Article: Treasuring, but not measuring: Personal and social development

First Published: 27th July 2017 | Author: Tony Taylor | Tags: , , , , ,

Tony Taylor of In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) was invited by the Centre for Youth Impact (CYI) to debate with Paul Oginsky at a conference ‘Measure & Treasure’ held on March 16th 2017 in London. The following is a version of what he would have said if time had allowed. It is structured around the five questions posed in advance of the conference by Bethia McNeil, the CYI’s director.

1. What is Personal and Social Development (PSD)? When and how does it take place? Is it the same thing as building character or the notion of ‘soft skills’?

As you might expect there are differing interpretations of what we mean by PSD, but all aspire to be holistic, to be concerned with the whole person, their values, their knowledge, their skills, their emotions and desires. Fascinatingly, from a youth work perspective, half a century ago in 1967, Bernard Davies and Alan Gibson, in repudiating the common-sense idea of an incremental adolescent journey to adult maturity, argued that the fundamental purpose of PSD should be to help young people acquire the social skills of cooperation and comradeship, to develop a commitment to the common good. In stark contrast today’s dominant version of PSD is deeply individualistic, leaning for sustenance on developmental and cognitive psychology with their behavioural impositions of stages, roles, traits and norms upon young people growing up. For my part I remain committed to the version espoused by Davies and Gibson, later to be summed up in a 1977 Wigan Youth Service Programme of Action as ‘personal, social and political awareness’. Or, indeed, if I am mischievous, PSD is a matter of ‘consciousness’, the very mention of which poses insoluble dilemmas for those wishing to calculate its existence.

As far as where and how PSD takes place, young people’s socialisation occurs in all manner of places, in all manner of ways. In terms of the former, it is enacted through the family, the school, the church, the media (mainstream and social), peer groups, even on the street or in the youth club. In terms of the latter, the process can be delivered with stick or carrot, with the iron fist or velvet glove or via reflective dialogue. Whichever way young people do not respond uniformly. To put it simply they can either accommodate to or resist the societal pressure to conform to the approved version of PSD.

Whatever form PSD takes, it is not reducible to the acquisition of ‘soft life skills’, which doesn’t prevent this narrow emphasis often being dominant in the present period of targets and outcomes. This is hardly surprising. Focusing on skill shortages/inadequacies, divorced from philosophy and politics, suggests that these shortcomings can be solved by technical and managerial interventions, by an adherence to frameworks, inventories and the like. The illusion promoted is that concentrating on the ‘practical’ arena of skills is ideologically neutral.

My comment on neutrality takes me to a final point regarding the idea of character itself. The pioneers of youth work, the likes of George Williams, Lily Montagu and Baden-Powell, , would warm to its re-emergence, confident in their concern to nurture young men and women of good Christian or Jewish character. Explicitly they engaged without embarrassment with two inextricably interrelated questions, which, if we are similarly honest, we cannot escape:

  • In what sort of society do we wish to live? What are its characteristics?
  • And, depending on our answer, what sort of characters, do we think, are best suited to either the maintenance of what is or the creation of something yet to be?

More specifically, for ourselves in 2017, is society the unholy, neoliberal mess we are inhabiting, there being supposedly no alternative? Or do we possess a vision that another world is possible, one underpinned by authentic democracy and social justice?

2. Where has the drive to measure come from? What influences it? What does it, in truth, influence?

The contemporary drive to measure is inseparable from the last four decades of neoliberalism and its desire to financialise human existence. In particular it is a product of the early 1990’s appearance of Outcomes-based Management (OBM), whose raison d’etre was to measure the efficient use of funding in meeting identified targets, interpreted widely as ‘doing more with less’. This approach has been utilised to marketise the public and voluntary sectors and to both discipline and alter the outlook of the workforce. Entrepreneurs are lauded, public servants denigrated. The pursuit of data has distorted practice within public services, within Education, Welfare, Health, even the Police.

Such an instrumental obsession seems ill-suited to the fragile world of open-access, process-led youth work. Undaunted, in 2012, the Catalyst consortium, led by the now defunct and once critical voice of voluntary youth work, the National Council for Voluntary Youth Service, set out to strengthen the youth sector market and promote a social investment approach based on evidence of impact.

