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Youth Services: Listening to Youth?

Matthew Burrows[1], Serena Dama[2], Bradley Payne[3], Erena Rawlins[4], Hannah Wheeler[5] and Sue Bond-Taylor[6], School of Social Sciences, University of Lincoln



This staff-student collaboration from the University of Lincoln emerges from an ESRC-funded Festival of Social Science event which aimed to engage a group of young people from a Lincoln school in debating the design and delivery of youth services in the local area. In contrast to recent debates about the 'Big Society', which claims to empower local people and communities, it seems that the preferences and priorities of young people are frequently overlooked and considerable cuts have been made to youth services in the name of deficit reduction. This research represents an opportunity for young people to participate in the 'Big Society', to have their voices heard by local service providers and to take control of their own affairs. A range of quantitative and qualitative data collected during and after the event demonstrates that young people's demands are reasonable and relatively modest, and that the continued funding of youth activities is perceived as highly important to young people. Discussion of these research findings also prompts further debate about the role of youth clubs and leisure services in young people's development, and about the most effective ways to encourage participation.

Keywords: Youth voices, Participation, Big Society, Youth services, Development, Young people



In the government's essential guide to their Decentralisation and Localism Bill, it is claimed that 'the Big Society is what happens whenever people work together for the common good. It is about achieving our collective goals in ways that are more diverse, more local and more personal' (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2010: 2). Moreover, in his ministerial forward, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argues that 'it means giving local people the powers and funding to deliver what they want for their communities - with a particular determination to help those who need it most' (ibid.: 1).

The image is certainly one of empowerment of local people who can together demand appropriate services that serve their needs. This prompts some questioning of the role young people might play within the 'Big Society' (Williams, 2011), given that they are frequently marginalised or excluded from determining both where and how the budget towards youth services may be spent. Matthews (2001) notes that three alternative discourses have been evident in the UK which have tended to problematise young people's participation; firstly, those questioning the appropriateness of young people's participation in itself; secondly, doubting the capability of young people to participate; and thirdly, querying the form and outcomes of young people's participation.

This article describes the findings emerging from an ESRC Festival of Social Sciences event, Youth Services: Listening to Youth, held on 4 November 2011 and hosted by the University of Lincoln in conjunction with a number of local service providers. The aim of the event was to give young people in Lincoln a taste of different youth clubs/services before consulting them on the sorts of services that they would like to see in future in Lincoln. They visited a traditional youth club, a lottery-funded Myplace centre and finally the University of Lincoln Sports Centre for a session with a local young people's sports outreach organisation.

The main aim of this event was to gather as much information as possible about how the young people use their local services, and how suitable they are, in order to ensure that their needs are appropriately met and to protect their interests within the context of 'Big Society' decision making. By using three different services, it allowed the research team to get a snapshot of how young people feel about the services in Lincoln in order to present this information to the local authority and other relevant service providers and to express what the young people want from their services.


The Importance of Youth Services

Provision of services for young people should be seen as an essential activity of local communities, and the literature lends considerable support to the role youth services play in young people's development. We have witnessed a changing landscape of socialisation among young people where 'in addition to family background and circumstances, personal and social skills developed in youth are a key factor in the determination of overall life chances' (Sorhaindo and Feinstein, 2007: 4). This underlines the emerging importance of youth services.

Building on Erikson's (1968) and Marcia's (1980) theories of identity formation in adolescents, Feinstein et al. (2006) note that the longer-term outcomes of leisure context may be particularly relevant to policy interventions. This study shows that those subjected to marginalisation and low achievement may be more likely to engage in youth club attendance, in comparison to church, sport and uniformed club attendance. The youth clubs attract a different type of young person; typically from a low socio-economic background and low-income family, and with a poor school record. Yet these marginalised young people are also least likely to participate in formal consultation about the provision of services in their area (Macpherson, 2008).

Youth work in these settings therefore stresses a curricular approach which provides somewhere to go and something to do, a need to work with the grain of young people's predisposition and interest rather than working against it. These aims fit well with the key principals of effective youth work which Williamson (1997: 208) states are concerned with 'co-management, participation, and providing space for young people to negotiate, experiment, and challenge' (cited in Feinstein et al. 2006: 324). For Sorhaindo and Feinstein (2007), a model of 'integrated provision' goes one step further than this, providing young people with somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to. Integrated provision is a multi-agency approach to provision of services to young people, and seeks to encompass the needs of all stakeholders in its provision of services. To that end, the integrated approach also places emphasis on the care and reassurance of parents and carers of the suitability of youth services for their children. An integrated approach also makes young people more aware of the various different services that are available to them by exposure to different facilities (Sorhaindo and Feinstein, 2007). There is therefore the potential to tackle wider aspects of social exclusion through provision of youth clubs and services.

