Guest Blog: Brendan Conboy on the principles of youth work


31 Mar 2015

My previous blogs have focused on planning and time management, but in this blog I want to share something that is very close to my heart.  I am of course referring to “Youth Work”.

Some people have this misconception that Youth Work is all fun and games, just “hanging out” with a bunch of young people.  I have been a Youth Worker for 28 years and when I hear the title “Youth Worker” it makes me think about the role from two different angles.

The first angle is that common misconception of just “hanging out” with young people, but then I focus on the word “Worker” and am reminded that good youth work can be incredibly hard work!

A good Youth Worker should truly embrace the four principles of youth work, but I once asked a youth worker, during a job interview to explain these to me and he brushed them aside as if they meant nothing.

Good quality youth work is built upon the foundation of these principles and in recent years I have also realised that they could make a significant impact on your business, if you can apply this way of thinking.

So here goes my attempt to share with you the four principles and how you can benefit from their implementation:

1.       Empowerment – I have seen people struggle massively with this one and used to struggle with it myself.  Then one day the penny eventually dropped, I realised that I didn’t have to always be in control of everything.  I handed over control, I delegated and I empowered.  At first I did this with young people and my concern was, will they do it right?  Will it be acceptable?  Will they do it fast enough?  The truth is it was different, but that didn’t mean that it was wrong.  It may have been done slower, but at least I could get on with something else.  Then I realised that something else was happening, this empowerment, this TRUE empowerment was lifting their confidence, motivating them and allowing them to feel valued.  This principle of youth work is perhaps the most important for employers to embrace and implement.  For to do so will transform the way that your work force performs.  Many books have been written about empowerment, but let me just finish this section by asking this question, “if you are not empowering are you actually disempowering?”

2.       Equality of opportunity – this does not mean that we treat everybody the same, in fact it would be so wrong to do that, as we all have different needs.  Yes, there will be some people that you naturally relate easier to, perhaps they like the same things as you or they just seem very friendly and chatty?  Whereas, the person that is perceived as disruptive and threatening may not be so easy to connect with.  Whether this is a young person in a youth club or one of your team of staff, when it comes to equality of opportunity, there really should be no favourites.  I have witnessed miraculous transformations in people that have never been given an opportunity, but given a chance they can shine and surprise us all, including themselves.   In a similar way to my question above, if you are not truly providing equality of opportunity, are you discriminating?

3.       Informal education – Now some Youth Workers get a little hung up with this one.  They hear the word “education”, then relate to a classroom environment, forgetting the word “informal”.  It is once we understand the concept that there is a learning experience in all that we do, that we can really start to benefit from informal education.  Youth work must essentially be FUN, but when we weave new information, new knowledge and new experiences into the fun, the participant remembers, retains and therefore learns.  As adults we never stop learning and therefore, as a Manager I adopt the process of informal education.  The day to day interaction amongst team members will result in each learning from the other and creates an element of FUN and camaraderie.  We refer to work place learning as continuous professional development (CPD) and whether this is through formal processes such as annual appraisals or regular supervision meetings, the main ingredient has to be fun (engaging).  Then you will hear people say “this is a great place to work.”

4.       Voluntary participation – this is perhaps the easiest of the four principles to understand in a youth work setting.  Unlike school or work, the young people choose to take part.  The positive energy that is associated with volunteering to participate is powerful with a very noticeable impact.  In the work place this is slightly different, as an employee turns up, does the job and then gets paid.  So how can this principle become embedded into our work place practice?  The answer is that you can’t insist that it is, it is after all voluntary, but as a Manager I have always tried to lead by example.  Good dynamic leadership will enthuse others to give all that they can to see the organisation thrive.  Of course you may expect this to happen more naturally in the charity sector, but it is not impossible within a purely business setting.  I make a point of consciously, “going the extra mile” and to go “above and beyond the call of duty.”  As a result, others follow.  I am also conscious of those that may at times take on too much and will suggest that they do less in order to preserve their sanity.  This is really all about balance and a good Manager will be aware of the participation of the whole team under them.

Brendan Conboy is a youth worker of 28 years standing. This blog first appeared on Brendan’s consultancy website