Evaluating youth work: navigating the challenges
Inspired by The Centre for Education and Youth's recent evaluation of The Brighton Streets Project, Dr Tania de St Croix takes a look at the role youth-centred evaluation can play in demonstrating the impact of detached youth work and help shed light on the 'everyday and remarkable'.
I was curious to read CfEY’s recent evaluation of the Brighton Streets Project – partly because I’m currently researching how youth work is evaluated, and also because I love detached youth work! Detached youth workersengage young people in critical conversation, build supportive relationships, and organise activities, right where they are – perhaps on street corners, in parks and skateparks, in shopping centres and on housing estates. This enables qualitatively different power relationships than are possible in a youth centre, where workers have responsibility for a building and have the institutional power over who enters and stays in the space. While building-based youth work is highly valued by young people, there is something special about relationships outside the centre, built through conversation, taking place as much as possible on young people’s terms and in their territory. The evaluation of the Brighton Streets Project brought this valuable practice to life, and was an enjoyable read.
Evaluating the everyday and remarkable
CfEY’s evaluation report chimes with the findings of our study of eight open youth work settings around England (both detached work and youth clubs). Both CfEY’s evaluation and our study found that young people valued youth workers because they are understanding, non-judgemental, and provide someone to talk to outside of family and school relationships. From this meaningful engagement, some young people report life-changing impact; for example, one young person from the Brighton Streets Project said that they had stopped running away from home due to support from youth workers. Reflecting on our own interview and observation data, we argued that youth work has an ‘everyday and remarkable’ impact. What we mean by this is that the ‘everyday’ value of youth work – relationships with youth workers, engaging activities, challenging conversations, a space to be with peers – is a fundamental basis for remarkable, life-changing (even life-saving) impact.
However, this impact is difficult to ‘prove’ through traditional impact measurement, partly because the impact of youth work is specific to each young person; depending on their situation, wants and needs. Evaluation is particularly challenging when youth work is funded to achieve outcomes that come into tension with youth work principles of starting at young people’s own starting points. Youth work has been explained by the critical youth work forum In Defence of Youth Work as ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’. And youth work scholars such as Bianca Jontae Baldridge from Harvard have emphasised how important it is to avoid racialised, class-based, adultist tropes, in which young people are portrayed as dangerous and vulnerable, in need of ‘saving’ by well-meaning adults.
Can youth work prevent crime?
Balancing the tensions of youth work practice and impact measurement can be particularly challenging when youth work is funded as part of crime prevention initiatives, as the Brighton Streets Project is. Reflecting on our study, we feel it would be simplistic to claim that youth work prevents crime, as crime is rooted in a grossly unequal society and the vilification and marginalisation of working class and racially minoritized young people. Yet youth work provides trusted adults who will challenge and support, a sense of belonging, and the space and support to build positive peer and community relationships. When young people were asked “If there was one thing you could change that you think would make young people safer, what would it be?”, the most popular response was the provision of more local youth services. So it makes sense to fund youth work as part of holistic crime prevention; yet there is a tension if youth workers are made responsible for reducing crime, or when projects are seen by young people as engaging with them as potential criminals.
Young people’s lives are too frequently lived in the context of youth being seen as a problem to solve – especially if they are working class, Black, young people of colour, Travellers, from LGBTQ+ groups, or belonging to subcultures such as skaters. A central tenet of detached youth work is to avoid labelling young people on the streets as either ‘risky’ or ‘at risk’, but instead to encounter them as young people in all their complexity, and respond to the issues and challenges they bring. Another principle is to challenge any assumption that young people’s presence on the streets is a problem.
Over twenty-five years as a detached youth worker, I have been privileged to meet young people in very different neighbourhoods across four towns and cities. While these encounters are often fun, sometimes joyful, and occasionally hilarious, it would be wrong to play down the challenges facing young people. On one estate, heroin addiction was a huge challenge and in several places, I worked with groups affected by organised violence, or sexual exploitation. Many young people had negative experiences of schools, police, and other services. Often, young people felt that their neighbourhood facilities were neglected, and that as teenagers they did not feel welcomed or valued on their own streets. Human life is complex; young people we meet on the streets do not (and should not) fit into a box. And even those young people facing significant challenges are just as keen to share successes, have a laugh, chat about current events, get involved in organising an activity, take action to improve their area, play a game, or have a catch-up with adults who care about them.
CfEY’s published evaluation of the Brighton Streets Project is a really engaging and interesting example of how youth workers and evaluators might navigate these challenges. Both the project itself, and the lead on the evaluation team (Abi Angus at CfEY), come from a social justice informed youth work perspective, committed to challenging deficit views of young people, and celebrating young people’s positive engagement with the streets. CfEY worked with youth workers and young people to evaluate the project through engaging, positive methods – ‘most significant change’ stories and walking interviews – that gave a nuanced account of the impact of the project.
The process of evaluation was as important as the finished report; speaking with Abi, it was fascinating to hear about how CfEY and Brighton Streets staff worked with the funder to develop elements of the evaluation; for example, explaining why control groups wouldn’t be useful, and avoiding portraying young people as criminals, or the project as ‘child saving’. There was also a deliberate intent to present the evaluation as clearly and accessibly as possible; in contrast to some evaluations that will never be read by the young people involved, the attractive layout based on the area in which the project took place has certainly inspired me to think about ways to enliven the presentation of our own research findings. We look forward to discussing further examples of youth-centred evaluation at our free online Rethinking Impact Conference on 4th November.
The CfEY Brighton Streets Project evaluation is here. The study referred to in this blog is Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work, funded by the ESRC (ES/R004773/1) and carried out by Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty at the Centre for Public Policy Research, King’s College London.