In 2013 a compromised National Youth Agency advised projects, prior to ever meeting a living young person, to define their audience, agree the evidence needed, select their outcomes, all with an eye on the competition. In this way the market was introduced into the very soul of youth work, young people being reduced to no more than objects, data to be exchanged and measured in the contest for funding.

The casualty in this shift to the imposition of prescribed, ‘measurable’ targets and outcomes has been an open youth work founded on relationships and conversations, ungoverned by time, which takes place on young people’s terms and at a pace guided by human need not the necessity to measure.

Let me give you an anecdote. Quite a few years ago now I bumped into a bloke I barely recognised on the streets of Wigan. “Tony,” he said, “don’t you remember me?” Flustered I bought time. He interjected helpfully “I’m Ricky, used to go to Briarcroft, knocked around with the Bolton Wanderers gang.” Vaguely, then thankfully the pieces started to fit together. We went for a reminiscing drink. To cut a long afternoon short the essence of our chat was that I became important because I’d left him alone; that I’d bided my time until he seemed ready to open up and be befriended. For him I was the first adult from the local authority who did not treat him as a problem to be worked upon. I can be forgiven for suggesting that to have given Ricky a Life Effectiveness Questionnaire on or near to our first acquaintance (in order to measure his progress) would have meant an end to our relationship before it had even begun.

The drive to measure has been a significant element in the devastation wreaked on an open access youth work perceived as unruly and beyond quantification. The drive to measure is responsible in part for the closure of almost 700 centres and the loss of thousands of jobs in recent years. The pressure to measure has witnessed the triumph of time-limited, outcomes-led, structured programmes of intervention, which ostensibly deliver the evidence demanded by politicians. However, as the NCS debacle illustrates, even as absurd monetised claims are made for its efficacy, such targeted work falls well short of illustrating its supposedly inherent superiority of purpose and content.

3. Can PSD be measured? Reasons for its usefulness?

I’m sceptical as to whether PSD can be measured in any meaningful way. At the heart of the dilemma is that PSD or character is rarely fixed. It is in flux, in movement, a person it might be said, is always in a state of becoming. Allow me to take an obvious example from the skills or capacities repertoire – confidence. In reality, confidence ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes. A young person can return from a residential apparently full of confidence, high on the experience. (I’m not sure if you want to give this optimistic state a score, 10/10, but no matter). Yet in mid-week, a bad moment at school, an argument with parents or friends, drains the confidence away. How are we to account for this? Indeed, given the influences on a young person, on what basis do we then claim that a gain in confidence was our doing: that it belongs to our agency? And how do we account for the purpose to which new found confidence is put? Is it used selfishly, which is to introduce another element in a matrix of skills and capacities? Does it spill over into arrogance? And. of course, confidence is situation-specific. Whilst I can summon up the wherewithal to address this conference, I am utterly hopeless when it comes to complaining about a meal, even a bad pint of ale!

And there is the not insignificant matter of the means of measurement and the expertise of those doing the measuring. If the measuring is to be robust and rigorous, as the tired cliche goes, the validity and reliability of the models and inventories being used, cannot be taken for granted, as seems to be the case. The use of a questionnaire with a young person by a worker throws up all the dilemmas around bias and selectivity, which haunt social science research in general. To what extent are are these acknowledged and allowed for in the training and practice of youth workers? To take, but an obvious example, what allowance is made for what is well known as the Hawthorne effect, the tendency for young people to furnish the responses they think the workers want? To mention the unmentionable the pursuit of data leads to the fabrication of data. To keep the outcomes show on the road workers make things up. At the very least a sizeable chunk of the supposed evidence on offer is fatally flawed. If you are aghast at my assertion, I suspect, you have never chatted to workers informally outside the workplace, in the cafe or pub.

