developing popular practice

In chapter 8 of Developing Youth Work (1988) Mark K. Smith explores the possibilities of popular practice. He sets out some of the elements that will need to be attended to if work that looks to mutual aid, conversation and informal education are to be realized.

contents: introduction · the potential of popular practice · attention to identity and purpose · tuning in · enabling dialogue, decision and learning · asking ‘what are people learning here?’ · workers and mutual aid · policy implications · further reading and references

Reading this chapter today, the gaps and disappointments are all too obvious. There isn’t a proper exploration of how popular practice could be developed and realized, and the sorts of possibilities and constraints that existed. What is more, the way in which the fostering of popular practice is examined in the chapter lays me open to the charge of seeking to impose a particular (professional?) framework on such work. When I did the research for Local Education (1994) I think that a more organic framework for the work emerged.

What is more, the demographic and cultural shifts identified in Chapter 4 have run their course and in so doing undermine the rationale for a great deal of the ‘open’ youth work that existed. In addition, the continuing lack of thought and engagement within youth work concerning purpose, process and theory has had a significant impact both in terms of the work undertaken and the sense made of it by policymakers. Thus, we have seen a strengthening of the trend towards working with individuals rather than groups (perhaps most strongly expressed within the Connexions strategy); an increasing focus on product and outcome; and shifts first towards issue-based work and subsequently to focusing on working with those suffering multiple disadvantage. In a very real sense there has been a loss of faith in the possibilities of the sort of popular practice explored in this chapter, and in the power of association.

While there have been movements away from community, religious and enthusiast groups generally within society, they are still a very strong presence – and retain strong possibilities for development. Elsewhere on these pages (see links) we have explored the continuing relevance of association, the impact of focusing upon communal and group relationships, and the possibilities for practice beyond the narrow confines of government agendas. The cases for mutual aid, conversation and relationships, and the possibilities of popular practice are just as strong as when the chapter was written.

Mark K. Smith, 2001

links: association · community · social capital · civic community · beyond connexions · transforming youth work


[page 140] Such is the organization of youth work that major advances can be made at the front-line in a relatively short time. The significant, initial questions concern strength of will and the way practitioners think. Once workers possess a sense of themselves as educators and grasp the dialogical nature of their task, then practice for the good can flow. In this chapter I will draw together some key considerations when approaching such practice.

The potential of popular practice

Popular youth work is the central site for the development of practice for the good. A recognition of this implies a substantial shift in emphasis, and the development of work with many groups of people who had not previously understood themselves as youth workers or educators. As Garrett discovered in her survey of provision for young people in Croydon (1986), for every group known to the Youth Service, there was at least one other who could equally be considered as undertaking youth work. In addition, there is a range of communal youth provision in the form of hobbyist and other clubs which, while not necessarily needing or welcoming youth work interventions, would benefit from certain forms of additional support. Their potential contribution to well-being very much parallels that of popular youth work.

As popular youth work is among the most pervasive forms of informal provision, this is where work must be focused. There is little political purpose in creating an oasis of positive work in some marginal area when it is attention to mass practice that is required. If, for example, familiar forms of work cannot be approached then [page 141] there must be some questions about the ideological soundness of the proposal.

Secondly, given their appeal to the popular, these forms hold and reflect many contradictions and tensions in such a way as to make for the possibility of practice which addresses the lived experiences of the mass of young people. Specifically, in order to attract people, popular youth work has to make some accommodation with their culture. In that culture lies significant mechanisms of subordination and empowerment. The taken-for-granted and consciously learned can be subjected to critical interrogation, considered in relation to the good, so that people may own what they choose and attempt to transform that which does not fit their enlarged sense of well-being.

Thirdly, the organizational structure of much popular youth work is associational. Front-line units are usually organizations in themselves, possessing their own legal and financial status and having elected officials. Their structures at least make for the possibility of empowering practice. In addition, such organizations are part of formal political systems and can provide another doorway into collective political activity. These systems may connect directly with the local and central state; operate through federations, such as is the case with many sporting and hobby clubs and tenants associations; or work through other organizational structures, such as those present in churches. Further, some forms of youth provision are forms of mutual aid. The values and practices implicit within such groupings are of particular relevance to the purposes set for youth work in Chapter 6.

