The experience of a local authority Youth Service
This Section is written by a practising youth and community worker
This section looks at the role story-telling can play in helping to monitor and develop the work in a local authority youth service. Through an interview with a senior manager and a youth worker, the processes the service has developed to implement story-telling are explored, along with some of the issues that have come with this. The interview covers the role of story-telling in staff development, monitoring and evaluation, as well as a way to present the impact of youth work to decision makers who may not have first-hand experience of the work.
As shown in other sections, story-telling can contribute to youth workers’ individual and collective understandings of their work, enabling them to make a case for critically reflective practice that cannot be measured adequately by numerical or tick-box methodologies. Much of IDYW’s story-telling work has taken the form of workshops open to youth workers, managers, students and volunteers from different organisations. (See Story-telling and its facilitation, Story-telling with young participants and Story-telling with young volunteers). However, if adopted and adapted on a more regular and longer-term basis, story-telling can contribute to an organisation’s monitoring, evaluation and staff development.
Here we share the experiences of one youth organisation – a local authority youth service – that has, over a period of two years, implemented story-telling as an integral part of its work. As described and discussed here, these experiences may be applicable to other organisations thinking of using story-telling as a regular part of practice. They are presented as a dialogue between three youth workers: a senior manager (M) and a face-to-face youth worker (Y) from the youth service concerned and an interviewer (I), a youth worker who does not work for this service. Their discussion is a lightly edited version of a transcript of the recorded interview.
I: So what’s the story of the stories?
M: I spend quite a lot of time as a senior manager with my workers constantly trying to work out better ways to develop what we do, tapping into the things that they’re experiencing. For a very long time youth work had been about the positive activity model, positive use of leisure time. We had a number of predominantly part-timers, but there are full-timers as well who were just ticking over and it was really clear that they had little or no idea about what they were doing. They were turning up and spending time with young people and then leaving, and the method with which they spent time with young people was very variable.
Y: So we had a meeting of youth centre full-time workers and me and my manager at the time decided to do a presentation about ‘what is youth work? Why youth work?’ I got in contact with various people saying that we wanted to do this. A couple of the people from IDYW got in touch with me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of In Defence of Youth Work? (which I hadn’t) We do these workshops’, and offered to come and run a workshop for free. And so a couple of months later, we had a workshop with about 20 workers.
M: Yeah, full- and part-time, because we offered it right out.
Y: Sitting around discussing their practice. On the one hand there was a lot of good practice, on the other hand there were a lot of them that had trouble articulating the point of what it was they were actually doing. And so from there, the decision was made to bring story-telling into the day-to-day running of the youth service, as a way to articulate the value. And I think a lot of that also came in because of the political environment, of the youth service having to increasingly justify its existence, and so rather than just presenting figures we could actually say that we were having an impact. So we weren’t just ticking along, we were having to actually say, we are an important service that needs to be protected.
M: So story ‘catching’ is done every quarter. The workers all do a quarterly report, the full-time workers all do a story and one part-time worker in your team is encouraged and supported to do a story. What that means is, particularly myself, the senior management, the head of service, who are not on the ground all the time but are the ones who go to partnership meetings – we can instantly have that quite strong anecdotal evidence that says, okay, these are the statistical numbers, and this is the difference that we have made in young people’s lives, because we did this. It means that we can stay in touch without necessarily having to be here all the time because it’s not possible to be here all the time and see it or spend lots and lots of time with your workers to hear about it.
I: You used the word anecdote. I wondered about that, because sometimes people have said that you can’t evaluate youth work just by using anecdotes, or they see anecdote as negative or not good enough, and I wondered if you could explain why those anecdotes are meaningful and why they are useful.
M: I think because they’re caught in real time. They’re caught in the journeys that young people are making as they’re with us. So they’re in the moment and they’re tangible, I suppose, because they’re happening now, while the work is going on. And so you can set it in time, you can set it against a background of what’s happening at this time in the individual youth centres and projects. Previously we would scrabble around to find evidence to put in a report, but now we have an on-going fresh body. I suppose anecdotal is a word that makes it sound slightly trivial, but for us it’s really not, because we’ve caught it in that moment.
I: Could you explain how you implement it, what you ask the workers to do and what the process is? What the guidelines are?
M: We had the training from IDYW for the full-timers and the part-timers, and then off of that we developed a training session for part-time workers and ran it as a compulsory part of their annual training allowance, asking every one of them to come with a story. And I think around 80% had something. They picked a story that they wanted to explore, that someone was happy to explore, and it set the scene. Some of the stories in the quarterly reports are better than others. I have had instances where people have done stories and for two quarters I got a story about the same young person from everybody, and I had to actually say, can I please not have any more about him, and challenge them a bit about that, you know, don’t pick the one that everyone knows what’s happening. That’s lazy.
