Still room at the IDYW conference plus can we measure and treasure character?

On Thursday I’m contributing to a Centre for Youth Impact event, ‘The Measure and the Treasure: Evaluation in personal and social development’ in London. It’s sold out. OK, I accept there is unlikely to be a connection. However I will post next week a report of the proceedings and a summary of my sceptical input into the morning panel debate.


The Measure and the Treasure: Evaluation in personal and social development

The Centre for Youth Impact is hosting a day-long event on the 16th March 2017 focused on issues of measurement and personal and social development.
The day will explore policy, practical and philosophical debates about whether, how and why we should seek to measure the development of social and emotional skills in young people – also referred to as non-cognitive skills, soft skills and character, amongst other terms. We want to structure a thought-provoking and engaging day that introduces participants to a range of ideas and activities. The day will be designed for practitioners working directly with young people, those in an evaluation role, and funders of youth provision.

Speakers and facilitators include: Emma Revie (Ambition), Daniel Acquah (Early Intervention Foundation), Graeme Duncan (Right to Suceed), Robin Bannerjee (University of Sussex), Paul Oginsky (Personal Development Point), Jenny North (Impetus-PEF), Tony Taylor (In Defence of Youth Work), Sarah Wallbank (Yes Futures), Jack Cattell (Get the Data), Mary Darking, Carl Walker and Bethan Prosser (Brighton University), Leonie Elliott-Graves and Chas Mollet (Wac Arts), Tom Ravenscroft (Enabling Enterprise), Phil Sital-Singh (UK Youth) and Luke McCarthy (Think Forward).


Then on Friday it’s our eighth national conference in Birmingham. To be honest the number of people registering is disappointing, well down on previous years. Although, obviously, the smaller audience, around 30 folk at the moment, will make for intense debate. This said, we’d love to see you there so it’s not too late to register or even turn up on the day.

Youth Work: Educating for good or Preventing the bad?

Details on this Facebook page or at this previous post.

Impact takes a bit of a troublesome knocking and from an unexpected quarter

It’s been an uncomfortable few weeks for the concept of impact, so dominant nowadays in thinking about youth work and the youth sector.


Firstly the much trumpeted post-2011 Troubled Families Strategy is exposed as an exercise in wilful deceit.  A scathing study undertaken by an independent research consortium including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research finds that after four years there was no clear evidence that the programme had any tangible effect, despite persistent claims by politicians that it had “turned around” the lives of tens of thousands of families and saved over a billion pounds. One of its authors going so far as to say, “The troubled families programme has no significant impact on any of the key outcomes it was designed to change. As far as we can tell, there’s no evidence at all to suggest the programme had more than zero impact on any of the key findings it was designed to change.”

We drew attention to this state of affairs back in February, ‘Troubled Families is a fraudulent scam’- some thoughts from within’, drawing on a report by Stephen Crossley of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Yet, despite the widespread unease about the programme, pursuing its outcomes agenda has been central to the restructuring of local government services and has impacted significantly on the role of the remnants of the Youth Service. For example in Lancashire the Youth Service is about to be submerged within the Wellbeing, Early Help and Prevention Service and ‘aligned’ to the TFU programme. By all accounts open access youth work will disappear.

 Proposals for Transforming Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help
Services for Children, Young People and Families in Lancashire

This paper describes the implementation plan of the service offer proposals
presented to Cabinet in February 2015. It includes a description of the current state
of the services to be integrated and proposes a future service model to be delivered
within a revised financial envelope of £17,230,000. This represents a £7.4million
budget saving by 2017/18, based on current services spend (2015/16). The paper
outlines the service delivery model proposal to transform and fully integrate a range
of services within Wellbeing, Prevention and Early Help Service (WPEHS), which
will be implemented subject to consultation. The resultant integrated delivery model
will align existing core offers for Children’s Centres, Young People’s Provision,
Prevention and Early Help and Lancashire’s response to the national Troubled
Families Unit national programme.


