The role of youth work in the Scottish educational system: a study of policy and practice

Sara Galilea, a Public Policy MSc student at the University of Edinburgh completed a placement based dissertation with YouthLink Scotland in the summer of 2022. The focus of Sara’s dissertation was exploring the role of youth work in the Scottish educational system.

Profile shot of Sara Galilea, research student at YouthLink Scotland.

Youth work is being increasingly recognized within governmental discourses and educational policy and it is becoming much more common to see youth workers engaging in partnerships with the formal education system. Still, the sector perceives a lack of parity of esteem within the system, and there is a concern that their role as an educational practice is not fully understood. In this context, several interesting questions arise, such as, what do education partners understand as youth work? How is the government integrating youth work into educational frameworks?  And how does the youth work sector see its own role within the educational system?

As part of my Masters dissertation, I was able to delve into some of these questions. Through my research which included engaging in thought-provoking conversations with youth workers and with policy actors that work in close collaboration with the sector, I noticed that various ideas about the role of youth work in education are expressed. I´d summarise these as follows:

Youth work as an alternative to the formal education system

There is an understanding that the formal education system does not always meet the needs of every student and that youth work can provide alternative routes for young people to engage in learning. This view is also associated with the possibility of recognizing and accrediting varied routes of learning and different kinds of achievement.

Youth work as support for the formal education system

This view of youth work acknowledges the role that the sector can play in building young people´s readiness to learn, sometimes as a stepping stone to re-engaging them into the formal schooling system. At its best, this view highlights the part that youth workers can play in reaching young people on a more individual basis, delving deeper into the issues they are confronting, and coming up with individualized plans to help them. At its worse, it might suggest that youth work´s role within education is simply to plug gaps or help ‘manage behaviour’ during the traditional school day.

Youth work as an antidote to the formal education system

This perspective takes a more critical view of the formal education system, suggesting that experiences of school-based learning may even be damaging and disempowering for some young people. Here, youth work is endorsed as a more empowering pedagogy that could reverse part of the negative impact of the formal system and create consciousness regarding disempowering structures.

Certainly, the range of ideas that I discovered in my reading and in my conversations with stakeholders in different parts of the system highlighted the complex, diverse, and flexible nature of youth work. There can be no doubt that youth work adds value in the education system. However, I was left wondering whether the flexibility and personalisation that youth work can offer creates an interesting challenge when trying to describe youth work´s role.  First, how can the complexity of youth work be converted into a narrative that is simply understood by other education partners? As an external observer, I have to admit that, at times, I still find the range of youth work confusing. Secondly, how can the identity and methods of youth work be preserved as it works more closely to support the requests of the formal system? Is there a danger that youth work is vulnerable to external expectations and to being seen only as a way to mend gaps left by other services?

I think perhaps the answer lies in a fourth, emerging, view of youth work that I encountered in my conversations with youth practitioners and others across the system.  This is a perspective that positions youth work as a complement to the formal education system and installs it as an integral and equal partner in education in Scotland. Proponents of this view emphasize that youth work is a unique pedagogy with its own values and methods, that enriches what is offered in formal settings. They advocate for more effective collaboration across youth work and formal education, in schools and in communities, so that young people can access learning where and how they want to, and in a way that makes sense to them. Since this vision preserves a clear identity for practice and places the youth worker in a strong position within the education system, I truly hope that it prevails.