Article: Keeping them off the streets (book review)
Youth worker Colin Brent reviews Tim Caley's Keeping Them Off the Streets: A Youth Work Story, finding it an enjoyable, rewarding and challenging read, even if it didn't conform to his initial expectations! The book, writes Brent, is "a fair-minded insight into how we have got to where we are today, and a gentle reminder of how youth work will and must continue into the future."
Keeping them off the streets: A youth work story
Tim Caley (2019)
Everyone loves a good youth work story. The humour, challenges and frequent feelings of fulfillment that come from working with young people mean that they often fit the bill for a good yarn. Those of us who are or have been youth workers can recognise our own practice, feel the value of our work reaffirmed, whilst secretly thinking we might have done things differently/it would never have worked with ‘our’ young people/were all of the safeguarding procedures followed/why didn’t they ask, observe, build upon such-and-such? And once we have satisfied our sense of self-importance (or maybe I’m just talking for myself here), we wonder why more people don’t write about their work.
Picking up Tim Caley’s ‘Keeping Them off the Streets – a youth work story’, I was looking forward to a fun, if ultimately unchallenging read. And from the start it had all the ingredients that I was looking for. It starts with Tim taking over the management of a new youth centre built underneath a new block of flats in Sheffield, much to some of the neighbours’ annoyance. Having recently moved into the modern reincarnation of such a youth centre in London, I was struck how, despite the nearly 50 years having passed in between, our experiences were so similar.
Equally recognisable were Tim’s stories of residents complaining that he could not single-handedly stop a fight between groups from different estates but was seen instead to condone it by just being present, or the youth centre becoming a second home of young people seen as failures elsewhere. It is strange how much pleasure we (I) can derive from having our opinions and experiences validated – it might have as much long-term significance as a hurriedly issued AQA Award certificate, but it’s a nice way to pass the time.
And then, about 70 pages in, Tim gets promoted. He no longer works regularly face-to-face with young people. Indeed, he relocates to Reading, where he has no previous contact with young people, to work as a Youth Officer, before becoming Head of Service in Hampshire. Having read the blurb on the back, I knew he had worked in a range of senior positions, but still I felt thoroughly let down. Tim himself acknowledges the difficulties of transitioning from working with young people to managing (up as well as down) adults. Where were the heart-warming stories of Plug and his crew? How were the conflicts with the residents resolved? And who wants to read about being a middle manager in what some might think an unglamorous local authority (I mean, everyone knows that all the good youth work is in gritty inner-city settings, right)?
My sense of unfounded betrayal lasted only about 20 pages. That is, until I realised that although the rest of the book would not offer me the same opportunities to smugly recognise my own experiences (though Tim does write passionately about the face-to-face work of other youth workers), it was far more challenging to my preconceptions. And to my surprise, I found myself enjoying it. The book sails along, with plenty of example of practice, pictures and personal asides to keep the reader engaged. Tim displays an obvious pride for his work and for that of the many youth workers he has worked with.
Part memoir, part history of youth policy, and part celebration of youth work, ‘Keeping Them Off the Streets’ may not be the book some wish for. Tim does not acclaim radical youth work values, and any critiques of the various governments along the way and their policies are measured and balanced. At a time of inflamed tensions, Tim’s book is not a call to arms to protect a dying profession. It questions quite how golden the golden ages of Albemarle and the first Blair government were, whilst acknowledging the importance of the funding that flowed at the time. It recognises the negatives of the target-driven agenda, whilst not shying away from the fact that some youth work practice is poor and needs to be held accountable. And ultimately, the book challenges that idea that youth work is dead – looking from a broader perspective, the current situation is bad, but neither unprecedented nor unsurmountable.
Obviously, this story is necessarily personal – the book does not claim to represent all the diversity of youth work experiences in different contexts around the country. But having worked face-to-face, as an officer, consultant and inspector, Tim is able in ‘Keeping Them Off the Streets’ to offer a panoramic view of youth work’s journey over nearly 50 years. It adds an essential grounding in youth work history and ideas around communicating our value, for students and practitioners alike. Whilst is it not the rollicking good read that I may have expected or wished for, or the rabble-rouser that maybe the profession needs right now, it is possibly far more useful – a fair-minded insight into how we have got to where we are today, and a gentle reminder of how youth work will and must continue into the future.
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Last Updated: 23 March 2020
Colin Brent is Senior Youth Worker for Ealing Council and manager of Bollo Brook Youth Centre.