Innovation in Youth Work : Creating Spaces for Radical Youth Work?

innovation inyw

The third chapter in the book sees In Defence’s Malcolm Ball, Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty reflecting on the workshop they ran as part of the Innovation in Youth Work project.

Market values and authoritarianism have become the norm for many working in community and youth roles. This piece encourages you to explore what counts as ‘radical youth work’ in this context.

In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) is a campaigning organisation that came together in 2009 to defend grassroots traditions of youth work against imposed relationships, targeted outcomes, and the closure of and cuts to open-access and anti-oppressive youth projects. As a group of practitioners, we call for the defence of democratic and emancipatory youth work, based on the following cornerstones: • voluntary relationships between young people and youth workers; • a commitment to critical dialogue; • a focus on anti-oppressive practice; • the valuing of young people’s ‘here and now’ as well as their futures; and • tipping the balance of power in favour of young people.

Reflecting on these cornerstones in the context of radical youth work throws up certain questions, such as: • Do these cornerstones describe youth work today, or would this form of practice be seen as radical in today’s policy climate? • If these cornerstones portray an ‘ideal-type’ of youth work, is this an ideal that is inspiring, affirming, or alienating? • Is it possible to be a youth worker who isn’t doing youth work – or a radical youth worker who isn’t able to practice radically? 

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. The chapter is contained within pages 22 – 25. As ever responses welcomed.

The piece finishes:

Final thought:
Whether it is called being radical, being positive about youth work, being creative or being a ‘troublemaker’, in the words of one of the workshop participants:

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.

Innovation in Youth Work – new book stimulating dialogue and practice



big lottery

Over the coming weeks we will be posting links to particular chapters from this new and challenging book, 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. Tomorrow will see the appearance of a controversial opening chapter, ‘What sort of future?’ by Tony Jeffs.

Introduction – Naomi Stanton, YMCA George Williams College


This book aims to offer reflections for youth workers to stimulate their thinking, dialogue and practice. Some of the sections include suggested activities that can be used with young people directly; others are for use with staff and volunteers to prompt discussion about youth work in the current context that practitioners find themselves in. Our aim for the resource is that it will encourage innovative thinking and practice through ideas and activities that youth workers find useful and that will help them to consider their work together with other youth workers and young people. A range of issues and topics are covered within the book including, among others; volunteering, evaluation, conflict, mentoring and social action.

It is not a resource compiled for practitioners by academics. A large number of its contributors are practising youth workers. It is a practical toolkit drawn from practice itself. Therefore the topics covered are current issues for current practitioners. In particular, it considers how we might explore the values and practices of youth work at a time when youth work feels under threat. We hope that it encourages optimism and innovation despite current challenges to the field.

The book has been created through a wider project taking place at YMCA George Williams College that has been concerned with encouraging ‘Innovation and Skills for Youth Work’. This project has been supported by funding from The Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Awards for All: England’ programme and has involved two national youth work conferences and ten regional training days as well as the development of this resource for practitioners. The project aimed to provide space and opportunities for youth workers (particularly volunteers and new practitioners) to reflect on, develop and upskill their practice. We hope that this resource plays a small part in continuing to sustain and encourage youth workers because we firmly believe that youth work is valuable and the role that youth workers play is highly significant to the young people they engage with.

Innovation and Reflection at YMCA George Williams

Tony Jeffs sitting comfortably

Tony Jeffs sitting comfortably



Innovation in Youth Work: Creative Practice in Challenging Times was a conference held on 13th May 2014 at YMCA George Williams conference. The event was part supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Awards for All: England’ programme through a bid held by the college.

The conference was attended by youth work practitioners and academics from across the UK and discussion focused on the positive and innovative practice that is taking place during the current Government austerity.

The main speaker sessions included:

– Tony Jeffs (Youth and Policy) on the current state of youth work and the challenges and opportunities the field faces in moving forward;

– Aniela Wenham (University of York) and Ian McGimpsey (University of Birmingham) on measuring the impact of youth work including both current problems in the way it is measured and ways to think creatively in moving forward

– Elaine Johannes (Kansas State University) on how youth work is developed and sustained in the USA where there is no state or federal requirement for investment in youth services.

Workshops were facilitated by practitioners from a range of organisations including, among others; In Defence of Youth Work, NUS, The Foyer Federation and The Boys Brigade.


