Guest Post: Naomi Stanton

12 October 2011 — 7 Comments

This guest post is part of a series by youth work volunteers and practitioners writing about their experiences of working with young people in their particular context. Naomi Stanton has been doing her PhD research on the Sunday Schools movement from the eighteen hundreds to the twentieth century and has found some interesting parallels for youth ministry today which she explores below.

Naomi Stanton

I had the pleasure of meeting Jon when he gave an enjoyable and well-informed presentation at the Youth and Policy conference on ‘Young People and Faith’ in Leeds earlier this year. My background is youth work and throughout my career as a practitioner I always kept one foot in the academic side of things through writing and studying, in an attempt to bridge the theory-practice gap a little. After spending several years working in the statutory sector I realised that the gap was in fact widening as target-driven, increasingly formal policy seemed to be drowning, more and more, the ‘real’ theory of youth work. Since then, I worked for the voluntary sector for a while before studying full-time for my PhD and recently coming to work as a lecturer for YMCA George Williams College in London. My current practice is as a volunteer for my local church, and I increasingly wonder if youth work (in its true form) is incompatible with professionalisation, and is perhaps returning to its roots as a faith-motivated, philanthropic venture (or at least a locally and voluntarily organised one). In my post below I outline some of the findings of my PhD research which looks at the decline of the Sunday School movement and the emergence of Christian youth work.

When the Sunday School pioneer, Robert Raikes saw a need in his community in the late eighteenth century, his response provoked a 200 year movement, the remnants of which still exist today. Early Sunday Schools were an outreach movement prompted by the numbers of young people working six days per week but lacking in basic educational skills; a need that could be met by Christian service. By the early twentieth century, Sunday Schools had reached their peak, with over 75% of children and young people in England and Wales on their registers. Rather than continuing as a needs-led movement however, they had become a highly structured organisation, centralised and attached to local churches and unions, with their original purpose made redundant by the emergence and growth of mainstream education. They faced rapid decline in the mid-twentieth century, as a rigid institution amidst societal change. My research considers some of the factors in their decline, as well as tracing the presence of these issues in church-sponsored youth work in the present day.
Through archival research into the records of the national and local Sunday School Unions, it is clear that these were rigidly structured organisations not allowing much freedom to individual Sunday Schools to define their work at local level or even choose their own materials. Publications around Sunday Schooling in the twentieth century call on teachers to take training courses to drastically improve their work. These teachers were subject to criticism both from the Unions and their churches, who suggest Sunday Schools were failing because the young people did not become adult members at church. The move to a family church model, moving Sunday Schools from the afternoon to the morning, to align them more closely with church services, marked the loss of children and young people from non-church families who had previously made up the majority of attendees.

For the contemporary study, young people from across the Christian denominations have been interviewed about their current experiences of organised Christianity. Transition to adult church remains an issue, and youth workers, in an echo from the historical study, often face church criticism for this. Tensions emerge over whether the Christian youth worker’s role is to serve community or church needs. Young people’s sense of of choice, voice, and community are key to their engagement with Christian activities. The study challenges the assumption that young people engage with religion as consumers, by emphasising the significance of volunteering to the young people involved in the research. Implications for practice include allowing for young people to belong, to question, and to participate. This happens in youth work settings but often not in the young people’s experiences of church where they sense a division between their peer groups and church adults, often their only significant adult relationship being with the youth worker.

Feel free to contact me via if you would like to know about more about the research, and/or you can access recent presentations on my contemporary study at the following links:

What do you think? Got any questions for Naomi? Leave a comment below!


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

7 responses to Guest Post: Naomi Stanton

  1. Naomi and Jon

    Only just caught up with this and as usual claiming I can’t reply properly, but it does throw up for me loads of issues around ‘professionalisation’, which are insufficiently debated. It chimes too with my sense of not really having a grip on the renaissance of the faith sector in youth work. This was exposed in my session at the recent Y&P History conference. Oh, and as an aside years ago I started to do some research into the socialist sunday school movement. I wonder where it is now? Should dig it out.

    • Hi Tony,

      I think the professionalism debate is huge right now and no-one is seeking to address it. It was highlighted to me with the launch of the Institute for youth Work consultation which sought to define professionalism before asking people to comment on what an institute might do. Of course, the definition immediately excluded many thousands of part-time and unqualified workers who didn’t fit into this narrow criteria. Naomi’s caution for us in reflecting on what happened to informal Sunday School teachers now is very timely!

      How was the history conference by the way? What did you present on?

      • Bernard Davies and I did a joint contribution on the assault on the Albemarle legacy [with all its contradictions]by both New Labour and the Coalition as an example of the wider attack on public services and the Welfare state. It was more fun than that sounds!! And it was very much an invitation to debate not a definitive view. And a gap in our analysis was understanding better the rise of the faith sector [horrible term]. A dilemma for a long-standing ‘professional’ like myself, deeply cautious about the professionalisation’ of fundamental human values and relationships, is that in the present climate of cuts criticism of its tenets is seen as treachery. Does that make sense.

        As for the conference as ever it was eclectic, critical
        and stimulating.

  2. I think there’s a distinction between training professional workers as critical thinkers about their field, and training workers in how they should think, act and feel. I think there was a desire for the latter in some of those trying to impose training on Sunday School teachers in the 50s and 60s. There are parallels in statutory provision; I won’t mention the late Connexions diploma – oops, I did. But there was another issue at play with the Sunday School teachers of the 50s onwards that likely had a lot to do with the way they were so harshly criticised about their lack of commitment and time for training, etc. That is that these were women who post-war were liberated to the idea that they could go out to work. Thus I think the criticism of them reflects a wider clash of discourses about women that goes beyond the Sunday Schools but certainly had an impact on them.

    Tony, I was thinking since we chatted after your presentation at the history conf, that we should look at hosting a day that encourages faith-based workers to examine their role in light of the current political climate. So we could have sessions reflecting on the Big Society, as well as considering their role in IDYW, and their position as the biggest professional youth work sector within the current austerity. This would link in with a conversation I was having with Jon after the faith conf too so let me know if you’re interested. If we went for next summer/autumn it could even be a place to launch the Y&P youth work and faith book…

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  1. Jon Jolly (@bobweasel) (@bobweasel) - 12 October 2011

    Guest Post: Naomi Stanton

  2. Jon Jolly (@bobweasel) (@bobweasel) - 13 October 2011

    Can the push to "professionalise" youth ministry learn anything from the 200 year old Sunday School movement? #ywchat

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