Mental state exam for youth workers: Cognition

Second last post this week for our series on Mental State Exams. Over the past few weeks we have been building an understanding of the core components of a mental state exam so that we can support our young people as best we can. This week I was speaking with a youth worker in one of Victoria’s largest Christian denominations about a mental health conference he was at. I was reminded about how important it is for all youth workers to have a strong understanding of mental health. So far we have discussed how a young persons appearance, behaviour, speech and language, mood and affect, thought process and content and their perceptions can provide indicators as to their mental state. Today we discuss how a young persons cognition can provide insight into their current mental health status.

In this section of the Mental State Exam we are looking at a young person’s level of alertness, orientation, attention, memory and executive functions. It is often this part of the MSE which requires the use of structured tests in conjunction to unstructured observation. However, an astute youth worker can use the basic understanding learnt here to gain a base level to work from. Cognition is observed through judging alertness, orientation, attention and concentration, memory and executive functioning.

When observing alertness we are looking into the young person’s level of consciousness i.e. awareness of, and responsiveness to their environment. Their level of alertness may be described as alert, vigilant, clouded, drowsy, or stuporous. If you are on a camp or at the end of a long Friday night youth group then alertness may be low. Conversely, on your way to a concert or game of laser tag alertness may be quite high. There are many factors which you must take into account when observing alertness. Rock, paper, scissors is a great game for testing the alertness of a young person.
Orientation is assessed by asking the young person their name, age etc (orientation to person) where he or she is (for example what building, town and state) and what time it is (time, day, date). What we are looking for is that they are oriented in person, place and time. People who have taken a big knock on the football field and are dazed are often asked these questions to observe whether they have a concussion. In the drug and alcohol field we often use these questions when people seem substance affected to judge how affected they are.

Attention and concentration are assessed by using structured tests such as series seven tests, or if you are in a pinch getting them to spell a five-letter word backwards), and by testing digit span. Here we are looking to see if the young person can keep their focus and concentration whilst completing given tasks. These tests are great for judging inebriation, attention deficits and anxiety.

Memory is assessed in terms of immediate registration (repeating a set of words), short-term memory (recalling the set of words after an interval, or recalling a short paragraph), and long-term memory (recollection of well known historical or geographical facts). If there is a severe issue with memory it may indicate dementia or neurological issues. Short term memory loss can be a symptom of anxiety.

Executive functioning can be screened for by asking the “similarities” questions (“what do x and y have in common?”) and by means of a verbal fluency task (e.g. “list as many words as you can starting with the letter F, in one minute”). The mini-mental state examination is a simple structured cognitive assessment which is in widespread use as a component of the MSE. These tests are looking at higher order brain functioning and a persons ability to stay on task. This is important for their ability to think in a critical way.

Note: The kind of brief cognitive testing discussed here are regarded as a screening process only, and any abnormalities should be more carefully assessed using formal neuropsychological testing.

Stay tuned for our final segment next week: Insight and Judgement.


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What gets youth worker’s through stressful times???

In our work the staff at Ultimate Youth Worker meet with a number of downtrodden, stressed out youth workers who are just trying to keep it together. Why these fine examples of the social services sector have begun to erode is anyone’s guess. Overworked, under payed, vicarious trauma, limiting government policies and organisations that don’t care are all excuses we hear for burnout and workplace stress. But you know what we all face that, so why do so many fade away???

Youth work isn’t always fun!

The one thing that we see over and again that separates those who can push through stress and those who get squashed under the pressure is purpose. When the youth worker’s who are close to the edge are asked why they got into youth work it invariably is for a nothing reason. “I wanted to become a teacher and I though this would help“. “I just felt like these kids need help“. “People just need to give something back“. The worst offenders are those with altruistic motives.

“A difficult time can be more readily endured if we retain the conviction that our existence holds a purpose – a cause to pursue, a person to love, a goal to achieve.”- John Maxwell

Unless you have the courage of your convictions youth work will chew you up and spit you out. Youth work is a purpose that you need conviction to follow. A reason to wake up in the morning. A cause to pursue. A goal to achieve. Youth work is more than a stepping stone to your next career. Youth work is not something you do to warm the cockles of your heart.  Youth work is a profession that needs professionals with the right reason for being there… A real purpose.
What gets you out of bed in the morning???? Is your purpose to support young people to become the best they can possibly be? Or perhaps you are in it for the inordinately large pay check! If your own values and purpose aren’t clear then you are on a fast track to burnout.

