CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: The Next Generation (Report No. 6)

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Politics: the next generation

Conversations in clubland

Clare Harvey
Blanche Thompson

The 'youth service' is a portmanteau term encompassing a wide variety of youth groups: part-time clubs, church fellowships, uniformed groups, purpose-built clubs, specialist projects and so on. While around 200 clubs in Northern Ireland employ full-time professional youth workers, most are part-time and rely heavily on the goodwill and commitment of some 15,000 volunteers. Altogether there are 2,500 youth service groups registered with the Department of Education.

It is commonly said that the strength of the service lies in its diversity-that different clubs suit the differing needs and interests of different young people. There are, of course, common bonds between all youth groups - regionwide objectives were set by the department in its 1987 document Policy for the Youth Service in Northern Ireland, and in theory all youth work aspires to these.

The youth service emphasises curriculum delivery, buttressed by the principles of education, participation and empowerment. The purpose is to enable young people to acquire skills and knowledge and to learn through equal participation in decision-making processes. Participation, therefore, enhancing responsibility and decision-taking amongst young people, is a fundamental youth work principle, as is personal development and its potential for autonomy Most of this takes place within youth clubs but it may extend to wider groups like youth forums.

The 1987 policy document describes participation as a core requirement of all programmes. The aim is to encourage the involvement, on an equal basis, of young women and men in the organisation of activities in the club or unit (including fund-raising, programme management, financial management or whatever), decision-making in the local youth council, and participation in regional, national and international youth organisations.

Organisational disparity and heavy reliance on volunteers, however, make it unrealistic to impose uniform policies, still less programme definition. It is naive to expect detailed policies from a primarily voluntary service. And politics is not its main objective. But 'political' concepts, skills and so on can be, and are, incorporated into a range of youth work programmes. So while 'party' politics is uncommon, the youth service provides political learning in a wider context. It should also be remembered that policy is not static and further developments in political education are likely (see below).

The 1987 document not only delineates the objectives of youth work but also sets out a curriculum of activities designed to achieve them. Nine curricular activities, or 'core requirements', are listed. Three have immediate potential for the introduction of political elements into youth work:

  • cross-community, national and international dimensions;
  • encouragement of, and preparation for, equal participation in organisation of activities in the club or unit; and
  • development of social and political awareness.

A range of political concepts and skills are covered: how a committee system works, democratic decision-making, negotiation and listening, understanding the importance of the collective, power-sharing and so on. These participation exercises equip young people with the confidence, skills and motivation to become actively involved in society. Indeed many would argue that such skills are a prerequisite of political understanding or involvement.

But participation differs between and within youth club settings. It depends on the young persons' degrees of ability and the beliefs that the workers bring to the challenge-the latter will influence working practices. In A Revised Framework? The Youth Service Curriculum,[1] participation is held to incorporate:

  • development of services which actively involve young people in all aspects of youth provision;
  • encouragement of voluntary partnerships between young people and adults which create real opportunities for decision-making and taking responsibility;
  • stimulating participation through the development of participative skills in young people; and
  • encouraging young people to develop the confidence to take optimum advantage of opportunities, including in personal and career development.

The Northern Ireland Youth Council (the government agency charged with implementing policy) has, however, distinguished[2] a spectrum of models of participation: led, where the authority of the youth worker is unchallenged and absolute; tokenist, where a few young people are consulted, with workers setting the agenda and taking decisions; consultative, where consultation is more formal but parameters are still set by the workers; representative, which is more structured (a number of young people are put forward as representing their peers, usually via a committee system); participative. where young people set the agenda, deciding which issues and activities they want to embark upon and having joint accountability with the workers; and self-managing, an almost wholly autonomous arrangement, with little or no adult guidance.

This framework recognises that participation should be graduated, with different practices appropriate for different developmental stages amongst young people. Some workers may be reluctant, due to apathy, fear or lack of the necessary skills. Personal development may need to take precedence over more overt participatory exercises in the initial stages. It is essential that this moves on, however, to where participation is incorporated into working practices. Best practice would allow young people to 'practise democracy' in a safe environment provided by the youth service, with the aim of furnishing them with skills which can be transferred beyond it. Some workers, though, view participation in a tokenistic light or restrict involvement to senior members and/or part-time volunteers or workers. Tokenistic exercises can result in the disempowerment of young people, as they fail to develop in the young person the necessary knowledge and skills.

The third activity highlighted, 'development of political awareness', is ostensibly encouraging. It has been defined[3] as:

Awareness and understanding through discussion, experience and personal involvement by young people of their environment and communities on local and national levels which influence all aspects of their lives and how they can affect these through their attitudes and actions, both individually and in their various groupings.
While its inclusion in the curriculum does indicate that policy-makers see political matters as relevant to youth work, the definition has been diversely interpreted by practitioners.

According to the department,' social and political awareness should:

  • increase opportunities for the greater exploration and understanding of the social and political forces which shape our lives;
  • encourage the development of skills in young people which facilitate negotiation and consensus rather than conflict;
  • assist young people as active citizens by creating opportunities to experience change and development in positive ways which allow them to take control and risks in a safe environment; and
  • encourage young people to participate actively in their own community life.

