A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
Next week, members of the Children and Young People Network NW head off to Cumbria – Brathay Hall to be precise – for what has become an annual event. We have managed to carve out 24 hours to reflect on and discuss issues that are affecting us all as we make our way through the changing environment that is youth work.
These days. there seems to be so few opportunities to do this type of activity primarily because we are rushing around in a never ending search for work and money. Our theme this year… survival of the fittest or sticking to our principles and values? Or perhaps it’s best encapsulated as: how do we deliver quality services to children and young people with less finance and fewer resources?
A natural approach
Survival of the fittest – surely that’s a good thing? The question we could ask though is what do we understand by fittest? Delivering services, meeting the needs of young people or running a profitable business? The phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer who first used it after reading On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1864). He drew parallels between the economic theories he developed and Darwin’s biological ones, writing: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”
The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was used as a synonym for natural selection in a later edition of On the Origin of the Species (1869). We now use the phrase to mean ‘in the best physical shape’, Darwin used it to mean ‘better designed for an immediate, local environment’. Bearing that in mind I don’t see an ‘either / or’ in our original question “survival of the fittest or sticking to our principles and values?”.
There is always a danger when one raises questions like this, that one is dismissed as a dinosaur; unable to be flexible, move and change with the times. But is reflecting on, and questioning, some of the directions VCS organisations are moving in really a sign of being a dinosaur? It could be the sign of some careful thought, making sure an organisation’s charitable aims are still driving it forward. One could argue that the bottom line is the only important thing, as without being solvent, organisations cannot deliver services. However, one can also be solvent without actually providing a good service.
Many of us came into youth work to make a difference and we have moved between local authorities and VCS organisations during our working lives. I suspect, initially at least, we were driven by values and principles. Many of us now find ourselves running businesses and enterprises, and sometimes we wrestle with the tensions that emerge between our values and the driving down of payments for work as a consequence of cuts.
We want to deliver the best service we can but find ourselves ‘covering up’ for cuts by providing ‘more for less’. This might be possible in the short-term but how sustainable is it?
It therefore has to be said that 24 hours away in Cumbria next week, to share experiences and have an open discussion on what is important, is something I will find incredibly valuable.
Elizabeth Harding – North West Regional Youth Work Unit