A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?

A ‘curriculum’ for youth work?
Why now? Why at all?

A Training Agencies Group (TAG) email ‘bulletin’ last December carried the following item:

Request for information – Youth Work Curriculum for England
The National Youth Agency (NYA) is being supported by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) to develop a Youth Work Curriculum for England. This document will set out what youth work does directly for and with young people. The NYA wants to develop this with young people and practitioners to create a contemporary Curriculum that works for the modern contexts of youth work. 

Despite my best efforts to keep up with youth work developments, this was for me an out-of-the-blue announcement of an initiative which, coming as it does from our ‘national body for youth work’, could have considerable long-term impact. However, as I write in mid-February 2020, with no reference to it on the NYA website, the only other information I have is that, according to the TAG bulletin item, a consultant has been appointed ‘to support the Curriculum development process, which is in its beginning stages’ and that she is asking for ‘curriculum, material and views’.

One feature of the project which immediately grabbed my attention was that it is ‘being supported’ by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS). Any ‘curriculum’ which NYA proposes will surely, therefore, need ultimately to be acceptable to a government which, with a new five-year mandate, is committed as a high priority to a range of ‘populist’ youth policies including, according to a recent report by young people, ‘an increasingly punitive approach to knife crime’[1]. How likely is it therefore that what emerges and gets agreed will fit with an educationally-focussed youth work practice which is open to any young person who chooses to engage and open to developing opportunities for new learning and experience which start from their concerns and their interests? 

For the youth work sector this is of course far from a new question. Indeed in the past it has been both upfront and contentious. Might that history perhaps suggest some messages – even perhaps cautions – for NYA’s current initiative?

Curriculum in youth work: history revisited

Early signals

I’ve argued previously [2] that much of the practice known from its earliest days as ‘youth leadership’ had embedded within it implicit ‘curriculum’ frameworks in the form of the worker-designed programme content intended to achieve worker-defined outcomes. In the 1960s the relevance and effectiveness of these ‘model-centred’ approaches were challenged in quite fundamental ways, most influentially by the Albemarle report. This for example went so far as to assert that, as ‘young people can today … turn away from many of the good enterprises specially designed for them’, they ‘… must have the liberty to question cherished ideas, attitudes and standards, and if necessary reject them’[3]. As a result for many youth work came often to be described and indeed explained in much less prescriptive terms – as for example ‘young people-led’ or ‘process-led’.

Perhaps in reaction to these trends, from the mid-1970s and into the 1980s the term curriculum began to be used explicitly in a youth work context. Offered ‘as a credible way of grappling with the question: “What are we doing in the youth club”?’, it for example appeared in the title of a 1975 booklet written by John Ewen, then the Director of the National Youth Bureau (NYB)[4]. In 1982 the Thompson Report made passing references to the Youth Service’s ‘experiential curriculum’ implemented through ‘learning by doing’[5], while a year later NYB ‘updated’ Ewen’s booklet, now sub-titled ‘A practical guide for use in youth group staff meetings’. Significantly, it did this in part for reasons which later advocates of ‘curriculum’ also offered – that:

… there seems to be a deal of woolly-mindedness around when some youth workers are asked to be more precise about the methodology and curriculum of their social educational role[6].   

In 1985 a paper was also circulating written by a tutor on a youth and community work qualifying course entitled ‘Towards a New Curriculum: A discussion paper of ideas’[7].

Though little commented on subsequently, in 1989 the Further Education Unit (FEU) reported on a research project which had had both NYB and HMI representation on its steering committee. Its main objective as outlined by FEU’s Development Officer had been 

to identify and describe the curriculum (already) being used by youth workers in four chosen authorities, and to investigate the issues arising … with regard to organisation, staff training and co-operation with other agencies.

Ahead of the debates which were to emerge later that year, he noted, too, that ‘following the 1988 Education Reform Act’ which had introduced a national curriculum into state schools:

… it is essential that the Youth Service is able to defend successfully its existing role and mark out clearly its contribution to work with young people within the education service and with other agencies[8].            

