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Defining youth work: exploring the boundaries, continuity and diversity of youth work practice


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This chapter provides an overview of some of the contemporary debate concerning the definition of youth work and boundaries with other social professions
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Approaches to Youth Work
Across Time and Place
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Defining Youth Work:
Exploring the Boundaries,
Continuity and Diversity of
Youth Work Practice
Trudi Cooper
The general public, politicians and novice
youth workers do not find it easy to under-
stand how youth work relates to other forms
of work with youth in the education, welfare
and recreation sectors. A definition of youth
work that delineates boundaries between
youth work and other types of work with
young people would have a number of bene-
fits. It would make it easier for those outside
youth work to understand and value what
youth workers do, and to support the condi-
tions required for successful youth work, and
would increase the likelihood that youth
workers’ roles, skills and expertise would be
publicly supported (McKee, Oldfield, &
Poultney, 2010). Without this clarity, it is
more difficult to challenge the various forms
of dubious practice publicly labelled as youth
work to the detriment of genuine practice,
and youth workers find it difficult to resist
the attempts of other professions to colonise
youth work and redefine youth work to
reflect the purposes and interests of other
profession groups.
Politicians, the public and novice youth
workers often seek a simple operational defi-
nition of youth work, however, as others have
recognised, this is not possible (Butters &
Newell, 1978, p. 17). To illustrate why this
is so, consider the following comparison.
People understand what teachers do because
schools and teaching are part of the social
fabric of contemporary societies. Teachers
are employed by particular types of institu-
tion (schools); work in a single context (the
classroom); perform a particular socially
recognised role (teach pupils/students in a
particular age-range); and are referred to uni-
formly as teachers. Schools as institutions
have been found in most societies for genera-
tions, even before universal education became
normalised. In the contemporary world, most
adults have personal experience of school-
ing, and consequently easily recognise these
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institutions, contexts, roles and job titles.
This means that although schooling systems
and teaching methods vary considerably
between schools, between countries and over
time, the shared social knowledge of school-
ing and teaching endures even though the
characterisation may change.
By contrast, for youth work there is no
similar institutional or contextual coherence,
and no universally shared social familiar-
ity with youth work practice. Youth work
occurs in varied institutional and contextual
settings that appear dissimilar to observers.
Many adults have little personal experi-
ence of youth work. People who are called
youth workers are employed by many dif-
ferent types of organisation (schools, chari-
ties, other government and non-government
organisations, including local government,
community organisations, churches, health
departments, international development
agencies, shopping centres and even in cus-
todial youth settings). Contexts of employ-
ment are varied. Youth workers may be
found almost anywhere young people can
be found. Locations for youth work include
both specialist youth facilities (such as youth
centres, residential centres or camps, and
youth refuges and youth accommodation
services), and non-specialist facilities (like
school premises in alternative or mainstream
schools, in cafés, on the streets, in shopping
centres, in hospital wards, in employment or
drug and alcohol services, online and some-
times in young people’s homes). Given these
circumstances, it is little wonder that casual
observers of the everyday activities of youth
workers might see little commonality in the
structure, activity and purposes of youth
From an international perspective, the
situation is further complicated because the
boundaries of what is considered as youth
work vary between and within countries
and over time. In some languages, youth
workers may have a title that makes no ref-
erence to youth (for example, animateur,
Sozialpädagogik) (Hamalainen, 2015). In
addition, the rationale, purposes, methods
and forms of practice, and the age range of
the clientele, vary between countries, and
have changed over time within the same
Unlike teaching, it is not possible to
define youth work by how it is funded.
Internationally, funding for youth work
comes from a wide variety of sources.
Although traditionally the education depart-
ment was the primary funder for modern
youth work in the UK, in other countries
sources of government funding have been
much more diverse. In Australia, for exam-
ple, multiple federal and state govern-
ment departments fund youth work. Funds
are provided by government departments
responsible for youth justice, crime preven-
tion, health, community development, urban
renewal, civic inclusion, cultural diversity,
Indigenous affairs, sport and recreation,
employment, welfare, arts, homelessness,
youth, families, child protection and some-
times, education. Internationally, youth work
projects are funded by non-government
sources, including philanthropic charitable
trusts; directly by religious congregations;
by business donors; through local fund-
raising and street collections; through con-
tributions from young people themselves;
from proceeds of gambling or crime; or from
levies raised through taxation on alcohol and
tobacco. In addition, not all youth work is
funded. Some forms of youth work depend
upon the unpaid labour of volunteers, as still
occurs in village and church youth clubs, or
by unpaid youth workers working alongside
paid youth workers, as in youth mentor-
ing programmes where unpaid volunteers
are coordinated, trained and supported by
paid youth workers (MacCallum, Beltman,
Cooper, & Coffey, 2017).
In summary, shared operational defini-
tions of youth work that cross national bor-
ders are not possible. An alternative is to
seek conceptual definitions of youth work
processes that encapsulate essential features
of practice.
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Defining Youth Work
Models and definitions of youth work devel-
oped independently in various countries,
responded to local conditions, and were
grounded in differing disciplinary perspec-
tives. A recent Council of Europe conference
report emphasised the importance of youth
work theory to make sense of the diversity of
contexts and practices (Williamson, 2015)
and hence, this discussion draws primarily
upon conceptual literature concerned with
youth work processes and purposes.
Youth work academics in various coun-
tries have used schema and models to show
how apparently diverse youth work practices
are linked, and to differentiate between types
of practice informed by different values.
These schema developed independently and
draw upon different theory and organising
principles. Models of youth work practice
attempt to systematise and contextualise
youth work as a distinctive set of practices
linked to other bodies of theory. This sec-
tion provides an overview of how various
schema have been used to make sense of
youth work in different countries, and where
possible link these models to definitions of
youth work found within each country. More
detailed discussion of these models can be
found in Cooper (2012).
