Trying to cling onto values based youth and community work, in an outcomes orientated society.

I was prompted to think about writing a piece or two about values in youth work/youth ministry by a friend of mine, yet as i thought about it struck me that I hadnt really written a piece about youth work values for a long while. Then i thought, what is as surprising is that talking about values in youth work seems a bit ‘twee’ or old fashioned and it isnt something I had heard for a while. There’s lots of talk in the youth work community about being against the government directed programmes such a NCS, please see the youth and policy facebook page.

At a recent consultation meeting, representatives from a number of agencies, all of which proposed to be working with young people across a town in the north east were gathered together to think about future services and programmes. In the discussions, not one mention of ‘values’ was given about how things would take place and what activities were for. The talk was about ‘getting the best OUTCOMES’ for young people in the city, or ‘achieving outcomes’ – all of which push services and activities into the direction of meeting targets, skimming off the quick wins, and not necessarily working in a way that looks much like youthwork – just to receive funding. Not much in the room looked like a youthwork process taking place, not much looked like youthwork values were the common denominator on the ground. In a way, working with outcomes in mind tricks people out of doing youth work. Its hardly participative if young people arent even in the room, or deciding with young people and leaving the space of open for them to create it.

In the cut and thrust of the ‘new world’ of efficiency cutbacks, value for money is the game. And deficiencies of this approach are seen in this report, with less interactions and informal services, social care bills are going through the roof:   So if outcomes have driven youth work values out of the park, then what about the voluntary or faith sector?

It is fair to say, that ever since Jeffs and Smith brought together 4 Values for youthwork practice, that the faith based sector has magnetically drawn itself to them as the key pillars of ‘secular’ youthwork practice, and sought to adopt, justify, add or build from them. The irony being that the same values have become less and less referred to with the sector that derived them in the first place, and clung on to within some of academia (where it still exists) , in the misty eyes of bedraggled former council youth workers, and in the marginalised, yet galvanised protest groups, such as In-defence of youthwork. Even Jeffs and Smith (Youthwork Practice, 2010) barely mention values.

But back to those values;

Jeffs and Smith in ‘informal education’ regard the first order values in society to be:

  • Respect for persons. This requires us to recognize the dignity and uniqueness of every human being. It also entails behaving in ways that convey that respect. This means, for example, that we avoid exploiting people for our, or others’, ends.


  • The promotion of well-being. We must work for the welfare of all. We must further human flourishing. That means, for example, we must always try to avoid causing harm, and seek to enhance the well-being of others.


  • Truth. Perhaps the first duty of the educator is to truth. This means that we must not teach or embrace something we know or believe to be false. We must search for truth and be open in dialogue to what others say. However, we should not be fearful of confronting falsehood where we find it.
  • Democracy. Democracy involves the belief that all human beings ought to enjoy the chance of self-government or autonomy. Implicit in this is the idea that all are equal citizens. A fundamental purpose of informal education is to foster democracy through experiencing it. We must seek within our practice to offer opportunities for people to enjoy and exercise democratic rights.
  • Fairness and equality. Informal educators have a responsibility to work for relationships characterized by fairness. Any discrimination has to be justified on the basis it will lead to greater equity. We must also look to promote equality. Actions must be evaluated with regard to the way people are treated, the opportunities open to them, and the rewards they receive. (Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.)

In 1991, a Ministerial conference was held that determined that the Core values in youth work are to be:

Voluntary Participation

Informal education

Empowerment and

Equality of Opportunity¹

Democracy was notably dropped from previous lists.

