A warm, safe place: an argument for youth clubs

Picture: The Venny – Wood End Youth Centre, in Wood End, Coventry by Lydia shiningbrightly. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lydiashiningbrightly/3216165466/

infed archives
contents: preface · introduction · what young people want · the benefits for young people · the need for the long term approach · references

Sue Robertson argues that youth clubs have a unique role and one that should be valued and supported as they can make a big difference in the lives of many young people and their communities. Reproduced from Youth & Policy 70 (winter 2000/01)

This article was one of the first sustained pieces of writing about the benefits of youth club work published in the UK since the late 1970s. It is an argument for open, associational work. Sue Robertson argues that youth clubs benefit young people in terms of the quality of peer relationships they can foster; they provide the opportunity for informal, respectful relationships with adults; and the chance for participation and association. She highlights the importance of working long-term.

You might like to check out some earlier statements of the power and significance of club work:

Maude Stanley – Girls’ Clubs (1890)

Arthur Sweatman: youths’ clubs and institutes (1863)

A recent argument for the reinvigoration of club life (and the significance of association) can be found in:

young people, informal education and association – reclaiming the club

Sue Robertson taught on the Community and Youth Work Course at the University of Chichester.


(page 71) Centre-based youth work has fallen out of favour over recent years. In the past decade youth clubs have been ignored and marginalized by youth service management and government alike. Yet suddenly generic youth work is being talked about, a commitment to the continuation of generic work is in the NYA’s submission to the ‘Learning to Succeed’ and ‘Bridging the Gap’ documents (Youth Policy Update, 1999) and in government rhetoric (Young People Now, 2000; CYWU-Connexions Conference, 2000). In the light of both Connexions (DFEE, 1999) and the Policy Action Team report on young people (Social Exclusion Unit, 2000) now might be the time to present the case for youth club work, and in this piece I am arguing for open access youth work which does not deal with only the most disadvantaged section of young people but works with young people in a neighbourhood setting.

If we are arguing to preserve generic work we need to be clear what we mean by that and why it is valuable. The Youth Service Audit (DfEE, 1998) describes the basic youth service infrastructure as the foundation of open, non-stigmatizing access from which specific project work with particular groups can develop. This is club work. Yet such work has recently not been advertised as relevant or important. For example, a recent DfEE publication (1999) included no examples of club based open youth work, while in contrast, a 1987 DES publication is full of examples of centre-based work.

There has been limited research and writing on youth clubs. This piece draws on work done by Williamson et al for the Welsh Youth Agency (1995), Ballard and Wright in Gloucestershire (1994), Furlong et al in Scotland (1998) as well as my own evaluation of the Youth Action Scheme in Gloucestershire and ethnographic research which I undertook in a youth club. The literature includes a wonderful account of a youth club from 1963 Razor Edge by Blandy, Rose’s recent Touching Lives (1999), Bunt and Gargrave’s The Politics of Youth Clubs (1980); a chapter in Button’s Developmental Group Work with Adolescents (1974) and various articles in Young People Now, and Youth Clubs UK. Williamson’s recent chapter in The Challenge of the Future (1997) is an important addition to this list, whilst in Kids at the Door Revisited, Holman (2000) demonstrates that it is possible to see the benefits of involvement in youth work in the long term. Many workers have argued this. For example: (page 72)

The club made me more tolerant, taught mixing, I learnt to socialize, made me want to be a leader, more responsible.
(Tewkesbury ex-member quoted in Ballard and Wright, 1994)

What young people want

Two quotes from the Guardian last year sum up the ambivalent attitude of a community to its young people.

A new bus shelter is being built in a village near Exeter so that youngsters will have somewhere dry to meet up on winter evenings

A new playground in Nottingham has been designed without slides, climbing frames or play equipment because nearby residents were worried that older youths would hang around the site at night

Communities on the one hand feel threatened and on the other the need to provide something. Young people are often both excluded from community discourses and seen as the problem in communities (Brent, 1997). However, they depend more than adults on their immediate neighbourhood for their social life. As such places for young people to meet should be an important part of community provision, alongside and sometimes part of, adult education, leisure centres, schools, community centres.