In the UK, Butters and Newell (1978) pro-
vided one of the earliest attempts to theorise
traditions within British youth work. Butters
and Newell drew upon the sociology of educa-
tion, to position youth work as a countervail-
ing force against the reproduction of social
inequalities, which the mainstream education
system magnifies. They distinguished five
approaches to youth work, which they named
‘Character-building’, ‘Cultural Adjustment’,
‘Community Development’, ‘Institutional
Reform’ and the ‘Radical Paradigm’ (self-
emancipation). Critical pedagogy, radical
social work and Marxian social action the-
ory informed their approach. Although their
schema has theoretical problems (Cooper,
2012; Leigh & Smart, 1985; Smith, 1988) it
was influential in the UK until the 1990s and
influenced the language and terminology of
several subsequent models.
Ten years later, Smith (1988) used a his-
torical perspective as the main organising
principle of another UK model of ‘youth
work traditions’. Smith’s model responded to
deficiencies in the Butters and Newell model,
and set out to describe, compare and contrast
youth work traditions and processes found in
Britain. This approach avoids the historicism
of Butters and Newell’s model. In Smith’s
model, history provides a means to under-
stand relationships, tensions and boundaries
between different traditions or strands within
youth work, including religious and political
traditions, political activism, leisure, service
organisations, welfare and informal education
(Cooper, 2012; Smith, 1988), see Figure1.1.
Histories of youth work demonstrate there has
been continuity in some methods, especially
the emphasis on positive supportive rela-
tionships between youth workers and young
people. Discontinuities can be found in the
purposes of youth work relationships, and the
extent to which the relationship was intended
to encourage conformity to social norms and
engagement in wholesome leisure activities,
to support religious conversion or to bring
about political, social and personal change.
Since the introduction of neo-liberal post-
welfare state policies beginning in the 1990s,
both the institutional structure and the previ-
ously accepted consensus about youth work
values have been disrupted in the UK (Cooper,
2013). This has been met with renewed inter-
est in research into histories of youth work
(Gilchrist, Hodgson, Jeffs, Spence, Stanton
& Walker, 2011; Gilchrist, Jeffs, Spence &
Stanton, 2013; Gilchrist, Jeffs, Spence &
Walker, 2009; Spence, 2010) and with the
emergence in 2009 of ‘In Defence of Youth
Work’ (IDYW), which is a campaigning
movement to defend youth work as a dis-
tinctive educational practice founded on a
voluntary relationship with young people and
shaped by their agendas’ (https://indefenceo-
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Definitions of youth work are offered in
several UK texts and IDYW, and include var-
ying degrees of specificity. Common features
include informal educational intent, and the
use of techniques such as trust-building, con-
versation and dialogue as dominant methods
(Batsleer, 2013; Jeffs & Smith, 2005; Sapin,
2013). Based upon an analysis of common
themes in youth work, Smith (2013) pro-
posed that 20th-century youth work can best
be described as a ‘form of informal educa-
tion’ that involved:
1 Focusing on young people.
2 Emphasising voluntary participation and
3 Committing to association.
4 Being friendly and informal, and acting with
5 Being concerned with the education and, more
broadly, the welfare of young people.
The substance of this definition was endorsed
by a speaker at the recent Council of Europe
conference on youth work (Kovacic,
In Ireland, youth work is also conceived
as a form of education, but the institutional
context of youth work differs because youth
work is provided by non-government organ-
isations. Youth work is defined within the
Youth Work Act (2001) as a planned educa-
tional programme
for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the per-
sonal and social development of young people
through their voluntary involvement, and which is
complementary to their formal, academic or voca-
tional education and training and provided primar-
ily by voluntary youth work organisations.1
(National Youth Council of Ireland, 2017)
In the Irish context (Hurley & Treacy, 1993)
adapted a radical sociology model developed
for organisational analysis by Burrell and
Morgan (1979) to provide the basis of a model
of youth work. This model included both
detailed elements drawn from contemporary
Irish programmes, policy and institutional
contexts, and ‘big picture’ elements that dif-
ferentiated programmes according to their
overall socio-political purposes. This schema
differentiated between youth programmes that
intended to fit young people into society, and
those that intended to bring about social
change. The schema also contrasted pro-
grammes that focused on internal intra-per-
sonal change with those that focused on
external inter-personal or extra-personal
change. Hurley and Treacy’s model captures
the multi-faceted nature of youth work inter-
ventions. The original document is out of
print, but a simplified version can be found in
Cooper (2012), see Figure 1.2. The discussion
and examples are framed in the Irish context
of the era, but conceptually could be applied in
other contexts where it is useful to differentiate
Social and leisure
Character building;
(Religious formation added later)
Personal and social development;
Figure 1.1 Youth work traditions (adapted from Jeff & Smith, 1988)
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Defining Youth Work
between various youth work purposes (social
change vs. social conformity) and approaches
to personal and social change (changes to how
young people see themselves vs. changes to
what young people do).
In Australia, and other countries with a
federal structure (like the USA and Canada)
a greater variety of institutional arrangements
for youth work coexist. It does not make any
sense to discuss ‘the Australian youth ser-
vice’, because youth work provision is very
different in each state. Australian youth
work is embedded in the welfare sector and
includes youth homelessness support and
youth addiction and mental health services,
as well as employment services, crime pre-
vention initiatives, school-based youth work,
youth centres, youth participation projects,
street work and recreation provision. Bessant,
Sercombe, and Watts (1998, p. 239) defined
youth work as:
the practice of engaging with young people in a
professional relationship in which: the young
person(s) are the primary constituency, and the
mandate given by them has the priority; the young
person(s) are understood as social beings whose
lives are shaped in negotiation with their social
context; the young person is dealt with
This definition emphasises a holistic approach
to working with young people and the impor-
tance of understanding social context.
