We Need to Talk About Youth Work - Reimagining the Youth Sector
15 September 2017

In the second in a series of Opinion Pieces looking at the big issues facing the VCSE Sector in Northern Ireland, Paul Smyth looks at youth work and reminagines what the future for this vital work might look like...

The old joke goes, you are stuck somewhere in rural Ireland and stop to ask for directions.  There is a sharp intake of breath and then the answer “…well if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here!”

This is how I feel about youth work - and in particular - the “Youth Service”[1] in Northern Ireland.  35 years on from becoming a full-time volunteer leading the youth programmes of the Peace People, my life has been shaped enormously and enriched by youth work and youth workers - but I also feel the infrastructure around youth work has often stifled, divided and ultimately burnt out a lot of good people.  It is rarely shaped and driven by the interests, needs and fulsome engagement of young people and the thousands of volunteers who choose to work with them. 

It has never been what it might have been, and incredible work with young people has often happened despite the structures, rather than because of them.  To be fair this can be said of much of the public sector here, but my focus in this paper is on youth work and young people.  I believe both have a distinct and important role to play.

This is a personal perspective – and intended as a friendly provocation, an invitation into a different kind of conversation about the purpose and value of youth work here, and the role of youth work in building a shared, prosperous and vibrant society in which everyone can thrive.  Indeed, that conversation whilst essential to those with an investment in youth work, needs to reach further - as I will argue that youth work has a role in the development of our society and the building of a shared future and an engaged citizenry. 

I believe that youth work as a practice (and praxis) is under threat.  It has already been decimated in England (Davies, 2008) - the birthplace of youth work - and around the world the model of informal education and situated learning is being replaced by more prescriptive, didactic and apparently ‘easier to measure’ approaches.  I think it is under threat here too due to the scale of challenges facing our education system and the new Education Authority (EA), as well as the broad culture of managerialism and outcomes based funding[2].   

At best, I think the EA will squeeze much of the creativity out of youth work – wrapping it up in regulation and measurement systems – at worst, I fear that it will be slowly strangled as other pressures within the education budget are prioritised.  

The voluntary youth sector is badly divided into interest groups, and lacks the leadership formerly provided by YouthNet and to some extent, the Youth Council.

Instead of watching the slow death of youth work here, I suggest that we pause to think about the value and purpose of youth work in a society like this. There are tremendous opportunities for Northern Ireland if we properly resource and value our youth work traditions.  We remain what US President Bill Clinton referred to as “A beacon of hope” for a world in trouble[3], and this gives us a wider responsibility to ensure that we do all we can to ensure our young people are given the best possible life chances.

Interestingly, “Priorities for Youth” the current youth work policy of the Department of Education - lacks any definition of youth work[4]. Most significant to me is what the policy leaves out - any recognition of Northern Ireland as a divided and contested society[5], any acknowledgement of (and commitment to) the value of international youth work and any sense of youth work contributing to more than narrow educational goals. 

What is Youth Work? 

Let me start with an attempt to outline what I mean by youth work - as I think there are important differences between ‘work with young people’ and ‘youth work’ – though a hard line of distinction is difficult to draw. 

I also believe youth work has an important additional role in a divided and contested society struggling to deal with a violent past, and to move beyond ethnic politics.

Davies (2008) suggests that there are several key components to youth work - as an informal education practice.  It is based on a relationship with young people that seeks to be respectful, does not patronise them and does not see them as ‘not yet quite complete’. 

Their participation in youth work is voluntary. It is based on experiential learning led by young people’s interests, curiosities and concerns and in a group of peers supported appropriately by a skilled adult.  He argues that youth work was “…designed and intended to bring about social change [and] …designed as a form of citizenship education” (Opus cit, p 5).  Smith and Jeffs (2010) argue that it comes from the tradition of ‘Informal Education’, and is built around the notion of the free association of young people with supportive adults as described by Davies above.

Youth Work for several decades was generally accepted to be built on: the voluntary and fulsome participation of young people; based on relationships of mutual respect; on a recognition of the importance of young people’s friendship groups; and on the assumption that young people have an important contribution to make to the lives of their neighbourhoods, society and to the wider world.  For me it is also about the key transitions in young people’s lives - whether from primary to secondary education, from education to work or further education, unemployment or beyond the dreadfully termed ‘NEET’[6] status.

