Article: The National Youth Work Curriculum: A process-based curriculum?

Author: Jon Ord | Tags: , , , , ,

In this article, Jon Ord explores different theories and forms of curricula and uses these to analyse and critique the new National Curriculum for Youth Work that has just been published by England's National Youth Agency (NYA). He concludes that the curriculum the NYA have developed does not fit with youth work's focus on process over content, and that more flexible alternatives were possible.

The origins of curriculum in youth work

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the new National Curriculum for Youth Work, recently published by England’s National Youth Agency (NYA, 2020). However, before doing that it is necessary to deal with any initial objections that readers may have to the notion of curriculum itself. There are three related problems with idea of a curriculum in youth work, which tend to merge and ‘muddy the waters’. Firstly, youth work is over 150 years old (Jeffs and Smith, 1998/99) and for most of this period the notion of a curriculum was absent. Allied to this is the association of curriculum with formal education and notions of a syllabus. (Indeed, many of those who object to a youth work curriculum are using the term curriculum synonymously with a ‘set curriculum’). As a result, we have the appearance that youth work and informal education are defined by the absence of curriculum (Jeffs and Smith, 2005). This, however, is erroneous. All educational practice has a curriculum – of some sort – as the concept of curriculum is defined as the means by which educational practice is made public (Kelly, 2009; Stenhouse, 1975). The question for youth work is not whether it has curriculum but what kind of curriculum it has. That question is now pertinent – with the production of the National Youth Work Curriculum – what kind of curriculum has been produced by the NYA?

The idea of a curriculum in youth work was first suggested by John Ewen, the head of the National Youth Bureau (the predecessor of the NYA) in 1975. It was later introduced through the ministerial conferences in the late 1980s and early 1990s (NYB, 1990; 1991) and then supported by the NYA (NYA, 1992; 1995). The notion of curriculum began to take hold when, in the early 1990s, local authority youth services were tasked with articulating their own youth work curriculum. During this period, the concept of curriculum in youth work moved from being implicit to be being explicit (Davies, 2005).

The third problem of curriculum which exacerbated the difficulties associated with its emergence during the ministerial conferences is the problem of ‘imposition’. Perhaps the fundamental problem of a curriculum for youth work is that youth workers feel, sometimes perhaps quite rightly, that they are no longer in control of their person-centred ‘responsive’ practice, as the priorities are now dictated from above. On this matter, the work done by Kiilakoski et al (2015)[1] in Finland is interesting. They introduced the idea of a curriculum in several Finnish municipal youth services. However, it has been done democratically through a bottom-up discursive process. Not only has there been no antipathy to its introduction, youth workers have found it to be a useful process that has assisted them in clarifying their core practices.

This latest attempt in England to produce a national curriculum for youth work is in danger of falling into the trap of being an imposed curriculum. One of the questions for the NYA is why did they not adopt the same strategy they adopted for the production of the Ethical Guidelines for Youth Work in 1999 (NYA, 1999), which began with a very wide consultation and, as a result, the statement was almost unanimously accepted and still in use. Timescales may have been restricted but the consultation for this curriculum has been limited.[2]

The importance of curriculum theory

Any judgment about a youth work curriculum must be theoretically informed. There are three theoretical perspectives which underpin curricula (Kelly, 2009):

  • Curriculum as content – a curriculum organised around the idea of key subject areas or knowledge. This can be specific content in terms of a syllabus or broad content in terms of general themes.
  • Curriculum as product – a curriculum organised specifically towards the achievement of predetermined outcomes.
  • Curriculum as process – a curriculum underpinned by broad aims, driven by principles and organised around the means by which the education is delivered.

I have argued at some length that the only viable ‘authentic’ curriculum for youth work is a young-person-centred, process-based curriculum (Ord, 2004a; 2004b; 2008; 2016). A curriculum which articulates a relationship and conversation-based practice. One within which content is negotiated with young people and the outcomes emerge out of a dynamic unfolding practice and cannot be pre-determined (Ord, 2016). Aspects of the content can be expressed and made public in advance but only in terms of very broad ‘themes’ and these must be applied at the local level and be open to interpretation.

