To mark ‘Youth Work’ Week, on the eve of the Youth Parliament Commons debate, James Cathcart reflects on his early experiences of being a youth worker in the 1980s, what ‘youth work’ is, and why it matters so much today.

“I started out my career as a youth worker and am still proud to fly the Youth Work flag when and where I can.

Youth Work Week 2018 – Youth Work Matters!

I was influenced by the experience and training and applied a ‘youth-work’ approach to many of my subsequent roles, especially in supporting youthvoice work and being a mentor. I have also observed the proportional relationship between a good ‘youth-work’ and a thriving ‘youth-voice’ culture. The applied principles and practice of youth work play a significant role in supporting and empowering young people to express themselves and to take action to better themselves and their communities.

Consequently, I have developed a deep respect for the unsung heroes of this hugely under-valued profession. Many young people recognise this too and I recall that in every House of Commons sitting of the Youth Parliament that I have attended, at least one young person would turn to the public gallery, where the youth workers and supporters sit, and pay tribute to them, acknowledging their role in supporting them to be able to take part in the debate. I’m sure 9/11/18 in the House of Commons, will be no exception as they gather to address Knife Crime, Mental Health, Equal Pay, Homelessness, and Votes at 16.

The Basics of Youth Work

I remember my first days as a volunteer youth worker in the 80’s. Starting out, no one explained the theory of youth or community work, that came later, but it was pretty self-evident that there was a strong culture of a proud youth service that offered protected but fun and relaxed space in the youth clubs where I was assigned.

“Youth work focuses on personal and social development and provides a safe place to be creative, providing and developing a social network and friendships, with a trusted adult – who knows what is needed”  (NYA website 2018).

Today anyone can reference these ‘basics of youth work’, its purpose and values, as set out by the National Youth Agency (NYA) on their website

NYA is the “go to” national organisation that is itself going through something of a revival and transition to the next chapter of a changing world, with a re-energised mission and motivation to champion the profession. You can see it applying a youth-work facilitating approach to its own strategy – leading and making space that enables debate and scrutiny between members, stakeholders and government. It invites you to ‘come on in’ to the ‘youth club’, and voluntarily relate to it in a way that shares learning and growth for everyone’s benefit. This is a positive culture that will, I predict, empower young people themselves, to take also ‘come on in’ to share the leadership role going forward.

Such grand ideas never entered my head when I first volunteered, at the age of 22, to work for my local ‘youth and community service’. It directly funded and staffed Youth Clubs and grant assisted and supported others. Young people didn’t distinguish between them. They were a normal part of the local scene in our communities, in our estates, and if you were luck enough as we were, in rural villages too.  They were an important option where other pursuits (sport and uniformed organisations) might appear to be to a little too regulated, traditional or expensive for everyone’s tastes. (A lot has changed since then).  The clubs I worked in, and their voluntary sector equivalents, were ‘places to go with things to do’. They were not school and not home. They were a safe space to ‘hang out’, with sympathetic adults within a boundary and boundaries, where young people could just “be”. There was no talk around the coffee bar of double-benefit, impact measurement, targets, or the youth offer. ‘Social action’ was otherwise known as community service and regarded with suspicion. (I was a Community Service Volunteer, and, looking back, some may have thought I was on a payback scheme!)

I was simply willing to lend a hand with the activity programme. I was asked to offer support to those who wanted it. I was called an ‘assistant youth worker’ on paper but introduced to everyone as ‘Jim’ the volunteer. After a few months I was promoted to paid status and became a member of ‘staff’ but with no authority or powers.

Was I applying the ‘Youth Work’ values? Absolutely – especially number one – we were all there because we wanted to be.

1. Young people choosing to take part.
2. Utilising young people’s view of the world.
3. Treating young people with respect.
4. Seeking to develop young people’s skills and attitudes rather than remedy ‘problem behaviours’.
5. Helping young people develop stronger relationships and collective identities.
6. Respecting and valuing differences.
7. Promoting the voice of young people.

So, what was the difference between me and the football coach who sometimes came along one day a week? As NYA also points out – the “goal” was different. I was there to listen, encourage and support the individual and team members, on their transition to adulthood, not to win a game. Youth workers (assistants) didn’t just watch football – they  joined in. I played countless games of five-a-side, hundreds of games of table-tennis, and thousands more of pool. To me, these activities were just a means to an end, part of range of experience that I tried out too, but were part of getting alongside. One of my early Youth Leader mentors explained it to me like this. “You are riding along a bumpy path on your bike, you are part of a group which has young people joining and leaving all the time. There is a leader at the front showing the way, and some available to coach individuals. Others might be waiting by the side to cheer or offer refreshment. You can ride a bit so I want you to ride amongst the group, get better and set an example but with humility, its not a race. I want you to especially watch out for those about to fall off, falter,  skid, tire, divert. …. and to get along side them, offer encouragement and nudge them to keep going, to look ahead and aspire until they develop a resilience of their own, and always be open to learning something about yourself along the way.” It was a crude metaphor, imperfect – but I got it. I was not there to instruct, but to support.

Youth work activities always have access to great trained instructors and experts as well. They keep us safe, and teach skills, and share information.  For some young people, this meant we could take them to greater challenging activities – perhaps through a structured Duke of Edinburgh course, or more often the youth club itself organised residentials, canoeing, sailing, rock-climbing, abseiling, and the most terrifying of all, pot-holing. It was not long before some young people were inspired to take on leadership roles, and there were always afew went on to become the next generation of youth workers.

Youth and Community Work

I lived in the estate where I worked, I was part of the local community.