Here we have an additional impetus for youth work - the need to build a shared, diverse, post-conflict society in which young people can live as fully engaged citizens.  McKinley (2016) outlines how youth workers in the ‘80s and ‘90s responded to the conflict by supporting young people and helping to divert them from potential harm[7].

The removal of funding for community relations youth work by two successive Sinn Féin Education Ministers was a severe blow to a field that had been working to build the peace long before our political leaders moved towards agreement.  It serves as a reminder of the threat that our political system can pose, and the need to protect youth work from the whims of Ministers. 

McKinley reminds us that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where youth work has a statutory underpinning.  However, that too is currently under threat[8].

Given that the language of community relations can seem dated, and seems politically unpopular with the two main parties, the language of active citizenship might provide a better framework for the next phase of youth work here - or as Baizerman and his colleagues have called it - “Civic Youth Work[9]” (VeLure Roholt, Baizerman and Hildreth, 2013). 

Civic Youth Workers, they tell us, “…want young people to experience democratic citizenship and not simply learn about it.”  “It is the civic youth worker’s ethos, craft orientation, skills, and everyday practices that transform work with youth and youth work into civic youth work.”

The key task for youth work going forward is to support young people to play a fuller role in the civic life of their neighbourhoods and our wider society and to help ensure that they are seen in terms of their capacity and contribution and not in terms of perceived deficits or moral panics. 

Of course, one of the first questions in a discussion of citizenship here is ‘citizen of what?’ as the concept is often reduced to issues of nationality or the act of voting. 

Youth workers should see citizenship as a way of being and doing life – not as a narrow legalistic term, and we should see all young people as citizens now – not citizens in preparation (Osler and Starkey, 2005). 

The Development of Youth Work in Northern Ireland. 

Youth work has a long history here - shaped in large part by the development of youth work throughout the UK and Ireland since at least the mid 19thth Century (McCready and Loudon, 2016; McKinley, 2016) and arguably the late 18th Century (Davies 2008).  While much youth work practice was (and still is) carried out under the auspices of both uniformed and church based organisations (like the YMCA, the Scouts and the Girl Guides), youth work also developed as a form of community based informal education (Smith, 1994, Smith; 2001) and the UK is one of the few societies where people are formally trained, credentialed and recognised as ‘youth workers’[10].

The ‘Youth Service’ - an infrastructure to help fund, develop and support youth work organisations and activities - emerged after the 1939 ‘Service of Youth Circular 1486’ from the UK Government (McCready and Loudon, 2016). 

If you excuse the pun - youth work here has always been a ‘broad church’ (early youth work structures were mostly driven by strong Christian interests in the development of youth).  While most practice was around the reproduction of social (and religious) norms and values, it coexisted alongside more radical practice that sought to change and transform society and the role of young people within it.  Indeed, these things represent a spectrum, rather than two-sides of the same coin.

Davies (2008) skilfully describes how ‘New Labour’ approached youth work in the 1990s with a ‘modernising’ zeal and fixation with ‘measurable outcomes’, ‘quality standards’ and a focus on what were labelled ‘at risk’ young people.  “…Targets were experienced as valuing - indeed in practice often allowing - only what could be ‘measured’ statistically, resulting in youth work’s historic core features being treated as irrelevant, even as obstacles to achieving the desired policy outcomes.” (P 22- 23). By 2009 he argues, “...the one state-funded albeit deeply flawed institutional structure which had had an explicit remit for developing (and often more importantly defending) youth work - the local authority Youth Service created in 1939 - was in effect dissolved.” 

Initiatives such as Connexions and currently ‘National Citizen Service’ diminished the role of the youth worker, replacing them with technical roles and layers of management.  At the policy level the term youth work was eliminated and replaced with the generic notion of ‘youth services’.

