their family circumstances. Yet the examples discussed so far were, relatively speaking, easy obstacles to identify and comprehend, especially as it became clearer that it was not just individual practitioners who were blocking decent service but the way that service was conceived, organised and delivered – the way it was institutionalised.

Some of these institutions were already being subject to a more searching analysis and criticism nationally. This was true for example of the provision of “education” in such an area, especially in developing conforming attitudes to work, in allocating people to occupational roles, and thus in reinforcing society’s stratified social structure. Our local scene provided much supporting evidence:

Carol said today as we sat around in the park: “You’re the brainy one, Bern, you tell us…”.   I made some remark about her not exactly being a thicky, but she didn’t want to know: “What do you mean? I was always in the bottom stream at school and I didn’t get any exams.” A few minutes later she was fuming about how unfair it is that she has to work her guts out and do all those terrible shifts when the likes of me have it so easy: a brief discussion on the Economic and Social Structure of Modern Britain then followed! I talked with Mr. W…  today, head of Northend comprehensive. I happened to mention that I was involved at the Centre. He immediately launched into a (most indiscrete) commentary on ex-pupils who, he assumed, were members. In fact, he did mention a number of names I knew, but he described many of them in ways I hardly recognised. They sounded like completely different people.

Other social institutions still seemed beyond such analysis. The main one was, of course, the family, though it was often apparently experienced in adolescence as extremely oppressive. Rebellion against it did occur. But this chose relatively minor targets and was usually transient and superficial in effects. As a result, the young seemed never to have the time or space to look critically at the main values surrounding them. Given all the other structural pressures on them in that town – from the education system, the law enforcement agencies, the medical establishment and (see later) the institutions of work -this solidarity with the family (and also incidentally with the neighbourhood) was unsurprising and also necessary. Nonetheless, its effect on individual development arid self-expression, on the development of certain types of continuing collective support outside the family, and indeed on any kind of sustained structural criticism of society, was extremely restrictive, Responses not only to powerful institutions, but even in small scale, face-to-face social situations, were thus often very cautious.

[page 12] I asked Jenny why her father didn’t take it up with the Town Hall. “What’s the point?”, she said. Her father claimed they’d always prove you wrong. “We don’t stand a chance.”

I offered Jenny some food but she said no. Sal added: “Sure?”, and she hesitated. Then she plucked up courage: “Can I have some cornies with cold milk?” It emerged later that she could never remember her mother being able to afford more than one bottle of milk a day for the whole family (5 of them). “And when that’s gone, that’s it”, she added.

Sal talked with Clare for ages tonight about coming to Spain with us. “No-one in my family’s ever been that far”, she said. “And my dad can’t see why you’ve got to go that far for a holiday”.

By the time I asked the tenth person if they’d like to come (to see “Spring and Port Wine”) and been told more or less that people like them didn’t go to the theatre, I found myself using some quite different arguments. “Why”, I started to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” Theatre, it seemed, is only for “them”, so’ I wouldn’t enjoy it.” Only one or two I spoke to (or their parents, as far as I could discover) have ever seen a live performance at a theatre.

…. Wally and Meg went on to express some vicious views towards “Pakis”, which Carol backed up very strongly.,..

Nonetheless, powerful an influence though family was on these young people, our contact with their parents was always slight, and eventually deliberately so. In part, this was because we recognised (largely intuitively) that our involvement was with an adolescent world from which parents were more or less excluded. What went on in this world was usually limited, both in scope and in its longer term significance for their lives. It was after all a world made up largely of immediately preoccupying leisure activities and of personal relationships which (especially across the sexes) could be very transient and which usually ignored some “serious” concerns and interests. By careful negotiation, it was sometimes possible to move out of this limited world, into areas – work in particular, but also school and health – which might have more lasting effects. However, the separation of this world from parental surveillance and interference remained for the young people essential, if only to ensure them some space and time for understanding and reinforcing a more individual self-identity, and for refining some of the basic skills of social intercourse. For us to have become too involved in that other, parental world could well have fed doubts about our reliability and about our commitment to respecting the adolescents’ definition of important realities.

