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.


Youth Worker UK

For a while now I’d been wondering whether the Youth Work world had been lacking something.  I’d been struck with just how disparate we all were when it came to searching for youth work organisations and how difficult it can be to navigate around organisations if you don’t know who or what you’re specifically looking for.  Where could I go for resources? Who would I tap into for the latest news or campaigns?

The result of my pondering was Youth Worker UK:

Youth Worker UK front page

The trouble now is whether this was:

a) A nice idea but executed badly

b) A rubbish idea in the first place, or

c) Fantastic, well done mate!

I have no idea at all.  So it’s out there now and if anyone would like to try to use it and feed back I’d be interested to hear your views.

Currently it’s hosted by so it’s nice and free! But if this takes off it might be nice to build a CMS that could do some really clever things and not just list sites but stream their latest news/updates etc straight to one page;  People could contribute to a resource library or put up their own organisations to amass a solid database of organisations that are out there.

I’d also be really keen to hear from anyone who knows of things like this that might already exist (and be doing it better!).

Many thanks,

youthworkable logo clear


The shaky foundations of online youth work

Youth work in its various forms is always mediated by the environment in which it takes place – different styles of work are required depending on where it is happening.  The traditional building-based settings of youth clubs have endured since the inception of the profession and street-based detached, mobile and outreach work forms the staple for many brilliant projects up and down the land.  However, in recent years young people in their millions are choosing to socialise somewhere new – online.  With social networking arguably being the fastest growing online activity among young people (O’Neill et al., 2011) youth work has needed to adapt with the times and be present in this new environment – but has it?

facebook likeyYouth Work and Social Networking’ published by the National Youth Agency in 2008, and produced by Tim Davies and Pete Cranston is the only published research available on the uptake of social networking in youth work. It is also, sadly, outdated.  At the time it raised serious issues facing the profession and showed great foresight for the potential of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in our work.  It showed that in 2008 only 29% of youth workers were using any form of social media.  My more recent research into the youth workforce’s use of Facebook alone showed that only 29.3% are now not using it (Muirhead, unpublished.).

The recent research (ibid.) conducted with over 100 youth professionals in the UK, as part of a professional enquiry through the University of Brighton, presented a picture of youth workers as keen to recognise and embrace the benefits of online social networking (94% agreed there are benefits to using Facebook, specifically).  The results also showed that much of the workforce is conducting its online youth work on some rather shaky foundations. Popular themes such as a ‘lack of policy/written guidance’ on its use ‘lack of managerial willing/interest’, ‘lack of training’ and ‘lack of managerial support’ clearly suggest that the issue of supporting youth workers to feel safe and confident whilst using Facebook professionally is an urgent matter for the industry.

The research has also uncovered that many youth work practitioners are using Facebook in their work without the knowledge of their managers.  Some respondents even seem to be directly contravening orders from their management regarding the use of Facebook; for example, one research participant explained that their professional Facebook use ‘was under the radar as we were told it would be shut down if discovered’.  Others are evidently receiving unclear messages, one participant stating that their organisation’s policy is a ‘bit of a grey area at the moment so I use my personal Facebook account to connect through’.  Another acknowledges the risks but admits to doing it all the same:

…I do feel vulnerable – the only policy available will probably stop me from using it […], as opposed to allow me to do this whilst protecting me. (However, I, and a lot of other workers still do it! – because it’s SO effective).

The delay in properly discussing and developing policy has left these youth workers in legally unsound positions relating to their employment; should something go wrong, there is a significantly greater risk of being unsupported.  It is my suggestion that service managers take some time to get themselves down off the fence, where they may have been waiting for social networking to blow over, and start better supporting their staff before something goes horribly wrong.

Safeguarding Staff, Safeguarding Young People, or Neither

So why has progress been slow in the world of online youth work to better support the workforce?  It would seem that the main concern is around safeguarding. The recent research with over 100 youth professionals (Muirhead, unpublished) demonstrates that this and related issues are still prevalent and a real worry for practitioners, specifically when using Facebook.

Youth workers' issues with Facebook

These results clearly show that issues remain for today’s youth work practitioners and managers and that the insecurities that have arisen around safeguarding issues in online youth work (as raised by Davies and Cranston, 2008) are persistent.

