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Gareth Newton - 21st Century Learning: the contribution of Youth Work

Gareth Newton article imageEvery secondary school teacher can point them out to you: pupils who won’t reach their potential. Sometimes their attendance is poor, or they sit at the back and don’t pay attention in lessons, or spend too much of their time larking around. In the 1970s and 1980s I was teaching in a comprehensive school on the edge of a large local authority housing estate in south Wales and I had my fair share of pupils like these. At the same time I was working two evenings a week as a part-time youth worker and it became apparent to me that some young people were leading lives that made succeeding in school very difficult, if not impossible, for them.

Good teachers know many things: one of the things they know for certain is that failing in school can have a devastating impact on a pupil’s life chances. And this generation of young people faces significant challenges as they make the transition to adulthood: to be successful in that transition they need to be self-confident, to be skilled in building and maintaining relationships, and - above all - to be motivated and resilient. Yet young people with poor educational achievement are less likely to have the skills needed to enter into and progress in work, less likely to have good mental health, and less likely to be able to provide support for their own children as they make their way through school.

So much is expected of teachers, yet young people spend only 15% of their waking time in school. There are many situational factors affecting young people’s willingness and preparedness to learn that are outside the ability of teachers and schools to influence significantly, or control. Unsupportive parents or chaotic family life, negative peer group pressure, communities antithetical to learning: these are powerful and destructive influences on young people.

That other 85% of waking time provides an opportunity for youth workers to engage positively with young people. My work as a teacher and a youth worker means that I have first-hand experience of how effective youth work can be in helping young people to re-engage with learning. But this is definitely not the be all and end all of youth work, which has much to offer all young people, not just those who are disengaged.

There are three critical features - principles if you like - which distinguish the youth work approach from other ways of working with young people. The most important of these is that young people choose to engage: they participate because they find what’s on offer interesting, or they want to meet new friends, or they want to have fun. The second principle is that youth work is an educational process and that youth workers recognise young people as partners in their own learning. The third principle is that youth work starts from where young people are: this means that you will find youth workers in arts projects, involved in criminal justice work, in housing associations, in outdoor education, in detached, street-based programmes, in youth centres - and, also, in schools. If you want to find out more about the scope of youth work in Wales then follow this link to an excellent, very readable, pamphlet - “Youth Work in Wales: Principles and Purposes” , published by the Youth Work in Wales Review Group. Find it here: 

Youth work is a skilled profession which has a good track record of working with the hard-to-reach. Youth workers do this through building trusting and supportive relationships with young people, enabling and encouraging them to take part in activities that develop their resilience and the skills they need for life. The Welsh Government recognised this by identifying youth work in “The National Youth Work Strategy for Wales 2014-2018” ( ) as having “an important contribution to make in supporting young people to succeed in education, stay safe, stay healthy, play a positive role in their communities and make informed life choices”. (1)

By nature and by training, youth workers are predisposed to working with others in supporting young people to learn about themselves and others, to take decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. But such collaborative work cannot take place in a vacuum. The two representative organisations in Wales which do most to provide support to youth workers and youth work organisations, and to promote collaborative working, are the Principal Youth Officers’ group (PYO) and the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services (CWVYS). Membership of the PYO group is drawn from senior youth work managers in local government, whilst CWVYS is the independent representative body for the voluntary youth work sector in Wales (the voluntary sector includes organisations such as the Scouts, the Guides, the Urdd and the Young Farmers, amongst others). PYO and CWVYS work together strategically to raise the profile of youth work and, by avoiding duplication, they maximise the resources made available for youth work.

The PYO group and CWVYS are both represented on the Education and Training Standards (ETS) Committee, which I Chair. ETS works on behalf of employers to professionally endorse programmes of training which lead to professional youth worker / youth support worker status and to ensure that such programmes meet the need of employers, youth workers, and young people. There are similar committees in the other home countries of the UK.

We support the intention to add professional youth workers / youth support workers to the Education Workforce Council Register from April 2017. ETS Wales members are clear that, at its heart, youth work is fundamentally an educative process which contributes to young people’s learning and development in non-formal and informal learning ways. So it is absolutely right and proper that youth workers should take their place on the Register alongside other education professionals who are committed to helping children and young people develop the skills and attitudes necessary for making the most of the opportunities available to them.

In Chapter 2 of his “Successful Futures” report to the Welsh Government (February 2015), Professor Graham Donaldson identified that respondents to the consultation exercise informing the report’s findings told researchers that “While successful learning was a highly valued outcome of education by all stakeholders (including children and young people) so too were a range of other outcomes. General social competences, life skills and personal confidence were seen by all as important things to be gained from school”. (2) General social competences, life skills and personal confidence - that is music to the ears of youth workers for these have been the raison d’être of youth work for decades.

Youth work has a unique and distinctive voice. I hope you heard it in this article. If you did . . .thanks for listening.

Gareth Newton, Chair of ETS Wales


1. The National Youth Work Strategy for Wales 2014-2018. Supporting young people to reach their potential and live fulfilled lives. Cardiff. Welsh Government

2. Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful Futures. Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales. Cardiff. Welsh Government.


A former teacher, youth worker, and manager of youth services, Gareth was Rhondda Cynon Taf Council’s Service Director of Lifelong Learning until taking retirement in 2007. Since retiring from full time employment, Gareth has held a number of public service appointments in Wales. He took up the position of ETS Chair in September 2012. Gareth’s other appointments include:

Membership of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales: 2008 - 2012. Amongst other responsibilities, the Panel sets and maintains the framework for the remuneration of all elected Members in Wales.

Membership of the Wales Committee of the Big Lottery Fund: 2008 - 2014. Gareth was the lead Committee member for education, and for children and young people, and Chaired the Fund’s largest grant-making programme committee in Wales - “People and Places”.

Working as a lay member and Chair of the Care Council for Wales’ regulatory committees (Registration committee; Investigating committee; Conduct committee): 2007 - 2015.

In his spare time Gareth is an active volunteer. He has recently completed a two-year term as Chair of a Communities First Cluster Board. He is currently Chair of the governing body of a primary school in a Communities First area and is a community governor of a comprehensive school in the south Wales valleys.

Gareth also volunteers his time as an Independent Governor in support of school governing bodies which are considering child protection allegations involving staff.