transforming youth work

The UK government has published its long-awaited consultative paper on English youth work. We explore the flawed and demeaning vision that lies at the heart of the strategy.

contents: introduction · out of shape youth · youth work today · new priorities (extract: our priorities) · next steps · conclusion · further reading and references · links
review the follow-up specification: transforming youth work: resourcing an excellent youth service

Transforming Youth Work, the consultative document on English youth work (DfEE, published March 27, 2001), comes clothed in the rhetoric of the new managerialism. There is talk of ‘delivery’, ’driving up quality’ and of ‘adding value’. Alongside is a nod to some youth work themes such as promoting voluntary and community service, and developing representative forums for young people. However, the overall direction of the document is deeply worrying. The proposed ‘transformation’ of youth work and integration of services includes tying work closely to the narrow objectives of the Connexions strategy; increasing central surveillance and control; the further containment of young people; and an individual rather than associational orientation. Here we explore the paper’s:

Focus on youth as a problem.

Failure to fully appreciate the associational nature of youth work (something that is also shared by many around the field).

Prioritization of the Connexions strategy.

Emphasis on surveillance and control as the means of ‘transforming youth work’.

We show how the basic orientation is fundamentally problematic, and the extent to which the specific proposals are flawed.

Out of shape youth

As Jeffs and Smith (1998) have argued, politicians and policy makers in Britain and Northern Ireland currently tend to talk about young people in three linked ways - as thugs, users and victims.

As thugs they steal cars, vandalize estates, attack older (and sometimes, younger) people and disrupt classrooms. As users they take drugs, drink and smoke to excess, get pregnant in order to jump the housing queue and, hedonistically, care only for themselves. As victims they can’t find work, receive poor schooling and are brought up in dysfunctional families. (The problem of ‘youth’ for youth work)

A view of ‘youth as a problem’ drives policy discussion and, in the UK at least, is linked to notions of social exclusion. Certain groups of young people are seen in deficit, as a problem - and the ‘answer’ to this behaviour is to impose more control on the one hand, and, on the other, to direct ‘remedial’ resources and interventions at those deemed to be in need Jeffs and Smith (1998). This approach is mirrored in the Connexions strategy. Interventions are to be focused on those that present the greatest problems (in terms of the strategy’s objectives), and insufficient resources have been allocated to allow for any significant work beyond this (see Connexions). Transforming Youth Work repeats this pattern.

The stated concern of the document’s writers is to keep young people in ‘good shape’:

We want to help each young person to be somebody who not only enjoys life but is in good health, studying to the best of their ability, is challenged and stretched mentally and physically, is an active member of their local community and capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. We want to develop young people who add value to their social surroundings rather than subtracting through anti - social behaviour. (DfEE 2001: 13)

These sentiments may seem fine at one level. However, as we sift through the documents proposals and analysis the emphasis on youth as a problem to be contained is revealed.

First, youth is pictured as a transitional state – it is something that has to be traversed in order to achieve adulthood. One of the most significant aspects of this orientation is that it tends to run counter to a fundamental tenet of youth work – that young people have to be valued as human beings, for what they are now, not only for what they may become (Milson 1970:85).

Second, this transition is seen as being beset with problems for significant groups of young people. They need to be encouraged to avoid crime, drug or alcohol related dangers, and pregnancy. They should be helped to make ‘informed decisions’ around healthy eating and living, and caring for others and self. Perhaps the most significant elements relate to the dangers of becoming ‘detached’ from education and training, and from the world of work. Success in life, it seems for those promoting the Connexions strategy, is tied to the achievement of qualification and the securing of employment. What young people want, according to the document’s authors are tangible results. ‘They do need support but they want to have outcomes from that support. This might be jobs and the money and self-esteem which go with them, a home, to be part of their local communities and to have affordable and accessible leisure activities’ (DfEE 2001: 12). 