Mental State Exam for youth workers: Speech and language.

Over the past few weeks we have been developing an understanding of the components of a mental state exam. So far we have discussed how a young persons appearance and behaviour can provide indicators as to their mental state. Today we look at how a young persons speech can provide insight into their current mental health.
A young persons speech is assessed by observing their spontaneous speech, and also by using structured tests of specific language functions. during this time we are focussed on the production of speech rather than the content of speech, which we will address under thought form and thought content in weeks to come. When observing the young persons spontaneous speech, a youth worker should note and comment on paralinguistic features such as the loudness, rhythm, prosody, intonation, pitch, phonation, articulation, quantity, rate, spontaneity and latency of speech.
A structured assessment by a qualified speech pathologist is a great tool for diagnosing serious difficulties in speech however a basic screening can be performed by an aware youth worker. An assessment of speech includes an assessment of expressive language by asking the young persons to name objects, repeat short sentences, or produce as many words as possible from a certain category in a set time. Simple language tests form part of the mini-mental state examination. In practice, the structured assessment of receptive and expressive language is often reported under cognition which we will discuss in a coming cast.
Language assessment will allow you to recognise young people presenting with aphonia or dysarthria, neurological conditions such as stroke or dementia presenting with aphasia, and specific language disorders such as stuttering, cluttering or mutism. People with autism or Asperger syndrome may have abnormalities in paralinguistic and pragmatic aspects of their speech. Echolalia (repetition of another person’s words) and palilalia (repetition of the subject’s own words) can be heard by young people with autism, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. A young person with schizophrenia might use neologisms, which are made-up words which have a specific meaning to the person using them.
Speech assessment also contributes to assessment of mood, for example people with mania or anxiety may have rapid, loud and pressured speech; on the other hand depressed patients will typically have a prolonged speech latency and speak in a slow, quiet and hesitant manner.
If you know a speech pathologist or have the opportunity to do some training with one, do it! Aside from appearance speech is one of the most observable ways to notice a persons mental state.
Stay tuned next week for part four: Mood and Affect.

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Guest post on

Our guest post is being published on Neels Redelinghuys’ Blog today – it’s an open look at the situations that shape a youth worker through their career. Feel free to post in the comments about how witty, insightful and amazing it is!!!

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I’m a Slut…No one will love me!!!

Hard conversations are bread and butter for the average youth worker. I always love walking into a new youth work environment and seeing what the young people will try to shock me with. I remeber taking a volunteer into a residential care facility for her first meeting with a young person. On the driveway we meet a twelve year old boy who with a blank stare and an unwaivering voice asked if my volunteer was a lesbian, a paedophile or just a whore? My normal very assertive and chirpy volunteer turned white as Casper the friendly ghost and struggled to have a conversation for the next hour. I have often said to my volunteers, other youth workers and especially the young people that if they could tell me a story that would shock me I would be surprised. I often follow it up by saying that there is nothing they could ask me or share with me that would shock me enough to walk away…If there was I wouldn’t be in youth work!

My seeming inability to be shocked has grown through years of working with some of the most abused young people in Victoria. Whether young people in residential care, sexual abuse victims or children of prisoners I have heard stories that make my stomach churn. On the outside though I am calm and cool. It takes a lot of composure sometimes to stay calm when the stories are so in your face or you are being vilified by a twelve year old.
I remember speaking to a young woman earlier this year who had been through the wringer. Family issues, school issues, legal issues and to top it all off she was being pimped out by her uncle. After a conversation that lasted about half an hour she stated matter of factly “I’m a Slut…No one will love me!!!” My hard exterior almost broke. It took me a full minute to regain my composure. She continued to tell me how she had been her uncle’s ‘girl’ for almost two years and then how he had sold her to his friends. What really shook me was that she had just had her birthday.
Even the seemingly heartless stone cold dominant folk have a pulse. It may just be a little deeper than the rest. I was propper shook. I was able to hold it together enough to get back to my office then I was overcome by anger I couldn’t think straight, I was narky with everyone and I was ready to do some damage to someone. I knew I was in a bad way. Some days it just gets bad. I told my boss What had happened and that it was getting to me. My boss got me to call my external supervisor to tee up a time to catch up that week and then sent me home. I still wasnt great and when I got home I blew up at my wife over something trivial. It was not a good night for me.


