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looking at youth clubs

E. Lesley Sewell’s pamphlet is a youth work classic. First published in 1966 it became the reference point for many workers and organizers when thinking about the work they were observing. 

contents: preface · to what end · by what standards? · is assessment possible? · how to cite this piece
Part of the girls clubs and youth clubs collection

logo: National Association of Girls Clubs circa 1935E. Lesley Sewell was General Secretary of the National Association of Mixed and Girls Clubs (which then became the National Association of Youth Clubs) from 1953 to 1966. She joined the organization at the start of 1940 as Deputy Organizing Secretary.

Under Lesley Sewell's guidance the Association developed a number of significant programmes and initiatives including Endeavour Training and Phab (Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied) clubs and responded to changes in the wider youth work environment (especially in relation to the Albemarle Report). Perhaps the best known response was the growth of developmental and experimental project work - especially around detached youth work (see, especially, Mary Morse's [1965] The Unattached). 

Lesley Sewell played an important part in making space and finding funding for  developmental work and was remembered with considerable affection and held in great respect by a number of those who worked with her. Before joining the National Association she was warden involved in the Time and Talents Settlement in Bermondsey. Marjorie Daunt has described her as 'one of the great Settlement Wardens'.

She had more than her fair share of qualities which seem too good to be true, but they WERE true. Combined with a first class brain, she had great integrity and vision, a lovely sense of humour and fun and enjoyment of life. Modest withal, and transcending all, was her Christian faith. Her influence for good was tremendous. (Daunt 1989: 18)

References
Daunt, M. (1989) By Peaceful Means. The story of Time and Talents 1887-1987, London: Time and Talents Association.
Morse, M. (1965) The Unattached, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

To what end

[Page 1] Why do people “look at” clubs? It might be held with truth that the youth club as a community, developing its purpose in the difficult human material of adolescence, should be left to work out its own salvation in peace. Visitors, especially in any numbers, tend to distract such a community from its main business and may even create an atmosphere of unreality or suspicion. It remains true, however, that many people today are obliged to visit and to attempt some assessment of clubs. Youth organisers, statutory and voluntary, overseas visitors and students in training, H.M.I.s and research officers—these and many others visit youth clubs. To a large extent, they see what they are looking for: educational value in programme activities, general administration, good or bad, methods and organisation applicable to other movements or countries, questions of relationships and behaviour and so on.

Nevertheless, observers of youth work, from whatever particular angle they approach it, have always to remind themselves that a youth club is a unity, a society in miniature, operating in leisure time— primarily concerned with education and growth in relationships, as well as with mental and physical recreation—in other words, with the all-round development of the boy or girl, both as an individual and as a member of society. It is this essential necessity to see first, and all the time, the club as a whole, together with an infinite variety of type, background, number of days open, premises and leadership, which makes the assessment of any club a complicated and difficult matter. There is no generally accepted yardstick. Information about membership, organisation, programmes and general administration cannot in itself give the answer. Standards of affiliation to such a body as the National Association of Youth Clubs are of a necessity a minimum.

By what standards?

How, then, may one attempt to judge objectively the quality and value of youth clubs? The following notes do not pretend to give a complete answer— [page 2] they are merely suggestions and hints gathered from the experience of those whose job it has been to attempt such assessment over a number of years, from both general and particular points of view.

Attitude. There is an old saying that if a statistician is asked to produce figures he will say “Yes—but tell me first what you want to prove”. No visitor to a youth club, for whatever reason, will be able to make a really reliable assessment if he goes with the intention of proving anything, or even of reaffirming his own convictions and experience. The only possible attitude must be an open mind and a humble eagerness to learn. The word “humble” is used advisedly, for it signifies a quality necessary in learning how things should not be done as well as how well they may be done. A youth club is the most incalculable group of people one can meet. No amount of experience makes it a certainty that these particular girls and boys would react to one’s own leadership any differently from the way they are reacting to their present leader.

Remembering this, it is not without value to come away from every such visit asking the question— “What should I do if I were leader of this club? What should I do with these premises, this group of helpers, this community of young people, this management committee or members’ committee, this particular neighbourhood?”

Indeed, where possible, it is wise to reserve any attempt to assess the value of the club until, along with an appraisal of the atmosphere and fellowship, the carefully noted facts and the answers to enquiries, one has attempted some answer to these questions. One further small, but important point; what visitor to clubs does not know the difference between a club leader, bored, tired, overbusy, or merely allergic to visitors; and the greeting of one who appears to be pleased to receive you, has good manners and a welcoming appearance? It is fatally easy to allow an unfortunate reception to colour your [page 3] attitude to the club throughout the evening or, on the other hand, for your reaction to warmth and friendliness to dim a recognition of possible weaknesses and needs in the club.

Purpose. It is important to discover at the very beginning the general aim and purpose which is behind the club, before one can appraise the method and manners in which those responsible are trying to achieve that ann. If the club is affiliated to the local association of N.A.Y.C. for example, its general aim is “to help girls and boys through their leisure time activities so to develop their physical, mental and spiritual capacities that they may grow to full maturity as individuals and members of society”. The particular interpretation of that general aim by the local management committee and by the club leader (not necessarily the same thing!) must be ascertained, as it will throw light on the different emphasis in the club.

