Effective youth work. A report by HM Inspectors

infed archives

Published in 1987, this piece by HM Inspectors is one of the last English government reports to promote open youth work – albeit with an emphasis on activity, planning and personal and social development. It drew upon a series of inspection reports to provide a series of examples of what they then deemed to be good practice. 

contents: preface · introduction · the development of individuals through activity · possible environments: learning from the surroundings · decision making: learning from the group · obstacles and barriers: learning to cope and challenge · outcomes and results: learning from taking action · conclusion · appendix: some recent hmi reports on youth work · how to cite this piece
cover: effective youth work (1987)

Effective Youth Work looks to work that uses ‘young people’s spontaneous or continuing interests’. The writers argue that youth work is concerned ‘principally but not exclusively’ with personal and social development. As such it has three main goals. To increase the ability of young people to:

(a) identify and develop their capacities—physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, social and emotional;

(b) identify and accept their responsibilities, as individuals, citizens, group members;

(c) evaluate the contexts in which they live and act accordingly.

The focus is largely upon work happening in associational settings open to a range of young people such as uniformed organizations, church youth groups, youth clubs and school-based youth centres. There is also an orientation towards planned intervention and activity. Taken together, the report can be seen as promoting a form of youth work that would be familiar to the writers of the Albemarle (1960), Fairbairn-Milson (1969) and Thompson (1982) reports (although different writers might put more of an emphasis on community development, informality and relationship and so on). There were some indicators of what was to come – the concern with ‘effectiveness and occasional framing within curriculum thinking for example. However, one of the striking features is what is absent: there is no strong interest in targeting particular groups, not one use of the term ‘delivery’, and no mention of accreditation.

This page is part of the informal education archives’ collection of UK government reports and papers on youth work.


Since January 1983 the Secretary of State for Education and Science has published all the reports made to him by Her Majesty’s Inspectors following formal inspections of schools, colleges and other educational provisions in England. Individual reports are followed up with local education authorities and for with others responsible in each case by the Department of Education and Science. It has also been thought useful for HM Inspectorate to produce periodic reviews of the reports published, under the title ‘Education Observed’.

The present booklet, the sixth in this series, draws on the evidence from inspection of many different types of youth service, as well as on published reports, to identify examples of good practice.

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1.  The examples of good youth work practice which follow are taken from HMI observations. [Throughout this text the phrases ‘youth work’ and ‘youth worker’ are used to describe the range of youth service activities even if the particular contexts were actually those of, for example, scout troops, church youth groups or school-based youth centres.] Some have appeared in previously published Inspection Reports, others come from a wide range of HMI visiting which did not lead to published reports. Most describe work with young people aged between 15 and 20 years. These examples illustrate attempts to achieve educational goals through informal work with young people in the Youth Service. The themes chosen for description and analysis are taken from different facets of youth work.

2. Each local education authority provides some level of youth work staff, buildings and other facilities for young people. These resources complement and support more formal educational institutions and a wide range of national and local voluntary youth organisations. This range encompasses youth clubs; school-based youth centres; uniformed organisations; residential centres; specialised youth centres, for example in the arts or in sport. In recent years there has been diversification into special projects for young women, for young people who are unemployed, for young people from different ethnic communities. ‘Detached’ or ‘outreach’ workers seek to make productive contact with young people not in formal organisations. Counselling and advice services offer help, for example in dealing with young people’s relationship difficulties, on drugs or on sexual matters, or on their housing needs.

The development of individuals through activity

3. Young people voluntarily associate with the youth service. They become involved for many reasons—to meet their friends; to spend their leisure out of the home; for specific activities from rock climbing to drama; for help and advice. Some are content if the youth facility they use is welcoming and friendly, if the activities they participate in are exciting and creative. Effective youth work seeks to use young people’s

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spontaneous or continuing interests to foster their personal and social development. Sometimes the youth worker cannot plan the interventions to encourage the achievement of such goals but has to take opportunities ‘on the wing’ in a variety of social or recreational contexts:

A youth centre is available in a less affluent suburb of a major conurbation. It has a games hall, and a general social area with table-tennis and snooker tables, a canteen and a workshop used as a store. The club enters virtually all events arranged by the county association of youth clubs.

Terry and Vince are 15 years old, uninvolved in examination work at school, and have been for 18 months regular attenders at the club with half-a-dozen other friends. Most of the time they play table tennis and snooker, envy the motor-cyclists, join in the football, chivvy the leaders and try to avoid paying their membership and any other dues.

In February the leaders were engaged in the ritual struggle to obtain entries for the county’s cross-country competition. Terry, Vince and their friends bragged about their prowess, but played as hard to get as possible until there arose the risk that they would be missed out. Then they all consented to run.

To their surprise, Terry and Vince did so well that they had to represent the county at regional level, and again were placed high enough to earn a place in the national event. This real, and not necessarily welcome, challenge elicited not only some serious preparation but an early morning rise on Saturday unprecedented in their adolescent history. They did not excel in the national competition, but they were ready on time and acquitted themselves reasonably.