My wife is a wonderful woman who is very intuitive and she quitely told me to get into my plan. I called one of my mentors, spent some time out for a walk and spent some time contemplating the future of my work with the young lady. Her words kept ringing in my ears “I’m a Slut…No one will love me!!!” How can we show love (genuine care and affection) to such broken young people??? How can we do it when all we want to do is take vengence for them?

Two things come to mind:

First, centre yourself. Spend some time regaining balance. Look to your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual; and get some balance in life. The first rule in any form of rescue work or first aid is look after yourself and do not become a casualty yourself. Whilst dwelling on the situation breeds more interesting ways to cause pain to those who have hurt our young people, it also tears us apart.
Second, plan your next engagement. You have likely heard the most intense barrage you are going to hear. Now it is time to prepare yourself for your next encounter. Get ready to ask the questions you need to, spend time practicing with a supervisor or colleague and have a list of the other people or agencies you might want to refer the young person to.
I have been called a lot of things in my life and career, but it is when young people have lost hope in themselves and the world that gets under my skin. It does take a lot for me to get angry when people aim at me, but when they take on a young person my protective righteous anger boils to the top. To be the best I can be for my young people I can not let my feelings get in the way of good practice. Our emotions are important, but our control over them is critical. If we get antsy about a term like slut, or the story of abuse then our work is compromised. We must be aware of the effects of trauma on us and how to best deal with it in our own way. Looking after our young people means we need to have a thick skin…for their sake as much as ours.

Do you have a code of ethics???

Working with young people has led me to be in some dicey situations throughout my career. I have worked with young people who use drugs like candy, who have been so abused they have no boundaries and those who have no fear of the future and live like it. I have been in flop houses, under bridges in the middle of the night, in the middle of resi brawls and in situations that would make sailors blush. It is in these times that I wonder what my lecturers would have told me about my situation and a code of ethics.
When the chips are down and we are in one of those situations your old lecturer told you not to get into the only thing you have to rely on is a code of ethics. Whether it is a personal code or a professional code it guides your behaviour in those sticky situations.
So what code do you live by??? Do you have a personal code that you live by??? Put another way, what gets you out of bed in the morning. What do you believe so intrinsically that keeps you on the right path?
What about your organisation? Do they subscribe to a particular code of ethics??? have a look at a few codes and see what they involve… YACVic, AASW and APS are just a few. Does your nation or state have a code of ethics your orginisation could or should follow???
A lot of questions this week. over the next few weeks we will unpack this a bit. In the meantime you can read some of Howard Sercombe’s work on codes of practice.

What will youth work look like in 2013? The finale.

Its been a month and a half in the making but we are finally there. The finale of our series looking at the next twelve months or more in youth work. We have had blogger’s and professor’s of youth work from one end of the globe to the other. We heard from Shae and Stephen from, Sam Ross from, Professor Dana Fusco from CUNY and Professor Howard Sercombe from the University of Strathclyde. Each had their own perspectives on the current and future trends in youth work. Each brought a different perspective on what forces were pushing and pulling youth work. Each one had a particular pearl of wisdom for us. Today’s post is a wrap up of these posts with a focus on the similarities between them all. We will also give our view of the year ahead.

Wrap up

Our amazing guests spoke about a number of areas in which youth work will develop over the coming year. They spoke about youth worker education, technology, the economic situation and the need to be holistic in our practice.

Youth Worker Education

Dana Fusco spoke of the changes developing in youth work education world wide. In the US there has been a 900% increase over the past four years in youth development courses offered by higher education facilities. In the UK and Australia These courses are in decline. Dana laments the decline in youth work education, “In 2013, it is hard to predict where those who want to study youth work and youth studies in these countries will go. If they go into existing, related disciplines, e.g., social work, then youth work will too likely become case management; if they go into education, then youth work will become para-teaching“.

