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Outcomes for young people … can we evidence this or not?

I felt compelled to write some observations on a seminar I attended today on the Catalyst Framework of Outcomes for Young People,  hosted by the North East Regional Youth Work Unit in Gateshead. Bethia McNeil from the Young Foundation, on behalf of the Catalyst Consortium, led the event and gave a helpful insight into the process involved in producing the Framework … and then went on to describe it and how it might be utilised.

The starting point of their process was a fascinating one, given that it sought to capture and respond to the viewpoints of three distinct parties – youth sector providers, social investors and commissioners. Likely bedfellows or not, this combination of perspectives gave a clear steer to the Young Foundation in carrying out their brief and  the Framework comes with certain caveats as a result. The report that outlines the Framework, published in July 2012, and more is on their website at http://www.youngfoundation.org/publications/reports/framework-outcomes-young-people and is well worth reviewing.

Whilst I found that the Framework did not necessarily give me any new thinking, it did offer an ordered focus for reflection and further exploration, mainly at an organisational level, on how young people are achieving and learning; how this might be measured; and, how that evidence might be used to support the work of the organisation, directly with and for young people; through the organisation’s own internal growth and development; or in articulating greater value to funders and commissioners.

What I found astonishing, maybe naïvely, ten years on from Transforming Youth Work, is that we are still having a debate about evidence; that there is still a lack of coherent thinking about outputs, outcomes and, most particularly, impact; that we still seem to lack confidence in translating ‘youth work works’ and ‘adds value’ into language others use in their everyday [here I mean specifically commissioners and funders]; that this value is measurable in a number of ways; and yet we know that there are many personal, community and societal benefits for engaging with young people through a youth work process!

Nine years on from Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, which opened up a significant debate about what youth work does and how this might be captured, linked to a suggested national standards framework offered by The National Youth Agency, we seem no further forward … or is that too bleak a view? Reading the submissions to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into Youth Services in 2011 offers a full range of strong evidence in support of the value of youth work, in the main … and yet the Committee remained unconvinced. Bethia inadvertently or not touched on two of the reasons why in her use of a quote from the Select Committee report, “… many services are unable or unwilling to measure the improvements they make in outcomes for young people. The lack of a common measurement framework across the sector makes it extremely difficult for authorities to decide which services to fund.” This despite the Committee also articulating a view that “… good youth services can have a transformational effect on young people’s lives.”

Given the overall thrust of the Select Committee report, it is understandable then that the Young Foundation’s Framework model has emerged. It feels to me like it is about five or six years behind its time, maybe more, as commissioned and procured services for work with and for young people have been the order of the day for at least that time, to varying degrees and with varying levels of success across the country … but the pace for that approach is growing.  That trend is also unlikely to reverse in an ‘austerity’ driven environment, exacerbated by the current national policy vacuum with respect to young people’s personal and social development.

Notwithstanding this, the Framework could be used, at the very least, to drive some careful reflection, individually and organisationally, about why you do what you do; how you do it; how you measure and record it; and, most importantly, to paraphrase Mark Friedman, to discuss what difference it really makes to the young people for and with whom you work? I suggest you do this individually at first to cement your own clarity on the  matter and then align with like-minded people/organisations to develop some local, regional or national critical mass.

Why build from the ground up? The message is simple … build your own clarity and certainty because no-one at a national governmental level will offer a lead on this for the foreseeable future. So don’t wait to be told by someone else, who may or may not know the context in which you work. Work it out for yourself and your organisation and then drive the agenda in whatever way you feel is worthwhile. Most importantly, articulating more effectively that ‘youth work works’ should enable better outcomes for young people, which is, I hope, why we all do what we do?

If you’d like some help in developing your thinking, I’d be happy to discuss it … just ask. As always, feedback on this post is valued.

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2 responses to “Outcomes for young people … can we evidence this or not?

  1. Kevin Ford September 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

    John – enjoyed reading this and agree wholeheartedly with your comments.

    I think the Outcomes Framework is a useful summary document pulling together thinking and attempting to reconcile the different drivers which led to it. I am not sure that it will take youth work forward into t shiny new future as it will still be very difficult to use it to make a simple and understandable case in the terms of many commissioners and policy makers.

    Youth work needs to be able to provide evidence but I also think its advocates need to push the debate on evidence harder. Young people’s development is a complex multi factored process. It is not a neat set of stages which are ticked off one by one (with each stage releasing a payment from government?).

    We must become more agile at presenting the argument that youth work is about creating an environment in which development can take place. We need to be able to show that development does take place but resist the temptation to reduce it all to those things which can be measured easily.

    Every child matters missed perhaps the most critical determinant of well being in its five main outcomes. Relationships. Time and again research is showing that it is the nature of the relationships between individuals and across groups which has the greatest single bearing on results. It is not therefore technical skill, clever interventions, etc etc but the quality of the relationship between adult and young person that lies at the centre of youth work. I think youth work’s advocates struggle to to make this more convincing than motherhood and apple pie.

    All power to taking this forward from the ground upwards. I am not sure youth work has always been best served by those who purport to lead it.

    • jht29 September 21, 2012 at 10:40 am

      Kevin – thank you for your feedback and support … and for the further extension of the analysis that I liked immensely! I agree that the Outcomes Framework seeks to capture the broad spectrum and also agree that it is unlikely to lead youth work into a shiny new future. Indeed Bethia McNeil clearly identified that the Framework was about work with young people, not youth work exclusively. The Framework might however, given sufficient traction, just tip the scale on the debate on evidence that has been definitely been insufficiently robust and around for far too long! For me, that lack of rigour and commonality of value underpinned the complete failure of a significant number of contributors in convincing the Select Committee that youth work works. It is also probably why many commissioners talk ‘outcomes’ but continue to deliver specifications that are heavily output-focused! Quantity seems to beat quality on most occasions … but maybe that’s because it is just easier to count ‘stuff’ than articulate a robust case for impact!

      I loved too the notion of improved agility, coupled with courage of conviction, which linked, I believe, to my call for like-minded individuals building critical mass. Most of all, I really welcomed your thoughts on relationships. The value of relationships is, as you rightly point out, fundamental to not only a great youth work intervention but also to life itself! I’d personally venture that this is much more convincing than motherhood and apple pie! So why we, as a sector, have all too often failed to take that opportunity has always puzzled me?

      Then again, you know me very well. I’ve always, throughout a career in youth work spanning nearly forty years, tended to the ‘Ask forgiveness’ rather than ‘Ask permission’ model … and have generally not accepted that political leadership at a governmental level will provide a beacon of light. Thinking of leadership on this agenda however clearly strikes at the core of your final remark, which is one I would concur with and perhaps, in part, have to own.

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