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Guest Blog: Reflections from the Policy and Practice Seminar Series

I attended a Policy and Practice Seminar, the first of a series of nine national events funded by the Association of Lecturers in Youth and Community Work. The seminar was hosted by the University of Worcester and co-designed with the University of Gloucestershire. The aim of the seminars is to foster greater collaboration between higher education institutions and practice agencies, to better respond to the challenges and opportunities facing youth work today. I found myself intrigued to see if this can be a reality or if it will remain a strapline, a nice idea, a feel-good buzz that disappears as fast as the day closes? Here is my account of the day:




Welcome: (Video Link to Welcome and Introduction to Three Horizons)



The day started with a welcome by David Green, Vice Chancellor of the University of Worcester. Paul Fenton, from the Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth and Community Work, also extended his welcome, explaining how the series of seminars have been created in response to the challenge of overcoming the divide between academic institutions and front-line youth work agencies. He also invited attendees to tweet throughout the day, and to follow the conversation throughout the next 2 months as more national seminars take place.You can revisit the twitter feed at any time using #ycwseminars  


Setting the Context, The Three Horizons Framework:


Gian Fazey-Koven, Student Support Service Manager at the University of Worcester set the scene for the day by outlining the Three Horizons Framework, which the day was structured around. The Three Horizons framework has developed over the past ten years, outlined in Bill Sharpe’s book “Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope”.


Gian put forward the compelling argument that youth work is an extremely complex landscape that requires non-linear, complexity thinking, such as the Three Horizons Framework. This framework is not an analysis or management tool to be used by a lone practitioner, but a transformative tool based upon a foundation of dialogue and inclusion.


Gian briefly outlined the three horizons:

  • 1. The first horizon represents today’s dominant system; first horizon thinkers tend to be realists, pragmatists, dealing with the issues of now.
  • 2. The second horizon represents transition from the first to the third horizon; second horizon thinkers are entrepreneurial and innovative, eager to get on and try new things.
  • 3. The third horizon represents the future; third horizon thinkers are visionaries, re-imaginers, visualising a how to change the pattern, how to do things in a different, better way.


The three horizons exist all at once, and therefore need to be considered altogether, in dialogue; the pathways from the first horizon to the third horizon already exist.


The three horizons are constantly under the pressure of change because they exist in the context of the real world, which is constantly in flux. This is important to remember, as we cannot adopt thinking that says, ‘we’ll just get through this change and then we’ll be ok’. As time passes, what was a future horizon becomes the present horizon, and a new future horizon replaces it.

Gian did a great job of outlining the Three Horizons Framework clearly and succinctly in only 15 minutes, not an easy feat. However, I sensed people hadn’t connected with these concepts fully, perhaps because they were not yet in context, only abstract. As we moved on to consider the framework in relation to youth work, I hoped that it would become more alive and meaningful. 


1st Horizon Presentation: ‘Here and Now’ The Practitioners Perspective

(Video Link to Presentation on 'Here and Now')


Helen Scarrett, Chief Executive of Worcester Community Trust, Cheryl Fereday, Service Delivery Manager at Worcester Community Trust and Bev Wride, who runs the Ourside Project in Evesham, opened the session with a brief introduction, quickly followed with a video, produced specifically for the seminar, to explore the first horizon, the here and now of youth work. The video outlined the current local youth work offering, emphasising the benefits to young people of youth work activities, and how relationships between youth workers and young people are the basis of effective youth work.


The video also identified the current challenges being faced, most significantly lack of funding. As a result, sourcing funding and writing bids has now become an integral part of youth work. Funding is often attached to targeted youth work. While this is absolutely needed, there is also a great need to continue supporting open access youth work, which brings huge benefits too. To highlight this, we heard the voices of young people, explaining how their youth clubs allowed them to learn new skills, to build positive relationships, to stay out of trouble and to ‘become the people they are’.


The second challenge identified was the need for highly trained and qualified youth workers. The University of Worcester has recently closed its Youth and Community degree, due to unsustainable numbers. Although disappointing, it has provided an opportunity for university staff to relook at the landscape and assess the way forward, to consider different ways of working. Local youth organisations echoed the need for trained and qualified youth workers to do this highly skilled work.


I was impressed; the video captured the current landscape of face to face youth work practice in context, and presented it in an engaging, impactful way. I see smiles and nods, murmurs of agreement about where we are now, the shared joys and challenges faced by current youth workers in different settings. 


Youth Work – Our Core Business, National Youth Agency

(Video Link to NYA Introduction and Horizon 2: Jason Pandya-Wood)


Next, Leigh Middleton, Managing Director of the National Youth Agency, outlined their current work. As Leigh started his presentation, he acknowledged that the three horizons that he had structured his presentation around (where have we come from, where are we now, where are we going) perhaps don’t quite match up with the Three Horizons Framework being used today.


Leigh outlined the huge changes that youth work has undergone over recent decades, particularly the shift from universal to targeted services. As a result, there are many more young people accessing targeted services such as social care, CAMHS, etc. than preventative services, such as traditional youth work centres. In turn, the landscape of youth work jobs has changed, with around 10,000 youth workers employed today, but not in traditional ‘youth work’ jobs.


Leigh summarised what the National Youth Agency is currently doing moving forward, including developing policy (e.g.developing their youth covenant, APPG Youth Work Enquiry), practice (collaborative working, Quality Assurance of youth work), training and skills.


