Blurring the Boundaries or Re-imagining Youth Work? A discussion write-up from the IDYW 2016 Conference



Where ‘In Defence’ are up to…

In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) hosted the conference for what is clearly a large supporter base; 70+ of us were welcomed by Tony Taylor, who opened by updating on recent activities, thoughts and considerations of the IDYW group:

  • The numbers of supporters engaging online remain very good
  • There is a need for greater capacity and fresh blood on the steering group – plurality is welcomed
  • IDYW is transitioning from being a campaign group towards being a force for critical engagement with youth work theory and practice
  • Storytelling work is going strong and has now been translated into several languages
  • There is scope to increase the number and variety of posts made to the website, Facebook, Twitter etc

‘Voluntary’ vs ‘meaningfully engaged’

Bernard Davies introduced a presentation from Annette Coburn and Sinead Gormally that had been developed from ideas  that came out of a chapter titled ‘Youth Work in Schools’ in the recent Graham Bright book .  It challenges the ‘voluntary participation’ principle that, over the years, has become somewhat enshrined in youth work lore.  The argument centred around the notion that young people may be within a non-voluntary space (such as a school, prison or hospital) and still be engaged in youth work if the focus of the work is young person centred, emancipatory, the relationship with the youth worker is able to be negotiated and if there is capacity to meaningfully engage.


Annette Coburn presenting at the IDYW National Conference, 30th September 2016

Annette and Sinead argued that should this new paradigm be accepted it may represent a ‘threshold concept’ for youth work that allows us, with a new perspective, to move forwards with youth work representing ‘an educational methodology’ rather than a profession per se, that could help us to explore new theoretical landscapes.


Tania de St. Croix offered a contrasting response that the voluntary component is fundamental to our practice, especially in settings where sanctions can be imposed for non-compliance or non-attendance.  The point was made that there remain so few spaces for young people to choose to come and go and youth work represents a bastion of the principle that this is absolutely necessary.

There was a helpful acknowledgement that power and choice are complicated issues – the ‘choice’ to be at a youth club may be because your mum kicks you out of the house each night and you have nowhere else to go.  The power presents itself in different guises, for example, the Hitler Youth espoused principles of voluntary engagement…

The discussion

The presentations precipitated some interesting reflections from the group at large; deliberately avoiding naming people I have tried to capture some below:

  • Student placements can’t be refused to those working in non-voluntary settings.
  • Reassuringly, graduates are going into non-voluntary settings and, with an appreciation for youth work ethics and values, are subverting the practices and creating ‘spaces for youth work’.
  • There are ‘open-access’ youth clubs that don’t look like they are doing youth work – the power imbalances are left completely unchecked (between genders for example). Conversely some excellent practice exists in school/college settings.
  • Youth workers have colluded with the “give us a job, I can do that” mentality to keep funding. Has this been corrupting?
  • Is it helpful to consider youth work as separate from youth work skills so that we can ‘set out our stall’ with clarity?
  • An interesting Chinese perspective was added by one delegate who told of how youth work does not exist in and of itself in China. Those that work with teens outside of school are also known as teachers and the practice of gathering young people in their leisure time bears little significance/meaning in the ways we consider it does – until, that is, individuals take it upon themselves to apply youth work theory.  But it’s certainly not permeated social policy at any level in this delegate’s experience.
  • Others felt that these discussions were quite self-centred on us as professionals; Young people must remain the focus of the discussion as the subject and the object of our work.
  • Starting where young people are at is key. Back in the day there was nothing else to do but go to the youth club.  In this, workers actually had quite a lot of power.  We now have to go where young people are at – it represents a new, necessary nature of youth work.
  • Many new youth workers have their own instincts about being a force for regulation and control and often, only after studying, bring a new emancipatory angle to their work – at the same time as their management try to enforce more control and regulation.
  • Changing the definition of youth work is the wrong starting place – we have to consider what we feel and know to be good practice (whilst recognising constraints).
  • We want to train a community of ‘critical pedagogues’ – we then practice youth work in a distinctive setting – after all, a teacher tries to ‘meaningfully engage’ young people…
  • The critical spaces to iron out these ideas have been in decline.
  • The setting is less important. Perhaps ‘voluntary’ relationships is a misnomer and an umbrella term should be found to encompass the complexities and multi-faceted nature of this notion?
  • Yes, youth workers have been guilty of hitting targets or acquiring funding by moving into schools etc – but isn’t it better that youth workers do this than PCSOs or Counsellors?
  • An interesting exercise may be to conduct an examination of how settings do influence practice.
  • Are these values shared across the UK? Other countries didn’t have an Albemarle watershed…

