Curriculum and outcomes in Youth Work: Between Scylla and Charybdis


The use of curriculum has been a thorny subject in youth work now for, at the very least, the last decade. Before interrogating its role in youth work, however, it is first necessary to unpack how we define youth work. Or what do we think are its key characteristics? I think it’s important to highlight what are said to be the historical underpinnings of youth work as these are important to keep in mind when considering the role (and place) of curriculum in youth work. Here I’ve collected some of the key facets of youth work from different authors in our field:

  • Being rooted in conversation
  • Voluntary Participation
  • Promoting Association
  • Extending Participation
  • Working with young people and not acting upon them
  • Giving the young person a degree of choice in the work
  • Focusing on the process of the work and not the outcome

These are, of course, all open to debate and there might be others that you feel are missing (feedback welcome in the comments section!).

It is perhaps also important, I think, to outline the backdrop to the introduction of curriculum in youth work. It hasn’t just appeared out of thin air but is a response to the gradual encroachment of New Public Managerialsim (NPM) on to our work. NPM is the name given to the changes which were first introduced under the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s and then – arguably – accelerated under New Labour which has sought to refashion the state, introducing market mechanisms to control (or slash!) public spending. This has seen the introduction of target-setting and league tables into the sphere of education. Terms such as outcomes, performance indicators, key stakeholders, accountability and efficiency are now commonplace in youth work where they will not have been perhaps 10-15 years ago. Certainly not as prevalent as they are today.

The neo-liberal ideology which has swept our public sector over the last twenty years (at least) has sought ‘best value’ or ‘efficiency’ and youth work has not been immune to this importation from the private sector. This is important as the fixation on measurable outcomes has prompted the increasing use of curricula in youth work as it is seen as a way of easily ‘measuring’ the effectiveness of youth work. This is a central component of the argument for the use of curricula in youth work and one that forms the basis of Brian Merton and Tom Wylie’s argument for its use in youth work.

Brian Merton and Tom Wylie in conjunction with the department for education in England and Wales, drew up a plan (2002) recommending the type of work they wanted to see. This was particularly focused on the need to introduce curriculum into youth work as a means of offering clarity, purpose and transparency to ‘key stakeholders’ about the role and benefits of youth work.

The key arguments they advanced for the use of curriculum are that it helps us to link up what we want the learners to learn with the best means of doing so. By formulating what it is exactly we want to achieve with young people, by identifying the destination, then we’ll be able to plan the journey. This links to the second point – it helps give direction to our work, it gives us a focus. Far from scuppering the spontaneous nature of much youth work, all we’re doing is providing an outer shell for it:

…a curriculum does not preclude spontaneity, rather it helps the spontaneous, intuitive action to find its place within an overall direction.

Within the shell we’ll still be able to hang on to the essence of our work, conversation and impromptu discussion and dialogue. It helps to give our work structure – no more woolly standing round the pool table. Yes this can still take place but we’re giving ourselves a structure and a focus within which to operate. And perhaps the most important point of all – it gives us the means of explaining to people what it is we actually do – a point that we might sometimes struggle to explicate. We’re living in a time of reduced public spending. Let’s get real and accept that it is of critical importance that we justify our work!

The debate really gets started in the 2004 journal of Youth & Policy. Over issues 84, 85 and 86 you’ll find these arguments and many protagonists have their say. Ord begins by challenging Merton and Wylie by arguing that the focus on curriculum outcomes runs contrary to the process of youth work. What is the process of youth work, if indeed there is such a thing? There is obviously some considerable dispute about this notion but Ord defines it, loosely as:

…the youth work process is integrally linked to the formation of the relationship between the youth worker and young person(s). The relationship is characterised by equity and trust, and generally, though perhaps not exclusively, based on voluntary participation, as well as mutuality. Through this relationship young people are safe, and free to explore and address issues of their personal and social development. The process involves learning about your ‘self’ in relation to others, and through experience.

Curriculum, in the sense that Merton & Wylie describe it, Ord argues, is incompatible with the fundamental underpinnings of youth work, i.e. that when we are working with a young person, because we start with where the young person is, we can have no real notion of where the session will take us. By working to prescribed outcomes we are essentially undermining this commitment, this fundamental principle of what we do.

For anyone familiar with the work of Tony Jeffs, they’ll be less than surprised that he takes a dimmer view of curriculum than does John Ord and is far more uncompromising in his argument. The most important point, I think, that Jeffs raises for us as youth workers, is that he argues that in adopting or accepting curriculum we are breaking the long tradition of what has defined youth work as outlined above. Curriculum breaks with this tradition as it can be argued that rather than working with young people, you’re acting upon them by engaging in education which is imported from outside the worker-participant relationship. The degree of freedom the young person has will also be limited and rather than the process being central, it is the outcome which becomes the focus of the work. Jeffs also makes the crucial point, and one that is important to remember, that curriculums are not neutral – curriculums are selective and defines some groups’ knowledge as more legitimate than others. It’s important to keep in mind what is missing from curricula? Whose voices are not being heard?

Sue Robertson joins in the fun and, in the main, concurs with Tony Jeffs by arguing that curriculum should have nothing to do with youth work. She makes the point that the notion of outcomes was (and is) ever encroaching more on our work with young people, as we’re continuously pressured to plan sessions, accredit the young people we work with and link sessions to pre-prescribed outcomes. The more we do this, the less focus we give to the relationship building which is supposed to underpin our work. She also raises the crucial question of who is it we as youth workers are answerable to? Is it politicians? Is it other professionals from other professions? Is it parents? Is it the employment sector? Or is the young people? I think this is an important question to keep in mind – after all, who is it curriculum is serving? In whose interests do we accredit young people? Who is pushing this agenda and who does it benefit the most?