Reflecting on the event

At a time of steady decline, rallying cries levied against those responsible for cuts to youth services seems to be falling on deaf ears. Why is this? Is youth work living though its final hours or is now the time for youth work to be reborn so that it can fulfil its telos? In his key note speech, Tony Jeffs argued that the withdrawal of the state, in funding youth work, is not a feature of austerity, rather the state has little interest in youth work now. Recent attempts to revive youth work have proved both costly and unsuccessful in the bigger scheme of things as seen with the Youth Service Development Fund, Transforming Youth Work, Connexions and, most recently, Myplace.

But is the writing on the wall for youth work? Outside state funded provisions it would seem all is well and good. Youth work in the faith sector and the uniformed organisations is thriving. Rather than responding to what funders want to hear, fighting for the scraps of targeted youth work being tendered out, we see youth work which has thought about what it wants to be rather than responding to what funders want to hear. Katherine O’Brien, a church based youth worker, talked extensively in her workshop about how she sees youth work as a way to empower young people through social action and a commitment to social justice. For those youth workers who were perhaps a little longer in the tooth, this was a rejuvenating experience allowing time to consider the importance of youth work that is political; working with issues that young people are really concerned with.

Similarly, the need to encourage a more politicised approach through collective action seemed to be one of the main messages coming from Ben Kinross and Sarah Kerton of the NUS as they sought to build links between the work of student unions and youth work.

In seeking to reclaim youth work’s raison d’etre, a call for rigorous research and strong philosophical grounding were both considered to be important principles for supporting and developing practice rich in intrinsic value, furrowing its own path rather than following the ploughed lines of political rhetoric and targets – now is the time to innovate.

Simon Frost, YMCA George Williams College.


We should also report that the YMCA is launching a Centre for Reflective Leadership – full details on their web site, including info on a new Masters degree and a range of short courses. Also see the pdf to be found below.

Centre for Reflective Leadership 2014 pdf.

Thanks to Naomi Stanton for the for the link and photo.


Innovation in Youth Work – Creative practice in challenging times


Call for Workshop facilitators for a Conference at the YMCA George Williams College, East London, May 13th 2014.


Title: Innovation in Youth Work – Creative practice in challenging times


Youth workers are operating in difficult times; traditional sources of funding for youth work have in many areas of the country, been heavily impacted by austerity cutbacks since the fiscal crisis. Universal services are fast disappearing. Many are worried about the decimation of youth work services, some are proclaiming the death of youth work that is young people led and voluntarily accessed and some are concerned that youth work is becoming associated with deficit models of practice that advocate the social improvement of ‘disadvantaged’/ ‘anti-social’ young people and their families through targeted short term work (  At these times when youth work services are diminishing young people are also being hit hard by austerity measures:  Youth unemployment is high, with nearly 1 million 16-24 year olds being economically inactive ( Unicef are warning that improvements made in children’s wellbeing in the UK over the past 6 years may be reversed by the negative effects of the downgrading of youth policy and cuts to local government since 2010 (

However youth work is continuing to mature, develop and professionalise, internationally as well as nationally. There is much debate about the direction this development and professionalization should take and this conference will be a contribution to this debate.

The conference will be an opportunity for critical debate, dialogue and exchange of ideas and practices. We will be providing a range of invited speaker presentations and practical workshops and are currently looking for workshop facilitators.



Facilitators are invited to submit a short summary of their proposed workshop on the topic of ‘Innovation in youth work – Creativity in challenging times’.  Workshops can address the following or related themes:


·         Community Enterprise

·         Community Learning and Development

·         Theoretical innovations

·         How can workers creatively engage in formal settings?

·         Creative solutions to the restructuring of youth services

·         Innovation in Faith-based work

·         Community Arts

·         International Perspectives

·         Creative fundraising

·         Philosophy and youth work

·         Digital youth work and new technology

·         Radical youth work

·         Youth voice and local and global citizenship



We are very keen to accommodate diverse contributions, and would like to encourage participation from practitioners, academics, activists and other interested parties as well as partnered facilitation between academics and practitioners. Each workshop will be expected to include practical activities and be written up in under 1000 words for a post-conference publication with each write-up including a practical tool or resource for practitioners to use.


Please send an outline (of no more than 250 words) of your ideas for workshop contributions to by April 4th. A selection of workshops will be chosen and facilitators of the chosen workshops will have a free place at the conference. We regret that we may not be able to accommodate all proposed workshops


Details on signing up for this conference will be circulated separately in due course.