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Category Archives: Youth Work

I will NOT let an exam result decide my fate!

This post is for those of you who’ve ever wondered about the place of youth work in the modern day! Pondered what its role is in a society where ‘achieving’ at school is the mantra … and where ‘qualifications’ are seen as THE key to unlock career, wealth and happiness! Yet knowing, at the same time, that many young people do not ‘achieve’ in school; and knowing too that youth unemployment is rising, so what price their ‘education’?

Then let me ask you to view this YouTube clip for a powerful reinforcement of that perspective!


I think that Sulibreezy calls it well! There is a huge difference between schooling and ‘education‘ but, in the modern day, the drive is for qualifications not a rounded perspective; league tables and ‘reputation’ win out; and people make choices on the basis of the masses rather than the individual.

I want you then to remember all of the young people you have encountered, like me, over many years, who had great qualities, abilities, strengths and character … and dreams to chase and aspirations to be fulfilled … and yet no ‘education’. I want you to remember all those who went on to do great things … like my recent experience of the young people in Delves Lane, who developed their own youth mutual ~ the first ever in the UK!                                            

Then realise that youth work has long supported, guided and encouraged, often with huge success, those ‘non-achievers’! Why … because the quality of youth work lies in its informal educational approach. In its ability to inform, guide and advise, through the quality of workers’ relationships with young people and the level of interaction that is made possible by this. Through its ability to help young people grow their self-worth and self-esteem, to build their confidence, to develop their skills, abilities and strengths … and to raise their expectations.

So … what is the place of youth work in the modern day? I’d say it is needed now more than ever before!

Our challenge is to be creative in how we drive that work and elevate that agenda, without being restricted by outdated institutionalised thinking and outmoded perceptions of how these things can be delivered! That creativity rests with you and the young people you work with and for! Feel the fear, take the risk and embrace the change!




A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead

A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead.

Leadership of the sector

At the end of his response to my last post, Kevin Ford posed a question about the role of sector leadership. This really set me thinking and led me into an uncomfortable place but, nonetheless, a necessary one. This was partly because I have to own involvement in that greater sector leadership historically but, more importantly, because the more I thought the more his point rang true.

On reflection I’d argue that historically and currently we need to question the leadership of the youth sector – professionally, organisationally and academically [and I count myself in this given my time in Sunderland, Manchester and at APYCO] – who, over a long period, have singularly failed to convince sequential key stakeholders that youth work works. As a case in point, witness the volumes of evidence to the recent Select Committee. Never have I seen the rich yet highly competitive diversity of our sector so broadly portrayed. I know that youth work works. I have lived and breathed it for nearly four decades and my passion for it has never dimmed, a view shared by thousands of others, volunteers and paid staff, across our nation.

So why is it that now we have the Young Foundation trailing their Outcomes Framework for youth services, not youth work exclusively, wherever across the land, explaining little that we shouldn’t already know, but trying, in part, to respond to a deep-felt Government criticism that “… many services are unable or unwilling to measure the improvements they make in outcomes for young people.” That the Government feels “… the lack of a common measurement framework across the sector makes it extremely difficult for authorities to decide which services to fund” and that services should be able to “demonstrate what difference they make to young people.” And finally “… agreement is needed on a common set of standards.”

Bernard Davies could far more eloquently recount the times we have had opportunities to do exactly this [and I can go back myself to the Thompson and Milson-Fairbairn Reports] but, even in recent history, we have had Transforming Youth Work and Resourcing Excellent Youth Services as examples. I draw the line at ‘Positive for Youth’ because it is more a set of initiatives than a real policy agenda or framework.

So what gets in the way of taking those opportunities? I return to my point about leadership. I believe it has been and remains fragmented, divisive, territorial and competitive. Which is a great shame as the richness and diversity of the broad youth offer in this country is immense, with a strong heritage from both statutory and third sectors. Unfortunately this richness and diversity is also its Achilles heel, providing endless opportunity for dissent, disagreement and indecision, more often focused on adult agendas and personalities than on the young people who are purportedly the focus of the work. Maybe it will always be so … but at what price for young people now and for the future?

