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Anger as bar is lowered for youth workers

Recruitment crisis prompts plan to let unqualified staff train on the job. Andrew Mourant reports

Plans to ease the acute shortage of youth and community workers by training new staff on work-based schemes and modern apprenticeships have been condemned by their union.

To the anger of the Community and Youth Workers Union (CYWU), the Joint National Committee - set up to represent employer, youth agency and staff union interests - has suggested the lowest-grade staff need only be qualified to NVQ level 2 (GCSE equivalent).

Currently no qualifications are required by law to be a youth worker, though in practice a JNC-approved course often acts as a basic standard.

The union argues that better pay, qualifications and conditions are the only way to tackle the crisis in the profession that lies behind the staffing shortage.

"Lowering qualification levels and a failure to address the pay question will do permanent damage," said Doug Nicholls, CYWU general secretary. "We seek retention of a full JNC qualification for all full-time workers and a minimum level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualification for all paid posts."

The complex and sensitive nature of the work should, if anything, require more stringent basic qualifications, the union says. "Many are now calling for at least a three-year degree," said Mr Nicholls.

"This is the direction we should sort out before rushing into competence-based assessment schemes and modern apprenticeships."

The introduction of a work-based route comes as the profession faces huge expansion. A recent National Youth Agency paper Transforming Youth Work, sets a target of one youth worker for every 400 13 to 19-year-olds. That would require 11,000 in England, whereas the current workforce is just over 8,000 full-time equivalents.

The agency suggests work-based training would provide an easier, more cost-effective way to groom potential workers. Currently, the only route to the full professional status of "nationally qualified" youth worker - is a higher education course validated by the agency. Such courses are not even available in some areas, such as East Anglia.

The agency envisages employers such as local authorities and charities enabling volunteers to become peer educators or assistant youth workers.

They would then progress through a modern apprenticeship and a foundation degree.

"Further development of the work-based route should progress as a matter of urgency," it says. "More pathways into the profession would encourage a greater diversity of backgrounds and ages.

It also says such a route could bring greater consistency to training.

"Many voluntary organisations have developed their own qualifications outside the national framework. They are rarely externally validated or assessed and may place volunteers at a disadvantage should they wish to move on."

But the CYWU doubts an apprenticeship leading to a foundation degree is the best way to prepare workers. It thinks that reintroducing state-funded JNC apprenticeships, which had a good track record, would be a better bet.

It also suggests poor pay and conditions lie at the heart of the profession's troubles, and is holding a special conference on pay in October. Many part-time youth workers lack a written contract, it says, and thousands are employed illegally or have no training. Many also are denied basic pension rights.

Salaries of youth workers compare badly with teachers': a newly qualified teacher can expect pound;18,105; the equivalent JNC-paid youth worker pound;14,643. "This year's JNC pay claim is of fundamental importance to the future," said Mr Nicholls. "We will lose our most skilled staff and any quality future entrants unless this matter is resolved."

However, employers have already stated their unwillingness to raise salaries by more than 2.5 per cent.

As well as higher pay, the union wants a register, similar to the General Teaching Council register, of professional youth workers who would have a "licence" to practise.

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