Youth work in schools: happy union or a culture clash?

As an independent commission sets out to examine what role youth work can play in formal education, Charlotte Goddard discovers a range of partnerships between youth groups and schools across the country

The worlds of youth work and schools are sometimes seen as poles apart. For a start, one is generally voluntary, the other for the most part compulsory. Look at it another way, however, and they can be seen as two sides of the same coin, where academic learning blends with personal and social development to provide a rounded education.

Relationships between youth workers and schools are nothing new. Indeed, in its early days, youth work often made use of school premises. More recently, the previous government’s extended schools initiative encouraged collaborations between youth organisations and schools, including after-school clubs and holiday activities.

Partnerships between youth workers and schools are indeed taking place locally all over the UK. In Kent, for example, youth workers, known as community tutors, deliver lessons, have timetabled sessions with disengaged young people, run school councils and organise school trips. In South Yorkshire, the county’s youth clubs organisation is contracted by Sheffield City Council to deliver a pupil referral unit for young people excluded from school. In London, the under-construction £6m Spotlight Youth Centre in Tower Hamlets is based at Langdon Park School, and youth workers deliver sexual health and smoking cessation projects in the borough’s schools.

However, attention to the connection between youth work and schools is now turning national. Labour’s policy review of young people’s services focused on examining the case for locating youth clubs in schools to save money. “Drawing an artificial distinction between schools and youth services isn’t the best way to tackle issues that are caused by a mix of factors,” it said.

And now the National Youth Agency has launched an independent commission to assess the value of youth work in formal education (see box). Led by former children’s minister Tim Loughton, the commission is starting from the premise “that the emphasis on a set of core academic skills has the potential to squeeze out another set of skills – how to think creatively, collaborate, empathise – at the very time when they are needed more than ever”.

Loughton tells CYP Now: “Youth work has been compartmentalised, and a change in focus at the Department for Education has meant too often that youth work happens outside of the school gates and formal education happens inside, and never the twain shall meet. That is shortsighted, and not a reflection of what is happening on the ground. Some schools and academies are doing very innovative work with youth workers – but there is a mixed picture.”

The value of youth work
The commission hopes that by highlighting best practice, it can encourage a more consistent picture. While schools and youth organisations should still be making local decisions – and have increasing freedom to do so – they need to be able to draw on national recommendations and examples, says Loughton, who feels that central government needs to send out a strong message about the value of youth work. “Unless you have the government making a strong case for why something is important, it tends to get lost,” says Loughton. “What does get acted on is success.

“We need to engage with young people at both ends of the spectrum – there tends to be a view of youth work as a way of reaching the most disengaged, but we should equally be using youth work to harness the success of really successful young people,” he says. “We need to see a strong case for how good youth work, done in tandem with school, leads to better balanced kids able to take advantage of what school has to offer.”

Darren Northcote, national officer for education at teachers’ union NASUWT, says a sense of national direction is particularly necessary because previous structures have been largely dismantled. “The current government inherited a system of children and young people’s trusts, but we have rowed back from that, so there is more variation in local practice,” he says. “There may be some parts of the system where schools are not sure of the best way of engaging with youth and community work. A national framework would ensure that everyone was aware of their responsibilities. For example, a teacher has distinct responsibility for educational outcomes and youth workers need to understand this is the teacher’s starting point.”

Helen Marshall, chief executive of youth club charity Ambition, echoes Northcote’s view: “It would be nice to see national direction about the benefits of schools working like this, otherwise it happens at a very local level,” she says. Ambition is working with schools in a number of ways. It runs the Lions Quest Skills for Adolescence programme in the UK, a personal and social development initiative aimed at eight- to 14-year-olds that covers issues such as peer pressure, and alcohol and substance misuse. It is being run in both schools and youth clubs, and Ambition is researching whether the different settings lead to differences in methodology and output. “We have had a fantastic reaction from schools,” says Marshall. “While it is not about improving academic achievement, it is having that effect anyway – young people are feeling better engaged and are then more able to engage with school work.”

Ambition is also running a programme to encourage schools to make good use of the state-of-the-art youth facilities built under the Myplace programme. The programme, which launched in April, will work directly with more than 1,400 13- to 19-year-olds. Young people will be supported to access arts and sports taster sessions, training in peer mentoring, and leadership and accreditations in arts and sports. Work will be linked to the curriculum where appropriate.

It aims to increase schools’ and learning providers’ use of arts and sports facilities by 60 per cent. “It is about young people’s engagement in the wider community,” says Ambition chief executive Helen Marshall. “There is also a peer education role – young people can say: ‘I went to a climbing wall during school today, let’s go at the weekend’.” A built-in rewards system for volunteering will incentivise this peer engagement, with young people encouraged to spread the word using social networking technologies with which they are comfortable.

While it makes sense for schools to access these arts and sports facilities during the day, conversely schools can also provide an evening home for youth clubs that have lost funding and premises. For instance, when a Norfolk youth club lost funding, Hellesden High School offered it a new location. Local infrastructure organisation Momentum helped young volunteer Ellie Richards to set up the club. Chief executive Julia Redgrave says: “Although linking with schools can be difficult – young people say ‘I don’t want to go back, I want a different identity after school’ – I think it will happen more and more. With academies, the relationships between students and schools are changing anyway.”

