Theory of Change

The following theory of change (ToC) was developed as part of the co-design stage of the Youth Investment Fund (YIF) Learning Project in Autumn 2017.

It was developed to support a common evaluation framework across the 86 YIF grantees, however, as this provision is so broad it has relevance for the open access youth sector as a whole. It was created through drawing on existing evidence and frameworks (e.g. McNeil et al, 2012), mapping grantee applications and delivery plans, seven grantee workshops across England and feedback from DCMS and BLF (the funders of the YIF). As we hope the ToC will gain wider relevance, we welcome feedback from across the sector. The ToC below has four fundamental elements:

 

  • Activities – the type of activities that young people are engaged in/ participate in at their local open access youth setting;
  • Mechanisms of change – the feelings that young people experience whilst participating in these activities. These experiences are what result in the positive intermediate outcomes;
  • Intermediate outcomes – the values, attitudes, knowledge and skills and behaviours that young people develop as a result of participating in activities;
  • Impacts – the longer term and sustained effect that is achieved.

 

Although this ToC is built on existing evidence and the expertise of the 86 YIF grantees it also acts as a set of hypotheses that will be tested throughout the YIF Learning Project. It will underpin all evaluation activities and will be periodically revisited and revised throughout the course of the YIF. Before getting into the detail of the theory of change it is worth making explicit a few considerations for anyone applying it to their service. Firstly, no single open access provider will be delivering and achieving all of the activities, mechanisms of change, intermediate outcomes and impacts represented below. Instead, this ‘sector-wide’ ToC acts as a shared framework within which individual organisations should be able to plot their own provision. Secondly, it is important to note that this ToC relates to young people themselves and does not include outcomes for their family, the community or the provider organisation. Thirdly, many organisations will do a lot of work to build relationships and encourage young people to access their services through outreach work but this ToC begins at the point where a young person is participating in an activity (although this could be detached provision). Fourthly, as with all theories of change, it charts a simplified linear progression (from left to right) for young people achieving their immediate outcomes, whereas the realities of young people’s lives mean they may have complex (non-linear) journeys to achieving their intermediate outcomes. Indeed, with some of the providers, each individual young person will track their own journey through provision and set their own individual goals to achieve their potential. Finally, although the theory of change underpins the evaluation framework it does not mean that everything within it can or should be measured.

 

As can be seen, a huge variety of activities are offered across YIF open access provision varying by type (youth clubs, sports, arts, social action, informal learning, counselling, employability and health and wellbeing services); intensity (ranging from regular sustained relationships to one-off engagement); group and one-to-one; and by setting (ranging across established building-based services, outdoor provision and outreach sessions). Despite the diversity of provision, the mechanisms of change are the common contextual factors which unify open access delivery and, to some extent, distinguish it from other models of youth service delivery. So, whether the activity is boxing, creative writing or health education it is the way the activity is delivered and the values of youth work that underpin it that sets it apart from other types of youth work. The mechanisms of change represent what the young person experiences in the moment they receive a service and are the key elements that lead to the intermediate outcomes. The presence of these mechanisms can also be considered as ‘criteria for quality’ delivery as their absence undermines the achievement of positive outcomes. Each mechanism outlined below is thought to be an enabler of positive change for young people accessing services.

 

The mechanisms of change are grouped under three contextual headings: environment and relationship; nature and delivery of activity; and community. Some mechanisms relate to the specific environment and relationship between a youth worker (staff or volunteer) and a young person. Such relationships are thought to be crucial in enabling learning and developmental experiences as well as being critical in engaging young people who might not access other services such as education or employment. Important dimensions to this relationship include that both parties ‘trust’ each other, and that young people are treated with respect and feel a fundamental sense of safety and security. The nature and delivery of the activity is also important (rather than the actual activity itself) – as this facilitates a positive challenge, is enjoyable (ranging from fun to a deeper sense of satisfaction) and provides a purpose or opportunity to achieve something concrete. The positive challenge and opportunity to achieve something is important in enabling a young person to become more aware of their own skills, attitudes and behaviours and can also boost self-confidence (if the challenge is overcome). Enjoyment is a fundamental characteristic that helps facilitate developmental processes. Finally, some mechanisms relate to inclusion and empowerment within a community. It is important that all young people are included and feel a sense of community (even if the community is the small group within an open access setting) – especially for those who do not feel this elsewhere. Young people should also be empowered to make change to services (through co-designing and shaping services), to themselves or to the community (again this may be the community within the youth group). It is a fundamental principle of open access youth work that for empowerment to be an outcome of services, young people should be empowered within those services.

 

The intermediate outcomes are divided into two stages. The initial outcome of increased self-awareness and reflection includes a conscious knowledge of one’s own character, challenges, strengths and weaknesses. This is considered a pre-requisite for achieving the intermediate outcomes further to the right. Individual services will likely aim to develop some specific outcomes but this broader theory of change outlines more general and transferable knowledge and skills including leadership, social and emotional skills; attitudes relating to aspirations, determination and confidence to overcome obstacles independently; behaviours resulting in better relationships, improved decision-making and young people engaging in more positive activities across the different areas of their lives; and positive social values including respect for others and empathy – critical in ensuring that the increased skills and knowledge are put to positive use.

The long-term impact (goals) of open access provision will often differ from one young person to the next and will likely depend on the length and intensity of an individual’s engagement. In addition, young people will need to identify their own goals to achieve their full potential and increase their life chances. Most open access youth providers aim to improve various broad dimensions of wellbeing including improved health, wealth, education, employment, relationships and civic engagement. Many of these impacts fall beyond the ‘accountability line’ and are often described by service providers as the long-term goals of their provision. However, as there are many other confounding factors that contribute to achieving these goals, aside from their own service activities, it is not appropriate for open access youth providers to be solely accountable for achieving them. Moreover, many of these impacts will only be seen years after the young person’s engagement. Instead the focus is on achievement of intermediate outcomes through delivering high quality provision that enables the mechanisms of change. The aim is to make a positive long term impact on young people’s lives and, in turn contribute to wider social benefits but these wider policy goals are not the focus of day-to-day open access provision.