Innovation in Youth Work : Tony Jeffs asks ‘What sort of future for our work?’

As  observed in yesterday’s post over the coming weeks we will be posting links to particular chapters from the new and challenging book, ‘Innovation in Youth Work : Thinking in Practice’, edited by Naomi Stanton. We are doing this as part of the YMCA College’s commitment to spreading the word as widely as possible. Amidst the hurly-burly we hope you will find time to peruse and reflect upon its contents.


In a typically forthright piece Tony Jeffs sets the scene for an exploration of innovative youth work in ‘What sort of future? It begins:

Innovation is woven into the very fabric of youth
work. From its outset, youth work was obliged to
remake itself each time the social context and young
people’s needs changed. Inflexibility was, therefore,
never a viable option as youth work always risked
being overtaken by technological and social change.
During a two hundred year history, this occurred
infrequently. Club leaders and youth workers, as a
consequence of their recurring contact with young
people and communities, most being part-time
workers or volunteers functioning in their own
neighbourhoods, have rarely been caught unawares by
these transformations. They may, at times, have been
one step behind. However, rarely has it been more
than one step. The dialogical basis of their practice
ensured club leaders and youth workers were
incessantly engaged in conversation with young
people. Therefore, those practitioners who listened and
were embedded within the local community acquired a
distinctive insight into the lived experiences of young
people and the places wherein they grew up. Rightly,
such practitioners were listened to by local and
national politicians, many of whom in the past
emerged from the ranks of youth work. It needs to be
recalled that, until relatively recently, youth work was a
‘mass movement’. Made up of thousands of clubs and
units; hundreds of thousands of leaders freely giving of
their time and energy; and a million-plus voluntary
members. From this potpourri of talents, youthful zest
and commitment to public service emerged a constant
flow of innovation. Nearly always these innovations
came from the grass roots, in response to pressure from
an active membership of young people and workers.
National youth organisations were themselves
products of this dynamic; which meant initially they
were controlled from below by local branches.
Innovation therefore tended to occur as part of the
natural order of things, driven by the desire of
practitioners to better serve the changing needs of
members. Almost without exception, every innovation
in relation to practice – be it the concept of the club
itself; the idea of a youth centre; detached and
outreach work; youth cafes; residential centres;
outdoor and adventure provision; specialist work –
with girls and young women, the disabled, ethnic
minorities and gay, lesbian and transgender young
people; or mobile provision – originally surfaced at the
local level.


Years of retrenchment mean the once vibrant grass
roots have withered away. Youth work is no longer a
mass movement but a remnant – sustained, where it
survives, by a rapidly decreasing number of paid full
and part-time workers. There are exceptions. Notably
some uniformed youth organisations, which have
enjoyed a revival, and the faith-based sector which
thrives thanks to a pool of voluntary leaders and an
increasing number of often poorly remunerated staff.
Therefore, whenever discussion of ‘a youth work crisis’
occurs, it is important to recall that the ‘crisis’ relates
almost exclusively to secular units and typically those
either fully or partially funded by local authorities.

To read in full, hover your cursor on This is Youth Work : The Book  in the brown header at the top of this page and click on Innovation in Youth Work : Thinking in Practice. This will take you to a designated page, where the full pdf of the book can be viewed. Tony’s chapter is contained within pages 10 – 17. As ever responses welcomed.

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