Critical voice Articles


Sacred Space; An exploration into the Distinctiveness of Faith-based Youth Work from a Christian Perspective in Northern Ireland.

By Dr Mark McFeeters

This article presents a synopsis of a PhD research study undertaken between 2016 and 2023. The project sought to understand the experiences of young people and youth workers engaged in faith-based youth work in Northern Ireland. it is important to explore the role faith-based youth work plays in the UK and N. Ireland (Stanton 2013; Macaulay 2006) and to consider its purpose, values, and approach through the eyes of those experiencing it. By exploring these experiences, the research sought to understand the influence of the Christian faith in faith-based practice, the purpose, and the process of faith-based youth work. 

You can read the full article here  

Relationships - the heart of mentoring. 

Lessons from Extern's mentoring programmes on what young people value in having a mentor.

By Dr Gail Neill and Dr Mark Hammond

We often hear of mentoring approaches being used within youth work settings but what this looks like in practice is often very different. Meaning that when we talk of mentoring, we may be on very different pages - from informal befriending type meet ups and check ins, through to more formalised and objective orientated short-term engagements.  


Throughout 2022 we had the pleasure of engaging with mentors, peer mentors and young people at Extern. The aim being, to help the organisation reflect on their use of mentoring, considering how mentors understood this work and capturing what young people found beneficial within these engagements. Through a series of focus groups, what we found was that despite the formal outcomes of the programmes, it was often the relationships and informal connections between the young person and the mentor that was of the greatest benefit and that was most commonly discussed.  


Investing and prioritising these relationships should not be misunderstood as recreational or directionless but rather intentional and essential for all that is to follow. In prioritising the development of a trusting relationship, mentors were able to engage holistically with the young person, starting where they were at and genuinely adopting a person-centred approach to their work. This relational approach to mentoring, recognises the need, at times, to suspend the official goals of the programme in order to respond to the contextual issues and barriers a young person may be dealing with. Movement, growth and development only possible when the most fundamental concerns and issues a young person is facing are acknowledge and addressed.  


You can read the full report here  

‘It’s just what happens’: Girls’ and young women’s views and experiences of violence in Northern Ireland

By Siobhan McAlister & Gail Neill

In 2022, academics from the Centre for Children’s Rights, Queen’s University Belfast (Siobhan McAlister, Dirk Schubotz and Michelle Templeton), and the Centre for Youth Research and Dialogue, Ulster University (Gail Neill) were commissioned by The Executive Office to undertake research with girls and young women to inform Northern Ireland’s first Strategy to End Violence Against Women and Girls.

Through an online survey, focus groups and one-to-one interviews, 268 girls and young women participated in the research. The research examined young women’s understandings and experiences of violence, their view on the causes and consequences of violence, and their views on services and supports and on how violence against women and girls might be prevented.

The title of the report, ‘Its just what happens’, reflects the sense among many girls and young women that violence was so pervasive as to be normal, and the view that there was little that could be done about it. The research identified ways in which age and gender intersect to influence the particular experiences of girls and young women and their willingness and ability to report violence.

Some headline findings -

·      In a survey of 200 girls aged 12-17, 73% reported having experienced at least one form of violence in their lifetime.

·      Discussions with a further 68 girls and young women (aged 12-25), revealed the persistent nature of ‘everyday violence’ with almost all experiencing catcalling and street harassment from the age of 10-11 onwards. In addition to cat-calls, participants noted the extent to which boys and men ‘touched’ or ‘grabbed’ them in public without consent.

·      Girls also reported receiving frequent unsolicited messages and sexual images from a young age. They considered this a normal part of their online life.

·      Cat-calling and street harassment led young women to feel embarrassed, self-conscious, insecure, unsafe and/ or hyper-vigilant when in public.

·      Young women felt that the information they received around safety and violence placed too much emphasis on how they could keep themselves safe.

·      Girls and young women identified a range of barriers to reporting violence and seeking support including not understanding violence due to their age and being poorly informed.

·      Age intensified some of the fears traditionally associated with disclosing and reporting violence such as embarrassment, shame, with younger women having greater fear of not being believed.

·      Girls/ young women felt that learning about violence was an important step in prevention. They felt that this should happen at a young age for boys and girls, in families, schools and youth provision.

Co-author of the report, Dr Gail Neill (Ulster University) noted the important role that youth services can play in responding to research findings,

‘While young women felt that schools had a role to play in providing comprehensive RSE that adequately addresses the topics of relationships, violence and reporting, those who attended youth work provision felt that these settings were more conducive for the discussion of such topics as the informality and the relationships they had with workers would enable in-depth discussion, challenge and support’.  

