Review: For Youth And Youth Workers

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Children and Young People Now on December 11th 2012. You rarely hear people talking about youth work in this way and whilst I don’t agree with everything he says, I found it a refreshing and illuminating read. 

For Youth Workers And Youth Work: Speaking Out For A Better Future

Doug Nicholls (Policy Press)

At the heart of this book is a simple argument. That youth work is by definition political and that youth workers should be overt in transmitting socialist ideas to young people in order to make them aware of the degree to which they are oppressed  – and to give them a chance of creating a new world order. It’s not an argument you hear very often in 2012. 

This densely argued book is a clarion call for a revolutionary take on youth work where interactions “must be informed by ideas and consciousness that the wider picture is unacceptable and alterable”.

Nicholls presents and contexualises information well: for every pound spent on public services, another £1 is generated in supplies and services, he says, before pointing out that the £6bn bonuses paid to bankers in last January would fund the entire youth service in England and Wales for over 20 years, to name but two.

There’s also great stuff on youth clubs, an area of the youth service that has been decimated by the cuts. At their best, says Nicholls, youth clubs are “utopian commonwealths and mini democracies that provide space for independent self-discovery and an appreciation of the value of free association.”

Nicholls is particularly powerful when scathing. He is brutal on positive activities which he compares to the Roman’s bread and circuses; on the casualisation and outsourcing of youth work (a ‘theft’ which he claims amounts to £70bn removed from the public sector since 1997); on ‘assessination’ or the mindless focus on quantifiable results; on the privatisation of prisons and the damaging effects of IYSS and on the cuts to youth services.

One fascinating suggestion is that all youth workers are working class because they become the same class as the most vulnerable young people they work with. It’s an interesting idea: working with young people won’t change your class but it can make you drop some of your own class-based assumptions.  Another idea I’ll be taking away with me is that of ‘lifeworld’ – a term coined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas to describe the unregulated, unmarketised space of family, friendships, community and culture. Nicholl is compelling on the disastrous effect of the market moving into this space.

Doug Nicholls has been a youth worker for 30 years and he’s a powerful advocate for the real impact that youth work can have on the most vulnerable and on society as a whole. He’s also a committed and experienced Trades Union leader, and makes an argument you rarely hear about how unions supported and promoted progressive education and youth work. He argues that Trade Union education should be up there with International Women’s Day and Black History Month. A new version of youth work is needed, he says: youth workers must “assert their progressive nature and reconnect with its origins in an alternative socialist education”.

I wondered what serving youth workers would think about this, and so asked a brilliant and committed individual who frequently refers young people to LIVE Magazine where I work. My assumption was that Nicholls’ ideas would be anathema to your average youth worker. 

I was wrong: “It’s a big topic and young people need to get different opinions, but basically, he’s right.” 

Who knew? 

The book asks some really good awkward questions (‘what is informal education for? What is participation for?’). It would be odd if it’s didn’t, as he agues that youth work is built on questioning both its own process and practice and opening young minds to questioning the world around them. Youth workers, he says should empower, and should be empowered themselves. 

For Doug Nicholls, political ideas that were last mainstream in the 1970s and the 1980s, have strong resonance in 2012. I wonder if we’ll be seeing more books like this as austerity bites.   



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