Article: COVID19 as a potentially valuable disruptive force in the conceptualisation of Street-based Youth Work

First Published: 28th January 2022 | Author: Graeme Tiffany | Tags: , , ,

COVID19 has disrupted many aspects of our lives, both personal and professional. Graeme Tiffany reflects on the ways in which COVID19 has disrupted youth work. He focuses on how street-based youth work has re-emerged in a positive light.

COVID19 (henceforth ‘COVID’) has disrupted many aspects of our lives, both personal and professional. Certainly, it has disrupted youth work. This article suggests how these disruptions have been for the good, as well as the bad.

The bad has been well documented, including in the testimony made to recent national and international webinars, where street-based youth workers from across the globe have spoken of the often horrific impact of the virus on the communities they work with – and others, as new needs have emerged. Whilst many politicians told us COVID is ‘a great leveller’, these workers have been witness to the fact they were wrong, very wrong; COVID has exacerbated existing and long-standing inequalities, and made life a whole lot worse for those already marginalised. And yet, these accounts also describe great fortitude, resilience and creativity in responding to the many challenges posed by the pandemic, some of which will be detailed later.

It should be noted that webinars, often a response to authorities having proscribed face-to-face activities, allude to a medium, a digital medium, new to many of us. This provides as good an example as any that there is a need to assess our experiences, for good as well as bad: working virtually seems antithetical to a practice so keenly associated with the value of proximity, the sense that it is important to be present, alongside those we work with, accompanying them at difficult times. And yet, these technologies have allowed youth workers to communicate with many young people they previously knew and others they did not; and with one another. Virtual conferences have been found accessible to many previously unable to travel; which reminds us also of our responsibility to consider the impact of our travel behaviours.

Of course, many practitioners continued to work in the streets, often more so than in ‘normal times’, determined to continue their socio-educational activities. Circumstances demanded a focus on basic needs, providing and securing food and shelter, including accommodation where those in need could physically distance from one another. In many countries the positive contribution of social street work, so often judged incidental, has brought it to the attention of the authorities, perhaps for the first time. Many have responded by conferring the practice with ‘essential status’ – the dispensation to work where others cannot. Naturally, we are still wondering whether this recognition will continue. Which brings forward the question of legacy; what will post-pandemic street-based work look like? And, more relevant to this piece, how will the practice be understood – conceptualised – going forward; will COVID disrupt these conceptualisations?

In attempting to answer this question I will review what detached youth workers and have been doing since the pandemic began and compare this to what was happening before. I will argue there has been a difference, a significant difference, particularly in relation to this conceptual terrain. Therein, COVID has been valuable in arresting policy-driven trajectories taking the practice in, arguably, a problematic direction. Maybe then COVID has provided an important and timely reminder as to precisely what street-based work is? What follows then, is about meaning, and the very conceptualisation of detached youth work, in the past, during COVID, and potentially in the future.

Social Street Work as a floating concept

The notion of a ‘floating concept’ can be inferred from the following quote, which many detached youth workers will be familiar with:

Police prevention of criminal behaviour has nothing to do with socio-educational prevention work on the streets. Too often a floating message, the term ‘prevention’ is adapted to all kinds of contexts. It is therefore unsurprising to find real confusion and a difficulty in grasping a proper understanding of the work of street workers (Dynamo International, 2005: 11).

A number of points about this statement need making. In this example, our attention is drawn to the word ‘prevention’, and how different actors can conceptualise it in a number of ways. Given different professions have different aims and principles, it is unsurprising then that there are multiple understandings, and that these can lead to discord. For example, the detached youth worker is unlikely to have an interest in enacting disciplinary functions similar to that of policing. Rather, their aim is to provide social support and forms of education that help those they work with explore, understand, and act upon their social realities, including any circumstances that give rise to criminal behaviours. This matters when policy dictates partnership-working, which is common now. Where there are different understandings of the same concept these can manifest in, for example, the police putting pressure on detached youth workers to undertake ‘policing’ functions, usually in the name of ‘prevention’, and partnership. And, whilst the experienced and well-trained worker will likely resist this, a junior or novice colleague, who has yet to benefit from the philosophical skills derived from a sound professional education, may struggle, or worse still, start to assume that this conceptualisation of street work is the one that should shape their practice. The absence of dialogue about conceptual understandings, about aims, principles and purposes, only makes matters worse.

