Report on Quality Standards Framework (QSF) Evaluation

Report on Quality Standards Framework (QSF) Evaluation

Mark Morgan & Karl Kitching

March 2009


The purpose of this evaluation is to highlight the findings of the evaluation of the pilot implementation of the QSF and to provide guidance and recommendations on the development of a Quality Standards Framework for Youth Work in Ireland. This evaluation examines the piloting of the scheme in February – October 2008 period. It is set in the context of providing recommendations for the re-drafting and later national implementation of the revised framework. The evaluation itself was planned as an integral part of the nine-stage QSF development process, and is due to be followed by the development of a whole-organisation assessment process. However the evaluation is not concerned with this latter process.

Part 1 of this report is concerned with the development of youth work in the Irish context while the second part is focused on developments in the international context, especially how youth work is conceptualised. The third part of this report examines relevant research, especially on promoting effective youth work, while part four sets out the rationale for the quality standards framework. The evaluation methodology is described in section five, while the conclusions and recommendations are set out in the final section. In considering this report, it is important to note that most of the questionnaire results are set out in tables, while the comments to open-ended questions are presented to illustrate some of the comments made. However, the recommendations are not based on any single table or comment but rather on the general consensus that found to emerge from the research.

1. Background and Context of Youth Work in Ireland

Youth Work in Ireland

Youth work as understood by most providers and indeed as defined in Irish law is ‘essentially a type of non-formal education’ (Lalor, de Roiste & Devlin, 2007, p. 269). However, it is different from formal education in a number of respects. Firstly, it usually takes place outside the traditional formal schooling system (primary or post-primary schools). Secondly, the attendance at such activities by the young people themselves is voluntary, in the sense that they are not required to attend as in the case of school attendance. A third feature has to do with the non-formal learning (as opposed to informal learning) which is at same time structured and based on learning objectives.

The historical context of youth work is extremely important. Traditionally, voluntary organizations were most influential, particularly Foroige (formely Macra na Tuaithe) and Youth Work Ireland (formerly National Youth Federation). However, as well as being influenced by several other types of organizations, there are also important links with policy development in other areas like the National Drugs Strategy and the Garda Youth Diversion Projects. Furthermore the complexity of provision resulted in a demand for professional training, as well as an increase in the number of sources of funding.

A very significant development was the Youth Work Act of 2001. A critical part of this legislation was thatit provides for VECs to be responsible for the co-ordination of youth work in their areas. Furthermore the Act provided a definition of youth work as ‘….a planned programme of education, designed for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the personal and social development of young person through their voluntary involvement, and which is (a) complementary to their formal academic and vocational training and (b) provided primary by voluntary organizations’. The Youth Work Act indicates that particular regard is had to the youth work requirements of young people between 10 and 21 years, and of young people who are socially or economically disadvantaged. In the Act, the particular needs of male and female young people are mentioned as well as the youth requirements of Irish-language speakers.

Part of the VECs’ responsibility is that they will have a role in monitoring and assessing youth work programmes and services. As part of this function each VEC will be required under the Act (the Sections of the Act which relate to VEC functions have not yet been commenced) to establish a youth work committee whose function it is to advise and make recommendations on the performance of its youth work functions. This should consist of nominees from the local statutory agencies and the voluntary sector. The National Youth Work Advisory Committee (NYWAC) (which was also set up under the Youth Work Act) has a function to advise the Minister on provision of youth work services, policy implementation and the co-ordination of youth work with other services as well as the implementation of the Youth work Act at national and VEC level. The Act established the statutory position of Assessor Youth Work with two major functions viz., assessment and monitoring of youth work programmes, and the reviewing of aspects of the Minister’s and VECs functions. The Sections relating to the functions of the Assessor have not been commenced. However, an Assessor of Youth Work has been appointed on a non-statutory basis to fulfill these functions.