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.

The Select Committee Report … helpful or not?

The much awaited report of the Education Select Committee on Services for Young People was published today. It is not hard-hitting … but does roast a few old chestnuts! It also tackles the Government on their perspective about young people in some ways. Key thoughts for me were:

  • They did not believe there were any truly universal youth services and preferred the term ‘open access’ and urged the Government to do the same! Hooray for common sense! I’ve banged on about this for years. It’s simple – without a universal budget there can be no universal services! Besides which the youth service in England has targeted or ‘rationed’ services for decades – by budget mainly, but also by disadvantage, by geography, by gender and so on and so on!
  • They urged the Government to remind local authorities of their statutory duty to secure young people’s access to sufficient educational and leisure time activities! Unfortunately, too little too late would be my thought!
  • They did offer the view that open-access services might be just as effective in meeting certain outcomes for young people as targeted services and that commissioners should take this into account and act so! Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with their view, the state of youth commissioning in this country is generally so lamentable [and target focused] that I doubt this will have any impact!
  • Considering measuring impact and value, the Committee remained unconvinced about the impact and effectiveness of youth services, despite a deluge of witness evidence and some very erudite written  commentary! They suggested that the Government include a meta-analysis of such studies as part of its forthcoming youth strategy. The point would be what exactly? If a whole bunch of worthy and notable people, including many academics, couldn’t convince them in evidence what would raking around in the musty halls of earlier academic study achieve? I fully understand the desire and need to prove impact and value but on what basis? Youth services are not uniform nor homogeneous! They are politically led, vicariously managed and funded, and have only in recent years caught up with the performance management agenda! This is not comparing apples with apples but something wholly different. The wholesale dismantling of services in recent months surely demonstrates that?
  • What was most interesting though was the Committee’s belief that good youth services can have a transformational effect on young people’s lives – so is this felt rather than known? Maybe that’s why  they became frustrated by failing to uncover a robust outcome measurement framework? What happened to those much vaunted IT systems then?  Were they just the product of super slick selling as distinct to real added value? And the Committee wanted to be able to have something that would allow services  to be compared! We are back to apples and pears again … and a complete lack of understanding about the political nature of this whole service delivery! Not to mention a New Labour predilection for assessing the far end of everything … interesting in a Coalition controlled Committee!
  • This was all wrapped up in the need for publicly funded services, in a tight spending settlement,  to prove what difference they make to young people. The tight spending settlement to me is less material. At any time the delivery of a public service should prove the difference they make to those who access its services. Unfortunately, convincing people of this is as much a ‘selling’ exercise as it is an evidential one, inspite of the huge disparities across England, and these are lessons hard come by in the youth service nationally. My opinion would be that the lack of a mandated set of standards from Government has set the seal on this whole sorry state of affairs! Will the NCVYS or New Philanthropy Capital’s models give an answer … this remains to be seen!
  • On funding I thought the Committee were consistent with their difficulties in understanding value/impact/difference made … and so became confused between what statutory and voluntary agencies can do in this arena … and lack lustre in their direction to Government on the subject. I do, however, thank the Committee for recognising what local authorities are doing in the current climate in Paragraph 61 of the report.
  • I smiled when I read that the Government’s lack of urgency in articulating  a youth policy or strategic vision was deemed regrettable. Given the damage already done to services nationally, you could be forgiven for re-working a phrase along the ‘stable … bolted … closing … horse … door’ model! As if statutory draft guidance is really going to have any impact in a tight financial situation? And when was the last time a Government intervened on securing services for young people … beyond schooling?However, I would personally support direction on clear, relevant and proper national standards!
  • Seeing local authorities as primarily strategic commissioners may seem sensible but some of the alternates offered in Paragraph 83 are unproven [which is not in itself a bad thing] … and others have a history littered with failure! I have direct experience of the Surrey-type model and it adds up to a store of amusing but not necessarily helpful anecdotes.
  • I liked the notions proposed in terms of  guidance to commissioners and the Committee’s comments on payment for services. It seems to recognise many of the inherent difficulties agencies face, particularly smaller voluntary sector bodies, in managing commissioned funding. I was also heartened to see their recommendation on a feasibility study on social impact bonds as another addition to the spending agenda for youth services.
  • The Committee’s support for scaling back the bureaucratic nature of CRBs was also helpful. I was absolutely fascinated, after years of struggle to move to a degree-only profession, that they challenged why a degree should be the only route into qualified youth work status! However the overlap between this, the lack of title protection, the license to practice,  and a range of other matters to do with the serious under-investment in the profession of youth work leaves something to be desired! To say that investment in continuing professional development would be particularly worthwhile in enabling practitioners to share good practice and new ways of working between services was a major understatement! The Committee clearly was not convinced about a number of things and were left with a range of questions about qualifications, training and continuing professional development. Whether an Institute for Youth Work would resolve these failings remains to be seen?
  • Finally, the Committee reserved some of its more punishing commentary for the Government’s NCS scheme and  recommended that the Government protect those additional funds earmarked for NCS and divert them into year-round youth services! Now that was music to my ears!
It is clear that key messages remain unanswered on the basis of this report and, given the wealth of evidence presented, it is still clear that for many in youth services and associated realms like universities, the ability to sell ‘youth work’ remains elusive! I wonder when anyone will begin to seriously address that fundamental need?
To read the full report you should log on to the Committee’s website:

