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Youth participation in EuropeBeyond discourses, practices and realities$

Patricia Loncle, Gerrit Jackson, and Virginie Muniglia

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781447300182

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447300182.001.0001

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Informal education in an historical perspective: between an instrument of social education and a socioeducational practice

Informal education in an historical perspective: between an instrument of social education and a socioeducational practice

(p.57) Four Informal education in an historical perspective: between an instrument of social education and a socioeducational practice
Youth participation in Europe

Filip Coussée

Tony Jeffs

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Informal education is a contested arena of practice. Across Europe its legal status, methods, degree of professionalisation, level of development and location within the welfare system reveals a very diverse picture. Throughout history we see increasing dividing lines between youth work, adult education, social pedagogy, community work and social work. Nevertheless, although real and significant variations arise regarding the nature and format of informal education both within and between states, certain central questions and dilemmas arise that ‘cross borders’. These dilemmas, we suggest, have always existed and can be identified within the shared roots of all informal education practice. Focussing on the history of youth work enable us to distinguish these roots and contextualise the current debates drawing on abstract notions of participation, social cohesion and social integration.

Keywords:   Social pedagogy, informal education, history of youth work


Youth work and other forms of informal education have consistently played a role within broader social and educational strategies. However the focus of youth work and other forms of informal education has not been a fixed entity. In the case of youth work, for example, the equilibrium has constantly shifted: now upon ‘the social question’, how to preserve social cohesion in a society; and then upon ‘the youth question’, how to support young people's positive development. Participation is in both approaches a key concept. The social question refers to the necessary (re)distribution of resources in order to be able to participate in society. The youth question refers to the necessary skills to access those resources. Neither foci are ever fully eclipsed but the tension between them never fades. Rather we find the alternating attention given to each by governments, practitioners and others ensures an enduring ‘field of tension’ and ‘war of position’ between the two ‘questions’. The former has historically focused on the social role of youth work whilst the latter on the pedagogical function. This illustrates how the inherent tensioned concept of social pedagogy is at the heart of youth work: transforming social problems into pedagogical questions and relating pedagogical questions to social contexts. As other social pedagogical professionals youth workers face a permanent challenge not to prioritise the pedagogical function above the social and the other way round (Coussée and Williamson, 2011). In youth work these two primary functions were glued together via the recreational function that for both served to make youth work appealing to young people. Gradually this recreational function, once the appetiser or bait, became (p.58) the meal itself. This has led to an impoverishment of the youth work discussion and in the end makes youth work extremely vulnerable to instrumentalisation from external aims or objectives.

Informal education in an activating welfare state

Especially following the establishment of the welfare state and spread of universal schooling, recreation and activities increasingly constituted the prime focus of youth work. The social and pedagogical functions so crucial prior to the creation of universal schooling and universal welfare services were now to be the responsibility of others and youth work appeared to be left with the residual role of universal leisure provider. Subsequently during the past two decades in particular the ongoing move towards an enabling state has raised again pedagogical questions relating to youth work practice. Youth workers are now being asked to offer young people an activating role for example to motivate them to remain in education, take whatever job are offered however demeaning or short-term, or embark in training however narrow or irrelevant; to raise their aspirations, without in most instances providing the means to realistically achieve them. Currently against a backcloth of rapidly escalating levels of youth unemployment, youth workers like other social pedagogues and informal educators find their tasks are being rapidly re-pedagogised, especially with regards to vulnerable young people, who historically have been the prime target group. This means youth workers are ‘retaking’ one of their historical functions. However now it no longer relates to providing social services aimed at the redistribution of life chances or a ‘liberal education’ that augments their social capital and may better enable them to engage in, and comprehend, the discourses of the powerful and privileged. Now it is recalibrated so that youth workers provide ‘training’ not ‘education’ in order that individuals might better grab the very restricted opportunities being offered them. History shows, we believe, that this (re)pedagogisation of youth work practice will be counter-productive unless it is also re-socialised.