A variety of questionnaires conducted in the 1990s in various places asking young people why they attend youth clubs produced similar findings (e.g.. Ballard and Wright, 1994; Williamson et aI, 1995; DfEE, 1995). Young people generally want, ‘A place to have fun, to meet friends, talk with your mates and just mellow out, to get away from schoolwork and parents, a place where you are given a chance’. Young people involved in a discussion at a New Deal event in Bristol wanted the youth service to offer, ‘a better place to go to, more equipment, more day time opening, teach practical skills, spend money on us, more workers’

Williamson’s research (1995) which was targeted at over 15 year olds identified four needs: for association, (somewhere to go), for activities, (something to do), for autonomy (space of our own); and for advice, (someone to talk to). Young people have told me that they value the club as a warm and friendly social meeting place, and for things to do including trips away, activities, special projects, discussions and issue based work. The club provides the opportunity for participation and young people who attend clubs are involved in other community activity to a greater extent than others ‘a higher proportion of youth service participants are involved in sports, arts or voluntary work than non-participants’. (page 73)

The benefits for young people

Peer relationships

So if involvement is a ‘good thing’ what benefits do young people derive?

Popular theories on adolescence agree that it is a time when peer group influence is of crucial importance. Acceptance of peer culture expands social horizons, helps personality development and encourages the ability to act independently and try out new roles (Cotterell, 1996). Adolescence is a peak time of leisure needs and of time for leisure activities, but is restricted by lack of money, transport, parental and legal boundaries. Youth Clubs can provide a relatively safe environment from which to observe and interact with peers and to experience the roles of leader and follower.

Cotterell (1996) suggests that young people need to resolve their group identity and relationship to their peer group before they can achieve a sense of personal identity or resolve relations with their family. Companionship provides a pleasurable experience of group interaction associated with leisure activity; individuals experience a sense of belonging, acceptance, solidarity and social affirmation simply from being together. Yet the peer relationship can be one of the hardest for young people to establish. Button, (1974) argued that youth clubs can be one way of ensuring that these interactions occur. The role of the youth worker is to facilitate conversations and provide space for them but also to be a ‘social architect’ helping young people to come together and work in groups.

Being accepted as part of a network is a factor in the development of personal growth, of self-esteem (Cilliers, 1998) and of community responsibility (Gilchrist, 1999), and adolescence is a period when growth in the social network is needed to develop competencies for participation in adult society. Therefore, young people need opportunities for widening social networks.

In this context, out of school activities are important, giving access to young people of different ages and backgrounds providing opportunities to make new friendships and build on existing ones. This was particularly apparent in work I did within the youth service on removing barriers to participation by disabled young people which highlighted the social isolation they can suffer by attending special schools and not mixing with young people in their local communities.

People build up a personal network of supportive ties and some members of this network are needed to help bridge changing settings or circumstances. This is a role for a youth worker. (page 74)

Relationships with adults

Youth clubs not only help widen contacts among young people but also help to structure informal social relationships between adults and young people. Most of the adults that young people meet in their daily lives are authority figures, or are seen as such: teachers, parents, shopkeepers. Young people often expect adults to treat them in certain ways – i.e. as children – and are amazed to be treated as an adult and taken seriously (Berne, 1973). The evaluation I did for the Youth Action Scheme demonstrated the positive feeling young people had about the youth workers: ‘They treated us like adults, they showed us respect’.

Hendry et al (1993) asked young people to identify mentoring characteristics of non-related adults; functions were enabler, believer, teacher, supporter, and role model. Youth workers are a good example of these functions; good youth worker – young people relationships have informality, spontaneity, acceptance and commitment. Adults to talk to are important, ‘for advice and understanding, someone who can be trusted’. Young people don’t necessarily want hard facts or answers, and if they do there are better places to get them than the youth club, but a helpful adult to bounce ideas off and confide in: ‘someone you know you can trust and won’t tell’ (Williamson 1995).

