Article: The Youth Work Myth
In this article, Tony Jeffs argues that Youth Work has largely become a myth, with most projects now catering to younger age groups. He suggests that until this myth is acknowledged and addressed, youth services and projects will fail to address the inequalities that young people currently face in access to educational, leisure, sporting and cultural pursuits.
What stubborn things are facts
Pearl Jephcott, that most prescient of youth workers, whilst serving as a girls’ club worker in Birmingham in the late 1920s, detected an emerging trend. Whereas junior (under 14) girls’ club membership was growing, those clubs serving 14 to 21 year-olds were declining (Jeffs, 2018). A century later, the trade-wind Jephcott detected has swept aside all impediments. During the 18 months prior to lockdown and briefly since its relaxation, I undertook over 40 research visits to youth projects and interviewed staff and volunteers. In part, these contributed to this article. The projects were located in the South East, Yorkshire, North West and North East of England. Rarely, did I encounter in youth projects, clubs, hubs, groups, programmes or whatever, participants over 16.
Occasional exceptions do arise; notably, segments of the uniformed sector and groups linked to discrete sporting or cultural activities. One experienced worker recently informed me, without blushing, that her youth club was attended by those aged 8 to 13; popular maybe – but, nevertheless, it is absurd to call a children’s facility a ‘youth club’. Within the Scouts, our largest uniformed ‘youth’ organisation, fewer than one in ten are aged 14 or over. A percentage certain to nosedive when the Squirrel Scouts for those aged four to six, launched in September 2021, gets going. Be it secular or faith-based, statutory or voluntary, rural or urban, youth work has overwhelmingly translated into children’s work. For decades, organisations, practitioners and academics have ignored this reality, preferring to peddle a ‘youth work myth’. A fable which obscures the fact that youth work no longer has any realistic linkage with ‘youth’.
Like the Sunday School Movement which went before, youth work organisations have, since the 1930s by stages, lowered their expectations. Electing to survive by settling for ever younger, ever more immature members. Workers and agencies have not consciously opted to turn their backs towards older teens. Rather the latter shuffled away, preferring more eye-catching fare.
Why? First youth work is an ill-starred casualty of technological, political and social change. These include changes to: commercial entertainment – dance-halls, cinemas, gyms, night-clubs; home amusements – radio, television, music on stream, computer gaming, VR (Virtual Reality), AE (Augmented Reality); alternatives to in-person contact – phones, social media; and warmer, more comfy, spacious homes which make the outside world less alluring. All these and others have, over time, diminished the attraction of youth facilities.
However, the most injurious factor has probably been the unrelenting extension of schooling and growth of higher education since Jephcott’s era. Their expansion means few older teenagers require venues where they can socialise with friends after work or spend time with supportive adults. Youth services were never envisaged as an entity catering for those in full-time education. When Albemarle appeared in 1959, nine out of ten 17 year olds were in employment. Today, although you can leave full-time education at 17, you must remain in some form of part-time education until 18 so the percentage is in effect negligible. Over half of those aged 21 are studying full-time. Institutions attended by those aged 16 to 21 afford locales where students can socialize with peers, secure adult and mutual support, and to wildly varying degrees access sporting, cultural and social activities. Youth services have lost their original core functions and, for the vast majority of older teens, ceased to possess any utilitarian value. Hence, proprietorship has been transferred to those ‘juniors’ who seek a safe venue for play and recreation. Thus ‘youth facilities’ have acquired, in the minds of older teens, the ambience of child-centred habitats.
Should we bother about the fact that youth work has negligible contact with youth? That many enmeshed in it, at every level, hawk a myth when they talk of entities such as ‘youth work’ or ‘youth services’ or ‘youth programmes’. Maybe not. Self-evidently, all but a miniscule percentage of over 16s prosper without any relationship with a youth worker. Also, when one visits ‘youth’ provision, the children and young teens appear to be enjoying themselves. Therefore, a case can be made for the status quo; for allowing the myth to endure unruffled. To consent, with a knowing shrug, to public and private funding allocated for youth work to be spent on children.
At least five substantive reasons arise for rejecting a non-intervention strategy and for calling out the youth work myth. First, it prevents a dialogue taking place regarding the leisure and informal education needs of the eight to fifteens. The uniformed sector have consistently formulated age appropriate programmes. Elsewhere, few practitioners have followed suite, electing instead to serve up a re-heated version of the traditional youth work diet to ever younger audiences. Younger audiences who, in reality, have different needs, different levels of maturity, and a different knowledge base. Not until the myth is jettisoned will the task of formulating meaningful leisure–time programmes and informal education provision for this ensemble commence.
