Challenges in Evidencing the Impact of Universal Youth Work

With funding decisions increasingly swung by numerical data and headline figures, Dr Ross Whitehead writes for us about how we can find new ways to demonstrate the long-term benefits of engagement in universal community youth work.

Photo of Dr Ross Whitehead from Public Health Scotland

Dr Ross Whitehead has been a member of the Scottish Youth Work Research Steering Group since 2017 and in this role has contributed to demonstrating the value of youth work quantitatively. Ross’ career has focused on the health of children and young people at national, local and international levels, including roles as a Public Health Adviser at Public Health Scotland and as a researcher developing the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey in Scotland. Of particular relevance to the youth work sector, Ross has published literature reviews evidencing the impact and role of trusted adults and youth-friendly health services.


The Value of Youth Work in Scotland

The Scottish Youth Work Research Steering Group (SYWRSG) is committed to demonstrating the value of youth work. We believe the case for investment in the preventative power of youth work has never been clearer, given challenges facing Scotland’s young people, particularly in terms of mental health, challenges in social support at school and the impact of the Covid pandemic (all as highlighted by the 2022 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study and the 2021/22 Health and Wellbeing Census). 

YouthLink Scotland’s impact hub brings together a range of evidence demonstrating the impact of youth work, including evidence on its reach and social value, and case studies which describe the benefits of youth work using the words of young people and youth workers. 

Whilst those directly involved in youth work are intimately aware of its benefits, it can often be difficult to quantify with cold, hard numbers the impact that youth work has on young people’s social and emotional outcomes. Concrete numerical data, however, often has the greatest influence over funding decisions and is essential in securing buy-in. For this reason, SYWRSG has been active in investigating how we can draw on data from research studies to address this gap.

Measuring Youth Work’s Impact: Data and Strategies

One such source of data comes from the Growing up in Scotland study (GUS), which is a longitudinal birth cohort which since 2004 has collected information from children since birth on a wide range of factors relating to their health, wellbeing and social circumstances.  

The ninth survey of the main birth cohort was conducted in 2017/18 when the children were 12 to 13 years old. SYWRSG has worked with the administrators of the GUS study to include questions relating to youth work activities. Some questions relating to youth work participation were included in the collected information for this survey round, covering youth work activities such as uniformed youth groups, youth clubs, and engagement with youth workers and youth award schemes. Overall, around a third of the study participants were involved in one or more of these types of activity, with the most common being uniformed youth groups at this age. 

This enabled us to investigate factors associated with reported youth work participation. For example, it showed us that females are slightly more likely to participate in any form of youth work, and that those from more affluent families are more likely to be engaged in any form of youth work. 

Questions were also asked of young people’s main carers about what they saw to be the impact of their youth work participation. The most commonly cited benefits were the activities increasing young people’s happiness, confidence and peer relationships, with around 90% agreeing that these were benefits of uniformed youth work activities. It is worth pointing out that nationally, these three outcome areas are where the most marked declines in young people’s wellbeing have been seen over the past decade (HBSC 2022). 

Impact and Influence: Stats and Stories

The Scottish Youth Work Research Steering Group feature as an expert panel discussion at this year’s National Youth Work Conference on 1 November. Hear more about the future of youth work research in Scotland and have your say.

Youth Work Participation and Outcome Measures: Unravelling the Relationship

Our main analysis was to look at whether youth work participation was associated with key outcome measures, including a measure of young people’s social and emotional wellbeing. Whilst we found that young people that are engaged in youth work activities show better scores for “pro-social” outcome scales, no association was seen for an overall measure of wellbeing. 

Illustrating the challenges of evidencing the impact of youth work numerically, this could reflect a few different things. Firstly, it could be the case that the measure of youth work participation isn’t sensitive enough. By simply comparing whether or not a young person participated in any form of youthwork or not, we may have not adequately captured the variation in practice and young people’s experiences. 

It could also be the case that by looking at only one time point masks the true impact, as those that do participate may tend to be those that benefit the most from participation, and have their outcomes brought to an equivalent level to those that don’t participate.  

The questions about youth work participation, and outcome measures were repeated in the tenth survey round, conducted when the young people were around 15 years old. This allowed us to investigate whether any changes in youth work participation between the ages of 13 and 15 were associated with any changes in outcome measures.

Looking Ahead: Future Youth Work Research

Whilst this analysis shows some encouraging hints that maintenance of youth work participation was associated with improvement in young people’s mental health outcomes (especially for males), this analysis suffered from a lack of statistical power – that is that there were too few people in the sample to be able to generalise the findings to the whole population.  

In terms of next steps, the SYWRSG is actively examining ways of repeating these analyses with other surveys and looking into the possibility of establishing longitudinal datasets that can help us answer queries about the long-term benefits of engagement in universal community youth work. Watch this space!