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Practising what we preach: introducing the Centre’s Theory of Change


Ed Anderton, our Director of Practice Development delves into our refreshed Theory of Change and how we arrived there.

Here at the Centre, we spend a good proportion of our time supporting other organisations to develop and refine their Theories of Change. Ironically, we’ve never publicly shared our own. We’ve had three versions since we were formed in 2014, and have just used our fifth birthday as a prompt for a revisit and refresh. And this time, we’re going to get better at practising what we preach: we’re very pleased to be sharing our up to date Theory of Change with you (click on the image to open in high resolution)

Theory of Change Figure

We’ve aligned our activities, on the left, with our strategic objectives, in green: 

  • To offer leadership across the youth sector in the evidence and impact debate (voice)
  • To foster a thriving movement leading an increase in meaningful evaluation across youth work and provision for young people (movement) 
  • To design, test and share our new practice development offer as part of infrastructure support role (practice)
  • To build the sustainability of the Centre and its offer (sustainability) 

There are bits missing, as you may note: very few arrows, and no mechanisms of change or accountability line, for which we usually advocate. We will get there, but we wanted to share it publicly first before it gets over-engineered. 
As all Theories of Change should be, this is a work in progress, which we are sharing now in the knowledge that it will be refined and refreshed on a regular basis, through feedback from and reflection with all our partners. It is also the first element of a broader evidence and learning strategy for the sector, which we’ve been reflecting on for some time, and will be sharing in April. 
Running through all of the activities and outcomes described in this theory of change are four key values that underpin all of our work: to be considered, collaborative, challenging and supportive. We’ll be saying more about each of these in the coming months, as well as unpacking each element of this theory of change in more detail. For now, we want to highlight a couple of the key aspects of our approach, and point to some encouraging signs of the change we believe is so important across the UK youth sector. 
Quality matters
Our overall vision – that all young people are able to access high quality support and provision – requires us to have a clear account of exactly what we mean by ‘high quality’. Across all of the various contexts in which adults work with and for young people in the informal and non-formal youth sector, our position is that high quality provision is that which consistently and intentionally supports young people’s social and emotional learning. This is underpinned by the Outcomes Framework 2.0, which offers a detailed, evidence-informed description of the key domains of young people’s social and emotional development, the ‘staff practices’ that make a difference, and insight into how both can be measured.
In order to support youth organisations to reflect on and improve their practice, we also need a deep understanding of the practices that promote social and emotional learning.  The Youth Programme Quality Intervention (YPQI)provides us with just that: a relatable and detailed framework that supports teams of youth practitioners to work together to reflect on and improve their practice. This process also has the key characteristic of being a continuous cycle: high quality is not a one-off achievement, but something that needs to be maintained through reflection and intention. In the case of the YPQI, this maintenance involves a rolling cycle of ‘assess, plan and improve’, which takes place over six months, working within the context of the day to day. Continuous does not mean constant.
The process of training and supporting a group of youth organisations across the UK to use the YPQI has established that our focus on social and emotional learning really resonates with practitioners. Participants have also clearly communicated how much they value dedicated time to observe and reflect on practice as a team, and celebrate the opportunity to support each other to improve. 
Moving on up
Just as with quality, we want to be very clear about what we mean when we talk about supporting a “movement”. For us, this begins with a shared commitment – from youth organisations, funders and commissioners – to develop and maintain a values-based consensus about how we should evaluate, learn and improve our work with and for young people. The ‘Asking Good Questions’framework - based on many years of research, consultation and debate – is our statement of a consensus position to work from.
Crucially, this movement must also act upon this consensus, putting a shared set of tools and approaches into practice, testing and refining, reflecting and learning together. To bring this about, we know that we must work in meaningful partnership, pooling resources to enable practitioners to collaborate and draw on each other on a regular basis. 
Key to this are our Regional Impact Network Leads: they have the knowledge, understanding and trust of organisations in their respective regions. This year will see the Centre continue to deepen these partnerships, to develop an increasingly effective, cohesive and accessible learning community. This is also how we believe the sustainability of the Centre and its offer is most likely to be supported: working with and through others. 
A positive example of this is our partnership with three of our Regional Impact Partners to support youth organisations involved in the Enterprise Development Programme. Many of these partners are also already involved in supporting organisations to implement the YPQI. In this, as in all of our work, we are explicitly setting out to strengthen the infrastructure for learning, at a national, regional and local level. 
As ever, we would welcome your comments, questions, challenges and suggestions – please do get in touch. Contact Bethia, our CEO, on