Second, a myopic desire to perpetuate the myth has meant millions of pounds of government and philanthropic funding has, post-1990, been squandered constructing buildings unsuited for their actual clientele. One visits, for example, large youth ‘hubs’ designed to cater for those aged 15 plus, echoing to the squeals and squawks of children using the premises as a playground – eddying around like shoals of fish. Within isolated corners one may happenstance upon a lonely older teen on, say, a climbing wall, in a room practicing a musical instrument, or making clothing – but that is usually it. Elsewhere, one finds similar buildings now predominately catering for adults and specialist all-age groups. How much better if we had constructed buildings conceived to serve the needs of the children, younger teens or adults who use them. Rather than constructing white elephants designed according to vague pre-conceptions of what imaginary older teens might desire, or once coveted.
Third, sentimental adherence to the myth has thwarted meaningful reform of the education of community and youth workers. Hence, courses groom students not for the work they will be called upon to undertake but what academics and national bodies fantasize their roles to be. Reform would entail courses paying serious attention to the talents and knowledge practitioners require to work effectively with children and young teens. And to equipping them to undertake the forms of practice that might eventually offer older teens and adults a meaningful format capable of serving their wider social, cultural, leisure and welfare needs. Such a programme, as will be argued latter, would predominately be rooted in the liberal education and humanics traditions upon which youth work ‘training’ originally drew (Jeffs, in press).
Fourth, catering for ‘juniors’, although socially useful, has frequently been the lazy option. Allowing workers, managers, national bodies, and central and local government to avoid thinking critically about what gaps in provision ought to be addressed regarding the over 16s. If youth work has nothing to offer them then it is time this was honorably conceded and everyone re-adjusted their focus accordingly. If, however, individuals and organisations seriously believe this is not the case, then after decades of lethargy they must decide what it is they wish to achieve, with and for this neglected group.
Fifth, it is unethical for agencies to hood-wink the public and funders by claiming to undertake work with youth when this is rarely, if ever, the case. Money for children’s work needs to be honestly raised not accumulated under false pretenses. Justifying the deceit on the grounds it is for the sake of the ’kids’ or in order to keep the project ‘afloat’ is not acceptable. Not least because educators should not perjure themselves.
The yawning gap
Acknowledging the youth work myth will surely prove a liberating experience, permitting all parties to move forward after decades of stupor. A chance to fashion new worlds of practice, instead of dissipating energies prolonging and protecting a fable. A proportion will elect to focus on children’s and young person’s work – fine; others will plump for operating with the neglected upper age band – excellent.
One starting point, for the latter group, must be to address the long-standing inequalities apropos access to cultural, sporting, leisure and welfare provision amongst those aged 16 to 21. Whilst private schools invested heavily in providing welfare services and extra-curricular cultural and sporting facilities in the hope of attracting yet more customers; state schools and further education colleges travelled in the opposite direction. Whilst spending on state school pupils per head has in real terms fallen since 2009, expenditure on private school students has escalated. To the extent that during the same period, the gap between the former and the latter has more than doubled (Davies, 2022: 6). For example, with regards to music teaching and tuition, private schools currently spend five times more per pupil than state funded institutions (Underhill, 2022). Little wonder that alumni from private schools have come to be ever more disproportionately represented in spheres such as culture, sport and the media.
Within the state sector, an obsession with achieving exam results, meeting targets, maintaining good-order and ticking employability boxes combined to ensure extra-curricular activities have all but vanished from the school life-cycle. Clubs, sports instruction and wider cultural and craft pursuits which once flourished in most state schools are now a distant memory. Three additional factors have contributed to their demise. First, many teachers are too overworked to have the surplus energy necessary to devote to running after-school activities; whilst others view such adjuncts as non-contractable and therefore none of their concern.
Second, the decline reflects on the part of many, possibly the majority, of contemporary school-teachers and lecturers a circumscribed attitude towards ‘education’. Education invariably being simplistically defined as what takes place in schools and colleges. Post-1980 teacher education has been re-configured into a narrow model focusing on skills-based training, delivery of pre-ordained syllabi and classroom management. Creativity and a grasp of education’s philosophical underpinnings have ceased to be viewed as essential requirements for those embarking on a teaching career (Barrow, 2020). Consequently, fewer and fewer practitioners perceive the value and potential of non-formal education and social interaction with students in the context of clubs and social activities.