Since this excursion Terry and Vince have begun to take themselves more seriously, weighing up different invitations to represent their school and the club, and trying to decide whether to adopt the necessary discipline and make the effort for a commitment to cross-country running next season.

4. Everyday as this simple access to a physical activity may be, the safe environment of the club, made safer by the youth workers’ collusion in the early show of reluctance which minimised the risk of ignominy through failure, made it possible for Terry and Vince to make a modest gain in their self-esteem and to have open to them the possibility of taking up an interesting activity. [page 3]

5. Often the most obvious difference between youth groups is in the programme of activities they offer; one youth club being known for its drama and music, another for the emphasis it places on outdoor pursuits or team games. However, as regards the curriculum of youth work these differences may be entirely superficial, for the programme of activities, whether social or recreational, whether based on sports or in the arts, is merely the medium through which experience which leads to personal and social development is offered.

6. Activities are often the factor which attracts young people into the membership of a group and are a vehicle through which learning takes place. But the youth worker, besides sharing his or her skill and enthusiasm, needs to recognise and then realise the potential for personal development which each situation has to offer. Judgements about the quality of youth work essentially are judgements about the quality of the learning experience offered to young people and not about their relative success or failure in undertaking particular activities, although the quality of the activities and the expectations of youth workers in respect of them cannot be wholly separated from the learning experiences. Careful planning, sensitivity to young people’s needs and skill are necessary if the experience is to be productive:

A detached worker had arranged, in conjunction with a member of staff from a drop-in centre, a half-day canoeing trip for a half-dozen unemployed young women. This involved borrowing a minibus, loading the canoes and gear and cajoling and encouraging reluctant participants both before they would board the bus, and at the water’s edge. All this was carried out with efficiency and sensitivity which acknowledged individual anxieties, the fact that they did not all know each other and that none of them had canoed before. The worker was willing, in informal counselling on the bus, to help an individual girl to disentangle some current problems in her life, including her relationship with others and a recent brush with the law.

7. This straightforward example illustrates how an activity—in this case canoeing—can be used for a variety of purposes. It offered some young unemployed people a break in their boredom. Their chance to try a new experience and begin to learn a fresh skill, in a modest way, enhanced their self-esteem. A casual remark was seized on by the youth worker so as to promote self-understanding on the part of one individual. Many youth groups, even those organised for specific purposes such as a football team, offer such opportunities. When such [page 4] opportunities are taken, the potential of youth service to play a fuller part in the lives of young people as they grow up is being exploited.

8. Youth work is concerned, principally but not exclusively, with personal and social development. The goals of youth work as a process of social and personal education are threefold; it aims to increase the ability of young people to:

(a) identify and develop their capacities—physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, social and emotional;

(b) identify and accept their responsibilities, as individuals, citizens, group members;

(c) evaluate the contexts in which they live and act accordingly.

Young people can be judged to be achieving these goals when they begin to show an increasing ability to co-operate with others; to lead and respond to leadership; to exercise choice; to make decisions both alone and with others; to start, maintain and end relationships; to find appropriate expression for anger and frustration, love and affection; to deal with success, disappointment and conflict; and to adopt or reject ideals and viewpoints.

9. Although youth groups differ widely from each other in the activities their members undertake and in the physical circumstances in which they operate, effective youth workers nevertheless have a common goal in the personal and social development of young people and a responsiveness to their expressed needs:

Over a period of time a youth worker had been talking with a small group of older youth club members about what it would be like to leave home for a job or for college. Some expressed considerable anxiety about coping with this. A residential weekend was planned so that the topic could be explored in more depth. The youth workers responsible for the weekend designed as many aspects of it as possible to contribute to the topic and to develop skills in those attending. The group organised its own shopping and cooking; there were exercises with participants taking on the roles of ‘parents’, ‘landlords’ and ‘flatmates’; there were visiting speakers who had themselves recently left home. Each member had an individual ‘urban trail’ exercise to visit various helping agencies in the nearby conurbation. The group became so enthusiastic that it decided to produce a magazine on the topic of leaving home, incorporating information and cartoons. The [page 5] youth worker helped them to organise their material and to have it printed.

10. This example illustrates an approach often found useful in youth work. It consists in offering young people a variety of experiences, encouraging and enabling those involved to reflect on these experiences and to learn from them. It is through this active involvement and reflection that young people learn about their capacities and responsibilities and how to evaluate their circumstances. While, in essence, this is the process by which we all learn throughout the course of our lives, the process can be accelerated and heightened by a skilful youth worker.