Mahoney et al. (2005, cited in Wilson et al., 2010) suggest that positive youth development includes improved functioning in the present, a reduced risk for the development of problem behaviours, and increased likelihood for healthy adjustment in the future. This holistic view links the importance of prevention and promotion, both of which are necessary for youth to become functioning and contributing adults to society. Dworkin et al.'s (2003) youth experiences survey concluded that faith-based and service activities are particularly associated with positive experiences. Sports were associated with gaining self-knowledge and developing emotional and physical skills; however, sports were also associated with negative peer interactions (cited in Wilson et al., 2010).

According to Zaff et al., creating and sustaining programmes that provide a safe and caring environment during non-school hours should be considered a pressing need. Their research highlights negative outcomes for adolescents doing nothing with their free time. If a young person consistently participates in activities from the eighth through to 12thgrade, they will be more likely to vote, volunteer, and attend college; 'engaging students in extra-curricular activities may benefit both the adolescent and community' (Zaff et al., 2003: 623). Young people's involvement in youth services therefore has further impact upon their development as active citizens, and upon political inclusion.

DfE research found that involving young people in the process of developing youth facilities from the outset forms a vital part of assuring the sustainability and effectiveness of the service in providing an attractive and worthwhile environment for young people. The report recommends that young people be involved not only in the provision of activities within the youth centre after construction, but that they should be consulted even during the planning stage of the operation so that every element of the facility can cater to the needs of young people (Department for Education, 2011).

However, concerns have been raised surrounding the relationship between young people and authority figures during this process. Evidence from service providers suggests that what young people want is not the only consideration to be had in youth centre design. Debate centres around how to be most cost-effective in the provision of services to young people, questioning whether it is better to dedicate a building completely to youth services, or to make it a community site, which anyone can book and make use of, and whether it is better to have fewer large facilities, or more smaller ones. The experience from Myplace projects suggests that multi-function spaces are needed for financial viability but have the added advantage of getting young people involved in the organisation of events outside of the facility's function as a youth centre; thereby enhancing the image of young people within the local community (National Youth Agency, 2008). This has the potential not only to give young people additional skills and experience in a real world setting but also to further tackle their marginalisation and make them more visible citizens.



Two year-eight tutor groups were selected randomly from a secondary academy in Lincoln providing a total of 45 students invited to the event. The young people taking part, 25 males and 20 females of 12 or 13 years of age, were from a variety of backgrounds and of different educational abilities and were living in the city itself or in more rural communities outside Lincoln. As might be expected within Lincoln, a city with relatively little ethnic diversity, there were not sufficient participants from different ethnic groups to offer any comment about the impact of this.

A range of quantitative data was collected at the event during an Optivote session, in which the participants used electronic voting handsets to select an answer to a number of questions. One limitation of this method is that Optivote only accepts one response per handset, preventing the respondent from selecting multiple answers. For example, when asking which kind of activities they would like to see in future, the young people could only select one activity as their preference, rather than any or all that they might be interested in.

Qualitative data was primarily provided by the young people's responses on comment cards for each of the three activity sessions held, which asked them to complete the statements 'I liked the session becauseā€¦' and 'I didn't like the session becauseā€¦'. While some of the comments are brief and/or not necessarily related to the service itself (e.g. '[Someone] scratched me') there are also some very pertinent comments that demonstrated the priorities and preferences of the young people.

In addition, tablecloths and marker pens during lunch offered an opportunity for the participants to make any additional comments, should they wish to. With a completely free rein, these comments were of varying quality and utility, but as a whole offer an interesting insight into the young people's experience of the day's events.

This event was followed up with a focus group session at the Academy. Nine young people who had been at the ESRC event were selected by the school to take part in this. It is not clear how representative this focus group might be of the range of young people's views, as the young people were selected by the school and issues of convenience, willingness to participate, etc. may have played a role here. The main aim of the focus group was to explore certain themes emerging from the event data and to gather additional qualitative data where some of the young people's responses needed expansion, where responses were missing or unclear.