Another definition developed by the
Australian Youth Affairs Coalition has an
explicit emphasis on young people’s rights.
Youth work is a practice that places young people
and their interests first; Youth work is a relational
practice, where the youth worker operates along-
side the young person in their context; Youth work
is an empowering practice that advocates for and
facilitates a young person’s independence, partici-
pation in society, connectedness and realisation of
their rights. (Australian Youth Affairs Council, 2013)
Neither definition mentions education.
In the Australian context, Cooper and
White (1994) published a model of youth
work that linked various youth work orienta-
tions to practice to particular worldviews, see
Table 1.1. Worldviews included how young
Critical Social Education
(Radical Humanist)
YW as animateur, enabler, consciousness-
raiser, critical social analyst
Programme: explore personal experience
as basis for consciousness raising
Radical Social Change
(Radical structuralist)
YW as radical activist
Programme: Indoctrination of young
people into revolutionary
perspective; rejection of social
institutions as oppressive
Personal Development
YW as Counsellor, supporter, group worker
Programme: Personal responsibility for
choices; leadership; good skills for mixing
Character Building
YW as role model and organiser
Programme: focus energies in
constructive way; healthy lifestyles
Figure 1.2 Sociological model of youth work (adapted from Hurley & Treacy, 1993)
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people are viewed, and how the causes of
their ‘problems’ were explained. Within this
schema there are six different orientations to
practice. These are treatment, reform, advo-
cacy (radical and non-radical) and empower-
ment (radical and non-radical). For example,
in the treatment model, the assumption is
made that the young person is the problem
and it is the young person who needs to
change, whereas in the advocacy models
assumptions are made that the young person’s
problem has arisen because they live within
a complex socio-technical bureaucracy and
no one in their life is sufficiently skilled
to advocate on their behalf to support their
rights. In non-radical advocacy, the youth
worker advocates on behalf of the young per-
son, whereas in radical advocacy, the youth
worker supports the young person to advo-
cate on their own behalf for better protec-
tion of their rights. Like the previous model
by Hurley and Treacy, this model discusses
how youth work can be used for different
purposes (promoting social conformity, vs.
social change; enhancing social equity, youth
participation, self-determination and social
solidarity vs. promoting competitive indi-
vidualism). Discussion and examples were
framed in the Australian context of the era,
but conceptually this model could be applied
in other contexts. A benefit of this model
is that it highlights the contested political
nature of ‘youth work values’ and discourses
about rights, social justice, equality, partici-
pation and social inclusion. The discussion of
political values also clarifies different mean-
ings and priorities accorded to these concepts
within particular political traditions.
In the USA, youth work is an umbrella
term (Baizerman, 1996) applied to work-
ing with young people in a variety of set-
tings, traditionally including after-school
Table 1.1 Political models of youth work
Political traditions Human nature Vision/Goals Values Language
Treatment Conservative,
Fascism, also
some forms of
Negative, people
are naturally
selfish and anti-
Individual fitting
in to society for
greater social
Deviancy, misfit ,
inadequacy, ‘bad’
or ‘mad’ ‘trauma’
Reform Liberal, Social
young people
can overcome
Social mobility
poor social
‘at-risk’, need
Liberal, Social
Neutral Social contract,
Individual rights
Rights as due
under existing
Rights, social
justice, need
Liberal feminism
Positive, people
naturally seek
social justice
Gradual social
change towards
just society. Law
Social justice,
Positive rights
Rights, social
justice, self-
efficacy, need
Classical liberal
Neutral or
negative, people
are naturally
Freedom from
‘take control’
Socialism (some
Positive, people
are naturally
cooperative and
Equality of
social power
raising, Anti-
Positive identity
Source: Adapted from Cooper and White (1994)
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Defining Youth Work
services (Fusco, 2008), residential care youth
services (Brendtro, 2002) as well as street
work (Baizerman, 1996), mentoring (Wells,
Gifford, Bai & Corra, 2015) and activist tra-
ditions (Kirshner, 2007). In the USA, youth
work education is frequently subsumed
into social work, because of a shared wel-
fare orientation. In both the USA and New
Zealand, youth work has been discussed in
the language of Positive Youth Development
(PYD). In the USA, interpretations have
been linked to positive psychology and the
psychology of resilience (Sanders, Munford,
Thimasarn-Anwar, Liebenberg & Ungar,
2015). This direction has been welcomed
by some as providing a positive paradigm to
replace the older deficiency-based concep-
tions of young people (Damon, 2004; Larson,
2000; Silbereisen & Lerner, 2007). However,
Sukarieh and Tannock (2011) contend that
the preoccupation of the PYD movement with
youth ‘at-risk’, demonstrates this approach
is merely a re-packaging of deficit concepts
of deviancy and deficiency. For a critique
of labelling young people as ‘at-risk’, see te
Riele (2006) and te Riele and Gour (2015). In
New Zealand, the Circle of Courage model
is widely referenced and PYD is framed
in terms of ensuring the social conditions
required for human flourishing; encouraging
supportive peer relationships; and providing
individual support (Martin, 2002).
