Article: Radical help: Messages for youth work?

Author: Bernard Davies | Tags: , , ,

Bernard Davies reflects on Hilary Cottam's 'Radical Help', and searches for links between youth work and Cottam’s broader propositions and proposals.

Book review:

Hilary Cottam, 2018, Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State, London, Virago

By the time I got to read Hilary Cottam’s book Radical Help[i] I had a lot to catch up on – and not only because it had by then been out for over a year. Cottam had set up Participle, the organisation which is the focus of the book, in 2006 as an ‘experiment to design working exemplars of a new welfare state’. By 2019, the Guardian reviewer who alerted me to the book was calling it ‘ … a social activist’s series of experiments giving people control to improve their own lives’.[ii] And whereas for him it was ‘inspiring’, coming to it as I did from a youth work perspective, the word for me that best describes it is ‘challenging’.


Why challenging? Firstly because, while assuming an unqualified commitment to the need for a welfare state and the collectivity this seeks to embody, Cottam’s implicit and explicit conclusion is that its current model, inherited from the 1940s and 1950s, is no longer fit for purpose. Even though she gives local authority Youth Services little direct attention, her critique emerges as applying to them too. This was demonstrated most sharply by the forced abandonment of Participle’s ‘Growing Up’ Loop project aimed at young people at the very moment that, in Cottam’s words, ‘the possibility of human connection and development confronted the culture of risk and management’ – in this case, that of the project’s local authority ‘partners’. (105)


For me, however, the book’s challenge goes beyond its broad critique of the post-1945 welfare state structures as these developed and operated up to 2010. Though never central to its accounts of practice, its examples of youth work in action are, at best, also judged to fit poorly with Cottam’s core ‘radical help’ expectations and principles. Fortunately by the time I came across these – and there aren’t that many anyway – I had come to see Cottam’s wider analysis and proposals as not only useful in their own right but also as generally reflective of an ‘open’ youth work practice as I understand it. This was true both of the face-to-face ways of working with ‘service users’ she advocates and of the kinds of structures in which she sees these best located.


This article is thus the outcome of an on-and-off six-month effort to get beyond that initial youth work defensiveness to searching for links between youth work and Cottam’s broader propositions and proposals.


A welfare state for the twenty-first century?

At a time when (still) so much policy-making is shaped by neo-liberalism’s disdain for a welfare state, Cottam’s critique of it could be seen as both risky and potentially counter-productive. In the decades since the Thatcherite onslaught started in the 1980s, a fear of offering hostages to fortune has at times made me reluctant to focus too bluntly on where and how its services are failing to perform. Nor was their defence made any easier, at least initially, by the possibility – even likelihood – that the hostile neo-liberal narrative was resonating with the then lived experience of the parent who was never allowed beyond the school gates, the patient who felt treated as an impersonal body, the benefit claimant constantly having to negotiate the scrounger label – or the young person whose friendship group was simply being seen as a potentially dangerous ‘gang’.


Nonetheless, coming as Cottam’s analysis does from a very different ideological starting point, much of it seems to me to be both justified and needed. After outlining Beveridge’s struggle to get his radical 1942 report – the ‘technical blueprint for the modern welfare state’ (21) – accepted and then funded, she highlights how ‘the people’s William’  became ‘increasingly ambivalent’ about how the reforms were being implemented. What particularly alarmed him was that ‘the state (was) increasingly taking over’, that civil servants were becoming central to its delivery and that in the process the role of the voluntary sector was being marginalised. (25-6)


That such doubts existed within youth work was perhaps illustrated in the late 1970s by Tony Jeffs’ conclusion that the Youth Service’s early failure ‘to construct a real partnership between the voluntary and statutory sectors’ had left youth work provision too dependent for support and money on the state, central and local.[iii] While in general accepting this conclusion, it nonetheless for me takes rather too benign a view of those organisations which, though ‘voluntary’, were often deeply rooted in traditions of upper class patronage and highly defensive of their ‘leading’ positions. Indeed, with the wisdom of hindsight, in any search for partners to the state providers might Beveridge and his successors perhaps have given more attention to the potential contributions of grass-roots community groups or even some elements of the labour movement? [iv]


Nonetheless, with these as her historical starting points, Cottam goes on to illuminate the deepening, systemic faults within welfare state structures which have failed to adapt sufficiently to the rapidly changing environments in which they are operating. Here the NHS offers a particularly vivid example. (30-31). Originally it was designed, Cottam suggests, mainly to respond to patients with ‘episodic illnesses such as polio, pneumonia or whooping cough, diseases which responded well to medicine and, if necessary, to hospitalisation’. Today, however, seventy per cent of health expenditure goes on sustaining patients who, having survived to an age that would have been exceptional sixty years ago, are most likely to be living with conditions – cancer, diabetes, obesity, dementia, mental health problems – which are incurable and/or require long-term non-medical as well as medical interventions.


