by Kelly Bradshaw-Walsh
Historically, a collective understanding of the nature and impact of open access youth provision has been elusive. We may feel that this is entirely understandable, given that provision is necessarily adaptive and led by the needs and interests of young people. Young people choose how and when they engage, and relationships with youth workers are a dynamic part of provision. Youth organisations of different sizes run varied activities, across different regions of the country with diverse groups of young people. But whilst this variety is to be celebrated, it can be difficult to describe the collective value of this work in the lives of young people and the communities in which they live; identify what high quality youth provision looks and feels like; make sector level decisions (such as funding priorities or staff development needs); and share learning across organisations.
The Youth Investment Fund (YIF), a £40 million joint investment in young people from the government and the National Lottery Community Fund, has provided a unique opportunity to develop this shared picture, working with 90 funded youth organisations between 2017 and 2020.
So, can we find common ground?
Our early findings from the YIF Learning Project suggest that, whilst there is huge variety and creativity in the design and delivery of activities, they are typically based on common ways of working with, and supporting, young people. At the beginning of the Learning Project, we worked with grant holders to co-design the first iteration of the YIF theory of change (ToC), which captured the common features of open access youth provision and formed the basis for a shared understanding of how activities lead or contribute to changes for young people. This informed the design of our shared evaluation framework used in the Learning Project. Our work with YIF grant holders provided support for the value and feasibility of a shared theory of change across open access youth provision and grant holders frequently identified the ToC as one of the most valuable aspects of the learning project.
As one YIF grant holder put it:
“As a sector we tend to think of ourselves as unique… I think the theory of change showed that actually we’re all doing almost identical things in our own unique ways. That to me was a massive revelation and I think that was true of everybody that I spoke to”
Updating the theory of change
A theory of change should be a live document and an ongoing process of enquiry. As we learn about our programmes, a theory of change should be tested and adapted to best represent the knowledge and insight we have. With this in mind, we are in the process of reviewing the YIF theory of change, taking into account lessons from the YIF Learning Project, including application of the theory of change in practice.
Overall, we found that the theory of change was generally fit for purpose, but there were three main revisions we wanted to make in response to what we learned:
- Including activities, mechanisms and outcomes that are focused outside of the youth provision setting
The updated theory of change will pay greater attention to the role of youth provision in the wider context of young people’s lives, including families, community and broader society. For example, in our YIF process evaluation (due to be published at the end of November 2020), grant holders frequently described how they build relationships with the wider community so that activities are perceived as safe, inclusive, appealing and reliable. This wasn’t explicitly described in the original theory of change. Furthermore, youth organisations support young people to engage with, and make a positive contribution to, their communities.
- Expanding the mechanisms of change
Mechanisms of change are a relatively new development in theories of change. They describe how activities are expected to lead or contribute to intended outcomes, including the ways in which activities are experienced (in this case by young people) that will make them more or less effective. Grant holders found the process of thinking about mechanisms of change useful as it helped them to identify and interrogate the processes through which their activities lead to changes in young people’s lives. In doing so, YIF grant holders were able to focus on quality of provision and improvements in service design and delivery. Using findings from the YIF evaluation, and insights from grant holders, the mechanisms of change in the YIF theory of change are being updated. In addition, updates to the mechanisms of change are informed by a recent review that looked at factors contributing to impact in open access youth provision. See Box 1 for mechanisms of change that have emerged from our review so far.
Box 1: Mechanisms of change emerging from the YIF theory of change review.
When taking part in high quality open access youth provision, young people experience:
|Focused within youth provision setting
||Focused outside of youth provision setting
|– A safe and supportive environment
– Positive and healthy relationships
– High quality and valued provision
– Engagement through free choice
– Support to take part in stimulating and fun activities
– The opportunity to take an active role in, and contribute to, planning design and delivery of youth provision
– Support to explore values and attitudes
|– A sense of hope and agency to drive change in their lives
– A sense of hope and agency to create change in the world around them
– A sense of connection and contribution to their community through participation
- Refining the intermediate outcomes
The original co-design process identified a wide range of ‘intermediate’ outcomes that young people may experience as a result of taking part in open access youth provision. On the whole, these can be classed as social and emotional learning (SEL) skills – the essential, transferable skills, such as empathy, that support young people to make healthy transitions, form strong relationships, and live fulfilled lives. There are many frameworks of SEL skills, often using different language to describe the same thing, which can be unhelpful when trying to gain a common understanding. To avoid this, we are refining a core set of SEL outcomes that map across to the main frameworks used in the youth sector, such as the Centre for Youth Impact’s Framework of Outcomes for Young People 2.0.
As noted above, the updated theory of change will also recognise that young people develop SEL skills when they engage with high quality provision and, over time, they are able to apply these skills to other parts of their lives, such as interactions with family, school and peers. It is this transfer of skills that leads to longer-term impacts, such as improved educational attainment, securing and progressing in ‘good work’, and positive health and well-being.
We are currently updating the YIF theory of change, which is designed to capture the common elements of open access youth provision, whilst remaining flexible to allow for the different possible pathways through which youth organisations support positive change for young people. We hope this will support YIF grant holders and the wider youth sector to build on learning from the YIF. We’re hope to publish the updated ToC, along with aligned measures, before Christmas and will be sharing it in the Centre’s newsletter and on the Centre’s and NPC’s websites.