Youth work has often been vulnerable across Europe, even in those countries, like the UK or Belgium, which have relatively strong traditions of training and provision. Other countries have sought to develop their own versions and styles of youth work practice, often drawing from approaches and perspectives established by the Council of Europe.
Following its 2009 youth strategy, the European Union has used youth work initiatives to address specific policy agendas: from addressing youth unemployment and promoting social inclusion, to celebrating diversity and improving health and well-being.
National approaches to youth work differ both in quantity and quality; the last decade has seen a strong commitment to youth work by the inter-governmental and supra-governmental European institutions.
The 1st European Youth Work Convention, convened by Belgium during its presidency of the European Union in 2010, sought to explore the range and depth of ‘youth work’, concluding with a commitment and commendation of the diversity of youth work – across issues, in methodology, with different age ranges, and directed towards different groups of young people
But youth work is a contested term
But youth work is a contested term. There is plenty of internal dissent about the meaning, purpose and practice of youth work, hardly a strong foundation for arguing its cause and its case in times of austerity. Even in places where it had flourished, youth work has faced tough times since the crisis.
Under Belgium’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the 2nd European Youth Work Convention considered common ground within youth work: by representative and issue-based youth organisations; street-based and detached youth work practice; targeted youth work addressing school inclusion or crime prevention; and youth work concerned with community involvement and social service. A preparatory paper, Finding Common Ground, facilitated the debate concerning differences in youth work: a broad narrative for youth work was needed and shared agendas would strengthen advocacy for youth work at both European and national levels. The paper talked of simple conceptions, such as ‘facilitating agency’ and developing ‘navigational capacities’; two excellent ideas advanced by youth academics. If accepted, these needed interrogation and re-interpretation into language that could reach a broader audience of practitioners and policy makers.
The 2nd European Youth Work Convention brought together nearly 500 people from 48 countries. Its outcome was a 2nd European Youth Work Declaration that demonstrated the areas of consensus. Youth work, in all its manifestations, was fundamentally about providing spaces for young people to explore and experience their own lives, while simultaneously (and sometimes paradoxically) also constructing bridges for young people to move forward in their lives, through the development of skills and competencies.
For modern Europe, and the lives of its young people, traditional youth work practice must address the contemporary challenges and tensions of technology, social media, migration, multi-culturalism, and ethnic and faith diversity. There are two challenges: politically, to secure official institutional support for the Declaration; and professionally, to develop infrastructural support for youth work practice. Both require better understanding of the common ground and planning for the new ground that needs mapping.
by Sir Howard Williamson
Sir Howard Williamson is is Professor of European Youth Policy at the University of South Wales
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