Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

Investing in youth sector outcomes: why so little, why so late?

Youth work in actionIn this week’s blog post, Gill Millar from the Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West explores the sector’s tentative foray into the world of measuring impact.

This week, I’ve been working with colleagues from University of Gloucestershire and Youth Focus West Midlands on a conference for youth workers about Understanding Impact – quick plug here: it will be in Cheltenham on 24 February 2015, so keep the date in your diary – and it has involved some heated debates about the evidence base for the impact of youth work.

The youth sector is frequently told that the cause of its current funding crisis is insufficient evidence to show that it makes a positive difference to young people’s lives. We can’t point to a body of evidence that shows that good youth work leads to positive outcomes for young people, and therefore policy makers can’t see why they should invest in it. Other interventions, apparently, have more rigorous evidence to show their impact.

Now, clearly there are a number of issues to consider here: how we attribute positive change to specific interventions; whether the evidence base for established professions is actually any stronger (do good teachers automatically lead to improved achievement?), the ethical and practical issues associated with applying randomised controlled trials to work with vulnerable young people; the challenge of mapping starting points for projects which are open to all young people and which young people choose to engage with, and more. But the one that I’m particularly concerned about today is investment in evaluation.

The ‘good years’

For the first decade of this century, there was an adequate supply of government funding for initiatives in the children and young people’s sector. The Youth Justice Board was established to take an overview of interventions relating to preventing young people offending; Sure Start centres were created to provide support for families in their children’s early years, and there were a range of smaller scale initiatives associated with ‘Transforming Youth Work’ and later strategies.

And while the funding streams for youth justice initiatives all had extensive monitoring and evaluation frameworks, those for the youth work sector (a) focused mainly on inputs and (b) relied almost entirely on the provision of case studies and data about numbers of people participating, rather than on the impact that youth work had on young people’s behaviour, achievement and aspirations.

So from what we now look back on as the ‘good years’, all we learnt was that local authority youth services reached about 25% of the youth population, and young people could be trusted to distribute small grants effectively. Meanwhile, the Youth Justice Board knew not only what difference was made to individuals involved in Youth Inclusion Projects, but also what ‘dosage’ was required in order to achieve positive change.

Only after a painful grilling from the Parliamentary Education Select Committee in 2011 was it recognised by Government – and the sector – that we need to be more articulate about the benefits of youth work.

The legacy of impact frameworks

The Young Foundation’s work on a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, published through the Catalyst partnership was welcome, and clarified the capabilities that youth workers should be seeking to develop in young people – but post-Catalyst there was no energy or funding to embed it in the sector, and it was left to a few enthusiastic individuals and organisations (including the Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West) to carry the torch and ensure it didn’t drift into the mists.

The move from Education to Cabinet Office has been positive in this respect – Cabinet Office are considerably more committed to evidencing the impact of programmes they fund, and have now found a one-off grant for a Centre for Youth Outcomes. The Centre will be directed by Bethia McNeill which is a positive move: Bethia was central in developing the Young Foundation’s Framework and is an astute and thorough researcher. Disappointing though, that it is only funded for six months, when what is required is systematic investment in evaluating the outcomes associated with youth work, before the youth work sector disappears altogether because funders and policy makers say they don’t know what its impact is on young people.

Gill Millar – Learning South West

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