Fourthly, popular practitioners are frequently of the same neighbourhood or culture as those they work with. Therein lies the potential for organic practice, one that grows from within. In particular, it offers an opportunity for young people to work with people with whom they may share significant experiences, histories and prospects. If these people are able to demonstrate autonomy, an enlarged concern for people’s well-being, and civic courage, then they are living evidence of what is actually possible. However, there are dangers. Practitioners may have either adopted the ways of bourgeois improvement or failed to make the familiar strange. Too much may be assumed because workers ‘know’ the community and culture.

Finally, the size and nature of popular youth work, characterized as it usually is by convivial and face-to-face relationships, allows for sustained dialogue. Whether, for example, the youth organization is large or small, there are usually a similar number of young people directly involved in organizing. If the aim of the work is partly to [page 142] develop such competencies then the use of ‘small’ organizations makes sense. Further, it is important to examine the actual nature of relationships before assuming that so-called ‘activity-clubs’ are any less social than, say, the open youth club. In many enthusiast groupings the substantive activity may be of secondary importance when compared to the opportunities they provide for making friends and meeting people (see Chapter 3).

How, then, is practice to be transformed? The answer given here is that practice for the good is already within people’s grasp, and that there is considerable potential within much popular youth work and communal youth provision once people start asking the right questions. But that is easier said than done. The dull compulsions of existing practice can conspire against critical reflection and dialogue. Nevertheless, those who want change can make progress by drawing upon the existing strengths of popular work, particularly if they are clear about purpose at a time when others are not.

Attention to identity and purpose

Practice for the good requires deep attention to the ways practitioners understand and name themselves. The term ‘educator’ makes many youth workers uncomfortable, its erroneous equation with classroom activity and discipline neither fitting practitioners’ images of themselves, nor what they believe young people expect of their services. However, unless workers name themselves unambiguously they will remain forever locked in trivial pursuits.

Establishing a coherent identity as an educator does not come easy. Those who come to the work through their membership of a social movement will often be disposed to a view of themselves as educators, although they may also appeal to equally strong images such as proselytizer or organizer. They will, perhaps, be surer in their belief that they have something significant and distinctive to offer. The same may well be true of those who are concerned about young people through their involvement in communal leisure groups. For example, youthful entrants to a handball club or fishing club have to serve an apprenticeship while they ‘learn the ropes’, and require help in this.

The development and maintenance of people’s identities as educators can be approached through training. None the less, it is sustained reflection and dialogue over time which provides the most potential, especially where this is based upon the exploration of actual and continuing practice and the traditions which it expresses. It is essential that things are not taken at their face value and that the  [page 143] hidden structures are sought; the underlying reasons for intervention require careful thought. One of the obvious forums for this process is the staff team or committee, another is individual supervision (see Christian and. Kitto, 1987).

A particular danger here is that people may be encouraged to take on ways of working that serve neither their interests, nor those they work with. This can happen as people adopt what are apparently the technical concerns of the professional without directly addressing what the cultural and political implications of these may be. The aim in this approach is to increase the number and effectiveness of popular educators committed to enlarging people’s understanding of well-being, not to further the influence of bourgeois improvers, nor professionalize the area. In Gramsci’s words this means working to produce ‘elites of intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them to become, as it were, the whalebone in the corset’ (1971: 340). To guard against the dangers of incorporation, practitioners must advance and own their political and moral understandings and identities as well as paying attention to their craft. As educators they must be educated. They too, must pursue their own well-being autonomously.

Beyond questions of identity lies attention to purpose and the need to stay close to fundamentals. Much in the same way as the family motto of Clarkes the shoemaker is supposedly ‘But will it sell shoes?’ (Goldsmith and Clutterbuck, 1985: 10), so practitioners must formulate their own essential question. One possibility here might be, ‘But will it enable young people to pursue their own well-being autonomously?’ More specifically, ‘will it enlarge understanding of well-being or enhance ability to think and act politically?’ Every action workers then take must be explainable in terms of this purpose. If the action does not fit then it is a diversion. Through this simple device many practitioners have generated a sureness of touch and direction which initially seemed impossible. But it is important to get the question right, and to tailor the process to the culture of the group. There are considerable dangers in applying concepts that make sense in the business world to the experiences of youth organizations and communal leisure groups. For example, in the case of the latter, there is the ever-present danger of focusing on the substantive activity of, say, football, rather than the social relations involved.