Ministerial conferences

By then, for the ‘Thatcherite’ (in today’s terms, ‘neo-liberal’) governments of the period, the methods and approaches which had taken hold since the 1960s were increasingly unacceptable – dismissed across a range of policy areas and services as too ‘permissive’ and so as poor value for the public money invested in them. Indeed, during the 1970s Labour governments had already initiated arms-length efforts to counter these perceived weaknesses, most notably through the Manpower Services Commission. These had included trying to refocus youth work away from the ‘social education’ approaches developed post-Albemarle and onto training in ‘social and life skills’ required for getting and keeping a job[9]. 

In contradiction of their oft-stated determination to reduce the role and impacts of the central state, the Thatcher governments continued to pressure key youth services to meet its top-down expectations and indeed requirements. On the back particularly of that unprecedented intrusion into ‘the secret garden’ of the school curriculum mentioned earlier, between 1989 and 1992, via three ‘ministerial conferences’, a succession of ‘youth’ ministers tried to persuade youth work organisations – voluntary as well as statutory – to reach a ‘consensus’ on a national or ‘core’ curriculum which would also provide ‘common learning outcomes and performance indicators’[10].

In the run-up to the first of the conferences, Alan Howarth, the minister then in post spelt out the government’s bottom lines in blunt terms. Starting from the view that ‘there is a lack of cohesion’ in the Youth Service[11], he proposed that its approach be defined in ‘commercial terms’ – by ‘finding a gap in the market, identifying the service needed, assessing consumer demand or need, finding backers and providing evidence of effective delivery’. He then went on: 

I cannot repeat too strongly what I have said about the importance of this (first) conference achieving some consensus. Publicised agreement by the youth service about its curriculum … will help funders, including the DES, to allocate resources as effectively as possible.

In a comment which resonates strongly today, he also noted that, as other services had by then adopted youth work approaches, it was particularly through its ‘detached and outreach work, and work with the seriously at risk, (that) the youth service can be a first point of contact for young people in distress’[12].   

To operationalise the conferences’ aims, NYB and its successor organisation the National Youth Agency (NYA – launched in 1991) sought to play proactive and influential roles. Its then Director was clear, for example, that a curriculum was needed to ‘put the service further up the educational agenda’ and ‘demonstrate the need for proper resourcing’[13]. To help achieve this, a NYB ‘curriculum development team’ was formed briefed to develop ‘a framework for the new curriculum by producing resources on specific issues, issuing guidelines on good practice, and running pilot studies on new approaches'[14]. Revealing, too, was the title of an article by a member of this team – ‘Accountability is the Watchword’ – which appeared in NYB’s house journal Young People Now a month before the first conference in December 1989[15]. 

For some of the 200- 250 participants and observers (including many ‘senior officers’), the conferences were accepted as a belated response by government to their demand for a lead from the centre[16]. Even before and then during the first conference, however, it was reported that some in the sector ‘reel(ed) with concern at the very notion (of a youth work curriculum)’; ‘took issue with the concept’; and expressed a need for ‘“ownership” from the field of any “core curriculum” which should emerge’[18]. At a second conference a year later, as well as ‘… a clear rejection of any centrally-imposed curriculum’[19], ‘uncertainty or anxiety’ was expressed, too, about ‘targeting’ and ‘how outcomes are measured’[20]; while at the third in June 1992 ‘much time was spent revising statements which the (organising) committee had hoped would be uncontroversial’[21]. 

Throughout the conference process, the youth work field often also found itself having to contend with a government assumption that, rather than having value in its own right, youth work’s main role was to support and complement other ‘youth’ practices – particularly teaching and social work . One of the background papers for the first conference for example was explicit that:

To assert a legitimate right to ‘do what others aren’t doing – but differently’ … may still leave the youth service facing the sharp, but dominant question – will this be enough to justify continuing to fund a separate youth service?[22]  

What eventually emerged from the conferences was not a curriculum as such, nor as was also proposed at one stage a ‘Mission Statement’, but a Statement of Purpose reaffirming youth work as an educational practice[23]. To this Howarth’s response was said, at best, to be ‘mixed’. He especially had reservations about some of its ‘politically charged’ language which, he suggested, risked stereotyping and demeaning young people by seeing them as victims of oppression[24]. By early 1992 Tony Jeffs was suggesting anyway that ‘We have now moved away from curriculum to performance indicators and outcome measures’[25], while a year later Howarth’s successor Tim Boswell was concluding that ‘the national debate’ … had yielded … no national core curriculum’[26]. 