The Circle of Courage (Brendtro, 2002)
intervention model was developed in the
USA and has been influential in parts of the
USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa
and Australia, see Figure 1.3. The Circle of
Courage model outlines a framework for
youth work that focuses on how youth work-
ers can maintain a positive social ecology and
offer personal support to help young people
flourish and overcome trauma. According to
this model, both personal support and social
ecology support a young person’s basic
needs for belonging, generosity, mastery and
independence. The model emphasises the
importance of positive relationships between
young people and adults, and the importance
of a supportive social ecology around young
people, including inter-personal dynamics
between young people. It is informed by sev-
eral traditions including PYD, mainstream
social psychology, and Bronfenbrenner’s
social ecology, combined with an anthropo-
logical approach related to Native American
traditional practices.
The practices and concepts were pioneered
at Starr Commonwealth and applied primar-
ily in controlled residential settings (total
environments), many of which are involun-
tary, such as children’s homes, residential
care, custodial facilities and alternative edu-
cation settings, where youth workers had
extensive contact with young people and had
control over their social environment. The
model has an explicit therapeutic orientation.
The approach has been adapted to less inten-
sive contexts, where it has gained popularity
in some parts of the youth sector in North
America, South Africa (Brendtro & du Toit,
2005), Australia and New Zealand (Bruce
etal., 2009). A contribution of this model is
that it emphasises the importance of social
ecology and discusses how youth workers
can influence the young person’s social ecol-
ogy directly through their work with young
people, and indirectly through their support
for the development of beneficent relation-
ships between young people and other adults
in the young person’s social environment.
European approaches to youth work have
become more available to English-language
audiences through the work of the Council
of Europe (Williamson, 2015), SALTO and
Erasmus projects and histories (Council of
Europe, 2011; Coussee, Verschelden, Van
de Walle, Medlinska & Williamson, 2010;
Taru, Coussee, Williamson & Verschelden,
2014; Verschelden, Coussee, Van de Walle &
Williamson, 2009). These reports document
the variety of approaches adopted in member
states (Huang, 2015; Kovacic, 2015; Petkovic &
Zentner, 2015; Siurla, 2015), most of which
differ considerably in approach from the
traditional British model of youth work.
European approaches to youth work often
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focus on employment, health or crime pre-
vention (Coussee etal., 2010). In scope and
diversity European youth work is not dissimi-
lar to youth work in other parts of the world,
including New Zealand and Australia. In
Europe, social pedagogy in particular artic-
ulates an approach to working with young
people that does not make sharp divisions
between education and welfare. Social peda-
gogy is not a single ‘European’ tradition and
variations are found between countries and
in different contexts (Regional Youth Work
Unit – North East, 2010). Education for
social pedagogy involves four or five years
of study at university and includes both theo-
retical and practical work. Social pedagogy is
not a youth-specific methodology but a way
of working that can be applied with any age
group. It takes a whole-person perspective,
sometimes referred to as ‘head, hands and
heart’. Social pedagogy is applied in contexts
beyond the traditional scope of UK youth
work, including residential settings and
children’s homes (Slovenko & Thompson,
2016). For further theoretical discussion of
the connections between UK youth work
traditions and social pedagogy see Regional
Youth Work Unit – North East (2010) and
Slovenko and Thompson (2016).
Several disciplines contributed to the concep-
tualisation of youth work practice in the
models examined. Each model and the vari-
ous definitions drew preferentially from a
particular mix of disciplinary perspectives.
This is not a criticism, it is the essence of
what good models should do (Sterman,
1991). In the British model the focus was
upon informal education, and theory was
drawn primarily from critical pedagogy. The
Australian model focused upon rights and
• Attachment;
• Community;
• Being loved and loving others
• Autonomy and
taking responsibility for self;
• Owning success and failure
• Empathy and altruism;
• Care for others
• Skills;
• Intellectual, physical
and spiritual competence
Belonging Mastery
Figure 1.3 Circle of courage (adapted from Brendtro etal., 2002)
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Defining Youth Work
social justice, and theory was drawn from
political philosophy. In the Circle of Courage
from the USA the focus was social ecology,
with theory drawn from social psychology. In
the Irish model, the focus was on the inter-
play between structural and personal change
in elements of youth work policy and prac-
tice, and drew upon theory drawn from the
sociology of organisations. Social pedagogy
consciously uses a multidisciplinary perspec-
tive. The models reflected aspects of practice
relevant to particular context, and used lan-
guage drawn from the parent discipline.
These models and definitions share impor-
tant similarities but have differences in sub-
stance, emphasis and language. A synthesis
of these definitions highlights shared char-
acteristics of contemporary youth work,
1 A focus on young people’s lives and their con-
cerns (also ‘starting from where young people
are’; ‘young people as primary constituency’);
2 Attending to the social connection (‘association’,
‘belonging’) and the context of young people’s
lives (‘social ecology’);
3 Positive regard and processes for working
through supportive and friendly relationships;
4 A holistic approach to young people that includes
commitment to
i informal education (also, ‘mastery’, ‘independ-
ence’, ‘generosity’, ‘hand, head and heart’);
ii an ethic of care and concern that young
people should flourish (‘physical, emotional
and spiritual’, ‘generosity’, ‘heart’);
iii facilitation of youth participation, rights and
social justice (‘anti-oppressive’, ‘advocacy’,
‘empowerment’, ‘consciousness-raising’);
5 Acting with integrity (from Smith, 2013).
Smith (1999, 2002) suggested that the con-
text of youth work is education and welfare.
If welfare is understood as care for well-
being or human flourishing (Jeffs & Smith,
2005), this statement is inclusive of all forms
of youth work encompassed in the compound
definition. If welfare is understood narrowly
as the provision of welfare services, this
statement excludes many forms of youth
work such as recreational or activist youth
work. Smith also included the requirement to
act with integrity. This expectation is not
explicit in other definitions, despite discus-
sion of youth work ethics in the literature.