The focus group method needed to be fairly structured to help elicit specific information, while also encouraging the young people to share their views. A set of extra questions were established from gaps in the preliminary findings and served as the structure for the meeting. Five facilitators were present, with one asking the questions and the other four assigned members of the focus group to record their views, ensuring that everyone's responses were recorded and preventing data from being missed. Where necessary additional prompt questions were used, particularly to encourage the voices of quieter participants so that the views collected were as comprehensive as possible.

Finally, the findings of the research were returned to the young people for their discussion and approval in order to confirm that these accurately reflected their views and could be presented to the services on their behalf.


Research Findings

Do you/have you ever used any clubs or services for young people?

Almost exactly half of the young people (22) had used a youth club or service in the past with just one more (23) answering that they had not used any services in the past.

How did you/do you normally find out about these services?

When asked how they found out about this service, or would normally find out about youth services, the most popular answer was from friends and family (47%), followed by school (36%), the internet (16%) and then posters/fliers (2%). None of the young people selected the option of the local press. Responses to this question were largely similar for both boys and girls. However, while 80% of the girls' responses were split evenly between school and friends/family, boys were more likely to select the friends/family option, with 52% of boys selecting this.

How would you most like to find out about youth services or events in future?

By contrast, when asked how they would like to find out about services in future, 27% identified the local press, the second most popular response, suggesting that they would like to see more information provided there than they currently receive. The most popular answer was 'in your school' (29%) which is likely to be their primary source of news. 22% selected posters/fliers, and 22% would like to find out online - 13% via a youth website and 9% via social networking.

The focus group provided a useful forum to explore with the young people how youth services can most effectively be advertised. Contrary to the quantitative data from Optivote, social networking was seen by the focus group as a useful way of distributing information about event as groups of friends can share the details easily, producing a snowball of interest. Youth workers should be aware of how much time young people in this age group are spending on social networking sites, even where they fall below the minimum age restriction for creating an account (which is for example 13 on Facebook).

While the Optivote session suggested that young people would like to see more information provided in the local press, it became clear from the focus group that the young people themselves did not tend to read the local newspaper, and would therefore need to rely on parents or family members to see the events advertised and pass on the information. This can be useful in gaining parental support for event attendance, but if parents don't want the young people to go, or simply think it might not be something that would interest them, they won't tell them about it, which might limit the opportunities for young people to try something new.

Advertising in school was seen as highly preferable, as it makes sharing information with friends easier. Fliers and posters were seen as effective, as young people are more likely to notice them and more likely to read them than the same information in a letter. A number of the young people spoke very positively about the practice of some youth workers who came to the school grounds to hand out leaflets and talk directly to the young people to engage their interest.

There was also support in the focus group for specific websites advertising youth events, which could be used to see locations, choice of activities and information about youth centres. This was also seen as useful in providing information to parents to offer reassurance about safety and suitability of the activity.

How would you prefer to travel to a youth centre/service?

When asked how they would prefer to get to a youth centre/activity, the most popular choice was to cycle (36%); however this was largely due to the responses from the boys in the group as almost of the boys selected this option. This was closely followed by getting a lift from friends or family (31%), the preferred option for girls and second choice for the boys. 20% indicated that they would prefer to walk and 13% to take a bus. What was difficult to discover from these responses is whether these modes of transport were selected because they are those most commonly used by the young person or because the young person would prefer that to their current mode of transport.

This was another area explored in some detail within the focus group. Within this group, there was a strong preference for getting a lift by car to activities and events, especially if attending alone. However, there were a number of issues with parents and lifts, for example, one might be able to get a lift to the activity but not back. For those living further away, such as in the outlying Lincolnshire villages, parents were seen as more willing to provide lifts because they want their children to be with their friends, but lifts have to be organised well in advance, and last minute changes to plans are not easily accommodated. If a lift from family or friends is not available, the young people would consider not going to the event or activity, so this is a clear obstacle to young people's engagement. Safety was a key consideration for young people and their parents. One participant noted that even fairly close to home, being out alone can be a worrying and intimidating experience due to other groups of young people's use of public spaces, particularly after dark.

The idea of having a shuttle bus running across the city to provide safe access to services was supported by the focus group. However, they felt that they would only use this with friends, because they would similarly be afraid of bullying and intimidating behaviour on the bus. In particular, they would not want such a shuttle bus to be in mixed age groups for this reason. If activities were available at school this group of young people felt that they would prefer to go there as it would be easy to get to, and perhaps also because of feelings of familiarity and security in the school environment. While the Optivote results suggested it was not their primary concern, transport is indeed problematic for many young people and any future planning of youth services, event and activities needs to provide workable solutions to the problem of transport.