Sue Atkins shared a funny anecdote about a cleaner at an art college she once knew.  One student’s installation had been quite ‘casual’ and this cleaner lady had accidentally cleaned it away overnight.  Once, she’d been informed of what she’d done she would go around pointing at rubbish asking ‘is this art?’, ‘is this art?’.  There may be parallels now with us wandering confused, asking ‘is this youth work?’


So, perhaps more questions than answers, but I would reflect that delegates seemed to very much value the space provided on the day to thrash these ideas about together – I certainly did.

Thanks to the IDYW team, in my opinion no one creates these spaces better.  I look forward to cultivating cooperation with the Institute for Youth Work as we move forwards in solving some of our puzzles!

Notes from the rest of the day may inform a forthcoming post.

Disclaimer – written in this post is my interpretation of people’s meaning and inference at this conference.  Please contact me if you would like to challenge any points you recognise as your own that I have misinterpreted. 


The Participation Eco-system for Youth & Community Work

Over the last couple of years I have been working in a deprived estate in Brighton, UK, where I  am required to work in partnership to help co-ordinate youth work provision across the neighbourhood.  When I started I spent some time scoping the existing provision and quickly recognised a few things:

  • All that was on offer was centre-based youth work
  • Attendance at existing projects was dwindling
  • The same young people had been engaged in the same projects for years
  • The young people had little interest in/influence over their projects’ direction

These were symptoms of a ‘participation eco-system’ that was out of whack.

The participation eco-system is a model that illustrates the functions of a symbiotic and harmonious youth work system in a community setting, in the context of youth participation.

participation ecosystem 2

The participation eco-system proposes that it is not enough to have just one or two levels alone.

The model categorises different types of youth work in three different levels depending on the levels of ‘participation’ required by the young people involved: ‘High participation’, ‘Mid-range participation’ and ‘low-level participation’. For example, youth forums usually need a lot of input, focus and dedication by the youth members, therefore would be categorised as ‘High participation’, in contrast to simply rocking up to an open community event – ‘Low-level participation’.

It’s this model’s assertion that all three different levels of participation work need to be in place in a community in order for the work to thrive.  In the case of the neighbourhood in Brighton, the existing services were only offering mid-range participation projects, i.e. centre-based clubs.  Far from damning the great work that can happen in buildings, I’m saying that without the other complimenting parts you miss the opportunity to inspire great things from happening through the mélange.

FNSHLow-level Participation

Back in Brighton, two years on we have redistributed resources and have mobile, detached and outreach work happening, meeting good numbers on street and feeding young people into other projects.

Mid-range Participation

The choice of youth club or nothing is no more; through the week we now have sports clubs, arts groups, a young journalistic group, dance and a bike-maintenance social enterprise.

High Participation

wild park youth festival 2014At the high end we have formed a youth group that raises it’s own money for holiday activities for the rest of the community.  Last year they raised £5k through their own bank account for a summer programme and ‘youth festival’.


The point is that the vibrancy, vitality and variety of the projects now on offer is being fuelled by a healthy interdependence between projects.  They feed into each other, cross-fertilising and each reaping the rewards of others’ success.  By offering projects pitched at differing participation levels we are working with greater numbers of young people who join in at whatever level they are comfortable with at that time.  Of course, it helps too when all the moving parts are communicating with each other well, but that’d be the subject of another blog post!

