Article: An Age of Uncertainty

First Published: 20th March 2024 | Author: Gemma Lockyer Turnbull | Tags: , ,

Gemma Lockyer Turnbull highlights the inconsistencies found in determining the age range when we describe work with young people and argues the need for more distinction between work with children and young people.

It has long been said by some that age is nothing but a number but is this always true? The National Youth Agency (2023a) has, in recent times, updated their definition of the age range for youth work to 8-25-year-olds, from the previous age range of 11–25-year-olds (National Youth Agency, 2023b), stating a lowering of the age in which some children reach adolescence as reason for the change. Recent discourse has taken place regarding “What is youth work?” and “Who is a real youth worker?” (Williams, Rosier, Fox-Lee, Hutson and Dawson, 2023). I assert that this change should also lead us to ask the question: “What age should youth work apply to?”.

This article will explore what age means in the context of youth work in England and how this relates to the profession in 2024. It will pose questions about why the age range may have been lowered and the impact that reductions in children’s work and funding, along with access to youth work qualifications, may have had on this. It will provide my own reflections, as a manager working in the sector, about what this change could mean for practice, and the funding and profile of youth work.

It will also demonstrate that age is an important factor to be clear about in order to ensure that:

  • We can clearly articulate what youth work is and who it is for;
  • Appropriate support is available to young people during a critical period of their development;
  • Expectations from funders and commissioners are in line with the realities of engaging with the older age range.


Adolescence may be a loosely defined period, but there are consistent attributes which can be applied to it. From an international health perspective, adolescence is defined as ‘the period between childhood and adulthood, from ages 10-19’ (The World Health Organisation, 2023, para 1) and is further characterised as an important period for the development of relationships with peer groups for 10-24-year-olds (Andrews, Foulkes and Blakemore, 2020). An early period of adolescence applicable to 10-13-year olds is recognised by the American Academy of Paediatrics (Allen and Waterman, 2024) and research produced on the state of mental health relating to young people from across Europe (UNICEF, 2021) defined adolescence as applying to 10-19-year olds. From an English health perspective, a period of early adolescence is acknowledged for 10-14-year olds and is particularly highlighted due to the number of transitions which occur during this period (Public Health England, 2019). Slightly older age brackets are acknowledged in other health institutions such as Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust (2023) which recognises 11-25-year olds in their ‘Adolescent and Young Adult’ service, and the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services strand of Herefordshire and Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust (2024) which defines the adolescence strand of their service being for 12-18-year olds. A systematic review of 96 studies carried out in a range of countries across the world, including the UK, (Jindal‐Snape, Hannah, Cantali, Barlow, and MacGillivray, 2020, p.526) found that the key transition from primary to secondary school coincided with a ‘period of pre-adolescence or adolescence’ and was applied to young people aged 10-15 years.  Adolescence can be a ‘neglected’ period compared to early years despite the period between the ages of 10-19 years being key for future outcomes and, in fact, the importance of adolescence has led to some arguing for a widening of its definition stating that the period should be extended from ages 10-19 to 10-24 in order to account for a more complex social environment (Shah, Hagell and Cheung, 2019, p.10). This brief overview clearly demonstrates that there is not one universal definition of adolescence, but there does seem to be broad consensus that it applies to children from the age of 10 and is an important period for the development of relationships, transitions and independence.

As we have seen, although there has been a call to expand the age range of adolescence, this does not apply to lowering it into childhood, as the National Youth Agency has suggested. Instead, the extension encompasses the transition into early adulthood and broadly falls in line with the previously defined age range for youth work. This, I would argue, therefore emphasises the importance of provision for the older age range rather than for younger children.


