The Role of Youth Work 

Youth Justice Voices was created as a joint collaboration between Staf and the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ). It was established to amplify the voices of young people aged 16-25 with experience of the care and justice systems.

Led by the steering group Youth Just Us, our group uses creative ways to be heard in the justice system, and explore and share their experiences with policymakers, managers, corporate parents and the Scottish Government. Our Youth Justice Participation Lead, Ruth Kerracher works across both organisations to develop youth-led opportunities which drive change.

At Youth Just Us youth work is central to our work, so to mark two years since Youth Just Us was established Ruth will be sharing some thoughts and tips on why taking a youth work approach can benefit participative practice. The participation tips included in this article have come directly from members of Youth Just Us, young people involved in STARR and others who have shared their wisdom and insight in the development of our partner’s participation strategy at CYCJ. It has also come from the learning of Youth Justice Voices, where over the past two years we have supported care and justice experienced young people to establish two national youth-led steering groups: Youth Just Us in the community and Inside Out within HMPYOI Polmont. You can read more about the work of the project here and access an earlier information sheet on meaningful participation on our website.

Why youth work?

“Youth work is one of the most powerful community assets we have to help us create a better society in Scotland. It builds confidence and boosts educational attainment. It aids personal development and helps young people manage personal, social and formal relationships. It promotes volunteering, lowers youth offending rates and significantly reduces the likelihood of poor mental health” (Resilient, Resourceful and Reimagined: YouthLink Scotland 2021).

At Youth Justice Voices, youth work plays a central role in creating meaningful participation opportunities with children and young people. Taking a youth work approach means that our ethos, values and focus is on relationships, voluntary participation and empowerment. Fitzsimons et al (2011) describe empowerment in decision making as both an internal and external process which is closely interlinked. However, “individuals may not be able to participate in empowering organisational processes unless they perceive themselves as being able to”. It requires confidence and is a “process by which groups and individuals feel empowered to achieve, to participate and to overcome their lack of power and control” (Fitzsimons et al, 2011, p.5).

Power, control and participatory principles

Smithson and Jones’ (2021) research explores how power dynamics can be tackled when co-creating youth justice practice with young people. They along with Cahill and Dadvand (2018) and others, acknowledge the importance of understanding “relational power dynamics when undertaking participatory work with young people in a criminal justice context”, as the relationships that justice experienced children have with professionals within the system will differ from those outside it (Smithson and Jones, 2021, p. 3). Their 2021 research provides examples of not just the challenges but also the possibilities when participatory research is co-created with justice experienced young people. Boxing, grime, lyric writing and graffiti workshops were examples of participatory and empowering activities. This highlights the importance of choice as young people either demonstrated existing expertise in their chosen activities or developed skill and interest through the process. Whilst these activities were not focused on justice or participation practice they are examples of traditional youth work type activities. Furthermore the facilitators were able to create workshops within each of the activities which enabled a process of dialogue, reflection and feedback. By building trust and making the activities meaningful and relatable they could co-produce a Participatory Youth Practice (PYP) framework based on eight theoretically-framed participation principles which was initially shaped by the young people’s ideas and experiences.

Whilst Smithson and Jones are speaking of participatory research which has a very specific focus, it is an example of how services can meaningfully engage and co-create participation opportunities with young people. It is also an example of how classic youth work activities and approaches can support the process. To achieve this young people need to be offered safe and creative spaces where they can not only highlight issues but also have access to a range of activities and opportunities which supports skills development and confidence.

The importance of relationships

Building relationships is at the heart of youth work and it should also be part of any participatory experience, strategy or project. That connection needs to be developed both individually and collectively. Young people have told us that providing food, opportunities and reimbursement (where possible) helps the process and ensures that young people feel comfortable and valued. Chekoway (2010) describes youth participation as respecting and enhancing the expertise, rights, and personal development of young people and measures the quality of participation on the effect that it has on outcomes, decisions or processes. Within this process the youth worker plays a central role.

Young people involved in creating CYCJ’s participation strategy chose to describe workers as facilitators when they spoke about their role in participation. A facilitator in its most simple terms can be defined as “a person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier” (Oxford Dictionary). It’s a fitting description for what role the worker should take, even more so, for children in conflict with the law, who have more than often experienced youth justice practice which is “done to” rather than “with” them (Case and Haines, 2014).

When facilitating early introductory activities with Inside Out, the young people told us that that they wanted participation projects to be proactive, in that, they wanted to feel that the project would make a difference to their current circumstances. “It feels like you say the same things over and over again, nothing changes, don’t want to just talk [we] want to see action” (Inside Out member). Young people involved in developing CYCJ’s participation strategy also stressed the importance of trust, respect, empathy and kindness. They spoke about the importance of honesty and the need for transparency and clarity about what was achievable in the short and long term and for facilitators not to “be scared to hear the truth” in the process.

If we want to create meaningful change and expect young people to engage in the process, then we need to go beyond simply listening to what they say. We need to harness and value the wealth of knowledge, skills and lived experiences that they already have. Like Chekoway argues “[y]oung people are experts on being young people, regardless of what others think” (Chekoway, 2010, P341).” If we expect young people to engage in participation activities then we need to develop them together. The process not only needs to be fun and engaging but also worth their time. The voluntary nature of youth work requires us to invest quality time in relationships. It requires us to listen and act on what young people say. Youth work and meaningful participation can changes lives. That’s why we urge all practitioners to support Youth Link Scotland’s (2021) Youth Work Manifesto. With the passing of the UNCRC (Bill) in Scotland, access to good quality participation and youth work opportunities must become a right for all our children, ever more so, for children in conflict with the law.

Download Developing Participative Practice Info Sheet 


Cahill, H., & Dadvand, B. (2018). Re-conceptualising youth participation: A framework to inform action. Children and Youth Services Review, 95, 243-253.

Case, S., & Haines, K. (2014). Youth Justice: From linear risk paradigm to complexity. In A. Pycroft, & C. Bartollas (Eds.), Applying complexity theory: Whole systems approaches in criminal justice and social work (pp. 119-139).

Checkoway, B, (2010). ‘What is youth participation?’ Children and Youth Services Review 33 (2011) 340-345.