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Home > Mapping the empirical research base of youth work: learning from international practice.

Keane, Martin (2013) Mapping the empirical research base of youth work: learning from international practice. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 47, Autumn 2013 , pp. 28-29.

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 An estimated 312,615 young people aged between 10 and 24 participated in youth work activities in Ireland during 2011, according to a recent report prepared for the National Youth Council (NYCI).1 This figure represents 43.3% of this age cohort nationally; 54% of the participants were female and 53.3% were believed to be socially or economically disadvantaged. 

Against this background, the first systematic map of youth work research internationally was published in June 2013.2 This work was commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to inform the development of a ‘youth policy framework’. The report cites the EPPI-Centre’s definition of a systematic map as ‘a classification and description that aims primarily to illustrate the kinds of studies that exist’ in a specific area (p.4). This article briefly describes the methods of the mapping process and the key elements of the design of youth work interventions.  

Search strategy
Potential studies were drawn from 11 bibliographic databases, 10 relevant websites, contents pages of key journals, reference lists of systematic reviews, and input from key informants and experts. In total, 175 studies published between 1976 and 2011 are included in the final report; 69% of these are from the US.
Inclusion criteria
Studies were included if they focused on young people aged 10–24, professionals working with young people, or parents of young people engaged in youth work activities. Studies that focused on positive futures for young people, that reported evaluations of effectiveness, delivery and outcome measurement were included.
Profile of the 175 studies included
The majority (68%) of the 175 studies were published as peer-reviewed journal articles; 50% evaluated the impact of youth work programmes, focusing on ‘what works’, and 20% evaluated the process of delivering a programme, focusing on ‘how it works’.  One third were designed as case studies and 23% were cross-sectional designs; both approaches collected data at one point in time, e.g. following participation in programme activities. In addition to primary studies, 33 non-systematic and three systematic reviews were included. Methods of data collection used in the studies included interviews with individuals (41%), focus groups (17%), closed-question surveys (38%) and/or validated scales (21%), and observation of people and activities (19%). Some studies combined data collected by more than one method, e.g. interviews and surveys.
Theories, aims and activities of youth work
The most commonly cited theoretical approach among the 93 studies that evaluated outcomes was the ‘positive youth development’ theory. According to the authors, this school of thought asserts that
for young people to meet developmental targets, they need to be engaged in activities delivered in settings that are safe, supportive and foster meaningful relationships. …theories of positive youth development could underpin a range of different youth work activities and still be considered effective in producing desired outcomes. (p.23)
The next most commonly cited theoretical approaches underpinning youth work programme were the ‘socio-ecological model’ and the ‘empowerment model’. The former model seeks to design programmes that address a combination of individual and environmental factors through focusing on the dynamic relationship between young people and others within the wider context of their lives. The latter model emphasises the design of programmes to assist young people to develop a greater understanding of power and control in their lives, socially, politically and economically, and to support them to become consciously and critically engaged with society through a range of measures and activities. Both models are more focused on desired outcomes for young people than on specific activities and both emphasise the interaction between young people and wider society. In contrast, the positive youth development model is more about creating the right conditions to improve personal development outcomes for young people.
The personal and social development of young people was reported as the primary aim in over twice as many included studies as any other aim (Table 1). In Ireland, the Youth Work Act 2001 defines youth work as:
A planned programme of education designed for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the personal and social development of young people through their voluntary involvement, and which is complementary to their formal, academic or vocational education and training and provided primarily by voluntary youth work organisations.
Leisure, recreation and arts activities were reported by most studies included in the mapping process (Table 1). The nature of youth work in Ireland is quite similar to that reported from international research, with the vast majority (80%) of youth work organisations in Ireland providing recreational, arts and sports-related activities.1

Outcomes and measures in youth work
The NYCI report focused mainly on the impacts of youth work, specifically the economic benefits, i.e. crime reduction, rather than on outcomes and the outcome measures employed. However, the report listed (on p.91) some of the main outcomes of youth work highlighted in an earlier study,3 which are summarised below:

·         enhanced personal attributes and qualities;
·         opportunities for more positive associations with people;
·         personal development;
·         enhanced positive and pro-social behaviour;
·         development of practical skills, for example making decisions, organising, planning; and
·         information, advice and advocacy in relation to health, relationships, sexuality.
These outcomes are not dissimilar from those reported in international research and reflect the emphasis on improving personal and social development, which was reported in almost twice as many studies as other outcomes, such as improving civic engagement and reducing risky behaviour (Table 2).

This review of the literature shows that there are many similarities between the practice of youth work in Ireland and international research on the key components in design and evaluation. However, further work is needed to evaluate the outcomes of youth work in Ireland against international benchmarks and to assess the effectiveness of using generic youth work models, i.e. personal and social development, to target the most at-risk young people.

1.   Indecon International Economic Consultants (2012) Assessment of the economic value of youth work. Report prepared for the National Youth Council. Dublin: National Youth Council of Ireland
2.   Dickson K, Vigurs CA and Newman M (2013) Youth work: a systematic map of the research literature. Dublin: Department of Children and Youth Affairs. 
3.   Devlin M and Gunning A (2009) The purpose and outcomes of youth work: report to the Interagency Group. Dublin: Irish Youth Work Press.
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
All substances
Issue Title
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
October 2013
Page Range
pp. 28-29
Health Research Board
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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