Article: Positive for Youth: Is policy meeting practice?

First Published: 21st July 2017 | Author: Pat Kielty | Tags: , , ,

Positive for Youth policy introduces a number of concepts when setting out a vision for young people. Pat Kielty considers three of these; respect, empowerment and belonging.

The discourse of the Coalition’s Positive for Youth policy appears to be one of an ideological calling for young people to reach their potential and become active citizens within society. Although referencing society and community, it seems to come from an individualistic approach where the young people are framed as targets for change, with the opportunity to realise potential and to become empowered.

As we await the release of a new youth policy, this article considers Positive for Youth and explores how political rhetoric relates to practice. This is done by considering three key policy concepts; respect, empowerment and belonging. These notions are complex, contested and clearly not restricted to the field of youth work. As such, a complete analysis is beyond the scope of the piece but there will be a commitment to view them from the paradigm of youth work and young people.

All quotes within this article are taken directly from current youth policy or from young people. Focus group research was conducted with members of the Thurrock Youth Cabinet (TYC) and Riverside Youth Club (RYC) in Tilbury. Research participants were asked to consider the identified notions in the context of their lives and the youth work provision they attend.


Within youth policy the government is unequivocal in the importance of respect:

‘A society that is ‘Positive for Youth’ will respect your rights – particularly your right to have your voice heard on issues that affect your life – and expect you to respect the rights of others’(HM Government: Positive for Youth – What it means for young people, 2011:1)

‘Young people have a role to respect other people and recognise authority and boundaries’(HM Government: Positive for Youth – What it means for young people, 2011:3)

If the government appears to view respect as a two way process, whether this is standard practice appears debatable. Buckland (2013) considers what respect was offered to young people when the government raised higher education fees after the Liberal Democrats pledged not to do so. Furthermore the lack of an adequate explanation from government did not appear respectful.

In analysing respect, Darwall (1977) distinguishes between appraisal and recognition respect. The latter is alluded to within youth policy in terms of a call to recognise authority and boundaries. However, as noted by Frost & Seal (2014), the relationship and interpretation between the two is complex. For example the state may expect young people to respect the police as figures of authority (recognition respect), but a young person, through negative experiences, may have appraised the police of not being worthy of respect (appraisal respect). The complexity of respect is acknowledging the following quote:

You have the general respect for everyone but then you need to earn the level of respect that you have. (TYC member)

For Young (1999), respect – along with honesty, trust and reciprocity – is within the relationships of effective youth work practice. To claim a relationship involves respect requires confirmation from both parties; in this context, the youth worker and the young person. Furthermore, concepts such as trust and respect are subjective, may vary over time and do not lend themselves to simplistic measurement.

Young people’s views on respect are explored by Mason (2015). Young respondents involved in the research had the most respect for the youth workers they deemed trustworthy. The researcher noted that for the local youth workers, information sharing risked their youth work relationships and their broader local reputations. While understandable in theory, in practice youth workers do have a responsibility to others (young people, parents, employers), which, at times, may necessitate sharing information and should not be undermined by any perceived relationship. This point is illustrated by the following quote from a young person when defining their association with a youth worker:

We trust you but it isn’t like we trust you as much that we can say anything to you. Some things we could say to you and you could get us into trouble for. (Member of RYC)

The notions of respect and trust appear frequently in youth work theory. Whilst they can hold significance and relevance at various times, from a practical perspective their complexities need to be appreciated by both workers and young people.


One of the key commitments within the Positive for Youth policy is:

Empowering young people by enabling them to inspect and report on local youth services and to help ‘youth proof’ government policy. (HM Government: Positive for Youth – The Statement, 2011:4)

This provides a rather prescriptive view of youth empowerment and contests with the ideology of emancipatory youth work. Begum-Ali, Farthing & Garasia (2015) note that empowerment in youth work is increasingly framed where young people are ‘empowered’ to achieve positive outcomes already defined by adult decision makers.

Shaw & McCulloch (2009) provide a view that empowerment is notoriously complex and contested with the simplistic propaganda coming from government on the subject. Jeffs and Smith (2005) see power as a feature of relationships and this view can be seen in the following quote which describes power in the collective:

The real power the youth cabinet has is between one another. It’s the power to say “ok, go away and do this”. (Member of TYC)

The complexity of power is reinforced by the following quote which considers power as a belief:

I think that the belief that we have power is sort of more important than actually having it. When we do think we have power, we can achieve things. (Member of TYC)

Empowerment in practice within youth work does require an understanding and appreciation of the individual goals and needs of young people. It could be argued that for policy to cite empowerment and subsequently state young people’s route to it, there also needs to be some reference to the purpose of empowerment and the result of it. For example, the purpose of empowerment may be to enact change:

Trying to change a circumstance; whether or not the young people attribute it to their own success or something else completely different, but it’s a change in circumstance none the less. (Member of TYC)

Youth workers may not be the first profession young people cite when considering power:

The majority of power is in government. It’s going to be in our MP etc. It’s going to be in the institutions. It is the institutions. (Member of TYC)

Therefore their role may be to facilitate dialogue between young people and decision makers such as head teachers, councillors and those running local services. A youth worker’s professional judgement needs to contain a clear understanding of professional and political contexts and the concept of power, while supporting young people to challenge, express and negotiate situations.

