Working with young people is the same wherever you are, if you are to do it in a good way

20. 5. 2021

Can you briefly introduce yourself? How did you get into non-formal education?
My name is Jonas Agdur and I started as a municipal youth worker in 1980 in suburban Stockholm. In Sweden, youth work is mainly run by municipalities and municipally hired staff, so I started as a youth worker in 1980 after having left university. And I worked in this suburb of Stockholm for 18 years between 1980 and 1998 - first as a youth worker for 7 years, then as a head of a youth centre for 7 years and four last years as a street worker and project leader in youth work issues. This suburb, when I started, was a Swedish ethnic middle-class suburb, 20 minutes subway out of central Stockholm. When I left, 93 % of the kids had out-of-Europe origin. So, the whole shift of Swedish society took place, and this was the suburb where you might even say that it started. 

Why did you become interested in measuring the quality of youth work?
Under these 18 years, I never saw one document which set clear aims for youth work. The follow-up system was only counting heads and hours. That is, how many young people came, and how many hours of youth work did we provide. The quality of youth work was not an issue under discussion at the level this should be discussed. It was of course discussed among us that worked with young people, but there were no clear political aims, no clear mission statements for youth workers, nothing. Also, there were no aims at all for youth work. I was head of youth work with a rather substantial budget, but no idea what I should use the money for, because there was no clear idea what the youth work was really about. Which was of course a bit disturbing. Finally, I found myself in a position where I could start a discussion on why we are here. What is the aim? I had direct contact with the political level so I could talk to them about it, and I could talk to the heads of units under me and the staff on this. So, I rather immediately started a process where I gathered all staff and asked them: “Why are you here? What’s the idea behind this work?” 

How did they react to your “new idea”?
Of course, they had lots of different ideas and we started a process to discuss, because I said we need to have clear aims and we need to have a system to show to what degree we reach these aims. 

How long did this first phase of discussions and system setting take?
It took one and half years, more or less, until we finally had a rough system. We had clear aims on what to provide for young people because we said that we want to know what young people should get out of youth work. And who are young people, how should we compose our target group and what are the essentials regarding costs and volumes. It is the old commercial rhyme: the right goods to the right customer at the right price. And we have to do this also in youth work. So, we made a document with aims and we made questionnaires to young people to see what they got out of youth work. We were very focused already at that time at young people’s participation, actually. We said we needed gender balance and so on and so on. And this led to that we got very much political support. They were really interested in this. 

How did you convince the politicians that they should listen to you, support you?
You get a recipe on your work and you don’t have to say “these young people they would be nice citizens in 20 years” - we don’t know, because they’re gone by then. Now you get a concrete recipe - I mean, they are participating, they are learning, and we reach the right young people that need this kind of support. This is of course the key to success. We are able to show others what they get out of spending money. If you’re a politician, and I mean in my case, I got millions of euros and people had no idea why did we give this money to this guy to do youth work. Now they got an answer to this, I could show what we get from doing youth work. In terms of young people’s participation, in terms of young people’s learning mainly. These are the aims that we have set in these different processes regarding youth work, and they very much coincide with overarching aims in Europe, of EU and the Council of Europe. All the time, we have been very much in line with these overarching aims, but we do actually measure to what degree are people actively participating in youth work. And we are actually doing follow up on what do young people learn – do they learn and if they learn, what do they learn? And these are the key features of youth work in combination with that we reach the right young people and we do it at a reasonable cost.

And other organizations? Were they interested in your method of measuring quality?
Yes, we got interest from other municipalities that asked me if I could have the same discussion with them that I had in my own organisation. And I did so. In 2005, two municipalities said we want to use the same system that you had started to build, and we founded KEKS in 2005. This was the result of the situation that they have had the same situation and experience that I’ve had - no clear aims, no clear ideas on what youth work is and this has a lot of negative consequences. And this is perhaps the answer to why work with quality. I mean, if you don’t have clear aims and ideas on why you’re there. And in the case of youth work, there’s also a total more or less lack of legislation and this goes throughout Europe and when there is legislation it’s not very clear. 

You started cooperating with other organizations quite soon…
We started to work together, and we also of course said that if you’re doing follow up and you see outcomes in terms of - some things are good, some things are not so good - then we also need to do support measures in terms of competence development, in terms of developing organisation, developing new methods and so on. We put aside some money from each municipality to do these support measures, we had seminars and conferences, we produced manuals on youth work to support youth workers and we started to grow rather fast as an organisation. We were 20 municipalities within 2 or 3 years, and we have kept on growing since that.

Which countries do you cooperate with?
Until 2009 we did follow up. We asked young people questions on learning, participation, security, safety and so on. We then realised that we also need to do documentation on youth work. What are we doing, so we could go back and see how different actions lead to different outcomes. This system, The Logbook, the first version came in 2009. In 2015 we got more money to develop it from the Erasmus+, and we developed it together with partners from Romania, Estonia, and Ireland. Because we wanted it to be applicable regardless of where youth work was done and the circumstances and so on, and obviously youth work in Romania, Sweden and Ireland for example are very diverse. This has led us to have a system which has increased the European interest in what we’re doing in KEKS. So today, we are in a total of 71 member municipalities with 9 from Slovenia and 3 from Finland, but the system is also used in Ireland, Romania, and it’s going to be used in one region in Italy as well. 

