What is youth work? Exploring the history, theory and practice of work with young people

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What is youth work? Where did it come from? What is the state of youth work practice today? We explore the development of the theory and practice of youth work in Britain and Northern Ireland – and its uncertain future.

contents: introduction · early stirrings · the development of youth work · uniformed youth work · youth work, youth clubs and the youth service · the decline of state-sponsored youth work · the re-emergence of faith-based youth work · defining youth work · conclusion – from youth work to working with young people · further reading and references · how to cite this article

The meaning of the term ‘youth work’ is difficult to pin down. When people talk about youth work they can mean very different things. For example, they might be describing work with a group of Guides; running a youth club; making contact with different groups of young people on an estate; mentoring a young person; or facilitating a church fellowship; or tutoring on a mountain walking course. Over the years contrasting traditions of youth work have emerged and developed (see Smith 2008). When we explore the theory and practice involved with these we can find some key elements that define youth work. In this piece we look to five dimensions:

  • Focusing on young people, their needs, experiences and contribution.
  • Voluntary participation young people choose to become involved in the work.
  • Fostering association, relationship and community, encouraging all to join in friendship,  to organize and take part in groups and activities and deepen and develop relationships and that allow them to grow and flourish.
  • Being friendly, accessible and responsive while acting with integrity. Youth work has come to be characterized by a belief that workers should not only be approachable and friendly; but also that they should have faith in people; and be trying, themselves, to live good lives.
  • Looking to the education and, more broadly, the welfare of young people. (See Jeffs and Smith 2010)

Central to understanding this way of working is an appreciation that historically what we know as ‘youth work’ has taken place through the action of volunteers and workers in local groups. As Jeffs and Smith (2010) have argued  ‘Youth work was born, and remains fundamentally a part, of civil society. It is wrapped up with associational life, community groups and voluntary organizations’. This is recognized in Ireland where youth work is defined in law. It is to be provided ‘primarily by voluntary youth work organizations’ (Government of Ireland 2001).

The benefits of this way of working are great. We know, for example, that those who belong to groups are happier and healthier than those who do not; and that neighbourhoods where there is community activity tend to be safer and economically active. We also know that the relationships that workers form with young people – because they are born out of spending time together, a willingness to have fun as well as educate, and of involvement in local community life – can be incredibly powerful (Jeffs and Snith 2010). Indeed, the research shows that they are much more powerful than many other mentoring relationships (see, for example Hirsch 2005).

We start with some history.

Youth work – early stirrings

For those looking for the origins of what we now know as ‘youth work’, a common starting point is the development of Sunday Schools associated with churches and chapels in last few years of the eighteenth century, and, in particular, the activities of pioneers such as Robert Raikes and Hannah More as an important forerunner of the work. Sunday Schools schools often used more informal ways of working and later developed a range of activities including team sports and day trips. It is also possible to look to  ragged schools in the first half of the nineteenth century as precursors of youth work. Run by volunteers, these schools were aimed at the many children and young people who, by virtue of poverty, could not access other forms of education. They often met in far from ideal settings like stables, under railway arches, church halls and run-down houses. Again, they were a lot more informal than mainstream schools. Another important landmark in the emergence of youth work was appearance of  young men’s associations. Indeed, it could be said that the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), set up in 1844, was the first dedicated youth organization.

These innovations largely grew from the activities of evangelical Christians. They were a response to the social and spiritual situation that the pioneers found. The poverty and deprivation of the Mendip Hills, for example, motivated Hannah More; the squalor and lack of hope and opportunity in the dock areas of Portsmouth animated John Pound to set up a ‘ragged school’. Some schemes flowed from very conservative views, others sought radical social change. As a result, there were some tensions and conflicts between different groupings.

A further, important, factor in the emergence of youth work was that people began to talk about ‘youth’. In other words, the significance of ‘youth’ as a category began to be recognized. There were growing numbers of articles in newspapers, for example, about the problems facing young men and women – and the issues they presented to society. As public interest in ‘youth’ developed, by the 1890s psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall began to build theories of ‘adolescence’. However, it was around the mid-century people began consciously working with ‘youths’ as a separate grouping with specific needs.

The development of youth work in Britain

One of the key moments in the establishment of youth work was the development of youth’s institutes and clubs in the 1850s in Britain. Here the work of the Reverend Arthur Sweatman is of special note. Involved in setting up and running a youth’s institute, he looked at the activities of similar initiatives. In a paper read to the Social Science Association in Edinburgh in October 1863 he made one of the first cases for specific provision for youth (via clubs and institutes) (the full text of the paper is in the informal education archives). He argued that lads and young men have ‘special wants and dangers’, which call for an agency such as a Youths’ Institute:

Their peculiar wants are evening recreation, companionship, an entertaining but healthy literature, useful instruction, and a strong guiding influence to lead them onward and up­ward socially and morally; their dangers are, the long evenings consequent upon early closing, the unrestraint they are allowed at home, the temptations of the streets and of their time of life, and a little money at the bottom of their pockets. (Sweatman 1867)

In the basic form that some of these Institutes initially took we see some familiar youth work elements. There was as a large room or church hall where young men could read, talk, play games, get a cup of tea or cocoa and take part in various classes and activities.