As neo-liberal ideas and priorities took hold, these and other state services did change, particularly under pressure from central government and its advisors to adopt business-style forms of planning, resource allocation and accountability. Far, however, from liberating flows of energy and ideas from below, over time these ‘reforms’ have helped to reinforce top-down power structures and their bureaucratic ways of operating. For local authority Youth Services – even as ministers in the 2010s repeatedly made a virtue of being ‘hands-off’[v] – the result was not only that on-the-ground arrangements became less diverse and less locally adaptable. They also provided an increasingly uncomfortable fit with forms of person-centred practice – not least youth work approaches shaped by their ‘on-the-wing’ responsiveness to the young people who actually engaged.


Cottam’s prescriptions for addressing these institutional flaws is – to put it somewhat oversimply – to wrest control of what happens on the ground from those top-down planners and managers and indeed sometimes, too, from the practitioners who are on the receiving end of their directives. Instead, often in practical detail, she seeks to articulate how the human, financial and other resources of a range of services might be (re-)invested not just in those practitioners’ face-to-face encounters with users but, even more importantly, in the encounters which active participants can and do have with each other.


Youth work under scrutiny

Other than in the Loop project, youth work and its practitioners appear only in passing in the Cottam ‘experiments’. Moreover, when they do the ‘youth work’ being described seems at times too easily to be equated with forms of targeted ‘work with young people’– illustrated for example by the suggestion in the chapter on ‘Family life’ that ‘the need for police involvement  … meant that youth workers and children’s services were making regular (family) visits’. (56)


For the Loop project, youth workers were eventually recruited from ‘within the community’ to, ‘with a light touch’, act as ‘reflectors’ – ‘holding up a mirror to the young person’ and encouraging them to think about what they had done, seen and learnt. Their role was thus to ‘provide a way of internalising learning and perhaps, slowly, a change in self-perception’. With this seen as ‘… the ingredient which turns a fun activity into something more meaningful’, these workers are described as ‘lov(ing) what they were doing’. (99-100)


According to Cottam, however, their approach was very different from that of the youth workers based in a traditional youth centre who were meeting two young women she saw as ‘in a sort of danger’. Rather than these workers directly addressing their problems, Cottam’s view was that the young women were merely being ‘lulled into a false sense of security’ by being offered ‘cups of tea and sympathy’ and praised for being ‘caring’ individuals and for being ‘in the youth centre … not causing trouble’. (91)


These youth work attitudes, moreover, are taken by Cottam as evidence of a deeper systemic problem rooted particularly in the perspective that

… young people tend to be in trouble and … need containment and ideally diversionary activity. The response of the politicians – promising more youth clubs – seems to be a logical solution.

In support of this view, Cottam draws on research published in 2005 by Leon Feinstein and his colleagues[vi] which in her words showed that ‘for many, attendance at a youth centre correlates with poor outcomes later in life’. (92) Moreover, in referencing the Feinstein evidence she goes on to conclude that

It is not that youth centres are always negative; it is that they depend on their adults in charge and other structures and activities. Providing more youth centres is not necessarily a solution or a way to support good futures for young people. (Ref 11: 285)


Here, as New Labour ministers did at the time, Cottam oversimplifies the Feinstein findings and conclusions – something he himself made clear at the time when he commented:

My argument is that youth workers, youth work and provision of space and buildings for young people outside of school are important but under-funded.[vii]


Cottam draws also on a Unicef survey’s findings produced over a decade ago – many since confirmed by other studies.[viii] This for example ‘showed young people in Britain were amongst the unhappiest, the unhealthiest, the poorest and the least educated in the developed world’. (81) She highlights the impact of austerity on ‘services for young people, many of which, unlike other welfare state provision, do not have to be provided by law’, are often ‘tightly targeted’ and so are ‘only (for) those facing the greatest risks…’ (82, 86) In however entertaining the possibility that ‘many of these services were not making much difference’, she frames her regrets about the resultant ‘loss of potential and possibility’ within the narrow physiological perspective that this is a stage in life when ‘the adolescent brain is extraordinarily plastic’. (82)