Howard Sercombe also laments the current education setting for youth worker’s. From developing a cozy little home for ourselves throughout the sixties and seventies to becoming a mainstream course in the nineties we sold our soul to the devil of higher education. Like all good corporate conglomerates the universities shafted us. Taking a subject area steeped in the tradition of practice wisdom and narrative and turning it into a McDonaldised cookie-cutter model of research-based best-practice. However true to our history we steered away from research which ultimately is leading to our higher education downfall. Conversely, Howard states, “For the first time, I can run a course for youth workers using a selection of books on youth work written by youth workers“.


In her response to the question Sam Ross states that she always thinks of the new technology on the horizon. Sam speaks of the massive uptake of mobile and smart phones by young people. She shows the statistics of American young people’s use of their phone and how much of their attention it takes…Are you on social networking sites? They are! Sam speaks of the need for youth workers to use this love of mobile technology to keep the attention of young people focused on what we want them focused on.

However Sam also implores us, “So while 2013 may be technologically more advanced and our ways of connecting and engaging may expand we shouldn’t forget that good youth work was the same in the past as it is today and will be tomorrow“. Its all about the relationship.

The economic situation

There is not a person alive today that can’t attest to the effects of the global financial crisis on the hip pocket. Everything seems to cost more today than it did yesterday. Even in countries like Australia which have had some reprieve from the tidal forces of the economic collapse the financial situation is difficult.  As Howard put it “Austerity measures have required significant cutbacks in local funding and this has carried through, often disproportionately, to youth work services“. But we are not the only ones feeling the pinch. Our young people are finding employment harder to gain, University fees have shot through the roof and the general cost of business has increased significantly.

For youth workers this means difficulties at every turn. Shae and Stephen state, “Over the last 25 years, the cost of university education in the US has more than tripled, which has resulted in 1 in 11 people defaulting on their student loan repayments within two years of making payments“. Many of our guests stated that this cost was prohibitive and that if you are one of those who are entering a university to study youth work then you are likely to pay through the nose and then struggle to pay it back.

If you rely on government funding or philanthropic support to run your organisation you may be short on funds for a while. Many governments are finding their budgets significantly in the red. Many philanthropic organisations have seen their investments dip over the past few years as well and are giving out less to allow for their continuation. Its not happening everywhere yet but as Howard said, “2013 may well be the year when the expected decimation actually happens“.

The need to be holistic in our practice.

Gone are the days where youth work happens in a silo. On any given day we are expected to hold a number of roles. Sam points out that our ability to build relationships with young people is core to our work and that this foundation is what we build on in our context. Shae and Stephen point out that young people do not live in silos but have lives with intersecting and overlapping parts. Work on one without the other areas being addressed is ineffective.

Dana states, “In the United States, youth work is not a unified or singular practice; rather, it has been described, and still is, a family of practices“. Its not just the states, its world wide.  We work from the same base but in different contexts. Our young people need us to have an understanding of more than how to run a good game. As copious as the needs of our young people are, the knowledge of a youth worker must equal… at least enough to refer to other professionals.

What will 2013 look like???

At Ultimate Youth Worker we have loved the guest posts over the last month and a half and have been pouring over them and a bunch of other research and have come to many of the same conclusions.  Technology is going to be more important this year than ever before. 12 months on from the death of Steve jobs saw the smart phone war at its highest. Exponential growth in mobile, web and personal technology has meant that the ability to communicate or gain information has never been more accessible. Youth workers need to become more tech savvy just to survive. New web applications, social media and even the ubiquitous email are more important than ever to our relationship building. As youth workers we believe there will be a shift to online training, both formal and informal. Blogs, webinars, podcasts, university course and professional development groups are all starting to toy with developing a solid presence on the web. With the hardware never more than arms length from most young people and youth workers we need to be there.

Youth work education will need to adapt. Aside from becoming more tech enabled we need to gain more breadth and more depth in our education. Young people are changing so fast that we need to keep up with the trends. We hang our shingle on our ability to develop relationships with young people. Good. But we need to develop this skill set. We are a relatively emergent human services field and as such need to develop our purpose, values and critical approach. This is depth. We also need to gain an understanding of where we fit in the multidisciplinary field that young people now frequent.  We need an understanding of who and what our colleagues in other field bring to the table. We need to understand their language, their approach and their skill sets. It is the only way we will be able to speak into their work and intervene for our young peoples best.