What follows is an account of the Latymer Road Ragged School Youths’ Institute from the The RSU Quarterly Record in April 1881:

Every evening between 100 and 200 young fellows quietly interest themselves with books, draughts, carpentry tools and games of various sorts. The name of Coffee House has been dropped and that of Evening Shelter substituted. The boys, in fact, make the place a kind of club and are sadly distressed when they are unable to obtain entrance, which sometimes happens on the occasion of a public meeting. There is a weekly service on Wednesdays at 7.30pm and the boys, by their quiet demeanour, show that they appreciate the service and the kindness which prompts it.

There were evening classes twice a week, the three ‘R’s were taught to those who needed it (and wanted it), and one of the main features of the shelter were fortnightly cocoa concerts. The Quarterly Record reported that ‘admission is one penny, which is returned in the shape of hot cocoa and a price of a cake’.

In the 1880s and 1890s there was a marked growth in club provision for young people. Of particular note here was the pioneering of lads’ clubs by many Catholic and Anglican priests. There was a parallel growth in girls’ clubs and groups. From 1880 onwards we see a number of girls clubs being established, some with hostels, some with a range of rooms and facilities. There were also other important developments in Christian work with young women, including the founding of the Anglican, Girls Friendly Society in 1875. Its purpose was to ‘unite girls and women in a fellowship of prayer, service and purity of life, for the glory of God’. By 1885 there were 821 branches in England and Wales. We can also chart the development of outreach work to young people by district visitors linked to churches and religious groups (see, for example, Maud Stanley and work around the Five Dials or the activities of Thomas Barnardo in east London).

By the late 1880s and in the 1890s, more radical forms of ‘youth work’ had begun to be noticed. One of the most interesting examples here was the work of Emmeline Pethick and Mary Neal. They started a club – the Espérance – and then, disturbed by the exploitation of young women by the West End dress trade, a tailoring co-operative (the Maison Espérance – described in Pethick 1898). Their particular contribution to what we now know as ‘youth work’ was the recognition of a social and political dimension to work with young women. Emily Pethick (who later went on to become the treasurer and key organizer with the Pankhursts of the English Suffrage Union) wrote:

The conditions, not only of the home, but of the factory or workshop had to be taken into account. It became our business to study the industrial question as it affected the girls’ employments, the hours, the wages, and the conditions. And we had also to give them a conscious part to take in the battle that is being fought for the workers, and will not be won until it is loyally fought by the as well (Pethick 1898: 104).

Quite a number of the women involved in setting up girls clubs were concerned about the exploitation of young women at work, and the problems they faced in their leisure. Part of the purpose of earlier girls organizations such as the National Organization of Girls Clubs (founded in 1911 and now known as Youth UK) was to put pressure on the government for reforms in these areas. Most of these initiatives, for all their differences, emerged out of the work of evangelical Christians. However, there began to be a significant shift away from evangelicalism in great swathes of youth work. Workers with very different religious views had begun to come into the work. For some there was a stronger emphasis on fellowship and social justice. We can also see the beginnings of youth work in other faiths. Of greatest significance here is the pioneering of of Jewish youth work by Lily Montagu and others through various forms of club and settlement.

Uniformed work

While there were shifts away from evangelical youth work, there continued to be developments. The most significant innovation began in Glasgow in the early 1880s. William Smith started to experiment with the idea of uniformed youth groups as a means of evangelism. ‘By associating Christianity with all that was most noble and manly in a boy’s sight’, he wrote, ‘we would be going a long way to disabuse his mind of the idea that there is anything effeminate or weak about Christianity’ (quoted by Springhall 1777: 22). It was out of these activities that the Boys Brigade emerged (there were around 800 units by the end of the nineteenth century). Local brigades typically involved a mix of drill and instruction plus a range a range of other activities including camping, music, first aid and clubrooms. Others quickly imitated Smith’s vision. In 1891 an Anglican version, the Church Lads’ Brigade, began in London and by 1893 had a membership of 8,000 boys. The Jewish Lads’ Brigade was founded in 1895 and the Catholic Lads’ Brigade in 1896. Girls’ Brigades also began to be established.