I think it is an important point to highlight that Ord, unlike Robertson and Jeffs, does not reject curriculum in youth work. Indeed, he advocates for it. What he does reject is the outcome-focused (or product) curriculum that Merton and Wylie are recommending. Ord argues that you can have loosely defined aims but time must be given within which to develop relationships and pay attention to the youth work process otherwise you end up losing what defines youth work and makes it so attractive in the first place. What he is driving at here, I think, is that youth workers are being set up to fail. The paradox for youth workers is that it is for our ability to develop positive relationships with young people that our role is valued by policy makers and politicians. However, the focus on outcomes diminishes a workers ability to ‘start where the young people are at’ and develop these relationships. As such, youth workers are somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis.

Naomi Stanton disagree with this. She makes the argument, and I think this is an important one, that the pressure on us as youth workers to accede to the requirements for curriculum, evidence and outcomes see us increasingly beholden to the demands of funders. In my own experience what happens here in Scotland is that rather than an outright curriculum, the demanded outcomes are written into the contract before your service has even bid for the pot of money. Funders impose conditionalities on the money and it is then up to the service to provide evidence that they have met the criteria or else they risk being side-lined in future for contracts. This payment by outcomes method leaves little room for educators to start where young people are at. For other youth workers in other areas there is perhaps more freedom to be guided by the principles of youth work. But arguably our ability to find room to stick to the ‘first principles’ advocated by Jeffs, Robertson and Stanton is getting tighter and tighter. Stanton makes the important point (contra Ord) that even allowing a little bit of curriculum into our work will undermine the philosophy underpinning our role and lead to an ever increasing encroachment by the forces of the market.

Surely if we submit to even small compromises of our flexibility in a culture that prizes the scientifically quantifiable, more such demands will simply be imposed upon us…it now remains to be seen whether in our attempts to keep the funding, we will also keep the young people.

As she says, we might get the funding but will we get the young people? And from my own point of view, if we get the young people is what we are doing actually youth work? Or something else altogether? Youth development perhaps? But not youth work.

Given that the arguments have been primarily against him, I’m going to give the last word to Tom Wylie. He makes what I think is an important point and one still relevant to the current context:

Youth work needs to make a convincing case for proper investment and show, in figures not just in stories, how individuals, communities and society benefit. It is not unreasonable, surely, for youth workers to be able to say: ‘with this level of resource we will be able to reach this number of young people, we will be able to help more of them to decide things for themselves, take responsibility for this or that activity (‘recorded outcomes’); and for a number of them to make progress in acquiring new skills which are robust enough to be accredited by an external body, if they choose’? Properly aggregated, and backed by good research on beneficial impact, such an approach would show convincingly how youth work contributes to individual well-being and social capital.

He adds in a separate paper that anyone who thinks in these straitened times that youth work will continue to be funded without evidence is not operating in the same country as I am. Does Wylie not have a point here? Aren’t we just kidding ourselves on? Yes we have a past which has defined our role but shouldn’t we move with the times and get real? Or is this entire debate moot? Has the ship already sailed on the kind of work that Jeffs and the rest are defending? Are we already beyond this debate? The danger as I see it is that we face extinction with adherence to our original principles, unable to justify our work in a hostile environment which prioritises above all, measurable outcomes which cannot possibly capture the essence of what we do. On the other hand, we face extinction if we abandon the very principles that have come to define our roles and we become just a different form of teacher-cum-social worker. It’s hardly the Strait of Messina but it’s a dilemma that has dogged us for some time now. How we confront it could determine the future of the profession.

(Image at the top taken from


  • Batsleer, J. & Davies, B. (2010). What is Youth Work?, Exeter: Learning Matters
  • Clarke, J., Gewirtz, S. & McLaughlin, E. (2000). ‘Reinventing the Welfare State’, In J. Clarke, S. Gewirtz & E. McLaughlin (eds.) New Managerialism, New Welfare?, London: SAGE, pp. 1-26
  • Jeffs, T. & Smith, M.K. (1996). Informal Education – Conversation, Democracy and Learning. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press
  • Jeffs, T. (2004). ‘Curriculum Debate: a letter to John Ord’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 84, pp. 55-62
  • Merton, B. & Wylie, T. (2004). ‘The Youth Work Curriculum: a response to John Ord’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 84, pp. 63-68
  • Ord, J. (2004). ‘The Youth Work Curriculum and the ‘Transforming Youth Work Agenda’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 83, pp. 43-59
  • Ord, J. (2004). ‘Curriculum Debate: The Youth Work Curriculum as Process, Not as Outcome and Output to aid accountability’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 85, pp. 53-70
  • Ord, J. (2008). ‘A curriculum for Youth Work – The Experience of the English Youth Service’, Youth Studies Australia, Vol. 27, (4), pp. 16-24
  • Robertson, S. (2004). ‘The Youth Work Curriculum’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 84, pp. 75-80
  • Smith, M.K. (1994). Community, conversation and praxis. Buckingham: OU Press
  • Stanton, N. (2004). ‘The youth work curriculum and the abandonment of informal education’, Youth & Policy, Vol. 85, pp. 71-85
  • Wylie, T. (2010). Youth Work in a Cold Climate, Youth & Policy, No. 105, November, pp. 1-8

Categories: Politics, Youth Work

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