Informal education: stabilising societies in transformation

Young people do not start from some mythical zero-point without family, culture, class or religious stance. As with all social and pedagogical practices, youth work intervenes in settings that possess their own history and therefore is seeking to ‘act upon’ individuals and groups who likewise have a history. As a consequence the focus and practice of (p.59) youth work is in a state of constant flux ceaselessly tacking in order to adjust to fresh winds created by the social, economic and technological changes that relentlessly reshape the life courses of young people and simultaneously realign the structures sustaining the youth work agencies themselves. However certain continuities exist and some of these can be identified.

First is the persistent longing for generational continuity within communities. The tenacity of which allows us to trace the threads of youth work practice back to before the rise of mass schooling and compulsory education. This persistence relates to the historic value placed upon the importance of enabling young people to learn what Robert Owen called the ‘arts of humanity’ outside of the home, classroom or workplace by way of relationships with wise and virtuous adults via dialogue, conversation and observation (Jeffs, 2001).

Second is a longstanding belief, well founded, that not everything a young person needs to know in order to become a mature, well-rounded individual can be taught during childhood but needs to be learnt later in life; hence the long history of adult education, circulating libraries, travelling scholars and clubs attached to both religious institutions and their secular counterparts. Modern youth work has inherited much that resided within each of these, oft forgotten, attempts to foster education beyond the schoolroom. Therefore a strong case can be made that, as with other forms of welfare, youth work pre-dated industrialisation for the simple reason that the educational and social needs it endeavoured to address existed prior to the appearance of mass industrialisation and the urbanisation that inevitably accompanies it (Quadagno, 1988).

The tap-root of youth work may run deep but in a form recognisable today it emerged into prominence during the early years of mass industrialisation that first occurred in Britain, then shortly afterwards in parts of Belgium and Germany. This is because the social problems created by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation were of such a magnitude they stirred a new generation of reformers and philanthropists into action. As levels of poverty and ignorance escalated in tandem with a growing disparity between urban and rural mortality rates so the prototypes emerged that eventually coalesced into contemporary welfare provision. Prototypes included the clubs, missions, Sunday schools, out-reach programmes, visiting schemes, adult education initiatives and school-based interventions from which youth work and social work eventually surfaced during the early to mid-eighteenth century (Jeffs and Smith, 2002). By the 1830s in Britain and shortly afterwards elsewhere in Europe, the state out of necessity began to act in (p.60) a more interventionist manner within the social realm; notably regarding education, the control of disease and epidemics, management of crime and administration of basic provision for the destitute (Donzelot, 1984). Both new and emerging nation states were obliged to do so because a failure to address these manifest problems would corrode the political legitimacy of the ruling elite, sap economic competitiveness and the viability of nation-building projects by diminishing the flow of men fit enough for military service. Maintaining this fragile balance between the imperatives of accumulation, legitimisation and security remains something governments still, with scant expectation of lasting success, endeavour to achieve. Then and now it means that as the severity of one threat grows or falls so the configuration of governmental expenditure is re-aligned accordingly (O’Connor, 1973). With regards to state directed youth policy and government sponsored youth work the foci for intervention incessantly shifts creating a semi-permanent state of volatility. When accumulation is threatened the priority becomes skills and ‘employability’ and participation is restricted to inclusion in the labour market; when a crisis of legitimisation looms the focus switches to stimulating ‘social participation’ (either to dampen it down as in the 1900s and 1960s or heighten it as in the present day) and the promotion of social responsibility; when the menace is militaristic attention transfers to fitness, activities and the building of nationhood.