The emphasis on drill, evangelicalism and regimentation in the Boys’ Brigade worried a number of commentators. Of most significance was Robert Baden-Powell who was to found Scouting. While applauding certain aspects of the work, he was deeply suspicious of formal religion and ‘hymn-singing dissenters’ and of the numbing effects on creativity of drill. Baden Powell was concerned about the well-being of young people. The poor physical condition of the young men attempting to join the army during the Boer War was a factor in his championing and fashioning of Scouting. However, he was equally worried about people’s mental well-being. He began to explore different schemes and educational forms and to write up his own vision. In August 1907 he conducted the famous Brownsea Island Experimental Camp – and this experience confirmed his initial views. The result was Scouting for Boys (first published in in parts in 1908). It is difficult now to appreciate the impact of Scouting for Boys – it sold in thousands and resulted in the establishment of a large number of Scouting groups. Baden-Powell had planned to set up a separate movement, but events overtook him. By 1912 there were some 128,000 Scouts and nearly 5000 Scoutmasters. By 1930 there were nearly 390,000 Scouts and cubs and nearly 35,000 Scout leaders. Baden-Powell had also responded to requests to young women and had established the Guides (formally in 1910). It many respects, Scouting could claim to be the first mass youth movement in Britain. It also involved major innovations in practice. Robert Baden-Powell took various elements from other schemes and programmes and moulded them into a form that caught many people’s imagination. Today we can easily overlooked his concern with the social lives and imagination of young people, and how he was able to build on this to develop an educational form that looked to association (see below). He placed a special value on adventure; on children and young people working together – and taking responsibility (his ‘patrol’ building on the idea of ‘natural’ friendship groups and ‘gangs’); on developing self-sufficiency; and on ‘learning through doing’ (he was deeply suspicious of curriculum forms).

Youth work, youth clubs and the youth service

Following the First World War, there were some stuttering steps toward state funding and involvement in youth work, for example the granting of powers to local education authorities to establish ‘Juvenile Organizing Committees’ (Board of Education Circular 86, 1921). Up until this point it was still normal to talk about work with or among boys and girls (or young men and women or youth). In the late 1920s we see the growing use of the term ‘youth work’. The first booklet in the UK appeared with it in its title: Methods in Youth Work (Walkey et al 1931).

However, it was with onset of the Second World War and In the Service of Youth (Circular 1486, 1939) that we see the beginnings of an organized service to deal with the situations arising in wartime Britain. In the interim there had been some interesting developments in church-based youth work (see, for example, Leonard Barnett and the church youth club), around old scholars clubs in schools, and in work on new housing estates (detailed in Jeffs 1979, and Smith 1988). But with the outbreak of war, and the need for more imaginative youth work, a number of interesting forms gathered pace including the ‘open’ club, and ‘detached’ youth work. With the ending of hostilities government enthusiasm for youth work waned, and it needed the ‘discovery’ of teenagers (and various moral panics surrounding their behaviour) to gain attention to the work.

With the publication of the Albemarle Report in 1960 there followed something of a golden age for youth work in England and Wales. In particular the Report heralded the heyday of the large youth club or youth centre. It famously declared that the primary aims of the youth service should be association, training and challenge (ibid.: 36 – 41 and 52 – 64).

To encourage young people to come together into groups of their own choosing is the fundamental task of the Service… (W)e want to call attention to:

a) an opportunity for commitment….

b) an opportunity for counsel….

c) an opportunity for self-determination. (1960 52-54).

The Albemarle Report was the trigger for a significant expenditure on youth centres, an expansion of training, and the development of project work (especially around detached youth work and coffee bars). In addition, there was a flourishing in the literature of the field and a particular interest in social education as the organizing idea for the work (See Davies and Gibson 1967; Davies 1999; Smith 1980; 1982).

Well into the 1970s youth workers were benefiting from a ‘bulge’ in the numbers of young people. However, the demographic tide was running against them – the number of young people was dropping significantly. This reflected in a significant decline in the membership of youth organizations by those over the age of 11 years. But there were also further factors at work including the rise of the home as a centre for entertainment. With television, video, computer gaming and the like there was a variety of different possibilities for entertainment in many homes. Increased participation in education both meant that larger numbers of young people had the opportunity to meet each other) and that there were pressures on young people’s time to complete course work. There was also a massive growth in alternative commercial leisure opportunities (Smith 1991). The youth club, like the public house, declined in significance as a place where people met and spent time.

The decline of state-sponsored youth work

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was continuing pressure on state funding for youth work. Social work, criminal justice, schools and further education were seen as higher priorities. In addition there was still a significant demographic factor – a drop in the numbers of young people. One response by youth workers and youth services to was to move to alternative ways of working – in particular detached youth work, issue-based projects and, in Scotland, youth cafes. With numbers attending youth clubs and centres in decline there was a domino effect. It was hard to make the case for dedicated buildings, a struggle to generate sufficient numbers of participants for groups and special activities, and often demoralizing for workers who had nobody to talk to but themselves for much of the time. It was also increasingly difficult to find people ready to volunteer to work in local groups. The traditional youth club seemed doomed to extinction. The final blow was delivered by a combination of an increasing interest in issue-based work by youth workers; a movement away from locating workers within civil society organizations into teams with state organizations; and a growing emphasis upon concrete outcomes by policymakers. To sustain funding for youth work there was a shift from ‘open’ provision toward working with groups of young people deemed to be ‘at risk’ in some way.