Money has never been more important and less relevant. The affect of the financial crisis is all around us and will continue to mess with us for years to come in ways we can’t even imagine yet. IT DOESN’T MATTER. The most effective tools in our toolkit are FREE or really cheap. Building relationships takes time. A facebook page can be accessed by free wi-fi at McDonald’s. A mobile phone plan is cheaper than ever. The tools to build relationships are time, energy and interest. Most youth workers have that in trumps. But that means we need to have them around. Youth workers need to feed their families too. With lay-offs happening throughout the sector worldwide there is fear of being cut. Like Howard says, its happened before. The cycle will return. Be the best you can be with what you’ve got and you will be one of the last to get chopped. 

Be more!!! Be holistic. What do you do when you have that relationship? We believe youth workers need to see young people as whole people in their context. We need a biopsychoscialspiritual focus. We need to understand the person, their context and their pathways out of their situation. We need to support our young people in every way we can. We also need to look after ourselves. As the stress builds and we are asked to become more and do more we need to have the reserves to keep going.

We also agree with Dana and Howard, Now is the time for an international presence developing the practice of youth work. We are seeing great international youth work research, texts, blogs, conferences etc coming to the fore. We need to build on this.

2013 holds possibilities and risks. We have  tried to play it safe for the last decade or more and have seen the rug being pulled out from under us. No more politically light weight youth work. We must band together and do it differently or we will see the death knell of what we hold dear… relationally based critical youth work.

Survival plan for the stressed youth worker.

Over the years I have become a keen survivalist. Not the crazy people with guns coming out their wazoo that you see on American YouTube videos, More like a less fit Bear Grylls. I can start fire by rubbing sticks together, get water to drink and build a place to live out of the materials around me. This means I am fairly self sufficient in the bush, A great comfort to me and my family when we go away. I still have a bunch of great gear that makes a hike more pleasant but I know that if stuff goes pear shaped I am able to deal with the ensuing issues.
I didn’t learn these skills the first time I tried them. It took practice and patience and the consumption of a lot of knowledge. I practiced and I read. I tried and I watched videos. I trialed theory and spoke to experts. I developed the basics and built on them. And I learnt that the basics of wilderness survival apply to youth work just as well as in the bush.

Food, Fire, Shelter and Water 

In wilderness survival you need to be able to source or find Food, Fire, Shelter and Water from any source you can to sustain and protect you. If you do not have these skills then the only thing you can rely on is what you have in you pack and the hope that you will stumble across a McDonald’s. Not exactly the best way to go into the wilderness.
The same goes for the wilderness that is youth work. As a youth worker you can either endure it with knowledge to help you survive or you can go in blind and live in hope.


In Survival Food is often the last thing you need. It is most often the easiest to find. You can survive upwards of thirty days without food however, having it gives you the energy to keep going when the situation is bleak. There are many types of edibles plant and animal which provide sustenance and each of them is found to have its own flavour and texture.

In the wilderness that is youth work our food is usually the “food for thought”. We need to fill our minds with knowledge…food for thought. Like real food we can go a substantial period of time without it, but it does provide us with sustenance for the journey. Read a book, a blog or even a journal. Do a course, attend a seminar or a webinar. If all else fails have a coffee and a chat with a bunch of colleagues about a topic that has some meat.



Fire provides a place to cook, scares off the beasts and keeps you warm. Fire is almost always in the first two things I do when surviving in the wilderness. You get a sense of extreme joy and peace when your fire finally comes together. It lights up the darkness and takes away your fears.


It is similar to having good mentors and supports. A good mentor is hard to find but when you do they make you work…stoking the fire. You can rest your fears on them. They provide light on dark paths. They marinate your food and warm your heart. They also provide a place to sit with your thoughts were you can reflect.


Depending on the situation shelter is either a small net to keep the flies away or a solid structure which takes days to build to suppress the elements. Shelter provides safety from the nasties and a place to regain your energy. Shelter is the only thing between you and the elements which could take your life in seconds.


Good policies and procedures provide the same role. They cover your backside from the elements. They keep small niggling pests at bay and provide clear walls and boundaries for your practice. When storms arise…and they will, policies and procedures keep the crazies outside while you are safe inside.