An assessment of the national youth work curriculum

How is the national youth work curriculum to be judged in the light of these three different theoretical perspectives? It is a relief that we have moved away from the product-based curriculum of the Transforming Youth Work era (DfES, 2002) which explicitly framed youth work as a practice geared towards pre-determined outcomes.[3]

Important elements of this new curriculum do include references to the process of youth work such as: ‘the process starts from where young people are at… [and] youth work is person centred, focusing on the young person and their needs’ (NYA, 2020: 5). As well as offering a definition of the process as:

Youth work places young people at the centre of the practice. All young people are full of potential, spirit and expertise. Youth workers aim to empower young people to overcome the challenges, disadvantages or obstacles that stand in their way of achieving their maximum potential. Youth work helps young people to think critically about how these different areas interact, including within their wider peer groups and community, to challenge their circumstances and enable them to make informed choices about their lives. (NYA, 2020: 11)

This curriculum is right to emphasise these principles as they are a necessary condition of a process-based curriculum, but importantly, however, they are not sufficient. There is something missing from this articulation of process – which is this curriculum’s Achilles heel – that is, that the process of youth work is non-linear (Ord, 2014; 2016).[4] This needs to be explicitly articulated to ensure that the curriculum is indeed process based.

A process-based curriculum (in addition to this set of principles) is driven by broad educational aims, but these can only be articulated in general terms, because the process unfolds and develops as it progresses. Conversations take place, experiences are had, guidance is provided, challenges are made, reflections undertaken – in short ‘things happen’. The process has a dynamic which is ever changing, (perhaps only in small but equally significant ways) – it is ‘in motion’. The outcomes of youth work cannot therefore be determined in advance because they emerge out of this dynamic mutable environment.[5] The content can also change as conversations often have to ‘go with the flow’ (Jeffs and Smith, 2005).

Non-Linearity is grounded in this dynamic and changeable environment and explains the complex relationship between the interventions by youth workers and the resulting outcomes. In a linear relationship there is a direct causal link between an intervention and its associated outcome, in non-linear relationships there is not. The links between interventions are more tenuous. Smith (1988) refers to this relationship as incidental. Brent (2004) articulates the non-linear youth work process very well with his description of the transformation of Kelly, a young person who undergoes a personal transformation as a result of attending a youth club. She changes from being a ‘shadowy appendage of her boyfriend’ (2004: 70), not able to look anyone in the eye, to a vibrant active member of the club, helping organise activities and profoundly growing in confidence. What, however, brought this transformation about, Brent asks? In truth, it is impossible to say in any specific terms. It is a combination of the interplay of multiple interventions and a variety of circumstances – the experience of being in the youth club – the process that the youth workers had developed and worked through with Kelly. The outcomes cannot be reducible to any one particular, or any group of specific (and certainly not pre-planned) interventions. The example provided by Brent illustrates very well the non-linear nature of the educational process. It is dynamic, fluid, flexible and contains uncertainty, but it progresses based on broad educational aims and underpinned by a set of principles. It unfolds over time and outcomes emerge over time. It is the antithesis of a tightly planned session.

In simple terms, the difference between a process-based curriculum and both a content and product-based curriculum is the difference between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Both content and product-based curricula focus on ‘what’. Content curricula focus on what content is covered or focused upon. A product-based curriculum focusses on what outcomes are produced. A process-based curriculum, on the other hand, focuses on ‘how’ the education is delivered because the ‘what’ (both in terms of content and outcomes) is yet to be determined (in any meaningful and detailed way), because the process has yet to unfold, develop or progress.

The fundamental distinction between the youth work curriculum and most other curricula, therefore, is the extent to which it is committed to an articulation of ‘how’ over ‘what’. An authentic youth work curriculum must be based on the ‘how’ – the process.

Given this, how are we to assess the national youth work curriculum? It does contain some essential aspects of the process but its lack of explicit references to the non-linear nature of the youth work process is a big omission. As a result, it is in danger of only paying lip service to this fundamental concept. This curriculum, instead, spends far too long articulating content. It is in danger of being a being interpreted as a content-based curriculum. Substantive detail of much of the text is dedicated to an articulation of content through the various themes. Indeed, I suspect a lot of discussion will take place around the content themes and what is, or is not, included; such as why is economic well-being given precedence, and why is this not a sub-set of well-being as a whole? Is this an example of the policy demands to ensure youth workers assist young people in the transition to work? Such a combination in a curriculum which has detailed content and yet claims to advocate a process-based approach is paradoxical. A genuine person-centred curriculum invalidates the production of detailed content, as such detailed content would be only become apparent after negotiation with young people and could not be specified in advance.


