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.

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