Is the life giving elixir that you can’t do without. It cools you when your hot. It washes away the grime from the day. It eliminates waste and helps you digest your food. It is not always easy to find but is often the most important. If it is not number one it is usually number two on my list.


Water is similar to your values. You can’t do without them. The make you live. They cool you off when things get hot. When you feel uneasy (read dirty) about a decision your values will wash away the dirt. When you are packing on the responsibilities your values will help you to eliminate wasted effort. Your values make the knowledge you gain palatable and sustaining. Like water they take a bit of work to find and purify, but that makes them all the sweeter when you drink them in. Without your values you can not live for very long.
So there you have it. to survive the wilderness of youth work feed yourself as much knowledge as you can. Warm yourself by the fire of a good mentor. Shelter yourself in policy and procedures. Seek the life giving water that is your value system. With a little knowledge on survival you will stay alive in the wilderness for a long time. Same goes for youth work.

Remember: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. 

Have your survival kit fully stocked and your journey will be that much more comfortable.

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What will youth work look like in 2013?

It is with great pleasure and a sad heart that we come to our final guest post in this series. We have heard from a number of truly inspirational and well qualified youth work professionals as to what they believe youth work will look like in 2013. Over the last three weeks we have had Shae and Stephen from, Professor Dana Fusco of CUNY and author of “Advancing Youth Work: current trends, critical questions” and fellow blogger and youth work professional Sam Ross the teenage whisperer. This week we have the distinct pleasure to hear from Professor Howard Sercombe of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Howard has researched extensively in the area of youth studies, including studies of the future of youth, young people and public space, and community development with young people. He is interested in how we think about young people, and is currently working with colleagues from neurophysiology and developmental psychology on the implications of the brain architecture research on our understanding of young people. Professor Sercombe has had a major role in the development of youth work as a profession. His scholarship around this area includes writing the Australian Code of Ethics for Youth Work which has been adopted or adapted in three Australian States and the Australian Capital Territory and is under consideration nationally. He also wrote the Code of Ethics for the profession in Scotland. He has lectured extensively across the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Zambia on professional ethics and professionalisation, and his book Youth Work Ethics (Sage, 2010) is a milestone in the field. He is currently developing approaches to research methodology that take seriously the ethical commitment to justice and development.

So Howard what’s your take on the future of youth work?

Realities, as always, are contradictory.  Mixed.  From the perspective of the UK,  things look grim. The fiscal crisis has hit the traditional funding sources of youth work hard.  For the last fifty years, local government has had a statutory responsibility to make provision for youth work, though local authorities have had a lot of latitude about how, and to some extent if, they carry this out.  Austerity measures have required significant cutbacks in local funding and this has carried through, often disproportionately, to youth work services.

But this picture is mixed.  Some authorities have actually increased funding to youth work, in recognition of the impact of the recession on young people.  Others have cut provision completely.  As a generalisation, however, cutbacks have been widespread and often deep.  In Scotland, where I live, cutbacks have been worrying but not catastrophic, at least not everywhere. 2013 may well be the year when the expected decimation actually happens. The real concern is that this fiscal crisis is not a temporary adjustment, and future cutbacks look like coming on top of the existing ones. Even when the recession is over, we face the fiscal time bomb of an ageing population. Some are proclaiming the death of youth work as we know it in the UK.

Some of us have been here before, however. Political economists in the 1970s talked about the contradiction between accumulation and legitimation: the need for the State to continue to guarantee profit and private accumulation, while reassuring the general population that the system was still working in their interests.  It is typical in the early phase of a fiscal crisis for the State to pull back from areas of expenditure it sees as optional, in order to support capital in its restructuring and rebalancing.  Youth work is politically lightweight, so we tend to fall into that category.  Then, two years in, the entirely predictable spectre of youth unemployment starts to raise its head.  That is followed by a crime wave, or a moral panic about one, and there is a panic reinvestment in youth work to deal with it.  I’m expecting the same pattern.  The London riots came too early in the process to have that effect, and was able to be dismissed by the political class in terms of a cultural moral deficit and individual criminality.  A repeat may not be as easily dismissed.