What do you think is the biggest barrier that organisations don’t want to use your method?
I think there are some reasons of course. Some municipalities are a bit afraid of a system that measures things. The youth work sector is not used to being measured and people get afraid because they think this is a top-down process. But the whole system is basically built on development premises, it’s not a monitoring system primarily. But it could also be used for monitoring. And this scares some people: Should we be measured? To me and to us it’s obvious that if you use public money, you should also have some idea about what kind of results are we contributing with. Because otherwise it’s just spending public money without knowing why. So, organisations are afraid of having someone looking into what they are actually doing Another reason is that they think, which is wrong, but they still think, that it takes a lot of time and energy. But we know that doing this in a structured way actually saves time, because if you have a structured dialog on quality, you don’t have to discuss some other problems that often carry organisations that don’t have these kinds of system. They discuss other things, and they waste their time. So, this is not a time consuming, it’s actually a time gaining process.

But it really seems that measuring the quality of youth work takes quite a lot of time and energy…
It takes time changing your way of thinking about youth work. I mean it’s obvious that in many countries and municipalities youth work is not so good, it’s done more doing things for young people than doing things with young people for example, it’s not so much about participation and learning it’s more about providing activities and so on. So, this is also bit scary for some youth workers. “Are we going to lose our job?” Then we’re saying, you won’t lose your job, you are supposed to support young people to do things, you change your position, but this also scares a bit “are we going to lose our job and young people going to do everything?” I mean of course they’re not, but their position changes: From someone who fixes things for young people to someone who coaches young people and supports them to do things…

How long does it take for the first results to appear? 

It depends… You need to have a discussion on what is quality in youth work. What do we mean if we say participation, what is this, what is learning and so on. Because otherwise participation is very broad word… When you have these discussions, you create awareness, so already the discussions on what is quality create awareness, if you have good discussions, of course. If you start using our system I would say that it would take some training. And the interesting first point come when you do your second measuring, because than you can compare your results to previous years and see what you have changed and what effects it has had.


The method works with indicators of quality. Can you tell us more about it? 

Yes. When I started this and I said we need to discuss what is quality in youth work and what aim we are going to have, this is based on the discussion on indicators. Quality indicators are what characterises quality youth work and for example, what we say that participation is. We have to ask ourselves, what do we mean when we say participation, what is this. Because quality indicators need to be measurable. I mean, are you participating or not, you couldn’t just ask that single question, because everybody understands it differently. So, quality indicators regarding participation (as I give you an example) is that young people take part in creating activities, young people take part in preparing activities, young people take part in organise activities, and so on. So, these are the quality indicators, and young people take part in evaluation, young people feel that they own the process, they are not just help to youth workers, they own the process. We have a set of 12, 15 sub indicators on participation, that you could all follow up. You could ask a young person “Were you part of evaluating this activity?” And they could answer “Yes, I was totally part of this”. These are the indicators.  Then in the second step you set an aim related to the indicators. For example, we have an aim on young people’s participation that is 75%. If we have 10 questions and they say yes to 7 and no to 3, then we reach a 70%. 

It seems quite difficult but probably it isn’t in the end…?

No, it’s not in the end. I mean if you have, if you say participation, for example, as I said, participation is important, you have to define what you mean and then you set a couple of indicators related to participation and you ask young people if they agree totally, to certain degree or not at all.

Can you give me an example of questions to ask young people?

We have a couple of different questionnaires to young people. We have one questionnaire to all young people that have taken part in any kind of group or project activity. They have been part of youth exchange, a festival, the discussion group on gender issues, whatever, all kinds of projects. Then they get a web-based questionnaire of about 25 to 30 questions about their background, gender, age, ethnical background, disability or not so that we know who we reach. Then we ask them: Have you been part of creating this activity? Have you been part of preparing the things that you’ve been doing in your group/project? Have you been part of organizing?

Do you have any results or something you can show?

We have been measuring youth work since 2005. So of course, we get results from this system for each member municipality and for each sub-organisation or youth centre or whatever. And we can see today, a municipality that has been a member for a longer period gets better results than the newcomers. That is to say that the system actually works, which is nice. We can see that we are better today on young people’s participation and learning than we were 5 years ago and even more if you look 10 years ago. So, these are the results, and this is the idea of the system that we are able to show results. It’s also a result that we are constantly growing. People are actually gaining from being part of the organisation. We started with 3 municipalities and now it’s 71. That’s another kind of outcome. So, we can see that the system leads to both awareness among staff and higher quality youth work and we can show it in a sustainable, trustworthy way. Last year we had a meeting place survey that went out to youth centres and places where young people meet, and we got about 9000 answers on that questionnaire only in Sweden, which means we have a statistically safe ground to draw conclusions on youth work and what it gives to young people.

What do you think about the situation with covid and non-formal education? It seems across Europe that NFE is stopped. How do you see the future of NFE?

I think the future still is positive. If you look at it in the long term. I think there’s a growing support for the non-formal learning and education throughout Europe and through the Council of Europe, and 3rd European Youth Work Convention said important things about the further development of this. In a short time, I think that it’s obvious that the young people who need the non-formal education the most are the ones that we’ve lost. The ones who are used to meetings and more “formal” non-formal environment, they have it easier. So, I think there’s division among groups of young people in terms of their access to non-formal learning, and of course this will have consequences. But if you look at it in the really long term I’m not so worried. In a short term, of course, this is very problematic, because we have lost some groups, especially those that need youth work the most.

Jonas Agdur was interviewed by Martina Vokrouhlíková.