Possible environments: learning from the surroundings

11. Youth workers operate in a greater variety of settings than most others employed in education services. A youth worker may be employed to manage a youth club or centre, but this is rarely, if ever, the only place where he or she works with young people; often the club is the contact point, the meeting ground for young people, which affords the opportunity to plan a programme of events much of which takes place away from the club itself. Whatever the base from which the work is carried out, most youth workers will conduct some of their work in a range of different places—on mountainsides and lakes as well as in classrooms, in cafes and public houses as well as in youth clubs. Each setting has its own limitations and possibilities and the skilful youth worker sets out to maximise opportunities for personal and social development by making the best use of the working environment. Even a walk in the country can be stage-managed to some degree in pursuit of worthwhile ends:

A youth worker took a group often boys aged 14 and 15 for a walk in Derbyshire. He knew the country well and planned the route with great care. He took the view that few young people actually enjoy walking for its own sake and therefore the journey had to be interspersed with a number of activities and incidents. [page 6]

The group was shown the route on a map, and someone was elected to find the route for the first part of the way. Everybody had their turn at this. After a mile or two the group went through an old railway tunnel, stopping at the centre point where it was not possible to see the light from either end. There was a good deal of downing about in the total darkness. A little later the group stopped by a dew pond and the response to the question ‘How long do we stay here?’ was ‘five minutes, or until the first one falls in’. Nobody did. A second stop was taken by some large boulders where the youth worker (himself an experienced climber) encouraged the young people to try their hand at rock climbing. The group worked strenuously at this, tackling more and more difficult problems, but never more than two or three feet from the ground. The youth worker taught without appearing to do so, making suggestions rather than giving instructions, encouraging and joking while ensuring that everyone had some degree of success. Lunch was taken by a limestone outcrop. After lunch the youth worker took a geological hammer from his rucksack and chipped away at some pieces of rock. Asked what he was doing he responded ‘Go away, I’m busy’. Within ten minutes everyone was hunting for fossils and talking about them. The youth worker talked about the geological development of the area, expressing his detailed knowledge of the subject in simple and dramatic language. The afternoon stop was taken by a stream and the youth worker encouraged the group to take off their boots and socks and paddle. No one had done this in a mountain stream before. The final stage of the walk included a sunset and a view—and the route had been chosen with this in mind.

12. In this example of a quite commonplace activity in youth work the worker has made skilful judgements about how to use the environment to furnish the young people with a wide range of experiences. He also showed great skill in carrying out the plan; by feigning a wish to be left alone when looking for fossils, in persuading the group to paddle, in teaching elementary rock climbing without appearing to do so.

13. Similar use can be made of urban environments:

A youth worker in a small North Midland town gave a camera and film to a group he was working with and encouraged them to make a record of their town as they saw it. One item which surprised many older people, was that the group saw the iron gates which many shopkeepers found it [page 7] necessary for security to put across their doorways at night as an obstruction to legitimate shelter from the elements—an important matter for the section of the population which was often on the streets after dark. Frequent discussions accompanied the making of the photographic record and the group formulated a number of points about the town which they wanted to express to other people. With further help they invited two local councillors to a meeting and expressed their views. They did not expect tangible results from this encounter, and none were evident, but the group derived considerable satisfaction from the fact that they were able to express their views in a way which won respect, if not agreement, from those who listened to them.

14. By helping young people to organise and communicate their views and perceptions, youth workers help individuals to understand themselves and other people better. Sometimes, as a bonus, work of this kind may help other sections of the community to a better understanding of some young people.

15. Effective youth work also takes place in buildings as well as on hills or on the streets. Considerable effort often goes into creating an atmosphere in youth clubs which is stimulating, friendly and purposeful. A multitude of factors—the management of staff, the relationship with and between members, the status of the members within the organisation, the established norms of behaviour, the range and quality of the programme and many others—contribute to the atmosphere; and the premises themselves play an important part. Frequently the youth worker is faced with the challenge of creating a stimulating environment in buildings or rooms which were not designed with youth work in mind:

An unusual example of club refurbishing comes from a large village where the youth dub had sole use of a hut which had served as the village hall in earlier years. Here the youth worker worked with members to transform the interior to a western township complete with saloon, sheriffs office and jail, and to create a total effect like that often achieved in commercial establishments where a thematic approach to decoration is employed. The main work was accomplished by using hardboard flats similar to those used in theatres, and the finishing touches were achieved by altering the shape of windows and doors by use of appropriate edging. The group chose the theme and undertook the work themselves, [page 8] incorporating in the decoration minor ‘in-jokes’ which reinforced group unity.

The youth worker worked alongside the group throughout and had some of the technical skills needed to advise the members and overcome difficulties. The whole was constructed in a way which neither inhibited the normal range of dub activities nor was especially vulnerable to damage. Members were pleased with the result and enjoyed being in a building which had individual character rather than a dreary hail which it once had been. A particular feature of the club was that this project was an annual event. Before being a western township the club had been a Mississippi River Boat and in the future it could be whatever the members decide. As most of the material used was commercial and industrial waste, the cost was minimal and decreased after the first year as much could be re-used. In this instance, besides achieving a sense of ownership by decoration, members also experienced some sense of control over their environment because they knew that it was within their capabilities to alter it when they tired of it.