While there is some mention of ‘seeing the whole person’ (and the role of youth workers in encouraging Connexions colleagues to take account of this) – there is no exploration of what constitutes human well-being. You will search in vain for any mention of spiritual well-being, and for any discussion of moral and ethical questions (other than in relation to the Citizenship curriculum within schooling). Significantly, as we will see later, the fine words about young people having a voice are really about the feedback they can give as consumers of the Connexions Service or of other services. What we have here is a limited and limiting view of young people, and of human well-being generally. Not only are fundamental areas of human experience overlooked or quietly forgotten, young people are essentially viewed as objects to acted upon (or ‘delivered to’). They are to be ‘kept in good shape’ rather than being partners in dialogue.

Youth work today

The consultative document’s authors fail to grasp the essentials of youth work. This is hardly surprising as many of those involved in youth work – participants, practitioners and managers alike – have had a similar problem over the last twenty years. Youth work is at heart an associational activity. That is to say it involves people voluntarily joining together in companionship to undertake some activity or task. It is not something that can be ‘delivered’. It is not a package that can be brought to someone’s door. Historically, as Tony Jeffs (1996) has pointed out, it has involved three elements:

Voluntary participation – young people have chosen to become involved in settings and activities. Furthermore, within youth work settings they have freedom over the depth of their involvement.

An educative character – it has largely used informal educational forms and has been directed at creating opportunities for what the Albemarle Report famously called association, training and challenge.

A focus on young people – and in particular groups of young people. It’s classic form has been the youth group, troupe or club.

Youth work is, fundamentally, social groupwork. It is a form of informal education concerned with the cultivation of associational life (something that has been well recognized in some European initiatives e.g. Vanandruel et al 1996 and in some earlier English and Welsh reports e.g. Albemarle – Ministry of Education 1960). It evolves and takes its direction from the interactions of those involved. It is unpredictable and looks to the life of the group. As such its central benefits cannot be easily identified in the short run. They are wrapped up with the quality of communal and democratic life – the generation of what Robert Putnam (2000) has analyzed as social capital. These only become evident in the long run and, given the interconnection of different social forces, cannot be easily linked to one particular form of intervention. We can identify some immediate or medium term benefits to particular individuals and groups – but the real payoff lies in the social networks, and depth of mutuality, trust and tolerance that emerge over time.

What is labelled as ‘youth work’ by many local authorities and voluntary agencies – and by those responsible for the Connexions strategy usually falls well short of this vision. Over the last twenty or so years there has been a consistent failure to properly theorize the work; to address demographic and social trends (such as changing educational patterns, family structures, home conditions etc.); and to consider aims (see Smith 1988: 65-87). The result has been a been a series of pathetic attempts by many youth services and agencies to justify their existence in terms that would first make sense to the Thatcherite agenda – and more recently to the rhetoric and managerialism of the New Labour project. As a result, they have lost sight of the essential qualities of youth work, and lost faith in what they are doing.

It is into this context that the writers of Transforming Youth Work step. They are only able to judge the work by the rhetoric that surrounds it. Their main analytical weapon is the managerialist and outcome-obsessed OFSTED inspection framework. They find that local authority youth services:

Often offer poor quality services. Of the most recent 29 inspections, nine were considered good or very good, nine were satisfactory and eleven were unsatisfactory or poor. Inspectors found a lack of aims and objectives, an absence of clear outcomes , scant recording of achievements and ‘poor methodologies for delivering youth work (DfEE 2001: 10).

Received very different levels of funding. Only 11 authorities in 1999-2000 spent more than 2% of their overall education spending on Youth Services, 41 authorities in 1999-2000 spent less than 1% (there are figures for 138 authorities). The average (median) local authority spend was £59 per 13-19 year old in their population, expenditure per head ranged from a minimum of about £30 to a maximum of just over £261. (DfEE 2001: 10)

Have difficulties in recruiting, training and retaining good youth workers. The document’s writers complain of the lack of a clear set of nationally applied standards for the initial training of unqualified workers and absence of any consistent induction arrangements for new, unqualified staff. OFSTED inspection reports ‘highlight concerns about the reliance on large numbers of part time and often unqualified staff historically prevalent in the sector’ (DfEE 2001: 11).