The requirement to act with integrity implies
a higher ethical standard than simply abiding
by a code of ethical conduct, and this is fit-
ting. Definitions of youth work leave open
the definition of ‘youth’. Age ranges for
youth work vary between countries and
between services (usually within the range of
10–25 years old, but sometimes younger, as
for example in Ireland, or older, as in Italy),
so this omission masks another potential
point of difference.
Two other characteristics, voluntary par-
ticipation and a mandate from the young
person, are features of some types of youth
work, but in a transnational context these
characteristics are not universal. Voluntary
participation has been central to UK youth
work (IDYW, 2014), but not in some other
traditions, for example, social pedagogy
(Slovenko & Thompson, 2016). There are
two possible responses to this observation.
The first is to insist that these are essential
characteristics of youth work, and to exclude
prima facie all forms of practice that do not
have these characteristics. The second is to
examine how these characteristics relate to
youth work practice.
Even in traditions that emphasise the
importance of voluntary participation and
the primacy of the young person’s mandate,
contextual factors, legal responsibilities, and
collaboration agreements may limit realisa-
tion of these principles. A voluntary relation-
ship is best epitomised by detached youth
work, where youth workers make contact with
young people in their territory. In this environ-
ment the relationship between youth workers
and young people is genuinely voluntary, and
young people can walk away without conse-
quences. This type of voluntary engagement
is contrasted with contexts where young peo-
ple are mandated under threat of sanction to
engage with youth workers (Davies & Merton,
2009). In some circumstances, however,
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judgement about whether the young person’s
relationship is really voluntary is less clear
cut. In Australia, youth workers are employed
in emergency youth accommodation services.
They uphold values and practices consistent
with youth work, see themselves as youth
workers, and are seen by others as youth
workers. Is a homeless young person who
presents themselves to a service doing so vol-
untarily? Is a young person who is referred to
the service by a social worker or the police
voluntarily interacting with the youth worker?
The young person can technically refuse, but a
lack of alternatives limits their choice.
A second area of contention is whether
taking a mandate from the young person is
a defining feature of youth work. Certainly,
it is a guiding principle in many contexts.
However, other factors limit the capacity of
youth workers to respond only to the mandate
of young people. For example, legislation
often requires youth workers to report sexual
abuse, even when it is against the young per-
son’s wishes. In some circumstances youth
workers’ duty of care for the young person
or for other people, means that they cannot
accept the young person’s mandate of con-
fidentiality, if, for example, a young person
plans to hurt themselves or others, or is too
intoxicated to care for themselves. More
contentiously, information-sharing policies
are often a feature of interagency work with
young people. Where such policies exist, as
is commonplace when youth workers are
employed in schools or with youth justice
teams, this restricts the freedom of youth
workers to be responsive only to the young
person’s mandate about confidentiality. This
issue is highly contentious within youth
work. Some argue that youth workers should
not become involved in any contexts where
their ability to respond to a young person’s
mandate is restricted in any way, even if this
means that youth work becomes an unfunded
activity. Others argue that despite the limita-
tions, it is better for youth workers to engage
in these arrangements and attempt to amelio-
rate them, than to remain outside. A position
that honestly acknowledges the complexities
of some youth work situations might recog-
nise the value of voluntary relationships and
of the primacy of the mandate from a young
person, whilst also acknowledging how fac-
tors in their context limit these values in prac-
tice. This might be captured in the following
Youth workers aim to:
1 Maximize the possibility for voluntary participa-
tion, but are aware of how a lack of alternatives
may limit young people’s real choice;
2 Respond to a mandate from the young person,
but be explicit with young people about any limi-
tations to their mandate imposed by particular
youth work contexts.
This position may be unacceptable to some
youth workers who believe that voluntary
engagement with young people and the pri-
macy of their mandate are absolute and invi-
olable features of youth work. For youth
workers in other contexts, this statement
represents an acknowledgement of the reali-
ties of their situation.
The synthesis of these definitions provides a
means to differentiate youth work from most
other forms of work with young people. For
example, teaching and youth work can be
differentiated through differences in focus
(intellectual development for teaching vs.
holistic development for youth work); and
through differences in the curriculum (a pre-
determined curriculum in teaching vs. infor-
mal education responsive to young people’s
interests in youth work). Similarly, youth
work can be differentiated from youth justice
work through differences in goals (a narrow
focus on prevention of re-offending in youth
justice vs. a broader focus of starting with the
young person’s concerns in youth work). In
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Defining Youth Work
some settings, however, the boundaries
between professions are blurred, as for exam-
ple, when youth workers and youth social
workers work together, have the same goals
and use the same methodologies.
People sometimes ask whether the Hitler
Youth movement was a form of youth work.
As a fascist movement, its assumptions and
practices were holistic (and totalising) and
the Hitler Youth movement shared associa-
tional features with youth work. However,
the requirement to adhere to an ethic of care
means that the Hitler Youth movement and
similar fascist youth organisations would
not qualify as youth work by the synthesis
of definitions I have presented here. This
demonstrates that a definition of youth work,
even with contested elements, can be useful
to exclude harmful forms of practice with
young people.
There are three other points of difference
about the boundaries of youth work that are
not addressed by this compound definition.
The first relates specifically to British youth
work, the second concerns the relationship
between youth work and traditional indig-
enous practices with young people, and the
third concerns the relationship between youth
work and therapeutic practices with young
In the UK there are customarily bounda-
ries between youth work and social work
whereby youth work focuses on informal
education, and social work focuses on wel-
fare work with young people. When key axi-
oms of British youth work theory were laid
down, British youth work was strikingly dis-
similar to youth work in most other countries.