Youth workers can be a channel for accessing more specialist advice which increases in importance as young people move through adolescence and their needs change.


The need to have somewhere to go that is not too organized is frequently articulated in interviews with young people. Furlong et al (1997) reported that the young people in their study spent a significant proportion of their time ‘hanging around’. Williamson (1997) suggests that young people in transition need space for reflection and self-determination plus clear guidance, support and information. In this phase they are looking to run things themselves and need ‘just enough organization’ (Hendry et al, 1993). Youth organizations which try to be too controlling and aim to develop ‘socially responsible’ attitudes and behaviour will not attract young people as they get older or those whose lives are generally chaotic.

The best youth workers were seen as those who were friendly, approachable, had a sense of humour and were tolerant of the members. The worst were strict or bossy and tried to impose their own standards on the young people. (Furlong et al, 1997)

Young people in Williamson’s research said their continued engagement with youth work depended on them having a say: (page 75)

It’s all based on consultation and participation here. We do have quite a lot of power. There’s nothing we can’t do if we really want to but it’s down to us. We’ve done the fundraising; it’s our money. (Williamson et al, 1995)

Participation by young people is in itself a learning experience, for them and often for workers. One of my early attempts at government of the club by members committee saw extremely draconian rules imposed and half the membership banned, leading to the formation of a ‘non-members committee’ to wrestle power back!

The need for the long term approach

There is much discussion about the importance of youth workers’ relationships with young people but developing good relationships takes time and needs continuity. Richardson (1997) stresses this as the most crucial aspect of the work but also the least quantifiable. Jells (1999) argues that recent concentration on short term funding has meant that workers have been unable to create long term relationships, they have to target specific groups and impose themselves on them to get outcomes. This was certainly my experience of managing a Youth Action Scheme. Young people aren’t involved in setting the criteria on which projects are judged. Youth workers are being asked to work to an agenda which focuses on a small percentage of young people; mainly male and defined as ‘disaffected’, and this work is then measured against a variety of crime prevention methods. The educational, participative, empowering and equal opportunity focus of youth work can disappear.

My experience of club work is that youth and community centres can be a focal point in a community. Young peoples’ involvement often starts with their first entrance as toddlers to the playgroup, followed by their involvement in the After School Club, the Junior Club, Senior Club. They then often return to the playgroup with their own children. That long term relationship, the ability to really get to know young people, to offer them challenges and opportunities and help them grow and move on is a particularly important aspect of local youth work. In the 1980s I worked with young people in senior club four nights a week, plus activities at weekends and residentials. When they finished school and were out of work, the centre was a focal point in the day as well. Times have changed: many ‘full time’ centres now are only open two nights a week (Furlong et al, 1997); resources are tight; full time workers face many pressures.

In my interviews with young people involved in the Youth Action Scheme in Gloucestershire, boredom was identified as the main reason for getting involved in crime. In my current research young people talk about needing somewhere to go to ‘keep out of mischief’, they recognize the problems that they can get into when (page 76) bored and looking for excitement on the streets. The recently produced ‘Listen Up’ Report (Home Office, 2000) found that the boys particularly wanted activities that ‘give them a buzz but take place in a controlled environment’. Young people on the Gloucestershire Youth Action scheme really appreciated the opportunity to take part in challenging activities and were able to use the experience to help them reflect on their everyday experiences. Bandura (1995) demonstrates that the most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through ‘mastery experiences’; young people need to find something in their lives which they can do well. Properly resourced youth clubs can provide the ideal base for activities to be organized and new skills acquired. However, as resources and staffing levels have been cut and managers have been increasing the amount of administration required it seems that fewer activities and residentials happen. There has been a trend away from face to face work by full time youth workers (Bamber, 2000).

