Youth guidance in danger of education reform;Books

1st October 1999 at 01:00
A History of the Youth Service in England: Volume 1, From Voluntaryism to Welfare State, 1939 -1979, Volume 2, From Thatcherism to New Labour, 1979 - 1999, By Bernard Davies

Youth Work Press, National Youth Agency, 17 - 23 Albion Street, Leicester, LE1 6GD, both pound;14.99.

THIS is the first comprehensive history of the past 60 years of the youth service. Its timing could not be better.

The absence of a promised White Paper from the Government on the youth service and the way in which Learning to Succeed and Bridging the Gap fail to understand the youth service and propose its further fragmentation, means that this area of education reform could be the first to disappear from the post war consensus.

Bernard Davies' book is an important reminder of what could be lost and the way in which both state-funded and voluntary youth work organisations have developed modern and popular educational approaches to young people in a unique way. As a practitioner, trainer, policy adviser and academic, Davies is steeped and rooted in his subject, in marked contrast to the key government advisers on this area.

Davies surveys the origin of the service in philanthropic effort and traces the various forms of state intervention that have occurred and the ways in which youth work has been seen as a key battle ground for accommodating "threatening youth".

While funders have sought different kinds of restriction and containment of the work, practice has become more sophisticated, using a range of advanced informal education skills across a wide range of curriculum areas. The effect has been a unique education service built on a voluntary relationship between the young person and the youth worker, and a commitment to supporting young people non-judgmentally in the transition to adulthood.

Youth work has established distinct values for practice. Young people must choose to be involved with the service. Youth work starts with young people but it seeks to go beyond by encouraging them to be critical and creative in their responses and relationships.

Youth work exists not because of the labels applied to young people such as "socially excluded", "disadvantaged" and so on, rather it focuses on the individual and relates to the many facets of an individual's make-up. At the same time it recognises, respects and is actively responsive to the wider network of peers, community and culture which are important to young people. Through these, it seeks to help them achieve a stronger sense of collective identity, citizenship, social competence and worth.

Youth workers devote themselves to the learning that occurs when analysing young people's feelings - not just their stores of traditional knowledge. On-going debates surround questions such as should the service be universally available or select those most troubled by social weaknesses? Is youth work a modern form of education or an old form of social rescue?

Davies' book brings to public attention, at a time of great danger, the advantages of seeing youth work within a modernised education system as an equal partner. This is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the English education system.

Doug Nicholls is general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union.

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