Between the late 1960s and the late 1990s,
British youth work had a stable institutional
form firmly embedded in the post-war wel-
fare state model of service provision, and was
an integral, fully funded component of core
mainstream education provision (Cooper,
2013). This institutional linkage helped shape
British youth work practices and defined
the conventional boundaries between youth
work and other forms of work with young
people, especially social work. This process
resulted in a narrower conceptualisation of
where youth workers might operate, which
allowed social workers to set the norms of
practices for welfare work with young peo-
ple. In other countries, where youth work is
conceptualised to include a greater variety of
roles with young people, youth workers are
better placed to influence practice in welfare
work with young people. This is a sphere of
influence that youth workers in the UK might
beneficially reclaim.
Countries like New Zealand, the USA,
Canada and Australia have indigenous popula-
tions and examples of indigenous youth work.
In some locations, there remain active liv-
ing systems of indigenous social knowledge,
whereby elders and other community mem-
bers work holistically with young people (and
older people) using traditional methods for
cultural transmission and human development.
Some of these methods have been adapted by
indigenous and non- indigenous youth workers
(Brendtro, 2002; Collard & Palmer, 2006), and
the perspectives and practices have influenced
youth work with both indigenous and non-
indigenous young people (Brendtro & du Toit,
2005; Martin, 2002). The composite definition
intends to include indigenous youth work but
not necessarily traditional indigenous prac-
tices in work with young people.
Finally, both the Circle of Courage model
and social pedagogy have an explicit thera-
peutic orientation. In social pedagogy,
therapy is accepted as part of the holistic
approach where it meets a young person’s
needs. In the Circle of Courage, it is used to
help young people overcome the effects of
trauma. Both use a therapeutic environment
in conjunction with approaches that fit easily
with informal education methods. The ques-
tion of whether therapy has a place in youth
work is contentious. Many youth workers
would not consider therapy as part of a youth
work role. However, within youth work there
have always been some who work close to
the boundaries with therapy, including youth
workers who provide formal or informal
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The SAGe hAndbook of YouTh Work PrAcTice
counselling, some forms of developmental
group work with young people, some forms
of consciousness-raising and some interven-
tions where a young person is exploring an
aspect of their identity. This is an issue on
which there is no agreement, and opinion is
shaped by context, and the norms in different
types of youth work practice.
This conclusion is offered tentatively, to begin
discussions, rather than to close them down. I
have suggested that youth work is a pluralistic
occupation. Models of youth work have
developed in various countries, based upon
different bodies of theory, and use different
language to express commitments and to
describe practices. Despite differences of lan-
guage and theorisation, I believe there is ben-
efit in synthesising diverse models and this
uncovers a core of values and practices. In
plain language I have suggested these include:
1 A focus on young people’s lives and their
2 Attending to the social connection and the con-
text of young people’s lives;
3 Positive regard and processes for working
through supportive and friendly relationships;
4 A holistic approach to young people that includes
commitment to:
i informal education;
ii an ethic of care and concern for the flourish-
ing of young people;
iii facilitation of youth participation, rights and
social justice;
5 Acting with integrity.
When youth work is viewed transnationally,
institutional arrangements are diverse and the
roles of youth workers are varied. On some
issues there are strongly held differences of
opinion. For some, voluntary engagement by
young people and the primacy of the young
person’s mandate are fundamental commit-
ments. However, few contexts are completely
free of limitations on the young person’s
mandate, and free choice about voluntary
engagement presumes there are equally
attractive alternative options. Many youth
workers are aware of the complexities of
these issues, and one aspect of working with
integrity is to be sensitive to constraints and
open about consequences for work with
young people. Because of the acknowledged
difference of opinion on this issue, these two
commitments are more contentious and may
not be accepted by all youth workers:
1 Maximise the possibility for voluntary participa-
tion, but be aware of how a lack of alternatives
may limit young people’s real choice;
2 Respond to a mandate from the young person,
but be explicit with young people about any limi-
tations to their mandate imposed by particular
youth work contexts.
The relationship between youth work and
therapeutic work with young people is
another area where models indicate that prac-
tices vary and opinion differs. Therapeutic
approaches are integral to the Circle of
Courage approach (used in the USA, Canada,
South Africa, New Zealand and parts of
Australia) and to social pedagogy (used in
parts of Europe and in parts of the UK).
Counselling, consciousness raising and
developmental group work have at different
times also been part of mainstream youth
work practice in the UK. For some youth
workers therapeutic practice is part of a
holistic approach that supports the young
person’s flourishing. For other youth workers
therapeutic practice is perceived to be incom-
patible with informal education. This is noted
as an area of potential disagreement.
Finally, a few words about things that I
have omitted from this description that some
people might expect to see. In this chapter I
have tried to use plain language and avoid
technical language that might not be under-
stood in everyday life. This eases communi-
cation with non-youth workers and maintains
a degree of neutrality between different
discourses on youth work. There are many
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Defining Youth Work
different methods in youth work, as there
are many different methods in teaching or in
social work. Some methods in youth work are
specific to particular models. For this reason
I have not singled out anti-oppressive practice
in the description of youth work, even though
it is an important method. Similarly, I have
not listed generosity, which in the Circle of
Courage model has a particular meaning, and
is an essential method of this approach. My
hope in writing this chapter is that as people
consider alternative ways of thinking about
youth work, this will spark curiosity rather
than defensiveness, and encourage dialogue
that will enrich practice.
1 In the UK and Irish contexts ‘voluntary organisa-
tions’ refers to what would be termed non-gov-
ernment organisations in most other countries
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... Mirrored by Cullen and Bradford (2018) are the relationships between outcome-based accountability and risk focused youth policy and funding arrangements. The adoption of economic rationalisation as a funding framework has resulted in a shift from recurrent government funding models prior to the 1990s towards competitive tendering funding models from the mid-1990s and beyond (Bessant, 1997;Cooper, 2018). Philanthropic funding and small grants, such as from Lotterywest, provide supplementary funding, particularly for not-for-profit organisations. ...