Secondly Paul Oginsky, infamous in some circles for his role as an adviser to David Cameron and as an architect of the flagship National Citizen Service, has evidently seen the light. He declares,

“For many years, people in the youth sector have been looking for a definitive and universally accepted way of measuring the impact of their work.
So many people have tried and so many methods have been proposed that this quest has become known as the ‘Holy Grail’ of youth work. Let us kill this myth now (spoiler alert), there is no holy grail. There is no way of measuring impact on people that is definitive and universally accepted. There is no such thing as a unit of confidence, loyalty, honesty, motivation or any of the characteristics which this kind of work seeks to impact.”

He might have added with a touch of humility, that for many years many within youth work, including leading figures such as Batsleer, Davies, Jeffs, Smith, Bright and Yeung, together with In Defence of Youth Work and a host of practitioners rendered redundant, have been criticising the illusions of the outcomes and impact agenda. They have never got on the horse pursuing this particular Holy Grail.

He continues,

Forget measurement, psychometric testing, pre and post course tick boxes, the best way of assessing the impact of this kind of work is to ask the person themselves to describe if and how they have changed, and then to ask for witnesses verification by those who know them.

Although this needs some serious unpacking we might discern a hint of the story-telling perspective advocated by ourselves – see our designated web site here. Certainly though we need to engage with the arguments contained in the paper, A Way Forward For Character Development: The missing piece of education , published by Personal Development Point, of which Paul is the Chief Executive.

Clearly Bethia McNeil of the Centre for Youth Impact and Phil Kerry of London Youth are of the same mind, finding themselves in agreement with much of Paul Oginsky’s thesis.

 Bethia comments, Paul Oginsky is right that there is no ‘definitive and universally accepted way of measuring impact’. A ‘definitive approach’ implies agreement, a conclusion and a sense of authority. Impact measurement in the youth sector has none of those features. He’s also right that finding this definitive and universally accepted approach has at times seemed like the Holy Grail. This is in part because impact measurement has been connected with sustainability, and the suggestion has long been that the ability to ‘prove’ your impact or worth is associated with turning on the funding taps. A search for the Holy Grail is also motivated by the belief that it exists – that it is possible to find a definitive and universally accepted approach to measuring impact. Again, Paul is right – there isn’t one.

Phil Kerry writes, I read with interest Paul Oginsky’s recent white paper, A Way Forward for Character Development: The missing piece of education. Much of what Personal Development Point says rings true. There is no holy grail to character measurement within our sector and the sooner we all realise this the better. But attempting to condense all of this into one evaluation tool or definition would just be just as much of a fruitless mission. Our sector embraces a brilliantly wide church of practice and thinking and in this lies our strength and not our weakness.

Read their responses in full here.

To repeat the point made above, we can but suggest that a critical caution about imposed templates of universality has been around for ages. Indeed it is caught in youth work’s long-standing acknowledgement that it is a contested ideological space. It is fascinating that this fundamental insight is by and large ignored, even when notions of social change are allowed into the debate. We will endeavour to explain this further in a measured response to the PDP Oginsky pamphlet. Meanwhile there is reason to believe that the discussion about ‘what we’re up to’ is loosening up.



After the conferences : Bernard Davies reflects

In the aftermath of a series of youth work conferences and events concerned with the future, Bernard Davies offers these immediate reflections.


Some personal reflections on the struggle for a future for youth work

Three events in a month run by organisations with mandates as different as the Training Agencies Group (TAG), ChooseYouth and the Institute for Youth Work (IYW). Attended in total by around 240 people ranging from very experienced practitioners working on the front line and youth work students struggling with non-youth work placements to the Chief Executive of UK Youth and university heads of departments. And all dedicated to reflecting on the question: what future for youth work and the Youth Service? Out of the contradictions, the confusions and – yes – the conflicts, what clarifications, lessons and thoughts for possible action has all that left me with?

The diversity of the attendance was both a positive and a challenge. Given that neither ChooseYouth nor the unions that have done so much to sustain it or indeed IYW, were on the invitation list for last December’s sector collaboration conference part-sponsored by UK Youth, the up-front contributions to the ChooseYouth event of two senior UK Youth staff members certainly felt like a important step forward in alliance building.