But all recessions are different, and this one different to most.  Most come on the back of an economic boom, leaving the State with at least some financial capacity to manage the recession.  The need to bail out the banks right at the beginning of the crisis meant that affected governments hit the recession already broke.  That means that the capacity of the State to reinvest is limited.  Youth work will continue to be done, but we might see a significant return to voluntary labour to get the hours in.  In fact we already are!

Youth work education is in a difficult place as well.  Youth work found a place in professional education in the universities from the 1960s, with real growth in the 80s and 90s.  In the last decade, however, the situation has shifted.  The focus on research has diminished the respect for practice wisdom in professional education, and youth work (along with other professional areas like teaching) has not kept up with the research agenda. Corporatisation in the university sector has meant more aggressive pursuit of objectives that promote the university as a corporation rather than the objectives of public service: and that means either high status or high earning activities.  Youth work is not a natural contender for either.  The poorly thought out introduction of fees in England has meant that training for low-earning professions like youth work are charged at the same rate as high earning professions like law, with a significant impact on demand.  The number of universities who have decided to close youth work courses is still a trickle rather than a flood, but some of those courses (including my own) were strategic and long-standing.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Beyond the question of funding and institutional support, there is a growing level of maturity in the youth work profession in the current environment, and a clearer assertion of identity.  Paradoxically, even while the funding base contracts, for example, the Scottish Government continues to insist that community learning and development, which embraces youth work, sits at the centre of its anti-poverty and inclusion strategies. The House of Commons Education Committee inquiry into youth services also provided a ringing endorsement of youth work, though noted the lack of a credible evidence base for its effectiveness.  The Irish and South African government has a very active division working on the professionalisation of youth work, government does too.  Several governments have established youth work in law, with more heading in that direction.

The consolidation of youth work practice through codes of ethics and other core constitutive documents has been progressing across the globe in the last decade. Professional organisations for youth workers are springing up everywhere.  Globalisation has meant an international community of youth workers, with more international conferences, policy conversations, research and collaboration.  There are more books published on youth work, by major commercial publishers, than ever before. Routledge has just commissioned a new series of books on youth work practice. Sage has taken over the locally-published Learning Matters series.  For the first time, I can run a course for youth workers using a selection of books on youth work written by youth workers. This is mirrored in journal and on-line publication as well.  Youth work is moving beyond the parochial, and is recognising its common core beyond local expressions of it.  It is becoming an international profession.

And there is a bigger picture.  The modern category of youth is an artefact of modernisation itself. At other times and in other places, young people were much more integrated intergenerationally, and had a clear role.  Modern industry required fewer workers, and more educated, literate and disciplined workers.  What happened was the quarantining of people by age into educational institutions, their isolation from the relations of production and from contact with adult social institutions and the subsequent emergence of a (now global) youth culture.  This creates a youth population which is significantly, but incompletely contained by the school and other educational institutions.  There are also key developmental processes around people becoming autonomous and self-directed which total institutions like the school are not good at facilitating.  Youth work exists in all modern societies, under whatever guise and however resourced, because it is socially necessary.  It emerged during the Industrial Revolution, and has a continuous presence ever since.

The industrialisation and modernisation process is spreading apace throughout the world: particularly in the new economic powerhouses: the  ‘BRICS’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).  All of them have huge, underemployed youth populations, and are very aware of the political time bomb that involves.  In the next decade, all of them will need to make decisions about youth policy, and divert resources towards young people.  How youth work positions itself within that process remains to be seen.

Howard Sercombe

Professor Sercombe is an experienced youth work practitioner, trainer, consultant, analyst, media commentator and researcher in the youth studies area.  He has primary experience in street-level youth work with homeless and street-present young people as well as a developed academic profile with expertise ranging from social policy analysis to adolescent development to professional ethics.  He has worked in urban settings as well as remote outback towns, with Aboriginal and mainstream young people, and across a range of methodologies.

Notwithstanding his current position in the university, Howard sees himself as first and foremost a youth worker, as he has for the last thirty years. His current work is focuses on how youth workers can understand their role and their work, how conceptions of young people shape their practice, on the peculiar ethics of youth work as a profession, and how truth is created and translated between policy, research and practice.  He is also working on the implications of the adolescent brain research for our understanding of young people and the practice of youth work.  He rides a Yamaha 1200 VMax motorcycle with a sidecar, is married to broadcaster Helen Wolfenden, and has three sons.