A youth work practice deeply rooted in welfare, culture and history

Because industrialisation within Europe was an uneven process, occurring at varying times and speeds, youth work, like social work and schooling for example acquired disparate structures across states and regions. For example the first international youth organisation, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), was founded in London by George Williams in 1844 to cater for young men in white-collar trades and the semi-professions. The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) established eleven years later also sought to provide social, leisure and educational services for the growing number of young women entering office work, teaching, nursing and other emerging welfare professions. Both the YMCA and the YWCA grew rapidly in England, North America and much of northern Europe as the size of the social class they served proliferated. However there was a restraint upon that expansion for although both viewed themselves as non-denominational Christian organisations the founders were predominately Non-conformists or Anglicans of a particular persuasion, something which prevented them securing more than a tenuous (p.61) foothold in places where Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches held sway. Likewise neither gained a substantive presence in countries where Christianity had scant or no presence. This story has been replicated regarding most youth work organisations. Rarely do they secure a toehold outside a given region or what Esping-Andersen (1990) terms a welfare regime. Only the Scouts and Guides buck this trend, because the founder, Robert Baden-Powell, consciously endeavoured to craft a methodology and structure open to adaptation by discrete religious, national and political groups.

Proceeding from the previous discussion, although the pace of industrialisation and urbanisation shaped much of the development of youth work and youth policy, so did religion and other factors. For example the influence of the Roman Catholic Church ensured that the organisational configuration of for example Irish (Devlin, 2010) and Maltese (Teuma, 2009) youth work dramatically differed from that encountered in England even though during the formative years of development both were ruled from London. Religion, alongside other cultural and social factors, did not merely help to mould organisational structures. More significantly, each to varying degrees served to foster modes of practice and theoretical models that have remained at variance from each other. Consequently within different regions and states ideas and modes of intervention were appropriated from adjacent arenas of welfare, notably adult education, schooling and social casework which themselves frequently possessed discrete characteristics relating to a national or regional setting. Therefore it is possible to identify key ideas and modes of intervention that have had a profound impact in one locality but little or none elsewhere. For example social pedagogy has served as a core concept upon which much youth work is predicated in Germany and Scandinavia; whereas in England and Wales the concept of social pedagogy is barely acknowledged except as way of describing the training and preparation of individuals for a transition from residential care to living in the ‘community’. Instead youth workers relate to the concepts of social and informal education in order to explain their practice to themselves and others. Likewise in Scotland youth workers usually describe themselves as community educators; whilst North Americans turn to the concept of youth development to account for their practice. Such variations are not a matter of semantics or the by-product of difficulties in translation. Rather they flow from entrenched differences in the way in which youth work is approached and practitioners understand their place in the world. Each reflects a reality that in different countries alternative structures emerged post-industrialisation which provided both a theoretical underpinning and a coherent way (p.62) explaining youth work to others. Settlements were major providers of youth work in England, Wales, Germany and Austria, but were absent elsewhere. Foyers played a crucial role in France but barely developed elsewhere. Similarly the Folk High Schools although much admired elsewhere never acquired a serious presence outside of Scandinavia and the American mid-west. Likewise the study circle concept failed to establish itself as a form of intervention within youth work and adult education outside Scandinavia and New England. All this tells us that discrete histories relating to the development of youth work in specific locations are essential in order to foster meaningful dialogue across state and regional boundaries. Equally it suggests that overarching policies intended to standardise practice and the training of workers will have little meaningful impact, because youth work relates so closely to a given social context. The best that can be said is that whatever is called youth work will in most settings be based on voluntary affiliation on the part of the young person and will, as an educational relationship, be primarily based upon dialogical and experiential approaches. Therefore it is crucial to try to return to first principles in order to highlight communalities if some form of productive cross-border dialogue is to develop between workers.

The welfare state is one of the great commonalities of advanced industrialised societies, yet that must not be taken, as we have argued with regards youth work and informal education, as implying uniformity of structure. Irrespective of the format the common roots nevertheless create this universal tension regarding educational and social goals. The first, and dominant, issue relates to who defines the aim and purpose of the learning and the educational content. Whether we are discussing school-based or informal educational provision one must ask if the outcome sought is emancipation or domestication. Is the ambition of the providers to teach young people to adapt to the situation they occupy? Or is it to learn how to question their situation and translate their private problems into public issues (Mills, 1959)? For a relatively brief period post-1945 the creation of universal welfare states seemed to promise to make this persistent pedagogical dilemma a relic from a bygone age. For it was commonly held that social cohesion was being guaranteed by a benign welfare state that would guide and support people from the cradle to the grave whilst eradicating poverty through redistribution and economic development.