With a more international overview, Sercombe (2012) says: “There has been an increasing sophistication in government techniques of control over the [youth work] sector over the last 20 years, generally referred to as managerialism. …Agencies are now effectively agents of government, still with some scope for autonomous action, but with increasingly prescribed limits.” 

I believe we are currently sliding down the same slope - with the effective ending of any notion of universal access to youth work for any young person who wants to be involved; an increasing focus on addressing narrowly defined ‘social need’ and a narrowing of the age-bands that youth workers are required to engage. 

There has also been a destruction of the infrastructure of youth work, with the closure of YouthNet, the reduction of the Youth Council to an advisory committee with no staff, resources or (arguably) clout.  The loss of organisations such as Public Achievement, Challenge for Youth and Northern Ireland Children’s Enterprise, has decreased the range of youth work provision, while other organisations struggle to secure funding for their core work. 

Arguably we are now seeing what has been described as “An over-reach of negative, regulatory and compensatory ‘youth policy’ and an under-reach of purposeful and positive ‘youth policy’” (Howard Williamson - cited by Lasse Siurala – 2016).

EA have essentially inherited the role of the former Education and Library Boards for the management of local youth work, and have also subsumed many of the roles of the Youth Council.

I don’t believe that this is good for the future of youth work here – and propose that a dedicated agency is established to support, nourish and develop youth work practice. 

Youth Work and the Peace Process 

My introduction to youth work was through the Peace People in 1976 as a 14-year-old boy from the Woodvale Road who had never met a Catholic. It was an experience that was to shape my life in ways I could never have imagined, and it developed in me a real passion for youth work as a vehicle to encourage critical thinking, reconciliation and social action. 

A couple of months after my 15thth birthday I went off to Norway for two weeks with 30 or so other teenagers (I was one of the youngest) for a “Peace Camp” in Kristiansand.  Though the name might imply otherwise, we were fully engaged throughout in critical – often heated - debate about the key issues surrounding “The Troubles” at home. 

It was a fantastic grounding, and I started leading these camps myself by the age of 19.  For a weekend in the middle of the camps, we would stay with Norwegian families and get a sense of their very different culture, customs and way of life - but for the rest of the time, we were living and debating together[11]

For many in those days youth work was a vehicle for holding our society back from the brink – to literally ‘getting young people off the streets’, away from riots and other situations that put them at risk, and out of the hands of paramilitary organisations.  The (Direct Rule) Government response was to invest in youth services in the mid 1970’s and ‘80s[12] and to fund cross-community initiatives involving young people. 

In 1996, I moved to the School of Education at the University of Ulster to work with the ‘Speak Your Piece’ project – a collaboration between Channel 4 Schools, the Curriculum Council (CCEA), the University and the Youth Council, which was funded by the EU Peace Programme.  We worked with teachers and youth workers and helped train them in the handling of controversial issues related to the Northern Ireland conflict. 

Just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I moved to the Youth Council and designed and led the JEDI (Joined in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence) project – funded by the International Fund for Ireland - with support and encouragement from the then Education Minister, Martin McGuinness.  

The strategy of investing in improving community relations between young people continued through the European Peace Programme and government initiatives – including new initiatives such as the former Executive’s ‘Together: Building a United Community” policy.  However, these funds are often stop-start in operation, and there is little evidence that lessons learnt from practice in the ‘80s and ‘90s has been carried through to more recent practice[13].

In addition to its’ recognised features, the circumstances of Northern Ireland have produced forms of youth work which have developed in response to the challenges of this divided and contested society.  Even before there was funding to do so, (some) youth workers worked counter-culturally to challenge the divisions within our society and to help prevent the violent radicalisation of young people here - often at great personal risk.

Derick Wilson (2016) suggests that the key role of youth work here is to stick to the “…task of building a more open and shared society.”

Imagining a New, Enhanced Youth Service 

We could easily lead the world in the development of youth work practice – particularly in the context of youth work and conflict.  It could also play an enormous role in moving our society forward.  To do so, requires greater vision, and structures that enable and support rather than constrict and limit.   It needs a societal view rather than a narrow educational one. 