Third, schools and colleges across the board have increasingly come to view themselves as business enterprises, all too often managed by faintly ridiculous individuals who conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs and leaders, rarely as educators. One by-product of this re-alignment is that school premises have become viewed as a ‘funding source’ or ‘income stream’ rather than as places of learning or seats of education. Every opportunity is taken to rent facilities to paying customers. Gyms and sports halls are increasingly booked by companies and coaches who charge ‘pupil customers’ to attend after-school pursuits such as football, basketball or gymnastics that previously would have been free-of-charge extra-curricular activities. Whereas schools once-upon-a-time, out of a sense of social responsibility, allowed their premises to be used by youth groups, now they are generally excluded because others can afford to pay a higher rent. For example, I visited one youth group operating in a hall located within the secondary school that most of its members attended. On an exceptionally warm evening, the leader reported they could not use the playing-field because the contract only allowed them the use of the hall. If they went onto the field this would be recorded by CCTV and they would be charged a substantial additional fee. Consequently, school-based youth work, once a flourishing sector in which high hopes were invested, now barely exists.
Similar inequalities are replicated within the university sector. For example, a college-based Russell Group university with 19,000 students gifts them an abundant array of cultural, sporting, leisure and welfare provision. Besides lavish and comprehensive sporting facilities, well-equipped theatre, dance and music studios, a debating hall and guidance and support services provided centrally; in addition, each of the individual colleges of the university typically furnishes for its 300 or so residents a library, bar, gym, tennis and squash courts, a specialist counselling team and tutorial support. Over and above this, students have access to approximately 300 subsidised self-managed societies: from Caving, Chess, Crochet and Champagne to Poetry, Polo and Pokemon, and so on. These are young people who, as Jane Austen observed apropos the youthful Bertrams and Crawfords, are blessed to ‘have every indulgence within their reach’ (Austen, 1814/1959: 24). Nearby, another university, a former polytechnic of equivalent size, offers only a fraction of the sporting, cultural, leisure and welfare provision – whilst the student societies amount to barely a sixth of the total found ‘down the road’.
By any criteria, the latter is a poor relation. Such inequality will surprise no one with a passing knowledge of our university sector. Indeed, this disparity has existed for so long, many view it as a given. Thus, our universities can be graded according to a sliding scale with a handful at the top reserved for ‘young person’s born only for expense and enjoyment’ (Austen, 1814/1959: 12). Whilst the remainder tender their students less and less in terms of social, sporting, cultural and welfare provision as one descends the ladder of privilege. Yet, even those attending institutions occupying the bottom rungs enjoy benefits which eclipse anything available to the forty-nine per cent aged 18 to 21 who, for whatever reason, opt not to enter HE. This third-class citizenry once catered for by boys’ and girls’ clubs, the youth service, adult education programmes and religious organisations are now left almost entirely to their own devices.
Reformers may well be pushing at a partially open door. Mounting evidence confirms that hobbies, social, sporting and cultural activities, and intellectual pursuits play a significant part in keeping us healthy and jovial; and even alive for longer (see Polley et al, 2017; Fancourt and Finn, 2019). Hence, the National Health Service is engaging in social prescribing – funding such interests as preventative ‘treatments’ designed to reduce upcoming demands on physical and mental health services. By 2024, the NHS plans to have had 900,000 ‘patients’ referred to social proscribing programmes and over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers in post. Questions should be broached regarding the ‘medicalisation’ of whole swathes of education but space prevents me from proceeding down that by-way in this article. However, we ought to be concerned that youth workers, adult educators and community workers who long found funding cheerfully given to those portraying clientele as potential villains will now be tempted to secure income by depicting them as vulnerable and fragile. Irrespective of concerns apropos negative labelling social prescribing means new cash for long neglected services has become available after many barren decades.
Youth work is forever in transition, buffeted by the unceasing vicissitudes arising from young people’s ever-changing life experiences. What is now unique is that few youth workers retain substantive linkages with their assumed late teen clientele. Overcoming that omission means forsaking their attachment to the youth work myth. By rupturing that bond, it becomes possible to commence the exploration for a new modus operandi. Central to that venture must reside an ambition to address the grotesque inequalities that exist between those attending post-16 private schools and elite universities; and the rest. Especially with regards to those transferring from state schools and further education into the labour market at 18. A group overwhelmingly denied even a rudimentary liberal education sufficient to furnish a counter-balance to the mind-numbing limitations of the narrow skills and employability model of instruction governing their ‘educational’ experience. One which still, as Ruskin noted in 1860, deliberately ‘refused them wisdom’. So, how might we begin to close the gaps?
