Stumbling Toward Youth Work Clarity

Print More

It seems at last that real youth work with teens is slowly making its way to the top of the agenda. Most significantly, this is happening at the federal level, with the report of the White House Task Force for Disadvantaged Youth.
Infused into this document ( is the simple notion that disadvantaged youth have a right to grow up healthy and productive, with the help of considerable federal investment. In a world where the outcome is king, this means that scarce resources should be targeted toward these youth, and agencies will have to collaborate more to achieve the impact they expect.

Reading the report reminded me, a youth worker trained in my native Great Britain, of similar government initiatives in the United Kingdom over the past few years. For the first time ever, U.K. youth work now has a very specific funding formula and a clearly articulated requirement for impact.

“Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services,” from the U.K. Department for Education and Skills (2002), outlines how government mission, money and standards will operate. The task force’s “disadvantaged youth” become “disadvantaged, ‘at risk’ and socially excluded young people” in the U.K. framework.

The proposed Disadvantaged Youth Initiative seeks to establish policies, practices and resources to gain similar clarity in the United States. It is instructive to look at recent U.K. activity, such as the excellent “Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work” from the National Youth Agency. This proposes four clear curriculum areas: emotional literacy, creativity and enterprise, health and well-being, and active citizenship. This is pretty similar to the overriding health and productivity outcomes of the Bush administration. Despite the many contextual, cultural and political differences, we have much to learn from the funding and accountability formula used in the United Kingdom.

British allocation of funds is based mainly on the number of 13- to 19-year-olds in a geographic area, weighted for ethnicity. The government is fairly explicit about what these resources are to be spent on. “Youth services” are partnerships among local government and voluntary (nonprofit) and community organizations, delivering program activities for personal and social development. These must be linked to raising achievement and standards in education, training or employment. These youth services can also be aimed at promoting inclusion and participation.

British youth service is now expected to work within 10 key objectives, which are spelled out in 22 youth standards. They contain some bold and detailed targets, identifying such things as percentage of youth population to be reached by services, hours of service to be provided, staffing levels, staff development and inspection requirements. Every youth from 13 to 19 years old is expected to have at least the equivalent of $180 each year spent on his or her youth services.

The government also sets out the broad framework for the youth work curriculum, while allowing local agencies to develop diverse and locally responsive details. However, this is done within a clear set of values, performance measures and outcomes, with an on-site inspection framework that seeks to guarantee high-quality services.

A major difference from the United States is that each local authority, roughly equivalent to our state governments, is expected to develop a “pledge to young people.” This is very European and seems to be the element least comparable with federal youth work initiatives in the United States. Just imagine what the youth work field here would look like if the White House insisted that states make a pledge to provide high-quality youth work to all 13- to 19-year-olds and outlined a funding formula on which they were to deliver.

The field here is still a confusing mix of school-age childcare, enrichment activities, extended learning and youth work. Many providers offer a programmatic mix of all these, but many of the services are youth work “lite.” Good-quality youth work can be really engaging for older teens, but it needs a substantially different framework from what is offered in much of the after-school world.

High-quality youth work should be about young people coming together to have their voices heard and taking action to reach their potential. This is especially vital for disadvantaged youth and for those least likely to get these supports and opportunities from their adult and community environments. These young people do not get this as a birthright; for these youth we should provide it as a social and educational necessity. Trained and qualified workers should concentrate their programs and resources where there is the greatest potential for change and possibility for maximum youth development.

In that respect, against the odds, and with a different motivation, the White House task force may be on to something.

Michael Heathfield is coordinator of training services at the Chicago Area Project. Contact: