Working with Young People


Sheila Curran, Roger Harrison & Donald Mackinnon

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    Notes on the Contributors

    Janet Batsleer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

    Dave Beck, University of Glasgow.

    Jeremy Brent, formerly of Southmead Youth Centre in Bristol.

    Liesl Conradie, University of Bedfordshire and The Open University.

    Sheila Curran, The Open University.

    Carol Devanney, Youth Worker.

    Alison J. Fielding, Canterbury Christ Church University.

    Tyrrell Golding, The Open University.

    Jean Harris, Sheffield Hallam University.

    Roger Harrison, The Open University.

    Jean Hine, De Montfort University.

    Gina Ingram, Youth Worker.

    Mary Jane Kehily, The Open University.

    Donald Mackinnon, The Open University.

    Jane Melvin, University of Brighton.

    Tomas Paus, University of Toronto.

    Rod Purcell, University of Glasgow.

    Hazel L. Reid, Canterbury Christ Church University.

    Kate Sapin, University of Manchester.

    Howard Sercombe, University of Strathclyde.

    Jean Spence is a member of the Youth and Policy editorial group.

    Naomi Stanton, YMCA George Williams College.

    Etienne Wenger, independent consultant.

    Aniela Wenham, University of York.

    Jane Westergaard, Canterbury Christ Church University.

    Jason Wood, Nottingham Trent University.

    Tom Wylie was chief executive of the National Youth Agency from 1996 to 2007.

    Publisher's Acknowledgements

    Chapter 1 is the author's revision of Wood, Jason and Hine, Jean (2009) ‘Introduction: The changing context of work with young people’, Chapter 1 in Wood, Jason and Hine, Jean (eds) Work with Young People, SAGE.

    Chapter 2 is the author's revision of Kehily, Mary Jane (2007) ‘A Cultural Perspective’, Chapter 1 in Kehily, Mary Jane (ed.) Understanding Youth, SAGE.

    Chapter 3 is a revision of Brent, Jeremy (2005) ‘Trouble and Tribes: Young people and community’, Chapter 13 in Harrison, Roger and Wise, Christine (eds) Working with Young People, SAGE, which was a revised version of the original text that appeared in Youth and Policy, the journal of critical analysis edited by Ruth Gilchrist, Tony Jeffs and Jean Spence, published by The National Youth Agency. Republished with kind permission of Youth and Policy journal,

    Chapter 4 is a newly commissioned chapter by Aniela Wenham.

    Chapter 5 is the author's revision of Sercombe, Howard and Paus, Tomas (2009) ‘The Teen Brain Research: Implications for practitioners’, Youth and Policy No. 103, pp. 25–38, and Sercombe, Howard (2010) ‘The Teen Brain Research: Critical perspectives’, Youth and Policy No. 105, pp. 71–80. Republished with kind permission of Youth and Policy journal,

    Chapter 6 is the author's revision of Wylie, Tom (2010) ‘Youth Work in a Cold Climate’, Youth and Policy No. 105, pp. 8–10. Republished with kind permission of Youth and Policy journal,

    Chapter 7 is a revision of Ingram, Gina and Harris, Jean (2005) ‘Defining Good Youth Work’, Chapter 1 in Harrison, Roger and Wise, Christine (eds) Working with Young People, SAGE, which was a revised version of the original text that appeared as Chapter 4 in Ingram, Gina and Harris, Jean (2001) Delivering Good Youth Work, Russell House Publishing. Republished by kind permission of Russell House Publishing,

    Chapter 8 is edited from Spence, Jean and Devanney, Carol (2006) ‘Every Day is Different’, Chapter 3 in Youth Work: Voices of Practice – A Research Report by Durham University and Weston Spirit, Leicester: National Youth Agency. Republished by kind permission of Jean Spence and Carol Devanney.

    Chapter 9 is edited from Reid, Hazel and Fielding, Alison (2007) ‘Helping: Definitions and Purpose’, Chapter 2, Providing Support to Young People, Routledge. Copyright 2007 Routledge. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Books UK.

    Chapter 10 is the author's revision of Batsleer, Janet (2008) ‘Informal Learning and Informal Education’, Chapter 2, Informal Learning in Youth Work, SAGE.

    Chapter 11 is edited from Sercombe, Howard (2010) ‘Thinking Ethically’, Chapter 7, Youth Work Ethics, SAGE.

    Chapter 12 is a revision of Wenger, Etienne (2005) ‘A Social Theory of Learning’, which appeared in Harrison, Roger and Wise, Christine (eds) Working with Young People, SAGE, which was a revised version of the original text that appeared as pp. 3–17 in Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger. First published in 1998 © Cambridge University Press, reproduced with permission.

    Chapter 13 is a newly commissioned chapter by Sheila Curran and Tyrrell Golding.

    Chapter 14 is edited from Sapin, Kate (2013) ‘Enhancing Young People's Participation’, Chapter 9, Essential Skills for Youth Work Practice, 2nd edn, SAGE.