Shrink to sustain and grow … not just to survive!

Over recent weeks I have helped a third sector organisation manage the consequences of a significant reduction in their funding support from their local authority. This will be a common experience across England for many in the voluntary and community sector at this time, and, for many, it will not be the first time they have met this situation.

What has been fundamental to this process, and why I wanted to write briefly on it, was a mindset and an approach that, from the start, sought out a sustainable platform providing a springboard for growth, thus anticipating better times economically, and not just surviving a budget hit!

The approach has been also been characterised by a some key elements, principally developing a clear focus on:

  • PURPOSE – ensuring that the purpose of the organisation remains clear, consistent, practical and visible;
  • UNIQUENESS – capturing and promoting a strong USP that plainly differentiated this organisation from other competitors in the market place;
  • ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES – taking the opportunity presented to both rationalise and strengthen former  posts and design new roles that give the ability and future capacity to respond to new opportunities, whilst still being able to deliver current contracts and commissions;
  • MAINTAINING STAFF SUPPORT AND MOTIVATION – by being open, honest and inclusive; by communicating clearly and effectively; by responding to queries and concerns; and by leading by example [this particular CEO has agreed a significant reduction in her salary]; and finally,
  • SHIFTING THE MINDSET – understanding that the world is changing rapidly and being ready to think more laterally about approaches that can help to build for the future or to seize new opportunities as they arise. In this particular case, that will involve developing a stronger traded services perspective and related activity and a different approach to marketing and promotion of the organisation. Not unusual in themselves but, at a time of reduction, creating a new post of Business Development Manager to drive that agenda!

Clearly much more has gone on with such a serious change process but it seemed important to highlight a positive example of how this might be achieved beyond the fairly typical ‘slash and burn’ reaction to major budget reductions that I have met in my own professional career and hear of all too often in this current climate.

Understanding youth work’s value proposition

I had a great comment on Friday from a good colleague, Ann Alder of RSVP Design Limited, on the post I made Thursday on Assessing Needs and Evidencing Impact. She wrote:

“I agree John – especially about the need to really engage young people and explore what they want/need. It is interesting to think how this links to your work with Learning Power – maybe if we better supported our youngsters in developing a language to explore what they need to learn and develop, they’d be more articulate and convincing in being able to influence thinking about the value of investing in them!”

She made the link, as I had done, that if young people better understood what they need to learn and develop, they would then be in a much better place to articulate a case for the value of stronger investment in young people. As many like me will know, some of the best examples of youth work practice I have engaged in or observed, particularly engagement activity,  have gone some way towards this. So why, as a sector, are we not learning this lesson?

