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Youth Workers: Agents Of Social Control Or Agents Of Social Change?

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In this assignment I am going to be discussing the role of a youth worker and how that role is defined, I will look at how youth work has changed over the years as well as the youth service. My research will examine the question-Youth workers- Are we agents of social control or agents of social change? I will also look into what social change and social control mean to me and the society we live in. To investigate this further I am basing my argument on three reports, the Albemarle report, the Thompson report and the Milson-Fairbairn report and conclude this.

So, what is our role as youth workers? The term Youth worker refers to both paid and voluntary workers who usually work with young people aged between 4 to 25 years, as youth workers we seek to promote young people’s social and personal development and enable them to have a voice, influence and a sense of identity and belonging in their community and society as a whole. Our role is to give young people a safe place to experience decision making, develop inter-personal skills and think through the consequences of their actions. This leads to young people making better informed choices, changes in activity and improved outcomes. For me a youth workers role is about building a trusting relationship where we treat each other equally and respectfully, always being the listening ear and supportive adult. It is also about being a good role model and encouraging those to be the very best they can with the support of programmes and interventions to guide and skill them to deal with any issues that affect them.

According to the national youth agency “Youth work helps young people learn about themselves, others and society through activities that combine enjoyment, challenge, learning and achievement. It is a developmental process that starts in places and at times when young people themselves are ready to engage, learn and make use of it, the relationship between youth worker and young person is central to this process. ( last accessed 18-04-2020)

The relationship between the youth worker and young person is definitely the most important element as this is where we build the connection to greater participation as Bernard Davis suggests the principle of young people’s voluntary participation Is a – perhaps the – defining feature of youth work.

The definition of social control According to Mannheim, social control is the sum of those methods by which a society tries to influence human behaviour to maintain a given order. Any society must have harmony and order, where there is no harmony or order the society actually does not exist because society is a harmonious organisation of human relationships. ( last accessed 19-04-2020)

The definition of social change “refers to any significant alteration over time in behaviour patterns and cultural values and norms. By “significant “alteration, sociologists mean changes yielding profound social consequences. Examples of significant social changes having long term effects include the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the feminist’s movement. ( last accessed 19-04-2020)

Youth work has a long history where there are examples of social control from the early days of youth institutes and clubs in the 1850s in Britain. Here is some evidence of young people’s behaviours being seen as needing to be regulated and social norms needing to be upheld and enforced. The Reverend Arthur Sweatman set up a youth institute because he believed the lads and young men have “special wants and dangers “. Their peculiar wants are evening recreation, companionship, an entertaining but healthy literature, useful instruction, and a strong guiding influence to lead them onward and upward socially and morally, their dangers are, the long evenings consequent upon early closing, the unrestraint they are allowed at home, the temptations of the street and of their time of life, and a little money at the bottom of their pockets. (Sweatman 1867).

A few years later more Christian uniformed groups were established like the Boys Brigade, these were very controlled and regimented groups, but Robert Baden-Powell disliked the regimentation and was suspicious of the formal religious side of it and started up his own groups, The Scouts and Cubs. He believed in promoting wellbeing and” learning through doing”. Much like we are today in youth work Robert Baden-Powell was concerned with young people’s social life, working together and taking responsibility. During a rally organised by the boys scouts a group of girls arrived and declared themselves Girl Scouts so thereafter Agnes Baden-Powell, Roberts’s sister officially established the Girl Guide Association, this was the girls taking control and making a positive change for themselves.

Another figure in the development of youth work within the Methodist church in the 1950s was Leonard Barnett. His vision was to inspire youth workers and he was an advocate for informal learning

His emphasis on the youth club as an educative community, and his concern with the associational needs of young people owed a great deal to the work of Josephine Macalister Brew (indeed Brew wrote the foreword to The Church Youth Club) and Marjorie Reeves. However, what Leonard Barnett was able to add was a distinctly Christian appreciation of the possibilities of club life.

A club… must be seen as an instrument which can aid and abet to a large degree the unfolding of the more abundant life by those who are members of it. It is a community which seeks to help forward the process of education for life by its consistent care for body, mind and spirit. And the differentiae of the church youth club derive from a basic conviction that the Christian faith alone and in its fullness can prove the ultimate integrating factor, both for the individual and for the community. It bids us exercise an over-all care for the well-being of the whole person, body and mind no less and no more than spirit, believing that they together form an inviolate trinity. (Barnett 1951: 34)

Our job is to provide such opportunities for development of body, mind and spirit, as will enable the boys and girls in our club to enter upon fullness of life as the sons and daughters of the living God. (Barnett 1962: 3)

I believe Barnett was promoting social change through the term” fellowship “and how he brought this into his youth clubs. He was concerned with care of the whole person and the rights of the individual, he was strongly committed to association and the learning and good that comes from playing one’s part and taking responsibility.

In the 1960s the Albemarle Report (1960) was published after pressure was put on the government to select a committee to review the youth service, as the media where perceiving young people as a problem. Youths were being portrayed as irresponsible, increasingly violent and destructive. The Albemarle report (1960) revealed the lack of expenditure in the past and that the service had been scandalously neglected. The report was a landmark in the history of youth service and new approaches were needed. 44 recommendations were made altogether and one was for the expansion of the work force and more opportunities for workers to become professionally qualified. Action was also needed to make the youth service a more significant part of the educational structure. The report also found that volunteering and voluntary attendance was the youth services strength. Albemarle (1960) states ” voluntary attendance is important because it introduces adult freedom and choice” This can be seen as social change as the youth were in control of their choice whether to attend and participate in activities, but also there are elements of social control in the reasoning behind the changes.