Did you enjoy the activities and the venues offered in the taster sessions?

The overwhelming response was that the young people enjoyed the sessions at all three venues with no more than 16% of them responding that they liked neither the venue or activities provided in any one session. There were plenty of positive comments about the activities experienced during these sessions, the most common comment being that that the activities were 'fun', although this offered relatively little insight into what this might mean. There were several comments on the breakfast provided by one of the sessions reflecting their enthusiasm for being healthy and active: 'Good way to get you going in a morning'. There was considerable enjoyment of the active sports-based sessions, although perhaps more so by the boys in the group and with some participants clearly less comfortable with this: 'I'm not that good at boxing'. The young people enjoyed learning new skills, especially in the circus skills session and there were also some comments about enjoying teamwork activities. The attitude of the staff had a positive impact on the participants' enjoyment of the activities, commenting about one of the sessions that 'all the staff were friendly' and naming some of the individual staff specifically.

In spite of the impressive and purpose-built venue of the Myplace youth centre, most of the feedback comments on the day still focused on the activities provided there, with only one comment about the venue itself which did not relate to the provision of activities: 'I like it, it's big. It was amazing'. However, the facilities did not go entirely unnoticed as there were several positive comments noting the fact that this venue offered activities that were not normally available. In the focus group, further comments were made about the facilities, particularly the bowling and the free to play arcade games, but it was also acknowledged that the space was modern and the design stood out.

Cost was evident as an issue with some of the young people commenting that they enjoyed the session because it was free with some young people noting that it was not free all the time and that travel to the venue would also add to cost. The travel issue was most notable in the feedback on the venue which was located furthest from the young people's school. Thus while they enjoyed the session, there was a realistic acceptance that it might be difficult to get to in their own time. The local youth club, while more limited in facilities, was therefore valued for its ease of access, with some individuals who use it commenting that it 'Keeps you out of trouble'.

What sort of activities would you like to see more of in the future?

A range of categories were made available for choice, and of the five options the two most popular (with 24% each) were 'Sports & Fitness' (slightly more popular with girls) and 'Gaming & ICT' (slightly more popular with boys). The next highest scorer (20%) was 'Discos and Social Events' (more popular with boys (24%) than girls (10%)), followed by 'Music and Drama' (9%; all of these responses were from girls) and then 'Arts and Crafts', with 2% (just one girl). 18% selected 'None of the Above' (and there was one response missing) but were reluctant to specify what they would like to see instead. Given the disappointment expressed about not doing a dance session, perhaps dance could have been more explicitly mentioned in one of the options.

While gaming and ICT are popular, it was felt that most young people can do these things at home, taking advantage of online gaming and communications, and don't need to travel to access them. However, it may be useful to have games consoles and PCs available at youth centres for those who don't have them at home, so that everyone can join in. This is seen as particularly important for young people in rural areas as life in these communities is seen as 'boring', preventing them from doing many things.

Sometimes just having a place to go to is important, even where you are not even using it for its purpose, e.g. a BMX park can be a safe place to meet friends where they're not perceived as causing harm, rather than just somewhere where people would only go if they enjoyed skateboarding. The young people agreed that more unisex activities were needed, although it is not clear what these might be.

One recurring issue that appeared to be important in young people's lack of participation in youth activities is the provision of mixed-age sessions. There was wide agreement that they don't want to go to youth groups for 12-18 years and would like more age specific youth clubs, such as perhaps 12-15 then 16-18. Where the age range is too broad, they feel the older kids might 'pick on them' and they find their behaviour intimidating and inappropriate. This is very off-putting for younger teenagers and mixed-age sessions operate as a clear barrier to participation by this age group.

Which of these things would be the most important feature of a youth service that you would use?

The most popular response here (27%) was 'Somewhere that my friends all go to', revealing that for this age group engagement with youth services may revolve around the presence or otherwise of their friends. This seems to be more important for the girls, with 40% of them selecting this option, compared to 16% of boys. This issue is illustrated by the feedback that was received through the comment cards, which, regardless of the activities or the venue consistently bore remarks such as 'I wasn't with my best friend' in the negative feedback section, and positive comments included 'I was in a group with my mate'. These comments were particularly common in feedback for the first session of the day. In later sessions, perhaps the young people had made new friends and felt more comfortable in their group. In the focus group, the young people confirmed that they certainly prefer taking part in activities with friends. For some of the young people, they would attend activities that they didn't think looked particularly appealing if all of their friends were attending, although the girls were a little less likely to do so than the boys in the focus group. Some of the young people would be willing to try activities alone if they really wanted to, for example one girl noted that she had continued attending a theatre group, even though her friend dropped out. Although in this case she first attended with a friend, which, supports the notion that young people are less likely to sign up for new activities alone.