As to the question of measurement being useful I would prefer to propose that a qualitatively informed understanding of the contradictions of what we mean by PSD or character would be very useful. And such an understanding in my opinion would have to ground the young people and ourselves in the specific circumstances we are living through, I do not think it is an exaggeration to argue that neoliberalism since the advent of Thatcherism has sought to influence enormously in its own image who we are and how we see others. Today the welfare professional, politically conscious, relatively autonomous and on young people’s side is outnumbered by the performative professional, who follows instructions, uses tool kits and feels unable to question the state’s agenda. Advocates of measurement need to ask themselves, if they are measuring in support of or in opposition to neoliberalism’s awesome behavioural modification project, the consequences of which very few of us have escaped? Certainly not me!

4. What are the most significant challenges to the pursuit of PSD measurement?

As best I can see from reading contemporary reports of youth organisations on their endeavours there is a widespread and deeply problematic understanding of young people as somehow homogenous. It is as if, for example, the history of autonomous work with girls and young women has been chucked into the dustbin. Thus reports inform us that 92% of the young people involved in a project enjoyed it immensely, found it rewarding and so on. Absent is an engagement with the reality that young people are a heterogeneous group, their age inseparable from the social relations of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. A black, working-class heterosexual young woman does not experience the world in quite the same way as a white middle-class lesbian Christian young woman. Their personal and social development is intimately related to their biographies, to their circumstances, which both differ and are similar. How is this to be taken into account ? Moving this further politically in the sense of power relations in society, how does measuring the PSD of a young woman or man recognise the oppression and exploitation still embedded in capitalist society?

Less politically sensitive perhaps is the challenge to engage young people in their peer groups, to interrogate the ways in which these groups, feared and derided sometimes as gangs, influence positively and negatively personal and social development. In a nutshell how can you measure the group dynamic?

In terms of being challenged about what they’re up to, whilst researchers, workers, funders, politicians may want to stand outside of the social relations they are seeking to influence, this is impossible, if oft wilfully ignored. Being involved in the process of personal and social development is not a laboratory experiment. If you wish to measure the resilience of a young person, if you wish to make a judgement on their character, the very same measurements and judgements ought to be asked of yourself, of funders, of managers, of politicians. In my opinion it takes some cheek for politicians, not notable for their collective honesty and integrity, to pontificate about what they see as the appropriate form of PSD for young people. The same goes for all of us. As they say, we’re all in this together. All our characters are up for grabs.

5. Where should the debate about measurement and PSD go next?

Frankly we need to put aside the notion that PSD or character can be measured and compared in any meaningful way. The questions of who we are, who we might become, of what it is to be understood as a personality, are too complex, too contradictory and too profound to be resolved via algorithm. At best we can arrive at an insightful judgement or educated opinion about a person’s character, but this will always be informed by our ideological outlook. These measured thoughts, if I can imbue the adjective with a sense of the unhurried and considered, are both valuable and provisional. They are at the heart of reflecting upon and evaluating our practice.

Bearing this in the mind I would suggest a direction of travel that takes on board the following:

  1. The debate must take a philosophical and political turn. What do we mean by positive youth development? What do we mean by a person of good or bad character? Who decides and whose interests does the definition serve? Such queries cannot be interrogated in a political vacuum. At this very moment the ruling ideas of the present epoch, symbolised, given the focus of this argument, by a self-centred, onanistic individualism, are on the retreat. We are discussing PSD at a moment of significant national and international crisis. Neoliberal economics is broken. Neoliberal values are in turmoil. If we are to think about how young people see themselves, others and society, we must mark that neoliberalism has installed the precarious society, has projected a future ridden with anxiety. Indeed, at times,as Berardi suggests, the future for young people seems to have been cancelled. How can we discuss the ups and downs of developing as a person without reference to this imposed political scenario?
  2. The debate must take a pedagogical turn. Rather than the outcome we need to emphasise the process of learning. What does it look and feel like? A perceptive strength of the youth work that In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] seeks to defend, which meets young people on their terms without a prescribed script, is the nature of the conversations that take place. Both young person and youth worker are educated by each other. The agenda of measurement undermines this mutual and ‘horizontal’ relationship.Hence I would suggest that much more attention needs to be paid to documenting, analysing and creating the conditions, which are conducive to young people and ourselves becoming more personally and socially aware. What sort of training, what sort of settings recognise ‘the significance of the worker themselves, their room for autonomy, their ability to fashion an improvised, yet rehearsed practice’. Such a commitment demands the resuscitation of reflective staff meetings and intense supervision, both managerial and non-managerial, all of which have been largely discarded within an authoritarian culture of self-sure management. For a recent compelling piece of research, which calls the bluff on the mantra that we lack an evidence base, I would recommend ‘Grassroots Youth Work’ by Tania de St Croix, who is with us in the audience.
  3. On a practical and theoretical level IDYW has tried to make a contribution, often scorned, to both remembering and reimagining youth work. Our cornerstones of practice have resonated with workers in many corners of the globe. So too, over the past 8 years we have run Storytelling Workshops with workers, using anecdotes from practice to unravel the fruitful ways in which youth workers and young people associate, relate and converse. Again this approach has been taken up internationally, most recently within a major piece of research in Finland. A parallel research project focussed on young people’s accounts of their experiences would obviously enrich further our grasp of a democratic practice that seeks to play a part in fostering personal and social development or character.