Voluntary youth organizations make ‘a key contribution’ according to the paper. The quality of the work has improved markedly according to OFSTED reports and they have ‘demonstrated considerable success in reaching out to a wide range of young people’ (DfEE 2001: 11). Quoting OFSTED, the writers continue:

[M]any organizations are working with young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and communities and have gained the expertise to do so through training and partnerships. Encouraged by targeted funding systems, many young people have been encouraged back into education, jobs or further education. The sector’s capacity for pioneering innovative approaches has been key to this success.

The concerns and direction of Transforming Youth Work are clear here. Using a business model, they want youth work that is targeted, concerned with meeting (‘delivering’) Connexions requirements (keeping young people in touch with the labour market and continuing education), and that is outcome-focused. As John Stewart demonstrated some time ago there is a fundamental problem with the way that such business models have been applied to welfare agencies.

The real danger is that unthinking adoption of the private sector model prevents the development of an approach to management in the public services in general or to the social services in particular based on their distinctive purposes, conditions and tasks. (Stewart 1992: 27)

This danger is being realized within youth work (and many other sectors) at the moment. But there is a further twist. The rhetoric of managerialism has bitten so deep that it has contributed significantly to the subversion of distinctive purposes, conditions and tasks.

New priorities

Transforming Youth Work looks to ‘delivering’ services that young people will use. It must, according to Malcolm Wicks, the minister with responsibility for lifelong learning:

Offer quality support to young people with a clear focus on those aged 13 and 19 years which helps young people achieve and progress.

Enable the voice of young people to be heard, including helping them to influence decision making at various levels.

Provide a rich diversity of personal and social development opportunities and choices to young people to include voluntary action, peer support and mentoring.

Promote ‘intervention and prevention‘ to address the individual, institutional and policy causes of disaffection and exclusion. (DfEE 2001: 4)

The key to this activity is the relationship to the Government’s Connexions strategy. The message is that a transformed youth work serves Connexions objectives and is more closely integrated with the strategy. Indeed, the document is explicitly concerned with how youth work and Youth Services can ‘play their part in building the Connexions Service’ and one of the few questions it asks is ‘What can the DfEE, Connexions Partnerships, and Youth Services do to embed youth work in Connexions?’ Elsewhere on these pages we have already noted the deep and dangerous flaws in the Connexions strategy – and we can see these reproduced in the four key priorities that the government has in ‘delivering’ the new agenda for youth work. The approach focuses on the attaching of individuals to education and learning systems, and the provision of feedback so that those systems may function more efficiently. The priorities are to:

Keep young people in ‘good shape’

Deliver their voice in the service

Ensure that the Youth Service works effectively with Connexions Partnerships

Develop the role of the Personal Advisor.

We reproduce extracts from the paper in respect of these priorities below.

Transforming Youth Work: Our priorities

Keeping young people in “good shape”

We want to help each young person to be somebody who not only enjoys life but is in good health, studying to the best of their ability, is challenged and stretched mentally and physically, is an active member of their local community and capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. We want to develop young people who add value to their social surroundings rather than subtracting through anti - social behaviour.

This “good shape” comes from access to a rich variety of personal growth experiences. This ranges from educational, sports, cultural and recreational activities to opportunities to take part in the Millennium Volunteers scheme and the Duke Edinburgh award…. 

Keeping young people in “good shape” should include the development of preventative strategies and actions which enable them to make informed choices about a range of issues. These include: avoiding crime, protection from drug or alcohol related dangers, preventing teenage pregnancy, healthy eating and living, caring for others and self, achieving qualifications, securing employment, being valued and respected, contributing to the local community as well as taking full advantage of entitlements in a fair society, and having access to a range of leisure time pursuits. We want to offer all young people the chance to benefit from Millennium Volunteers or voluntary and community service activity so that they can give something back to their community.

The Youth Service can play a key role in encouraging understanding and supporting the participation of groups experiencing discrimination. For example, developing positive responses to sexual or racial harassment and bullying, working with both perpetrators and victims seeking understanding and teaching personal safety skills…. 

We want to encourage more interventionist action to help young people address the difficulties in their lives through multi –disciplinary teams working together to support young people. Youth workers are well placed, particularly through their outreach and detached work, to develop relationships with young people at risk. This allows them to identify issues affecting young people which are not always apparent to other agencies. This understanding means that youth workers can intervene and prevent problems for young people….