Projects like Participation Works do a fantastic job in building youth workers’ skills to advocate for participative rights of young people and tell us how important that high-end work is.  But who is out there campaigning for the importance of low-level participation work? Are we, as workers, sometimes missing a trick by keeping our offer too narrow?

If you’d like more information about my organisation and it’s community development approaches in its work with young people you can find our website here.

5 ways for service providers to better engage young people


1)      Enlist youth workers

This may seem obvious to some but you’d be surprised how many people get lost on the way to this very effective engagement tool.  Youth workers are professionally trained in youth engagement; they are the experts in the field!  For those who haven’t encountered their local youth worker yet and aren’t quite sure what it is that they do, Wikipedia seem to have a fairly good crack at defining it here.  Following that, call up your local authority and they should be able to provide you with the details of their services as well as those of the voluntary providers locally.

Youth workers can meet young people (and could invite you to join them…) on street or in youth clubs, they can arrange youth meetings and often have an online presence which helps when sharing links etc.

This method does come with a caveat – youth workers are often busy people with funders and commissioners to please.  Your way in may be in aligning your priorities or offering some resources…

2)      Consider accessibility

Trying to get young people to an event or meeting?  Think about these things:

TimingYou’d find it funny how many times I’ve had service providers ask me to bring young people to their 5-hour event on a weekday morning!

Be where young people have ownership (if possible) – I have seen some excellent examples of organisations increasing accessibility for young people – In West Sussex a few years ago the Council wanted to include young people in their discussions around the potential closure of a youth centre in order to build an Academy on the site.  The Council had their meeting at the youth centre, paid for local youth bands to play before and after and had live video links from the meeting room to TV screens in other parts of the building.  When the item came up they offered, in a reassuring manner, for young people to speak if they wanted to.  It didn’t stop the centre from closing but I was impressed with the lengths they’d gone to nonetheless.

Boredom – Many community meetings, with the best will in the world, are just boring.  The format is boring, the agenda is boring and the language used is inaccessible and, thus, boring.  If it has to be an adult meeting then could you play a little energiser with some human bingo or something?  It’s a great leveller for people who are perceiving power differentials.  Could you arrange a 3-way meeting with the Chair beforehand to help everyone feel at ease? At least put the part that is of interest to young people at the top of the agenda so they don’t have to sit through hours before they need to do their bit.

LanguageLanguage mediates everything!  Keeping it in plain English without being patronising is a skill worth practicing.

3)      Congruence

In my experience young people are extremely perceptive.  The honed teenage nose can smell bullshit a mile away.  Be upfront about agendas and what everyone is getting out of it.  Put the positive spin on it of course, but be yourself and be truthful.

you lied

4)      Pizza

Every good youth worker has this as the mainstay of their youth-engagement arsenal.  99% of the young people you meet will appreciate that you bought them pizza.  Shop-bought or takeaway – if you’ve got the time why not buy bases, tomato sauce and some toppings for them to create their own – any which way pizza will win points.  Plus, of course, Maslow would have you believe you’re meeting some fundamental physiological needs, required before the young people could move on to tackling other, more conceptual matters…

love fades pizza

5)      Carry the young people with you

Give credit where credit is due – Is there a way to publicly thank the teens for their time and effort? An article in the local newsletter?  A ‘biggup’ at a community meeting?

I’ve had a lot of experiences where the time young people give is taken for granted.  If you have needed to enlist their help it is because they are experts in what it is like to be young most likely – credit and reward should surely be due – 1 survey complete = 1 lollipop even?  Would it break the budget to offer something?

It will put you in good stead for future work and the young people involved will feel valued and be more likely to engage positively in future.

I hope these have offered food for thought.  Feel free to comment on other strong tips …and good luck!