One result of this may be addressing what Barber (2007) describes as a situation where adults fail to understand the world in which young people function. There is also an understandable scepticism to address from young people that have not seen change in their context:

Everyone does these little groups and has their own opinions, but it never gets put out. (Member of RYC)

Youth policy frames empowerment rather narrowly around the process of ‘youth participation’. The youth council is the contemporary formal setting for this in the UK. In this situation the youth worker’s role is vital to ensure that a young person’s participation has meaning to them and their peers they seek to represent. A starting point would be working from the issues young people identify:

When it comes to the power of the youth cabinet, when I look at the discrimination campaign, those posters that are up, all the Year 5 roadshows…if one of those kids, therefore decides to not to say a racial slur to a kid or not do this one thing – if one kid changes their mind around a particular subject, I think that the youth cabinet’s done its job. (Member of TYC)


The concept of belonging is prominent in Positive for Youth:

Working towards a common goal of young people having a strong sense of belonging. (HM Government: Positive for Youth – The Statement, 2011:2)

A very small minority of young people feel no sense of belonging and as a result do not respect the communities in which they live. (HM Government: Positive for Youth – The Statement, 2011:4)             

Here we can see the connection in policy between the values of belonging and respect; the latter stating a lack of belonging results in a lack of respect for communities. What policy does not appear to consider is young people’s interpretations of belonging and the role of the community:

If you’re in a community and they make you feel welcome, then it would be easier to belong to that community, because there’s some respect between each other so you respect other people there as well. (Member of TYC)

When exploring belonging, it’s necessary to consider the framework within which the concept is to be addressed; whether family, place, school or local club. When Maslow (1954) studied the needs and motivations of people, he placed belonging within his theoretical model and cites the importance of family, work group, affection and relationships within this. Putnam’s (2000) work provides evidence that being part of a group and association can bring great benefits to people, including health and well-being and the development of social networks. In terms of youth work, young people may develop their sense of belonging through accessing youth provision:

I’d say that everyone that comes to this youth club are like a little family really. We all look out for each other. (Member of RYC)

I think this whole idea of belonging within the cabinet, I guess, is how well we interact with each other. It’s linked back to that idea of the respect; because it’s where we feel that belonging, because it’s somewhere that wants us and so we want it. (Member of TYC)

In terms of young people and their community, Positive for Youth sees a specific role for youth work:

Youth work has a key role to play in supporting young people and strengthening their relationship with their communities. (HM Government: Positive for Youth – Executive Summary, 2011:5)

Community is often viewed as a clearly identifiable homogeneous group, but in reality the situation is far more complex. Burns et al (1994) recognise this when describing community as an umbrella sheltering a multitude of varying, competing and often conflicting interests. This situation is further compounded by viewing young people as a singular group without recognition of factors such as race, class and gender. The result is a risk that youth policy becomes further detached from practice and reality.

Youth work can offer the opportunity for young people to associate and interact within different groups and alongside workers. Although people may identify most strongly with their own sub groups, they may benefit from the sense of belonging shared through association:

You have the groups definitely. But you are able to integrate within those groups. You can talk to anyone about anything and you will still find a place at the youth cabinet. (Member of TYC)

If youth policy is about the young person, the concept of belonging seems to be more in line with associationalism or communitarianism where the focus is of people coming together. In this context, youth work appears to have clear significance and relevance.

This article aims to give some critical consideration to a selection of values contained within youth policy. It was suggested earlier, there is a discourse in Positive for Youth around the young person undergoing individual transformation. As such, they are to become ‘empowered’, to develop and receive ‘respect’ and obtain a ‘sense of belonging’. The fundamental concern here is the lack of attention given to these complex notions. Policy does also not take account of the wider political and social factors, the environment of the young person and the understated role of association.

From a practical perspective, I would support the view that respect, empowerment and belonging do have relevance to youth work. However, I believe these need careful deliberation, exploration and application both from the worker and the young person. Claims without dialogue and rhetoric based on assumption need to be avoided. Freire (1972) states that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Youth policy appears to place a number of requests on young people, but perhaps policy makers should reflect on a simple but powerful message:

They should listen to us more. (Member RYC)

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Last Updated: 26 July 2017


Barber, T. (2007) ‘Young People and Civic Participation: A conceptual review’ Youth & Policy, No.96, pp.19-39.

Begum-Ali, S, Farthing R &Garasia H. (2015)‘Youth club is made to get children of the streets: Some young people’s thoughts about opportunities to be political in youth clubs’ Youth & Policy, No.115, pp.1-18.

Buckland, L. (2013) ‘Positive for Youth. A critique’. The Encylopaedia of Informal Education. { Retrieved: 18 Feb 2017}

Burns, D, Hambleton R &Hoggett P. (1994) The Politics of Decentralisation: Revitalising Local Democracy, London: Palgrave Publishing.

Darwall, S. (1977) ‘Two Kinds of Respect’ Ethics Vol 88, No. 1, pp36-49.

Department for Education (2011) Positive for Youth: Executive Summary. HM Government.

Department for Education (2011) Positive for Youth: The Statement. HM Government.

Department for Education (2011) Positive for Youth: What it means for young people. HM Government.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Frost, S.& Seal M. (2014) Philosophy in Youth and Community Work, Dorset: Russell House Publishing.

Jeffs, T.& Smith M. K. (2005) Informal Education – Conversation, Democracy and Learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Malsow, A. H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper.

Mason, W. (2015) ‘Austerity youth policy: exploring the distinctions between youth work in principle and youth work in practice’ Youth & Policy, No.114, pp. 55-74.

McCulloch, K.& Shaw, M. (2009) ‘Hooligans or rebels? Thinking more critically about citizenship and young people’ Youth & Policy, No.101, pp. 5-14.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Young, K.(1999) The Art of Youth Work,Dorset: Russell House Publishing.


Pat Kielty is a youth worker at Thurrock Council and is currently studying at YMCA George Williams College, London.