This trend was heightened by the coming to power of the Labour Government in 1997. Their emphasis on dealing with social exclusion, and their focus on services for youth rather than youth service, pointed to some profound shifts (see Jeffs and Smith 2001). These culminated in England in the establishment of the Connexions Service and the development of the role of the personal advisor. Subsequently, with Youth Matters and the following strategy document (HM Teasury 2007) there was a move away from the Connexions approach into locating the work within children’s trusts. Some elements of the Connexions strategy remained, and the role of schools in provision was strengthened (via extended schooling and the need for a greater range of services within schools). Against this there was a belated attempt by central government to create a limited number of high profile youth hubs via the myplace programme – but there were a number of fundamental problems with the basic idea and made little sense against the background of cuts that faced this area of work (see Spence et. al. 2011].

The overall effect of these movements was to radically alter the shape of many jobs within youth services and those agencies tied to Connexions and similar funding. Many jobs involved what we have come to know as youth work, but a growing proportion of workers’ time was eaten up by increased paperwork, the management of staff and in ‘co-ordinating’ activity. This form of work with young people often involved an increasing amount of formal teaching or tutoring linked to accreditation targets. There was also a significant increase in the amount of one-to-one work or casework.The role of youth work within state-sponsored services was, in effect, downgraded and increasingly marginalized.

The decline of youth work in state-sponsored services in England was further accelerated by austerity measures following the banking crisis of 2008. With large cuts in funding and increased demand on that diminishing pot of money from adult social care any area of expenditure that was not ring-fenced or a full-blown statutory was vulnerable. The result was a further major reduction in the support of work with young people outside schooling and social care and an accelerated dismantling of local state services. Much of the remaining and diminished support for other work with young people was outsourced to non-governmental organizations and social enterprises.

In Wales youth work gained some recognition in policy debates – but has suffered a similar fate to that experienced in England. With the advent of the Scottish Assembly, events have taken a different direction in Scotland. There was a renewed interest in youth work (and, arguably, an associated movement away from community-based learning and education). However, Scotland has not escaped the movement away from association and the growing emphasis upon targeting services. Indeed, more recent strategy documents contain similar rhetoric to that found in England (see Scottish Executive 2007; HM Treasury 2007).

The re-emergence of faith-based youth work

A contrasting picture emerged in many churches and faith groups (see Jeffs and Smith 2010). From the early 1990s onwards there was marked development of interest in work with young people. The English Church Attendance Survey in 1998, for example, found that some 21 per cent of churches had a full-time salaried youth worker. Even allowing for some mis-categorization this represented a major shift . Later figures suggested that there were around 5,500 fte youth workers employed by churches and Christian agencies, more than the statutory youth service (Centre for Youth Ministry 2006). There were also said to be around 100,000 volunteers. Churches had become the largest employer of youth workers in the country. Alongside this came a major flourishing in the literature including a growing concern with theological questions – especially under the influence of the north American tradition of youth ministry (see the Christian youth work and youth ministry). A number of specifically Christian youth work training programmes appeared. Within Protestant churches this development was largely associated with the rise of evangelicalism since the 1960s. As Jeffs and Smith (2010) have noted:

‘One of the most important aspects of this development is that the money to employ workers and fund the work is generated almost wholly from within the Church. As a result, this work is not susceptible to the same sort of lever-pulling as those receiving state funding. Crucially, its language and forms retain continuity with what we have explored here as youth work. Furthermore, a strong emphasis upon calling and service remains part of practice. However, this is at a cost. Pay is frequently low when compared with the state sector, and conditions can be variable. Unfair expectations are often placed upon workers.

Over the last ten years there appears to have been a movement in local churches into more community-based provision i.e. catering across the age range. In part this has flown from a recognition of changing needs. A classic example of this has been the involvement of religious organizations in initiatives like food banks. In addition, with significant drops in real incomes in the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2008, the capacity of congregations and members to sustain big youth projects has dropped (Smith forthcoming).

We have also seen significant developments in the work with young people undertaken by mosques and local Muslim organizations. More recently some of this work has been supported by state funding to counter ‘violent extremism’, but there had been a growing involvement of local Muslim civil society organizations. Alongside this has also come an interesting exploration of thinking and practice that has looked at what might constitute a specifically Muslim way of working with young people (see, for example, Khan 2006).