Seemingly, with the big issues solved, youth work became one of the social services in a welfare state or a ‘licensed’ activity delivered with state support by religious and charitable agencies. Security within the bosom of the welfare state encouraged youth work to lose sight of the (p.63) broader social and pedagogical strategies which once were an essential ingredient. Debates during the period when the welfare state flourished became increasingly introspective – focusing on professionalisation of the sector, staff training, activities and the recruitment of ‘numbers’. Therefore when the welfare state found itself under ideological attack from neo-conservatives, youth workers, like so many colleagues in other welfare sectors, frequently lacked the capacity to defend what existed and pose liberatory alternatives to the transformation of the welfare state into an enabling state. Youth work, like adult education, schooling and higher education found itself at every turn vulnerable to instrumentalisation, to being forced into becoming an agent for preparing young people to slot without complaint into the world of work or for the managing deviant behaviour within the public sphere (Gilbert and Gilbert, 1989). Alternatives to these roles have long existed but in part we must turn to history to rediscover them and likewise the radical traditions of which they were so often a part.

The three historic functions of youth work

Good works for youth, preventing social problems through individual education

Industrialisation raised what Castel (1995) termed ‘the social question’; but the social problems this term encompassed were addressed in differing ways. Both in Flanders and England Ragged and Sunday schools were established to provide day care for those children too young to work who hung around the streets or were trapped in unhealthy housing. In Flanders, as the children patronised these centres they were called ‘patronages’. The concept spread to other industrialising parts of Europe, but the name changed – in France they were oeuvres de la jeunesse and in Italy oratorio. One of the most famous oratorios was that of Father Giovanni Bosco, who transformed his confirmation classes into an alternative youth care practice. His premises offered a warm place where they could experience a sense of freedom and belonging whilst simultaneously receiving a basic education. Bosco introduced pedagogical and methodical elements which still remain an essential part of youth work's identity. By 1848 his Oratorio di San Francesco di Sales was visited by 400 to 600 boys (Coussée, 2006). Almost a century later De Hovre, a Flemish pedagogue honoured Don Bosco as a genius because he ‘saw very early on that the social question was fundamentally a question of education’ (De Hovre, 1935, p 548, our translation). Such pioneering interventions as those of Bosco and in (p.64) Britain Robert Raikes, Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer helped to transform the ‘social question’ partly into a ‘youth question’.

Youth work in between the social and the pedagogical question

Much 19- and 20-century work with young people sought to provide a pedagogical answer to social problems, thereby creating a persistent tension at the heart of youth work. Although conservative and preservative ‘patronages’ were immensely popular in Belgium, young people attended not necessarily to pray or learn to behave, but frequently merely to play and meet friends. However, a minority of patronages were more concerned with the education and development of young workers rather than caritas, correction, compensation and surveillance. This ‘social change’ model became more influential, especially after Rerum Novarum, when some leaders of the Catholic pillar started searching for connections between patronages and trade union; gradually patronages of the moralising type became obsolete, although their preservation from secularisation and socialism remained important. Influential thinkers, like Father Joseph Cardijn, called for a more pro-active and self-governing approach to working with youth. Cardijn drew inspiration from British trade unions, the German Catholic Labour Association of Manual Workers and the French Sillon (Cohen, 1988) which each combined critical working-class education with social action aimed at achieving better working conditions and a fairer redistribution of wealth. During the inter-war years the social function eclipsed the pedagogical function in many patronages and youth work was increasingly reconstructed as ‘education for social action’.