While youth work is – and should remain – an educational pedagogy – it has a contribution to make across multiple civic domains (health, community development, rural development, employment, economy, justice, etc.).  To do so, we must lift the profile of youth work with other professionals.[14] 

We need to imagine forms of youth work and a ‘Youth Service’ built around the needs of the young people who live here, and which help ensure they can participate fully in the civic, political and cultural life of our society. 

This is tricky in a society that remains structurally divided along tribal lines - and particularly in the kind of political morass we find ourselves at the time of writing.  As I have written elsewhere, young people still feel the brunt of sectarian divisions in this society – including the brutality of paramilitary organisations[15].

However, we could imagine youth work and a youth service for the society we want to be.  The society envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement: A shared society.

It would be better if youth work was framed in a wider (Executive level) youth policy[16] - that seeks to address the needs and aspirations of young people and ensure that as a society, that we fully young people and help them realise their potential as engaged and productive citizens. 

Such a policy should be positively framed – it should present a vision for creating a society in which all young people can thrive and reach their potential.  It also needs to acknowledge clearly that Northern Ireland remains a divided society, and young people often feel the impact of those divisions more acutely than do their parents. 

Their lives often start in segregated neighbourhoods and continue in a segregated and inequitable education system. It should proactively address the levels of unemployment and economic inactivity among our young people; the significant issues around mental health many face; and the pressures in many areas from paramilitary groups and crime gangs on one hand and the (often related) impact of drugs on the other. 

Reimagining the Youth Service


The strategies that should flow from such a policy (which should include a youth work strategy, a clear statement of youth work values and a code of ethics for youth work (Sercombe, 2010)) should be shaped with and for young people, and should contain ambitious targets for reducing youth unemployment and incarceration, improving the mental and physical health of young people, and ensuring that young people are actively involved in all key decisions that impact on their lives.


I suggest that the youth service should be led by an arms-length ‘Youth Work Agency (YWA) ’ – reporting to The Executive Office (though with an independent board) – and established through legislation at the Northern Ireland Assembly. 

It should draw resources from 3 main areas: government departments (including health, justice, communities, rural development and potentially other areas); philanthropic sources (acting as a broker) and income generation (particularly through international work in collaboration with the team at UU).  It should act as a funder for both regional youth organisations and local youth work hubs – possibly coterminous with Council areas. 

It should articulate a vision for youth work, and should outline values that should guide the work. The hubs would then support local provision across Northern Ireland.  The overall model should value the skilled practitioner over the bureaucratic manager – and the hubs should contain people with real evidenced experience of the local circumstances of young people and their lives.

As part of my journey into writing this I spoke with several youth workers and people concerned with the future of youth work here, and one of the most divisive issues I raised was whether the Youth Service should move to Councils. 

I found that people were very divided on this issue – with most vehemently opposed to this idea. In the main, this was because they were worried that there would be little understanding of Youth Work within Council structures, and that the budget could be very vulnerable as local government comes under increasing economic pressure[17]

Rather than propose a move into Councils, I suggest that a coterminous infrastructure is created that works closely with Councils and other local agencies to ensure the best possible outcomes for young citizens.

Throughout my career I have sat at dozens of meetings (over dozens of years!) at which people talked about the need for better participation of young people in the running of youth services. 

Young people were rarely in the room when these discussions were taking place – and often what structures there were, were filled by ambitious young people who were interested in building their CVs – but not necessarily representative of the broader youth population[18]

There was rarely any kind of meaningful mechanism for these young people to feed back to their peers.  I think if we are going to take this concept seriously (and the Department of Education has stressed article 12[19] in the ‘Priorities for Youth’ document), then we should do so at the design phase.

Any youth work agency should be mandated to provide a secretariat and resources for a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly (also established through legislation) – which should be a peer-elected and representative group of young people.  

The Youth Assembly would have local iterations at Council level[20]– and would provide a participation infrastructure for young people across Northern Ireland.  They would help shape and monitor the youth strategy, and engage actively with political institutions. 

Young people should also form half the board for the YWA and for local youth committees that monitor the work of the hubs.  This infrastructure would provide a valuable training ground for young people to participate across wider areas of public life.  Doing so would also allow the YWA to develop participation expertise which could be shared (as an income generator) with other government agencies here and abroad. 