Although the term adolescence is challenging to universally define, an attempt to define ‘youth’ proves even more difficult. From an international perspective, the term is broadly applied to 15-24-year-olds (The United Nations, 2023). However, from a UK government perspective, its application is inconsistent and vague. For instance, The Office for National Statistics (2019) applies the term to 13-29-year-olds, but the Crown Prosecution Service (2022) defines youth within the context of criminal responsibility as being applicable to 10-17-year-olds, whilst the Department for Work and Pensions (2023) describes their support offer for young people aged 16-24 as a ‘youth offer’. From a wider perspective, the picture is not any clearer: for instance, young people can become members of the UK Youth Parliament from the age of 11 (British Youth Council, 2022) and in a poll conducted with the general public (YouGov, 2018) it was shown that there is a belief that youth extends right up until the age of 30. The term youth, like adolescence, has no universal definition of who it applies to in regards to age, but appears to start from age 10 at the very earliest, and is often applied to young people in the secondary school system onwards.

It is clear to see that there are ambiguities associated with the terms adolescence and youth, and as we move to investigate how age has featured in youth work over time, it will be apparent that ambiguity and disagreement about who youth work is for has been a long standing issue.

Age and the youth service – a brief historical overview

Assessing age from a historical governmental perspective, it is clear to see that there has been lack of agreement regarding who youth work should apply to. Firstly, the ‘Albemarle Report’ (Department for Education, 1960), proposed to lower the age which the youth service engaged with from 15-20 to 14-20 years in order to support young people leaving school and transitioning into adult and working life. This was then contested nearly a decade later when the ‘Fairbairn-Milson Report’ (Department for Education and Science, 1969, p.65) rejected the lower age limit of 14 as being an, ‘artificial…starting age of the youth service’ and called for a needs assessment for those under the age of 14 whilst also recommending initial priority should be given to those from the age of 13. Later, the ‘Thompson Report’ (Review Group on the Youth Service in England, 1982, p.73) argued for the provision of services for the ‘whole age-group of young people’ but recommended that the statutory duty should be applied to 11-20-year-olds. More recently in Positive for Youth (HM Government, 2011), the age which government policy for youth work was applied to was 13-19-year-olds and the ‘Youth Review’ (Department for Media, Culture and Sport, 2022) references the target group as being 11-18-year-olds (rising to 25 for those with additional needs) but nevertheless highlights targeted investment in uniformed services being provided for ‘teenagers’. Finally, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (2023) published updated guidance for local authorities on the statutory provision of youth work, pertaining to the 1996 Education Act (HM Government, 2023), which is applicable to those from the age of 13. Soon after this, the National Youth Agency (2023c, p.26) issued guidance for local authorities on how to implement the duty. The guidance both acknowledges the statutory duty being applicable to young people from the age of 13 but also reiterates the new younger age range in their definition and states: ‘NYA has observed that the most substantive level of provision is currently for those under 13…youth provision should always be age appropriate and is not simply an extension of work with younger age groups.’

This historical overview has shown that there has been longstanding disagreement regarding who it is believed youth work should be for and, even today, we can see that there are still clear inconsistencies in regards to how age is applied within a youth work context.


What is evident from analysing ‘adolescence’ and ‘youth’, it that there is no one fixed universal definition of either of these concepts. However, there are characteristics which can help to define their use and, if we look at these within the context of the new definition of who youth work is for, it becomes unclear why the age has been revised down.

The updated definition of who youth work is for states that the reason the age has been lowered to 8 is because of adolescence starting earlier, however, the consensus both internationally and domestically, is that it starts from the age of 10. Similarly, the term youth is applied from the age of 10 at the earliest and in some instances, significantly older than this. An interesting line contained in the statutory guidance, that the National Youth Agency has ‘observed’ most work is currently taking place with young people under the age of 13, may provide a clue as to why the definition has changed. Could the update instead reflect the realities of the current operating environment? For instance, provision for children’s play reduced by 50% between the periods of 2007/8 and 2015/16 (Bradshaw, 2017) and services and facilities which would have once been available to the younger age group have diminished, leading children and their parents to seek recreational activities elsewhere – such as in youth facilities which would have previously catered for the older age range. The notion of a ‘youth work myth’ was put forward by Jeffs (2022) in recognition of a fall in the age of the young people youth workers are engaging with and the fact that many youth work providers are now offering facilities and services for younger children. The statutory guidance for youth provision references that youth work with younger children is not ‘an extension of work with younger age groups’ but this is vague and there is little evidence provided, beyond ‘observation’, that the services being provided are doing anything other than that.