You can read the full report here 

“We shouldn’t let conflict of the past defy us”

Views of young people gathered from six Youth Peace Summits in 2022

by Debs Erwin

Consultations with young people comprised of six Youth Peace Summits, totalling 341 young people aged between 13-24. The indications of how much young people care about their communities and are passionate about having a voice suggests that young people are keen to write a new chapter 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement. This is perhaps best reflected in one group’s assertion that “we have learnt that we shouldn’t let conflict of the past defy us. We can treat everyone in our community with dignity and respect”.

Full article here

The Children’s Services Review and why it matters to youth work

by Dearbhla Holohan

Anyone supporting children and young people will know that Children’s Services are under severe strain. We are living in a perfect storm of workforce shortages, funding cuts, and a political vacuum at Stormont, whilst all the time the lives of children and young people become ever more complex. Emerging from covid has thrown up a myriad of challenges that have served to compound existing gaps and weaknesses in an already tired system that is in desperate need of investment, modernisation, and a long-term plan for transformation. We have the highest number of children in care since the introduction of the Children’s Order in 1995, and an increasing number of children on the child protection register (Dept. of Health for Northern Ireland, 2022).

Full article here

Habitus as Topic and Tool in Youth Work 

by Dr Dean Farquhar


  There is a vast body of literature offering youth workers guidance on how they ought to structure their practice. However, this guidance tends to coalesce around contested normative principles that can be differentially applied. Whilst this elaboration of principles usefully establishes the boundaries of a practitioners’ ethos, its precise relevance to the realm of practice is more ambiguous than is often implied. This paper contends that deploying habitus as a pedagogical tool can help youth workers come to a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay between normative concerns and the exigencies of practice. The paper begins by setting out the limits to youth work principles in guiding youth work practice. It then introduces the concept of habitus and explains its merits as a pedagogical tool in youth work.  


The Limits to Youth Work Principles


  Attempts to define the constitutive principles of youth work are often tied to a wider project of delineating youth work as a distinctive social process that makes a particular contribution to the lives of young people (Harland et al., 2005). This has meant that the principles of youth work have tended to have a dual function as forms of guidance for practitioners and weapons they may call upon to legitimate their practice. In fulfilling this dual function, the principles of youth work have become the means through which some have sought to distinguish ‘authentic’ youth work practice (see Jeffs & Smith, 2008). Supposed breaches of youth work principles can therefore leave practitioners vulnerable to charges that their practice is inauthentic or simply does not qualify as youth work. However, how youth work principles should be applied is not universally agreed. The elaboration of such principles may usefully establish the boundaries of a practitioners’ ethos, but how that ethos should guide youth work interventions remains an open question to be addressed through practice.

  Cooper (2018) provides a useful account of some of the practical limits to youth work principles. They identify consensus around the following principles:

Warning against tendencies to rigidly define the voluntary and youth mandated engagement principles of youth work, Cooper points to the limitations of these principles in practice and urges workers to: 

Read the full article here

Taking Boys Seriously: Young men, masculinities and boys as relational learners 

by Andy Hamilton

Boys from working class backgrounds consistently experience inequality of educational outcomes (Harland and McCready, 2012; Leitch et al., 2017; Purdy et al., 2021). This intersectionality of gender and class calls for critical reflection on the types of interventions and ways of working with boys that enable them to flourish as they learn. Ulster University in partnership with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), Controlled Schools’ Support Council (CSSC) and YouthAction Northern Ireland (YANI) are examining collaborative and assets-based approaches to addressing this systemic issue. This article draws on findings from an ongoing longitudinal study that originated in 2006 - Taking Boys Seriously (TBS). The research works alongside educators, boys and young men to inform policy, pedagogy and practice developments that address the gender attainment gap. The current phase of the research (2018-2023) is funded by Ulster University’s Widening Access and Participation department and includes an emphasis on supporting young men from working class communities to access and succeed in higher education.

Read the full article here

Rethinking Impact… 


by Debs Erwin & Gail Neill 


While we have undoubtedly missed out on a lot this last 18 months, the online world that has developed because of Covid restrictions has opened some new opportunities that previously might not have been possible (due to cost, time, or location). Personally, I (Gail) have been able to dip into and experience conferences, talks, and events on a global scale.  Hearing new and innovative research, engaging with those whose material I’d only ever read and discussing areas of interest with a board range of practitioners and academics has been incredibly motivating during what would otherwise have been a very isolating and demotivating time. 


A couple of weeks I bumped into local freelance youth consultant, Debs Erwin, as we attended the online Rethinking Impact conference hosted by Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty.  The research they presented, and the subsequent workshops and discussion sparked so many ideas that Debs and I caught up afterwards to continue to unpack what we’d heard. While we highly recommend that you engage directly with the material, we also wanted to share our own reflections on the day and some of the challenges and opportunities this raises for local youth work.  

Read our reflection here