Decision making: learning from the group

16. In making decisions about their environment the village youth club members described above had to act democratically. Every member had the right to voice his or her opinion about what should be done and a decision arrived at that the majority would support. Another example of responsible democracy in action is drawn from a much larger club where all the members over the age of 13 have the right to attend a monthly ‘Parliament’ which deals with all aspects of club management:

Twenty-two members attended the meeting together with a youth worker, two assistant youth workers and the helper who looked after the coffee bar.

The youth worker initiated proceedings by asking if any were attending for the first time and, when three were identified, asked an experienced member to explain the ground rules of the meeting. The explanation included a description of how [page 9] members ran things; that the adults present had no vote, and that criticism of other members was not allowed unless they were informed in advance.

There was an instant response to a request for someone to take minutes of the meeting but no initial response to a request for a chairperson, although this was resolved later, after a long discussion.

A long agenda included three items from a previous meeting and another 11 presented at the time. It was agreed to deal with these in one large meeting although the alternative of working through sub-groups was discussed.

Decisions were made on items which ranged from the purchase of soft toilet paper to agreeing to spend £1,000 on a multi-gym. Some ideas concerned with the hire or purchase of equipment involved a degree of business acumen; others, like that involving the report of damage to a car outside the premises, required an element of moral judgement as it was not clear that dub members were responsible for this. The whole meeting lasted for three hours and during that period nearly all present contributed, displaying respect for the views of others and an impressive degree of responsibility in arriving at decisions affecting the club.

17. Examples of large youth clubs functioning in this way are rare. While such a system of management is a powerfully effective tool for the personal and social development of young people it is a goal which requires a long-term strategy, and skills and commitment on the part of the worker and of his or her employers. It is difficult too for youth workers to establish representational democracy in youth organisations because membership may change rapidly; higher authorities may limit the range of real decisions permitted to young people; and if formal modes of conducting business are retained they are initially unknown by and mystifying to young people.

18. However, while some form of democratic participation in running the youth organisation itself provides opportunities for involving young people in negotiation and decision making, many more occur in the day-to-day practice of youth work and will be seized upon by effective youth workers as they arise:

Some members of a youth club wanted to see a video film as part of their evening dub activities. The youth worker agreed to the use of the dub equipment to view a film, but pointed out [page 10] that there was no money in the club funds for its hire. He took the opportunity to explain to members how their subscription money was spent. He then pointed out that if 20 people each contributed 10 pence the hire cost would be covered. This suggestion led to ha lf an hour’s argument and discussion which involved many club members, but in which the youth worker took no part. When agreement was reached and the money collected, the youth worker stipulated that a boy and a girl should go to the shop to select a film and said that he would not allow the showing of anything pornographic or excessively violent. In due course a film was selected and shown to the audience which had paid to see it. While there was little educational value in the film itself a great deal was learned during the organisation of the activity.

19. Youth work helps young people to understand and take responsibility for financial matters. Opportunities to do so are provided in various contexts—informally as the previous example has shown and, for instance, in the management of a youth club’s coffee bar, the purchase of equipment or fund-raising for charitable causes. On occasion, major projects are undertaken for example where one group of young unemployed people renovated a former primary school, redecorating the main room, installing a coffee bar and raising sufficient funds to pay for insurance and other maintenance costs:

A local education authority has established an Unemployment Forum composed entirely of young adults under 25 years old, with the guidance of a development officer. The Forum receives, considers and recommends approval of bids from local projects for money allocated by the authority for work with the unemployed. Members who take part in the forum recognise that their decisions are real and not token: if they do not probe those who submit proposals and are over-generous in their allocation of funding money could be wasted. The business is conducted smoothly with time for questions, discussion and reflection and the experience assists members to gain in confidence and to take responsibility for financial decisions.

20. Although most decisions are important at the time to the people who make them, and may be the subject of heated argument, it is clear that the examples above are of decisions which will not have lasting significance for the people involved. Their importance lies not in the outcome itself but in learning about decision-making processes; weighing the factors involved; coming to terms with being argued with [page 11] and confronted; coping with the others involved and with one’s own feelings when ideas are rejected. Yet at the same time that youth workers may be fostering decision-making abilities through the organisation and management of the programme of recreational activities, they may also be working with individuals with serious social and domestic problems as will be seen in the next example:

Single mothers, most of whom were within the youth service age group, claimed the attention of a youth worker. The aim of the worker was to provide support for both individuals and groups as they decided whether to care for their children or consider alternative solutions; and in doing so to develop their sense of responsibility, independence and their ability to make choices about their own lives and those of their children. This was not easy for, in order to survive, in most cases without employment, they were obliged to become financially dependent upon housing and social service benefits. The worker skilfully enabled the group members to express their frustrations and problems in discussion, and then to share a programme of activities which they planned and operated. This careful programme of work was continuous and included group discussion on health and child care topics; liaison with other workers in health and social services concerning child care and family welfare as well as visits of a recreational nature.

21. To summarise the best practice in this aspect of youth work it is appropriate to quote from an HMI inspection report Some Detached Youth Work in Sheffield—’. . . the youth workers’ responses are carefully calculated. They use their knowledge of the young people with whom they work to gauge the extent of intervention appropriate to the situation. They make positive suggestions and lay down rational rules— guidelines of behaviour—but do so in a way which maximises the freedom of choice and autonomy of the young people.’