    Chapter 15 is edited from Beck, Dave and Purcell, Rod (2010) ‘Developing Generative Themes for Community Action’, Popular Education Practice for Youth and Community Development Work, Learning Matters.

    Chapter 16 is edited from Westergaard, Jane (2009) ‘The Role of Youth Support Workers with Groups of Young People’, Chapter 1, Effective Group Work with Young People, Open University Press. Reproduced with the kind permission of Open University Press. All rights reserved.

    Chapter 17 is a newly commissioned chapter by Jane Melvin.

    Chapter 18 is a newly commissioned chapter by Naomi Stanton.

    Chapter 19 is a newly commissioned chapter by Liesl Conradie.

    Figures republished from third-party sources are credited in the relevant captions.


    The aim of this second edition of Working with Young People is the same as the first: to bring together a collection of writing about the theory and practice of working with young people which reflects, and is a product of, the changing times in which we live and work. It is also designed to support students studying for the Open University's professional qualification in Youth Work, particularly in the first two years of their study. We were gratified to see the extent to which the first edition was adopted as recommended reading for a range of other courses in the field of working with young people, and hope that this new edition achieves a similar level of acceptance.

    In introducing the first edition in 2005, we noted the diversity of this field of practice and also the speed with which it was realigning itself with changes in the political and social landscape. Since then changes to the landscape show no signs of slowing down, as publicly funded services adjust to times of austerity and new forms of work with young people emerge. Our intended audience also remains the same as in 2005: practitioners working with young people in a variety of contexts and roles. As a reader of this volume you might be, for example, a youth worker, a learning mentor, a Scout/Guides leader, a sports or after school club leader, or a specialist young people's worker in a training or housing organisation. You might be working with a young men's group in Belfast, with young black women in Leicester, or with young people who are leaving care in London. You might be working in a youth centre or as a detached worker, with young people in school or with those who have been excluded from school. Taken together these practices form a complex pattern of provision which has been recognised by successive governments as a highly significant force in the lives of young people (DfES, 2001; DfE, 2011).

    Since 2005 there have been significant changes in the social, economic and political contexts in which work with young people takes place. Political change has arrived with a new UK government in 2010, but we have also seen a significant devolution of powers to governments in Scotland and Wales and a consequent divergence of policies, priorities and practices across the different parts of the UK. Reductions in public funding have led to significant cuts in youth services and even the complete disappearance of some youth services, particularly in England. Connexions services, which were in the early stages of development in England in 2005, have largely disappeared as a result of changes in policy and funding. Organisations such as the Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) no longer exist. At the same time, we can observe new practices emerging, growing out of new contexts and settings, including in churches, temples and mosques, in hospitals, schools and housing organisations. There has been an increasing emphasis on partnership work, with practitioners from across a range of professional backgrounds working together to support young people's learning and development. There is a growing recognition of the role that youth work can play in supporting young people's learning and achievement in schools and colleges, and in helping to prevent school exclusion and underachievement, particularly in the Celtic nations.

    As public provision for young people has contracted, voluntary and community organisations, including faith-based organisations, are playing an increasingly significant role in the provision of youth services. Private sector organisations are also taking a larger role, and it looks as though this will grow further. There have also been significant changes in the professional education and training of those working with young people. For example, youth work is now a graduate profession in each of the different nations of the UK.

    We are also writing in what are challenging times for many young people. The youth unemployment rate is currently around 20 per cent, compared with 12 per cent in 2005, when our first edition was published (Evans, 2013). Changes in welfare look likely to result in benefit cuts which may have a particularly adverse impact on the most vulnerable young people, including young parents, young people with disabilities and young people living in parts of the country with high-cost housing. This environment brings new challenges for those working with young people, but also indicates the continuing need for young people to have access to knowledgeable, skilled and committed practitioners who can provide them with support and encouragement, especially at those times when life is difficult.

    No single volume can claim to be representative of all the issues and viewpoints which are available in this diverse and dynamic field. The selection we have made here is a mixture of edited versions of texts which have already been published, together with chapters specially commissioned for this book. They span over a decade of researching, writing, debating and developing the ideas and the practices which constitute this field. Some are included because they offer a timely reminder of the values and purposes which remain fundamental to working with young people; others because they present new insights into the world of young people and the possibilities for working with them. The last decade has seen a considerable expansion of the literature from and about this field, reflecting changing social and economic conditions, new priorities and new voices. We have tried to represent at least some of these changes and some of these new voices, whilst also recognising the continuity of ideas and approaches which have always underpinned this work.

    The book is divided into three overlapping parts.