This begs another question though; are youth professionals worried about staff abusing the boundaries themselves (plenty of opportunities lie within other forms of youth work for this to happen, if it is to happen) or are they more concerned with trusting staff to effectively manage and deal with safeguarding and boundary issues that arise with young people whilst using Facebook?;  Davies and Cranston’s 2008 survey found that 90% of youth workers then believed that Youth Work has a “crucial role in supporting young people to navigate the risks of online social networking” (p.16) – we are part of the solution, not the problem.  Either way, it would appear that for many organisations a head-in-the-sand approach is all that can be done for now.


Without clearly articulated and tested policies for social networking with young people many youth workers will be left in the dark, trying to do what’s best for young people and their work, yet presumably left to fall through the cracks in policy should something go awry.

These feel like shaky foundations indeed for online youth work…

If you would like to look at the rest of my research on this subject you can find it available here – the good stuff starts on page 30…  The research results also helped inform this ‘Simple Guide to Digital & Social Media’ by the award winning  Allsorts Youth Project.

Youthworkable on Youthworkable

my name is copy

I was recently asked by a couple of people how I came to use the handle ‘Youthworkable’ so I thought I might share the answer with others too…

It was a distant time, in a place far from whence I currently roam.  I was in a meeting with lots of other youth workers and some senior managers discussing the provision in a certain patch of our town.  It’s fair to say that the behaviour of this one group of young people had been challenging and what was being proposed was that we stopped working with them altogether because we’d get more work done with more people elsewhere.

So, I can get behind the utilitarian logic of sharing our limited youth work resources amongst a greater number of other young people.  Also, it wasn’t my strategic decision to make; this senior manager was telling us this is what we should do and as a relative newbie, as I was then, I’d have gone along with it.

…But!! They went so far as to say that this group of young people were “un-youthworkable”.

It wasn’t myself that spoke first but the whole room started getting rather upset at the term as we all came together to defend the young people in question.  We turned over the senior manager’s decision and continued to give support to the group.

It was at that time that I knew I was in the right profession, and the term always stuck in my mind.  And like me – it’s a little obscure when removed from context.


The 4 types of challenging behaviour (and how to deal with them)

Dealing with challenging behaviour is something that features regularly in Youth Work (certainly my work!).  It’s been an issue that comes up often with workers and volunteers on their staff development wish lists, and each time it does I go straight to my main man, Rudolf Dreikurs.


cheery looking chap

Dreikurs wrote mostly about classroom behaviour management but I’ve found it translates easily enough.  However, each time I’ve gone to find a straight forward example for Youth Work settings I can only find poor quality scans of photocopies or tables with five or six columns or versions that are obviously about kids in class so I’ve adapted it (below). 4 types of challenging behaviour copy This (below again) is also something that people seem to have found useful as a practical guide of different approaches to verbal challenges, especially in response to offensive language. Responses to offensive language and behaviourAnother model that I’ve found useful in the past has been John Heron’s Six Category Intervention Analysis (1975) which helps to look at different intervention styles.  Without suggesting that one is better than another it can just be helpful to try something different if what you’re currently doing isn’t working.

Six Category Intervention Analysis


I’d be interested to hear if other people use different frameworks and what they think work well.  And any feedback on the above adaptation is very welcome too!    

The 4 Cornerstones of (Corrupt) Youth Work

Four Cornerstones of corrupt youth work header

So you may be aware of the other ‘Four Cornerstones of Youth Work’, namely:

  • Participation and empowerment
  • Voluntary engagement
  • Personal and social education
  • Equality of opportunity

…although I’m not totally sure who decided they were the cornerstones in the first place [citation welcome!]. What I’m talking about here are the cornerstones that are present in the murkier parts of youth work, propping up the palace of poor practice.

I’m going to be quite candid and describe when I’ve seen these in my practice but also ask the question more broadly about whether these things are an inevitable part of our profession or things that we should be trying to work against. And how bad are they really?


So, this is like the antithesis of ‘participation and empowerment’ – you have your plans for your project and you aim to subliminally bury them deep inside young people’s brains so that they regurgitate all the answers you were after in the first place.

