Conscious reformers or unconscious resistors

Youth Workers: are we conscious reformers or unconscious resistors of the education revolution in Scotland?

Tila Morris, Catch the Light

Tila Morris, Catch the Light

Tila Morris, Catch the Light

When Catch the Light recently suggested that a youth providers’ network should focus on improving attainment and attendance in education as a shared outcome, we were met with some resistance. It caused us such a conundrum we were inspired to share our thoughts and generate some debate.

Have you noticed?

Everywhere we look there are signs that we’re undergoing an education revolution [see video links below]. Evidence suggests education isn’t working for a growing number of Scotland’s young people, regardless of whether they leave with good results. Groups we work with that are disenfranchised from formal education have one thing in common – they all regret not ‘sticking in at school’ and wish they had a better experience of education. Numerous reasons are given for why school didn’t work for them. Funnily enough one group of young men in Polmont Young Offenders Institution were emphatic that for them what went wrong was they were too busy showing off to girls! Whatever the reasons, youth workers have an important role to play in making sure young people realise it’s not their fault. Whether school has been good, okay or terrible, young people can still discover the joys of informal learning. GIRFEC and Curriculum for Excellence can open new doors for youth work. In this article we hope to generate some debate on how best to prize those doors open.

What are the proven benefits of youth work?

A report by the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services [C4EO]1 found that when targeted, there is evidence youth work effectively promotes positive behaviours; reduces delinquency; offending; school exclusion and truancy, and increases participation in education among other impacts.

An international study of literature on alternatives to education [AEP] confirms despite it being difficult to identify the precise outcomes to expect, there are clear common characteristics displayed when AEP is effective such as: young people’s perceptions that staff are knowledgeable and caring; youth workers being key to joining up practice between professions/professionals, and acknowledgement that youth work provides a model of practice that other partners can learn from.2

To be conscious reformers, youth workers need to be as comfortable about talking about youth work’s role in education as the external researchers. After all, the central purposes of youth work is educational with interventions designed to support young people to achieve various forms of learning3. Youth work is rooted in ‘informal education’ with key definitive characteristics:

•Young people choose to participate;

•The work must build from where the young people are; and

•Youth work recognises the young person and the youth worker as partners in a learning process.

Effective youth work can therefore be instrumental in improving learning opportunities, experiences and outcomes for young people; but can equally transform individuals, communities and educational systems. The Child Poverty Action Group acknowledge that young people living in poverty need access to additional personalised learning support to have a fairer chance of success.

Youth work’s process of experiential learning and reflection on morals is a credible and effective enhancement or alternative to formal education that steers young people towards happy, healthy, productive and positive adult lives.

Catch the LightBecoming a conscious reformer

Research informs us that no one size fits all. If youth work requires young people to choose to take part, we need to offer choices. Therefore youth workers need to make sure there is a ladder of learning experiences that respond to different needs, inequalities, abilities, preferences and aspirations. Some will look inwards to their own organisations to respond to needs, but more radical reformers will reach out to wider partnerships and make more innovative connections. For some of us, there is a need to face up to prejudices we have of our own school experience, or overcome our own bad experiences of working with education services. Some youth workers say they want to avoid the stigma of education for young people, but is it not youth work’s role to open young people’s minds to a range of perspectives and give alternative experiences of learning? Reinforcing negative experiences and outdated stereotypes will achieve little for the young people we work with.

Reform can also come from changing our conversation with funders – telling them that we want to veer away from the competitive culture their processes force us into. We need to convince funders to avoid a scattergun approach which creates a youth work landscape of winners and losers after a fight for small but shrinking pots of money. In the right environment youth workers will advocate for sharing practice and reflecting on and learning from experience, that will maximise every penny invested. More radically maybe we can reject funding with too many strings attached in exchange for self-generated investment and mobilisation of a wide range of assets.