    Part 1 looks at how young people are characterised and defined, both through government policy initiatives and through academic research, for example in sociology, psychology and neuroscience. These understandings are important since they powerfully influence debates about what is practical and desirable in working with young people. Jason Wood and Jean Hine introduce this idea that young people's place in society is constituted through a complex interaction between public attitudes, government policies and academic knowledge. Mary Jane Kehily develops this further, focusing on the role of knowledge, popular culture and the market as factors shaping the identities of young people. Her analysis shows how young people are not simply the victims of these larger social forces, but also active agents in shaping their own identities. Jeremy Brent and Aniela Wenham both draw on their research into particular groups of young people to illustrate how our ideas about, and responses to, these groups are constructed in policies which view them first and foremost as problems. Both chapters present powerful arguments for why it matters for those who work with young people to take a critical stance towards assumptions and prejudices that often lie behind such policies, and the practices they produce. These chapters also illustrate how knowledge about young people is powerful in shaping our understandings and interpretations of their actions. Howard Sercombe and Tomas Paus introduce us to a relatively new branch of knowledge – neuroscience – which is beginning to provide insights into how the brain works, and in doing so change the way we think about young people and their behaviour. Their chapter provides a lucid and balanced description of a complex field of research, and touches on some of the implications for those working with young people. Finally in this section, Tom Wylie assesses the implications of the current rather austere context for work with young people, and the challenges it presents for young people and for those working with them.

    Part 2 investigates the nature of this field of practice: what are its defining features; what are the ideas about ethics, about learning, about helping, which underpin the practice; how are these ideas mobilised in practice settings? Gina Ingram and Jean Harris give us a succinct characterisation of youth work, covering the diversity of the practices used, the subtlety of the skill set required, and the quality of the relationship between the practitioner and the young person which lies at the heart of this work. Jean Spence and Carol Devanney take us from the general to the particular with their illuminating account of the realities of day-to-day youth work practice, and the challenges faced by practitioners as they seek to be responsive to young people whilst at the same time responding to externally determined agendas and organisational priorities. The chapters by Hazel Reid and Alison Fielding and Janet Batsleer both examine the theory and practice of different kinds of work with young people: individual advice and guidance on the one hand and informal education on the other. Both of these approaches can provide valuable interventions in the lives of young people but require different skills and techniques if they are to be used successfully. Howard Sercombe discusses the place of ethics in work with young people, looking both at why ethics matter and how ethical decision making plays an integral part in the everyday work of practitioners. Finally in this section, we return to the subject of learning. Etienne Wenger's chapter does not directly address youth work but is nevertheless highly relevant to the kind of informal education described in this volume by Janet Batsleer. Drawing on research into the learning which occurs in real-life contexts, Wenger suggests that learning should be understood not as a distinct activity which can be organised and regulated, but as a natural result of participation with others in meaningful activity. The role of the practitioner then becomes one of setting up and facilitating situations which are rich in learning opportunities, rather than attempting to achieve prearranged learning outcomes.

    Part 3 examines a diversity of practices and practical dilemmas which are present in contemporary work with young people. It is here that most of the newly commissioned chapters are to be found as we attempt to keep up to date with an ever- changing field. Sheila Curran and Tyrrell Golding discuss the dilemma for those who work informally with young people of adapting these approaches to more formal settings such as schools and colleges. They are able to draw on their own experiences of practice to provide examples of how these challenges can be met. Meeting the needs of young people and devolving responsibility back to them is often stated as a priority in most forms of youth and community work. Kate Sapin's chapter deals with how to involve young people more directly in decisions which affect their lives, including the design and delivery of services intended to meet their needs. Again, she is able to draw on her own direct experience, as well as that of others, in describing strategies for making young people's participation something more than tokenistic. Dave Beck and Rod Purcell pursue this question of how to engage with young people on a more equal and democratic footing. Their chapter describes both the theory and practice of a community development model for participative approaches in work with young people. Group work is another form of practice which has always been valued for its ability to engage young people in purposeful social interactions. Jane Westergaard considers ways in which practitioners from different professional backgrounds can work with groups of young people to support their learning and personal development. Jane Melvin reviews the growth of digital technologies, drawing on her own research to explore their impact on the way young people communicate and interact with each other, and some of the implications for practitioners, including organisational policies and safeguarding. Faith-based youth work now constitutes a significant proportion of the professional field of work with young people. In her chapter, Naomi Stanton draws on her own research to examine the origins of this work, the nature of young people's involvement and some of the tensions which occur between the aims of youth workers and those of the churches involved. Finally, Liesl Conradie discusses the importance of supervision in supporting and developing capable and reflective practitioners, and examines some of the skills and qualities that practitioners need to develop as they engage in supervision and prepare to become supervisors themselves.

    In putting together the contents of this volume, we have tried to cover a number of dimensions in this ‘infinitely fluid, flexible and mobile’ (Bradford, 2005: 58) field of practice: from the timeless to the contemporary; from individual to group; from formal to informal; from research to practice. The selection we have made cannot claim to be comprehensive or even representative of the richness and diversity of the literature available, but it does cover what we see as some of the key themes currently being discussed in the field.

    Bradford S. (2005). ‘Modernising youth work: from the universal to the particular and back again’, in Harrison R., and Wise C. (eds), Working with Young People, London: Sage.
    Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2001) Transforming Youth Work, London: The Stationery Office.
    Department for Education (DfE) (2011) Positive for Youth Statement, (accessed 18/02/13).
    Evans J. (2013) Youth Unemployment Statistics, SN/EP/5871, London: House of Commons Library, (accessed 04/07/13).

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