Defining youth work

So what implications does this history have for the way we define youth work? The first thing to say is that it is helpful to think of there being different forms of youth work rather than a single youth work with commonly agreed characteristics (Smith 1988: 51). However, it is possible to identify some key dimensions that have been present to differing degrees in the central discourses of practice since the early 1900s. Youth work involves:

Focusing on young people. Although there have been various shifts in the age boundaries, youth work has remained an age-specific activity. Its practitioners claim some expertise in both in making sense of the experiences of youth, and in being able to work with young people (Jeffs 2001: 156). While there may be problems around how we talk about and define youth – and around the sorts of expertise we can claim – there can be no doubting that many young people both view their experiences as being different to other age groups, and seek out each other’s company. (Jeffs and Smith 1999b, 2001a). Many youth workers have traditionally responded to this – and top the ways of understanding the world that people bring.

Emphasizing voluntary participation. The voluntary principle, as Tony Jeffs (2001: 156) has commented, has distinguished youth work from most other services provided for this age group. Young people have, traditionally, been able to freely enter into relationships with workers and to end those relationships when they want. This has fundamental implications for the way in which youth workers operate and the opportunities open to them. It can encourage youth workers to think and work in rather more dialogical ways (op. cit.). It also means that workers either have to develop programmes that attract young people to a youth work agency, or they have to go to the settings where they are.

Association, community and relationship. Association – joining together in companionship or to undertake some task, and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association (Doyle and Smith 1999: 44) – has been a defining feature of much youth work since its inception. This interest in association was, perhaps, most strongly articulated in the Albemarle Report (HMSO 1960). However, of late the notion has come under considerable threat. The shift away from clubs to targeted groups has been one factor here. Another has been a growing emphasis by policymakers on the gaining of skills and knowledge by individuals (as against the enhancement of the abilities of groups to work together). ‘Building relationships‘ has been central both to the rhetoric and practice of much youth work. Our relationships are seen as a fundamental source of learning. By paying attention to the nature of the relationship between educators and learners, it is argued, we can work in ways more appropriate to people’s needs (Smith 2001b).

Being friendly, accessible and responsive while acting with integrity. Youth work has come to be characterized by a belief that workers should not only be approachable and friendly; but also that they should have faith in people; and be trying, themselves, to live good lives. In other words, the person or character of the worker is of fundamental importance. As Basil Henriques put it (1933: 60): ‘However much self-government in the club may be emphasized, the success of the club depends upon the personality and ingenuity of the leader’. The head of the club, he continued, must ‘get to know and to understand really well every individual member. He must have it felt that he is their friend and servant’ (ibid.: 61). Or as Josephine Macalister Brew (1957: 112-113) put it, ‘young people want to know where they are and they need the friendship of those who have confidence and faith’. It follows from this that the settings workers help to build should be convivial, the relationships they form honest and characterized by ‘give and take’; and the programmes they are involved in, flexible. ‘A youth leader must try not to be too concerned about results’, Brew wrote, ‘and at all costs not to be over-anxious’ (ibid.: 183).

Only by the slow and tactful method of inserting yourself unassumingly into the life of the club, not by talking to your club members, but by hanging about and learning from their conversation and occasionally, very occasionally, giving it that twist which leads it to your goal, is it possible to open up a new avenue of thought to them (Brew 1943: 16).

In short, youth work is driven by conversation and an evolving idea of what might make for the well-being and growth.

Being concerned with the education and, more broadly, the welfare of young people. Historically, youth work did not develop to simply ‘keep people off the streets’, or to provide amusement. As we have seen, a lot of the early clubs grew out of Sunday schools and ragged schools – and much provision has retained an educative orientation. Training courses and programmes, classes, discussions, libraries and various opportunities to expand and deepen experience have been an essential element of youth work since its beginnings. This interest in learning – often of the most informal kind – was augmented by a concern for the general welfare of young people. We can find many examples in youth work of clubs providing a range of services including health care, wash and bathrooms, clothing stores, and income support. With developments and changes in state support mechanisms, and the identification of other needs, the pattern of welfare provision has shifted – but has remained a significant element of youth work.

It is through these five elements that we can begin to make sense of the dominant discourses of youth work over the last 100 years (Smith 1988; Jeffs and Smith 2012).

Conclusion – from youth work to working with young people

Just how what we have known as ‘youth work’ will fare in Britain and Northern Ireland over the next few years is a matter for some debate. It is clear that state support for this way of working with young people will not recover in the dominant forms that previously existed. It is also clear that there remains a significant demand for certain forms of work – especially where it is clearly identified with civil society and social movements or with particular leisure interests. Guiding and Scouting are prime examples of the former; outdoor learning and community sports development of the later. In addition, schools, children and young people services and housing providers stay important employers of workers.

Schools, children and young people services, and supported housing

Within the schooling sector – with a continuing need to work with disengaged young people; changing emphases around inclusion; and the failure of many children’s services around early intervention – schools, colleges and Pupil Referral Units and the like have turned to qualified youth workers. Crucially though, they are employed under different titles.