Essential to being a conscious reformer, youth workers need to fully understand different types of youth work interventions and their appropriateness.  Repeatedly, literature reminds us of the need to improve their ability to articulate the valuable contribution youth work makes to young people’s education4. By doing so we will shine a light on the benefits youth work brings, that go deeper and wider than other professional interventions.

Based on good practice recommendations the ‘Youth Work: Intervention Intensity Grid’ was developed by Catch the Light to assist youth workers to determine the types of intervention they adopt, according to the number of young people worked with and the intensity of the intervention. These factors are useful indicators of whether the youth work approach is open or targeted. Young people should have access to a range of both according to their individual needs. Therefore the grid assists youth workers to adopt the right intervention for the right circumstances [see below]:

The grid can be used to assess what is currently on offer to young people in an area, or to collectively plan for the future. The diagram is not rigid but flows from one youth work approach to the other as each situation requires. For example open youth work may start with larger groups and filter those identified as being vulnerable to risk towards higher intensity interventions. Likewise those entering a youth work programme because they face multiple complex risks may start with higher intensity targeted youth work interventions and move towards lower intensity youth work interventions as their circumstances improve.

If we take the example of designing a programme that supports young people to improve attainment and attendance in education, we need to think about: young people that regularly participate; those whose personal barriers to learning are not necessarily entrenched, but who lack clarity about their personal goals; and develop alternative and flexible learning opportunities for young people who do not benefit from a conventional classroom experience5. Each grouping needs something different. The grid raises the youth workers’ consciousness of different approaches, in order to make sure a suitable range of open and targeted approaches are available.

The education revolution brings unprecedented opportunities for youth workers to create progressive learning programmes to enable more young people to thrive and survive within and outwith mainstream education. Youth work programmes can easily be mapped to the Curriculum for Excellence, and if we choose they can be formally accredited. They can be part of a public sector/third sector partnership (co-production) and will be the glue that binds any multi-disciplinary, integrated approach. More radically we can empower young people to shape and review their own learning paths. The options are limitless. Nothing is holding us back and if we get it right, the resources we need will follow.

Yet we would be mistaken to be complacent and assume the youth work we’ve done for years is ‘getting it right for every child’. Nevertheless youth work’s principles are currently much more prominent in policy and many professions are ‘converting’ their practice to methods we recognise as ‘youth work’. Whilst it could be argued youth work is coming of age, ironically many feel our own survival is under constant threat. Hence we have much more to do to and it goes without saying that young people need us now more than ever. We’re calling on our fellow youth workers to reflect on practice and become the conscious reformers of the education revolution in Scotland.

For extra motivation watch the videos and read the links below.

  1. C4EO (2010) Improving outcomes for young people by spreading and deepening the impact of targeted youth support (TYS) and development; C4EO: London

1.   CfBT Education Trust (2011) Achieving Successful Outcomes through Alternative Education Provision: an international literature review [Web: ]

1. Milburn, T., Rowlands, C., Stephen, S., Woodhouse, H., Sneider, A. & McIntyre, F. (2003) ‘Step it Up: Charting Young People’s Progress’: University of Strathclyde and Scottish Executive


  1. See for example: Harland K. and Morgan T. (2006) Youth Work in Northern Ireland: an exploration of the emerging themes and challenges or Smith, M. K. (2011). ‘Young people and the 2011 ‘riots’ in England – experiences, explanations and implications for youth work’. The encyclopaedia of informal education. [Web: ]


  1. Nelson, J and O’Donnell, L. (2012). Approaches to Supporting Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training: a Review (NFER Research Programme: From Education to Employment. Slough: NFER


Further Reading

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2002) ‘Youth work: an introduction’, the encyclopaedia of informal education,



Take a look at some of these videos relating to the education revolution:


This list would not be complete without the excellent video produced by the Northern Alliance on the links between CLD and the Curriculum for Excellence:


Or this video with Eric Booth’s keynote speech at the Inspiring! Conference in 2009.