Obstacles and barriers: learning to cope and challenge

22. Outdoor pursuits and adventurous activities have long been an attractive part of youth service provision for some young people. Whether such activities as canoeing, mountaineering and caving [page 12] become lifelong interests, are simply sampled for a weekend, or are exercises undertaken for the fun of the moment, they have the potential for social learning:

One group began by simulating a rescue from a crevasse, using climbing equipment rigged in a tall tree. After this they changed places with another group and were given pieces of equipment and charged with the task of assembling it to convey all the members of the team over a simulated electric fence.

Both activities required initiative, teamwork, negotiation and leadership and both proved very challenging to all the participants. The physical skills required were new to all, but both groups achieved their objectives.

23. Such exercises are entertaining in their own right and are usually entered on with enthusiasm if people come to them fresh in new surroundings, but their full potential for social learning is exploited only when there is a chance, as in this case, to discuss and reflect upon what happened:

The groups were then invited to consider their styles of working: which techniques had proved successful and which ones were rejected; how good was the communication between the members; why had some pieces of equipment been used to build structures; and why had some others been rejected? How far was the opinion of all members of the team sought? Who took the initiative and why?

24. Experiences away from the home and its immediate environment have a rich potential for social learning because, removed from the everyday expectations of the kinds of people they are and the way they will behave, individuals are often able to respond differently and see themselves, and others, in a different light:

In one project the two women youth workers ran programmes involving recreational and cultural activities for a number of different groups of young women. One was a group of young mothers who were almost all Afro-Caribbean, another was a young lesbians’ group.

Groups met at different times at the project headquarters and normally never met each other, though many of the issues raised by them were common to all Of particular concern to the project worker was the hostility often directed at the young lesbian group and the racist remarks sometimes overheard in a

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number of other groups. The workers planned to bring together a group drawn from all sections of the project for more structured discussion in a residential centre.

To persuade this varied group of young women to go away together for the first time a programme was offered that included activities such as riding canoeing music and video-making as well as discussion sessions on those priority issues currently of concern in the work of the project.

During the weekend the young women were able to share their experiences of prejudice with each other. Stereotypes were broken down and friendships and understanding developed across the groups and suspicion of each other was dissipated by being together. Discussion of racism, for instance, was initiated by the showing of a video explaining the history of colonialism and its effects on racism in Britain, and a film in which young people talked together about how racism affects them in Britain today. For the following discussions the group was split into two, on the basis of colour. At first the young women were upset by this; young white women, having made friends with young black women, now feared that this separation would lead to a resurgence of suspicion. They didn’t want to talk about racism separately and didn’t want to be seen, or thought of as being apart.

In the black women’s group, however, the young women soon found common ground in sharing their experiences of living in Britain. Afro-Caribbean and Asian young women discussed various aspects of being a black woman in British society today. They appreciated the opportunity to discuss issues relevant to their lives. The separation of the groups was more difficult for the white women to accept. They expressed the view that if the weekend was about getting on with each other, they could not really understand the rationale for separate groups. It was difficult trying to explain the purpose but when workers talked about the quite different effects of racism on black people and on white people, nervousness faded and the young white women were able to contribute positively.

The results of the weekend were most apparent in the ways in which young women at the project later handled any hostile attitudes of newcomers to their groups. For example, the young mothers who went away together talked about their embarrassment when abuse was heard from newcomers about the race or [page 12] sexuality of others and sought to tackle such attitudes with their peers in the group.

25. Although this example does not give this kind of detail, nevertheless the workers used substantial tutoring, group work and counselling skills during the weekend. Moreover, they made a number of skilful educational decisions: identifying an important issue common to all groups; planning a programme which would blend elements of serious interest with entertainment; and devising appropriate methods of working.

26. Youth workers and young people testify to the value of such residential experiences, and work of lasting significance can sometimes be accomplished in a short time. A period in a residential centre gives youth workers an opportunity to provide both formal settings for learning— such as group discussion and role plays—and informal support to individuals who may be struggling to reach new understandings of themselves and their situation. When the obstacles and barriers are social and emotional rather than physical and the problems are real rather than artificial then the skills of the youth workers have to be of a high order.

27. For some young people actually going away is itself an achievement, an activity involving both difficult personal arrangements and a major task of group organisation. Some of the educational objectives of learning about abilities and responsibilities can be met by involving young people in the actual planning of a residential weekend:

Five young women aged between 17 and 21, attending a women’s group at a centre, raised the idea of going away for a long weekend together. All but one of them lived on their own with their children in two-bedroomed semi-detached council houses. The fathers of their children had either left them or, where the acquaintance had been more casual, had been rejected by the young women. The young women found it almost impossible to go away on any kind of holiday and the youth worker’s aim was to give them an experience of going away with friends, which brought them pleasure and satisfaction through involving them in the planning and through sharing all the responsibilities of living together including buying and preparing food and child care.

