Does youth policy & theory meet practice? How does the rhetoric of treating young people with respect compare with the reality?

Monday 23 April 2018

"I think the PG Dip/MA is an excellent course," he says. "It has given me the opportunity to critically consider youth work, my own practice and the wider social and political context.  Going forward I feel it has supported my role to develop youth work in my local authority of Thurrock."

Here, he discusses the rhetoric of treating young people with respect versus the reality. 

The discourse of current youth policy (Positive for Youth) appears to be one of an ideological calling for young people to reach their potential and become active citizens within society. The government-funded National Citizen Service aims to develop resilience and build character amongst our young people. Youth policy frequently refers to the concepts of respect, belonging, trust and empowerment. 

However, how does this political rhetoric relate to practice? If we are to take respect as a notion; the government is unequivocal in the importance of it:

‘A society that is ‘Positive for Youth' will respect your rights - particularly your right to have your voice heard on issues that affect your life - and expect you to respect the rights of others' (HM Government: Positive for Youth - What it means for young people, 2011:1) 

‘Young people have a role to respect other people and recognise authority and boundaries' (HM Government: Positive for Youth - What it means for young people, 2011:3) 

If the government appears to view respect as a two-way process, whether this is standard practice appears debatable. Buckland (2013) considers what respect was offered to young people when the government raised higher education fees after the Liberal Democrats pledged not to do so. Furthermore the lack of an adequate explanation from government did not appear respectful.

In analysing respect, Darwall (1977) distinguishes between appraisal and recognition respect. The latter is alluded to within youth policy in terms of a call to recognise authority and boundaries. However, as noted by Frost & Seal (2014), the relationship and interpretation between the two is complex. For example the state may expect young people to respect the police as figures of authority (recognition respect), but a young person, through negative experiences, may have appraised the police of not being worthy of respect (appraisal respect). The complexity of respect is acknowledged in the following quote:

‘You have the general respect for everyone but then you need to earn the level of respect that you have.' (Thurrock Youth Cabinet member)

Within youth work theory, for Young (1999), respect - along with honesty, trust and reciprocity - is within the relationships of effective youth work practice.

To claim a relationship involves respect requires confirmation from both parties; in this context, the youth worker and the young person. Furthermore, concepts such as trust and respect are subjective, may vary over time and do not lend themselves to simplistic measurement.

Young people's views on respect are explored by Mason (2015). Young respondents involved in the research had the most respect for the youth workers they deemed trustworthy. The researcher noted that for the local youth workers, information sharing risked their youth work relationships and their broader local reputations. While understandable in theory, in practice youth workers do have a responsibility to others (young people, parents, employers), which, at times, may necessitate sharing information and should not be undermined by any perceived relationship. This point is illustrated by the following quote from a young person when defining their association with a youth worker:

‘We trust you but it isn't like we trust you as much that we can say anything to you. Some things we could say to you and you could get us into trouble for.' (Member of Riverside Youth Club in Tilbury)

The notions of respect and trust appear regularly in both youth work theory and policy. Whilst they can hold significance and relevance at various times, from a practical perspective their complexities need to be appreciated by workers, young people and indeed by policy makers.

There is a discourse in Positive for Youth around the young person undergoing individual transformation. As such, they are to become ‘empowered', to develop and receive ‘respect' and obtain a ‘sense of belonging'. The fundamental concern here is the lack of attention given to these complex notions. Policy does also not take account of the wider political and social factors, the environment of the young person and perhaps the understated role of association in young people's lives.

Youth policy appears to place a number of requests on young people, but perhaps policy makers should begin by reflecting on a simple but powerful message from a Riverside Youth Club member:

"They should listen to us more."