The recreational function moderates the tension between education and social action

There was a second reason why the patronages quickly lost their status of being the most popular place for working class young people ‘to go’. They not only lost their appeal to the more progressive adult elite, but also to young people. Various laws and academic developments (for example compulsory schooling, prohibition of child labour and developmental psychology) created a different youth status. Leisure time became more accessible and important, both in quality and quantity. Methods that served to make patronages attractive to young people came to stand alone. Football, theatre, dance and film, for example, all became popular leisure activities disconnected from broader social (p.65) and pedagogical strategies and accessible without having to attend a patronage. Both adherents of the (individual) pedagogical approach of working with youth and those who saw youth work as an instrument for securing social change found themselves obliged to accept more recreational approaches to youth work. Both the pedagogical and the social functions of youth work were linked to the tenet of ‘learning by doing’. The scouting method imported from the UK from 1910 onwards gained ground in Belgium, but not without a struggle. Cardijn was conscious that the patronages could not survive, but he wished to avoid adopting an apolitical scouting method. Eventually both church and trade union, respectively standing for the individual pedagogical and social justice approaches pushed Cardijn into the recreational youth work corner. The Catholic Church could not appreciate his revolutionary language and the trade unions rejected the idea of establishing a separate trade union for young people. By 1914 the idea of youth work as ‘organised leisure time’ with positive and guaranteed effects on individual citizenship and social cohesion was fast emerging as the dominant mode.

A triangular relationship under permanent tension

The ‘social pedagogical tension’ refers to the broader social pedagogical question of how to value diversity whilst preserving social cohesion within a society (Lorenz, 2009). It is this position that makes youth work in the first place social pedagogical work. The internal ‘social pedagogical’ struggle at the heart of youth work never disappeared although during the Fordist period the pedagogical and social functions of youth work were pushed into the background and it increasingly restricted itself mainly to leisure time provision, leaving its social and pedagogical functions to practices respectively to social work and the school. Throughout history we see this circumvention of fundamental social pedagogical questions being managed through the restriction of youth work to a method – like scouting or outdoor activities. This is exactly the reason why youth work today seems easily redefined or even dispensed with. Developing and optimising a certain method means making abstraction of context, fixing the eye on the desired ‘incomes and outcomes’ and in the end losing sight of the problem definitions upon which the method is deployed (Lewin, 1947). The Fascist Hitler Jugend, the Communist Pioneers or the Catholic Student Movement all adopted the scouting method but as this discussion between Cardijn and Chief-scout Baden-Powell illustrates, it was in order to achieve different ends. That was why Cardijn initially rejected the scouting (p.66) method as the basis for youth work. This division is well captured in an exchange that occurred in London in 1911 between Baden-Powell and Cardijn. The former asked Cardijn to become Chief Scout for Belgium. According to Cardijn, Baden-Powell failed to grasp that there is a difference between ‘youth in general’ and ‘working class youth’. He reports the exchanges:

–‘Cardijn: Do you know that there are young workers with their very own problems?

–B-P: I do not know young workers. I only know citizens and I want to shape strong-willed men.

–Cardijn: Do you realise how young workers have to survive in factories and how they are influenced by the workers’ environment? How could we help them, not just to stay good, but even to have a positive influence in their social environment?

–B-P: I do not know the workers' environment!’

(Cardijn, 1948, p 137)

This fragment illustrates how the development of ‘youth work’ was from the outset interwoven with questions of diversity and equality as well as issues of exclusion and inclusion. Do we invest in youth work as a universalist service departing from the standard positive developmental model and thereby try to reach out to all young people (the youth question)? Or do we aim towards a differentiated youth work field that supports young people's aspirations and works with distinguished categories (the social question)? Which investment gives which young people the best chances for empowerment? And which investment supports developments towards a more socially just society?

Both movements and models – Scouting and the Catholic Workers Youth – conquered the world, but the tension between the two fundamental youth work questions has partially faded as youth work has become evermore a ‘method’; a means of providing positive leisure activities.

Reconnecting to society?

