Making youth work work: reflecting on policy and practice


4th May 2022

While studying for my degree in youth and community work, I worked part-time as a Teaching Assistant, spending my time going between university, schools and youth clubs. Years later, one of the attractions of working at The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) was the space it occupied – education and youth – understanding that young people access a multitude of services and support, with education forming just one part of a young person’s story.

Starting at CfEY also coincided with a move to Brighton. I started volunteering at a youth club and began to get familiar with local youth services. It was during this time that I heard about the Trust for Developing Communities (TDC) and the work they do across the city. One of TDC’s award-winning projects is Brighton Streets – a partnership project, delivered by TDC and two other local youth work organisations, providing detached youth work across Brighton and Hove. In late 2020, CfEY began an evaluation of the project, with a report published in July 2021.

This year, we were delighted that our bid to evaluate another exciting TDC project was successful. This evaluation focuses on the impact of a new hospital youth work service being set up to run from an A&E department in Brighton.

We’ve written a review of existing evidence on hospital youth work to inform the project’s design and delivery, and worked with TDC to create a tool that the hospital youth work team will use to collect data on the needs of the young people who use the service. Later on this year we’ll speak to some of the young people who have been supported by TDC’s hospital youth worker, exploring how the project supports young people to stay safe after leaving A&E.

Working with TDC has given us unique insight into youth work in Brighton – the strengths and areas for development. This understanding, alongside other CfEY projects, wider reading and conversations with those working in youth work (both practice and policy), has informed our five emerging ideas for youth work policy:

  1. Improve the evidence base, with programme evaluations that authentically centre youth voice. While the government’s youth work review places emphasis on improving the evidence of ‘what works’ in youth work through RCTs and quasi-experimental studies, we need to better understand how youth work works from the perspectives of young people and practitioners. This means including youth voice at all stages of youth work evaluation, from research tool design to disseminating findings.
  2. Increase the duration of youth work projects. Voluntary, trusting relationships are key to effective youth work, so funding projects to ensure consistency of staff and availability of support is essential. In our soon-to-be-published evidence review of literature on hospital youth work, we recommend that youth workers are placed in hospitals for long-term projects, allowing them to build stronger relationships with young people and hospital staff over time.
  3. Increase flexibility in age ranges that can access different support. Some young people may be able to access more adult-centred spaces for support and socialising at 18, others may not. Flexibility and availability is important; for example, young leaders’ programmes can provide young people with experience being part of a team in a work environment, while allowing them to continue building healthy working relationships with youth workers.
  4. Take a place and asset-based approach to youth work, drawing on the challenges and opportunities in different areas. Young people are part of communities, they know their local areas and often want to build on what’s great about them. We found that detached youth work can support young people to feel more part of their community, which can then lead to a higher likelihood of getting involved in projects to improve the lives of other people in the area.
  5. Fund open-access youth work. Open access youth work creates opportunities and spaces for contact between different young people. Making youth workers easily accessible to young people, through open access sessions and detached youth work, can also allow marginalised young people to get support for issues they might not recognise, or to be signposted to support they may not otherwise access.

In all the noise of the schools’ white paper and SEND review, policy on youth work rarely gets a look-in. This is in spite of the efforts of fantastic organisations, practitioners and academics around the country. These five ideas are bound to evolve more as we talk to others and complete our work with TDC. If any of these ideas interest, confuse or irritate you, please get in touch; I’d love to continue this conversation.