It could be argued that this curriculum is ‘a glass half full’. It is certainly better than any of the previous government backed curricula. And, given the context, of a document supported by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), it was always perhaps going to be a compromise. The curriculum does have a number of positive aspects. For example, it retains a commitment to core values and principles, such as participation, and personal, social and political education. It also builds on historical commitments such as the corner-stones and values of youth work. It also puts youth work’s educational focus back on the map – absent since youth work’s ejection from the Department for Education in 2011. I can’t help thinking, however, that this was a missed opportunity, as despite some commitments to a process-based curriculum, this is overshadowed by the lengthy and detailed presentation of the content that youth workers are presumably ‘expected’ to focus on. It is hard not to conclude that, to all intents and purposes, it is a content-based curriculum. More worryingly still, there is nothing within it which explicitly argues against the planning of youth work sessions geared towards predetermined outcomes, a product-based curriculum. This was an opportunity to put a product approach ‘to bed’ once and for all – which is anathema to youth work. A necessary condition of a youth work curriculum is that it allows for a non-linear process which unfolds over time, out of which content is determined and outcomes emerge. This curriculum unfortunately falls someway short of a total commitment to that.

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Last Updated: 19 October 2020


[1] For a discussion of this in English see chapter 23 of Ord, J. (2016) Youth Work Process Product and Practice: Creating an Authentic curriculum in work with young people, 2nd ed, London Routledge.

[2] The author was one of a dozen or so people who were consulted in the production of this curriculum, but he was not the author of it.

[3] The big problem with the initial introduction of curriculum through the ministerial conferences in the 1980s was also that it was an explicitly outcomes-based product-curriculum.

[4] This is sometimes talked about in terms of ‘phronesis’ a form of knowledge and a way of seeing the world which is opposed to techno-rationalism and the dominance of scientific and technological views of the world.

[5] This is why a product-based curriculum is anathema to youth work.


Brent, J. (2004) ‘The Arch and the Smile’ in Youth & Policy, 84, 69-73.

Davies, B. (2005) ‘Curriculum in Youth Work: An old debate in new clothes’, in Youth & Policy, 85, 87-97.

DfES – Department for Education & Skills (2002) Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, Nottingham: DFES.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M.K. (2005) Informal Education, Conversation, Democracy and Learning, (3rd Edn.) Derby: Education Now.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M.K. (1998/99) ‘The Problem of Youth for Youth Work’, in Youth & Policy, 62, 45-66.

Kelly, A. V. (2009) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 6th edn, London: Sage.

Kiilakoski, T. Kinnunen, V. and Djupsund, R. (2015) Miksi nuorisotyötä tehdään? Tietokirja nuorisotyön opetussuunnitelmasta (Why is there youth work? A book on the Curriculum of Youth Work).  Helsinki: HUMAK & Finnish Youth Research Society.

NYA (2020) Youth Work Curriculum, Leicester: NYA. Available at:

NYA (1999) Ethical Conduct in Youth Work: a draft statement of values and principles, Leicester: NYA.

NYA (1995) Planning the Way: Guidelines for planning your youth work curriculum, Leicester: NYA.

NYA (1992) Planning and Evaluation in a time of Change: The Next Step – Report of the Third Ministerial Conference, Leicester: NYA.

NYB (1991) Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service: The Next Step – report of the Second Ministerial Conference, Leicester: NYB.

NYB (1990) Danger or Opportunity: Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service? Report of the First Ministerial Conference, Leicester: NYB.

Ord, J. (2016) Youth Work Process Product and Practice: Creating an Authentic curriculum in work with young people, (2nd Edn.), London: Routledge.

Ord, J. (2014) ‘Aristotle’s Phronesis and Youth Work: Beyond Instrumentality’ in Youth & Policy, 112, 56-73.

Ord, J. (2008b) ‘A Curriculum for Youth Work: The UK Experience’ in Youth Studies Australia. Vol 28, no.1.

Ord, J. (2004a) ‘Youth Work Curriculum & Transforming Youth Work Agenda’. Youth & Policy, 83, 43-59.

Ord, J. (2004b) ‘Youth Work Curriculum as Process, not as Outcome or Output to Aid Accountability’. Youth & Policy, 85, 53-70.

Smith, M. K. (1988) Developing Youth Work, Milton Keynes: OUP.

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London: Heinemann.


Jon Ord was a youth worker for many years and is currently an Associate Professor at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on U/G and P/G youth & community work programmes. He is the author of a number of books and articles on youth work theory and practice including a number on issues of curriculum in youth work and informal learning most notably the 2nd edition of Youth Work Process, Product & Practice: Creating an authentic curriculum in work with young people (2016).