Different welfare regimes fostered discrete evolutions, but broadly speaking there was one common denominator: methodisation, a focus upon the ways in which the work should be undertaken, as opposed to what the educational content should teach. The growing obsession with method, reflected not merely within practice but also in the (p.67) content of the training of the youth workers and the public discourse relating to youth work, led to a demotion and even in some areas the disappearance, of the social and pedagogical functions of youth work. Generally these functions ceased to be explicitly discussed any more. This is illustrated in the Flemish history. In the interbellum period the youth work field showed a great diversity captured within the discussion between Baden-Powell, emphasising one single educational method, and Cardijn, taking distinguished social groups as his starting point. Following the ideas of Cardijn each social group had its own youth work organisation, one for boys and another for girls: the young farmers, the young merchants, students, working class youth. They all tried to make the combination between class-related study, social action and recreation. Only a few organisations aimed to recruit from the ‘general’ public. Those that did overwhelmingly followed the scouting model. Scouting was popular but that popularity faded as childhood merged into adolescence. Once their members reached the age of 14 they were generally referred to, or moved of their own volition, to the appropriate class-based organisation.

In the first decennia after the Second World War this picture got completely turned over. The different interest groups and ideological pillars lost their grip on society and governmental interference increased. Government wanted youth work to be a non-ideological, universal provision, which in fact meant a-pedagogical and a-social. Youth work was restricted to its methodical aspects: learning relatively simple things via doing and having fun. Scouting became the preeminent concept of youth work, a universal method reaching out to all young people in all their diversity. Suddenly accessibility became the main problem, for scouting up to then only reached out to middle-class youths. A differentiated youth work approach rooted in a social analysis and connecting to the life world of young people had been replaced by a methodical approach based on a single concept of youth (work) and by implication of what it meant to be a good citizen. In this agency-driven approach, non-middle-class young people became relabelled as ‘hard-to-reach’. The same happened in other countries, even in the UK, despite the fact that the Youth Service acquired statutory recognition there. As Pearl Jephcott, later member of the Albermarle committee, concluded in her research report:

The most convincing reply to the charge that the youth organization is a redundant institution was that given by the boys and girls who were themselves members. Those adolescents who belonged to a society were definitely easier (p.68) to come to terms with than the non-members. They were not only willing but able to talk, and they generally had something worth saying. And were not those youngsters who were active members a shade more reliable, a shade more open-handed than the rest?

(Pearl Jephcott, 1954, p 151)

For one decennium, the golden sixties, there was the firm belief that social class was outdated and poverty a phenomenon that would soon pass. Soon the economic crises of the 1970s raised awareness of social problems as inherent to the structure of our society. Policy makers in the field of youth work consequently urged that it should address social problems. Therefore a universal youth work provision aiming at ‘learning by playing’ was no longer sufficient or anything but a luxury. They reinvented the patronages – although sold through ‘an appeal to newness’ – and called it ‘open youth work’. However, open youth work had not an existential right of its own, but was seen as the stepping stone to the ‘mainstream’ youth work. This meant a complete reversal of the pre-war model.

Reconnecting to a society that has disappeared

Every now and then there were impulses to re-pedagogise and re-socialise the youth field. This happened earlier in the UK than in Flanders, thanks to the more professionalised Youth Service and the successive policy committees and reviews (especially Albermarle in 1960 and Fairbairn-Milson in 1969; see Davies, 1999). Continental Europe followed, especially in the 1970s, when open youth work became increasingly professionalised and the theories of Paolo Freire and Oscar Negt gained currency within swathes of the youth field. Youth workers, who had excluded themselves from the social pedagogical debate, made frenetic attempts now to reconnect to society. It was not just their ambition to reconnect youth and youth work to society, but to do that in a critical way. The social and educational function in some areas began to push aside the recreational function and was seen as a means of achieving, for some, a redistribution of possibilities and resources. The economic crisis however halted this re-socialisation of youth work. The pedagogical focus remained, but turned rapidly into a narrow, outcome focused policy, targeting marginalised young people, who it was believed were in urgent need of education for good citizenship. Eggleston concludes his research on ‘the Youth Service in (p.69) Britain’ with the thesis that changing society is an adult desire, not really something that is widely articulated by young people. He notes:

Our evidence suggests that the majority of members are well aware of the nature of contemporary society and are well disposed to accept it as it is. Most are content to find a meaningful place within it that is consistent with a satisfying self-image; to be able to make decisions in the present society rather than refashion it.

