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Leadership of the sector

At the end of his response to my last post, Kevin Ford posed a question about the role of sector leadership. This really set me thinking and led me into an uncomfortable place but, nonetheless, a necessary one. This was partly because I have to own involvement in that greater sector leadership historically but, more importantly, because the more I thought the more his point rang true.

On reflection I’d argue that historically and currently we need to question the leadership of the youth sector – professionally, organisationally and academically [and I count myself in this given my time in Sunderland, Manchester and at APYCO] – who, over a long period, have singularly failed to convince sequential key stakeholders that youth work works. As a case in point, witness the volumes of evidence to the recent Select Committee. Never have I seen the rich yet highly competitive diversity of our sector so broadly portrayed. I know that youth work works. I have lived and breathed it for nearly four decades and my passion for it has never dimmed, a view shared by thousands of others, volunteers and paid staff, across our nation.

So why is it that now we have the Young Foundation trailing their Outcomes Framework for youth services, not youth work exclusively, wherever across the land, explaining little that we shouldn’t already know, but trying, in part, to respond to a deep-felt Government criticism that “… many services are unable or unwilling to measure the improvements they make in outcomes for young people.” That the Government feels “… the lack of a common measurement framework across the sector makes it extremely difficult for authorities to decide which services to fund” and that services should be able to “demonstrate what difference they make to young people.” And finally “… agreement is needed on a common set of standards.”

Bernard Davies could far more eloquently recount the times we have had opportunities to do exactly this [and I can go back myself to the Thompson and Milson-Fairbairn Reports] but, even in recent history, we have had Transforming Youth Work and Resourcing Excellent Youth Services as examples. I draw the line at ‘Positive for Youth’ because it is more a set of initiatives than a real policy agenda or framework.

So what gets in the way of taking those opportunities? I return to my point about leadership. I believe it has been and remains fragmented, divisive, territorial and competitive. Which is a great shame as the richness and diversity of the broad youth offer in this country is immense, with a strong heritage from both statutory and third sectors. Unfortunately this richness and diversity is also its Achilles heel, providing endless opportunity for dissent, disagreement and indecision, more often focused on adult agendas and personalities than on the young people who are purportedly the focus of the work. Maybe it will always be so … but at what price for young people now and for the future?

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2 responses to “Leadership of the sector

  1. brencook September 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Hi John,

    There are some Interesting reflections that somehow mirror your points going on out there in the blogosphere:

    on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Blurring-Boundaries-Youth-Work-Work-4447399.S.164865437?view=&srchtype=discussedNews&gid=4447399&item=164865437&type=member&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_pd-ttl-cn&ut=1suJqOy7rJ-Ro1

    Also Tony Taylors ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ http://www.indefenceofyouthwork.org.uk/wordpress/

    and my small effort to raise discussions on NatCAN: http://nationalcan.ning.com/group/young-people-and-informal-social-education

    My thoughts for the long term are this: Youth work (as defined by Bernard Davies 9 principles and probably as we would know it) will carry on in the voluntary sector aided by the likes of you but will be abandoned by local authorities (you can argue that this has already happened). Once mainstream education finally shrugs off the ‘Gradgrind’ approach and take up a ‘Ken Robinson’ approach then there may be chance to develop a co-designed and co-produced curriculum based on Youth Work Principles.

    The debates in youth work at the moment seem to be ‘how can can we secure a funded future?’ ‘how can we been seen as professionals (this ones been running for a long time)?’ and ‘How can we prove instant results?’. For me these are all the wrong questions and demonstrate the poverty of leadership that you allude to.

    By way of optimism, I would agree with the likes of Schumacher, that the days of the Cartesian hegemony is coming to an end and we need new ways to articulate and live with complexity. I am hoping that soon the bean counters world will vanish like the illusion that it is.

    • jht29 September 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      Hi Bren

      It was good to receive such a fast response to my post. I very much appreciated this and the development of the thinking you have suggested. I agree too that youth work, as we know it, will still continue in the voluntary sector, perhaps even in a targeted way, and, to a much lesser extent, in the statutory sector. Here I believe it has not been totally abandoned but may now be buried so deep in layers of integrated, collaborative, downsized and complex structural reform – ‘doing more for less’ essentially – as to be virtually indistinguishable from other services for young people.

      I’d very much welcome a huge move towards a ‘Ken Robinson’ approach and away from a model that talks outcomes but is still principally about outputs! I liked the term ‘Gradgrind’, as it helped me to visualise the very worst of those output-focused excesses! Through the ‘Robinson’ approach, co-creation would stand a much better chance of utilising all that is possible through thinking and creativity, especially with and for young people.

      I also really welcomed your comments on poverty of thought leadership, which was a different avenue to where I was going, but no less valid for that! I agree that the questions you highlighted are the wrong questions and I also find it truly perplexing that, almost ten years on from Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, there is a regional conference next month in the North East to discuss ‘Evidencing Youth Work Outcomes’.

      Knowing you well as I do, I also much appreciated your closing optimism, which is something I try to maintain myself. I believe you are very much on the money about learning to deal with complexity … and our shared language is critical to enabling us to do this! The Cartesian hegemony may be morphing for me rather than disappearing and I probably don’t share your optimism about the bean counters vanishing. However, hope springs eternal that an alternative eventually emerges to resolve the imbalance that their focus on outputs has created; especially if key stakeholders really are interested in impact … and making a real difference in the lives of young people!

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