Self-evidently, current and historic youth work formats retain little, if any, purchase. Their failings merely spell out what no longer works. Yet within the backwaters of contemporary practice, one may chance upon approaches proffering insights into what might succeed. Notably certain uniformed organisations do manage to retain into their late teens and beyond a proportion of their younger membership. Probably for two reasons. First, because there is a conspicuous division between juvenile affiliates and their older membership. Consequently, they can make available a clearly differentiated adult-orientated programme. Second, these agencies, unlike the ephemeral projects which dominate the state-funded sector, have long histories and in all probability a lengthy future. Therefore, affiliates as they enter adulthood, are aware they have a realistic option to remain within an organization that will offer them, if desired, a fully adult role (Spencer and Jeffs, 2021). These agencies also embrace the concept of serious sustained graduated endeavour – physical and intellectual challenges demanding maturity and the procurement of adult attributes. This invitation to keep learning supplies a reason to retain contact. Seriousness and the promise of progression into lengthy, even lifetime, attachment helps explain why programmes linked to faith groups, drama, music, crafts and certain sports are also more likely to retain members.
Intellectually sophisticated and physically challenging pursuits – for example, chess, climbing, singing, acting, crafts, political engagement or the arts – are interests typically acquired during late adolescence and adulthood. Once, many of these interests were encountered via the extra-curricular programmes of secondary schools, youth organisations and the social and welfare programmes of large employers. Nowadays, except within private schools, this chance meeting most commonly occurs, if at all, at university. Even then, the likelihood of this arising is profoundly influenced by the type of university one attended. Thus, if the existing inequality is not to prevail, new forms of broad-based social, informal and liberal adult education must be made available and attractive to those aged 16 plus. Programmes are required which ensure the majority of young adults access the same quality provision as that offered to the small minority attending elite universities.
Hopefully this essay will kick-start a conversation on ways forward relating to post-16 provision. Remedies, if they exist, will surely arise from dialogue involving interested parties. Therefore, this article concludes with a sequence of aide memoires intended to contribute to that conversation.
First, approaches are needed to enable voluntary clubs, associations and movements to better cater for over 16s. Possibly a mechanism might be created whereby these might be subsidized to offer low cost or free membership to those aged 16 to 21. In some instances, there will be a need for an input from a ‘social pedagogue or informal educator’ to encourage certain groups to re-orientate their programmes to better incorporate younger members.
Second, the atrocious way local authorities and universities extinguished a once thriving liberal adult education sector means neither can be entrusted to undertake either a financial or training role. Therefore, fresh structures are required to channel any future funding to support voluntary effort. Similarly, new formats are required to provide staff equipped to develop new provision where gaps exist. Given the most effective and long-lasting associations and clubs are typically run by volunteers, new structures must generate the minimum amount of bureaucracy and the least intrusive support mechanisms. That is, if they are to avoid chocking with bureaucracy the very organisations upon which our best hopes for the future reside.
Third, civil society tends to be least vibrant where poverty is most acute. Within cities, towns and rural localities we encounter agglomerations of human capital, at the pinnacle are places where those with a superior education, greater leisure, heightened self-assurance and enhanced income reside. Clusters where we find a greater abundance of societies, clubs, associations, and voluntary agencies. Tackling this imbalance requires a rejuvenation of civil society. Partly, this will entail the presence of individuals with discrete skills who can nurture the development of volunteer-led agencies competent to offer young adults and others access to social and educational opportunities. Such persons – community organisers, social pedagogues, adult educators or similar – will require at the very least an under-graduate degree. One which bequeaths them a broad-based liberal education capable of gifting them the breadth of knowledge required to understand the environments in which they will be operating and grasp the educational strands that foster human flourishing. In addition, they will need the social competencies to communicate with all segments of society and the pedagogical and political talents to promote informal educational opportunities for all ages. Probably for many, these talents will in part be acquired via post-graduate study.
Fourth, we require a root and branch reform of the current education system – so that schools provide ‘a world of beckoning activities and interests’ (Oakeshott 1967/1990: 39/120). Serviced by out of the ordinary teachers committed to the craft of teaching, who view it as a calling not a job; and possess an unbridled love for learning. Currently, such personalities are unlikely to be attracted to teaching in schools, dominated as they are by leagues tables, a mind-numbingly narrow national curriculum and reverence for leadership and hierarchy. Institutions drenched with what Rosa Luxemburg (1904/1970: 122) described as ‘the sterile spirit of the overseer’. Reforming our schools and colleges so that they prioritise education over training, indoctrination and good order will take many generations. Indeed, we may even have to recognize this is a futile hope. As Stephen Ball, who after decades devoted to studying schools, concluded – maybe we will be obliged to abandon aspirations for reforming them. Instead, we may need to recognise that they are ‘one node in a network of “intolerable” institutions – part of the carceral archipelago of modern society – that requires our opposition rather than our support’ (Ball, 2022: 2; see also Ball and Collett-Sabe, 2021). Given the determination of the government to press ahead and universalize the academy model, we must accept that until it is replaced by a totally reworked structure which allows communities to manage their own schools, including the curriculum, reform is off the cards.