When it comes to tobacco packaging – it’s just plain simple

Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive, ASH ScotlandSHEILA DUFFY

Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive, ASH Scotland

Sheila Duffy, Chief Executive, ASH Scotland

Plain tobacco packs will help young people avoid smoking.


Plain, standardised packaging makes tobacco less attractive to young people.

Every day roughly 40 young Scots become smokers.

Young people can take action now to ensure plain packs are introduced as soon as possible.


When it comes to standardised packaging for cigarettes and other tobacco, we reckon it’s plain to see why this new initiative is necessary.

Evidence shows that standardised packaging for tobacco will reduce its attractiveness, especially to young people.

Tobacco packs are one of the last ways of advertising this deadly and addictive product.

So it’s great that the Scottish Government has now confirmed it will ask people for their opinions soon on the best way to do it and then put forward legislation for plain packs in 2014-15.


The less flashy the packs are the better.

Plain packaging involves regulating the design characteristics of tobacco packaging – branding, colouring, typography, size, shape and method of opening (some packs make a satisfying clicking noise when the lid is flipped).

Tobacco products sold in standardised packaging would have the same type of lettering used for all brand names so they don’t stand out too much.


Example of plain packaging

Example of plain packaging

Large picture health warnings and consumer information would cover most of the pack area. The strong images show the horrific effects of smoking – cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disorders, stroke and many more.

As well as being off-putting to potential new recruits to smoking, the packs reduce mistaken ideas about brands,  such as the myth that cigarettes in lighter packaging are less harmful.

Plain packs also increase the prominence and effectiveness of health warnings.

This deprives tobacco companies of one of their last, very powerful, marketing tools to promote their products.

Plain packs are already being used in Australia and the early evidence is that smokers who buy standardised packs are more likely to think about quitting and give a higher priority to stopping smoking.


We need plain packaging here too, because two-thirds of smokers start before they are 18 and the vast majority while still teenagers. Every day around 40 young Scots take up the habit.

That’s why we’re calling on young people around Scotland to make the politicians aware that they support the introduction of plain packs.

Young people can email their MSP to let him or her know that they are in favour of this crucial initiative and that politicians shouldn’t be put off by the tobacco industry trying to convince them not to do it.

And they can chat to their friends about how the tobacco companies try to recruit new smokers using tactics such as pack design and marketing.


The introduction of legislation to make standardised packaging mandatory for all tobacco products will cement Scotland’s position as a leader in tobacco-free measures – not only by becoming the first nation in the UK and potentially in the European Union to do so, but also one of the first in the world.

And it will help achieve Scotland’s commitment to be a nation free from tobacco by 2034.

Let’s aim to make plain packs a reality soon.


ASH Scotland’s plain packaging briefing:

Scotland is committed to introducing plain tobacco packaging to deter young people from taking up smoking. It’s vital that standardised packs are brought in as soon as possible. This is an excellent theme to get young people talking about how the tobacco industry tries to recruit new smokers. More information here:

The three principles of successful youth work

Ryan Currie, Project Manager, Reeltime Music

Ryan Currie

Ryan Currie

Do you ever feel that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Do you ever sit through meetings with umpteen partner agencies around a table and think “This isn’t really helping anyone”?

Maybe no-one is involving young people because of the pressure to hit targets and meet outcomes?

Or how about this one, have you ever been in a situation where you see young people being asked to take on huge, unrealistic projects because it will look good at higher levels?

What I am about to talk about might be one of those things that everyone already knows and I’ve come late to the party (which happens a lot more than I would like). Maybe you all covered it in your first youth work course. In which case, sit back and have a chuckle at me teaching my granny to suck eggs.

A few years ago, in one of those aforementioned meetings I found in my hands a YouthLink Scotland leaflet titled “Statement on the nature and purpose of Youth Work”. I’d seen it before. I’d read it before. Now maybe it was just that skimming through leaflets is sometimes more interesting than big meetings but this time something clicked when I looked at the three definitive features of youth work.

