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.