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Reflections on Rethinking Impact: Acknowledging the magic of youth work by rethinking its evaluative frameworks

By Sorele Cohen

Placement student on Rethinking Impact, School of Education, Communication and Society, King’s College London

20 January 2022

Rethinking Impact, a three-year research project launched by Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty in 2018, has been instrumental in gathering a grassroots perspective on the impacts of using evaluation frameworks in youthwork settings. Their research considers current approaches to evaluating youth work and their practical challenges, offering strategies to navigate these as well as reflecting on alternative forms evaluation could take to capture the essence of youth work.

As a work placement student (completing the BA Social Sciences) on this project, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues to plan the Rethinking Impact conference, which took place in November 2021 to present the findings collected after three years of research. As part of the conference, we also launched the video we collaboratively produced with young people from different youth clubs talking about their experiences of youth work and its impact beyond what is superficially represented within evaluations.


Typical evaluation practices struggle to capture the complexity of youth work

For many people, filling out standardised, ‘tick boxing’, outcome-focused evaluation forms is an arbitrary chore that must be completed to please the powers that be. But the nature of these evaluation practices is antithetical to the values of youth work.

Successful youth work relies on a “magic” conjunction of forces. There have to be multi-layered interactions between the youth worker and the young person, and these depend on the character and adaptability of the former, and their relationship with the youth. Moreover, the space that youth clubs provide is crucial in facilitating a positive dynamic that allows conversations, activities, relaxing and just being.

The Rethinking Impact research found that this “magic” can only be captured when evaluation frameworks are meaningfully engaged with practice and reflective of young people’s realities.

The study found that current approaches often fail to do this because they are shaped by resource providers and funders requirements, and limited by practical aspects such as staff availability and confidence. Indeed, all the youth work evaluations included in the research made some use of easy to measure, quantitative, outcome-based indicators such as recording attendance and participation. They also used questionnaires, whose success varied considerably according to young people’s willingness.

Nonetheless, the youth clubs also wanted to represent the true impact of youth work, and so they engaged with qualitative evaluation methods, too.

Most commonly, these took the form of recorded conversations, stories and case studies put together by the youth worker, sometimes with input from the young people themselves. The degree to which creative and participatory approaches were used differed between youth clubs and affected how evaluation was viewed. In organisations where youth-centred approaches were cultivated, the youth workers engaging in it judged the evaluation to be more meaningful than in organisations which retained bureaucratic methods, where evaluation therefore felt more imposing.

The uniting factor between all youth clubs, however, was a recognition that evaluation presents challenges. 


The power of improvised conversations in evaluations

Youth workers at the conference repeatedly expressed the idea that impact can’t be easily assessed because it occurs naturally and spontaneously in how the youth come to think and react and live. In light of this, improvised, natural conversations between youth and youth workers become extremely meaningful – so much so that they are frequently used to form the core basis of evaluations, because they can serve as practical examples of the impact youth work has had.

Conference participants did not miss pointing out, however, how this puts an onus on the youth worker to be constantly thinking about how their conversations could be used for evaluations. One of the workshops aimed to counter this, exploring ways to ensure practice and evaluation methods are anti-oppressive. The carefully considered logistical choices of workshops by Tania and Louise culminated in the conference creating many, desperately needed, conversations around new forms of representative evaluation.

These reflexive practices encourage youth workers to be more present. As a youth worker, I always strive to give myself more fully to my youth, to be present for them in whatever way they need – as a listening ear to hear their perspective, a shoulder to absorb their tears, a rational voice to give guidance, a heart just to understand. Hearing that being more present could also help with evaluations gave me even more of an incentive to start considering mindful practices, which could assist me in being totally, mentally and emotionally, present during sessions.

But we have to be careful not to fall into the opposite pitfall: being constantly on alert to pick out parts of conversations to use them for evaluation can feel exploitative and be exhausting for the youth worker. For me, this reaffirmed the importance of the conclusion that a “democratic approach to accountability… create(s) the conditions in which high quality practice can be nurtured and developed” (de St Croix and Doherty, 2019).

This represents the idea that while appropriate evaluation is necessary, this has to be done in a way that allows youth workers to experience the “magic” moments youth settings have the power to create. I know the rush of this experience is one of the main reasons why I originally started working as a youth worker… God knows it wasn’t for the pay!


The magic of youth work

Being a youth worker includes many different responsibilities: I can be teaching the youth about their communal responsibilities through engaging activities one day, and simply facilitating a space for them to socialise over supper with their peers another day. In each situation though, I have the opportunity to work with young people, providing tools to help them realise the power of their own voices, giving them the confidence to use these and encouraging them to form social connections with peers who will influence them positively.

I personally experience the “magic” of youthwork when a session achieves these aims. Whether it’s through a collective experience or an individual situation, seeing young people grow in these areas proves the power of youth work. The “magic” can manifest unexpectedly, in a throwaway comment or a casual conversation, but is instantly recognisable. It warms you from the inside, it makes the hard work have a purpose, it makes youth work the most rewarding job.

And that’s where I want to celebrate the growth of that young person with them, instead of worrying about quantifying it, making it fit into an evaluation framework or thinking of ways to make the magical moment have a longer-term impact. The importance of these aspects of youth work are not lost on me but their prioritisation over experiencing and feeling the power of youth work seems disproportionate – and perhaps even damaging.

On a personal level, I found this seeming contradiction within youth work the most thought-provoking. I found myself coming back to the power of feeling an experience rather than trying to measure it, prompting me to reflect on why focusing on the ‘now’ is made to feel like it’s not enough.

During my internship, I learned that this might be because evaluation is steeped in neoliberal practices; it’s a neoliberal value to measure and focus on future outcomes. We tend to think of the impact of neoliberal ideology in youth work in terms of austerity and funding criteria, but I now believe it is crucial that we also consider its impact on the “magic” of youth work, which is being lost because viewed according to neoliberal measurements/ evaluations that were made for markets and products, not people.

Working with young people to create the video about the impacts of youth work proved this to be true. During the creative process of filming, we were living in that experience and enjoying the now of it; the work felt important and meaningful and empowering whilst also being fun – everything good youth work practices aim to be. An evaluation form would be hard pressed to quantify the impact of that magical experience but their value shouldn’t be denied simply because of that.


Top photo: Courtesy of Sorele Cohen.

Author: Sorele Cohen

  • Second Year Undergraduate Student on the KCL BA Social Sciences Programme
  • Work Placement Student on Rethinking Impact

Sorele has experience in teaching and is currently working as a community youth director. In this role she is responsible for creating and delivering programmes for both primary and secondary school youth. She is an active volunteer for charities which support vulnerable youth in different capacities. She hopes to use these experiences to pursue a future career in the community/ youth work field.

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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

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