Northern Ireland should aim to lead the world on participation practice. 

The other key relationship for a YWA would be with the Ulster University team that trains professional youth workers.  This should be a vital relationship – built around practice development and research.  There should be annual youth work conferences[21] and thematic seminars throughout the year to bring practitioners together and to help develop the field.  The YWA should have its own research and evaluation team – but should also work actively with other researchers – including commissioning primary research – to help ensure that the field remains well informed and evidence based.  One idea would be to sponsor a doctoral programme to help build a body of research and expertise.

There is considerable interest in youth work in Northern Ireland around the world[22] – and particularly the ways in which we have used youth work to help young people to cope with conflict and find alternatives to violence and avoidance as responses to conflict.  We have an opportunity to build on this reputation – both in terms of highlighting and developing local practice, but also through training others elsewhere who are struggling with the same issues, but who may not have youth work traditions.


I hope this paper delivers more light than heat.  It has been difficult to write, and more difficult to stop writing!  It is one set of ideas about the way forward, and it will not be difficult to start picking holes in these ideas.  However, many of us who have had the privilege of working with young people through youth work, know the transformative and life-changing impact it can have.  I know many highly competent and accomplished adults whose lives were transformed as a young person through an interaction with a youth worker and the experience of meeting ‘the other’.  Here there are many people enjoying full lives, who may not have been alive had it not been for their youth work experiences. 

The key challenges ahead are: 

  • How do we protect and develop this legacy? 
  • How, at a time of shrinking resources, do we argue for a greater investment in youth work? 
  • How do we demonstrate and evidence the transformative impact of youth work to local and international audiences?
  • How does youth work contribute to the securing and further development of our hard-won peace? 

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  Let the discussion begin! 


Davies, B., (2008). Defined by History: Youth Work in the UK, Paper for the workshop “The History of Youth Work in Europe and its Relevance for Today’s Youth Work Policy”, Blankenberge, BelgiumCouncil of Europe 

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M.K., (2010), “Youth Work Practice”, Practical Social Work Series, Palgrave Macmillan, London 

Magnusson, D and Baizerman, M. (Editors, 2007), “Work with Youth in Divided and Contested Societies”, Sense, The Netherlands 

McCready, S. and Loudon, R., (2016), Investing in Lives, the History of the Youth Service in Northern Ireland (1844 - 1973), YCNI, Belfast. 

“Priorities for Youth” (2016), Department of Education, Bangor. 

Scott-McKinley A., 2016 “Youth Work Curriculum in Northern Ireland: a History” in The History of Youth Work in Europe, Volume 5 Autonomy Through Dependency: Histories of Co-operation, Conflict and Innovation in Youth Work, Siurala, L, Cousséem F. Suurpää, L. & Williamson, H.  Council of Europe, May 2016 

Siurala, L., (2016) in The History of Youth Work in Europe, Volume 5 Autonomy Through Dependency: Histories of Co-operation, Conflict and Innovation in Youth Work, Siurala, L, Cousséem F. Suurpää, L. & Williamson, H.  Council of Europe, May 2016 

Smith, M.K.; (1994), “Local Education:  Community, Conversation, Praxis, Open University Press, Buckingham. 

Smith, M.K. (2001), “The Demise of the Youth Service?”, in Developing Youth Work 

Sercombe, H. (2010), Youth Work Ethics, Sage Publishers, London. 

VeLure Roholt, R.; Baizerman, M.; and Hildreth, R.W.; (2013) “Civic Youth Work - Co-creating Democratic Youth Spaces”, Lyceum, Chicago 

Wilson, D., (2016a), “Young People - Future Citizens of a Shared Society and an Interdependent World?”, The Understanding Conflict Trust, Belfast 


[1] By this I mean both the statutory youth service (EANI) and the parts of the voluntary sector engaged in youth work with funding from the Department of Education (via EANI).  There are many pieces of youth work that are not part of this ‘Youth Service’ – funded for example through other government Departments.

