Busting myths about modern youth work

I have been a Youth Worker for 26 years and taught at four different universities. I’m now teaching on the BA (hons) Youth Work and Community Development programme and passionately believe that the Derby approach to youth work training prepares our students for a long and successful career working alongside young people and helping them to design a life that works in a diverse range of contexts.

However, within some circles, youth work has a serious reputational issue. Nothing frustrates me more when the topic of youth work comes up with friends who say ‘there aren’t any youth clubs anymore’, so where are all the youth workers? I thought I would write a blog like a bit of a myth-buster to explain exactly what youth work is – and what it isn’t.

Identity

Youth work is an approach to working with young people, aged 11-25. It is a form of education but, unlike school, it looks at the holistic learning and development of young people, specifically at the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes they need to be successful adults. Success is measured on their terms, so their voice in decision making is essential. Youth work is about power sharing, participation and tackling injustices. It is about helping young people find their own identity and place in the world and in their communities.

Clearly this requires powerful trusting relationships. A professionally qualified youth worker has developed their skills in group work and relationship building to walk alongside young people as individuals and groups to really enable them to make change happen in their own lives. As such, it can take place literally anywhere where these trusting relationships are built. Sometimes those relationship can be developed while doing something fun but that depends on the context and, in most cases, you will find University of Derby youth work graduates in a very diverse range of spaces, far from the nearest pool table or youth club.

Employability

At the University of Derby, our focus is around employability. This is certainly the case for the Youth Work programme I teach on in our unique approach to placements. We approach organisations who work with young people and invite them to host a youth worker and see what impact they can make when they form professional relationships with young people. Placements form one-third of the degree and are an essential part of how students put their real-world learning in to practice. As such, we have seen youth workers in hospitals, prisons, alternative education settings, schools, on the streets in parks and public spaces, in children’s centres, housing associations, social work and multi-agency teams, community centres, and our places of worship.

They work with young people struggling with what life has thrown at them, including poor health, addiction, gangs, sexual exploitation, unemployment, struggling with the pressures of low self- esteem through social media, struggling at school, with anxiety, feeling alone. By building professional relationships and designing appropriate interventions and informal learning opportunities, these young people gain the tools to make changes, get support and co-create the life they want with a supportive adult in their corner.

Making change happen

There is a great deal of political momentum right now for a statutory youth service, to build on the government investment into the National Citizen Service which is a four-week programme for 16-to-17-year-olds. The University of Derby is at the forefront of this debate, demonstrating how youth workers in diverse spaces can really make change happen for and with young people.

To be effective, our graduates are taught to be confident and resilient in the professional identity of a youth worker. There are not many jobs called ‘youth worker’ at the moment, but there are many jobs where professionals with youth-work skills are needed to support and work with those seldom-heard young people, to help them turn their lives around, take advantage of opportunities and carve out new ones.

Scary mountains

My background is outdoor education. I work with young people in outdoor environments, where the outdoor context becomes a tool to help young people demonstrate mastery in practical skills, which they can then transfer into other areas of their lives. When they work as a team and help a terrified peer climb that scary mountain, overcome that fear of water or build a shelter and sleep in it they can transfer that learning to overcoming that job interview, restoring that relationship with a family member, or doing something about that message they got on social media from a ‘friend’ they have never met and don’t feel happy with. Outdoor learning is one of the targeted pathways on the Youth Work degree at Derby. Those professional relationships in different spaces, are nothing short of transformational … and not a pool table in sight!

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