Youth Work

Youth work has been defined in different places as being “educative, empowering, participative, expressive and inclusive” and its distinctive character is seen as the voluntary relationship young people have with youth workers (see e.g. CoE 2017; CWVYS n.d.). Therefore, as this compendium illustrates, while each country has its own legal or policy based definition of youth work, this primary focus upon the young person provides a common thread that distinguishes youth work from other work with young people, such as youth social work, schooling, psychotherapy and counselling, or youth justice, where the focus is upon something else, such as child protection, the achievement of qualifications, the promotion of healthy lifestyles, or the prevention of offending.

European youth work practice

Youth work is a diverse field, with differences within and between countries across Europe. This reflects youth work’s complicated histories (or genealogies), with roots in different fields, including non-formal education and learning, social work and welfare, counselling, and sports and leisure. It also reflects the diversity of socio-economic, political and cultural contexts in which youth work is done and the different choices made by youth work policy makers, practitioners and young people themselves (as, without young people’s engagement, there can be no youth work). Consequently, youth work practice differs greatly across Europe (Williamson and Coussée, 2019; Ord et al., 2018); for example:

  • youth work can be delivered by the public (state), non-governmental (or voluntary) and/or private sector; 
  • it can involve education/learning, support and guidance, advice and information, and/or coaching/training; 
  • it can be done in youth centres, on the streets and/or in digital spaces; 
  • it can work with individuals and/or with groups of young people;  
  • it can be done by paid and/or voluntary workers; and 
  • the levels of political recognition and support range considerably in space and time; furthermore, youth work’s connections with other agencies and policy agendas (such as education and employment) range from weak to strong (Schild et al., 2017; Williamson, 2017; Williamson and Coussée, 2019). 

What unites this disparate field is the focus upon:

  • “meeting young people on their terms and on their turf” – in other words, meeting young people where they are at; and 
  • securing spaces of autonomy and bridges for transition for young people (Williamson and Coussée, 2019). 

European youth worker education and training 

Most European countries provide some education and training for youth workers, ranging from vocational training, as is currently being developed in North Macedonia, to degree level courses, as in Estonia, Ireland and Wales. Where degree level courses are offered, some are specific to youth work, as is the case in Estonia, Ireland and Wales, whilst in other countries, such as Germany and France, degree courses are offered in related fields such as “social pedagogy” and “animation”, offering pathways into youth work (Dunne et al., 2014). This is illustrated by figure 1.

Source Dunne et al., 2014 

Continuing professional learning is also important. Although there is some state support in European countries like Belgium, in most cases this has been developed by youth organisations themselves, and reflects the organisation’s own priorities (such as the groups of young people it works with and issues it addresses) (Dunne et al., 2014).  

Despite its importance, in many countries youth work training is not fully established; for this reason, the influential 2017 Council of Europe (CoE) Recommendation on Youth Work includes:

…establishing a coherent and flexible competency-based framework for the education and training of paid and volunteer youth workers that takes into account existing practice, new trends and arenas, as well as the diversity of youth work. Stakeholders, including youth workers and young people, should be involved in developing this framework

(CoE, 2017, pp. 8-9). 

This is supported by theCouncil of Europe (CoE) quality standards in education, and the training activities of the Youth Work Portfolio (see boxed text) (CoE, 2016). 

The Council of Europe’s Youth Work Portfolio The Council of Europe’s Youth Work Portfolio identifies 26 competences[1] for youth work grouped into two categories: “specific youth work competences – competences that make the youth work field of activity unique”, such as relating to young people as equals; and “more general competences – competences relevant for other fields of activity but that are usually important for youth work”, such as using the results of evaluation to improve practice (CoE, 2016, p.13). Adapted from CoE, n.d.

Other important work in this area includes the European Training Strategy competence model (SALTO n.d) (see boxed text) and frameworks for experiential learning.

The European Training Strategy competence model The European Training Strategy competence model identifies that training programme(s) include a focus upon: 
– facilitating individual and group learning in an enriching environment
– designing programmes
– organising and managing resources
– cooperating successfully in teams 
– communicating meaningfully
– intercultural competence
– networking and advocating 
developing evaluative practices  
Adapted from SALTO n.d.

Learning about, for and through youth work

Youth work education and training can (and should) be:

  • about youth work, such as its evolution over time, its many shapes and sizes and its relationship to other fields of professional practice, such as social work and schooling/education;  
  •  for youth work, such as an understanding of the policy environment, and of youth and adolescence/development; and
  • through youth work, such as learning through practice placements. 
The role of reflection in non-formal education and learning Just “doing” youth work through, for example, practice placements is not enough to learn through youth work; the variety, frequency and efficacy of reflection and supervision is critical. The questions, such as: “How did that moment unfold?” “Who were the actors within it?” “Why do you think it happened?” “What did you do?” “Could you have done something differently?” and “If you had acted differently, might there have been a different outcome?” “When – if at all – did you decided to follow things up?” and “Why” or “Why not?”, become central to effective reflection. 

Youth work education and training therefore includes both elements of formal education and training and non-formal education and learning (see figure 2). 

Formal and non-formal elements of youth work education and training, such as lectures and essays, should be complemented, enriched and extended by more experiential learning, both inside and beyond the classroom, such as debates, presentations, placements, group work, supervision, composed and set by the learner, with the educator taking a facilitative role. 

Education and training: necessary but not sufficient for effective practice

Relevant and appropriate initial and continuing education and training for youth workers is a necessary (if not always sufficient) condition for effective youth work to take place; youth work also, for example, requires political and financial support, and physical or digital spaces within which to practise.

[1] Competence is defined as the “ability to do something successfully or efficiently”, and, as defined by the CoE (2016), includes “three interlinked dimensions”; “knowledge”, “skills” and “values”.