[page 13] Indeed, at first we did sometimes unthinkingly get involved with their parents as parents rather than as adults in their own right). Eventually, however, we felt bound to focus as sharply as we could on the young people as a self-defined, separate group, since this was another way of ensuring we did not simply fall in with conventional, but quite inadequate, explanations of their problems. For, all around us, were those who were constantly intoning the view: well, if these youngsters as individuals are not weak, defective, “at fault”, then certainly their families are. Because we were now so conscious of the limitations of such explanations, an unrelenting commitment to our role as youth workers was one important way of protecting ourselves from the types of practice which could flow from these explanations.

Nonetheless, the family did have a very great power in that area, and nowhere was it more clearly revealed than in the roles which the sexes assumed for themselves, and which, because the girls were less powerful, constrained them in particular. The use of violence, mentioned earlier, had the clear effect of preparing some of them very specifically for a taken-for-granted inferior place within their future marriage. But the violence – which was of course far from universal, anyway – was merely the most obvious expression of the control and orientation which was exercised through a wide range of subtle practices within the home, and then within their peer groups. By the time the girls we knew reached the age of 15 or 16, even when they were apparently in revolt against parents, they were left with little desire or chance to define their basic sex role differently. Sex-object, “my bird”, wife, mother -these were virtually the only spots in their society which they could hope or expect to secure.

Stupidly, I asked Carol why Brenda was getting married anyway. She merely said: “Why not? What else is there to do round here?”.

…. Ann said she’s been going with Wally now for nearly four years. She’s 18 next birthday. I asked her if she was looking forward to being married. “Yeah, I suppose so.” “Do you love him,” I asked. “Yeah. We’ve been going together for so long now.”

Jenny said: “I hate work. It’s not so bad now, at least I’m not stuck inside all day. But I’d give it up tomorrow if I could. I hope when I get married the lad earns enough so I don’t have to work. I’ll stop like a shot.”

In fact, for most, work offered hardly any opportunities of release. Here too they were in part sex-objects – as the hooting, whistling and cat-calling invariably (and sometimes painfully) confirmed for any girl who walked through the all-male “shops” of the local factories. But they were mainly “hands”, and few could ever expect to achieve a more rewarding or personal status in these firms, unless of course they entered the equally role-confirming jobs of secretary or clerk. Overall, they were the poorest paid, had little responsibility and were treated even by the unions with great indifference, although sometimes the conditions they worked in were positively dangerous, and very often most unpleasant.

Janet was in a right state tonight. Needless to say, it was work again, but this time she’d had a real fright. I couldn’t quite make out the details, but it seems the machine she often [page 14]works on had more or less blown up in her mate’s face today. She’d been taken to hospital badly shocked though not hurt in any other way. According to Janet, the foreman had just made a string of excuses and said it couldn’t happen again, and the shop steward hadn’t been very interested.

Doreen talked about her job. She makes tubes used in some medical process and everything has to be extra hygenic. So she and the rest of the women in the shop are dressed up in special clothes and more or less locked in the room. They only get out for tea breaks and dinner. It’s even too much trouble going to the toilet between times, and they certainly don’t get a chance to knock off for a smoke. The temperature in the room, according to Doreen, is unbearable at times. They’ve complained to the union but nothing ever seems to get done.

The structural constraints of work did not by any means only affect the girls, of course. Though the boys on the whole earnt more, had a better chance of acquiring some skill and could expect greater status merely by being “at work”, most rapidly came to experience their jobs as alienating and even debilitating. As at school, almost everything they encountered as workers suggested that they had little worth in their own right, few talents, no capacity for acting independently, no right or means to self-expression either individually or collectively. The overlap of these experiences into home and leisure was also very apparent, and the only possible power base from which “oppositional” activities might be mounted was the trade unions.

