Classic studies: Working with unattached youth

Picture: 'Mods' - Paul Townsend. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under s Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

Classic studies: Working with unattached youth. Working with Unattached Youth: Problem, approach, method (Goetschius and Tash 1967) remains one of the most sustained pieces of research into youth work in the UK. In this piece we explore the research elements that contributed to its success and draw out some of the implications for current practice.

Contents: introduction · working with unattached youth · key elements · long-term engagement · participant observation · supervision · recording ·group exploration · discernment · the generation of theory · some implications for current practice · further reading and references · how to cite this piece. See, also: research for practice.

Currently there is little serious, sustained and systematic exploration of the thoughts, feelings and actions of those involved in youth work activities and community development. The one area where it happens, if somewhat haphazardly, is where workers reflect carefully and closely on their practice – perhaps in supervision or through journaling. As we will see, this offers hope and possibility – for as the state and many agencies have become increasingly focussed on outcomes, and imprisoned within a pseudo management discourse of delivery, much practice – and research – has become corrupted. Within this a great deal of money that might have gone to interesting research has been diverted to spurious evaluations and reviews.

This is why when you review the British literature of youth work and informal education for thorough explorations of process there are only a few – and we have to go back 40 years to find the best – Goetschius and Tash’s Working with Unattached Youth.

Working with unattached youth

Working with Unattached Youth: Problem, approach, method (Goetschius and Tash 1967) remains one of the most sustained pieces of research into youth work in the UK. Published as part of the famous blue-covered International Library of Sociology and Social Reconstruction, it is an important landmark and point of reference. The book’s subtitle spells out the focus: ‘The report of an enquiry into the ways and means of contacting and working with unattached young people in an inner London Borough’. It examines the work and experiences of the five field workers employed on the project and some of the participating young people. The terms of reference of the project became ‘to contact and work with the unattached in the borough using detached workers, to study and develop methods of doing this, to record the work and to prepare a document based on the records’ (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 1-2). This is exactly what they did.

The Project, founded and managed by the London YWCA, and funded by the Department of Education and Science (DES), began by working from a coffee stall. Based around Marylebone and the Edgeware Road (the site of an earlier influential project run by Marie Paneth) it developed into a fascinating piece of work. George Goetschius was the consultant to the project (seconded thanks in significant part to a grant from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust). M. Joan Tash was the project administrator and supervisor. George Goetschius, like Joan Tash, had significant experience in settlement work and development work.

One of the defining features of the book is the brilliant use the writers make of case study materials. Much of this material remains illuminating and is still referred to by some training programmes. The material derived from participant observation, extracts from recordings by the workers, notes from meetings etc. The value of the material is much enhanced by the insightful commentaries offered by Goetschius and Tash. In addition, they focus on some key notions or ideas that they see underpinning the practice, a number of which had not had proper attention in the literature. Central to this was their exploration of the notion of relationship.

George Goetschius and M. Joan Tash’s exploration of approach and method echoed earlier north American models of social work, but they gave it a significant twist by the strength of their focus on the self and social education. They looked to:

  • Work with individuals,
  • Work with groups,
  • Work with the community,
  • Work with ourselves, and
  • Social education (1967: 135-285)

A great virtue of the approach that they took was that it brought out the significance of process of cultivating extended reflection on the part of the workers. A further, important, element was that the project increasingly looked to the needs of girls and young women. M. Joan Tash had become increasingly concerned about the lack of adequate provision for girls and young women within youth work agencies. She commented on the tendency of some organizations to use ‘one sex to attract the other without equal membership rights’ and even seeing girls ‘apparently as an activity for the boys’ (quoted by Davies 1999: 96). This was a theme echoed by a small, but significant group of commentators and researchers (see, in particular, Hamner 1964).

Seven key elements

When we look at this piece of research seven elements contribute to its success. In many respects they are not just what is needed to research process, but also what is entailed in reflective practice. ‘It may seem strange to say’, they wrote, ‘that our most important work throughout the project was the work with ourselves’ (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 238). It was only through knowing and developing ourselves as practitioners, and deepening our appreciations of the communities in which we work, that the needs of individual young people could be addressed. This was a theme that Parker Palmer was to pick up with considerable force in the 1990s in The Courage to Teach

So what were these elements?

