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Leisure or learning
working with young people in Sweden

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It is not without reason that the title says “working with young people”. In Sweden, few would call work done with young people on their free time “youth work”. Generally, these activities have a different starting point and agenda than what you would normally associate with youth work. At least if you think that it “aims at the personal and social growth of young people” and “is based on voluntary participation and non-formal and informal learning” as described in the Council Conclusions on the contribution of quality youth work to the development, well-being and social inclusion of young people in 2013.

However, there is an on-going debate on what working with young people should be all about. You might say that the conflict is between the ones that are “thinking leisure” and the ones that are “thinking learning”. This conflict is not unique for Sweden, but I believe that the work done by KEKS, a network of 44 local departments for youth work, might help others to develop and strengthen youth work.

In order to make this point I will start by giving a broad picture of how working with young people is generally organized and thought of in Sweden.

To begin, we have no law on youth work and there are no specific requirements for people working with young people on their free time. There is no university-based youth worker education; instead there is a two-year vocational training as leisure-time leaders, not specifically targeted at working with young people.

Secondly, arranging activities for young people outside school is voluntary for municipalities and there is no state funding. However, most municipalities finance local leisure-time centres for young people. These centres often look more or less the same; a small café where you can buy soft drinks and snacks, a pool table, a room for group activities and a bigger room where you can have discos and sport activities. They mostly attract boys that are not so successful in school and “hanging around” is quite often the main “activity”. (Only about 20 to 25 % of the visitors are girls.). Leisure-time centres are mostly seen as a low status activity, and the salaries for leisure-time leaders are subsequently low.

In order to understand this situation, we must look at policy. There is a national youth policy, but it is very general. When talking about out-of-school activities for young people it focuses on recreation and non-formal learning is not even mentioned. The same goes for local policies. In 2002 SALAR (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions) did a study on local “youth work” policies and published a report with the stunning title “Activities without intention”!

It stated that few municipalities had formulated aims for this sector and that those that had were so unclear and abstract that they gave no guidance for the people who were supposed to do the job. The most popular expression was (and still is) “meaningful leisure-time for all young people” – which of course is a statement totally without meaning if you do not define it.

However, the lack of clear aims does not mean that there are no political expectations on the outcomes – “keep the troublemaking boys of the streets” is the “hidden agenda” that becomes evident whenever there is some kind of public disturbance created by young men and boys.

The battle between “meaningful leisure” and “keep the boys of the streets” is still going on in most municipalities. However, this way both sides use leisure activities as a way to distract young people, conserving their marginalized position through feeding them with more or less trivial activities. Instead of meeting them as resources, challenging and supporting them to be responsible actors in their own lives.

conserving their marginalized position through feeding them with more or less trivial activities

KEKS started of as a reaction to the above situation and our focus was to formulate clear and measurable aims regarding what young people should perceive when taking part in youth work. Long discussions lead us to the aim that “youth work should stimulate and support young people to fulfil their social needs.” Among these needs were the need to feel secure, to be able to express yourself and to actively participate. We also defined our target group (e.g. gender balance) and some basic economic key figures (e.g. cost per activity hour).

Our idea was that the more these basic social needs where fulfilled the better, both for the individual in terms of health and ability to reach his/her full potential, and for society in terms of active and responsible citizens. Our overall purpose and “business idea” is therefore “to stimulate and support activities that are based on and requires the active engagement and responsibility of young people”. To our relief our local politicians liked this idea and turned it into local youth work policy!

On the basis of these aims we have built a system for quality assurance and development consisting of four parts:

  • A digital logbook where all youth work is documented through both statistics and written comments. (If you don’t document what you are doing you cannot compare different actions with different outcomes and learn from your successes and mistakes.)
  • An annual survey to young people visiting youth centres, asking them questions related to security, participation and other needs/aims. (2017 we got over 7000 answers.)
  • A survey to young people who take part in group-activities with questions about how and to what extent they have participated and learned new things.
  • A template for collecting statistics and economic data regarding the number of visitors, costs, etc.


In the end of each year this information is compiled into a report for every youth centre and municipality where they can see development over time, as well as in relation to other youth centres. Based on an analysis of these results our members are able to set measurable aims for the next year (e.g. “We want to increase the participation index to 75%.”). KEKS task is then to help our members to develop the competences, methods and tools needed to reach these aims.

Our system has proven to be a great vehicle for development and at the same time it has strengthened the credibility and identity of youth work;

  • Staff feel that they, for the first time, get relevant and constructive feedback on their work.
  • Local politicians feel, also for the first time, that they get an evaluation that says something relevant about the quality of youth work.


KEKS is still in minority, we still have a long way to go, but we are “on track” and growing. Our conclusions from this process are:

  • We have to ask young people how they perceive our work – evaluating each other is not enough. A trustworthy follow up is crucial to recognition and political support.
  • Participation is the vehicle for successful youth work and leads to good results in all other areas, from gender balance to learning.
  • Systematic documentation and follow up, not competence development, is the main driving force for development.

by Jonas Agdur (2018)

is, among other things, chair of KEKS and InterCity Youth and has written “Improving Youth Work – your guide to quality development” on behalf of the European Commission.

Photos: youth work in Sweden ©Sara Lesch, KEKS


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