In a time where project funding is more easy to come by than core funding it’s no massive surprise that we ‘guide’ young people to aligning their ideas with that of a funder. I myself have been guilty of this, helping teen groups to the low hanging fruit and making it all seem like their idea.  Possibly not the most evil of all activities but this one needs to be kept in check; continue down a path like this and your group, who started out putting on holiday activities for other young people, are all of a sudden involved in a film-making project about peer-led refugee counselling.

Now we all know about this, surely! I’ve extolled the virtues of pizza-peddling before, but how ethical is it?  If those young people aren’t turning up because you’ve made the content engaging in the first place then are you simply indulging tokenism?

This is me playing the devil’s advocate – on one occasion I actually told a pair of young people who were being interviewed for ‘Youth Opportunity Funding’ that every time they mentioned the words ‘sustainable’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘value for money’ I would give them a Maoam.  So extremely crude! I thought it was inspired at the time. They learnt the meanings of the terms and it made the whole thing quite good fun for those on the inside track.  But still – definite bribery. FYI, they didn’t get the money anyway.

Maoam - A little unsavoury at the best of times...

Maoam – A little unsavoury at the best of times…



In a profession that is supposed to be young person-centred, how much of it actually is? I’ve heard people say they have gotten into youth work “to save themselves” or met workers who really struggle if they aren’t well liked by everyone they work with – that’s ego.  I’ve even met a youth worker who disallows anyone to eat meat at the youth club because he, himself is a vegetarian; ego. As well as compromising opportunities to really put young people in the middle of decisions being made, it can generally reflect badly on our profession.

Scaled up, ego gets in the way of some excellent work happening.  A few people have been credited with saying it, including Ronald Reagan: “Imagine what we could achieve if we stopped worrying about who gets the credit”.  It’s so very true.

big deal 2

Rose-tinted spectacles

Linked to ego this cornerstone is about what we go around telling everyone.  It’s how fantastic everything is going, as long as it’s a funder, politician or even internal senior management are asking. Fudgery and falsehood stand in the way of progressive work – if something isn’t going well you really need to discuss it, collaborate on solutions or just pack it in and channel your energies more positively elsewhere.  So many times I have seen projects flogged like the proverbial dead horse; workers get bored and young people get bored.  Take it as an opportunity to shake things up!  Or just carry on wearing those rose-tinted spectacles.


So, which of the more nefarious aspects of Youth Work have been omitted here?  I’d like to hear your opinions on the other worst bits of practice in our profession.  Examples of your own wicked practice are left here at your own risk though!

50 Faces of Youth Work

NYA 50 yearsRecently I was asked if I would like to participate in the National Youth Agency’s ’50 Faces of Youth Work’, to celebrate 50 years since the inception of the NYA.  It was really nice to be asked and even nicer that Fiona Blacke (CEO of the NYA) picked up on things I said as “particularly perceptive” in her blog.  So rather than lose it all when the event is over, I thought I’d post it up here…

In response to the question “What does Youth Work mean to you?” I wrote:

“For me, at its core, youth work is about the relationships. It’s the focus on this that sets us apart from many other educators and it’s what can enable the most profound of outcomes for the people we work with. Relationships open doors to untapped resources within people and our ability to craft personalised curriculums means we can help channel and manifest these things into real life improvements. There’s a profundity in that that I don’t recognise in so many other professions.

Youth work is something I’ve grown to be very proud of – it’s kind of like the underdog of education. Misunderstood and misrepresented, we know for ourselves how far beyond table tennis and a ‘bit of a chat’ down the village hall it goes, even if the outside world doesn’t. There’s something in supporting underdogs that’s always appealed; redressing balances and fighting on behalf of those less able to fight their own battles has always sat well with me ethically.

It’s an exciting time to be a youth worker too. It is a changing landscape where innovation and evolution are necessary to keep projects alive. Seeing the brand new ‘Institute for Youth Work’ come into being and feeling like I am part of that story as a member is an inspiring thing. It should be around this banner that we are able to bang our drum and ensure that the right people are listening. The IYW is a call-to-arms that we should all heed.”

Adam Muirhead Youth Work Co-ordinator

Whilst it’s up, you can find the rest of the ’50 Faces of Youth Work’ here.