1. Long term exploration

First, and rather obviously, this was work undertaken intensively over a significant period of time. The area they chose (or were able to work within in – there had been difficulties in getting permission to site the coffee stall (see the piece on Joan Tash) had hosted previous experimental work including Marie Paneth’s Branch Street. The initial work with the mobile coffee bar (which lasted 12 months) proved successful and was followed by three year field work project (funded by Ministry of Education and Carnegie). It tool a further two years to write up the project (alongside other work) – and another two years to prepare the report for publication. There were five field workers who undertook substantial work with 159 young people; one consultant (half-time), and one adminstrator/supervisor (half-time).

2. Participant observation

Neither Goetschius nor Tash were in direct contact with the young people on the project. They spent little or no time observing the workers in action. Instead, they sought to develop in the workers through recording, supervision and other forms of training, the ability to engage, observe, make judgements and come to new understandings – the process we now know as Kolb’s experiential learning circle. Goetschius and Tash might well have made sense of through the work of Kurt Lewin and John Dewey.

All social research, we can argue, involves participant observation. We participate in the social world and reflect on what we encounter. To observe and reflect in this way, however, involves being able, either in anticipation or retrospect, to observe our activities ‘from outside’. This was a particular focus of the work of this research project.

Participant observation, ‘is close to everyday interaction, involving conversations to discover participants’ interpretations of situations they are involved in’ (Becker 1958, p. 652). Not surprisingly in the light of this there is also a close relationship between what is approached here as a research methodology and our activities as youth workers and informal educators. We involve ourselves in everyday (and not so everyday) situations, we look at, and listen to, what is happening the encounter. We try to make sense of what is going on, so that we may act.

The aim of participant observation is to produce as Clifford Geertz would have put it, ‘thick description’ of social interaction within ‘natural’ settings. In conversation we encourage people to use their own language and everyday concepts to describe what is going on in their lives. Hopefully, in the process a more adequate picture emerges of the setting as a social system described from a number of participants’ perspectives (Geertz, 1973; Burgess, 1984). In other words, we are seeking to find meaning in the encounters and situations. The tension in all this is, of course, that as practitioners we are seeking to deepen understanding, to expand vocabularies and to encourage actions to change things for the better.

3. Recording

The project placed a strong emphasis upon recording. It was used as a means of reflection: a basis for supervision: an aid to the research and evaluation process (after all like any ethnographers they need field notes); and to help with making decisions about particular individuals and groups. They tried different forms but ended up with a mix of three:

  • Observational records. These were used to note different things about the neighbourhood, the different groups of young people etc. The main purpose of such recording was to give background material for discussion and thinking that might help to avoid preconceptions about the circumstances of the work; to help isolate specifics and to see them as part of a larger pattern; and for tentative generalizations (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 264).
  • Sessional recording. This covered all aspects of the work with individuals, groups and the community. Mostly in narrative form, it described what happened in a session (including the workers feelings etc.), followed by a summary and simple analysis, and what could be done next.
  • Administrative records. Basically a series of files that provided resource material and an ongoing record of the development of the project.

Such recording was seen as an aspect of good practice in terms of face to face work – and had a particular value in detached work where it is easy to feel nothing is happening, or that we aren’t in control. Recording, aside from its other advantages, ‘can help alleviate these feelings by helping the worker to feel he is doing something, even it’s only recording, and because a chaotic situation appears more ordered and reasonable once it is on paper (ibid.: 267). They continue:

Most difficulties in recording can be solved by reference to a cardinal principle, namely, that the only reason for recording is to help the worker locate, develop and discipline the inner resources he needs to do the job. (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 267)

4. Supervision

Both George Goetschius and M. Joan Tash were experienced supervisors. In the project Goetschius supervised the male workers, and Tash the females. By supervision they meant a ‘face-to-face conference between the field worker and the supervisor’ (ibid: 267). They understood that the detached workers they were studying had to make sense of situations quickly and to respond then and there. While training sessions could provide a forum for exploring questions and forming tentative generalizations, the sort of help, support and guidance provided by supervision was necessary if they were to understand themselves in action, and the relationships they work through.

Goetschius and Tash also saw supervision as an ‘experimental relationship’ between colleagues. ‘This provided a situation in which both parties could explore the nature and content of a relationship as objectively as possible so as to help the worker learn by that experience how better to offer himself in his relationship with the young people’ (ibid.: 268).

Supervision sessions, which were weekly, were usually based on the worker providing records for the session, and then producing from these the areas they want to explore with the supervisor. The supervisor’s task was to work with that material and the worker’s thoughts, experiences and feelings so as to deepen their appreciation and understanding and so facilitate better practice. There were dangers in all this. Supervision sessions may provide the opportunity for exploitation. They can become too ‘intense’ and ‘soul searching’, or ends in themselves (ibid.: 276).

