How do professional stakeholders – youth workers, managers and Heads of Services - conceptualise the role and purpose of youth work in the UK in the 21st century and how has this been impacted by the current prevailing political and economic climate?




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


This paper considers the purpose of youth work as perceived by professional youth workers and their managers/heads of service. The study involved semi-structured interviews with 30 stakeholders from Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire the South West and London. Interviewees were mostly local authority employees but some voluntary sector workers were included. A combined Marxist/Critical Realist framework was applied to the research and the empirical data was analysed using an adaptation of Braun & Clarke’s reflexive thematic analysis. The study considered impact of austerity and wider neoliberal policies on the services provided and on the stakeholders as evidenced in their responses. The paper is structured so that the literature review is embedded in the narrative, offering a logical flow. The paper posits that youth work is not only shaped by policy but also by historical development, dominant ideologies, educational input, managerial dispositions and the world view of the youth worker. Thus, the study begins from historical roots, seeking to construct current formal definitions from these sources and to compare these with the authentic views of interview participants. The paper highlights the nature of youth work in given historical periods, fashioned by the balance of contending class forces, and makes comparisons with current stakeholder perceptions. The paper concludes that most youth work today is policy-driven and that social change, if considered at all, is primarily centred around the individual. It is contended that anti-oppression is not developed substantially in practice beyond ensuring a discrimination-free environment and that the disposition of youth workers to adaptability and flexibility often leads to compliance with external agendas, despite youth worker perceptions to the contrary and an apparent allegiance to aspects of Freirian theory. Furthermore, commitment in the sector to identity politics and interpretive paradigms may reinforce personal rather than structural focus, rendering social change through collective political action absent from most youth work practice. Recommendations are made in respect of further research, youth work professional education, and, consolidation of radical perspectives.





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