The National Youth Work Development Plan published in 2003 and focusing on the years 2003-07, again reinforces the definition of youth work as outlined the 2001 Youth Work Act. This plan placed emphasis on the rights of young people as citizens and gives particular attention to the provision of the Equal Status Act which forbids discrimination on 11 grounds. The development plan sets out four goals as follows:

(i) facilitating young people to participate more fully in youth programmes and services including greater access, having criteria for active participation and the development of charters and rights, (ii) enhancing the contribution of youth work to social inclusion and citizenship, including the promotion of measures relating to the Equal Status Act as well as of monitoring and evaluating youth work, (iii) putting in place an expanded and enhanced infrastructure for development and co-ordination . A major feature to achieve this is the ‘Development Unit for youth work. The Unit’s functions were to include developing guidelines for good practice, managing and coordinating research and overseeing and monitoring the Development Plan itself, and (iv) developing mechanisms for enhancing professionalism and ensuring quality standards in youth work. A key action that was set out under this goal was ‘Youth Work Validation Body which had as its central aim the development of a comprehensive framework for accreditation and certification in youth work. This resulted in the launch of NSETS (North South Education and Training Standards Committee for youth work). The role of the Committee is, in the first instance, the professional endorsement of courses and programmes of education and training in youth work provided by Higher Education Institutions.

Youth, social inclusion and social exclusion in Ireland

Early school leaving and lower attainment is an obvious issue in the formal education sector for ‘disadvantaged’ youth (Downes and Gilligan, 2007). In the ‘post-industrial’ western European context, young people are likely to be asked to compete in a skills marketplace which privileges services and information and seeks highly educated workers. Early school leaving of course also results in lesser opportunities to further develop social and personal skills with peers in a formalised way. While not framing youth work as an ‘antidote’ against these experiences, it is nonetheless unsurprising that much youth work has a specific and special emphasis on marginalised and disadvantaged youth in a more informal education setting.

Young people from marginalised and low-income communities can be subject to lesser-recognised disadvantages in terms of their leisure spaces and leisure time. Recognition of these disadvantages is relevant in considering the types of local responses youth workers can make. Byrne, Nixon, Mayock and Whyte’s (2006) study of the leisure time of low-income youth in Ireland suggested that ‘Young people from low-income backgrounds can be disadvantaged in their participation in structured leisure and free time activities, whether due to the commercialisation of leisure activities and their own financial constraints and/or a lack of provision of such activities and amenities in their local communities.

Youth from low-income families and marginalised youth are additionally far more likely to face the roles and responsibilities traditionally regarded as the realm of ‘adulthood’ much sooner. This can be due to some pathways which demand responsibility at an early age: the pressure of being the ‘breadwinner’ and carer as a lone parent; leaving care at 18 and being regarded as ‘self-sufficient’, or being out of home as young as 14 (Mayock and O’Sullivan, 2007). A distinctly different trajectory may develop for youth from more affluent homes in Ireland and elsewhere, who are able to delay the roles and responsibilities of traditional adulthood as marriage and parenthood is delayed and increasing numbers of young people enter and stay longer in 3rd level education.

The youth work sector has formally and informally developed to meet the needs of the heterogeneous youth population: since conceptions of ‘youth’ change as society changes, so too does youth work. Examples include the recent[1] development of BeLonG To Ireland, the first national youth organisation to highlight and work for the increasingly recognised needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in Ireland (Mayock et al, 2008). International research recommends that minority youth’s needs are proactively addressed in order to avoid exclusion due to ingrained racialising processes in wider society which foreclose some minority ethnic youth’s life chances. There is a slow but growing recognition of this issue on the ground: for example the Shaping Interculturalism in Youth Work conference held by NYCI in November 2008.

2. Conceptualisations of Youth Work and Research in OtherJurisdictions

There has been considerable debate about the nature of youth work in several countries throughout the world, particularly in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and in the US. This debate in turn has resulted in a substantial body of research concerned both with effectiveness and effects of youth work and also with the experiences of youth workers and the young people they serve. At the core of the discussion is the question: What is youth work about? In response to this question some have emphasized the traditions and culture of youth work and its distinctive contribution, while others have stressed the function of youth work in modern society and particularly the way that youth work can address issues like social exclusion.

According to Smith (2003), while there are different forms of youth work, it is possible to identify some key dimensions that are present to some degree. These are: (i) catering for specific age-groups, (ii) an emphasis on voluntary participation based on positive relationships. According to Smith, the ability to form appropriate and satisfying relationships through education is a central theme of youth work practice, (iii) association - which has been a primary feature of youth work since its inception. However, Smith also concedes that the idea of association has become less prominent as individualized and specialised perspectives on youth work have become more prominent.