... Youth work is an empowering practice that advocates for and facilitates a young person's independence, participation in society, connectedness and realisation of their rights. (p. 3) While this definition forms the basis of understanding the youth work profession in Australia, Cooper (2018) expanded on this definition by highlighting the aspects of informal education and acting with the highest degree of integrity as key to a meaningful definition of youth work. Jeffs and Smith (1988 foreshadowed the importance of informal education, explaining how youth workers focus on both the welfare and education of young people rather than welfare only. ...
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... Youth work is a broad term, it doesn't happen in one specific place, or is directed to one specific need, it can present itself in different forms, and it neither is acknowledged by all society. In addition, from country to country, YW varies in practice, purpose, methods, funding, and even in the age range of what is considered a youth, as well as it evolves at different speeds from country to county (Cooper, 2018). ...
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... Cooper [17], Williamson [18], and others have demonstrated the importance of theory in articulating the point of convergence, and making sense of the diversity of youth work practice and contexts. The tale of two Sophias-a story I am yet to recount-served as the beginning of my own questioning: Can the theories and philosophical paradigms that have informed my own understanding and ethos of youth work and youth work praxis respond to the challenges and realities of the present and the future? ...
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This paper begins by recounting a tale of two Sophias: a humanoid robot and an ‘illegal’ baby immigrant. The tale of two Sophias locates my initial ideas for reflecting on how critical posthumanism might contribute to youth work theory and practice. In this paper I position youth work as a philosophical encounter, whilst also questioning the humanist legacy that lies at the heart of youth work theory. Drawing on the work of Rosi Braidotti and other critical posthuman feminists, I consider how youth work might respond to the posthuman predicament marked by the intersecting forces of advanced capitalism and growing inequalities, the fourth industrial revolution, the digital divide, and advances in Artificial Intelligence, climate change, and environmental destruction. I conclude by providing some reflections on how critical posthuman theory may provide a lens through which young people might consider what it means to be human in the technologically mediated Anthropocene, and also as a paradigm for embracing new possibilities and a praxis of hope.
... Dickson, Vigurs, and Newman (2013) define youth work as the support offered to young people by adults. According to Cooper (2018), youth work practice is a form of non-formal education in a voluntary setting focusing on youth development. In addition, it is more concerned with the welfare and the educational well-being of young people who are struggling in the formal education sector. ...
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Young people grapple with rising levels of poverty, crime, unemployment, and climate change. To deal with these challenges, young people need youth workers who will teach them life skills. The present study aimed to explore the life skills that young people learnt in after-school programmes implemented by youth workers and suggest ways that the government could support after-school programmes implemented in youth work practices. A qualitative research approach was adopted to guide the gathering and analysis of the data. Data were collected from a sample of 15 young people between the ages of 14 and 18 who attended after-school programmes in Cape Town and analysed through narrative analysis. The results revealed that after-school programmes implemented by youth workers contribute to the development of life skills of young people, such as exercising self-control. In conclusion, because of after�school programmes, young people learnt skills that helped them to navigate a safer path through life and build resilience. Youth work practices have the potential to help the youth navigate life’s challenges. Therefore, schools need to involve youth workers in implementing life skills development programmes as part of the school governing body to share best practices in developing young people.
... In writing this paper we are not concerned with redefining youth work nor do we offer an alternative typology of practice. Many important examples of such work already exist (Jeffs and Smith 2010;Cooper 2012;Smith 2013;Wylie 2015;Cooper 2018a). Rather, we take a critical look at contemporary practice by deploying an alternative theoretical lens in this domain of professional practice, namely authenticity. ...
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Community-based youth workers are tasked increasingly to balance delivery of key policy priorities, whilst supporting young people to manage issues in their day-to-day lives. Contemporary practice is often marked by an increasing emphasis on delivery and measurement of predetermined outcomes and targeted provision. Practitioner boundaries have become unclear, challenging the nature of their relationships with young people. The interaction between youth workers and young people is characterised by levels of trust, respect, sincerity and above all authenticity. The notion of authenticity has been utilised to study teaching practice in schools and universities. We extend this work to examine the identity, role and purpose of youth work. The discussion draws on data from interviews with practitioners focused on the impact of their response to the issues faced by young people. Importantly, the findings point to authenticity as a new and valuable dimension or analysis and development of youth work practice.
... Ord (2007) states that understanding what is meant by participation is essential to good youth and community work practice. Many definitions of youth work present a process that is relational, collaborative, and-in the context of voluntary participation-negotiated by young people (Cooper, 2018;Davies, 2021;Jeffs & Smith, 2005). These aspects of the youth work process necessitate an engaged understanding of young people's participation and the role of the youth worker. ...
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This article argues that the right of young people to participate in decisions being made about them forms the basis for professional youth work practice. The authors consider the nature of ‘participation’ and its relation to human rights, and introduces the concept of ‘adultism’ and the challenges for youth workers combatting ‘adultist’ beliefs and practices in the work of participation. The paper considers the benefits and limitations of youth participation models, and addresses the relationship between rights‐based participation practice, and critical pedagogy (dialogical) in youth work.