For example, does the objective seem to be education in its narrower sense—the provision of classes (with a satisfactory attendance) on specific subjects?

Is the main purpose behind programme planning, as well as the fundamental basis, a religious one with possibly the objective of recruiting for church membership or of linking in a closer fellowship the young people who attend a particular church on a Sunday?

Is it the bringing into a safe and healthy environment of as many girls and boys as possible, who would otherwise be roaming the streets and frequenting dance halls and funfairs?

Is the policy of the club to draw in the least privileged and educated youth in the district or to go out for those capable of a higher standard of social and educational activities? [page 4]

Such questions must directly affect one’s valuation and criticism of the club and it would be unfair to attempt any judgment without such preliminary enquiry.

Numbers. It is useful to discover the position over membership and recruiting. If the club has large numbers, how is personal contact between the leader and the individual girl and boy maintained? If the numbers are small, are there any signs that they are rather “precious”? The club whose membership over a period is static is probably not in a very healthy condition. There should be a steady, if small, stream of recruits bringing in new members and new life. Do such members apply to join—and perhaps equally important, do they in fact remain? If not, what are the reasons? Is this the same for girls as for boys? What experiments are being tried to create further interest in the club and out of it?

Background of the Club Members. The vital information required next concerns the background of the club members.

How many are still at school—what proportion have been at grammar or technical schools?

What is the general level of employment and the position over apprenticeship, day release or evening classes?

What is the general educational level of both schools and homes?

What are the main industries and what types of work are the boys and girls doing?

What is the general wage level for both boys and girls?

Are there any conditions or traditions in the district which give rise to special problems, opportunities and needs?

What are the housing conditions like? [page 5]

Knowledge of these factors must form a background to any attempt to assess the work and value of a club.

Type of Club. If the club is for one sex, how far is it supplying the special needs of that sex and age? Is it helping its members to adjust to adult life and relationships? Is it introducing sufficient new openings, new interests and new horizons?

If it is a mixed club, does it satisfy certain essential principles, and provide a civilized and supervised meeting ground for boys and girls at the most rapidly developing and impressionable stage in their lives?

Is the leader thinking and acting in terms of the needs of all the boys and girls who make up its membership?

Are there useful and interesting joint activities as well as adequate opportunities for the two sexes to be separate?

Is it a place in which young people are learning the essential social arts—which may range from receiving or giving a cup of tea to choosing a partner for life?

Are the members absorbing from the adults in the club not only help and advice but also the example of men and women working for the same purpose in mutual companionship, tolerance and good manners?

The Club as a Community. It is a platitude, which must be constantly in mind, that the most important aspect and deepest value of club work lies in the sphere of personal relationships — leader and members, leader and helpers, members and members—management committee and club—the club and the wider community. Only if some true picture can be formed of this vital factor in a club, can any worthwhile assessment of its value be made. [page 6] Much of it is intangible and can be felt in atmosphere and spirit. Appraisal of this inevitably depends to some extent on the beholders themselves.

There are, however, various outward and visible signs of the state of these different relationships. If one is there to learn, one notes, for example, the way the leader, members and others, both individuals and groups, talk to each other and about each other— general behaviour, the way it is guided or dealt with by the leader and the part played in it for good or bad by the members—especially by senior members and by girls as girls, and boys as boys in relation to one another, to the helpers and to visitors.

How does the members’ committee function? It is useful if possible to get information and comments about this from both the club leader and a member of the committee separately. It is important to find out how far the functions of the members’ committee are taken seriously in the club, while always remembering the stage the committee’s responsibility has reached and the constant “beginning-again” process with changing membership and older members leaving the club.

Then there is the evidence gained from conversation with the rank and file of the membership, not only the secretary or chairman of the members’ committee who may be deputed to take the visitor around but also the ordinary club member at the dartboard or sitting by the fire. Have such members any real interest in the club as such, as well as in the particular activity or friend who forms the centre of the picture for them? Are they sufficiently conscious of the club as a community to take some interest, for example—if a girl, in the progress of the football team or the furniture made by the boys in their woodwork class, or—if a boy, in the girls’ netball results or in the fact that the girls have a cookery class on a Wednesday evening?

Another sign of a community spirit is the members’ reaction to notices and the notice-board (though the notice board may be a weakness in even the best [page 7] clubs). Is it boredom and an obvious conviction that such things are not likely to be of interest, or is it an alert and expectant attitude?

The relationship between the club leader and members and the management committee is often a clue to a healthy and happy condition in the club or to difficulties and frustration. This may be true in regard to premises and decoration, equipment, lack of voluntary helpers and money. It is important to find out what the position is and why—whether good or bad.

A further enquiry might well be made into the part played by the club and its leader in the neighbourhood; their relationship to youth councils or local members’ councils and their knowledge of and interest in events in the district. This will include the question “Has any form of community service been attempted or undertaken?”