There looks to be a continuing demand for practitioners who can work alongside young people in more everyday situations within children and young people services. This tends to fall into three main categories:

  • residential care (and here some employers are moving towards social pedagogues).
  • general information, advice and work around specific concerns (e.g. parenting, ‘risky’ behaviour and NEET (not in employment, education and training).
  • work with identified individuals and families.

Again only a limited number of these workers are described as youth workers – and linked to this a number of local state employers have moved away from JNC qualification requirements around the employment of those working with young people.

In housing work – especially in hostels and supported housing – there has been a continuing demand for practitioners who can work in a sophisticated way in everyday situations and who can deal with conflicts and complex situations that occur. The particular orientation and skill-mix of professionally qualified youth workers has meant that significant numbers are employed as support workers. In addition some housing associations continue to employ y0uth and community workers.

From youth work to working with young people?

One of the most obvious changes that will occur is in the language of the area – and how we describe this area of activity. ‘Youth work’ grew as a term with the emergence of local Youth Services. With their demise fewer and fewer practitioners have the words ‘youth work’ in their job titles. We have seen a growing adoption of the term ‘work with young people’ in place of ‘youth work’ by funders and agencies. At the same time there has been an increasing interest in alternative ways of describing the work – particularly in the mainland Europe notion of social pedagogy (which of course links back to earlier interest in social education within youth work).

From state to civil society

Perhaps the most significant change is related to the withdrawal of the state from a large swathe of local provision – especially in England and Wales. Initially state-sponsorship of provision involved the giving of general grants and the secondment of workers to local community groups and organizations. It was the eating away of this that weakened local work and the civil society organizations linked to it. This was achieved through bringing workers directly into local state control in more centralized teams, a focus on central state targets especially around intervention with particular groups; and the use of local service-level agreements and the like. Unfortunately, more recent use of commissioning and contracting weakened local community providers and favoured larger organizations with a bid-making infrastructure. There is considerable anecdotal evidence of the quality of the work offered to local people declined as a result. One upside is there is more space for renewal and innovation – crucially through the return of this form of working with young people to its roots in local civil society organizations. They still often have considerable expertise and the networks necessary to make a difference (see Rogers and Smith 2011; Hemmings 2011).

Further reading

Here I have picked out some key ‘classic’ texts:

Brew, J. M. (1943) In the Service of Youth, London: Faber and Faber. 300 pages. (Later revised and published as Youth and Youth Groups (1957; 2e 1968 [revised by Joan Matthews]) Basically a series of talks that were edited together, this is, in many respects, the first ‘modern’ text on youth work. It outlines what Josephine Brew saw as the essentials of a youth work approach; discusses the the emergence of the youth service; the situation facing young people with regard to education, housing, health, employment, leisure and crime; and gives practical guidance on programming, participation, and activities. Engagingly written, this quickly became a youth work ‘classic’. Brew had been a teacher, worked in a settlement, and had developed a number of innovatory projects as a youth organizer. She was to pioneer the use of residentials and groupwork; and was later to design a significant part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The book is still worth engaging with as Brew has a strong sense of the educational significance of interactions and social institutions such as clubs and projects. [Out of print].

Davies, B. and Gibson, A. (1967) The Social Education of the Adolescent, London: University of London Press. 256 pages. Classic 1960s statement of social education that provides a historical perspective plus various chapters on aims, methods, client-centred practice, principles, understanding, forging a discipline and training. This was, in many respects, the successor to Brew (1943; 1957). It was important both because of its organization around the idea of social education – interactions oriented toward the development of self understanding and satisfying relationships; and because of the the quality of the writing. As a ‘theory and practice’ text it is yet to be bettered. [Out of print].

Smith, M. (1980, 1982) Creators not Consumers. Rediscovering social education, Leicester: National Association of Youth Clubs. 60 pages. Written to promote discussion about social education, the booklet took an everyday example of the work – organizing an ice-skating trip – and explored how it could be an educational experience – and how we can connect the personal and political. 

Young, K. (1999) The Art of Youth Work, Lyme Regis: Russell House. 127 + x pages. Argues that what youth workers do is to make relationships with young people through which the latter are supported to learn to examine their values; deliberate over the principles of their moral judgements; and develop the skills and dispositions to make informed and rational choices that can be sustained through committed action. Attempts to argue that the uniqueness of youth work lies in its purpose not its method. Critical of (and misrepresents) the argument that youth as a social category is of diminishing significance.

More recent treatments worth looking at include:

Davies, B. and Batsleer, J. R. (2010). What is youth work? Exeter: Learning Matters. A helpful exploration of the nature of youth work

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (eds.) (2010) Youth work practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Published in the BASW Social Work series, this books explores different facets of practice like working with individuals, working with groups, conversation and so on.

Nicholls, D. (2012). For Youth Workers and Youth Work: Speaking Out for a Better Future. Bristol: Policy Press. Doug Nicholls looks at how youth work can be reconfigured and the struggles that lay ahead.