Youth workers will play a key role in keeping young people in good shape. One to one activity and group work is one of the key strengths of youth work, alongside a range of personal and social development activities. Youth workers can encourage those who are in regular contact with young people to see the whole person and not just that element that concerns their particular area of expertise or knowledge. They can encourage colleagues in the Connexions Partnerships to recognise that where particular aspects of an individual’s life are in poor shape, then that is likely to impact upon other areas of their life. Youth Services can contribute to strategies to prevent teenage pregnancy and deliver easily accessible advice. Youth Services will also want to support the emerging Children’s Fund Partnerships and help the partnerships target those 11 - 13 year old young people who fall outside the target age  range for the Connexions Service.

The voice of young people

We recognise the diversity of the client group and must ensure that as wide a range of voices as possible is heard. An important element of the new service will be the involvement of young people themselves in all aspects of the service…

Youth workers have played a central role in assisting the development of participative and democratic models for young people. We want to see this expertise and skill brought within the Connexions framework, with youth workers encouraging and supporting young people, whilst challenging and advocating on their behalf to ensure meaningful involvement in the development of the local Connexions Service. We also want Youth Services to extend this role to the new Children’s Fund Partnerships and support young people’s contribution to the wider agenda. This might include local youth councils, representation on local authority and community decision-making bodies and other service provision consultations as well as the development advocacy skills….

Working with Connexions Partnerships

…. Youth Services will bring expertise and a wide ranging network to the Connexions Partnerships. They will contribute in a number of ways including the Personal Adviser role, high quality youth work, volunteering, community activities, organised sport, out of school and summer activities. Their access to a wider network, through the Connexions Partnerships, will also allow youth workers to take their services to other young people, particularly those who have not traditionally used Youth Services….

Developing the personal adviser role

The Personal Adviser will be important in helping to deliver personal development opportunities for young people. Youth workers in the statutory and voluntary sectors play a very important role in providing support and personal development, particularly to young people at risk and they are well placed to deliver the Personal Adviser role. They are well placed to re-engage young people who are unwilling to accept any explicit engagement in learning. The job specification of a personal adviser clearly describes the role and contribution of a youth worker. We want youth workers to become personal advisers to ensure that we deliver the full range of support and opportunities to young people.

Key questions

In what ways can we best capture and value the voices of young people?

How can youth work target its resources to help young people “keep in good shape”?

How can youth work be built in to the core of the Connexions partnership activity?

How can youth workers be supported to undertake the Personal Adviser role?

Extracts from DfEE (2001) Transforming Youth Work, London: Department for Education and Employment, pages 13-17

In this section of the paper we can see how the writers employ rhetoric that will appeal to many people in the field. Who could disagree with a desire to ensure that people have access to a ‘rich variety of personal growth experiences’? However, the framework in which they are employing these is narrow and oriented to specific strategy objectives. While there is general talk of ‘young people’ far more space is given to those who may be experiencing difficulties with their ‘transition to adult life’ (DfEE 2001: 14). There is a focus on preventative strategies, multiple-deprivation, and those experiencing discrimination.  Within the priorities talk of participation in political and communal life is narrowed to the involvement of young people within the Connexions Service and providing feedback on other systems. Remaining objectives directly link to the development of Connexions and those working within it.

There is, on a first reading, at least some recognition that young people may have something to offer through community service and volunteering. However, this is not really spelt out – and when we come to examine the way service is used in other government papers there is some cause for concern here. As Doyle and Smith (1999: 41-2) have argued, we are less likely to encounter service as an altruistic act of giving, than as part of a transaction.

It is what we receive as customers or consumers. We buy it. Sometimes we are told to do it, for example, in the form of community service orders that the courts impose or as part of some employment creation programme that those without jobs are obliged to undertake. The act of giving becomes closely linked to paying. We ‘pay’ for our crimes or income support by ‘giving’ our labour. We can also see this happening in some of the programmes around volunteering. Many people undertake these with good intentions. However, for some, volunteering can become self-serving. It is less about serving others, than doing some activities that may advantage us. We develop skills, contacts and may even receive awards. There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves, but when they become the main purpose they undermine the heart of service.