Programme. The number and variety of programme activities is controlled to some extent by the premises available and the number of nights the club is open—perhaps even more by what leadership is available for these, by either paid or voluntary instructors.

The visitor will take special interest in such questions as:— What activities the members are obviously interested in, have asked for themselves, and support, and the degree of enjoyment or ability they show in doing them, and why.

What activities have been tried and failed—and why.

What experiments are being made to stimulate the imagination and interest of girls and boys in new hobbies and activities.

If a mixed club, how are the different and particular needs of boys as boys and girls as girls being provided for? [page 8]

How far is the programme related to the general background, work and homes of the girls and boys?

Is there any plan for regular contact with the parents?

Although occasionally necessary, it is unreliable and often unfair to judge the work of a club on one visit. Not only is it a well-known tradition that a club visit is never made on the right night but even the best established club will go through short phases when the members seem doggedly determined to do nothing but dance, line the walls or play table tennis. You may arrive in such a phase of the club’s history but the story of the year’s work might reveal a very different picture; possibly a high standard of athletics due to hard and consistent training; the successful production of a pantomime involving the majority of the members; regular acts of service to the community carried through with steadiness and perseverance or other milestones of achievement in the history of the club.

Moreover, beware of being so impressed by seeing an array of six or seven classes busily at work in a hushed building that you mistake this for a good club.

Accommodation. The majority of clubs have to meet in whatever premises they can get and for at least 80% these are neither suitable, adequate nor properly equipped. In assessing the work of a club, all the limitations and difficulties imposed upon it by premises must be taken into account—whether the building is only used by the youth club or by many other groups, whether it is a schoolroom with desks pushed back and a school atmosphere, whether it offers only one large room—or more difficult still—only a series of small rooms, what are the facilities for a comfortable lounge and so on? [page 9]

State of Premises. With all this in mind the visitor will still naturally want to note the state in which the premises are kept by the youth club—what has been done to overcome the difficulties, to make them as attractive as possible, how it has been done (by the members themselves?) or why it has not been done, how the canteen is run (very important) and, indeed, all the signs which show ways in which girls and boys in the club not only find some measure of comfort and homeliness but are helped to achieve in their club standards of order, cleanliness and attractiveness which make for happy and civilized living.

Nevertheless, it must always be remembered that premises that are used by numbers of young people very quickly get shabby and the walls marked and dirty and need constant repair and redecoration. Even where they are owned by the club, lack of money and the difficulty of raising it makes immense problems for the leader of the club.

Leadership. Leadership—full time, part time or voluntary—is probably the most important and most difficult factor of all to assess.

If a full time leader, how long has he held this job and what kind of developments has he planned or carried out since his appointment? How far and in what ways has he managed to identify himself with the neighbourhood—what contacts has he made, not only with those in the Youth Service but with those in social agencies of a wide variety? What is his relationship with his employing committee? How far is he content to work on his own (there may be reasons for this) or how far has he built up a team? Has he any plans for further training or a refresher course?

Many of these questions will apply equally to the part time or voluntary leader. Not all can be easily answered but, together with points already covered, they will give some clues to the visitor. [page 10

Is assessment possible?

Finally, the visitor must use every ounce of his experience, imagination and understanding to see behind the leader who may appear defeatist, aggressive or apologetic, the leader who couldn’t care less and who adopts the “take it or leave it” attitude. What experience of loneliness or of failure, of high hopes dashed or of enthusiasm turned sour have fostered this attitude? Above all, listen to the leader who spares time to share with you his plans and problems. It is the surest way to assess with justice the value of what is being attempted and achieved.

The only justification for all this is that the quality of the service rendered to and by boys and girls may be improved or deepened. This is equally true of the youth officer who must give his committee a picture of the needs of this or that particular club in order that they may make wise appointments of staff or give grant aid, of the student who is seeking to learn the art of youth leadership so that he or she may work with other groups of young people, or of the organiser of a voluntary association who is there to see in what ways the experience and help of the association may best be given.

There can be no ultimate or complete assessment of a youth club. The charge to club leaders is always “Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shall find it after many days”. Indeed, many leaders will find it, in terms of time. How can one assess the value of an odd word dropped at a right moment or a seemingly trivial act of understanding and friendship between the leader and a club member. Yet—within the circle of a club which at first sight seems lacking in anything but youthful chaos—something has happened to this boy or that girl which will be woven into the fabric of the spirit and which will one day bear fruit in a new field of relationships.

This fact should not be used as an excuse for expecting anything but the best in the field of club work, but it should give a sense of proportion, humility and immense encouragement to those whose duty and privilege it is to go visiting clubs.

How to cite this piece: Sewell, L. (1966) Looking at Youth Clubs, London: National Association of Youth Clubs. Available in the informal education archives: http://www.infed.org/archives/nayc/sewell_looking.htm

UK Youth logo

This piece has been reproduced here with permission of UK Youth.
First placed in the archives: April 2003.