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What is Youth Work?

The Youth Work Sector actively works with young people outside, yet alongside, the formal education sector. The Youth Work Act, 2001  and the National Youth Work Development Plan 2003-2007, which underpin policy at present, provide both a clear definition and direction for Youth Work. Youth Work is defined as:

"a planned programme of education designed for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the personal and social development of young persons through their voluntary participation, and which is complementary to their formal, academic or vocational education and training; and provided primarily by voluntary youth work organisations." (Youth Work Act, 2001)

This definition clearly articulates youth work as being educational and elective, structured and systematic.

Youth work operates in various settings spanning the non-formal education through to informal education. Youth work engages young people from ten to twenty-four years of age, a significant period in terms of both development and duration. Therefore as an educational methodology, it is in a pivotal position to contribute to the educational welfare of young people. Youth work is predicated on the voluntary participation of young people. Flexibility of approach and emphasis on the interpersonal, enables it to offer an educational process complementary to that provided through formal education. In addition, Youth work often acts as the point of contact and referral in the interface with other youth- related issues spanning the realms of care, health, and welfare.

Youth work is both a sustainable educational strategy and a significant educational support to young people, who may be either inside or outside the formal education system. The stimulation of critical reflection and action facilitates the cultivation of active citizenship and the enhancement of sustainable personal and social competencies and capacities. Thus, Youth work has a defined position on the continuum of educational and lifelong learning provision.

For the purpose of the Act, a young person means a person who is under the age of 25 years. Particular regard is given to young people between the ages of 10 and 21 and to those who are socially or economically disadvantaged.

International map of youth work research, June 2013

Through the Centre for Effective Services, Dublin, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs commissioned the first systematic international map of youth work research. It provides a unique resource for investigating the content of youth work, how it is delivered and the terms in which it is assessed, both in formal evaluations of its impact and by children and young people themselves. It provides a valuable basis for developing an evidence-informed approach to policy and practice.


Key findings include:

• The ethos of youth work in Ireland, which emphasizes participation, empowerment and personal and social development, is shared by much of the international research literature.
• The ways in which the research literature describes the aims of youth work can be categorised as follows: personal and social development; social change; education and career; safety and well-being; and contribution to society.
• Youth work attempts to achieve these aims by providing a broad range of activities. Overall, the activities described in the studies can be categorised as follows: leisure and recreation; arts, drama, music; sports and physical activities; volunteer and service; social action; and informal learning.
• The studies show that a range of human and social capital outcomes were measured within all 7 activity domains and that youth work is attempting to make an ambitious contribution to improving outcomes for young people. These outcomes can be categorised as follows: relationship with others; sense of self; community and society; health and well-being; values and beliefs; and formal education and training.

Youth work: A systematic map of the research literature

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