In this guest blog for the Centre, Dan Barton, Senior Area Youth Worker for Devon Youth Service discusses his experience of measuring evidence in youth work and the questions and thoughts it has inspired.
If you are reading this, the value of youth work is a subject about which you either already have a strong opinion, or genuine questions. It is certainly discussed regularly across the sector, with passionate arguments being made for a variety of positions.
Personally, I think that, for years, we have been guilty of searching for a “holy grail” of outcomes, a “silver bullet” that would, finally, solve the eternal mystery of why the value of this work is often undervalued outside of the sector.
Conversations about teenage pregnancy, anti-social behavior, employability and, increasingly, radicalisation and child sexual exploitation are commonplace; people want to believe that there is a place for youth work but are often unsure as to where that place lies, or what form it should take.
The following questions, therefore, are ones we all need to ask ourselves: What part do we have to play in these strategic objectives? How do we contribute to these outcomes?
How can we stop young people being a problem?
The at times controversial “P” word has been less explicit in recent years, but it remains an important part of the puzzle.
Simply put, I would argue that it is impossible to practice good youth work and not meet these outcomes, or contribute in our own small way (and it is sometimes a small way, something we all have to learn to accept as part of this journey.)
I was reflecting to my wife last week that I never have to challenge my colleagues about their behaviour. I never feel uncomfortable. I never feel threatened, for instance, bullied or undervalued. Their values are intrinsically linked to youth work – inclusion, diversity, honesty, respect and a real sense of optimism for young people. As a group, we seem to know instinctively that quality youth work has value. We are lucky enough to see evidence of it every day and luckier still to have confirmation from the young people themselves.
For example, I can’t get through a day at work without seeing at least two or three of the following things happening:
Young people being spoken to in a way that is absolutely without a power or status divide, aiding a sense of self-respect and the development of trusting relationships.
Young people being given their third or fourth chance, when they tell us stories of how they have been isolated from other areas of their lives (school, home, work), aiding the development of resilience, belief and self-worth.
Young people being challenged to be more than they ever thought they could be: in the language they use, how they treat others, and how they expected to be treated by others, nurturing respect and tolerance.
Young people being offered responsibility – real responsibility, such as allocating funding, making decisions that affect their communities, taking an active role in social action. This fosters a sense of belonging to society to as a whole and to their communities.
Young people turning to us daily when others have let them down in their hour of need and receiving support that helps to increase their sense of worth.
There are many more examples, of course, but the demands of a word count will stop me from rambling.
Yet, despite this seemingly definitive, real-world evidence, we must contend with words and phrases that seem to defy the demonstrated value: ‘austerity’, ‘tough choices’, ‘we can’t provide the gold standard anymore’ and ‘doing more with less’.
Of course, when money is tight, who is going to simply take our word for it when everyone else is talking about their value too, and when judgments are being made on a sweeping scale about services and the contributions they provide? Again, perhaps we have been caught reaching for the gold when a sufficient amount of silver would accomplish more: the thousands and thousands of small steps that young people make every week.
Can we prove that we have stopped a young couple become pregnant (or even judge conclusively that this would be a positive outcome)?
Can we prove that our intervention was responsible for young person X gaining employment?
Can we state empirically that we were responsible for young person Y being less at risk of being sexual exploited?
This would be particularly difficult.
That's where the Centre for Youth Impact and Project Oracle come into our story. They understand youth work; they understand the small steps we take in working with young people. Crucially, they have the ear of funders, commissioners and service directors (who are willing to learn) and others that so desperately need to understand the value of our work.
We designed our Theory of Change (no mean feat), we drew up our evaluation plan, we designed or adopted recording and measuring tools and we started to tell our story in a different way – our way. Our impact measurement practice now fits our work. Developing the voice of young people and ensuring that it is heard remains a core expectation of our youth work.
We just record it differently now, in a way that allows us to gather the statistics and qualitative data that are relevant to us. Pride amongst our staff team has, in turn, improved. We know that our work does change lives, a little bit at a time, and we are learning more about how that happens.
We especially enjoyed developing our Theory of Change (‘what we do and how we do it’ as the staff called it). We liked discovering how we make assumptions in our work and owning them – allowing ourselves to unpick what has previously been regarded as ‘given’ or ‘implicit’ in our practice: talking respectfully to a young person for example – something young people tell us is unusual, believe it or not!
Working through the Standards of Evidence validation process with Project Oracle was quick and painless. We heard great ideas about how to tweak our frameworks and were given some tools to get the desired effects. We also had some help with our evaluation plan, which was great – I got to role-play, challenging the staff with things like “so what?”, “who cares?”, and my personal favorite, “we can’t say we do it if we can’t prove it”. Fine tuning our outcomes framework, looking at what we can measure against each area, figuring out creative ways to evidence each statement was very enlightening and great to share with others. I believe we have a collective understanding now of the above and its helps staff to focus their efforts on specific tools rather than use a scattergun approach.
I would certainly recommend embarking on this journey to any organisation that works with young people. You owe it to our staff and to your young people to do all you can to make quality youth work sustainable.
With potential changes to how relationship education could be delivered in schools and Scotland taking the lead in the UK for putting youth work back on the map, there has never been a more opportune time to combat the frustration that many are feeling, by everyone within our sector grabbing a song sheet and singing to the same tune.
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