Rogers, A. and Smith, M. K. (eds.) (2011). Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities. Lyme Regis: Russell House.

Histories of youth work

Bunt, S. (1975) Jewish Youth Work. Past, present and future, London: Bedford Square Press. 240 pages. Provides a good introduction to Jewish youth work. While there is substantial material exanmining the then current state of the work, the bulk of the book is devoted to tracing the emergence and development of the work.

Bunt, S. and Gargrave, R. (1980) The Politics of Youth Clubs, Nuneaton: National Association of Youth Clubs. 182 pages. Useful, but oddly constructed review that is stronger on earlier girls and mixed club work.

Davies, B. (1999) From Voluntaryism to Welfare State. A history of the Youth Service in England. Volume 1: 1939 – 1979, and From Thatcherism to New Labour. A history of the Youth Service in England. Volume 2: 1979 – 1999: Leicester: Youth Work Press. A useful review and analysis of the development (and decline) of the youth service with a focus on central organizational change and policy shifts. Good on the national reports etc. and policy shifts but does not bring out the changing shape of practice and the movements at the local level.

Dawes, F. (1975) A Cry from the Streets. The Boys’ Club movement in Britain from the 1850s to the present day, Hove: Wayland. 192 pages. Readable overview that helps fill in the gap where Eagar left off (see below).

Eagar, W. McG (1953) Making Men. A history of boys clubs and related movements, London: University of London Press. 437 pages. Quite the best historical treatment of UK youth work. Eagar begins by discussing the recognition of adolescence; the development of church and philanthropic concern around youth; the emergence of ragged schooling, clubs, settlements and missions and then charts the history of the boys’ clubs movement. There is some material on girl’s clubs. He is particularly strong on the idea of the club, linkages into schooling and rescue, and how these related to other Victorian institutions and concerns. Thoroughly recommended.

Evans, W. M. (1965) Young People in Society, Oxford, Blackwell.

Hubery, D. S. (1963) The Emancipation of Youth, London, The Epworth Press.

Nicholls, D. (1997) An Outline History of Youth and Community Work and the Union 1834 – 1997, Birmingham, Pepar Publications. Just what the title says – a brief outline.

Percival, A. C. (1951) Youth Will Be Led. The story of the voluntary youth organizations, London: Collins. 249 pages. Useful overview of the development of voluntary work. Percival sets out to ‘give an idea of how one impulse after another urged men and women to be come workers in the field, answering the need that seemed most pressing their day; to show how the founders of various associations often “builded better than they knew” and to indicate the characteristics, the problems and the philosophy that lie behind the work being done’ (p. 12). Chapters on early history; middle class needs (YMCA & YWCA); the Brigades; the village girls’ club (GFS); clubs (lay and church); scouts and guides; ‘common interest’ associations (young farmer’s etc.); federation and partnership; state intervention; present trends; characteristics and motives; conclusion.

Saunders, H. St. George (1949) The Left Handshake. The Boy Scout Movement during the War 1939-1945, London, Collins.

Springhall, J., Fraser, B. and Hoare, M. (1983) Sure and Stedfast. A history of the Boys Brigade 1883 to 1983, London: Collins. 297 pages. Comprehensive history that is not the usual centenary celebration. Rather it examines the development of ‘the world’s first successful voluntary uniformed organization’. The writers attempt to correct ‘false assumptions’ about the Brigade’s historical links with militarism and evangelicalism. The Brigade’s is set in a broader social and historical context. [Out of print]. See also John Springhall’s (1977) Youth, Empire and Society. British youth movements, 1883-1940, Beckenham: Croom Helm. 163 pages. This is a useful exploration of the emergence of uniformed youth organizations. There is no separate, substantial academic history of Scouting and Guiding.

In addition there is an excellent series of books based on material emerging from the Youth and Policy History of Youth and Community Work:

Gilchrist, R., Jeffs, T. and Spence, J. (2001). Essays in the History of Community and Youth Work. Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Gilchrist, R. Jeffs, T. and Spence, J. (2003). Architects of Change: Studies in the History of Community and Youth Work. Leicester: The National Youth Agency.

Gilchrist, R., Jeffs, T. and Spence, J. (2006). Drawing on the Past: Studies in the History of Community and Youth Work. Leicester: The National Youth Agency.

Gilchrist, R., Jeffs, T., Spence, J. and Walker, J. (2009). Essays in the History of Youth and Community Work: Discovering the past. Lyne Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Gilchrist, R., Hodgson, T.; Jeffs, T., Spence, J., Stanton, N. and Walker, J. (2011). Reflecting on the Past. Essays in the history of youth and community work. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Youth work: official reports

Here I have listed four documents – two major reports, an excellent, short exploration of youth work by HM Inspectors, and a recent, rather thin green paper.

Department of Education and Science (1969) Youth and Community Work in the 70’s, (The Fairbairn-Milson Report), London, HMSO.