(Eggleston, 1976, p 201)

From the late 1970s onwards youth work became less and less about social change and increasing obsessed with the prevention and management of social drop-out. The activating welfare state may put a humane face on this management of social exclusion (Scherr, 1999), but the ideological fault-lines are firmly fixed.

History and youth work's re-socialisation

In the redefining and reframing of youth work the role of workers themselves often remains underexposed. Youth workers (especially managers) seem to simply accept this redefinition of their work which raises the question Jordan (2004) asked social workers: ‘Is this a matter of strategy, opportunistic trimming or powerlessness?’ We hold that both youth workers and young people are not powerless and that youth work interventions are not only an answer to social problems, but can be closely connected to a radical defining of those problems. As a consequence social interventions themselves can either confirm or question the bounds of possibility (Roose et al, 2010). Within the current environment youth workers, we hold, need to be more explicit about their possible roles and practices. Furthermore, to achieve this confident and deliberate youth work practice help may come from constructive and supportive research, for social scientists not only describe realities but also help bring into being what they discover (Law and Urry, 2004). Unfortunately at the time of writing little in the way of contemporary, creative or constructive research relating to youth work is to hand. University-based researchers now predominately investigate those aspects of practice that others pay them to look at. Overwhelmingly, research is undertaken with the eyes down and the palms up thereby enabling those who control access to funding to mould the research agenda as they do the agenda of practice (Jeffs and Spence, 2008). This means that for the foreseeable future if practitioners wish to redefine the focus of their practice they will also have to seek (p.70) to look to themselves rather than the compromised university sector to create a critical, radical and liberatory corpus of research.

It is interesting to see how this brief history of ideas relating to youth work shows ‘the road not taken’ (Reisch and Andrews, 2002) thereby highlighting how youth work must wrestle with the social pedagogical field of tension, while usually restricting itself to being a pedagogical instrument for social education. We suggest this encourages the easy option of retreating to the third function: youth work as leisure-time provision. It seems that a risk society has fostered risk-aversion policies. As a society we ask for confident, autonomous and strong young people, but from the 1980s on we have not stopped to cut down the supportive frameworks to make that possible (Giesecke, 1981). The focus in terms of policy across Europe has been towards the creation of an all-encompassing repertory of corrective interventions designed to keep young people ‘on track’. Youth workers need to ask if they are content to tolerate this reframing of their work into corrective, conditional or coercive work. For those who reject this model then the worst case scenario means seeking to eliminate their own field. If youth workers cannot articulate the social and pedagogical dilemmas they encounter or if they fail to convince policymakers of the social pedagogical responsibilities of society, then they will be eliminated anyway. Or they won’t be doing youth work anymore.


History shows us that only a social pedagogical approach of youth work has the potential to take us beyond the methodical discussions on the accessibility or the efficiency of youth work. It makes the shift from an agency-driven approach to a lifeworld-oriented one. In this respect youth work shows itself as social spatial work, as a support structure in the lifeworld of young people (Böhnisch and Münchmeier, 1990). The strength of youth work lies in its ability to create free spaces for young people characterised by safety, a sense of belonging, the art of conversation, challenge, friendship and convivial relationships; spaces different from schools as they are founded upon voluntary affiliation and free dialogue. Within such settings and relationships the focus is not upon certification of measurable skills, but life skills, biographical, institutional and political competencies; skills that are useful for young people given the life they lead and the aspirations they have or may acquire. Informal education starts from the assumption that young people do participate, here and now, not (only) from the aim to learn how to participate in society. The format and context in which youth (p.71) work and informal education occurs will, as we argued earlier, not be uniform, being shaped by different social, economic, political and religious factors. Therefore there exists no single European model, but what we do hold is that a universal social pedagogical tension does exist within youth work and indeed within other forms of informal education. This is a tension that can not be resolved, but if neglected will challenge not only the survival of creative and liberatory practice but also of youth work itself.


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