It is important also to note that conceptualisations of detached youth work (and shifts in these conceptualisations) are driven by policy agendas (and changes in them). Few practitioners can work independently of policy contexts, particularly as the resources they have available to them are determined by these contexts. But there are ethical considerations, including an obligation to challenge and resist policy agendas judged problematic. What’s implied is the very real need to be ‘policy aware’, as part of a wider appreciation of how vital the conceptualisation of our practice is, and the extent to which these understandings are manipulable or, conversely, capable of being asserted by workers, and those they work with.

The question remains: how, if at all, has COVID disrupted these understandings? An historical analysis can help inform answers.

A history of shifting conceptualisations

Radical policy changes rarely go unnoticed, but others seem to take the form of a dripping tap – slow and incremental changes that may not be evident on a day-to-day basis but, over time, can constitute a flood.

Detached youth work’s pre-COVID history frames an examination of the disruptive effects of COVID. Of particular note is the impact of recent, shifting, neoliberal, policy agendas. Here again, we might wonder if COVID has disrupted this.

It is difficult to put a finger on when this process started (it’s probably in the 1980s) or identify precisely when subsequent changes occurred. However, there are indicators: language often forewarns policy shifts. In youth work we might look to the job titles of workers and the way the practice is spoken about more generally. In the UK, most street-based workers go under the name of ‘detached youth worker’ and certainly the historical practice of detached youth work is close to inseparable from the global concept of ‘social street work’. But it is now rare that the descriptor ‘detached youth worker’ is used, albeit the narrative of ‘detached work’ persists. These linguistic shenanigans both obscure and, for those looking closely, intimate the ideological influences inferred above. The chronology of dominant professional nomenclature thus proves revealing.  In the UK, broadly speaking, the last thirty years has seen the following shifts:

  • Community Worker >
  • Community and Youth Worker >
  • Youth and Community Worker >
  • Youth Worker >
  • Youth Support Worker >
  • Targeted Youth Support Worker

A couple of these steps deserve greater commentary, particularly the peculiar linguistic shift from Community and Youth Worker to Youth and Community Worker. Of course, at the time, no-one paid any attention to this; it was only later, when the reference to ‘community’ was dropped that we recognised a pattern. Our work, for so long premised on the notion of working with young people in the context of the communities of which they were a part was, in effect, being subjected to a rationale of ‘targeting’. This logic has become refined since; the emphasis shifted from making youth work accessible to all, to a focus on those judged in need of ‘support’. More recently, as the chronology shows, this has become even more explicit with the specific inclusion of the word ‘targeted’ in many workers’ job titles.

Academics and others have invested a good deal of time in examining these shifts, in attempting to identify ideological influences, and their effect on practice. Within this is the conceptual point, in terms of both internal and external understandings: how workers understand the rationale behind their own practice, and how policy makers and partner agencies view them too; and also, how the practice is conceptualised in the minds of young people and wider communities. What follows now is a potted history, an analysis of these shifts and, following that, an account of the disruptive effects of COVID.

The flight from the social

First and foremost, this chronology illustrates the influence of successive policy agendas that have driven the individuation of practices, whereby social street work has been directed to ‘target’ individuals per se, often to the exclusion of working with groups and wider communities. This can be understood as a process of fragmentation, which has ideological roots in neoliberalism. This undermines bonds of solidarity and constitutes an attack on the social as the arena of politics. In effect, these policy agendas actively de-socialise, and implicitly then de-politicise historically socially oriented practices, including social street work.

It is perhaps unreasonable to go further, to suggest this constitutes ‘the death of the social’. This is because ‘the social’ that matters for social street workers is civil society, a concept fundamentally rooted in the social and, in its functioning, one that is deeply protective of the social. History teaches us civil society demands respect for social practices and invariably pushes back – resists de-socialising policy agendas. Given social street work is, by definition, a civil society-focused practice, and a practice historically committed to acting in solidarity with civil society, these ideologically driven policy shifts constitute a very real and present danger, a danger that must be responded to.