There were nods of agreement around the room as Leigh argued that youth work with is a highly technical, skilled profession, not ‘just’ youth workers running positive activities with young people, and that we all have a responsibility to break down this barrier. To do this, we need to capture evidence of the impact of youth work. We also need to continue to train youth workers to all levels, not just lower levels. 


2nd Horizon Presentation: ‘Emerging Opportunities’


Feet clad in some very fetching red socks, offering the energy we needed in the pre-lunch dip, Jason Pandya-Wood, Director of External Partnerships and Engagement at Nottingham Trent University, stepped up to speak next. Opening with refreshingly honest doubts about being filmed and the murky world of the second horizon, he engaged the audience from the outset, leading us through ‘the 4 ages of Jason’ to demonstrate the changes he has witnessed in his youth work career:


Firstly, he took us back to age ‘it just happens’, where there was a massive part time statutory youth work service, with lots of funding, and youth workers. This was followed by the age of ‘riskfactorology’, representing a policy shift to more linear cause and effect thinking and a desire for evidence-based practice, which of course didn’t work well when applied to complex human beings. This was followed by the age of Big Society. Jason rightly argued that while there is a lot of merit in wanting to rejuvenate society, this needs the creation of the right conditions, which were sadly absent.


There was then a group discussion about the common threads throughout these ages, with delegates identifying voluntary participation, a person-centred approach, passionate youth work professionals, and the preventative nature of youth work as core themes. Jason used this as a springboard to argue that we must get away from the idea that there is some form of ‘pure’ youth work that is untainted by context, that we must get ‘back’ to. This is a sure-fire route back from 2nd horizon to 1st horizon thinking. He used the cornerstone of ‘voluntary participation’ to illustrate his point; if we use this is a definition of youth work, then much of what occurs in youth justice settings wouldn’t count as youth work… which is most certainly is. In fact, he argues, as soon as we start to rigidly define what youth work is, we can find ourselves discounting too much of the work with young people that takes place.


Jason’s fourth age brought us up to date with the age of reaping what we sow, in terms of cuts to youth services and the threat to the professional basis of youth work. In response, he contended, we need to accept that the battle ground is different, accept and celebrate that youth work practice is a hybrid, we need to be politically savvy, to engage in political conversations in a way that works, using evidence to back up our claims. Finally, he argued, it is time for youth workers to reclaim and use their power. 


3rd Horizon Presentation ‘Future Consciousness’

 (Video Link to Horizon 3 Presentation)


In the final session, Dr Wayne Richards, Senior Lecturer at the University of Worcester, introduced the third horizon by telling us about a personal shift that had occurred for him earlier in the week. Before this shift, his position was ‘I have failed as a custodian of the youth service’, but as his shifted his thinking from custodianship to stewardship, he realised that not only is there a collective responsibility to create a future, but that youth work hasn’t yet fulfilled all its potential. Echoing Jason’s words earlier in the day, Wayne argues that this shift involves understanding that youth work can’t go back to old ways of being. Instead, we need move forward, to co-create a better world.


Wayne explained how the 3rd horizon involves transformation – to have a future, youth work must be able to exist in a new environment. Business as usual is not an option; if we carry on as we are we have no future. We, as youth work practitioners, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that future generations can meet their needs. Youth workers have the skills for transformation because they work in a relational way.


Wayne argued that futures thinking is the realisation of hope. As youth workers, we work with young people, not by design, not based on cause and effect, but based on hope. We build positive relationships with young people with hope, not certainty. 3rd horizon thinking involves identifying opportunities in the present that we want to invest in – with hope of creating a better world.


Wayne closed his talk with a challenge for everyone in the room: “It is time for youth work to evolve. We do this by returning to hope, by finding what is important and investing in it.” 


Panel Discusssion:

(Video Link to Seminar Discussion)


Paul Fenton then facilitated an open panel discussion. On the panel were Helen Scarrett, Cheryl Fereday, Leigh Middleton, Wayne Richards, Gian Fazey-Koven and Simon Gillings


There was an open discussion between panel members and delegates around the different youth work practices in different countries (including different UK countries). There was recognition that the differences in practice needed to be understood in the context of political structures, cultural attitudes and philosophies of each nature, not just in terms of different youth work programmes. Paul summarised by arguing that looking at what is going on internationally can be useful for sharpening our thinking in terms of the third horizon.


This was followed by a discussion about the future of social policy. It was great to hear the voices of the different horizons represented. There were passionate arguments for the need for a proactive, empowering approach to policy, using metric evidence of the impact of youth work. This was also balanced against criticisms of policy as a tool for change because it is based upon linear, cause and effect thinking that doesn’t work with complexity.


The discussion ended with a debate about what narrative is needed to replace ‘positive activities’, to portray what youth workers do. Once again, there were many different responses, from ‘we don’t have a narrative yet, but we are on our way’ to ‘we need to give an answer to suit our audience’ to ‘we need to agree using a democratic process’. It was helpful to be reminded by Wayne Richards that these conflicting answers are what the Three Horizons Framework is all about – there isn’t one answer to suit all horizons.


The day left everyone with much to reflect upon and you can revisit the sessions online as the whole day was recorded, thanks to students from the University of Worcester media department. Follow this links via each heading to form your own views of a fascinating day.



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