Again, however, practice is variable and activity relatively low, with quality work offered in only a minority of groups. Her Majesty's Inspectorate[5] reports note that structured, pre-planned work has more impact on young people - in terms of their understanding of political issues and involvement in running the clubs - than where learning is coincidental. Studies of practice in development of political awareness indicate that the department's interpretation is based on notions of civics and citizenship, rather than anything more radical.

The inspectors find that between a third and a half of youth groups are offering programmes in this curricular area. Examples are courses looking at power structures, invitations to district councillors to talk, study of electoral rights and responsibilities, visiting district council offices and investigating local social issues. Badge work offered by the uniformed organisations is also held to be relevant-such as the citizenship badge of the Scouts and the mission badge of the Girls Brigade.

But how much work is going on is a matter of interpretation. On the narrow definition of 'political' - as party politics, constitutional issues, electoral systems and so on-there is no doubt practice is scant. But on a wider view of 'political' - as in power-sharing, involvement in representative structures, or exploring the causes and effects of social issues - much more work on the ground is evident.

To create a safe environment, the worker needs to establish trust with the young people, exploring the relevant issues gradually. Developmental political education requires small groups and time - two crucial factors not available to many youth workers. Most are under pressure to keep membership as high as possible, and are overburdened with other duties such as administration. Yet failure to undertake this groundwork can leave the young people alienated.

Further, political education can be contentious. Political education programmes may be offered but, with scope to interpret 'political' differently, difficulties in developing and incorporating political education programmes can arise. Different levels of commitment, motivation, background and experience of full-time workers, part-time workers, volunteers and management committees all affect how political education is understood and offered in any club.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some radical political work is carried out, although those who do it tend to seek less publicity. Restrictions on many full-time workers' capacity for risk-taking may come from management committees, especially church-based committees, supervisors and funders. Indeed, community-based groups vitally depend on community acceptance, and many full-time groups remain quiet about their political work, as experience has shown that some residents will frown on 'controversial' activity. This reluctance to document or highlight the work means that how much political education is actually going on may be underestimated.

As noted earlier, policy in this area is not static. A curriculum review of the past 10 years took place in 1996. The revised curriculum, due this year, will herald a new youth service policy. Complementing this has been a recent partnership between the Southern and Belfast Education Boards and the Youth Council Northern Ireland in preparing a discussion document, Towards a Strategy for Political Education, which signifies a commitment to developing political youth work.

These developments notwithstanding, questions remain. For instance, while the aim of the youth service is to equip young people with the knowledge, confidence and skills to assist them in the transition to 'responsible adulthood', it is unclear how the service defines a 'responsible adult': does she/he accept the status quo, or challenge it? This is a major ideological question with implications both for the style of youth work and the desired outcome.

As regards the latter, is it that young people are able to name their MP, that they intend to vote, that they understand how their local council works? Is a young person s decision to reject politics a sign that political education has failed? If so, then one's definition of a 'responsible adult' is fairly limited and conservative. On the other hand, does political education seek to encourage activism, or even subversion? Is success gauged by young people joining pressure groups, entering politics, becoming local activists?

It has been argued that the youth service is a more appropriate setting for development of political skills than formal education. Research has found that simply learning, even engaging in simulated exercises, does not have a lasting effect on young people, in terms of their proclivity to engage in political activities in adult life. 'Hands on' experience of addressing real issues, and having experience of real and collective action, has greater impact on young people.

The youth service has more capacity for action and risk-taking than the formal sector. It requires only voluntary attendance, is oriented to personal development and operates a flexible curriculum - delivered, potentially, in partnership between workers and youth. The formal sector, on the other hand, demands compulsory attendance on an academic, goal-based programme, delivering a fixed curriculum, generally within a disciplinarian ethos.

And this is what we find. Organisations and initiatives at the forefront of innovative political education tend to be outside the formal sector. Most are large voluntary organisations, with the autonomy and staff to establish developmental programmes. And very often these are financed by sources outside of traditional youth service funding. They include continuing projects by the YMCA, Youth Link, Voluntary Service Belfast and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, as well as time bounded initiatives such as Speak your Peace.

Impediments such as lack of time, pressure to have larger groups, workers' perceptions of political education, fear of getting into politics or appearing to indoctrinate young people combine, forming barriers to political education and political youth work. Very often it is said that better training would instantly improve matters. But it would hardly break through these barriers on its own. Different workers and organisations within the youth service with inevitably contrasting views on ideology confound the practicalities - such as the production of standard guidance materials, development of training packages and evaluation of practice.

Generalisations can not readily be made about the youth service, as practice depends upon workers and the development of the young people concerned. And the review of the youth service curriculum may have implications for political education. It can be said with greater certainty that this review will not be of service to young people if it does not have something to say about the points this chapter raises.

1. A Revised Framework? The Youth Service Curriculum, Department of Education Northern Ireland, 1994, p4
2. Participation: Youth Work Guidelines, Northern Ireland Youth Council, Belfast, 1993, p20
3. Youth Department Core Curriculum Conference, DENI, November 1989, pp 9-10
4. A Revised Framework p5

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