Tuning in

Workers must connect with the culture and language of those [page 144] worked with, as well as with their own, if they are to help people to appropriate their own biographies and develop understandings which are both true to their selves and the contexts in which they find themselves. This requires that particular attention is placed on the everyday, the apparently taken-for-granted: the material that people use to construct their view of the world and themselves. Attention to these matters is also of importance in furthering relations between those worked with:

Just as, in their attempts to understand and describe other cultures, anthropologists and sociologists trip up over the concealed obstacles of cultural difference, so too do ‘ordinary’ people in their perception of and interaction with others. (Cohen, 1985: 39)

In true ethnographic fashion tuning-in involves worker-educators becoming ‘strangers in their own land’ or making the familiar strange. They have to look upon the everyday as if it was new. Some help in engaging in this process may be gained from the experience of researchers (see Ball, 1981; Whyte, 1955; Woods, 1979) and the various ethnographic ‘cookbooks’ (see Burgess, 1984; Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983; Hopkins, 1985; Spradley, 1979, 1980). However, it is likely that most will be gained from reflection on practice. Constantly, practitioners must pose questions about the settings in which they operate and the phenomena they encounter. Their own feelings and experiences can easily intrude in an unhelpful way. Workers may ‘know’ what it is like to be young and to grow up in a particular neighbourhood. This tendency to read in meanings does not allow for the fact that things change and that each individual experience is unique.

Unlike the ethnographer, to borrow from Marx (1977a: 158), the practitioner does not engage in the process simply to record the world in various ways, but to change it. Consciously assuming an attitude of naivety, of ‘unknowingness’, can encourage people both to explain and name their world, so that the worker-educator may understand. It can ensure active participation. In turn, practitioners have to pay special attention to the words used and check meanings. This not only displays respect for people, but also demonstrates the practitioner’s reflective engagement with the world. Further, through this very naming and explaining, worker-educators can begin to gain a critical perspective on their own culture and history. While doing this it is important to remember that our capacity to mean what we intend to mean depends on the structure of the language we speak. Words have to be placed in context: the point of  [page 145] examining language is to explore the whole system within which speakers operate.

Working in this way requires clarity of purpose and the ability to explain succinctly and clearly what is being done. Time spent originating and refining such statements is rarely wasted. However fine the statement though, it will hardly guarantee entry to all groups or be acceptable to them. Workers should be especially alert to the process of entry into a group or setting. The responses to interventions, the negotiations necessary, and the roles adopted provides material which is of great relevance in developing and understanding practice and ‘yields data on the ways in which different individuals perceive an organization or institution or neighbourhood’ (Burgess, 1984: 49).

All of this further entails the constant monitoring of differences between practitioners and those with whom they work. This allows practitioners to stay rooted and yet maintain the necessary critical distance. It also provides an important context for the consideration of ethical questions. In the case of the latter, this may involve consideration of the sorts of activities and conversations worker-educators can be party to, e.g. in respect of acts which are outside the law or seriously contradict their ethical and political position.

Underpinning reflective activity is recording. To those not used to the disciplines of analytical thinking or who have not grasped the educational nature of their task, the effort involved in making notes about events and experiences often seems unnecessary or a luxury. However, there are few alternatives if practice is to be advanced. Reviewing such notes allows practitioners to see patterns emerging and to ‘fix’ the use of words. They provide a concrete means of exploring practice. In terms equally applicable to practitioners, Mills advocated the keeping of a journal in which there is joined:

personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’. . . . Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience. (Mills, 1970: 216—7)

Journals and records allow practitioners to evaluate events and [page 146] phenomenon, they are storehouses of ideas which, when systematically approached, considerably enhance reflection and hence practice (Christian et al., 1988; Rogers, 1982).