[2] It is too long a debate to get into here, but whilst supportive of the idea that youth work should demonstrate its impact and outcomes, I am worried about some of the technocratic approaches to this currently being rolled out across the public sector here.

[3] Arguably the world is in a whole lot more trouble than when he said this in 1998

[4] It does suggest “Effective youth work helps young people to identify their personal and social development needs and involves them in shaping the services designed to meet those needs…”(p 1)  However the practice (or praxis) itself is not described.

[5] The policy does refer to “…those adversely affected by the legacy of the conflict.”, but it is a fleeting reference and the policy is not framed in the context of a society in which most young people are still impacted by sectarian divisions, and some by the ongoing activities of violent and armed groups.

[6] See a broader explanation of my objections to this term on my blog here:

[7] My experience is that youth workers were doing this much earlier – both those working in the statutory sector, and those who worked through organisations such as the Peace People, Corrymeela and a host of other organisations.

[8] The effective neutering of the YCNI (removal of its staff and budgets) makes the ongoing existence of the committee questionable – but getting rid of it requires the Order in Council that created it to be removed.

[9] Interestingly the term ‘Civic Youth Work’ has recently been adopted by the Erasmus Plus programme in the UK (thought the joint ‘National Agency’ of the British Council and Ecorys), outlined in the excellent resource by Debs Erwin (2017)

[10] The ‘English Model’ has spread to much of the English speaking world including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, in most of the rest of Europe youth work is a strand of social work or social pedagogy.

[11] I’ve long argued that well organised residential experiences - particularly abroad - can be intensely formative experiences in young lives.  In a few days progress can be made which would take significantly longer to make in the neighbourhoods in which young people live their lives. 

[12] Eventually including the legislative basis for ‘modern’ youth work – the Education and Libraries Order (1986) and the Youth Service Order (1989) – the latter of which established the Youth Council for Northern Ireland.

[13] For example some of the TBUC programmes – such as summer camps – are crudely constructed based on a primitive ‘contact hypothesis’ – with little or no preparation or adequate follow up for the young people involved.  I also despair at the ongoing acceptance of the notion of ‘single identity’ work.  In a place where we define ourselves as much by what we are not as by what we feel we are, we can only understand ourselves in dialogue with ‘the other’.

[14] There is a wide-ranging debate on whether youth work is in fact a ‘profession’.  I don’t intend to get into it here.  I think it is useful to think of it as a craft – though my point here, is that youth workers should be around the table with other professionals who impact on the lives of young people, and their contribution should be held in esteem by other fields (social work, justice, health etc).

[15] See this blog post about a young man shot in the knees and ankles by local paramilitaries

[16] I know there is a ‘Children and Young People’s Strategy’ – but much of it is focused on the needs of children – and in my opinion it lacks vision and ambition as well as resources for implementation.  A youth policy should start with a vision of how we, as a society, should value and engage our young people. 

[17] A smaller number felt that youth work should move to Councils, and be an integral part of the ‘Community Planning’ process and local services – as Council’s often (they felt) have a clearer understanding of the issues ‘on the ground’.

[18] This is not unique to the challenges of participation in Northern Ireland.  I have seen ‘professional’ young people participate in other structures including UNESCO and the European Youth Forum who were clearly more interested in building their own prestige than representing their peers.  Ambition is fine, but more thought must go into how these kinds of structures are run and how the members are held to account by other young people.  The Scottish Youth Parliament is one of the better models I have seen – though again, not without its challenges.

[19] Article 12 in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

[20] Though it would be best if these structures also were autonomous from Councils

[21] Eventually these should be conferences with international standing, bringing in world class speakers and examples of practice from elsewhere

[22] A project called ‘Youth Work in Contested Spaces” rand over several years involving the Youth Council, the Ulster University Team and Public Achievement, with international partners from post-conflict societies around the world.


Leave A Comment

*All Comments are moderated before being added to the site.
Comments should be no more than 1000 characters

1 comment

1. Tony Taylor

"Thanks for this, Paul. Your desire to reimagine is shared by the motley crew at In Defence Of Youth Work, who are embarking on, hopefully, a series of 'is the tide turning?' seminars, predominantly in England. It would be good to be in dialogue."