A great deal of the impetus behind the desire to offer all young people the chance to do voluntary and community service derives from the impact that such activity might have with regard to the gaining of qualification, and the achievement of employment. The problem here is that such an instrumental orientation, if pushed too far, can actually undermine the contribution such activity can make to the building of citizenship and social capital.

Next steps

Discussion of the ‘next steps’ begins with the following statement:

Youth work is an important part of the delivery and ultimate success of the Connexions Service. It is important that improvements in the quality of youth work are made in tandem with the development of the Connexions Service. Each partner has a role to play in delivery and strategy. (DfEE 2001: 18)

A number of strands fall out from this.

Strengthening inspection and monitoring. The pattern of increased surveillance and control that we have found in other initiatives associated with youth is repeated here. As with schooling it is applied both to the participants and to the agencies in which the work takes place.

We will increase the number of OFSTED inspections and introduce a more robust follow up system. Where local authorities continue to cause concern we will carry out re-inspections. We will introduce an annual local authority self assessment return, which OFSTED are developing, to encourage a culture of self assessment… We will also introduce a common framework for local authority Youth Service planning (DfEE 2001: 18).

With respect to quality, the writers state that local authorities ‘will want to build a culture of continuous improvement through the Best Value Process. Local authorities will be asked to agree an action plan after each OFSTED inspection and provide an update report within the first twelve months following inspection’ (DfEE 2001: 19).

Streamlining, rationalizing and ‘partnership’. ‘Local authorities are expected to prepare their over-arching community strategies in partnership with other local service providers, local business and the voluntary and community sectors. These local strategic partnerships will have a key role in the future for streamlining and rationalising the requirements for separate partnerships and plans. They will also play a very important role in co-ordinating action at the local level so that service provision reflects local needs and priorities’ (DfEE 2001: 18). The writers continue, ‘There must be an explicit fit with the local Connexions Service Business Plan’. Voluntary youth organizations are similarly expected to ‘work in partnership with other providers to deliver a seamless service to young people and we expect that they will want to rise to the challenge that the new policy arena provides. We want them to extend their work into disadvantaged areas with little or no provision’ (DfEE 2001: 20). The ‘partnership’ involved here for many agencies is far from equal. It equates to those agencies agreeing to meet the requirements of the Connexions strategy in return for funding. It is, essentially sub-contracting. Talk of streamlining and rationalization is at root another way of saying that the government wants to eliminate or sideline work that is not centrally concerned with connecting people with the labour market and education systems; and to ensure that there are efficient mechanisms to ensure that services and agencies dance to their tune.

Focused work. When talking about the contribution of voluntary youth organizations, the document writers have the following to say:

We see a key role for voluntary youth organisations in helping young people to keep in good shape” and in helping us to realise our ambitions for every young person. They will want to provide more focused personal development opportunities for young people and play an important role in the delivery of the Connexions Service. They will play a key role in identifying young people in need of a Connexions adviser but who may have not been identified through more formal routes of school, college and drop-in centres. (DfEE 2001: 20)

Quite why agencies ‘will want’ to provide more focused work and be involved in the Connexions strategy is not spelt out. A more honest reading is that if agencies want to receive government money they will have to do these things. A major danger here is that an over-emphasis on focused intervention fundamentally alters the character of youth work. Indeed, we can argue that what results is no longer youth work. Practice shifts into the arena of either individualized casework or into the realm of formal education. Youth work (as a form of informal education) does involve some casework and formal teaching – but too much emphasis on these strands unbalances the work and subverts its associational and conversational character (Jeffs and Smith 1999).

Control of training and development. Those familiar with attempts to introduce personal advisor training within Connexions will be well aware of the direction that government interventions in professional development are taking. The curriculum is defined centrally and the courses written under contract. ‘Training providers’ then have to ‘deliver’ pre-packaged courses to people sent by employers. The length of the programme is between one third and one quarter of that expected for professional qualification in youth and community work in England and Wales. When we come to read this document’s section on training and development this process of ‘dumbing-down’ and of curtailing freedom has to be borne in mind.