Tuning-in takes time and carries with it the danger that the bulk of worker-educators’ efforts are spent on getting information for themselves, rather than working directly for the benefit of people. Within informal education the situation is compounded as much work is only of a relatively short duration. However, the problem here is less of time, than of disposition and orientation. If practitioners view the process as being simultaneously directed at their own entry into culture and at the development of a critical mode of reasoning in those they work with, then the necessary balance may be maintained.

Enabling dialogue, decision and learning

From what has already been said, it is apparent that worker-educators have at least three central working tasks, once they decide which broad areas they wish to handle and whom they want to work with. First, they contribute to the creation and maintenance of the conditions and context for dialogue. Secondly, they work with the learner(s) in order to reach agreement about the general direction of the required learning and specific topics of interest. In doing this they must ensure that all pay attention to what they are able and prepared to offer to the enterprise. Thirdly, practitioners make direct interventions to enable learning. When doing this they look to a range of sites for action. These include working:

(i) directly with a group or individual;

(ii) with other people that the group or individual might consider significant, so influencing indirectly;

(iii) on the institution and systems which the group or individual experience;

(iv) on the physical environment or setting in which the work takes place; and

(v) on the activities which the group or individuals undertake.

Differences in emphasis reflect, in part, the ideological position of the educator and learner and the direction and content of the learning. For example, within the character-building traditions, it can be seen that many workers tend to place an emphasis upon structure. They see their role as primarily providing a framework of activity and order. Badges, procedures, groupings like the ‘six’ and regular ritual provide a hierarchy of roles and activities through which young people must progress. Perhaps it is the young person’s  [page 147] engagement with these, rather than with the worker which enables learning. This might be contrasted with some of the work within the personal and social development traditions, where practitioners may spend considerable amounts of time working directly with individuals or small groups.

At this point it is also necessary to assemble some of the key elements that practitioners will need to consider when approaching their tasks in relation to enabling dialogue, decision and learning. When the view of informal education advanced here is set alongside the processes and practices of youth work, a number of headings emerge which would appear to have some importance when thinking about intervention. This rather pragmatic summarized check list is included in order to give some structure to thinking about practice. Key elements for consideration are:

Content: Clearly, the nature of the material that educators and learners want to address will have serious implications for the methods utilized and the forms of intervention that are appropriate. Some ideas are better communicated through reading or lecturing, others require the use of small groups or individual sessions.

Networks and structures: Educators and learners have to gain an understanding of the nature of the social systems in which they are enmeshed. Of particular importance here are the networks of personal relationships in which people are involved and the impact of particular structures, such as those involved in the school, club or setting.

Rules and norms: Without careful attention to the ways in which learners understand both their own rules and norms and those which operate, and which they have in effect ‘helped’ construct, in the settings where the work is taking place, it is all too easy for practitioners to make inappropriate interventions. Their understanding of specific words or actions may well be different from those they work with.

Settings: As almost any introductory youth work text will unfailingly point out, the nature of the physical environment is of great importance. Does it make for creative interaction? Temperature, decoration, lighting, layout and furniture all seen to make an impact.

Activities: Here again we might examine particular activities for the degree to which they encourage interaction and attention to desired content. From this we might come away with pretty obvious [page 148] conclusions such as noisy activities or pursuits involving a great deal of movement not being conducive to conversation. At a more sophisticated level practitioners must examine the differences in outcome involved in social conversations in a coffee bar and, say, in situations where both educator and learners are engaged in some structured tasks much as decorating ‘their’ youth club.

Attitudes: The disposition of those involved inevitably has an effect upon the learning that can be generated. As has already been stressed, mutual respect is of crucial importance. For practitioners this will manifest itself in a readiness to listen, think about what they have heard, ask relevant questions and make contributions that ‘speak to the person’s condition’.

Numbers: Frequent reference is made to size in discussions of youth work. Partly this arises from questions of economic viability, but it is also crucial in relation to the headings already listed. Physical settings may require a certain number in order that they may be experienced as convivial.