In the longer run, however, as the use of ‘curriculum’ within youth work became normalised, the conference sponsors’ goal seemed largely to have been achieved. As early as 1990, for example, HMI were advocating that on professional youth and community work courses ‘curriculum development’ should be given as much attention as the development of skills in counselling and group work[27]. And by 1998 the annual Youth Service Audit was recording that 77 per cent of local Youth Services had a written curriculum statement – something which by then anyway the New Labour had made a requirement of all local authorities[28].  

A journal debate – and beyond

A decade later a more nuanced but still often divisive debate again developed. This was initiated by an NYA pamphlet, Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work, written by Bryan Merton and Tom Wylie – both former senior Youth Service HMIs, the latter at the time Chief Executive of NYA[29]. A critical response from Jon Ord in the Spring 2004 issue of Youth and Policy[30] – precursor to his later books covering the same themes[31] – prompted a series of follow-up articles which, as well as again focusing on whether a ‘curriculum’ was needed or even appropriate for youth work, also explored what the concept could and should mean in a youth work context[32]. In particular they considered whether its priority concern should be the ‘content’ of the work, its ‘product’ (that is, in current national policy language, its outcomes) – and/or, what was core for Ord, its (young person-centred and -driven) ‘process’. 

Here too, policy developments at the time intruded into the debate in significant ways. Four months after the Merton and Wylie pamphlet appeared, the Labour government released Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services which required all local authorities to agree ‘a clear curriculum statement’ specifying ‘content’, ‘pedagogy’ and ‘assessment’. The paper also made clear that the statement needed to be underpinned by ‘Annual Youth Service Unique Targets’ and by a ‘Youth Service Specific Performance Measure’. Through these local authority Youth Services were set percentage targets for young people contacted, for those involved at least 4 times a year and for those worked with intensively. Resourcing Excellent Youth Services also laid down that to help achieve these targets its curriculum framework must amongst other features specify in advance:

  • what learning needs and content should normally be covered within a year’s programme;
  • the pedagogy and structured experiences which may be used; and
  • the arrangements for monitoring and assessment of the learning gained by individuals (and any accreditation thereof)[33].

By the time Labour lost power in 2010 practitioners were describing these requirements as for them posing a choice between ‘young people-led versus target-led’; as ‘… top to bottom not the other way round’; and as ‘ not about tailor-making responses to need’. As more and more resources were allocated to targeted work, workers as well as some managers were talking, too, of a ‘diversion from the role’ as they experienced practice being increasingly funding- rather than needs-led[34]. 

A youth work curriculum: contradictions, dilemmas – and risks

Given the diverse and often contradictory ways (as ‘content’ and/or ‘outcome’ and/or ‘process’) in which ‘curriculum’ is still understood; given how easily these understandings can, almost unnoticed, slide into one another; and given particularly how state policy-makers have used the term to justify and even impose their requirements for targeting and for ‘measured’ impacts – for all these reasons the question that looms for me is: why, at this not very promising political moment, is NYA again exposing youth work to another ‘curriculum’ initiative?

The interactive processes – young person with young person, young person with worker – which are central to defining the distinctiveness of an ‘open’ youth work practice certainly need to be articulated as clearly as possible. Indeed, this is something which I and others have tried to do in the past[35]. However, trapping those clarifications within a ‘curriculum’ framework – especially one that will need to be acceptable to the present government – carries the considerable risk of again diverting practitioners, managers and especially policy-makers from what young people have judged to be most helpful in their encounters with youth workers. 