Although the initial idea had come from the women themselves, the youth workers had a hard task in sustaining the motivation to ‘go away’. All the young women were coping alone with young children, and one had three children all under five. [page 12]

Another had been recently raped in the estate telephone kiosk but had been too frightened to report it. They spoke of their low morale at home and their feelings of depression and hopelessness. They were frightened by the trip as well as excited by it. Even packing for themselves and their children seemed an enormous task. The event took weeks of planning but it was eventually accomplished. On their return one of the young women wrote:

‘It’s good to be able to go away with your mates—them that we met down at the centre. You’d never get the chance otherwise. It’s easier for men to go away than a woman. Even a day trip is hard work when you’ve got kids—you’ve got to think what they want all the time—then there’s the prams and so on. I’ve never been away like this ever—never with mates. It’s great— it’s given me a lot more confidence—knowing we can do it. I didn’t know what to expect because I’d never experienced it.’

28. The growth in confidence this young woman records is evidence of effective youth work. ‘Knowing we can do it’ is a phrase which indicates that important learning and personal development has probably taken place. It is not only the experiences, but also the positive acknowledgement of the learning—the ‘knowing’—fostered by reflection upon the experiences, which has produced the increased self-confidence.

Outcomes and results: learning from taking action

29. The opportunity to produce something and to have it valued by others is of central importance for young people as they work towards establishing a sound adult identity. Youth workers use a wide variety of means to do this from creative arts to community action. For many young people self-expression is the first step to acquiring self-esteem. Writing is not an obvious form of self-expression for someone who has failed at school, but it can bring great satisfaction if handled wisely. The following example describes one young woman’s development:

One of the skills she was learning was how to use the computer with its Wordwise chip and printer. For the first time she was finding a real pleasure in recording how she felt, what she was learning and what her life was like. ‘Writing on the computer,’ she said, ‘is not like at school No one comes and writes all over it [page 16] in red. The youth worker helps you put it right before it is printed and it looks good.’

She described her experience at the centre:

‘I like coming down to the centre because you meet all kinds of people, and not only that—the people you meet there are all in the same boat as I am. I am a single parent with a little boy aged 18 months old and if I didn’t come down here we would only be bored. The people who work here are great, they’ve helped me to grow up and act like a mother and also learn how to do things—sewing cooking and making your own photographs— and there is a playroom for the kids which means you can do things without the children being around you. It gives you a rest from them. I learn to use a machine and make my clothes with simple patterns and it was really cheap. This I learn to do with Betty. We are going to learn decorating which I am interested in. I tried to do a bit at home myself but made a bit of a mess so Betty is going to show me how to do it properly.’

The new skills this 18-year-old was learning helped her record and recognise her own growth in confidence.

30. Sometimes a developing skill in self-expression leads to formal dramatic or musical productions: on occasion these occur as part of routine youth work in an all-purpose club, at other times specialised groups form as a youth theatre:

Meeting in evenings and at weekends the young people videotaped improvisations and gradually built up a script around a central theme. The structure they selected was that of a machine, each member a cog performing work movements and rhythmically interjecting key phrases from their characters. The Wimpey Bar boy shouts the orders to the chef the London Transport guard ‘minds the gap’. The machine dissolved to allow individuals and small groups to play out their connecting scenes which exposed the contrasts between the working day and the fantasy life of their imaginations. For example, a young black, London Transport guard established a simple mime of standing by his door to operate the buttons for the doors opening and dosing. His eyes, but not his body, showed how the train moved along the platform, and his facial expression showed graphically what caught his interest —a pretty girl, a disturbance. He conveyed to the audience his daily work and life and in an early scene admitted his interest in tap-dancing. Between [page 17] stations, when his carriage was empty, he practised up and down the aisle leading to an increasingly polished performance. A later development took the audience into his fantasy world where he performed a version of the famous Astaire golf-drive routine with plastic mugs and a walking stick. A tall, gangling white lad played foreman to the machine and in several scenes developed different relationships with his ‘cogs. One scene in particular dearly portrayed the lack of understanding between foreman and worker and ended in a sacking.

31. Drama may be the vehicle for pointed social comment:

Two black young men got to their feet and performed, in duet and dialogue, a conversation between a policeman and a black youth. Although full of humour, this made scathing comment about white racism. The piece was in rhyme and dialect and polished to perfection. It was no surprise to discover that they had performed it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as in both the sharpness of its content and the skill of its presentation, it would not have disgraced a cabaret anywhere.

32. In the following example drama is again the medium for personal and social education. However, several other educational aims are specifically part of this particular project’s goals:

Seated in a circle of chairs inside a school’s drama studio was a group of about 20 young people in their late teens and early 20s. In turn they answered the question, ‘What do you like about life?’ ‘Every morning I wake up and know something new is going to happen,’ ‘I like its unpredictability,’ ‘Learning new things and meeting new people,’ ‘I like the sense of growing’ ‘Taking a step up.’ While many of the answers were similar, each was different in the way it was presented, and each said something about the individual participant. People listened to each other intensely, some sitting forward on the edge of their chairs, others more relaxed with legs outstretched in front of them. There was plenty of good-natured laughter and a sense of trust, engendered by the skill and sensitivity of the youth worker in prompting and developing the participants’ contributions.