On the other hand, the range of attendees’ roles and work settings also brought to the surface some significantly contrasting, if often taken-for-granted, perspectives on what the practice requires. For me this was captured in one discussion which produced both vivid descriptions by workers in open access settings of their struggles to negotiate managers’ demands for ‘measured outcomes’ and the apparently wholly unproblematic request from another practitioner working in a targeted programme for guidance on how, as straightforwardly as possible, to record the personal details of the young people they were working on their computer.

Nor was this the only issue to emerge where consensus seemed elusive. Many – especially, it seemed, experienced qualified workers who have for years run up against the disdain of other professions – remain keen on some form of nationally recognised ‘protection of title’/‘licence to practice’ or even a formal registration process. For others howevernot least voluntary workers – this clearly smacked of exclusiveness and even of threatening to define what they were doing as lower status.

And then, and most fundamentally, was the question: so what now do we mean by ‘youth work’? Given what has happened to the sector over the past six years, it is hardly surprising that the notion that any ‘work with young people is youth work, especially if it can make some claims to being ‘informal’, has bitten deep into the consciousness of the workforce – practitioners as well as policy-makers and managers. For such committed workers, in whatever settings they now find themselves, there seems to be no alternative but to see their use of their ‘transferable youth work skills’ as confirmation of deeply embedded personal as well as occupational identities?

So where does all that leave a ‘defence of youth work’? On the premise that we

– the sector – will be stronger together than apart, my own very personal starting point has to be to try and identify some core issues around which pluralist responses might rally. Out of my reflection on these three recent events – and recognising that as immediate ‘successes’ are now very unlikely, mid- long-term perspectives are needed – might collaboration with, for example, ChooseYouth, with TAG, IYW and the Centre for Youth Impact perhaps focus on:

  • Continuing to make the case for local all-year youth work provision which young people choose to use – arguing that case on the evidence going back decades that those facilities are likely to be attended regularly and/or sampled by anything up to a million 13-19 year olds, and that – contradicting the presumed constraints of ‘austerity’many could be funded out of the £89M currently spent on the 58,000 16-19 year olds enrolling in the NCS.
  • Supporting university courses which, as part of their efforts to maintain recruitment, are reaching out to FE students – particularly those on access courses; and also getting the word out in more systematic ways that, even in the current tough graduate employment market, their students are getting jobs.
  • Highlighting the appropriateness for youth work of qualitative forms of evaluation focused on the ‘how’ of the practice (on its process and methods) and not just, as so often now, on its impacts including perhaps by seeking funds for a collaborative piece of research into how the kinds of youth work story-telling which IDYW has been developing could contribute to this.

Not much to go on, perhaps – but maybe something to help concentrate our debates on what, beyond the rhetoric often running through these three conferences, collaboration’ and ‘alliance-building’ might actually look like on the ground.

Bernard Davies

April 2016

The perils of social investment in the youth sector


Speaking of the Centre for Youth Impact as we did in our last post, the centre is organising with Learning South West a seminar, ‘The potential of social investment in the youth sector’ on Thursday 25 February 2016 from 10.30 am – 2.30 pm at Bishops Hull House, Bishops Hull, Taunton.

The publicity goes as follows:

The seminar is aimed at youth sector organisations and professionals who might be
considering social investment as a way of developing their offer to young people. It draws
on the experience of a panel of speakers with knowledge and experience of what social
investment can offer, and the challenges it presents for providers and commissioners.
Speakers include:
 Alex Meagher: Centre for Social Impact Bonds, Cabinet Office
 David Floyd: Social Spider CIC, researcher and writer on social enterprise and
social investment
 Kevin Munday: Managing Director, thinkforward, currently operating a social
impact bond
 Miriam Furze: Project Oracle
The seminar will include an introduction to possible uses of social investment and inputs
from those with experience of using it to support work with young people. We will discuss
ways to use social investment in the youth sector in the South West and beyond as well as
considering the risks and challenges for organisations contemplating social investment

To reserve a place please email your completed booking form to Jane Shipton by Monday
15 February.

