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Reflections from the first International Transformative Youth Work Conference


This blog was written by Mary McKaskill, Practice Development Lead at the Centre for Youth Impact. She shares her reflections for the International Transformative Youth Work Conference held at Plymouth Marjon University 4-6th Septmber 2018. She reflects on the role of evidence in celebrating youth work’s global similarities and variation and continuity of practice in changing contexts. 

In early September, Bethia and I went to Plymouth Marjon University for the first International Transformative Youth Work Conference. Colleagues from across the globe came together to share practice, discuss and debate ways of working, and compare understandings of impact measurement. All the presentations were recorded and I encourage you to listen to them.
This three day conference was the culmination of a two year Erasmus+ project that investigated youth work in the UK, Estonia, Finland, Italy and France by collecting over 700 stories from young people and their youth workers using the transformative evaluation methodology. Transformative evaluation has three main components: the transformative paradigm, appreciative inquiry and participatory evaluation. Findings have been published in the book The Impact of Youth Work in Europe: A Study of Five European Countries (2018). The findings showcase the similarities of youth work in practice in diverse settings as well as the variety within the practice. Tradition and variation of youth work was celebrated throughout the 3 days and was something that I found particularly enjoyable.
I was not surprised that ‘impact’ and the roles that evaluation and assessment play in youth work were contentious. Questions of ‘who are we collecting evidence for and to service what purpose?’ were heavily grappled with in presentations and conversations during the breaks. As an agent of the evidence agenda there were times that I felt confronted and challenged, however the debate around the role of evidence was constructive and forward facing.
Reflecting on the similarities and variety of youth work that is seen in the Erasmus+ research, there is a key role that evidence and meaningful evaluation can play here.  Understanding what is core and traditional and what is flexible is vital – how else can we assure high quality and pass the down the practice to the next generation of youth workers? This is certainly an element of the evidence agenda that I am happy to champion and I at times do worry that we, as a sector, may have been distracted by the ‘holy grail’ of proof. If we are serious about the evidence journey truly being a journey then our knowledge of impact will be constructed in sequence by different pieces of evidence that together is greater than the sum of its parts.
At the Centre, when we say that we promote a movement towards more meaningful evidence we don’t expect every piece of evidence to be ‘evidence of impact’ and we need to be clear about that. I think it only further confuses the discussion to mislabel findings as impact evidence when the evaluation approach can’t by design demonstrate causality. The research that was launched at this conference, laudable that it is in many ways, by design set out to learn from best practice and therefore reads in many parts like a showcase of best practice in youth work rather than an impact analysis. Some of the presentations that I found most compelling weren’t about impact nor trying to be. They were working towards an authentic definition and curriculum for youth work. 
Overall, I left Plymouth Marjon University feeling energised and privileged to have been there. The breadth of research into youth work that is happening throughout the world is inspiring and I’m proud to be playing a part in the UK’s youth work evidence journey.