At a word from the youth worker, the chairs were pushed back to the edge of the studio and three members of the group were invited to do an improvisation. It concerned a young man having trouble with his girlfriend and the response he got from [page 18] two friends. The improvisation was acted out with feeling humour and a real sense of immediacy.

33. This was part of a twice-weekly session held in a new centre by a community-based black drama group in a district of a city much in the glare of media publicity. The group was under the artistic direction of a professional actor. Its public performances, mostly based on improvisation, were well reviewed in the local and ethnic press. The group aimed to demonstrate the strength and versatility of black performers in drama, film, music and dance, and through these acts to portray black people realistically and positively and counter stereotyped images of black people in the media. One of its aims, therefore, was to re-educate the community. The project also offered training schemes in management, production and arts administration and had well-known figures, black and white, from the theatrical world as its patrons.

34. Self-development and social comment are not the only functions of drama in youth work. A youth centre’s theatre group extended its work to cater for the young unemployed and secured funds from the Manpower Services Commission and the Local Education Authority in order to employ staff and pay the young people. One aspect of the work was a class which the young unemployed shared with mentally disabled students from a nearby college of further education:

The group welcomed the students from the college warmly. These students had been coming twice a week for five weeks. The workshop was conducted in pairs with the unemployed young people leading the disabled students through the exercises with considerable care and understanding. There was a great deal of good humour, and the students enjoyed taking their partners, each playing a dog for a walk on an imaginary lead. The concentration and quality of movements made by some of the handicapped students was impressive. One student with Downs Syndrome achieved dear, rhythmical movements with his partner. A high level of trust between partners was established and the unemployed young people showed a high level of concentrated effort.

35. On occasions all the elements illustrated in the above examples can be combined in a single project undertaken by a group of young people:

A youth worker took over a club in a small town where the level of youth unemployment was so high that only five per cent of the young people leaving school went straight into full-time [page 19] employment. Heavy drinking drug abuse, petty crime and vandalism were common in the area and the young people who used the club were aggressive and alienated.

Slowly some of the depression that young people felt about their club and their prospects began to lift. The main instrument in this change of attitude was the club’s Members’ Action Group, a small group of 16- to 18-year-olds who met monthly to discuss and agree the club’s policy and programme. This has included fund-raising activities, the purchase of equipment, representation on its Management Committee, the redecoration of its premises, dub outings and, significantly, the making of a video.

The idea of the video was for the young people of the town to present their views about their lives and prospects to officers, councillors and others responsible for housing employment, education, social services and recreation in the area. Previous invitations sent to officials to meet with local youngsters in the dub had been ignored. On the one or two occasions when they had met with local politicians it had been on the latter’s own terms and the young people felt distinctly patronised. The video production enabled them to express their discontent constructively and to learn skills that would not allow their elders to evade the difficult questions.

36. The outcomes and results which can be identified in the above five examples are in no sense end-products. They are of value in themselves, certainly; but they are also starting points for further learning. Each experience can be subjected to reflection and analysis and so lead to further social and personal development. In their role as social educators youth workers have to strike a balance between a number of different requirements.

37. Young people need to be valued for what they are and do now, not for what they will become, yet youth workers have to be aware that their prime goal is change and development. Young people choose to be part of the youth service principally for its means rather than its ends; and managing the means—that is, the activities, the nature of the buildings and the relationships—consumes most of the effort of youth workers. Yet it is only the face-to-face youth worker who can translate general statements of goals into particular objectives for work with particular groups. Youth workers need to have their eyes simultaneously on a distant horizon and on the present reality of young people. [page 20]


38. In the extracts above there has been no attempt to encompass the whole of youth work. Although there is great variety in the settings and the people described, the choice of examples has been limited to a large extent to those transactions between youth workers and young people which can be written about in simple, direct terms. As much in youth work does not lend itself to this treatment there are many aspects which receive no mention.

39. The simplicity can also deceive: the observed outcome is often the product of careful planning and much skilled work to bring the group or the individual to the point at which we see them. The overall purpose has been to suggest some examples of some good practice towards achieving youth work’s main goal of the personal and social development of young people, especially with those most in need of the experience a good youth and community service should offer.

40. It is much harder to generalise about the elements which make up good practice. The range of things that youth workers do is as broad as the range performed, for example, by teachers. However, there are features which all the examples display, either implicitly or explicitly. First, much of the work described is part of a planned process; in some cases, for example the walk in the hills or the young mothers’ trip away, the planning needed for a superficially simple task is often elaborate. This leads to the second point: that the youth workers, and in many cases the young people, were fully aware of the complexity of what they were doing. Neither of these points should be taken as arguing against the value of spontaneity and intuition in youth work; but these qualities, like ad libs in a dramatic performance, are only effective when the actors are well rehearsed in the basics. The third element is the engagement of the young people in a task. They are neither recipients nor consumers of what the youth worker is offering, but are both active and willing partners in the process. All the young people described had some understanding of the objectives of the task they were engaged in and of what the possible outcomes might be.

