Who Sets the Agenda For Youth Work in Europe: Young People, Youth Workers or European Policy Makers?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Jon Ord, Marc Carletti, Daniele Morciano, Lasse Siurala, Christophe Dansac, Sue Cooper, Ian Fyfe, Kaur Kötsi, Eeva Sinisalo-Juha, Marti Taru and Manfred Zentner. Click here to access the article.

Youth work – informal/nonformal education with young people which occurs outside of formal settings in places and spaces where young people choose to meet – has been given significant prominence in a variety of European policy forums over the last decade or more. It is important however to see how such policy objectives correspond with what young people see as the impact of youth work on their own lives. To answer this question 844 young people from six European countries (Finland, Estonia, France, Italy, England, and Scotland) were asked to share their stories. Although our findings suggest that much of the impact of youth work does in fact mirror the European youth work policy goals, there is however a gap: young people consistently emphasise the importance of friendship and this is largely absent from the policy agenda. It is also evident that despite top-down policy priorities youth workers still need to set their own agenda, in negotiation with the young people they engage with.  

European institutions have in recent years placed an increased priority on youth work to achieve a number of its policy goals, such as the European Union’s Framework for establishing a European Youth Work Agenda. Whilst some of this European youth work policy remains broad,  some policy goals are much more specific, such as the European Commission’s “‘The Contribution of Youth Work to Preventing Marginalisation and Violent Radicalisation“. The researchers were interested to hear from young people themselves to see whether young people’s priorities for youth work were consistent with the European youth work policy agenda.

Young people’s stories were collected across three (3-4month) cycles, from three youth work projects, in each of the six countries. The average number of stories collected per country was 141, with the lowest in Finland (123) and the most in Estonia (164). The stories were coded – a process of trying to establish commonalities and themes. Initially this was done separately within countries, and then the codes were then compared between countries; this produced five overarching themes.

Sense of self

This theme was dominated in all the six countries by the young people’s stories of increased confidence, self-esteem, and increased agency. The stories illustrate how young people feel more positively about themselves, their lives, and their surroundings as a result of their experiences of youth work, for example:

I’m more self-confident. It has had a positive impact on my social life. 

(Female, age 23, France)

Creating places and spaces for young people   

This overarching theme refers to how young people feel about the youth work settings – its atmosphere, and that it is fun – which are important aspects of youth work, for example the: 

Relaxed and positive hustle, everybody was encouraging and happy

(Male, aged 18, Finland)

The theme also refers to the relationships that youth workers build with young people that they:

…Feel accepted here, not out in public or in the school.                

(Male, aged 15, Scotland)

Relating to others  

The dominant aspect of this theme was friendship, the importance of which was evident in many of the stories from all six countries. Many young people echoed the reflection from the 17-year-old boy in Estonia who said:

I have made a lot of new friends and acquaintances.            

Experiential learning

This theme was diverse and wide-ranging. It includes acquiring new skills and abilities, and the discovery of new activities, as well as increased opportunities. Examples include ‘courage’ (female, aged 22 Finland) and ‘communication’ (male, aged 16, Estonia) to ‘science and sustainability’ (female, aged, 20 France).

Social inclusion

This theme relates to young people’s relationship to the social demands and expectations placed upon them. The stories relay how youth work re-connects marginalized young people who experience social exclusion. From increased employment opportunities, such as:

The centre gave me the chance to discover a new world and a possible career. 

(Male, aged 18, Italy)

To fundamental changes in outlook and behaviour, such as:

I would be, like, doing drugs and drinking, being a right good toe rag. But I started volunteering and I had to show the wee ones how to be a good role model. 

(Female, aged 16, Scotland)

These findings are reassuringly consistent with the broad direction of European youth work policy. However, there are some problems:

  1. The importance of friendship

There is a mismatch between the emphasis on friendship and sociability in the stories from young people – where friendship, relating to others and sharing a social life are clearly of vital importance to young people in a youth work context – and its absence in European youth work policy. 

  1. The tension between the autonomy of young people and top-down policy priorities     

Secondly youth work is a person-centred practice – it engages with young people on their terms and the agenda (and resulting priorities) emerges out of this engagement, and in negotiation with the young people themselves. The Council of Europe (2018) acknowledge this in their description of youth work as ‘youth centric’. However, this research reveals a tension within this policy sphere between top-down policy priorities and the ‘youth-centric’ practices of youth work.  This tension is particularly evident if one considers the diversity of the young people both across countries and well as within countries. The context of the of the lives of the young people youth workers are engaging with must be appreciated before any priorities for intervention can be established.

To conclude it is reassuring that the experiences of the 844 young people, who provided stories of the positive impact of youth work, across the six diverse countries, broadly cohere with the European youth work policy goals. However, this study reveals that the lack of emphasis on friendship and the social life of young people is problematic. Youth work can only be successful (and the European youth work policy goals only be achieved) if it is premised upon the importance of friendship in the process of youth work. European youth work policy makers must also be wary of establishing top-down policy priorities and respect the youth-centric principles of youth work.

About the authors

Jon Ord is Associate Professor at the University of St Mark and St John.

Marc Carletti works at IUT Figeac, Toulouse Jean-Jaurès Universitè.

Daniele Morciano is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Bari.

Lasse Siurala is Lecturer in Youth Work at Tallinn University.

Christophe Dansac works at IUT Figeac, Toulouse Jean-Jaurès Universitè.

Sue Cooper is Associate Professor at the University of St Mark and St John.

Ian Fyfe is Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

Kaur Kötsi is Lecturer at the University of Tartu.

Eeva Sinsalo-Juha is Lecturer at HUMAK (University of Applied Sciences).

Marti Taru is Researcher at Tallinn University.

Manfred Zentner is Lecturer at Danbue University, Krems.


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