I: So what about from a worker’s point of view, how does it work for you?
Y: For me, obviously I’ve been very supportive of the process from the start, and I used to be part-time and I was quite vocal about the issues of part-time workers being out on estates on a rainy Thursday night, just producing figures, and no-one really understanding the work that we were doing. I felt that we were doing really, really important work with quite a large group of young people, and all that was being seen was the positive activities we were doing, and accredited and recorded outcomes and the figures. And that can get quite demoralising. Traditionally a contact in our targets would be a person who’s come once, you know, same with accreditation, you give them one certificate and that’s them done for the year, whilst we’ve got people this year who’ve been over 150 times and they count the same as someone who’s been here three or four times. And so actually I think what the story-telling has done is to support that work and to make us more confident in that work. We were doing the work anyway, a lot of the supportive, intensive 1-to-1 work, but it felt like that was something we chose to do, but wasn’t really recognised by the service. And now I’m much more confident in saying, yeah, we’re doing this, and this is what we’re supposed to be doing. Obviously for me, because it’s the background I come from and I support it and I’m relatively articulate in expressing my stories, I can write them. There is a template for workers to use.
M: We have two versions now, haven’t we? We had one version that was boxes, that moved them through the process, and now we use a sheet with some dialogue about things you should think about and what should happen and thinking about your starting point and what happened in that moment. And it takes them through a sort of list of prompts and then says ‘write your story’. I don’t necessarily think that I’m a done deal with developing the method, because I know that there are lots of workers, some full-time, lots of part-time, that do struggle a bit with their story-‘catching’.
I: Why do you think that might be?
M: I think that the ones that don’t struggle, from my experience when I read the stories, are the ones that are much more in the conversation about what’s the purpose of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and could they do it differently – so that reflective thing. The ones that struggle are the ones that are good at what they do but struggle to write it, so quite intuitive workers, who’ve got good connections with young people. It is about confidence around putting it down, recognition, paying attention about what is intuitive for them, so that they can do it again. In one of the stories I remember, a worker was describing work she had done with a young woman, and she said, oh, you know, the young woman came in and she was just quiet and sat in the corner and didn’t really talk much and stuff like that, and then a few months later we found out that she’d got all of these problems with drugs and she told us all of this stuff. So I said, ‘what happened in the middle?’, because there is no way that she went from sitting in the corner to telling you everything without you doing something. People who reflect on what they do, it’s a little bit of a way of being for me. I think if you don’t do it, then you could still be a reasonable youth worker, and still provide a service for young people that is nurturing and supports them and gives them that person who is constant, loving, all those sorts of things in their lives that isn’t anywhere else, but you wouldn’t be able to take it any further. It will be as it is. There’s not no value in that, there is value in that, but it won’t go further.
I: So do you think that for those workers, those intuitive workers who struggle to articulate their practice, do you think that the story-telling enhances their work for some of them, or has it changed how they do it?
Y: When I do it with my part-time workers, I do it with them because what you’d often get – you’d say, ‘well, ok, let’s do a story’ and you’d identify something together, and then I’d say, ‘well let’s write it up’, and it would be a few lines long, and literally just be the story, the narrative, as in what happened. And I think going through that process and saying, what exactly happened here? What is it that you did that made this happen, how is the atmosphere created, what is it that you didn’t do that allowed this to happen, does help them to do that again and to learn from that, so not just to be intuitive but to develop as well, I think that it recognises those skills in the workers as well, because otherwise you’re talking about timekeeping and stuff like that and developing programmes, and actually saying, you know, when you sit with this young woman and play Monopoly with her and talk with her, this is actually what you’re offering, and that’s why it’s important, it’s not just a game of Monopoly. That enables them to take that work further. I have seen a development of staff’s understanding of that recently, yeah.
I: I hope that I’m a worker that is committed, is reflective, does try and share stuff with colleagues and develop the whole group. And other monitoring systems have got in the way of that, whereas story-telling sounds like it assists those workers that are doing well anyway, and has the potential to help good workers who need a bit of help with reflection. It’s not going to work miracles on those who don’t want to be there or don’t really get it or aren’t really committed.
M: No, it doesn’t work for them. You know, and I haven’t had light bulb moments from that end of worker who doesn’t get it and is not reflective.
Y: There are full-time workers, very good workers, who don’t do their stories. Not because necessarily they’re critical of it but because it’s another thing to do. If you’re confident I would say it takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to write, which isn’t actually a lot of time once every three months. With other workers it potentially becomes something else which you’re sending off and not hearing a great deal back from. And it still is not viewed as important as the overhead targets. So if you don’t do it you might get told you need to do it.