I realise that it is a sweeping generalisation and yet we still, as a sector, find ourselves having to explain, once again, to a Government of the day what the real value is of what we do? If you’ve not read any of the submissions to the Select Committee, fill your boots at House of Commons – Education Committee – Uncorrected Evidence – http://bit.ly/fn2f3Z – for an eclectic range of thoughts, comments and opinions. They cover a spectrum from those on the money to those that are, in my view, plainly self-serving and self-promoting.

The Committee is also posing some decent but not particularly searching questions. It is also persisting in the use of the concept of universal services, which demonstrates what? My view is simple: if anything, many services since the 70’s have made a form of loose universal offer but have not offered a universal service. Truth is youth services have never had the budgets to provide a universal service.

So, in reality, as an example, most services I worked in from 1978 – 2003 targeted their work as a general rule of thumb, though not necessarily in a New Labour notion of targeting! They did this in a variety of ways: geography [where clubs happened to be situated]; demographics; the ‘-isms’; particular disadvantaged groups; the local authority’s priorities; but most often because there was too little cash to do a full and effective job across the whole of a designated youth population. So, a form of ‘rationing’ [some might say targeting] took place – nowhere near the universal service that many seem to still claim, which bemuses me and perhaps also confuses the notion of the value proposition of youth work!

So, think about your value proposition –  how well are their needs, wants and interests known; are they truly at the heart of what youth work is about; and, after our interventions, what is the real difference made? In addition, how are young people’s views really being articulated, understood and acted upon? These seem to me the keys to an effective value proposition for youth work! What do you think?

Assessing needs … and making a difference!

I am currently helping a large voluntary sector organisation refocus strategically and operationally, whilst developing a sustainable platform for the future, following a 21.5% reduction to its core budget from its local authority. The work involved is taking in a range of arenas: vision and purpose; strategic objectives … now and for the future; its value proposition; its added value; key competitors and what staff believe should be the major goals for the organisation for the period 2011-2105. The change process is based on a very inclusive approach and all staff have had an opportunity to share their views and opinions. I have thus far experienced both polar opposite and virtually identical positions, which is probably what you might expect?

However, the process has raised for me, most particularly, interesting perspectives on effective needs analysis and real evidence of impact – do they really understand the needs of young people … and … does their youth work make a real difference in the lives of young people? I believe they do and that it does … but not robustly enough!

This has called into question how they demonstrate both, especially at a time when their value proposition needs to be very focused and somehow differentiated [and their focus on needs-led is a key element of this]; and, also at  a time when commissioners and funders will increasingly be interested in strong evidence of impact.

Today I was comparing this thinking with reading of submissions to the Select Committee on Services to Young People. They make for interesting reading, if at times, in some cases, they are somewhat self-promoting! They can be seen at http://bit.ly/e8oL3D. Whilst there is ever thus a dogged debate about universal versus targeted work [more on that another time], it is clear that most writers note the need to engage actively with young people around needs and beyond! It is also clear that there is a mixed opinion about the value of targets, indicators and the like – with some services abandoning the four typical remnants of Resourcing Excellent Youth Work and others continuing with them in the absence of something better. What I don’t see clearly is evidence of ‘something better’!

My view is that, in the highly competitive market place organisations now inhabit, clear evidence about impact is an absolute must! What form it takes and how it is presented is of some consequence but the underlying message is that it must demonstrate tangible value to and impact upon the lives, choices, opportunities and involvement of young people … why else would a commissioner or funder offer money?

On the other hand, how are young people being actively engaged in the creation of local and national policy at this time? It appears to me sporadic and patchy and I personally feel that young people still seem to be largely ignored! Bill Badham has written a great blog that highlights the risks associated with not engaging young people at a time of change – http://www.practicalparticipation.co.uk/blog/ – and I recommend it to all readers.

So, the path is clear – effectively engage, despite the financial woes and other worries that beset us, and make sure you demonstrate real impact … with tangible evidence to back up your views!

John Thurlbeck

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