Department of Education and Science (1987) Effective Youth Work. Education Observed 6, London: Department of Education and Science. 23 + iv pages. This booklet draws on the experience of (old-style) inspections to set out some dimensions of good practice. Has sections on the development of individuals through activity; learning from the surroundings; decision making – learning from the group; obstacles and barriers: learning to cope and challenge; and outcomes and results: learning from taking action. A concise statement of developmental youth work. [Out of print].

H. M Government (2005) Youth Matters, London: The Stationery Office. This paper looked to extend the remit of Every Child Matters and to continue the broad redefinition of youth services that had taken place under New Labout.

Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales (‘The Albemarle Report‘), London, HMSO. The classic expression of youth work as association, challenge and training.

For a fuller listing: government reports and circulars.


Brew, J. Macalister (1943) In The Service of Youth. A practical manual of work among adolescents, London: Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1946) Informal Education. Adventures and reflections, London: Faber.

Brew, J. Macalister (1957) Youth and Youth Groups, London: Faber & Faber.

Booton, F. and Dearling, A. (eds.) (1980) The 1980s and Beyond. The changing scene of youth and community work, Leicester: National Youth Bureau.

Cohen, P. and Ainley, P. (2000) ‘In the Country of the Blind?: Youth Studies and Cultural Studies in Britain’ Journal of Youth Studies 3(1).

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

Department for Education and Employment (2001) Transforming Youth Work. Developing youth work for young people, London: Department for Education and Employment/Connexions.

Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Born and Bred? Leadership, heart and informal education, London: YMCA George Williams College/Rank Foundation.

Government of Ireland (2001) Youth Work Act 2001. [http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/2001/en/act/pub/0042/print.html#parti-sec3. Accessed April 2, 2007].

Hemmings, H. (2011). Together: How small groups achieve big things. London: John Murray.

Henriques, B. (1933) Club Leadership, London: Oxford University Press.

HM Treasury (2007) Aiming high for young people. A ten year strategy for positive activities. London: HM Treasury/Department for Children, Schools and Families.

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

Illich, I. (1974) Tools for Conviviality, London: Fontana.

Illich, I. et al (1977) Disabling Professions, London: Marion Boyars.

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

Jeffs, T. (1996) ‘The hallmarks of youth work’, YMCA George Williams College Induction Studies Unit 7.

Jeffs, T. (2001) ‘”Something to give and much to learn”: Settlements and youth work’, in R. Gilchrist and T. Jeffs (eds.) Settlements, Social Change and Community Action, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1987) Youth Work, London: Macmillan.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1988) Youth Work and Welfare Practice, London: Macmillan.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1990) Young People, Inequality and Youth Work, London: Macmillan.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1994) ‘Young people, youth work and a new authoritarianism’, Youth and Policy 46

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1996) ‘“Getting the dirtbags off the streets” – curfews and other solutions to juvenile crime’, Youth and Policy 52.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. M. (1999a) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999b) ‘The problem of “youth” for youth work’ Youth and Policy No 62, http://www.infed.org/archives/youth.htm.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2001a) ‘Youth’ in M. Haralambos (ed.) Developments in Sociology 17, Ormskirk: Causeway Press.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2001b) ‘Social exclusion, joined-up thinking and individualization – new labour’s connexions strategy’ The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, http://www.infed.org/personaladvisers/connexions_strategy.htm.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Individualization and youth work’, Youth and Policy 76: 39-65.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (eds.) (2010) Youth work practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Khan, J. (2006). Muslim Youth Work (A special edition of Youth and Policy 92). [http://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/youthandpolicy92.pdf. Retrieved October 12, 2013].

Kuenstler, P. H. K. (ed.) (1955a) Spontaneous Youth Groups, University of Bristol Institute of Education Publications 8, London, University of London Press.

Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales (‘The Albemarle Report’), London: HMSO.

Scottish Executive (2007) Moving Forward. A strategy for improving young people’s chances through youth work. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive.

Smith, M. (1981) Creators Not Consumers. Rediscovering social education 2e, Leicester: National Association of Youth Clubs. Available as an e-text: Creators not Consumers.

Smith, M. (1988) Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Available as an e-text: developing youth work.

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Young people, informal education and association’, the informal education homepage, www.infed.org/youthwork/ypandassoc.htm. Last updated: December 2001.

Spence, J. et. al. (2011). myplace evaluation – final report. London: Department for Education. [https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/181645/MYPLACE-FIN-REP.pdf. Retrieved September12,  2012]

Welsh Assembly Government (2007) Young people, youth work, Youth Service. National Youth Service Strategy for Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2013) ‘What is youth work? Exploring the history, theory and practice of youth work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/mobi/what-is-youth-work-exploring-the-history-theory-and-practice-of-work-with-young-people/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2002, 2013

Last Updated on May 22, 2020 by infed.org