What is Youth work? (in the style of “since you asked”)

by Dave Walker of cartoon church.com
What is youth work?

What is youth work? That is easy, right? It is about working with young people.
Well you would think it is as easy as doing what it says on the tin, you work with young people. The problem with this viewpoint is a lot of people work with young people and if all youth work is can be defined ultimatley by age group of the people we work with it gets silly fast. The bus driver driving a school bus is a youth worker, for example, and frankly that get tiresome. So those who work as youth workers had a think and tried to work out how to explain it better.

But defining by age is so simple and simple is good.
Simple can be good, but often it is not the elegant solution. Look at a teacher (if one is in the room, if not imagine one), a teacher is not defined by the age group they work with, teachers are defined by a purpose, a recognisable nature and a set of practices which they carry out to a certain skill level. The age group is the context within which they practice.

So it is defined by what you do and the skill in doing it?
Yeah thats the idea. The Scottish Government set up an agency called YouthLink Scotland to over see youth work and its development and its 2005 leaflet entitled the Purpose and Nature of youth work is definitive for youth work in scotland. It says the Purpose of youth work is
“• Build self-esteem and self-confidence.
• Develop the ability to manage personal and social relationships.
• Create learning and develop new skills.
• Encourage positive group atmospheres.
• Build the capacity of young people to consider risk, make reasoned decisions and take control.
• Develop a ‘world view’ which widens horizons and invites social commitment.” (Statement on the nature and purpose of youth work, Youth Link Scotland, 2005, p2)

ok that sounds admirable what about the nature.
Hold your horses, Youth Link first throws in a nod to the age question and say youth workers should be doing this with 11-25 year olds exclusively, with a particular emphasis on 11-18year olds. Then they get to the nature of youth work which has three features, young people choose to participate, the youth work must build from where young people are, and it must recognise the young person and the youth work are partners in a learning process. (Statement on the nature and purpose of youth work, Youth Link Scotland, 2005, p2)

Learning process?
Yip. youth work is educative process. not to be mistaken with formal education and learning about geography or maths or stuff. Its about learning life “[within an analysis of youth work]… learning from being part of group life remained a key element … each of these traditions encouraged us to focus on learning through conversation, experience and relationship.” (Youth Work Practice. eds Jeffs and Smith, 2010, p2)

That seems a bit vague?
Youth work is a bit ambiguous, That is why I like it. Jeffs and Smith point to the benefits of youth work being, Privision of Sanctuary, Enjoyable activity for the young people, Personal and Social Development, Relationship and community and appreciation. (Jeffs and Smith, 2010 p5-7) concluding – “The benefits associated with youth work in civil society raise serious questions around the direction of many current policy preoccupations.” (Jeffs and Smith, 2010, p7). The problem is that the people who pay for youth work on the other hand dislike this ambiguity. Not unreasonably, they want results, tangible benefits from the money they are pouring in, (although I am not sure how realistic current models of assessment are when the questions being asked is about the the reality of working with people). The Scottish Government & Youthlinks first big youth work publication was Step It Up in 2003, a framework for working out what youth work is and assessing it. Step it Up introduced the term effective youth work on a policy level and pointed scottish youth work on a path to the established professional status for youth workers.

Effective Youth work?
“Effective Youth work is both developmental and creative. It can and does lead to the development and growth of social and emotional competence. The central purposes of youth work outlined above, when linked to significant indicators of social and emotional competence, can be used by young people and youth workers to demonstrate personal and group development.” (Step It Up , Strathclyde University and the Princes Trust, 2003, p12-13) Effective youth work has been at the heard of Youth Link Scotland existence, pushing youth work to become more demonstrably valuable in the eyes of funders and political overlords.

Demonstrable emotional competences? is that something you can demonstrate?
The aim isn’t to say you will always in prescribed manner or deal with things an emotionally competently. It is to say you can act in those ways and you know that way is good. That’s what our society is based upon, people acting toward a notion of wha is good. This is a central development of youth work practice and has led to the latest youth work policy document of the Scottish Executive (Our Ambitions for Improving the Life Chances of Young People in Scotland, National Youth Work Strategy 2014-2019, the Scottish Government, 2014) pushing youth work and formal education together. Continuing the effective professional move of youth work from a broader welfare under social work to being part of education.

So youth workers are like teachers.
Both are educators, one is more formal the other informal. one is dealing with skills such as maths and english, the other with skills around community and personal emotional competences. In order to deal with this the Community Learning and Development standards group have developed a professional standard for those involved with youth work, (A code of ethics for Community Learning and Development, Sercombe &Taylor, 2010). The aim is that in conversations between formal education and youth work, both can be viewed as on a level playing field with each other. Youth work becomes a profession with a basis in a ethical position. Professional workers are recognised by the CLD standards body and by the government, this could give Youth Workers and Teachers equality and a professional respect for each other.

Ok, so if that is youth work, how does the work you do in churches fit in?
That is an astute question, lets deal with that next.