Difficult world of youth workers

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Self-defence is top of thelist for training requested by community staff. Their union wants action, reports Andrew Mourant

The world facing youth and community workers can be hostile. Sometimes they are forced to mix with troublesome individuals in difficult circumstances.

Far too often they are ill-prepared for its complexities.

The Community and Youth Workers Union (CYWU), says that too many lack the training they need. Myriad problems - from violent confrontations to ignorance of health and safety - have caused the union to be swamped with casework on members' behalf.

A proposal by employers that entry qualifications to the profession should start at National Vocational Qualification level 2, equivalent to a GCSE (see story right) has caused widespread anger.

"Compared with other educational or welfare occupations, staff in this sector have high levels of responsibilities," says CYWU general secretary Doug Nicholls.

There is a long list: health and safety; managerial; child protection; financial. But figures compiled by Dave Proctor, a national case worker, show that too often things go wrong. The CYWU found that from a sample 2,500 members across England and Wales, 624 incidents were referred to national office, and estimated that at least 100 more had been dealt with elsewhere.

"This volume of casework per member is exceptionally high," said Mr Nicholls. "Experienced people in the trade union movement say the severity of our cases is unique. We've not come across any other organisation that has suffered so many problems caused by lack of preparation."

While the youth service relies heavily on part-timers, their legal and professional responsibilities are often equivalent to those of full-timers in other fields.

The case load included 33 individual problems arising from health and safety. "In all of those a common factor was lack of training, something neglected by courses and employers," said Mr Nicholls.

"There's a general lack of risk assessment and involvement of sufficiently-qualified personnel."

Then there were the 50 cases of misconduct, most of which, CYWU says, could have been avoided with proper supervision and induction into procedures and policies.

"We believe misconduct will reduce if ethical training becomes more prevalent on college courses and a code is adopted," he said.

He admits that the behaviour of a minority of ill-prepared youth workers is extraordinarily bad. "That links to the fact that there is no regulation of the profession," he said.

In an increasingly litigious world, foreign trips and residential courses are fraught with risk. While some teaching unions have advised staff to withdraw from them, the CYWU wants to carry on, believing these are of critical importance to youth work.

"However, much more training and preparation needs to feature," said Mr Nicholls. "Significant problems were created this year with staff expected to take away unknown groups to unknown locations in a short space of time, with little or no risk assessment."

Too often, the report says, youth and community workers are fall-guys for the idea that violence and aggression at work should be viewed as an occupational hazard.

"Many serious incidents go unreported and severe cases are on the increase," Mr Nicholls said. "Since little was being done by employers, the CYWU has developed specialist publications and training courses. The one most consistently requested in the last three years is in self-defence."

Meanwhile, some of the 21 cases of staff bullying by employers and managers are considered by other industrial sectors as among "the very worst they have ever heard of - the scale of personal suffering and illness that has accompanied these cases has been extreme".

The situation, says the CYWU, cries out for proper training and continuous professional development. Mr Nicholls is disappointed that little has changed since the report appeared in January.

"Neither the voluntary sector nor principal youth officers have paid it as much attention as we'd have liked," he said.

"Employers could have insisted on things such as training and a code of ethics. We're asking our own people to help change the culture and not to accept appalling conditions."

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