Time: Particular forms of organization, setting and activity are conducive to long-term work (such as the youth club), though many are not. Indeed, short-term work is often associated with informal education, e.g. the evening session or a particular discussion. In this respect, it is necessary to tailor activities not only to the time-span involved, but also to the gaps and disjunctures that can occur in informal practice.

It has not been possible to go into any depth concerning these elements where; however, while each element appears obvious, handling and combining the elements can require quite sophisticated practice (see Jeff s and Smith, forthcoming).

Asking ‘what are people learning here?’

Immersion in the daily round and coping with the various tasks necessary to keep an organization going can easily lead to drift. In addition, because this form of learning often means people are engaged in doing things, whether it is organizing an evening’s entertainment, campaigning against cuts in services or raising money to combat poverty, the direct objectives associated with these tasks can easily take precedence over the learning that is gained from the processes. The direction of the work can alter in ways unseen to practitioners and young people. It may be necessary to pull the work around so that it remains close to fundamentals. On the other hand, [page 149] immediate objectives may have to be reformulated because the drift has arisen from an intuitive appreciation of changing needs. Asking ‘what are people learning here?’ keeps attention focused upon purpose and allows comparison with what people have identified as their learning requirements. Crucially this is a question that both practitioners and young people should be asking. The extent to which young people are considering this question is a good indicator of how successful the club or group is as an educational institution.

Aside from combating drift, the question also directs attention to theory-making. The very informality of the approach can deteriorate into superficiality with inadequate attention being paid to reflection: returning to experience, attending to feelings, and re-evaluating experience (Boud et al., 1985: 26—36); and to the process of making and re-making theory. In the end it is theory which allows people to name, predict and act. The upshot of this for practitioners is that they will have to move beyond asking questions which elicit a simple descriptive response. As well as asking ‘what happened?’ or ‘what is that?’ they will have to focus attention on the relationship between things. ‘How’ and ‘why’ questions and considerations will have to feature in their repertoire. They will also have to direct people towards likely sources of theory and this may lead them into the adoption of more formalized teaching approaches at times.

Workers and mutual aid

This approach is dependent upon enabling young people to take responsibility for their own learning. It is they who are at the centre of the process. Therefore, practitioners must establish and maintain clear boundaries, resist pressures to take on what is not theirs, and control their own wishes and needs. Autonomy is not a thing to be conferred by others but is a way of behaving:

We would tend to speak not of ‘having autonomy’ but of ‘behaving autonomously’. Thus we do not see autonomy as a thing that can be taught, although it has to be learned. Autonomy is an attribute of relationship; to be non-autonomous is to be directed by another to whom one has handed over responsibility for choice and who is blamed if things go wrong and idealised if things go right. (Kitto, 1987: 67—8)

How then do young people learn to be autonomous in the context of a youth organization? The answer is that it has to be held and demonstrated as a value by the worker-educators and expressed in the structures.

[page 150] The ability of practitioners to function effectively in this respect is dependent upon their being seen as different from those that they work with. They fulfil a distinctive function and in order to do so must ensure that the boundaries of their role are understood, and that they have established the necessary ‘distance’ between themselves and others. The problem with this is that if they are too distant, practitioners will experience considerable difficulties in functioning. Therefore, they have to search for the optimum point where their role as worker-educator is understood and accepted by all parties, and where they can establish relationships primarily in that role, rather than as a friend, neighbour or surrogate relative. They may indeed be these things at other times, but when these intrude into the arena of practice, confusions and defective interventions can occur.

Learning can also be deeply obstructed by workers stepping outside their role. People are not helped by workers who rush to put things right, who provide so much activity and undertake such tasks as to deny the opportunity for self-organization, or who seek to protect young people from engagement with wider political systems (Smith, 1984: 22). Central to the approach advocated here is the creation and use of opportunities for young people to organize things for themselves. These groupings, having their own integrity and their own products which, by and large, are consumed by themselves, may be called mutual aid organizations (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 40). Such groupings can assume a variety of forms which only rarely involves the fully participatory model of maximum involvement of all members in decisions:

Even if the organizers are returned unopposed to their posts year after year, there is a crucial difference between the nature of the organizations they run and those typical of, say, the voluntary welfare sector. The essential difference lies in the way in which the members perceive the organizers. Is the organization done ‘by some of us, for all of us’ or is it performed ‘by them, for us’?.

