Critical Responses to the NYA’s Youth Work Curriculum: Jon Ord sets the ball rolling

In the last week a resurgent National Youth Agency has launched what it dubs a new National Curriculum for Youth Work 2020.

The NYA proposes that:

The new National Youth Work Curriculum will enable a greater understanding of youth work practice, provide an educational framework and act as a reference tool to be used by decision makers, policy makers, commissioners, youth workers and young people. 

It would like to thank everyone involved in developing the new Youth Work Curriculum, alongside the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for supporting the development of the curriculum. 

In the spirit of critical reflection that youth work claims as its inheritance we are pleased to post this response from Jon Ord, which is based on a longer article to be found within the pages of our friends at Youth & Policy – see below.

The National Youth Work Curriculum  – a critique.

There will be some who argue that youth work does not have a curriculum. This however is untenable. Youth work does not have a set curriculum, but it has a curriculum of some sort. All educational practice has a curriculum – whether that is implicit or explicit – as Kelly (2009) points out curriculum is the means by which educational practice is made transparent. The crucial question is not whether youth work has a curriculum but what kind of curriculum it has.

Kelly proposes three theoretical approaches to curriculum:

  • Curriculum as content – a curriculum organised around the idea of key subject areas or knowledge. This can be specific content in terms of a syllabus or broad content in terms of general themes.
  • Curriculum as product – a curriculum organised specifically towards the achievement of predetermined outcomes.
  • Curriculum as process – a curriculum underpinned by broad aims, driven by principles and organised around the means by which the education is delivered. 

How are we to judge the national youth work curriculum considering this theory.

It is an improvement on the somewhat disastrous attempts to impose a product based, outcome focused curriculum of the Transforming Youth Work era (DFES 2002) with its emphasis on programming, planning and predetermined outcomes.

It also has some significant references to the process of youth work such as: ‘the process starts from where young people are at… [and] youth work is person centred, focusing on the young person and their needs’ (NYA, 2020: 5).

However, whilst these are necessary conditions of the youth work process, they are not sufficient. To ensure the national youth work curriculum cannot be interpreted as anything other than a process based curriculum the document needed to explicitly frame youth work as an unfolding, dynamic, creative and uncertain practice – which develops over time and the outcomes of which – cannot be determined with any degree of certainty prior to it commencing – they emerge from it…

Anything short of this explicit representation of process means that youth work practice can be interpreted very differently. There is little therefore within this curriculum to prevent the planning of a specific detailed program geared towards predetermined outcomes, which it could be claimed was derived from negotiation and consultation with young people, and was therefore based on their needs and was ‘person centred’.

The extent to which the national curriculum for youth work ends up merely paying lip service to process depends on how it is applied and interpreted. This risk could have been avoided if a full articulation of process had been integral.

Equally worrying however is the documents over emphasis on content. Aside from the introductory pages and the appendices the majority of the text provides a description of what are presented as the 10 themes of youth work. One could argue well into the night as to what is or is not included in these themes. But my argument would be how can these detailed themes be produced at all. How can the content of youth work be specified in advance on a national scale if youth work is genuinely person centred and process based? 

There is little doubt that what has been produced is a content curriculum not what I have previously argued is the only viable curriculum for youth work – a process-based curriculum – The document is ultimately paradoxical. It claims to be process based but a process-based curriculum cannot specify detailed content in advance because that emerges out of discussions with the participants. The document claims on page 15 that ‘the themes are ‘not meant to be a checklist of what you should do’ and ‘what is explored and offered will be determined locally with young people through the process’. But if this really is the case why have they been specified in the form of 10 detailed themes.

Jon was involved in the consultation on the National Youth Work Curriculum but was not an author.

A fuller version of this article is published by Youth & Policy available at:

Further reading see:

Ord, J. (2016) Youth Work Process Product and Practice: Creating an Authentic curriculum in work with young people, 2nd ed, London Routledge.


DfES – Department for Education & Skills (2002) Transforming Youth Work: ‘Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, Nottingham: DFES.

Kelly, A. V. (2009) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 6th edn, London: Sage.

NYA (2020) Youth Work Curriculum, Leicester: NYA.

One comment

  1. Thanks for putting this up Tony, looking forward to catching the fuller version.
    As ever, Jon’s insight,critical approach and energy for unpicking the textual nuances ,can’t be faulted.
    In fact it’s a joy to read, ponder and Perdue.Thanks mate. For me the answer to the conundrum we all face, that Tony alludes to and Jon states explicitly.Essentially how can activity/themes etc be both pre determined and only emerge trough negotiation /dialogue.
    Can only be understood in terms of the different ethos’s/purposes/ histories of youth work/ informal education.
    That is that a respectable part of our tradition and purpose for some has been the wish to predetermine/guarantee the outcomes.Eg anti crime, behavioural change and changing ideas/attitudes and cultures.
    So the NYA aspiration for this curriculum to be used by policy makers, finders, commissioners etc is likely to be successful.
    Hence the apparent eliding of purpose.Because it seems to me the curriculum/ethos/purpose of youth work. Whether process , product, impact etc is the purpose/motivations and aspirations of the practitioner/practice.
    The conscious/explicit articulation by the practitioner of what they want to chat/challenge/support young people around.
    This the prism through which the person centred praxis is filtered or indeed the product/impact emerges.Without this acknowledgement of the autonomy/centrality of purpose.We can’t answer Jon’s conundrum
    With it things become clearer and what we doing explicable.If uncomfortable , for some.
    Hence our tendency to search for the unicorn of good practice, commission impact, and proscribe outcomes, claiming they are what young people want.Hence ,the fig leaf, of themes etc
    As a way of trying to hold process, person centred, product based approaches together. If we use the notion of purpose, differences can become dynamic/creative tensions.Rather than yet another dance around the mud of Flanders debates of what’s real youthwork.
    We can see that that part of our traditions that values critical reflection is based on purpose.And those parts that value product/outcome/guarantees by responding to moral panics, pathological analysis, finders , policy makers etc .Are doing so because that is their aspiration.
    We can agree to disagree whilst getting on with our own hopes and fears. However, flawed.
    Hence the Milton Fairburn Quote:’’ we can’t decide what kind of Youth work we want until we know what world we are trying to create.”
    For me the central purpose, however process or product/impact based is to help and support young people to be who they need to be in a world they actively and consciously engage with.
    Because the kind of world I aspire to is one predicated on : Liberty, Equality and Solidarity
    In Struggle

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