Our slight alteration to the title of the seminar replacing ‘potential’ with ‘perils’ is not facetious. Whilst the blurb talks of risks it’s not clear who will lead the exploration of what is meant by risks. As far as we can see no one on the panel is well-known for a trenchant critique of what is a highly contested way of financing social projects, often referred to as a ‘Pay for Success’ bond. In the meantime we hope IDYW supporters in the South-West will get to the gathering. We would love to hear  your assessment of what’s going on. If we can get our act together we might knock together some thoughts on the  birth and history of social investment thus far. As one critic observes, “of course the underlying driver for Social Impact Bonds derives from neoliberal ideology – to marketise, commercialise, privatise and corporatise the world.”

A call to add your voice to the Centre for Youth Impact

We are encouraging practitioners to respond to this call. Obviously we are especially supportive of contributions that ask searching questions of the outcome and impact agenda with its problematic effect on the nature of the work we do. At this moment we’ll forward our critique of outcomes and our pieces in Youth & Policy 115, which focus on Youth Development and non-formal education.


Add your voice to the Centre for Youth Impact

We want the Centre to become a platform for discussion, an entry point to conversation around impact measurement and a place where anyone involved in work with young people can help shape the future of the impact agenda.

By seeking contributions from across and beyond the youth sector, our aim is to encourage collaboration and debate and to support the ongoing conversation.

What we’re looking for

We’re looking for contributions to both our website and our monthly e-bulletin. Examples could include:

  • News items
  • Invitations to training and events
  • Blogs or opinion pieces
  • Articles for inclusion on the Centre website
  • Suggestions for resources to add to our Resource Hub

We’d also like to share case studies of different approaches to understanding impact, and how this has influenced practice.

Get involved
If you have something to say about impact measurement in the youth sector, we want to hear from you.

When it comes to Impact, Bethia McNeil asks, ‘What Game are We Playing?’

Bethia McNeil

Bethia McNeil

Given our original Open Letter of early 2009 contained such assertions as “with Blair and Brown at the helm youth workers and managers have been coerced and cajoled into embracing the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes” it is hardly surprising that we have been cautious about the Centre for Youth Impact. Yet as the news of an extension of its precarious life is announced its Director, Bethia McNeil, to her great credit, catches us off guard with an open and insightful summary of the state of play re the impact agenda.

In its opening paragraphs she reflects,

Exploring the impact of youth work – and youth services more generally – has been the most contentious, hotly debated and provocative area in which I’ve ever worked. But why? What is it about impact that provokes these responses?

In exploring this question she makes a number of acute observations, including,

From the polite to the less polite, from “unsure of relevance” to “certain that it’s anathema and fatally undermining to youth work”, this is a seriously contested space, with conflicting values.

…we need to recognize that context for measurement in the youth sector, even more so that which is shared, is fraught and that much of the distrust is legitimate. The sense of historical discontinuity coupled to doubt from some and resistance from others sharpens the debate to cutting point. Those of us who are persuaded need to contend with those realities, understand our task and take note of the present limitations.

So, it’s no surprise that the youth sector has a difficult relationship with impact. For some, this is a game that has to be played, but played with cynicism and self-interest. For others, this is an agenda to keep at arm’s length, or even ignore – it is not part of the DNA of practice or organisational culture. For others, this is an assault on youth work and youth services that needs to be confronted and resisted.

She concludes,

If this relationship continues, we risk never really understanding the impact of youth work and youth services today.  We may become expert PR people, highly skilled fundraisers – some of us already are. We’re likely to become utterly cynical about the value of evidence and impact. We’ll contribute to an industry that can do quite a bit for the profile of individual organisations but less for youth work as collective practice. Fundamentally, we’ll do little to advance our understanding about what makes a difference in the lives of young people and why, and critically – how, we can do more of it. If we are committed to sharing the lessons of measurement, this is the first one we need to articulate, then we need to start doing a lot better.

I can but encourage you to read Bethia’s article in its entirety at Impact -whose game are we playing?

We have responded positively to Bethia’s succinct and honest appraisal. Obviously the Centre has its hands tied in many ways and is under the usual pressure to become self-financing. Its extension of financial support is only till March 2016 and its priorities are set. However it is looking to organise two open events in the New Year and we will be looking to be involved. Our feeling is that the broader notion of impact holds out the hope of catalysing a renewed self-critical dialogue between all parties – the committed, the pragmatists, the unconvinced and the dissenters. We will see, but good on Bethia for keeping the door ajar.