Nor were these the only generalisations which left me feeling defensive on behalf of the youth workers I know who practise in very different ways from those Cottam highlights. Another was the conclusion she drew from the evidence gathered in films taken during the Loop programme. These, she said, showed that public services’ emphases on ‘youth-only activities and spaces … break the natural links through which young people learn and flourish’ (93) – a suggestion which did make reflect on whether youth work’s commitment to working with and through young people’s peer groups might at times be limiting. However, the complexity of the interactive processes which were needed to connect the Loop participants to this ‘wider (adult) world’ were again for me reminiscent of how open youth workers would anyway be seeking to practise. (94-5)


A (youth work) practice for the twenty-first century?

Nonetheless, by the time I’d finished the book I was taking away a range of other, albeit often indirect and unintended, messages which seemed to me to be supportive both of open youth work itself and of the institutional structures and operating procedures needed to give it the best chance of realising its potential. Indeed, despite Cottam’s at times seemingly dismissive view of youth work and youth workers, I’d want to go further and argue that, where good ‘open’ youth work is happening [ix], it will provide credible grounded evidence for both the principles and the processes for action she advocates.


Principles for ‘making change’

A key starting point here for Cottam is that, far from holding face-to-face workers responsible for the many of current weaknesses in our services, we should be more concerned, for example, about the ‘thousands of so-called front-line workers, who labour for minimal pay on insecure contracts’ as well as about how those using the services are ‘baffled by the unwieldy systems’. As a result, she suggests, the ‘brilliance’ of staff

… comes in spite of the system, in spite of the demands and barriers of bureaucracy. Beneath the grace and kindness is the steady thrum of crisis. (10, 11)


According to Cottam, within these currently dominant welfare state systems a ‘stock response’ (surely familiar to many youth workers) is: ‘manage things differently’ (13) – something which she regards as, for service users, likely to make things worse. Nor does she assume ‘pouring money into moribund systems’ is the answer, essential though greater financial investment will be. (13, 14)


Though rather simplistically extracted here (and with emphases added), her more positive working ‘principles’ – many of which would again seem to touch the youth work practitioner experience – include:

  • A commitment to moving from making the priority to ‘assess risk and then attempt to manage it’ and from focussing on ‘what might go wrong…’; to focusing on possibilities and on developing ‘cultures of open trust’. (209)
  • A commitment to moving from a ‘management’ response (which) ‘tries to fix discrete and individual problems with no bigger developmental purpose’; to providing ‘forms of help that will support us grow our capabilities’, not least by ‘responding to the natural human desire to flourish’ – where ‘flourishing’ is understood as ‘a collective and political concept that embraces participation in the structures of society …’ (198-9; 201)
    • A recognition that, though ‘what we can be or do depends on our inner worlds, our beliefs, our self-confidence, our skills’, also crucial are ‘our concrete external realities’: where we live, whether we have money, and how we are connected’; (200) and that ‘…structural inequalities … influence in ways that are sometimes invisible…’ (201)
  • A commitment therefore to move from ‘traditional approaches’ which ‘… focus on what is lacking – food, money, work or health – and (which) cast people as dependent’; that is, from ‘arguing that … those who don’t succeed somehow lack agency’ (201) and need ‘to … pull (themselves) together or take care of (their) own problems’ (199); to approaches which
  • start by ‘first taking into consideration the inter-connections between the internal and the external structural realities of our lives and then help … address both’ (200);
  • ask what real possibilities … people have to earn, to find work, to live healthily …’ (201);
  • thus ‘grapple with the knotty issues of power, access and learnt norms…’ (202-3); and so
  • are, more positively, concerned ‘about continual development’. (203)
  • A commitment to focus ‘above all’ on relationships – ‘the simple human bonds between us … the foundation of good lives’ – by for example seeking ‘a shift in the dynamics of power’ and by creating ‘the fertile conditions for collaboration’. (205-7)
  • A commitment to drawing on ‘the single biggest resource a welfare state has to call on’: ‘… people – their relationships, knowledge, time, skills and sometimes possessions …’; so that in particular we ‘blur the boundaries between who needs help and who is the helper’. (208-09)