Whilst this is not the time to discuss these values individually at length, what each mean to practice, and give examples of each. It is striking that the faith and voluntary sector has continued to wrestle, and promote the adherence of values within its practice, or at least, in its writing it continues to use them. So for example, Danny Brierleys – Joined up (2003) gave a description of these four/five values, and added to them Christian principles of hospitality, acceptance, forgiveness and Incarnation. In ‘ten essential concepts for Christian youthwork’ (Grove, 2015) Jo Dolby suggests that core principles are the four values stated above. The same appear in ‘Here be Dragons’ (2014, Passmore R and Ballantyne, J). In Christian youthwork practice there were countless conversations about ‘how to use youthwork values’ but in a ‘Christian way’. Allan Clyne in this paper  reflects on the fact that the Christian context of the world from 1800-1950 became the backdrop for determining values in the first place, and so each of the four values have some resonance with the social transforming and redemptive aspects of the Christian faith and within its structures of its time. In a way then, it is no wonder that talk of values isnt cheap within Christian youthwork, and those who might be considered more marginal within christian youthwork tend to be those who cling to giving credence to them and developing youthwork with young people. They may be prefixed by ‘pioneer’, ‘sacrilised (Sally Nash), or Symbiotic (no, it didnt take off) – but youth work in its value orientated sense is retained, as core. In one way Danny Brierelys book feels like it was quite seminal, given that it was published by a collaboration of what might be argued to be evangelical faith organisations (YFC, SU, OASIS, Youthwork the conference), and promoted value orientated work within the faith, even evangelical sector. On a personal level, every single training session i have ever delivered on detached or faith based youthwork has included a section on values. Values give aspiration, hope and meaning to a piece of work. Elevates it to beyond functionality.

This isnt a discussion here on where youth work values have dropped off the radar in the Christian/Religious based youthwork, needless to say, its when the aims of the practice become institution serving, or faith transmission orientated that this can be the case. Discussion of this have occurred in numerous occasions, such as Maxine Green/Sarah Pughs articles in Youth and Policy, 1999 (no 65) and Pete Harris’s chapter in Youth work and Faith (Smith, Stanton and Wylie, 2015). Consequently, there can be dilemmas as to ‘what is important’ in Christian faith based work with young people, and if, like the statutory sector, it is outcomes, (such as adherance to belief, attendance or retention at church) then these blur the lines, and cause tension in regard to the values within a piece of work. Ultimately institutions and funding win this argument. It a reason why youthworkers leave the church… One of the key questions that Nick Shepherd, Faith generation 2016, raises, is ‘what kind of faith has evangelical youth ministry actually transmitted anyway?’. But again, another story.

It feels as if there has never been a time in the last 20 years when talk of value based youthwork has been such a voice from the margins. A prophetic voice that has young peoples autonomy, respect and decision making ability to heart, that has spaces of inclusivity, opportunity and diversity as it rallying cry. At the same time working with young people has abandoned values, its a simultaneously loses its value with young people, for they dont own it, they just get something. So, where we might be able to, the Christian faith based ‘sector’ might do well to retain its sense of core human values and principles, and discover that its Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith adhering practitioners also resonate and connect with these in a broader sense of common good in the restoring and maintaining of the created world. Of course in a world where democracy seems to be taking a shift , as it was in 1939 when it was first introduced might not be a bad thing, giving young people the power to use their gifts and resources might not be a bad thing especially when schools are filtering and narrowing the curriculum and choice for young people, recognising the voluntary nature of youth work, in an era when young people can feel like they are targeted, and ‘selected’ again might be a good thing for young people. Practices are not value free, even if they dont state that they have values, yet, what they value might be the economic value of a young person, and the economic values of the current government policy, or the value that persons in church might place on church attendance. Yet it is very difficult to argue that targeted provision has had any difference, only creating competitive marketplaces for organisation and the overall reduction of the youth service.  The longer the faith based sector can hang on to values based practices, the better for the sector overall, the better for every young person in the UK.


Danny Brierley, All Joined up, 2003

Smith, Stanton, Wylie, Youth work and Faith, 2015

Jeffs, Smith, Informal Education, 1996, 2nd ed 2006

Jeffs, Smith Youthwork Practice, 2010

Passmore, Ballantyne, Here be Dragons, 2013

Nick Shepherd, Faith Generation, 2016

Youth and Policy, No 65, 1999

¹(as determined by the second ministerial board of education)

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

One thought on “Trying to cling onto values based youth and community work, in an outcomes orientated society.”

  1. Ironically I hear youth workers talk a great deal about values, irritating me intensely by going on to talk about taking youth work values into other spheres of work with people. Somewhere I’ve got buried the notes for a rant about youth work values I did years ago. I must dig them out. It would be good to debate further. Thanks as ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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