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Youth work is a term related to socio-educational activities, with a multipurpose and differentiated character involving young people, situated at the border between the formal education system and the practices of informal socialization. Over the last years, the development of the social media and the digital making became an integral part of the elements and provisions on youth work throughout Europe, receiving momentum and support through the interventions promoted by European institutions. The efforts made by the European Commission and the Council of Europe to guarantee the quality in digital youth work is the result of a process that, through recommendations and guidelines, tried to support the youth workers, from one side, in understanding and promoting the digital competencies and, on the other hand, to offer a frame of reference in line with the current digital transformations to young people approaching European youth work.Starting from this reference framework, the contribution is articulated following a double temporal level, firstly trying to review the initiatives promoting digital youth work before the pandemic and, secondly, illustrating the current proposals pushing more and more towards an “accelerated and improvised digitization”, with which youth work must necessarily deal.
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Cet article passe en revue quelques modélisations de l'animation socioculturelle (ou de ses analogies), et examine les apports de ces différentes modélisations. L'article prend comme point de départ le modèle de l'animation de Gillet, mais il présente plus en détail le modèle MMCTP,, développé par l'équipe de recherche de recherche de l'IUT de Figeac. Les apports du modèle MMCTP et la façon dont il peut nourrir la recherche et la réflexion des professionnel.le.s du champ sont discutés.
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This article analyzes the development of initiative as an exemplar of one of many learning experiences that should be studied as part of positive youth development. The capacity for initiative is essential for adults in our society and will become more important in the 21st century, yet adolescents have few opportunities to learn it. Their typical experiences during schoolwork and unstructured leisure do not reflect conditions for learning initiative. The context best suited to the development of initiative appears to be that of structured voluntary activities, such as sports, arts, and participation in organizations, in which youths experience the rare combination of intrinsic motivation in combination with deep attention. An incomplete body of outcome research suggests that such activities are associated with positive development, but the developmental processes involved are only beginning to be understood. One promising approach has recorded language use and has found that adolescents participating in effective organizations acquire a new operating language that appears to correspond to the development of initiative.
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This article contends that opposition to professionalization has been led by writers from the United Kingdom and Europe who tacitly assume the (continued) presence of institutions that were a feature of the British context in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that still exist in modified form today. Most of these institutions are absent in the contemporary Australian context, and absent in many other post-welfare societies. The author concludes that in Australia there are significant gaps in institutional support for youth work, and that professionalization of youth work is necessary to address problems this creates. The article further concludes that in the current environment in Australia, on balance, the risks associated with failure to professionalize are greater than the problems associated with professionalization.
Mentoring is portrayed in the literature as benefiting young people, but ineffective or early termination of youth mentoring relationships can be detrimental. Researchers have not adequately explored issues surrounding the breakdown of youth mentoring relationships. Underpinned by a socio-ecological perspective, in this exploratory study we consider the various contexts within which these important relationships exist and identify early warning signs or red flags that a mentoring relationship is struggling. We interviewed mentees, mentors, and coordinators from four Western Australian youth mentoring programs about their experiences of mentoring relationships. Our findings suggest that red flags and repair strategies may be specific to particular programs, and that program coordinators play an important role in supporting relationships. Our research will help youth mentoring programs work toward early intervention strategies or appropriate and respectful termination of a relationship.
Making informed decisions about funding allocations for youth work programs and services is a challenge faced by community funding providers. To inform one such community funding provider in Christchurch, New Zealand, this research explored the question 'What is youth work of value?' and then developed a model of best practice. The paper presents the findings of this research and explores the implications for both youth work practitioners and funding providers.
This paper questions current approaches to youth work practice and evaluation in England and suggests that current practices based on tick-box targets and outcomes compromise the core values of the profession. The targeting of certain groups of young people is an over-simplistic and stigmatising process that does not reflect what is meaningful about youth work. It also marks a step away from informal education, which has traditionally provided the theoretical underpinning to youth work in England. Youth work in England needs to develop a stronger evidence base as a process based on informal education to be given consideration by policy-makers and funders. In the second half of the paper, we introduce social pedagogy—a form of theory and practice developed in wider Europe—and outline its values and approach. We argue that this approach may fit with the values of informal education and that it may contribute to offering an evidence base for a values-centred alternative to the currently dominant articulations of youth work. We hope this paper stimulates further consideration of this approach among youth workers and their educators.
This paper deals with the problem of ambiguity in relation to the term social pedagogy. It portrays a picture with multiple theoretical drivers, including historical, epistemological and professional. The aim is to improve our understanding of the multifaceted nature of social pedagogy—a topical and complex issue. Both distinguishing and common denominators associated with different schools of thought are considered. The analysis shows that building a social pedagogical theory usually deals with the tension between a person's autonomy and modern society's requirements in the process of socialisation, and that social pedagogical theory is often being applied to alleviate social ills through education. Social pedagogy has been conceptualised as a science (a field of research and theory building), as a science-based occupational system of practices (a field of professional practice) and as a system of corresponding professional education (discipline).
Services that utilise positive youth development practices (PYD) are thought to improve the quality of the service experience leading to better outcomes for at-risk youth. This article reports on a study of 605 adolescents (aged 12-17 years) who were concurrent clients of two or more service systems (child welfare, juvenile justice, additional education, mental health). It was hypothesised that services adopting PYD approaches would be related to increases in youth resilience and better wellbeing outcomes. It was also hypothesised that risks, resilience, service experiences and wellbeing outcomes would differ by age, gender and ethnicity. Youth completed a self-report questionnaire administered individually. Path analysis was used to determine the relationship between risk, service use, resilience and a wellbeing outcome measure. MANOVA was then used to determine patterns of risk, service use, resilience and wellbeing among participants based on their demographic characteristics. Services using PYD approaches were significantly related to higher levels of youth resilience. Similarly, increased resilience was related to increased indicators of wellbeing, suggesting the mediating role of resilience between risk factors and wellbeing outcomes. When professionals adopt PYD practices and work with the positive resources around youth (their own resilience processes) interventions can make a significant contribution to wellbeing outcomes for at-risk youth. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.