Processes for ‘making change’

Using the term in broad and flexible ways, Cottam also highlights some defining ‘process’ features, many of which – not least because they are often complex and sometimes contradictory – seem also to fit with an open youth work approach. These for example start by assuming a practice which

  • is ‘… about making, reflecting, taking apart and making again’ (227);
  • ‘enables us to grow our ideas in real-life settings’ (211);
  • is ‘… participative from the outset…’. (216)

At its centre, too, is ‘… a process of active listening’ which recognises that ‘good listening means not talking’; (214) which will be using those gaps for ‘listening for silences’; and which, as ‘observing help(s) … (to) fill in the gaps’ (228-9), will be ‘looking for what is present, not just what is lacking…’ (234)


By prompting ‘… conversations … around practical processes’, (213) this practice will also be seeking to ensure that ‘everyone can join in’, that ‘it is easy to collaborate’. (212) It will thus ‘think from the very beginning about groups … rather than individuals’; (218) seek to make ‘… social connections … through shared interests, not as a charitable wish to help another’ (221); and thereby ‘shift … power between helped and helper’. (234)


Rather than negotiating all this as a process of ‘information extracted’, participants will then hopefully experience it as one of reflection and growth…’ (229) requiring that practitioners, instead of assuming they ‘already know what the problem is…’, seek ‘… to get underneath the accepted truths’. (218-19)


Within this practice, nonetheless, practitioners still will need to share (their) wider learning and thinking with participants to fuel the generation of further ideas and to challenge their thinking’. (222) Rather, however, than ‘weav(ing) things together in a way that looks neat but no longer represents anyone’s reality’ (213), they will ‘…promise no certain outcomes…’(216) and indeed assume that ‘… nothing is ever really finished’. (225)


Towards an articulation of youth work’s why and its how?

Concluding with lists like these risks leaving behind mere expressions of idealistic aspiration. And yet, whatever our specialised (even perhaps ‘professional’) area of ‘helping’ practice, how often do we in these ways make explicit – articulate in any detail – our more specific underlying motivations and intentions or the core constituent features of how we are trying to act, moment-by-moment, week-by-week and indeed beyond? And even if we do do this, how often, as Cottam strives to do, do we set those accounts in an historically-rooted analysis of the wider (in this case particularly welfare state) structures which, consciously but also perhaps unconsciously, do so much to shape our actions?


Cottam’s offer on all of this is not of course beyond dispute, least of all by committed ‘open’ youth workers. Nonetheless its bold and sustained critical approach deserves their attention, and not only for the insights it might provide into the why and the how of a youth work practice whose nuances are often missed by that wider ‘helping’ world. It is needed, too, because youth workers themselves and even those who train them still too rarely ‘unpack’ their practice in similarly probing – and challenging – ways.

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Last Updated: 15 April 2020


[i] Hilary Cottam, 2018, Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State, London, Virago

[ii] P.D.Smith, 2019, ‘Radical Help by Hilary Cottam review – how to revolutionise the welfare state’, Guardian, 7 June

[iii] Tony Jeffs, 1979, Young people and the Youth Service, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp 27; 30

[iv] See for example Bernard Davies, 2009, ‘Defined by history – youth work in the UK’, in Griet Verschelden et al, The history of youth work in Europe: Relevance for youth policy today, Council of Europe, pp 64-85 

[v] See for example Neil Puffett, 2011, ‘Government will not step in to protect Youth Services, Loughton admits’, CYPN, 24 October

[vi] Leon Feinstein, John Bynner and Kathryn Duckworth, 2005, Leisure contexts in adolescence and their effects on adult outcomes, Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, July

[vii] Alison Bennett, ‘Big interview: The youth work examiner’, CYPN, 26 June 2007

[viii] See for example Bernard Davies, 2019, ‘Breaching the Social Contract with Young People’, Youth and Policy, October, available at

[ix] See for example IDYW, 2011, This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice, 2011, available at; Tania de St Croix, 2016, Grassroots youth work: Policy, passion and resistance in practice, Policy Press


Bernard Davies is on the steering group of In Defence of Youth Work. His most recent book is ‘Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’. He comments on the shifting landscape of youth work on his new ‘Youth Work’s Living History’ blog.