After the arrival of a new and “militant” chief shop steward in the town, some of this collective strength was tapped, almost for the first time. The strikes which followed were of course primarily about money, and not everyone (even among the strikers) liked what was happening. They emerged at critical moments and became major events, but they did little to disturb the union’s own basic caution or lack of enterprise, and certainly they did nothing to alter the demoralising, nitty-gritty, day-to-day experiences which work entailed for almost everyone. What is more, few of the teenage workers we knew were directly involved in these strikes since they were too young to get work with the town’s major employer.

Nonetheless, the spirit of independence which taking a stand involved was clearly felt very widely in the town. A strike provided a rare opportunity to break out of the main structural constraints on one’s life and gave a rare sense of actually being in control of one’s own destiny.

Searching for a youth work response

Yet, on the whole, these constraints could be challenged rarely and only on the fringes, especially when, as in our case, the medium of work was as weak and as poorly conceptualised as “youth work” is. What, from such a starting-point, could be done? How could we as mere part-time youth club leaders take on such powerful embodiments of society’s beliefs and practices as the family, education, medicine, the law in all its forms and work, including the trades unionist. Clearly, the very thought was ludicrous.

[page 15] Yet something had to be attempted, since it no longer seemed possible to go on practising unthinkingly as if, on all occasions, it was the young and their families who had failed. And so a dozen mainly middle class “professionals” committed to social change rather than just to individual adjustment set about searching for a response which, though it was still bound to be marginal, might just possibly address itself more specifically to the problems as defined and experienced by the young people themselves.

Our group was too exclusive – it included no “young people”, for example – and it was far too cautious in its approaches to “indigenous” activists who might, even if only after persuasion, take on the adolescent cause in the town, either via political action or face-to-face practice. And it was far too naive about the opposition it would generate once its intentions became known. Nonetheless, over many months it put together a proposal for a “youth work” project which assumed that what needed changing in our town was not only or even primarily the young people but some of the institutions which, intentionally or unintentionally, were exploiting them. It was focused on girls precisely because the range and depth of our contacts with them seemed then (and perhaps still) quite rare and because they had shown that girls and young women in particular were powerless to change their situation without the introduction of new resources and facilities. These had to be described in very conventional terms – as an advice and aid centre, as a short-term “hostel”, as detached youth work. This was necessary, both to attract money and, more seriously, because our creative spark did not carry us beyond such mundane descriptions. However, what might perhaps have distinguished this from the usual practice associated with such facilities was our insistence that the work would primarily be about extending the girls’ understanding of their situation and raising their individual and collective consciousness of its effects on them. If, therefore, they did eventually conclude that some changes in their situation were desirable, then the girls might have a little more leverage at their disposal.

The proposal was backed by an established “experimental” youth organisation which submitted it to the DES on behalf of the local group. The Department had only recently produced guidelines for those wanting to bid for funds for special projects which specified that work with girls and women was of particular interest to it. However, after blowing hot and cold for many months, the DES refused to fund the project on the grounds that girls’ problems in that small town were not sufficiently severe to merit the allocation of large extra sums of public money. That those girls may have had problems anyway was never allowed to become a consideration.

Clearly, the political pressures against the project did much to bring about this result. But even without them how could the outcome have been different? For, given the starting assumptions on which such national decisions are made, the DES logic was absolutely right and logical. For here were we saying – in however tactful and disguised a form – that in a small, remote and uncomplaining corner of industrial Britain there were major structural weaknesses affecting the lives and development of a few young people. The problem was not that they were overwhelmed by ethnic minorities (“immigrants”); or that large numbers of their houses were in an appalling state; or that (at that time) there was high and chronic unemployment; or that the area included especially large numbers of old people, single parent families, and low wage-earners; or that the schools were all old and out-dated; or that the community had been blighted by comprehensive redevelopment plans. Our town and the girls who lived there suffered from none of the obvious community pathologies which allow politicians and civil servants to escape from individual and family explanations of social problems without ever having to examine their basic assumptions. No grounds here for designating a “special area”, offering urban aid or a community development project or EPA status. No clear reason here for introducing policies on the assumption that poverty and inequality are merely little local difficulties which can be dealt with simply, cheaply – and locally. To have endorsed our