41. This approach to social and personal development thus requires youth workers to carry out four basic functions:

i. to identify and proffer to young people a range of appropriate experiences;

ii. to create the situations in which young people can learn from those experiences; [page 21]

iii. to muster the resources necessary for both the experience and the learning;

iv. to support young people while they undergo the experience and learn from it.

42. Effective youth work to fulfil these functions requires specialist understanding and skill of high order. Even in a five-minute interchange with a young person a youth worker may be working towards youth work’s basic goals, carrying out all four functions and doing much else beside.

43. Other elements of good practice can be inferred; that as examples of successful planning the workers have been able to establish clear aims and derive appropriate objectives from them and use appropriate methods. Further, the workers were able to make and maintain appropriate relationships with young people and therefore they were aware of their own roles and functions and of the limitations to them.

44. From the examples, taken together, two further elements of good practice can be deduced: that the effective youth worker is aware of the richness and diversity of the material available for social learning and that she or he can apply educational techniques to further that learning.

45. The examples themselves afford no firm evidence about all the necessary conditions to foster good practice. Often the youth workers described operated in discouraging circumstances, with inadequate resources and little or no recognition and support for what they were doing. Yet it would be quite wrong to deduce from this that youth work is so dependent upon the professional skill of the individual that nothing can be done to foster effective youth work beyond employing the right staff. Exceptional youth workers may succeed in spite of difficult working conditions, but they certainly do not succeed because of them and they cannot continue indefinitely in such circumstances. It is important to recognise that appropriately trained and skilled youth workers are the prime resource of youth work but, at the same time, to take account of the other factors which can contribute to their success: effective management, adequate resources and appropriate support for staff.

46. It is hoped that this publication will promote discussion of good practice among youth workers. Such discussion should be a regular feature of staff and team meetings as examples of good practice provide a means of focusing upon the important elements of the work, of sharing [page 22] ideas, of recognising achievement and celebrating success. Sadly, many of the examples quoted here were not widely known and even colleagues in the same staff teams did not benefit from the stimulus of hearing about the work and learning from it. The workers directly involved were often denied the encouragement they deserved for the work they were doing.

47. Many youth workers work in relative isolation. Good work is likely to be disseminated more widely if they have regular opportunities to discuss their work with someone who can, through judicious questioning, bring a critical analysis to detailed accounts of their day-today work. The process of detailed reflection on practice and on the objectives, methods, values and assumptions which each individual worker brings to it is generally referred to in youth-work circles as ‘supervision’. The supervisor’s role can be fulfilled by someone within the management structure, or by someone external to it and selected by the worker for that purpose. In some situations both arrangements may be appropriate. At all events it is a management responsibility to see that each worker frequently and systematically reviews his or her practice. At the present time adequate professional supervision is available to far too few workers.

48. For those responsible for managing the youth and community service the identification of good practice is of crucial significance. The image of what constitutes good practice influences policy and judgments at all levels, and when the image is not clear, or missing altogether, the result is often generalised policies lacking contact with reality and uneven judgments. Those in senior and middle management posts, just as much as others, need opportunities to talk about good practice and clarify and revise their viewpoints. That is not a once-only process; it is an appropriate subject for regular in-service training. Often discussion will benefit if staff can draw on simple examples from work which they have tested directly. Similarly, the difficult, but increasingly important, task of explaining youth work to lay people may often be accomplished better by use of examples than by enunciation of broad aims in abstract terms. [page 23]


Some recent HMI reports on youth work:

Some Detached Youth Work in Sheffield (70/85)

Youth Service—Wigan LEA (77/86)

Youth Service—Cornwall LEA (79/86)

Youth Service—Sheffield LEA (81/86)

Youth Work in United Reformed Church (261/87)

Youth Service Provision in Wales (Wales Education Survey 13, 1984)

Youth Work in the Upper Rhondda (FE 3/86)

Youth Wings in West Glamorgan (FE 2/86)

Tracks Youth Advice Service, West Glamorgan (FE 3/87)

City Centre Youth Project, Cardiff, South Glamorgan (FE 11/87)

Copies of reports are available, free, for England from DES

Publications Despatch Centre, Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 1AZ and, for Wales, from Education Department, Welsh Office, Cathays Park, Cardiff CF1 3NQ.

How to cite this piece: Department of Education and Science (1987) Effective Youth Work. A report by HM Inspectors. Education Observed 6, London: Department of Education and Science. Available in the informal education archives: https://infed.org/mobi/effective-youth-work-a-report-by-hm-inspectors/

This piece has been reproduced here by the informal education homepage under licence from from the Controller of HMSO and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland. The informal education homepage holds a licence to reproduce public service information and another to reproduce Parliamentary material.

First placed in the archives: June 2003. Updated June 2019.

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by infed.org