For a long time now in youth work I have been frustrated by the focus on curriculum, on outcomes, on managerialism, on projects, rather than on young peoples needs as a member of a community. Perhaps this makes me an old-fashioned youth worker, but I would like us to give youth clubs a serious chance. Our buildings are probably inappropriate; they probably always were (Jeffs, 1997). The best youth club I worked in for atmosphere was a prefab, an old school classroom. Every night ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols was played over and over again; I can’t hear that now without remembering the club. Good youth work isn’t just about the here and now and measuring, its about memories and long term learning as Holman (2000) demonstrates so well.

Youth Clubs have a unique role and one that should be valued and supported as they can make a big difference in the lives of many young people and their communities. Club based work can provide the warm, safe, friendly space for young people that they say they want, it can give them real power and ownership. It can be a place where they develop new skills, try out new things, where they are seen and judged differently from the school or home, where their talents and idiosyncrasies are appreciated and where they can have fun.


Ballard, D. and Wright, S. (1994) Research Project on Centre Based Work, Gloucestershire Youth Service: unpublished.

Bamber, J. (2000) ‘Managing Youth Work’ in Youth and Policy, No 68, pp 5-18.

Bandura, A. (1995) Self Efficacy in Changing Societies, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Berne, E. (1972) Games People Play, London: Pan.

Brent, J. (1994) ‘Community without Unity’ in P. Hoggett (ed.) Contested Communities, Bristol: Polity Press.

Blandy, M. (1967) Razor Edge: The story of a youth club, London: Gollancz. (page 77)

Bunt, S. and Gargrave, R. (1980) The Politics of Youth Clubs, Leicester: National Youth Bureau.

Burke, T., Hand, I. and McFall, L. (1999) Moving on Up, Department for Education and Employment.

Button, L. (1974) Developmental Group Work with Adolescents, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and Postmodernism, London: Routledge.

Cotterell, l. (1996) Social Networks and Social influences in Adolescence, London: Routledge.

CYWU 12000), Connexions Conference October 4th 2000, Birmingham:  CYWU

DfEE (1999) Moving on Up, London: DfEE.

DES (1987) Effective Youth Work Report, Education Observed 6, HMI, Stanmore.

DfEE (1998) England’s Youth Service, The 1998 Audit, Leicester: National Youth Agency.

Furlong, A., Cartmel, F.,  Powney, J., and Hall, S. (1998) Evaluating Youth Work with Vulnerable Young People, SCRE Home Page webscre@scre.ac.uk

Gilchrist, A. (2000) ‘Community Networks’ in Community Development Journal, Vol. 35(3), pp.264-275.

Hendry, L., Shucksmith, I., Love,J. and Glendinning, A. (1993) Young Peoples Leisure and Lifestyles, London: Routledge.

Holman, B. (2000) Kids at the Door Revisited, Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Jeffs, A. J. (1979) Young People and the Youth Service, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jeffs ,T. (1997) ‘Changing their ways: Youth work and Underclass Theory’ in MacDonald, R.  (1997) Youth, the ‘Underclass’ and Social Exclusion, London: Routledge.

Richardson, J. (1997), ‘The path to adulthood’ in I. Ledgerwood, and N. Kendra, (eds.) The Challenge of the Future, Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Rose, C. (1999) Touching Lives, Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Social Exclusion Unit (2000) Young People Norwich: Report of Policy Action Team 12, London: Stationary Office.

The Listen Up Report (2000) A dialogue with Young People, Home Office, London.

Williamson, H. (1997) ‘So what for young people’ in I. Ledgerwood and N. Kendra, (eds.) The Challenge of the Future, Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Williamson, H., Afzal, S.,  Eason, C., and Williams, N. (1995) The needs of young people aged 15-19 and the Youth Work Response, Caerphilly: Welsh Youth Agency.

Young People Now ‘News’ p 4. Issue 132 April 2000.

Youth Policy Update (1999) October Leicester : National Youth Agency.

© Sue Robertson 2000. Reproduced with kind permission from Youth and Policy/Sue Robertson. First placed in the archives: May 2002

Acknowledgement: Picture: The Venny – Wood End Youth Centre, in Wood End, Coventry by Lydia shiningbrightly. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lydiashiningbrightly/3216165466/

Last Updated on July 5, 2019 by infed.org