This observation brings us inexorably back to the ideological and political. Forgive my repetition, but exploring PSD and character is never a neutral endeavour, however deep we hide our heads in the sands. I’ll conclude with two questions.

Are you measuring how successful you have been in manufacturing an emotionally resilient young person who will put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous social policies, accept their lot, and believes there is no alternative?

Or are we evaluating how successful we have been in creating, albeit tentatively, a critical, questioning young person, who seeks to change their lot in concert with others, who continues to imagine that a fairer, juster, more democratic society is possible, that the present calamitous state of affairs is not the best that humanity can do?


Within this sweeping outline of my perspective on PSD and character I spoke directly about youth work. Many of those attending prefered to speak loosely of the youth sector without saying much about how this way of seeing things has come about. They did so without engaging with an ongoing blurring of the boundaries, which allowed a headteacher to present as evidently a fully-paid up member of this voracious, ever increasing sector. Thus continues, to the detriment of youth work, what Filip Cousee calls the drive ‘to formalise the informal’.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 3 September 2017


Editorial note: Due to the ‘speech’ format of this piece, references are not provided in the text in the traditional way. Nevertheless, all texts referred to in the speech are presented here in alphabetical order.


Baden-Powell, Robert S. S. (1908) Scouting for Boys. A Handbook for instruction in good citizenship, London, Horace Cox

Berardi, Franco (2017) Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, London: Verso

Binfield, C. (1973) George Williams and the YMCA. A study in Victorian social attitudes, London: Heinemann

Bradford, S. (2015) ‘State Beneficence or Government control?’, chapter 2 in G. Bright (ed.) Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coussee, F. (2012) ‘Historical and intercultural consciousness in youth work and youth policy – a double odyssey’ in Coussee F. et al (eds) The history of youth work in Europe, Volume 3. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Davies, B, and Gibson,A, (1967) The Social Education of the Adolescent, University of London

de St Croix, T. (2016) Grassroots youth work: Policy, Passion and Resistance in Practice. Bristol: Policy Press

Gretschel, Anu (Ed) (2017) Studying the impact of international youth work : Towards developing an evaluation tool for youth centres, Helsinki : FYCA

IDYW (In Defence of Youth Work) (2009) ‘The Open Letter’, In Defence of Youth Work website, (

IDYW (2011) This is youth work: Stories from practice, London: Unison, (

IDYW (2014) Story-telling in Youth Work (

McNeil, B., Reeder, N. & Rich, J. (2012) A Framework of Outcomes for Young People, London: Young Foundation.

Montagu, L.H. (1941) My Club and I: The Story of The West Central Jewish Club, Herbert Joseph, London

National Citizen Service Audit (2017) (

NYA (2013) The future for outcomes: A practical guide to measuring outcomes for young people, Leicester: NYA.

Taylor, T. & Taylor, M. (2013) Threatening youth work: The illusion of outcomes, (

Unison (2016) The damage – A future at risk: Cuts in youth services, London: Unison

Young Foundation (2012)  (


Involved in youth work since the early 1970’s, Tony Taylor coordinates the social media presence of In Defence of Youth Work.