[page 16]

assumptions and arguments – to have admitted that our girls did need extra resources and effort, by setting up even a small pilot project – would therefore, for the national decision-makers, have had totally unacceptable consequences. For, given the very ordinariness of this particular town, it would by implication have meant acknowledging that our society contains fundamental institutional – structural – weaknesses which contribute in major ways to poverty and inequality. And that in turn would have called, not just for an occasional small-scale project in a carefully delimited locality, but for nation-wide policies which, on economic and political grounds, are seen as completely unviable.


The practical conclusion, needless to say, is not a happy one. After seven years, I moved out of the area, having got a “better” job. Others continued to struggle with the problems by then identified. At the policy level, no further progress was made, either locally or nationally, while at the practice level the daily concentration of work still inevitably implied that, if anything needs to change, it is the youngsters and their families.

But in my head, and also in my feelings, nothing will ever be quite the same again. Not through books or academic discussion or private theorising, but through moving and demanding personal experience, I learnt so much that no doubt others had known for years. It is neither easy nor very accurate to make a list of these lessons since they are all so interwoven with each other and into my ideas and feelings. But that seems the only way to try and convey what the experience meant, especially since I now believe the lessons do have more than a merely personal validity.

1. One of the most obvious lessons has also for me been one of the most important: that the way other youth workers have traditionally and intuitively defined young people’s problems has been both unfair to the young people and unhelpful to the youth worker. Simply to practice as if the target must primarily be the individual and/or his or her family is not adequate. It is often extremely difficult to see how else to practice – what feasible ways of working are open to the mere youth worker wishing to concentrate on other targets? And that is especially true if the targets are powerful institutions within our society’s structures- schools, welfare agencies, the police, employers. None of that however is a reason for continually and unquestioningly responding to young people as if it is they and they alone who are defective and must change.

2. These altered conceptions of adolescent “problems” called for some altered conceptions of adolescence itself. I believe as strongly as ever that “youth” should be treated as an important state of being – as a period of an individual’s life which has value in its own right and which merits its own time and space and some very special efforts at stimulus and support. For, at that moment, I see individuals as sufficiently loosened from past roles and self-expectations to be able, potentially, to look afresh and critically at their own lives and at their society’s beliefs, practices and institutions. Our northern experiences confirmed that in our own society, this potential openness is very rarely tapped – that there is little evidence of a “revolt of youth”, or of a “generation gap”. Indeed, for me these experiences emphasised, not a discontinuity between adolescents and adults but a repeated reconfirmation and reinforcement of adult values and experiences by each succeeding adolescent generation – a so rapid contamination and suppression of adolescent freshness that, to the casual observer or “scientific researcher”, it seems not to exist at all. And that seemed to [page 17] be good neither for the individuals concerned, nor for a fast-changing society needing above all a capacity for openness and freshness of response.

3. From this insight, too, came a second realisation: that “youth”, though a distinctive and important concept and phenomenon, was not in itself adequate to illuminate some key youth work experiences and encounters. It became necessary to identify other concepts which straddled generational boundaries – indeed, which often assumed that they were of no special significance. And most useful amongst these was increasingly that of “class”. This, for me, came to have two principal and quite dynamic components. One might be described as “cultural”, in that it emphasised the differences in everyday domestic, leisure and micro-interpersonal habits and practices, and the values and attitudes which ruled these. It thus pointed to the differing styles of social life adopted by different social groups. It highlighted for example our own rather bookish and literary world which the young people we met usually weighed as of less importance than their own experiential one composed primarily of people, relationships, events and “things”. It was illustrated, too, by our basic optimism about children’s educational, occupational and material prospects as compared to their much more depressed and even anxious assumptions about the future.