M: I still think there’s work to be done and I don’t know what that second bit of work is. We did the big training and it’s been a year and a half, maybe two now, so what’s the second thing? And I’m lost a bit with what would be next, to try and get them to ‘get it’.
Y: There’s two issues. One is looking for stories, and does it change the way you work or not. And then there’s the issue of what is a story. Because obviously when you do the training, we’ve got the examples from the ‘This is Youth Work’ book, and ‘The Smile and the Arch’, and these are things that have been selected for publication. And actually, obviously, once every three months, for a project which maybe is open twice a week, you’re not going to get some massive progress story. Full time workers are required to do one story a quarter alongside their quarterly report and then to have one part-timer per quarter produce a story, so as a minimum it could be one a year for a part time worker.
M: When we did the training I was quite careful to push the exploration of the stories away from those meaty ones, so one worker did one about how he played table tennis with this boy, and the difference that that made, and I deliberately tried to go that way. It was a very simple activity and a very simple thing, in terms of showing workers that everyday simple things that they do can be part of your relationship with that young person, can move them along. It was fascinating because he’d played table tennis with this young person for ages, and he just nurtured, and always talked about the skills and things like that, and later on found that he’d been in quite a lot of trouble, but all the things he’d done about how to play the game, ‘don’t get irate’ and things like that, this young person had taken and done them with some stuff he’d had at school. We discovered the two things quite separately. And they were joined. And things like that. So I think it’s important to try and find that. I think that paying attention when you play a game of cards to the fact that, I don’t know, someone’s changed their hair, or they’re quieter today, or remembering that they told you they were going to see their dad the weekend before, so maybe some of that stuff is another way to try and get people to see it.
Y: Certainly that’s one of the things I want to look at with the story telling. Because of the young people we work with we do tend to have quite meaty stories regularly, and at the moment our biggest issue here is trying to build an atmosphere of love and tolerance, which has changed the way that we work and it’s changed the way that young people interact with each other. It’s taken us as youth workers slightly out, we’re not centre any more, the young people are centre and we facilitate their love and tolerance of each other. How you express that through stories, because it isn’t that ‘young woman came and approached me and needed help with this’ any more, which is a more typical kind of linear story. And it’s about how we as a society read stories. So I think that’s about, you paint a picture of what you’re doing.
I: So most of the stories that you get tend to be about individuals.
M: They do.
I: Which is great but – there’s something else, about the value of group work.
M: I’ve read one about group work.
I: Just one over two years? Cos that’s interesting isn’t it, because one of the things that’s happening to youth work at the moment is that individualisation, and those individual stories are really important but it does miss something about group life and association.
Y: Yeah, and the youth worker as specialist. So my last story was about a young woman and just her passing through the club essentially. [See Anne’s story below] And about how she experienced it. There’s been work done with her, but in the story there was no work done with her. It was about how we’ve created the atmosphere with the young people whereby she can engage positively and pick up the skills and be happy and loved and nurtured, and develop hopefully into a healthy young woman. And I struggled when I actually started writing that story because I was like, what’s actually been done here?
I: I think it’s important to hear a bit more about how you write the stories, in terms of, do the young people know it’s happening, are they involved, does that vary?
Y: When I write my stories I check them with the young people I write them with, on the whole.
M: There is a question on the templates which sort of asks the worker what the young person thinks.
I: So I’m fascinated by how you would do that, cos it could be quite a big thing in itself.
Y: Yeah and it has been for this young woman who I wrote about last time, she actually wanted to take it to show her mum. So I would usually tell the young person before that I’m thinking about writing a story, that I have to write a story every quarter and I’m thinking of using them, and how they feel about that. And then I would usually sit down and write it on my own and ask them if they want to read it, or usually end up reading it to them. And then asking them if they think that it’s true. Because obviously storytelling could otherwise be criticised for being from the youth worker’s point of view about how wonderful they are.
M: You don’t often get a story about a youth worker that said ‘I did something rubbish‘!
Y: And that’s very interesting about pieces of work which have failed. One story I did with a part-time worker was actually about an incident where she had to take a young man to hospital and it was an incredibly difficult situation, it was about how she managed that situation. There was nothing good that came out of that situation, it was really horrible, and at first it was like ‘is this a story?’
M: I think it is, because it’s all about that reflective practice, how you’re doing and how you did things and how you might do things differently. One of the things that has been interesting in a few people’s story is that what a young person thought was important was not always the same as what we thought was important. And that happens quite a lot.