Only 2% of these young people (in fact just one boy from the group) selected the accessibility of the venue to be the most important feature, which suggests that they don't consider transport to be an issue (however, see discussion above about accessibility and transport). The results show that they are aware of the expense of youth services, as 24% said that having cheap and affordable activities is the most important thing for a youth service to provide (28% of boys compared to 20% of girls). A mere 4% (one boy and one girl) thought that having a venue dedicated exclusively to young people was important, but the participants did care a great deal about the activities on offer, with 22% stating that having fun and exciting activities is the most important thing (36% of boys compared to just 10% of girls). 9% of participants thought that a youth service needed to have friendly and supportive staff, which is surprisingly low considering the number of positive feedback comments received concerning how much enjoyment was gained through the positive attitudes of the staff during the sessions. Interestingly this option was only selected by girls, which may suggest perhaps that young girls value relationships with youth workers more than boys.



In conclusion, a great deal of importance was placed upon the effective advertising of youth services to young people, with an example being made of the hands-on approach of a youth worker who was outwardly excited about his service on visits to various schools in the area. Although the quality of the staff was not the most important thing identified by the young people in the quantitative data, there were numerous comments about the individuals involved on the day to work with the young people - encouraging, friendly, supportive, fun, cool and 'like our mates'. However, there was also an acknowledgement of the wider range of skills that youth workers need, including organisation, responsibility, inclusiveness and consideration for young people's feelings. Importantly, youth workers should not be seen to behave like parents and teachers, in terms of authority and hierarchy. The young people like staff working with them, engaging in the activities with them, and talking with them.

It is a reflection on this that the focus of the young people's comments was on the activities provided by a service, and not the venue. There were very few comments about any of the venues other than in relation to specific facilities e.g. the bowling alley, or their sense of being rather too crowded within the space. It would seem therefore that young people of this age group are happy to be provided with 'fun' activities in any suitably sized area. This was echoed in their responses about the most important features of a youth centre, where the two least popular responses related to the location and accessibility, and the provision of a centre just for young people. These were certainly not as important as the provision of fun and affordable activities. However, the issue of transport was important to participants, especially for those that did not regularly have access to public transport, or lifts from parents/carers. The solution for many of the participants was to cycle, but this was perceived as dangerous after dark, and especially in the winter. The ideal solution was likely to be a mobile youth service, such as perhaps a coach fitted out with games and equipment for young people to use, or a shuttle bus service.

Interestingly, one thing that the participants were unanimous in their distaste of was mixed-age-group sessions that were run for some youth services in the area. These were found to be intimidating and off-putting for younger people. It was suggested that different age groups have different needs, and as such it would be preferred if youth services offered different opportunities for them in age-specific sessions..

It is important to note that the results of our study are based on the opinions of a relatively small group of young people, and as such these results are not necessarily representative of the feelings of all young people nationwide. However, the study gives some valuable insights into the opinions and feelings of the specific group of participants used. The results of this study should be useful to the Lincolnshire-based youth workers, but for this type of research to be applicable nationwide, a far larger study needs to take place, and there is certainly a void to be filled by more research into the way the users of youth services think about the opportunities presented to them.




[1] Matthew Burrows is currently studying BA (hons) Criminology at the University of Lincoln, entering the third and final year of the course in September.

[2] Serena Dama is entering her third year at Lincoln University, studying BA (hons) Criminology. She is also a support worker for Mencap and a Barnardo's Think Family volunteer.

[3] Bradley Payne is studying BA (hons) Criminology at Lincoln University and is starting his third and final year.

[4] Erena Rawlins is studying BA (hons) Social Science at the University of Lincoln, entering her third and final year of study.

[5] Hannah Wheeler is entering her third year at the University of Lincoln studying BA (hons) Criminology. She is about to start a volunteer placement with NACRO in Lincolnshire.

[6] Sue Bond-Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Lincoln University's School of Social Sciences. She is currently undertaking an evaluation of Lincolnshire County Council's community budget pilot for supporting families with complex needs.



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