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early pioneers

Detached youthworkers

Mary Morse

Three workers were appointed in contrasting areas of England to make contact with unattached young people. It is useful to narrow the term ‘unattached’ to those who do not belong to a youth organisation and who are also unhappy and/or delinquent. Mary Morse considers the effectiveness of these three ‘detached youthworker’ projects undertaken in the early 1960s ...

In all this, the workers continually found themselves being forced to make decisions which demanded skill and insight. For example, how could the worker tell the difference between a situation which was too frustrating and one which would be a valuable learning experience because of the challenge it presented? At what point did the expression of criticism or hostility among the members cease being a valuable tool for change and become damaging instead because of the hurt which it inflicted? When should the workers try to encourage an idea or suggestion that had come from the group and when should they discourage — and how? These were just a few of the daily problems which confronted the workers. On the manner in which they were solved hung the success or the failure of the project.

Whether it was in the drama activity in Seagate, the school group in Northtown, the jazz club, camping project, or discussion group in Midford, the workers were most active in creating and maintaining situations in which people could become free to learn. The Seagate worker with his skill and enthusiasm for drama did much of his work by making use of the activity itself; the Northtown worker, who was a rather less flamboyant personality, did most of her work through the quieter club-like setting of the housecraft flat, while the Midford worker used a combination of both. The workers proved that effective help could be given both by working through an activity or by just sitting around and talking.

Just how effective such help really was must remain undetermined, especially in the absence of any follow-up after the project finished and in the absence also of any control groups or any qualitative techniques for measuring attitude change. It is reasonably certain that some of the changes which took place were the results of normal growth and maturation and the workers themselves were very conscious that the amount of influence they seemed to be having was limited, particularly with the more hardened cases. In part, this was attributed to the lack of contact with parents and the fact that nothing was being done to alleviate the poor home conditions from which many of the problems probably originated.

There can be no legitimate claims therefore to have brought about dramatic ‘cures’ or reforms in any individual’s way of life. On the evidence of this project, it is doubtful if the detached worker could ever ‘cure’ young people, if only because of the tremendous amount of time and skill that such a task would demand. Where the more delinquent youth are concerned, a ‘holding operation’ to tide them over the more difficult years of middle and later adolescence when their problems seem particularly acute may well be the most that can realistically be expected of the detached worker. It may be still more realistic to think in terms of prevention rather than cure by trying to reach the unattached at an earlier age.

Thus the most that can be claimed is that a few people who were on the delinquent fringe may have been held back from more serious delinquency. Others who were ‘purposeless’ rather than delinquent seem to have found more satisfactory outlets for their frustrations by developing some of their latent abilities, and some were known to have derived support and encouragement simply by being able to talk with the worker. The presence of an understanding adult who had become a significant person in their lives and with whom these young people could feel free to talk about anything at any time was undoubtedly one of the best services that could have been offered to them. At its most effective, such a service demanded that the worker was always available to listen to a problem or to offer advice. Being permanently accessible or ‘on call’ was one of the most valuable, if demanding, features of the work and ‘time-off’ way from young people was a virtual impossibility without being particularly firm or actually going away.

One further point can be stated with certainty. The young people who were regular contacts of the workers experienced, some for the first time ever, the friendship of a sympathetic adult and his genuine concern for their condition. In view of the cynicism and despair which was so characteristic of many of them, such an experience was in itself valuable.

This feature: Extract from Morse, M. (1965). The Unattached. Harmondsworth: Penguin