Finally, in the short term, two reforms might be sought. First, a re-configuration of teachers’ and lecturers’ contracts so those who wish to do so can devote, say a fifth of their time to teaching ‘in the community’. The other would be to oblige all schools, colleges and universities to make facilities such as sports fields, libraries, etc. available to the public during evenings, weekends and holiday periods. Either free-of-charge or for a low fixed fee, determined by parliament. This is not a fanciful idea. In a number of universities I have visited in the United States, I encountered young people and adults from the local community using the library during evenings and at weekends. Likewise, sport facilities. If private schools are unwilling to collaborate, then they should rightly be deprived of their charitable status.
We may well have to accept that ever more sophisticated online gaming and VR/AR linked to a metaverse, a 3D or 2D simulated world, within which individuals interact, may make our efforts to reach coming generations futile. These and other, as yet, unknown developments may result in future generations being largely indifferent to historically popular forms of leisure, cultural and sporting pursuits – and previously attractive non-formal educational inputs. These generations possibly preferring to live much of their lives in a virtual world (see, for a helpful discussion of this: Chalmers, 2022). In which case we may have to fall back on Beckett’s advice ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ (1984: para.6).
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Last Updated: 10 May 2022
 The quotation is taken from Hazlitt’s essay “The Fight”(1822/1958: 113). However, it should be noted that Hazlitt possibly borrowed it from John Quincey Adams who employed it in his defence of the soldiers who shot and killed protesters in Boston in 1770. Adams concluded his address to the court as follows “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence”.
 This is not universally the case. In one US inner-city high school the author visited, besides an extensive array of sporting and social activities, there were 55 clubs operating. English Department staff, for example, in addition to staging plays and performances throughout the academic year also ran poetry, Shakespeare and creative writing clubs, and tutored a group producing a weekly newspaper. At a nearby suburban school with a similar array of sporting activities and clubs, the Music Department besides providing a programme of individual after school tuition ran a junior and senior jazz band, a symphony orchestra and choir; remarkably a third of the students either sang or played an instrument during the Christmas concert.
Austen, J. (1814/1959) Mansfield Park, reprinted (1959) London: Folio Books.
Ball, S. J. (2022) ‘Against School’ Transforming Society. Available at: https://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2022/01/24/against-school.
Ball, S. J. and Collett-Sabe, J. (2021) ‘Against School: an epistemological critique’ Discourse. Available at: http://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2021.1947780.
Barrow, R. (2020) ‘The decline of philosophy in educational study and why it matters’ in A. D. Colgan and B. Maxwell (eds.) The Importance of Philosophy in Teacher Education: Mapping the decline and its consequences, London: Routledge.
Chalmers, D. (2022) Reality+; virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, New York: Allen Lane.
Davies, W. (2022) ‘How many words does it take to make a mistake? London Review of Books, 44(4), February 24th.
Fancourt, D. and Finn, S. (2019) What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review, Geneva: World Health Organisation.
Jeffs, T. (in press) ‘YMCA and the Development of Informal and Youth Work Education’ Infed (due 2022).
Jeffs, T. (2018) ‘Pearl Jephcott: Girls’ Club Worker’ Women’s History Review 28:5, pp. 746-761.
Luxemburg, R. (1904/1970) ‘Organizational questions of the Russian Social Democracy’. Reprinted 1970 in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York: Pathfinder Press.
Oakeshott, M. (1967/1990) ‘On my school days’ in H. W. Howe (ed.) St. George’s School, 1907-1967: a portrait of the founders, Harpenden: St. George’s School. Reprinted 1990 in R. Grant Thinkers of Our Time: Oakeshott, London: Claridge Press.
Polley, M., Bertotti, M., Kimberlee, R., Pilkington, K. and Refeum, C. (2017) A review of the evidence assessing impact of social prescribing on health care demands and cost implications. London: University of Westminster.
Ruskin, J. (1860/1985) ‘Ad Valorem’. Reprinted 1985 in J. Ruskin, Unto This Last and other writings, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Spencer, A. and Jeffs, T. (2021) Launching Into Life: The long-term impact of work with young people, London: MSSC.
Underhill, J. (2022) Music: a subject in peril? London: Incorporated Society of Musicians.
Tony Jeffs is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Durham University.