The first Youth Club I was initially assigned to two evenings a week was call a Youth Wing run by the Youth Service. It was a purpose-built facility, within the school grounds, which came into its own after school hours as a place you could come to out of uniform, and dip into a choice of activities, ranging from sport to youth-led stuff, quiz night or disco, and we even had access to a very cold swimming pool! Or no activity at all – just talk to each other. There was a full-time youth leader (trained and qualified with a Diploma in Youth and Community Work) and some paid p/t assistants, supplemented with and a pool of sessionals and volunteers. The young people had their own committee to organise things and even discuss issues that arose, from drugs use, to the youth club ground rules. There was a tuckshop, petty cash, organised games, disorganised games, instructors, residentials, visitors (policemen, councillors – even a TV crew!)  and lots of places around and about outside the centre, where people could safely socialise. It was a  popular place to be and make new friends.

This was all part of the Youth and Community Service. There was also a youth work ‘office’ in town with two fulltime Principal Youth and Community Officers. One was my mentor and encouraged me to do a part-time youth work course, and other training (first aid/drugs awareness/appropriate adult),.They frequently visited the youth clubs, both the statutory ones and the grant assisted network of voluntary ones. There was a County strategy and local plan for youth which spanned a range of services including the Sports Centre and specialist services.


When I was there the local council also invested in a Luton Van, painted it sky blue and in big letters down the side and across the front, printed “The Shuttle Leisure Van”. It was a mobile youth club to service the rural youth clubs usually run by local volunteers (parents). It was equipped with a collapsible table-tennis table, a mini-trampoline, air pistols and targets (I’m not joking !), and various other games equipment. My favourite was the indoor hockey set, It was very popular as we picked mixed boys and girls teams who raced around whacking a plastic ball, and sometimes each other, to say warm in little village hall! A team of two or three of us (based at a second Youth Wing in the town – also attached to a school) would take the van out to booked local youth clubs in the villages two or three times a week. I was the driver too, and was promoted again to being a ‘youth leader’. All of these services supported rural communities, and we worked with in collaboration with other agencies. This was normal. This was a youth service. This was youth work. I was a very small part of it and learned as much as those we were supporting. It was fun too.

Voluntary participation

I learned about the theory of youth work through the training and my one-to-one’s with my supervisors, but most of the time it was through the experience of doing, and observing and learning from the existing youth leaders. When I was sponsored to do ‘youth-work’ FE training I learned about the principle of non-directive support, reflective learning, mentoring, and empowering, as techniques to challenge and develop the potential of young people, but I also learned why I was doing it and the value of simply providing safe space for self-discovery.

It was something of a team approach and we were not trying to, or pressured into to claiming specific impacts and outcomes. As Sue Holloway, of the Centre for Youth Impact recently observed :

“Be realistic – most of the change you see in a young person is much more likely to be the result of multiple factors rather than just one intervention – know what else is going on in that young person’s life – contribution not attribution.”

My role was to make a tiny contribution, hopefully a positive one as part of a team, but alongside, at best, the main stakeholder and changemaker, the young person themselves.

What was consistent throughout and is underlined in the National Youth Agencies definition of youth work, was the principle that young people were there as volunteers. They chose to relate and talk to you if they wanted to, taking or leaving what you had to say. It was only many years later I also came to appreciate the impact that a few words of praise (or criticism) could make, and why I have become such as advocate for youth work as an absolutely vital a resource as formal education, in supporting our future generations.

“Youth work takes a holistic approach with young people. It starts where they are at in terms of developmental or physical location (open access or detached/street work) – the relationship between young people at youth worker is entirely voluntary – youth work often only works because of the voluntary relationship. Many professionals work with young people, but principally, only in youth work is it the choice of the young person to engage with the professional” NYA 2018

Although I eventually trained as a Social Worker/Probation Officer and many of my clients certainly didn’t choose me, but I never forgot those early experiences and I returned to specialise in mentoring and empowerment, as they reminded me of the empowering voluntary contract that young people can enter as they make the transition to adult life where they must take responsibility and have an equal place at the table.

What next?

Its been many, many years since I was a practising Youth Worker in that town. The town grew. I moved and got other jobs, mostly with a UK wide remit based in London. I did revisit one of the village youth clubs, because they invited me to present some youth celebration awards in 2012. I was astonished to learn that the Youth Van was still visiting it 30 years later (but not for much longer – I think its been cut too?) However, as in many parts of the country, the number of youth clubs has declined and youth services cut county-wide. The first Youth Wing where I worked closed. The second Youth Wing is now called a Youth Hub. However most of the original staff infrastructure in the town has gone too.

What’s new is a thriving County Youth Council, and, from the next generation, a young person who lived on the estate where I worked in the Youth Wing, became an active member campaigning against youth service cuts. He was elected a local, and then County Councillor by the age of 25 in 2017. My old town’s current Member of Youth Parliament mobilised over 2600 youth votes in the 2018 Make Your Mark campaign to prioritise youth-led campaigns to Parliament on 9th November in the House of Commons, on Knife Crime, Mental Health … At number ten on the ballot, coming in last but not least, is another bid to prioritise a campaign to “Save our Youth Services” across the UK.

Perhaps one of the unforeseen legacies of youthwork has been to empower youth-led leadership to join the national call for a revived youth service.

Youth work still benefits some communities, and Im a supporter of my local youth service where I have again signed up as a “volunteer youth worker”. It has a thriving network of both youth clubs and youth voice, but this should be everyone not according to postcode.

“Youth work” deserve more recognition, and I believe a new era of valued Youth Work and Youth Voice will be appreciated again, fit for purpose, youth-informed, and adaptable to new challenges.

I applaud everyone who has made a contribution to youth work, whatever your age.

It matters.


James Cathcart | Youth Work Week 2018

Authors Note: Whilst I ve not named the Local Authority where I worked, it may be obvious to those who know me, or worked there. Forgive any errors of memory – happy to amend and update. JC





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