The Externalisation of Need

This ideology posits the efficiency of focussing on individuals’ needs. Conversely, working with people in groups, and employing community development practices, is considered less efficient. There is a positivist view of how best to solve social problems. Positivism holds we can establish ‘what works’ and there is general applicability. Therein, the irony that interventions targeted at the individual take little account of the individual’s personal circumstances; these individuals become subject to a generalised and reductive account of both need and ‘what works’, which is often articulated as ‘evidence-based practice’. What’s revealed is a schema that, in effect, externalises need, wherein needs analysis is wrested from the relational context historically associated with social practices. This translates into a rationale of activation, in stark contrast to the dialogue-oriented dispositions of social street work, where that dialogue explores perceived needs and, as appropriate, seeks to negotiate a consensus on these needs, rather than prescribe them. An internal-external tension is revealed, a tension epitomised by the struggle to assert the value of, on the one hand, intrinsic motivation, agency, and trust and, on the other, extrinsic motivation – often manifest in practices of incentivisation and coercion (such as the threat of removal of welfare support for non-engagement with social programmes). In sum, the shift is toward techne (technical and systems-based approaches) that take trust for granted, as distinct from lifeworld and relational approaches rooted in phronesis (practical wisdom and uncertainty-appreciative reflective practices). Needs identification is externalised, positioned outside of these relationships, influenced more by others’ judgements as to what young people need rather their views. Policy influences this through the mechanism of contracting and commissioning: social street workers are given directives as to who to ‘target’ and a series of ‘outcomes’ they need to meet. Furthermore, social street work is co-opted into a wider regime of ‘referral’ based on the orthodoxy of ‘partnership’ work and, increasingly, the ‘co-location’ of services. Given these linkages, partner agencies are constituted as ‘referral’ agencies; they identify individuals for intervention and direct them to detached workers within these partnerships. Often detached youth workers are ‘minority partners’ (Tiffany, 2007) and have little power to resist. Therein, these, external, judgements are influential too; partner agencies determine what young people need. These agencies typically include criminal justice and Youth Offending Services, School Attendance / Behaviour Officers, and social workers. ‘Targeting’ then seeks to identify individuals in need but also establish ‘targets’ that detached youth workers must meet: the numbers of individuals to be reached and engaged with, and the numbers who must participate in the programmes designed to meet these [externally determined] needs.

These forms of thinking are aided and abetted by policy discourses, which can generate passivity, a belief that this is the way the world is. For example, the extensive ‘Positive Activities for Youth People’ (PAYP) programme of earlier years employed language which had a benevolent ring but belied the simple but largely uncontested logic that the ascription of ‘positive’ also externalises value-judgement, thereby shifting the locus of values-generation away from youth worker – young person relationship. It is of significant concern that very few youth workers explore and critique these processes, or ask: “on what basis are you referring this person to me?” We might ask why.

The Risk Factor Prevention Paradigm

It is not that these partner agencies lack confidence in their needs assessment. They, after all, have the benefit of a system of identification considered near fool-proof: the Risk Factor Prevention Paradigm. Despite roots in the science of epidemiology, many of these ‘factors’ are indeed subjective (e.g. ‘poor school performance’, ‘displaying problematic / anti-social behaviours’ etc.) and many others are constituted by structural conditions that individuals have no control over (e.g. living in an area with high levels of poverty and disadvantage) – thereby intimating the individual is responsible for the social ills they are experiencing, and letting state actors off the hook. Significantly, the focus on risk encompasses the present and the future: the dangers associated with current lived realities but also those considered predictable in the future. Therein, the incontrovertible logic and validation of interventions premised on ‘prevention’; such factors are seen to prefigure ‘negative outcomes’ and these must be prevented. We hear almost nothing of young people as assets and agents, or a positive discourse of hope and aspiration.