The key point. . . is not that these two different perceptions hide otherwise similar relationships, but that the very quality of relations between members of any mutual aid group is one of a crucially different nature. The basis of mutual aid is reciprocity, to the extent that relationships — essentially the exchange of effort and involvement - are governed by a very loose concept of ‘give and take’. (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 41)

[page 151] Not only do such organizational forms accord with the central tasks advocated here for youth work, but they also provide a rare if not unique opportunity to ‘reassert values related not to passive consumerism but to production for one’s own use and enjoyment’ (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 44).

This emphasis upon mutual aid and the importance of worker-educators identifying and operating within appropriate boundaries means that they have to be vigilant about the roles they perform. In concrete terms this probably means that they will have to perform three main roles.

First, they will often have to act as managers of a particular piece of plant. This can result in an all too familiar story as the building takes over and is perceived as the worker’s property (Stone, 1987). Such responsibilities cannot be denied but they can be managed in a different way. For example, like the manager of a public hall, they can establish a contract with users. In return for payment and the adherence to certain rules, young people have use of the plant. But this is not an individualized contract. The users have to be organized in some body so that they may act collectively and be ‘hirers’ and organizers themselves. This, in turn, provides a context for many of the central tasks of youth work to be performed.

Where practitioners are not direct providers of premises, e.g. where a group meets in a village hall, the formal organization of young people may make a contract with the hall committee in much the same way. If this is not possible then the workers will have to adopt an intermediary role, on the one hand making a contract with the hail committee, on the other with the young people.

Secondly, practitioners will act as informal educators with groups and individuals. In this approach, it is young people who have the responsibility for framing rules, organizing programmes and carrying out activities. The young people involved may wish to call upon the services of worker-educators so that they may develop the necessary competencies and dispositions. They may also require basic information concerning, for example, the availability and scope of local authority or voluntary organizations’ services. Where ‘organized’ groups do not exist, but where there is some wish to ‘do something’, the worker-educator is likely to have to spend considerable time working with individuals and small groups in order that they may set themselves up so that they might use provision and develop programmes (see Lacey, 1987).

As well as acting as a consultant concerning the organization and running of the group, practitioners will usually want to offer their services generally as informal educators to those who use the [page 152] provision. To do this they will have to get the agreement of the young people’s organization so that they may operate in this way.

Thirdly, practitioners may indeed make available certain direct forms of provision and opportunities for learning where they take ultimate responsibility. This may be because they need to provide an initial point of reference for people. For example, there is now evidence that young women are making increasing use of more structured youth provision such as that offered by schools and Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Schemes rather than of ‘open’ youth provision (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 127). The reasons for this are not difficult to find. In such activities, the structures provide a degree of predictability, people know what to expect; they guarantee space, which is not so likely to be crowded out by young men; they allow the development of particular interests; and they are seen as legitimate, in particular, by parents. Workers may well have to provide structured activities in this way, but they must also ensure that they do so in such a way as to allow people to move on; i.e. that structures exist through which young people can take responsibility and ‘organize around enthusiasms’ (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986).

In this role as organizing educator, practitioners must ensure that their activities are clearly separated from those organized by young people. For example, they may want to put on a specific course or series of sessions or organize a training weekend around a particular theme. When doing so it is vital that they make a careful estimate of how this will effect the group. It may act as a discouragement to the group to organize and, if the scale of the provision is substantial, may contradict the core purpose. Direct provision of programmes by practitioners is, thus, something to be deeply suspicious of. While there may be a case for short-term or discreet provision by worker-educators, a careful limit must be placed on such activities. Having established that the practitioner’s task is concerned with the development and maintenance of the context for dialogue, decision and learning, it is perhaps easier to say ‘no’ to requests for them to organize all sorts of other activities.

Policy implications

While not expecting vast numbers of policy makers to be disposed towards the political direction of these proposals, it is worth outlining briefly some obvious considerations in constructing broad programmes for the good.

