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Building understanding of the value of youth work

A decade of budget cuts caused significant challenges to grassroots youth work across the UK and at the same time, there was an increasing emphasis on assessing it through predetermined, measurable outcomes.

Research at King’s, led by Dr Tania de St Croix, revealed how this combination of austerity and the increased use of outcome-based monitoring procedures was threatening the long-term future of youth work.

Through engagement and collaboration with practitioners, youth organisations, young people, funders, policy makers and other researchers, the research has contributed to raising awareness in policy and practice of the need for accountability and evaluation practices centred on young people and their needs.

Why we need to centre practitioner and youth perspectives in policy and practice

Dr de St Croix, a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth & Childhood at King’s School of Education, Communication & Society, led two studies on grassroots open youth work. Open youth work – encompassing youth clubs, street-based initiatives and groups for specific communities such as young women, LGBTQ young people, or disabled young people – is based on informal education and participatory engagement with young people. Building on Dr de St Croix’s 20 years of experience as a professional youth worker, the research made a point of engaging and collaborating with youth workers, young people and youth organisations.

The first study documented grassroots youth workers’ perspectives and experiences and found that they were committed to and passionate about their work, but often felt marginalised in decision-making relating to policy and practice. Some elements of their work – particularly bureaucratic monitoring procedures – got in the way of them developing person-centred, trusting relationships with the young people they directly worked with, despite these informal connections being key to successful youth work. This led to the second study, run by Dr Tania de St Croix with Louise Doherty, which focused on how monitoring and evaluation processes affect youth work practice.

Both studies showed that young people who accessed open youth work often faced complex and challenging circumstances. Youth work provided them with safe yet informal spaces where they could have critical conversations around personal challenges and wider social issues with adults who were neither parents nor teachers.

As some of these young people were suspicious of formal measurement and intrusive tracking mechanisms, the strict evaluation and monitoring practices were not effective at gaining an accurate understanding of the importance of youth work for them. Instead, the research revealed that formal assessment techniques could reinforce negative narratives, established by adults, about young people.

In a co-authored paper with Dr Ian McGimpsey (Birmingham University) and Dr John Owens (KCL), Dr de St Croix argued that a ‘neoliberal logic’ was encouraging the evaluation of youth work based on formal, outcome-based procedures, which reduced the services to a financial value instead of capturing their complexities.

"The formal measurement and intrusive tracking mechanisms heavily contrast with a tradition of youth work that is based on a commitment to critical dialogue with young people and the creation of informal education opportunities that start from young people’s agendas."– Dr Tania de St Croix

The second study found that the involvement of young people and practitioners in decisions about evaluation and accountability, along with mixed qualitative evaluation processes (such as interviews, focus groups, storytelling and creative methods), were instrumental to articulate a more equitable, nuanced approach to accountability.

Rethinking the collective approach to evaluation of youth work

The researchers connected the outcomes-based measurement of youth work with a move towards more short-term targeted projects that were easier to measure. This threatened the future of long-term open youth work provision.

By amplifying the voices of young people and youth workers calling for increased funding and more responsive systems of support at local and national levels of government, the studies helped build up the evidence base for a change in policies and practices. The researchers developed critical friendships with decision makers and influential organisations to support a move away from a focus on outcomes.

The Centre for Youth Impact, set up by the UK Cabinet Office in 2014, moved away from recommending standardised outcome-based measurement procedures in youth work towards an approach that is more sensitive to, and better aligned with, the traditional values and practices of youth work. They applied this new attitude to their evaluation of the £40M 2017-20 Youth Investment Fund, one of the biggest investments in open access youth provision.

Insights from the studies fed in to the development of Labour Party policy ahead of the 2019 general election, and were shared in the 2019 All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs report, as evidence of the highly-skilled role played by youth workers in providing young people with trusted relationships, safe spaces and stimulating activities. The APPG report prompted a debate at the House of Commons on the current insufficiency of youth services, following which the government announced £500,000 in bursaries for up to 400 youth work students.

The National Youth Agency acknowledged the importance of the research. Its Research and Learning Manager said it helped organisations think about the implications of their practice and evaluation processes in a way that “places individual young persons at the centre of the process.” Over 25 organisations have consulted with de St Croix when rethinking their approach to evaluation since 2018.

"Our research highlights the need to evaluate youth work in ways that support critical reflection on youth work practice for the benefit of young people. I am proud that we have always undertaken our research in conversation and collaboration with those who know youth work best – young people and youth workers. Through this collaboration, I hope and believe that our research contributes to a greater understanding of the life-changing potential of open grassroots youth work in the lives of young people, and the need for substantial, appropriate and sensitive support for this work."– Dr Tania de St Croix

As the project ‘Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work’ drew to a close in March 2022, Dr Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty have been sharing their findings in a variety of formats and forums. They are currently writing articles on the value and evaluation of grassroots youth work in policy and practice for peer-reviewed academic journals; developing a set of open access training resources on the evaluation of youth work for trainers and educators, aiming to enhance the effectiveness of training in this area; and working on a resource to support researchers, students and others to make use of the open access dataset from the ‘Rethinking Impact’ study.

The researchers have also just published joint briefings for decision-makers and practitioners:

Valuing Youth Work – Seven evidence-based messages for decision-makers on youth work and evaluation

Valuing Youth Work – Research-informed practical resources for youth workers: Reflecting on the value and evaluation of youth work

Finally, they have worked with young people, youth workers and youth organisations to think ahead towards a future collaborative, participatory study investigating the long-term impact of youth work.

In this story

Tania de St Croix

Tania de St Croix

Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth and Childhood

Louise Doherty

Louise Doherty

Research Associate