At the Gathering 2018 Aston Wood, Youth Development Manager at St Mary’s, responded to Polly Neate’s opening keynote address. This blog captures some of Aston’s response.
Aston Wood is a youth worker from London. He was given a ‘statement for special education needs’ at age 8 and subsequently spent very little time in mainstream education. In his teenage years, while excluded from school, he volunteered with Toynbee Hall and went on to work in a number of roles, mainly open access youth provision for a housing association, outdoor activities instructor and support worker for young people with cancer. He now manages Mary's Youth Club in Islington. Aston has Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the YMCA George Williams College.
Show of hands [this was done at the conference]
Aston: “Please raise your hand if you attended some kind of youth provision as a young person.”
Audience: Nearly the whole of room raises their hands.
Aston:” Please keep your hand raised if your involvement was beneficial to you at the time or today?”
Audience: most keep their hands
Aston: ‘We’ve just made some evidence, someone record that!’
Evidence can be created and its value or utility depends on many factors; it’s complicated, really complicated. Young people are not one big homogenous group. Our teacher colleagues have to deal with the variety of pupils with differing needs, skills, attributes, abilities, personalities, and so on, they have five or so years to get them all to a stage where they can be graded using a handful of standards defined by government, the evidence for which will be contained in a single example paper. A process which for some young people seems to do more harm than good.
In our open access provision, we deal with a variety of young people, we are young person-centred, and so each comes with their own standard of success, which may or may not be disclosed to the staff and volunteers and even then, this success is likely to change. In an uncertain world, less and less is set in stone. Our programme lasts for ten years and nobody is forcing members to attend so they may drop in and out of regularly attending. It’s complicated.
I’m not even sure I have a suggestion for what good evidence might look like. Ultimately I guess good evidence needs to bring clarity to that which is being examined objectively. For youth work, I think this is easier said than done. It’s important to remember that evidence in our field is created by practitioners and participants, usually under some guidance or instruction. But there is a different kind of evidence that you can find just lying around, sometimes literally, in the places where we do our work. We have a thing in your youth club work called ‘indicators’ (you’ll be familiar), these are collated by staff, each time a young person does something that indicates they might be edging towards an ‘outcome’. Coming in to get their CV updated, helping out in the kitchen, taking part in a new activity, the usual youth work stuff. It’s down to the practitioners to know and understand what the indicators are and how to spot them.
We claim often that we have young people's interests at heart, my practice is based on a young person-centred programme, but it is increasingly difficult to keep it this way. The state (small s) wants young people to get on well at school, to get jobs and make sure that as an adult they can contribute to the economy/profit and until they do that, they must do as they are told and not cost any money. For youth workers to support this goes against some (possibly all) of its core values. I would go so far as to say it is a betrayal.
There are some youth workers that are motivated by “the numbers” but I know that personally, I’m not one of them. I also don’t think they motivate our members - our members don’t come to our youth club because on average participants travel 1.2 points in the ‘confidence communicating’ cluster of self-reported outcomes. And so, I think there is an important note here for managers, and a bit of a warning. Youth Work managers often stand on the border between funders and practice, and I think that the funders (or commissioners) desired outcomes start to bleed into how managers manage their teams. In theory, this is fine so long as the desires of the funders match the needs and aspirations of the young people they work with. That would be the perfect partnership but it's rarer than we care to admit. Never have I in my years as a youth worker had a young person tell me that they want to be more resilient or ask ‘is this where I develop my confidence and sense of agency? This is only complicated further when funding places a monetary value on the social benefits of work with young people.
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