Youth workers in the curriculum
As well as sharing facilities, there may be a role for youth workers in the curriculum. “People learn in different ways,” says Pauline Taylor, director of youth work at UK Youth. “Schools should have a broader curriculum, including things that are relevant to everyday life – parenting skills, financial skills and how the government works.

“I have always wanted to work more closely with schools. We run programmes on coping with conflict, dealing with anger, mental health – it would be good to do that in a classroom.”

To those who say youth work skills cannot be used in a classroom, Taylor points to the organisation’s Youth Achievement Foundations – 12 small independent schools that use UK Youth’s non-formal curriculum to cater to the needs of young people who have been excluded or are at risk of exclusion. “We often get asked by siblings and parents, ‘Isn’t there a school like this for ordinary kids who haven’t misbehaved?’ This approach is not just for disengaged young people  – it is a good way of learning: participatory, non-authoritarian, much more relevant to life.”

Issues that often come up in youth work – sexual health, drug use and bullying – are covered in schools within personal, social and health education (PSHE). In some ways, PSHE looks like the place where informal and formal education might intersect, paving the way for youth workers to deliver the subject in school. The government says it expects schools to tailor PSHE to local needs, of which youth workers would also have a good grasp.

Both the PSHE Association, the professional body for those working in the subject, and Accord, an organisation campaigning for PSHE to be taught in all state schools, say they would be happy to see youth workers and other outside organisations delivering PSHE, as long as qualified teachers retained control of the overall structure of the class.

PSHE Association chief executive Joe Hayman says: “We should think of teachers less as repositories of all knowledge but instead facilitators of learning, and ‘visitors’ to the classroom – such as youth workers – can offer a valuable contribution to learning. What is important is that both the teacher and the ‘visitor’ understand their respective roles and agree clear boundaries.” The association has produced guidance for schools on working with external partners and will launch a chartered practitioner award in September, aimed at non-teachers who support PSHE education.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord, says: “Trained professionals are best placed to provide high-quality PSHE. Schools could work with outside groups to complement their provision of PSHE, but there should be mechanisms in place to stop groups with particular subjective religious or political agendas, whose approach is not based on evidence.”

Overcoming the obstacles
The universality of school is cited as an opportunity to widen youth work’s influence. Labour’s argument in its policy review is that schools feel safer to young people than youth clubs, which can attract gangs. On the other hand, working with the disengaged young people who may be at risk of gang membership – and who may have negative feelings about school or not attend at all – is one of the things that youth work does.

Placing youth work inside schools could be seen as excluding the very young people that youth workers want to attract. And if youth workers target disengaged young people within the school day, accessing youth activities can become stigmatised. While generally in favour of youth work in schools, UK Youth’s Taylor warns: “I knew of a youth club within a school, and there was a stigma attached to going there – the children said ‘the naughty kids and the thick kids go there at lunchtime’.”

The commission recognises a number of barriers to the development of youth work in schools – funding, as well as schools’ lack of understanding of youth work and what it can achieve. “The obstacles do not simply lie with schools,” it says. “For some youth workers, working in more formal settings is not always based on young people’s voluntary participation, an approach which may be uncomfortable to some.”

There are plenty of examples out there for the commission to examine. Loughton compares the process to his work with the Myplace youth centres, which were working in local silos and needed support to join up with other local agencies. The Myplace scheme was supported by funding, whereas it seems unlikely that the government’s response to the commission will be to hand over cash.

However, the commission will be hoping to inspire schools and youth groups to combine their strengths and work in partnership for the greater good of young people.

Commission into role of youth work in education

The National Youth Agency launched the independent commission to assess the value of youth work within formal education across England and Wales. It intends to highlight effective existing practice and make “robust recommend­ations” to both the youth sector and schools on the value of co-operation.

Chaired by former children’s minister Tim Loughton, the commission is looking for examples of schools working with youth organisations to deliver social and emotional learning. It cites approaches such as engaging youth workers to work with young people who may be facing particular challenges at school or college; or involving youth workers in delivering specific programmes such as anger management or wellbeing.

Youth workers, schools and other interested parties have been invited to give evidence through a survey on the NYA website ( and, as of last week, it has attracted 500 respondents. The deadline is 24 May. “We need people to come back as soon as possible and be as frank as possible – we need to see the situation warts and all,” says Loughton.

The commission, which held its first meeting last month, will use this information to shape two formal evidence-gathering sessions to include expert witnesses, visits by commissioners to existing initiatives involving youth work in schools or colleges, and a series of interviews with selected individuals to gather further views and evidence.

The commission will issue its final report in September, to coincide with the party conference season.

Commission members: Tim Loughton, ex-children’s minister (chair); Fiona Blacke, chief executive, National Youth Agency; Baroness Beverley Hughes, former Labour children’s minister; Rosina St James, chair, British Youth Council; Mark Carriline, director of children’s services, Bury Council; Damian Allen, director, children and young people division, The Children’s Society; and Ndidi Okezie, executive director of regions, Teach First.

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