A vigorous Youth Service will need the promotion of an appropriate core curriculum for qualifying youth work training and better quality assurance. The national occupational standards for youth work will need continual updating… There needs to be a national programme of education and training for leaders and managers of the new Youth Service across all sectors. The DfEE will work with all partners to deliver this curriculum. (DfEE 2001: 21)

The government may not want to follow the Connexions route in quite the same way, but there will be strong pressure to bring greater standardization into programmes – and to ensure that curriculum objectives dovetail with the Connexions agenda.


The writers of Transforming Youth Work have displayed an extraordinary mix of ignorance and arrogance. Their appreciation of youth, and what makes for human well-being generally, is limited and limiting. Youth work appears, for them, to be largely doing things to young people to increase their commitment to work and to learning (and to avoid anti-social behaviour). Furthermore, their vision for the future involves an increased degree of surveillance and control by central government and its agents, and a curtailing of work that doesn’t fit their agenda. As we have seen, the strategy is fundamentally wrong on several counts. It remains individualistic and anti-associational in orientation; it looks to contain youth; and it’s belief in ‘joined-up thinking’ and control through ‘partnership’ would simply stifle innovation and lead to a great deal of inappropriate work. These things need saying to government. But in a very real sense youth services and youth work agencies are getting what deserve. They have failed to properly attend to questions of context, purpose and practice – and to keep faith with the central tenets of the work.

It is still possible to argue for another way – and to gain resources for holistic and affirming work. Luckily for young people, and informal educators, the government’s ability to affect what happens in many agencies is limited. As we have argued elsewhere, there are extensive resources for work with young people that lie outside the Connexions strategy; there are signs that the crude instrumentalism that has underpinned government intervention is beginning to be recognized as deeply flawed; and that the internal tensions within the strategy will lead, in the medium term, to its abandonment (Youth work beyond Connexions). We also need to exploit the gaps and tensions within the existing Connexions strategy. As Tony Cisse (2001) has argued, ‘Just as the Albermarle report opened up what Davies (2000) has called “ideological and methodological spaces”, so Connexions, can use the “relative autonomy”, in each level of the education system, to do the same’. While England may have moved from being one of the least centralized to one of the most centralized education systems in the last ten years (Alexander 2000: 142-5), there are still spaces for different ways of working. 

Bibliography and further reading

DfEE (2001) Transforming Youth Work, London: Department for Education and Employment. Download the document for yourselves (you’ll need an Acrobat reader) at:

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1998) 'The problem of "youth" for youth work', Youth and Policy 64. This critique of the sociology of youth and the issues posed for youth work’ is available on:

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.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 541 pages. Brilliant setting out of analysis and evidence concerning the decline and possible reconstruction of civil life in the United States. (See material on the informal education homepage – associationalism and civic participation).


Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy. International comparisons in primary education, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cisse, T. (2001) Beyond Connexions – issues in constructive engagement, (online), the informal education homepage, [accessed July 2004].

Connexions Service (2000) Social Exclusion Unit report – Bridging the gap; analysis of the responses to the Youth Support Service consultation: (online) Available from

Davies, B. (2000) Connecting with Connexions – some lessons from Youth Service history, (online) Available from: National Youth Agency,

DfEE (2001) Transforming Youth Work, 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/The Rank Foundation.

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

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

Milson, F. (1970) Youth Work in the 1970s, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Smith, M. (1988) Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Smith, M. (2000) Youth work beyond connexions, (online) the informal education homepage.

Social Exclusion Unit (1999) Bridging the gap: new opportunities for 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training Cm4405 London: HMSO.

Stewart, J. (1992) ‘Guidelines for public service management: lessons not to be learnt from the private sector’, in P. Carter el. al. (eds.) Changing Social Work and Welfare, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Taylor, T. (2000) Beyond connexions – a response, (online) the informal education homepage, 

Vanandruel, M., Amerio, P., Stafseng.O. and Tap, P. (1996) Young People and Associations in Europe, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

© Mark K. Smith. 2001.