Here however, this “cultural” conception of “class” overlapped with a clearly economic and political one which in particular emphasised the different meanings and effects of “work” for different social groups. This dimension of “class”, in a very personal way, emphasised how individuals were treated as, and felt themselves to be, mere objects in the production processes and networks of our society. From this followed their sense -which was rooted in a genuine reality – of having little control over their own material rewards, domestic and leisure choices and a great deal else. My awareness of these severe constraints on individual lives was heightened, not by reading Marx or by involvement in “left” groups, but by exposing my deeply built-in beliefs about “human dignity”, “equality”, “justice”, “freedom” and so on to the everyday conditions of life in that northern town. Without resort to ideas such as “class divisions” and even “class exploitation”, I am certain that I could have made very little sense of those conditions.

4. The effect of all this was to “radicalise” and “politicise” me – and not just me “personally”, in my private life, but “me the youth Worker”. I had always had intellectual political interests and also periods of active political commitment. I had for example marched for CND and against racism, but these activities had been part of my “private” life and largely separate from my “professional” commitments. Life and work in that northern town brought the two together. They made me accept that “youth work”, however it was done and for whatever stated purpose, is always a political statement. Even a “counsellor” acts politically as when, for example, s/he blames the youngster alone for his or her difficulties or misdemeanors, and refrains from criticising the political and economic institutions which have contributed to the youngster’s “problem”. S/he is therefore adopting a political stance which supports an, often most unsatisfactory, status quo. This in fact makes any separation of the politically “private” from the “professional” extremely dangerous, since merely “professional” actions can very easily produce results which directly contradict the political ideals and aims which a worker stands for “privately”. Youth work, like any form of people-work (or indeed any form of work?) is thus inescapably a political act through which a political commitment to freedom, equality and justice is constantly expressed.

[page 18]

5. This “political” rethinking led in turn to a fundamental re-evaluation of the ideas about “professionalism” which I had worked out so painfully in other circumstances over the previous decade or so, and for which I had painfully campaigned. For, in that northern town I observed at close quarters how “professionalism” amongst doctors, lawyers, teachers and also youth workers and many others, operated unhelpfully in the lives of so many people, young and old. I saw how it repeatedly, and by definition, rendered them powerless, or at least placed them in a very inferior and dependent position. I saw how, in its most prevalent form, it was part of that economic and political structure which I was now questioning so fundamentally. And I saw therefore what a force against change and in defence of vested personal and group interests it was. These feelings were strengthened by a realisation that, because I had not operated in that town from a “professional” position in the structure, I had as a direct result been able to establish relationships, develop a mutuality and an intimacy of exchange, enter into networks of communication, gain (not so much give) “acceptance” which in other more “professional” roles had been impossible.

I do not underestimate the special knowledge which was sometimes at my disposal in these relationships, the deliberate efforts to improve relevant competences, or the – sometimes ill-founded – confidence which might carry me into and through some situations. And I recognise that much of this stemmed from my past “professional” training and experience.

Indeed, now I have another problem: how to integrate into my more structural and political preoccupations the intra- and inter-personal concerns and insights which so dominate youth work “professionalism”. For, these are still both desirable and useful in so many of the individual and small group encounters which remain central to youth work practice, whatever its aims. I do not want to lose the baby with the bath water – I do not want to underplay the complexity of face-to-face exchanges, or the legitimate place in these for sensitive and caring responses. But I do need to know how a youth worker can combine these insights with views of the world which are less individualised, less personalised in their emphases – which are focused more on “institutions” and “structures”, which assume that the product of collective activity is often quite different from the mere sum total of its individual parts.

What my experience in that northern town did at least demonstrate, however, was that, where these competences were helpful, it was largely because they were complementary to much else that already existed in that town – that other, “non-professionals” in those relationships, possessed parallel “competence?’. No exclusive, precious or self-interested conception of “professionalism” could have survived or been constructive in the situations we encountered -or was compatible with the “political” perspectives emerging from the work.