I: And what sort of reactions do you get from the young people when they hear their stories?
Y: Always positive. One young man cried, which was quite emotional. He sort of, not wept but tears in his eyes. An older young person, 19 year old, very much ‘street life’ shall we say. And he had never had anything like it before, he had never had anyone take notice before, and he had never reflected on his time in the youth centre. So he had had all this stuff, all this stuff had happened, and he had made this development, and when he saw it written down he was really emotional because he was like ‘you know what, I hadn’t realised this had happened but it’s true’. Which is really interesting from the young person’s point of view. [See Jason’s story below]
The above discussion is included here as the ‘story’ of one local authority youth service’s use of the story-telling method as a form of organisational monitoring and evaluation alongside quantitative methods of evaluation (reach, participation, recorded and accredited outcomes). One limitation of the story-telling method could be if it is ‘imposed’ on workers as ‘yet another thing to do’, another box to tick. However, the account that emerges from this manager and worker emphasises the potential of story-telling to support staff in reflecting on and justifying the complicated processes of youth work that will never be summed up as a numerical ‘outcome’ on a database. It also suggests the potential impact – often meaningful, sometimes even transformative – of the story-telling process itself on youth workers as well as on young people, as a form of staff development.
The interview and the way in which story-telling is undertaken in this organisation also raise a number of questions that it may be helpful to think about for those wishing to introduce story-telling into their organisation.
- The process of story-telling here is done on an individual level, without the unpicking that happens during a Socratic Dialogue workshop. How then do you avoid the stories concentrating on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ – on tasks and activities rather than process – and therefore failing for example to highlight what is distinctive about youth work – as set out for example in IDYW’s ‘cornerstones’? (See Open Letter)
- By imposing story-telling on workers, how do you avoid it just becoming ‘another piece of work’ rather than a chance for workers to explore their practice?
- What constitutes ‘a story’ rather than just ‘an anecdote’ as discussed in the interview? How do you encourage workers to choose stories that highlight the complexity of youth work processes rather than ones with easily identifiable ‘outcomes’? (See Why story-telling?)
- Asking people to explore their practice can highlight negative elements of their work. What is the best way to handle this, without just making story-telling a way of exposing bad practice?
- How can we use story-telling to encourage youth workers to work with young people as potential ‘protagonists’ in stories and if so, how does this affect their work with them?
- What might that ‘second bit of work’ be (mentioned by the Manager during the interview (above) which could provide follow-up training for workers in the use of story-telling once they have been using the method for some time in their work?
- Given the brief discussion (above) about the possible individualisation of the work, how might workers be encouraged to focus more on working with and through young people’s groups?
Below are two of the stories that were mentioned by the youth worker in the interview. They were written up for his quarterly report and have been slightly edited for publication here. The writing process was not facilitated and the Socratic Dialogue process used in story-telling workshops (see Story-telling with experienced youth workers) was not used although the youth worker did have experience of this. Whilst reading these two stories, the reader is encouraged to reflect on what enabled the young people to move forward in the ways identified in the stories and what questions could be asked of the youth worker to draw out more about the specific elements of their youth work practice that were used.
Anne is a young woman, aged 13, who only started coming to the centre in recent months. She has been in the country for just over a year. She does not enjoy school and when she first starts coming to the centre she seems quite withdrawn. She is welcomed in by both the staff and the young people but does not show any particular interest in taking part in the activities on offer, except playing pool.
It is hard to read Anne’s emotions, but she turns up almost every day at the same time and seems comfortable watching what is going on around her between games. Sometimes she comes with friends and sometimes on her own. Although she doesn’t actively engage, both workers and some of the senior young people invite her to sit in on activities and debates which she seems to enjoy. She attends most of the debates, sitting just outside the circle, saying she does not want to take part but listening in. At one point I try to engage her in an art activity. She says she hates art but when I later see her doodling a graffiti design of her name and point out this is art as well she begins to gravitate more towards our mosaic project, eventually getting quite involved.
It comes as a bit of a surprise then when after several weeks she tells one of the workers that the youth centre is the only place she really feels happy. She seems to have a good relationship with her mother but there is not much room at home and she continues to hate school, although she is obviously very bright. She starts to open up more, talking about her father, who lives in her homeland, about her fights at school, and when one of her friends makes a disclosure, it is Anne who supports her in this, making sure I have the friend’s ever changing phone number.
At times Anne’s attitude can border on the aggressive, although she is not violent in the centre. She can be quite short with people, especially if she feels hard done by on the pool table. One week, when I am on leave, she is rude to one of the workers. One of the senior young people sees this and takes her to one side. She explains to her that although it is good for her to feel comfortable in the centre, she also has to learn to respect the workers and other young people. The next week, much to the worker’s surprise, Anne apologised to him for her behaviour.