The lifeblood of these systems is data. By investing in high levels of data collection (a process that workers are incorporated into) the logic dictates patterns can be deduced and predictions made about the futures of young people. Everything becomes knowable, and knowing what to do then also becomes knowable, replicable: instrumentalisation is regarded a good thing. Therein, ‘positive outcomes’ can be secured with near certainty, provided, that is, the worker embraces the schemata. In essence, these outcomes are confidently pre-scribed [which I deliberately hyphenate to illustrate the sense that they are written in advance]. There’s no need to talk to or listen to those whom these interventions are directed at; their voices are de-valued, silenced. This renders obsolete the democratic theories and practices much in evidence in, especially, the history of detached youth work, and the wider youth work principle of participation, that those whose lives are impacted by decisions have a right to be involved in the making of those decisions. Policy appears not merely neutral on democracy but antithetical to it. Each and all interactions are subject to datafication, metricization, and contractualisation; counting and the enumeration of subjectivities enable everything to be monetized, translated into ‘Social Value’ and assessed in relation to ‘value for money’. These processes constitute the primary technologies for administering and governing the outcomes agenda and ensuring ‘accountability’, a concept now defined in reference to money, ever more distant from the ‘credibility’ the young people youth workers work with demand. This constitutes a form of paradigmatic exclusion and epistemic injustice, as reflective practice and qualitative evaluation [of which there is a clue in the word: ‘e-value-ation’ is about values] is rendered obsolete, thereby making it difficult to think otherwise. We are left with an all-pervading hegemonic policy discourse that subliminally affects the narratives of almost all youth workers. Indeed, it is commonplace now to hear “we work with young people ‘at-risk’”, with little concern for whether this might constitute ‘at-risk-ism’: where prediction leads to pre-judgement and prejudice. Performative behaviours become routine, the focus is on ‘bums on seats’, to the exclusion of the ‘harder nuts to crack’.

The disruptive effects of COVID

And so, to COVID. The primary effect of COVID was to pause (if not terminate) all the above. Social street work was re-socialised; targets and targeting were abandoned; needs were identified through direct engagement with communities, rather than determined by external systems; the temporality of practice shifted from the prediction of negative futures and their prevention to present-tense functioning; and, most profoundly, values (such as health, wellbeing and welfare) emerged as the defining rationale for activity, compared with the singular, economic, value determined through the Cost Benefit Analysis that dominated a good deal of youth work pre-COVID. Human values, particularly the value of social solidarity, trumped the economic. And we have learnt that austerity is a myth, that cost-cutting is, always, a political choice. The entire economic logic of neoliberalism has been shaken to its core, and weakened, perhaps irrevocably, its influence on practice.

Evidence of all this has been abundant at a grass roots level; we have witnessed extraordinary levels of volunteering and community action, activity driven by a wide range of civil society actors including detached youth workers. In the support, initiation, and coordination of this activity the practice has reconnected with its civil society roots. It has come out from the shadows, made itself visible, and made visible the plight of so many marginalised and under-supported young people. COVID has brought the practices of social street work to the attention of wider communities and authorities at both local and national levels precisely because community-oriented practices are public-facing, promotional; whereas fragmented, individuated, practices are not. The community development aspects of an earlier history have been remembered, and with it the logic that these practices create and generate benefits even when workers are absent – ‘in their beds’: others in the community are empowered to undertake the work that needs to be done. This is not something that can be said of individuated practices, which rely on the presence of workers.

We are left then with the most pressing of questions: what will the legacy of COVID be for social street work and social practices more generally? Will what constitute ‘efficiency’ be re-imagined; will we learn to trust again in democratic practices, practices that are easily accessible, made available all who request them rather than controlled by systems whose primary function appears to be resource constraint? Can we continue to work with communities in an autonomy-enhancing way, to draw attention to and act upon the gross inequities and social injustices that COVID has laid bare?

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Last Updated: 9 March 2022


Dynamo International (2005) Street work and communication with the media, Dynamo International: Brussels.

Tiffany, G. A. (2007) Reconnecting Detached Youth Work: Standards and Guidelines for Excellence.  Federation for Detached Youth Work / National Youth Agency (NYA): Leicester.


Graeme has a background in youth work, community education and community development. Since 2000, he has been a freelance researcher, trainer, lecturer and education consultant with special interests in detached and street-based youth work, youth social policy, informal education, democratic education, participation and the use of philosophical tools to support learning.