Bernard Davies


  1. Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Prioritise youth services to tackle knife crime, government told’, CYPN, 14 February 
  2. Bernard Davies, 2004, ‘Curriculum in Youth Work: An old debate in new clothes’, Youth and Policy No 85, Autumn, pp88-9 
  3. Ministry of Education, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO: Para 41, 142
  4. John Ewen, 1975, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club, NYB
  5. Department of Education and Science, 1982, Experience and Particiipation: Report on the Review Groupon the Youth Service in England, HMSO, Para 5.5 (1) ;pp 34 and 122.
  6. Youth Work Unit, 1983, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club: A practical guide for use in youth group/staff meetings, NYB, p 1
  7. Ian Morrison, ‘Towards a New Curriculum: A discussion paper of ideas’, unpublished, April 1985
  8. Eileen Newman and Gina Ingram, 1989, The Youth Work Curriculum, Foreword by Stuart McCoy, Further Education Unit, pvii
  9. Bernard Davies, 1979. In Whose Interests? From Social Education to Social and Life Skills, NYB
  10. Janet Paraskeva, 1993, ‘National Youth Agency presentation’, Rapport, February, p 15
  11. Jackie Scott, 1990, ‘Strength through diversity’, Young People Now, No 15, July, p 36
  12. Alan Howarth, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service: Report of the First Ministerial Conference, ‘Keynote Address’, NYB, Paras 7, 13, 26, 37
  13. Janet Paraskeva, 1990, ‘Money is at the core of the youth service debate’, Letter, Times Educational Supplement, 26 October
  14. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘NYA – a New Breed of Agency’, Young People Now, No 24, April, p 34
  15. Chris Heaume, 1989, ‘Accountability is the watchword’, Young People Now, No 8, November, p 11
  16. Chris Heaume, 1989, p 11
  17. Chris Heaume, 1989, p 11
  18. Alan Howarth, 1989, Letter to Chief Education Officers, March; NYB, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service: Report of the First Ministerial Conference, pp 17, 18
  19. Tim Burke, 1990, ;Conference focuses on core curriculum’, Young People Now, No 20, December, p 35
  20. NYB, 1990, Towards a Core Curriculum – the Next Steps: Comments and Recommendations of the Ministerial Conferences Steering Group, Para 22, 32
  21. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘Curriculum creeps nearer after conference’, Young People Now, No 21, January, p 35 
  22. NYB, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service? Background papers for the first Ministerial Conference December 1989, NYB, Para 5.37, p 28,
  23. NYA, 1991, ‘Statement of Purpose’, Towards the Third Ministerial Conference, NYA, p 3
  24. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘“Service should embrace idealism”’, Young People Now, No 23,  March, pp 33-4
  25. Tony Jeffs, 1992, Concept Seminar: Youth Work in the 1990s, Moray House Institute of Education, p 13
  26. Janet Paraskeva, 1993, ‘National Youth Agency presentation’, Rapport, February, p 15
  27. HMI, 1990, ‘Initial Training for Professional Youth and Community Work: a report by HMI’, DES, Para 5
  28. NYA/DFEE, 1998, England’s Youth Service – the 1998 Audit, Youth Work Press, pp1 Para 4; p 25
  29. Bryan Merton and Tom Wylie, 2002, Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work, NYA; See also ‘Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work’, Young People Now, No 162, October, pp 18-19; No 163, November, pp 19-20
  30. Jon Ord, 2004, ‘The Youth Work Curriculum: and the ‘Transforming Youth Work Agenda, Youth and Policy, Spring, pp 43-59 
  31. Jon Ord, 2016, Youth Work Process ,Product and Practice: Creating an authentic curriculum in work with young people, (Second edition), Routledge
  32. Youth and Policy, 84 (Summer 2004); Youth and Policy, 85, (Autumn 2004)
  33. Department of Education and Skills, 2002, Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, DES Publications, pp 16-17, available at http://www.mywf.org.uk/uploads/policy/REYSDec2002.pdf
  34. Bernard Davies and Bryan Merton, 2009, ‘Squaring the Circle: The State of Youth Work in Some Children and Young People’s Services’, Youth and Policy, No 103, Summer, pp 5-24 
  35. In Defence of Youth Work, 2009, ‘The Open Letter’, available at https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/the-in-defence-of-youth-work-letter-2/; Bernard Davies 2015, ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto For Our Times – Revisited’, Youth and Policy, No 114, May, pp 96-117, Jon Ord, 2016, Chapters 5 and 6