Present practice – December 1976

For me, much of this learning had, and still has, a great many uncomfortable consequences, not least because it raised basic doubts about “youth work” as I have always understood it, and whether it can achieve anything worthwhile. So many of the primary but taken-for-granted assumptions of my past youth work philosophy and practice were challenged by this learning that it seemed likely at more than one point that I would be left without any viable working base.

And yet, some guides to practice have emerged which, generalised though they may be, do often [page 19] turn out to be of real operational value and seem to me now to be essential to the possibility of “good youth work”.

A. “Good personal relationships” with young people are as necessary as they ever were, if by this is meant bonds between adults and young people which are based on mutual trust and respect and a good deal of straightforward caring. I now believe that these can withstand – indeed, that they often require a much more vigorous and challenging input from the adult than I (and others, I think) have often contributed in the past. That is, I now feel much more confident than previously about trying to sense when it is appropriate for me to “be myself” in those relationships – to present quite directly my own values, feeling, spontaneous reactions and the rest – rather than acting as if “acceptance” and “non­judgemental attitudes” demanded some simple repression of my inner responses, my personal attributes, my private life and so on.

Nonetheless, the commitment to closeness, warmth and confidence in relationships remains total.

B.  The day to day practice which flows successfully from such a commitment will of course always look very much alike. However, I now wish also to see such work firmly and self-consciously linked to social change objectives – to efforts to change the institutions crucially affecting (and especially constraining) young people, rather than just to changing the young people themselves. For, if such a link is not made, the consequences may be to lock young people even more firmly in their institutional traps: to distract their attention from these as they are more and more warmly embraced within networks of personal relationships which, in themselves, change nothing fundamentally.

C. To pursue such objectives, the youth worker needs constantly to be looking for bases from which to act which offer some prospect of resources and influence – of power. That is, his/her organisational base needs to be seen, not just as a separate environment for face-to-face practice with adolescents, It also needs to be looked on as a springboard for interventions in other, much more influential institutions in young people’s lives.

D. The youth worker should also be constantly seeking ways of linking up with other (at least potentially) more powerful bases for action, especially where these offer the possibility of adolescent contacts which are normally not available to the youth worker. This particularly suggests efforts to develop a strategy of collaboration with the trades unions and other parts of the labour movement. For, conservative, bureaucratic and indifferent to young people though these bodies may often be, they do at least have an access to some groups of relatively powerless young people normally denied to the youth worker. [page 20]

E. The youth worker anyway needs constantly to be looking for bases for collective action with and on behalf of young people -for alliances with and among young people, with fellow workers and with other concerned activists, including those operating through overtly political channels. This clearly is very different from a conventional type of inter-disciplinary, inter-professional co-operation, for this latter usually totally excludes consumer interests, since a primary, if often unstated purpose of it is to preserve “professional” and/or organisational autonomy and power. Rather, such collective action needs to be rooted in a commitment to consumer autonomy and power, where necessary at the expense of professional and organisational controls.

F. All of this assumes that the institutions with which young people (and the youth worker) have to contend are not totally monolithic, all-powerful and immovable, and that the youth worker will constantly be seeking points in these structures at which leverage can be exerted by and on behalf of young people.

None of this, of course, adds up to a blueprint for a brand new or inevitably successful form of youth work practice. Indeed, one of its main weaknesses may still be that it greatly overestimates what can be achieved through “youth work”, however this is conceived. Nonetheless, it may tentatively suggest some additional or alternative formulations for “practice” to those normally built into youth work in this country. They were certainly not consciously influencing me at the start of my involvement in that northern industrial town some ten years ago.

To cite this piece: Davies, B. (1976) Part-time Youth Work in an Industrial Community, Leicester: National Youth Agency. (Republished in the informal education archives,

This piece has been reproduced here with the permission of the author. © Bernard Davies 1976, 2002 

First published by the National Youth Bureau an occassional paper

First placed in the archives: August 2002. Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by