First and foremost, it must be recognized that the locus for change lies in the front line, in the dialogue between young people and [page 153] workers, and workers and workers. This is where resources must be deployed. Further, policy construction must be driven by the lessons of reflective practice. It is likely that very different sets of demands will be made on the administrative framework and upon specialist services such as training as popular practice develops. But the exact shape of those demands is unclear and it is therefore foolish to attempt grand designs. Rather policy and structure must grow organically with practice.

Secondly, at the front line, resources have to be deployed in a way which promotes dialogue, critical engagement and political consciousness. Localized or movement-connected, small-scale and convivial youth work would appear to offer the most appropriate opportunity for this. Youth or neighbourhood houses, village clubs, enthusiast clubs, groupings associated with community organization provision, self-organized interest groups and small informal groupings of young people, wherever they are found, would all appear to be possible sites for practice for the good. It is also possible to create little islands of dialogical practice within large-scale product-focused provision, such as that associated with sport and recreation, but the actual activity provision should be left to others. Wherever possible workers should not be deployed in the management of large-scale plant, but should be engaged directly in work with either young people or with those that work with them. In other words, it is necessary to assert that practitioners are educators rather than leisure managers or coordinators. Large-scale activity provision should be located within schools and leisure departments; substantial and complex plant should either go the same way or the management be given over to community associations and the like.

Any relevant strategy must ensure proper staffing levels, payment rates and conditions of employment for the mass of part-timers who constitute the labour force (Harper, 1985; Callow, 1983). Further, workers (both full- and part-time) must be given greatly enlarged opportunities to develop critical practice. This not only implies the development of substantial programmes to enable reflection and theory-making, but also the allocation of resources for proper payment for attendance at training courses, staff meetings and workshops. Such programmes must not be restricted to the interrogation and explanation of practice, they must enter into the wider philosophical and political concerns that should be paramount when considering purpose and direction.

One obvious response could be to redeploy full-time workers into area ‘support’ roles, but this could be mistaken given that the bulk of such workers have not demonstrated that they are versed in the sort [page 154] of dialogical, empowering practice advocated here. For this reason it is essential that full-time workers undertake sustained and substantial face-to-face work and interrogate it. This is aside from any consideration of the lack of productivity of such ‘support’ roles when compared to direct work with young people (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a), or that working alongside part-timers might be the most effective means of enabling them to develop their practice in the imperfect circumstances in which they find themselves. Many workers are not in the position to devote long periods to ‘off-the-job’ training.

Thirdly, such a strategy would also benefit from practitioners being located within an administrative context which has education unambiguously as its primary focus. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the existing Youth Service and increasingly seems unlikely given the growing organizational diversity outlined in Chapter 4. As a consequence, practitioners will have to spend a considerable amount of time in securing administrative and managerial understandings and practices which complement the work.

Amidst the centralizing and controlling tendencies of the late 1980s, a plea for organic policy-making looks distinctly utopian, but the localized and diverse structures of youth work still allow for a high degree of discretion at the front-line. Indeed, there are major structural constraints on the extent to which such work can be centrally directed (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a). Other of these proposals may occur as the result of shifts in youth policy towards policing, skilling and leisurism and the failure of key forms of youth work to deliver what is expected of them. In a similar fashion, dialogical approaches may be appropriated and reinterpreted in the interests of bourgeois improvement. Well-being can easily be understood in a narrow, selfish and individualistic manner, as the politics of the 1980s sadly demonstrates. Luckily, the traditions of practice which strive to move forward in another direction have continued to evolve. Many of the elements of practice for good are tantalizingly close to hand — they are part of everyday experience. All that is needed is their informed and critical use. But realizing this potential in any substantial way requires major shifts in the way many youth workers organize their world. This is not easy when books have to be balanced at the end of the day, when much of the discussion about youth work is rhetorical, and when so many youth workers have an interest in encouraging the mass of young people to accept their lot stoically. Not easy, but still possible.


To check references go to the bibliography.

©Mark Smith 1988
reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Press
First published on the informal education homepage: April 2001