Supervision of this kind provides very rich data for researchers – as I found when I used it as the central method of data gathering for Local Education. It does mean that the researcher has to go with the flow of the supervisory conversation, with the issues and questions that occupy the supervisee. The fundamental concern in this approach is to further the supervisee’s understanding and ability to act with integrity in the world. The gaining of particular data is an incidental (albeit an extraordinary productive one). Going in with a detailed research agenda compromises the process.

5. Group exploration

A strong emphasis was placed upon group exploration. Weekly sessions were used to build up a frame of reference within which to think about field work events and problems, develop new skills, and examine and agree upon basic assumptions. In addition, what they described as ‘staff conferences’ were used to work as a team in allocating resources and staff time, scheduling fieldwork, planning and implementing the programme, budgeting, and sharing responsibility for the whole endeavour. In many respects this was an expression of a wish to build up what Jean Lave and Ettiene Wenger were later to call a community of practice.

6. Discernment

George Goetschius and M. Joan Tash were clearly able to make sense of what they were seeing and hearing. They were able to perceive clearly and to make good judgements – they displayed what we might call discernment. This involves a certain artistry, what Donald Schön (1987: 13) describes as an exercise of intelligence, a kind of knowing. They were both connoisseurs and critics.

Here it is well worth reflecting on what they brought to the research effort. Goetschius, an American had worked in Manhattan, and with the radical Sicilian social activist Danilo Dolci (1924-1997). He had worked in settlements as a youth worker. Tash was brought up in Middlesbrough, had worked as a youth worker, settlement worker, and trainer (in Iraq training workers for the YWCA). Both had worked with young people. Both had been involved in significant community development activity. Goetschius had been undertaking long-term research into the work of community groups in London and had just joined the staff of the LSE. Tash was a gifted and incisive supervisor; she was also formidable teacher and facilitator. As David Collander-Brown commented after her death in 2005, ‘For most people who have been taught or supervised by Joan Tash it is not really a case of having to remember her. Rather she is impossible to forget’ (2005: 105).

7. Generating theory

Goetschius and Tash were keen to unearth what Argyris and Schön were later to talk about as theory-in-use:

We came to recognize that each of us carried within us as part of our intellectual equipment, a store of concepts (and their underlying assumptions) which came into play as soon as we set about thinking or discussing. Usually these were unannounced. Sometimes indeed we were unaware of their presence or the premises on which they rested. They were often ‘hidden’, not only from the listener but from the speaker. This was natural in our everyday behaviour, but it tended to create difficulty when common agreement was necessary. It was also complicated by the fact that often the concepts were not only part of our intellectual equipment but had also gathered around themselves strong feelings; our thinking about such things was often heavily charged with our feelings about them….

They also recognized that there was a significant need within the work for clarifying ideas and concepts:

The necessity for clarifying concepts (and understanding the underlying assumptions) was indicated not only by our own experience, but by the dialogue in the field of youth work which gave rise to the project. We had to develop the necessary conceptual tools to carry on the discussion, and to agree their exact composition and on the way in which we would use them. (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 241)

From this they had the imagination and the ability to bring ideas about practice into something approaching a coherent system. It was a view of practice strong on reflection and relationship – and that the workers were engaged in an educational process – but one with some particular qualities:

  1. Its objective is wholly concerned with the social development of the young person.
  2. Its content is more immediate and taken directly from the life experience of the recipients… In this way it attempts to recognize and use what the recipient brings to the situation.
  3. It differs in form, that is the conditions under which it is offered, the place and the circumstances under which it occurs. All these are more directly related to the needs of the recipients than can naturally be the case in more formal kinds of educational setting.
  4. Consequently the role of the person offering the service is modified and he becomes a kind of recource-cum-guidance person, offering a service informally where and when it is necessary, and to those who are willing and able to accept it.
  5. Similarly, the training required for this person and the administrative set-up that supports and help him, are modified to meet his needs in working in this way. This form of education modifies those aspects of the educational process which is concerned with formal, academic, professional or vocational training. (Goetshius and Tash 1967: 283-4)

This is what they understood as social education – ‘that aspect of the educational process that aims at passing on knowledge, understanding or skills to facilitate the social development of individuals by means, in circumstances, and under conditions appropriate to the needs of the recipients’ (ibid.). We might describe it now as informal education.