The senior young person sees that she has some influence with Anne and starts to engage her in discussions and activities, as does our arts tutor who gets her designing decorations for our Christmas tree. Anne starts to ask more for specific activities, in particular hide and seek, which we sometimes play in the girls’ session. Most importantly though, she is happy moving between different groups of young people, sitting and watching their games. They seem to accept her, and her friendship group also grows.
Anne’s involvement in the centre has in many ways been unspectacular. I ask her what it has meant to her and she just laughs and says she is at home less. However, her passage through the centre in the last few months has highlighted several things for me:
- The increasing acceptance of difference amongst the young people.
- The role of the senior young people in supporting the younger ones to engage.
- The importance of the ‘as and when’ approach to activities that we adopt that means that young people can dip in and out as suits them, without feeling tied down.
- The importance of allowing young people to engage at their own speed, recognising that their presence in this tolerant, vibrant and fun space can in itself be significant enough.
I have known Jason for around four years, firstly through my work at a small youth centre, although he has been coming to the main centre I work at on and off for a couple of years. Jason is 19, NEET, a young father and known to consume a lot of cannabis. Over the period I have known him I have always had a relatively good relationship with him, punctuated with periods of conflict, usually when I had challenged him on his cannabis consumption at the projects I have worked on. This has meant that it has sometimes been hard to engage with him on issues affecting his life.
As part of our summer programme, we ran a series of debates. The third and final debate was about sex. Eight young men were present at the start of the debate having stayed on after the previous open-access session. They led the direction of the discussion which soon turned to the responsibilities of fatherhood. (This was quite a surprise to the workers facilitating the debate, which we had expected to focus more on sexual health and the early sexualisation of young people). At this point, Jason, who had come especially for the debate, turned up. He took the floor and spoke frankly about his experience of fatherhood, starting off by describing his own difficult childhood, memories of his father who left his mother when he was very young, being put into care and his dealings with the social services. He said that this had made him determined not to make the same mistakes his parents had made, whilst still remembering the warmth and love they gave him. It was visibly difficult for Jason to talk about this – he said himself he rarely spoke about it – but he felt it was important both for him and the other young people. He went on to speak about his relationship with the mother of his child, how he felt when he learnt he was to be a father, and candidly about how being a father has affected his sexual relationships. In total he spoke for over half an hour. This was by no means a pious lecture, but coming from someone many young people look up to as a rapper and the more dubious elements of his lifestyle, it was incredibly powerful. The other young people continued to discuss the points he made and ask him questions, and eventually we had to wrap up the debate.
This discussion seemed to mark an improvement in Jason’s relationship with staff, the centre and the other young people. Before he had often become part of problem behaviour, backing up other young people when we challenged them. Now he is a positive presence in the centre, supporting the younger members with their music, providing entertainment in the sessions and engaging far more significantly with staff. For the first time in a couple of years, he sat down with a Connexions PA, looked at plans for his future and is currently applying to go to university. He is one of the most consistent attenders at the centre.
I cannot say that the debate was a turning point for Jason – rather that it offered a vehicle for him to mark his transition into adulthood. Since then, he has expressed the importance that the youth centre plays for him. At this point in his life, it offers what he needs: respect, homeliness and a music studio and xbox.
In both of these stories there is a lot that could be unpicked and looked at more closely in the kind of Socratic Dialogue outlined in earlier Sections. (See Story-telling and its facilitation, Story-telling with young participants and Story-telling with young volunteers).
In Anne’s story this could include:
- How young people are allowed to interact with the activities going on at the centre.
- How young people, such as the senior young people, are encouraged/allowed to take responsibility for elements of the running of the centre.
- What do youth workers do (or not do) in order to facilitate the creation of these kind of expectations at the centre.
In Jason’s story it could have been interesting to explore further:
- The story of the debates and how young people are able to direct them.
- The way in which the relationship with Jason was built up over the years.
- What, in the period after the debate, the youth workers did to encourage/support Jason to move forward positively.
As the stories are unpicked, more questions would undoubtedly present themselves, which may give a much deeper understanding of the youth work practice that contributed to the positive changes for both young people. Whilst both stories demonstrate the importance of the ‘cornerstones’ of voluntary engagement and starting where the young person is, further Socratic Dialogue may have been able to highlight other ways in which they were illustrated and illuminated, as well as further learning to be taken from these.
This leaves us with the question: whilst story-telling has obviously played a positive role in the development of youth work in this organisation, could it be even more effective with a more rigorous unpicking of the stories presented, and if so, how could this be implemented?