The Milson-Fairbairn report (1970s) was set up to review the youth service after the Albemarle report and it had a committee that was broke into two sub groups, one chaired by Fred Wilson to look at youth work and the relationship with the adult community and the second was chaired by Andrew Fairbairn to examine youth work and schooling and further education. The report suggested that the service was failing in some areas particularly the younger age bands, originally the focus was on the 14 to 20 age band. Some figures produced from this report revealed that member’s numbers dropped by the ages 19 and 20, the voluntary sector had a higher proportion of all ages but there was a lower percentage of girls who seemed to lose interest quicker. When you look at the reasons behind the girls drop in participation you have to consider what was available for them? The young men had their pool/ snooker tables ,football halls, dart boards and the like and the girls tended to spend most of their time in the toilets talking or doing hair if they were lucky enough to have a hairdressing room, even though years earlier Albemarle had stated that “much more thought will need to be given to their specific needs” The report suggested looking for results in young people with wider interest freely chosen and gaining social confidence and responsibility for themselves and others. If this was accomplished then I see the result as youth workers as agents of social change

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The Thompson report (1982) looked favourably to youth services working collectively with the community, with the hope that young people feel a sense of belonging in the society they lived in. Some of Thompsons report (1982) recommends the following:

  • Youth service to help all the young people who needs it.
  • The provision of political education should be a normal part of the youth service curriculum.
  • The youth service should develop the means of working together to encourage the most effective use of funds, staff and facilities.
  • The service must take deliberate steps to insure the personal development of girls.
  • Provision of minority groups to be integrated and separate.

The overall aims of the youth service should be seen as affirming an individual’s self-belief and encouraging participation in society.

Workers to gain necessary training, accept that part of their work is administration and working in the community.

Thompson also recognised the difference between teachers and youth workers because of the voluntary participation, this would encourage positive development when working in the community and providing informal education. It also felt that personal social development programmes were key to building relationships and educating youth in their own identity and place in social.

Published in 1987, this piece by HM Inspectors is one of the last English government reports to promote open youth work – albeit with an emphasis on activity, planning and personal and social development. It drew upon a series of inspection reports to provide a series of examples of what they then deemed to be good practice.

The development of individuals through activity

Young people voluntarily associate with the youth service. They become involved for many reasons—to meet their friends; to spend their leisure out of the home; for specific activities from rock climbing to drama; for help and advice. Some are content if the youth facility they use is welcoming and friendly, if the activities they participate in are exciting and creative. Effective youth work seeks to use young people

Spontaneous or continuing interests to foster their personal and social development. Sometimes the youth worker cannot plan the interventions to encourage the achievement of such goals but has to take opportunities ‘on the wing’ in a variety of social or recreational contexts: effective youth work (1987)

If youth workers where to take an active role in enabling young people to avail of all the opportunities available by their own choice, this could be youth workers acting as agents of social change

After reading the reports and other papers on youth work, I am drawn to the repetitive nature of how young girls youth provision was not catered for fully. Each report recognised failings but the next report didn’t rectify the outcomes. This brings me to thinking about my own young girls at our youth club. Unfortunately, we still live in a male dominated society and focus a lot on the improved chances and outlook of young men in our society. Is this history repeating itself?

I live and work in an area of high deprivation in the Bogside and Brandywell and my main aim as a youth worker is to guide and support our young people on a journey of development to be able to express themselves, and more than anything to feel safe.

Now when I reflect on our young people’s journeys I am honestly reflecting firstly on the changes for our young men. In this area we have gone through difficult times for young people and their families and community. Our first reaction is to try and keep everyone safe.

When I was thinking about a time when I felt an agent of social change and social control, I am drawn back to two summers ago when there was a lot of tension in our area with paramilitaries. Our young boys were on the streets that they lived in, and where being drawn into activities surrounding anti- community behaviour. These were young people that grew up in the youth club environment and had been involved with a variety of educational programmes. Our task was to re-engage with them and offer support, safety, guidance and an alternative option, the result was a group of young men that enrolled in a young men’s employment scheme. Where they felt a sense of identity, appreciation and belonging. They further went on to enrol in voluntary programmes where they gained experience of giving back to the community.

This is where I go back to the young girls in our youth club. These girls have come to the youth club every week, from little juniors to now empowered young adults. They have gained a wealth of life experiences already in their young lives, through their club adventures from social and personal development programmes, dance clubs, sports teams, volunteer projects, international volunteering opportunities, travel and cultural experiences as well as gaining accredited qualifications. This is to name but a few of the youth service experiences the young girls and boys have participated in.

To conclude I do feel that youth workers are using aspects of social control and social change. I would say we have used control to keep our young people safe. When we are offering interventions to steer our young people away from trouble and danger this is seen as social control but the alternative is being controlled by the police and youth justice system.

When you look at the description of” what is the role of a youth worker” it all points towards promoting social change for our young people.

Looking at the reports you can see the control in decision making about funding and pre-decided programmes. Although all of the reports made good recommendations I think the Thompson report went further towards creating more possibilities to deliver social change. The most important words in all three reports are voluntary participation.


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  4. 2020. Effective Youth Work. A Report By HM Inspectors | Infed.Org. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2020].
  5. 2020. Leonard Barnett And The Church Youth Club | Infed.Org. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2020].
  6. 2020. Youth And Community Work In The 70S – The Younger Teenage Group | Infed.Org. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 April 2020].
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