Some implications and reflections

The obvious thing to say is that such attention to process is not currently possible within state-funded research in the UK. Such is the pressure to produce ‘results’ that support the latest government policy or initiative, and to suppress explorations that question those priorities or suggest other ways, that there is little space for large-scale exploration. There are examples of more open and grounded research from other countries – most notably, Barton Hirsch’s (2005) work in the USA which demonstrated the centrality of relationships in the work (as against programmatic interventions) – but they are few and far between. Furthermore, I am not sure that there are many researchers around the field that have the sort of qualities and the powers of discernment that Goetschius and Tash displayed. They were able to understand youth work as community work, to explore process and to work as ethnographers (their ‘informants’ were the workers). However, we should not be too down-hearted at this – for there is a serious upside. Here I want to focus on four.

First, it is within our grasp as practitioners to take on an ‘ethnographic imagination’. Like social anthropologists, we engage as informal educators in participant observation. We involve ourselves in everyday (and not so everyday) situations, we look at, and listen to, what is happening the encounter. We try to make sense of what is going on, so that we may act.

Second, by taking on the disciplines that Goetschius and Tash were offering – supervision, group exploration, recording – and the reflection on self and situation entailed, there is the possibility of significant work around process (see Smith and Smith forthcoming and the deepening practice support page here).

Third, there is much to be gained at a local level in re-exploring the other processes Goetschius and Tash were examining. The writers provided a number of insights into the process of informal education with young people. Their attention to relationship, their framing of work with young people within a concern for community, and their attention to engaging with group life as it existed offer a refreshing contrast to the much of the current rhetoric and policy within state-sponsored youth work today.

Fourth, looked at from an age where there is an unbalanced and unwarranted focus on demonstrating outcomes with regard to individual young people, Goetschius and Tash’s relative lack of concern with this (it is totally absent from the project’s terms of reference) may seem odd. But there is a fundamental lesson in this. They were writing and researching at a time when there was some appreciation among workers, managers and policymakers of the centrality of relationship – and the benefits it brings. It was enough that young people were spending time around people who could in the McNair Report’s (Board of Education 1944) words, be guides, philosophers and friends to them. Furthermore, as seasoned practitioners and observers they knew that it is very difficult to make any claims about significant change in others. Even if we can evidence something has happened – and that it has longevity and transferability – it is near impossible to isolate contributing factors.

The work of George Goestschius and Joan Tash calls out to be explored and engaged with.


Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Berg, Bruce Lawrence (2000) Qualitative research methods for the social sciences, fourth edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Board of Education (1944) Teachers and Youth Leaders. Report of the Committee appointed by the President of the Board of Education to consider the supply, recruitment and training of teachers and youth leaders, London: HMSO. Part 2 is reproduced in the informal education archives,

Davies, B. (1999) From Voluntaryism to Welfare State. A history of the Youth Service in England Volume 1: 1939-1979, Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Eisner, E. W. (1998) The Enlightened Eye. Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, London: Hutchinson.

Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge. Further essays in interpretive anthropology, New York: Basic Books.

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Chicago: Aldine.

Goetchius, George and Tash M. Joan (1967) Working with Unattached Youth: Problem, approach, method, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Goetchius, George (1969) Working with Community Groups. Using community development as a method of social work, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Hamner, Jalna (1964) Girls at Leisure, London: London Union of Youth Clubs/London YWCA.

Hirsch, B. J. (2005) A Place to Call Home. After-school programs for urban youth, New York: Teachers College Press.

Holly, Mary Louise (1989) Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Hume, Lynne and Mulcock, Jane (eds.) (2005) Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation, Columbia University Press.

Klug, Ron (2002) How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. A guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery (rev. edn.), Minneapolis: Augsburg.

Pugh, Caroline (2001) ‘Youth work classics revisited: Working with unattached youth’, Youth and Policy 65.

Rainer, Tristine (1978) The New Diary. How to use a journal for self-guidance and extended creativity, Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher Inc.

Rossi, P. H., Freeman, H. and Lipsey, M. W. (2004) Evaluation. A systematic approach 7e, Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage.

Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Smith, H. and Smith, M. K. (2007) The Art of Helping Others, London.

Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Strauss, A. L. (1987) Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stringer, E. T. (1999) Action Research 2e, Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage

Tash, M. Joan (1967) Supervision in Youth Work, London: London Council of Social Service. Reprinted by the YMCA National College 1984, 2000.

Whyte, W. F. (ed.) (1991) Participatory Action Research, Newbury Park: Sage.

Whyte, W. with Whyte, K. (1984) Learning From the Field. A guide from experience, Newbury Park : Sage.

Acknowledgement: Picture: ‘Mods’ – Paul Townsend. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under s Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2007) ‘Classic studies in informal education – Working with unattached youth’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2007