In the UK ‘youth services’ are provided by Local Education Authorities, the Government Department and by several voluntary organizations which receive funding from central government. As in Ireland the emphasis in the various programmes is on social and personal development, citizenship education and preparation for work. As in Ireland, there is an uneven provision which is dependent on historical factors and on the extent to which the local authority have a commitment to this area. In 2000 the Dept of Education and Employment sought to bring together the existing youth provision into one coherent strategy; viz the Connexions strategy (DEE, 2000). This strategy has as its core the supporting of young people’s involvement in education and in addition, the provision of an outreach service which was to be delivered through a network of personal advisers which would link with specialist support services

The new approach has generated considerable debate in the UK. As is the case with the conventional educational system, this approach implies an emphasis on targets and goal setting, which is perceived not to sit easily with the voluntary traditions of youth work. A particular problem is around the targeting of specific groups of young people, defined as ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training). This is regarded as going against the principle of ‘Universalism’ which is a key principle in youth work; furthermore the streamlining that has taken place, where efficiency is the main criterion of success is seen to be problematic. In its strongest form the criticism is made that there is a move to ‘take over’ youth work by the conventional education sector.

For a variety of historic reasons, the philosophy underpinning youth-work in Northern Ireland is somewhat different to the other parts of the UK. The core principles in set out by the Dept of Education (2005) are as follows: (i) Preparation for participation in society through collective decision making, (ii) promotion and acceptance of others combined with a tolerance and respect for others and (iii) centrality of understanding of values and beliefs, rights and responsibilities.

The issues in other jurisdictions including Australia, New Zealand and Belgium have a resonance with those arising in Ireland. Many countries are concerned around aspects of the move towards professionalism (particularly in Australia). The worry is that such a move will leave no place for effective but unconventional styles of working with young people.

Of special interest is the ‘Detached Youth Worker Scheme’ in New Zealand, which allowed for youth workers to operate separately from established agencies and work with young people on their own ground. The objective of the scheme was to help young people whose needs were not being met by existing programmes and enable young people to develop their own strengths, resources and self-reliance. However an evaluation of the scheme indicated that there was insufficient documentation on what they were to do, poor support for youth workers, as well as confusion over accountability.

Youth work policy in Belgium with particular reference to the Flanders region has been described by Cousee (2008). This work indicates that there is a very high participation rate in youth work; Flanders has 1 youth work initiative for every 250 of the population. A major issue is around the distinction between general youth work and very specific areas of endeavour, like youth work for disabled children, for ethnic minorities, and playground associations.

3. Effective Youth Work: Relevant Research

No effort is made here to review the major body of research that underpins youth work practice or that is concerned with the debate about the nature of youth work. However, in an effort to give a flavour of that research, we consider some major studies that demonstrate the way the field has evolved. We begin with an overview of a study by HMI, (the Education Inspectorate in England), dating from 1987, followed by studies from England and Northern Ireland. Finally, we describe an EU-World Bank study that is planned for the next two years.

One of the first efforts to identify good practice in research is a study by the HM Inspectorate (1987) which draws on a series of examples of what they considered to be ‘good practice’. They recognise that it is difficult to generalise about the elements that make up good practice, since the range of tasks performed by youth workers is as broad as those performed by teachers. However, they offer important guidelines on good practice. Firstly, planning is a crucial component even for something that seems superficially very simple. Secondly, there is a need for youth workers to be aware of the complexity of what they were doing. The third important principle is the engagement of the young people in the task. These young people are neither recipients nor consumers of what the youth worker is offering but should be willing and active partners in the process. They also noted that many youth workers operate in relative isolation. They suggest that good work is more likely to be disseminated if there are regular opportunities to discuss their work and bring a critical analysis to the detailed accounts of their work. They suggest that when the image of what constitutes good practice is not clear, the result is often generalised policies lacking contact with reality.

More recently there has been number of significant research studies carried out in the UK, particularly ‘An evaluation of the impact of youth work in England (Merton et al, 2004). This was designed to provide a comprehensive evidence based analysis of the impact of English youth services on young people, their local communities and related services. The study showed that there was variable resourcing across local authorities as well as a lack of investment in the material infrastructure of local authority youth services. Despite this and some other difficulties, the input of youth work was found to contribute to positive and tangible benefits for young people. The authors of the report identified five factors that facilitated the positive impact of youth work as follows: (i) the establishment of positive relationships between youth workers and young people, (ii) the ability of youth workers to negotiate the terms of the relationships with young people, (iii) the determination to treat young people holistically as persons rather than with reference to specific issues and problems, (iv) the willingness of youth workers to engage with other services in order to mediate on behalf of young people, (v) conditions that enable contact with young people over a long term.