The difference of ages between the statutory guidance for youth work provision, and the new definition, adds complexity to the situation. Whilst the previous definition of work starting with 11-year olds also did not match the statutory guidance, the new definition is even further away. Many of the providers who deliver youth work are not constrained, on the face of it, by either the new definition or by the statutory guidance because so much of youth work delivery is currently based in the voluntary and community sector. However, many of those organisations are being commissioned to run services on behalf of local authorities, and the renewed statutory guidance may well restrict who this funding can support in future, if it is not already doing so.

In my own professional context, I am aware of organisations who were set up as play organisations, by qualified play workers, who have ‘rebranded’ over time to become youth organisations. Are these some of the organisations who the National Youth Agency has observed working with children as young as 8? Is there certainty that what they are delivering is youth work and not play work? A reason for them making the change to the age could lie with the results of the National Youth Work Census (National Youth Agency, 2023d) which shows that most organisations are delivering to 8-12-year olds and 41% of small organisations and 32% of the largest organisations surveyed have no staff with any youth work qualifications at any level. The new statutory guidance for local authorities places an importance on making a distinction between children’s work and youth work but what does this mean in practice for organisations who are delivering with no qualified staff? The launch of a new integrated degree apprenticeship, level 4 qualification and level 2 and 3 bursaries (National Youth Agency, 2023e) may help in this regard, but it will take time to reach all of those organisations who currently have no trained staff, assuming that there will be the capacity and willingness to participate in training. In the meantime, it is perhaps presumptuous to assume that all work going on with children under the age of 11 especially, is youth work.

Youth work can, at times, be misunderstood by those external to the profession and articulating consistently regarding who it is for is one of the ways we can better promote what youth workers do to decision makers, other professionals and the wider general public. This could, in turn, support the profession to better advocate for the resources needed to ensure that youth workers are able to engage with young people utilising a youth work approach so that the time and resources required to build the foundations of trust and voluntary engagement with the older age range are appropriately considered.


The inconsistencies about who youth work is for are evident, and the new definition does little to bring clarity, especially in light of wider definitions of adolescence and youth. Whilst it must be said that services for younger children are important and, what is being delivered may well be good quality children’s work, the number of organisations delivering without any qualified staff poses a risk that the definition has changed to suit an ambiguous operating environment where the boundaries between children’s work and youth work are blurred. If we want youth work to be further recognised and valued by other sectors and government, we must ensure that we are consistent in how we are articulating who it is for. To simply say the age has been revised down because of a change in adolescence is not good enough; it is not consistent with other sectors, including health, and it does little to distinguish how the work differs in reality from the older age range. Whilst I am not arguing that youth work should be restrained by government policy, instead of revising the general age down, I believe there should have been a call to lower the statutory age in the guidance to fit with the existing definition in order to provide a much-needed level of consistency.

Engaging and working with older young people can undoubtedly be challenging but there is a clear need to do so. The lowering of the age range risks some organisations focussing only on younger children as an easy way to reach attendance targets in what is a challenging and competitive funding environment. This can, however, create a false perception amongst commissioners and funders about the resources and time it takes to develop good quality youth work with older young people who are often presenting with increasingly complex needs.

We need to be clear and consistent about who youth work is for because, until we are, I would argue that we will continue to operate within a context of uncertainty.

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Last Updated: 6 June 2024


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Gemma is a first year Ph.D. student investigating the development of youth work as a profession and a manager of a regional youth charity.