1.        Young people choose to participate

Not to get all philosophical but this could be the most important skill we seek to build in young people. Call it what you wish: agency, response-ability, choice, locus of control. We all have increased wellbeing when we feel we have a choice.

The takeaway for me?

In my experience there are three main reasons why a young person chooses not to do something. First, they may have tried the activity before and simply don’t enjoy it. Second, they haven’t tried the activity but it scares them a little. Third, their intuition tells them they don’t have the skill or capability. A good worker will accept the first reason and work with the young person to do something about the other two. They won’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can. They also know that if you don’t try something you miss out on essential feedback on how it felt, what it was like and how to improve.

2.        The work must build from where young people are

This includes designing work around the interests of young people and their geographical location. But one of the most interesting aspects for me is skill.

One of the hard parts of building skills is matching the skill to the challenge. If you are high in skills but given an easy challenge, you’ll be bored. Conversely, if you are low in skill and are given a tough challenge, you’ll get anxious.

The takeaway for me?

Sometimes collaborating with young people can be tough. They’ll sometimes have ideas and don’t have the skills to match. You might say “But Ryan, how will they ever build the skills if no-one gives them the chance?” My answer would be to design work which demonstrates what they can do now (where they are). From here, build in small steps to where they would like to go. Make the game winnable. Everyone will thank you for that. Just maybe not straight away.

3.        Youth work recognises the young person and the youth worker as partners in a learning process.

We’ve all been involved in projects where no one asked the young people involved for their opinion. It would be trite to say it should never happen, because it does. With all the pressures of funding, organisations and politics sometimes we don’t realise until part way through or afterwards that we’ve done it.

The takeaway for me?

I’ve never been annoyed with anyone who reminded me that we need to involve young people in what is basically “their” work, and I’ve never annoyed a partner by reminding them that no one has asked a young person for their opinion. If you see me doing it, please give me a nudge.

So back to those questions at the start. Whenever I see a young person not participating through fear, partnership projects getting a bit messy, or when I see young people being faced with completely unrealistic projects (whether chosen by them or workers), I remind myself of these three things. In fact I write it at the top of every project plan I do. There are worse ways to begin.

Is regulation needed for our digital era?


Tam Baillie

Tam Baillie

Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People

Two weeks ago I launched my Facebook page as part of a wider strategy by my office to use social media to engage directly with young people.

I believe the Facebook page will help us to provide interesting and easy to access information about rights in general and specific rights linked to particular issues in the news.

It’s also a valuable way to engage with young people about the things that directly affect them.

For example, I’m using it later this week to encourage young people to get involved with my campaign to improve the standards of school toilets in Scotland, by asking them to let me know their experiences, their views and what they think needs to change.

For me therefore, social media can directly improve the core educational function of my office, as well as indirectly supporting my campaigns on issues.

Using social media to engage with children and young people has, in the last two years, become as integral to my work as face to face contact through schools and other visits.

It would no longer be conceivable for me to launch a campaign such as the school toilets campaign, without also engaging through digital channels because the digital world is no longer separate from any other part of the world for most children and young people.

It’s not that they spend some time in the real world and some in a digital world. They spend all their time in the real world, and some parts of it are on YouTube, Facebook, AskFM, Instagram and Twitter.

Digital media channels let children and young people play, learn and socialise in ways that were difficult to imagine – even five years ago.

While tragedies such as the two recent teenage suicides attributed to cyber bullying lead inevitably to intense public debate about protection and safeguards, we must also remember that the way in which children and young people behave in online spaces is complex.

We need to be aware that the ways they behave online are not separated from the ways they behave offline. We need to be wary of simple statements about how they experience the world. So keeping children and young people safe online is not a simple matter.

It’s going to involve education for adults and children, possibly some more regulation if we can find the means to achieve this – and above all clear advice to children and young people from parents and via schools. And effective support when things do begin to go wrong.