Jim Sweeney

30th September 2011 at 01:00
YouthLink Scotland's chief executive talks about what lies ahead, community cohesion and the danger of having a lost generation. Photography by Angus Blackburn

YouthLink Scotland has just hosted the first national youth work summit in Edinburgh. What do you think the biggest achievement of the sector has been in the five years since you became chief executive?

I think we have managed to get government, particularly central government, to realise that youth work has a central role to play in the personal and social development of young people. There has been increased government support, for example developing the very first youth work strategy, which led to the Year of Action for Youth Work. Thankfully, the SNP Government has confirmed that will be part of its policy too.

In your view, what is the greatest challenge that lies ahead?

Ensuring that more, not less, resources go in at this time of increased need. In a recession young people bear the brunt, not just at the time but also in 10 years' time. When I was working in the face of Thatcherism, it took those young people 10 years to recover. This generation will be the first to be poorer than their parents since the war. I have two sons, aged 27 and 31, and both are still paying off debts which they incurred when they were students. The summit was also billed as a chance to promote a positive image of young people and celebrate their achievements. The recent riots in England shocked many people around the world.

Why do you think the riots didn't happen in Scotland and do you think they ever could?

I think there's no room whatsoever for complacency. There's no doubt that we're in every bit as much danger of having a lost generation. As a society we are a bit more egalitarian and a bit more caring in some ways about our people, but I don't think we have any magic wand that allows us to escape. Key youth work qualifications have been increasingly under threat recently. The community education degree, incorporating youth work, at Strathclyde has just been axed and taken over by another university.

What message does that send to the sector and the people who depend on it for work and support?

The message was that Strathclyde did not care about its community and no longer had a community spirit. It was only interested in research. I did my training there and so did many others, including Jack Black, the motivational speaker. Margaret Curran was a lecturer there, too, in community education. If you look at Scotland, the people who did that degree have gone on to do an awful lot of good. We were absolutely appalled.

There are hopes that the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) will take on the course instead. What impact would that have on how accessible the course is?

We're hoping to ensure that from 2013 there will be a community education degree, including youth work, in the west of Scotland. We would be happy with that as UWS is in Paisley, with offshoots in Ayr and Dumfries and Galloway to cover the west. The other two courses in Scotland are in Edinburgh (for the east) and Dundee (for the north). A key youth work course, the SVQ, which was also under threat of being lost because of low take-up rates, has just been reaccredited by the SQA after the sector pointed out recent rising demand.

Do you think that the sector is starting to fight its corner more successfully now?

Yes. I think we feel more sure of our worth, but we also see that to do most things we have to work in partnership.

What was your time training at Strathclyde like?

It taught me how to be reflective. I remember when I was 19 I ran a 24- hour badminton tournament without telling the police, so at about 3am they came to give us a shellacking. My boss said to me: "Sweeney, you're nothing but a dilettante!" I had to go home and look it up.

What inspired you to get into youth work in the first place?

At the age of 14 I left sunny Motherwell to train in England as a missionary, and during that time I experienced lots of youth work situations. I did the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and fell in love with the outdoors. I also did volunteering and developed a passion for working with people with special needs and working in the community. When I returned to Scotland, I had a choice between working in foreign exchange for NatWest or a social sciences degree. Then the youth work traineeship came up, so I did that.

What do you think inspires people today to do youth work?

Sometimes it's what has happened to them in their life, or a passion for an activity which they want to share, or just a desire to give something back.

What puts them off?

Two things that have been very hard for us over the past 20 years were Dunblane and Soham, which have put young men off youth work. Organisations have a dearth of male leaders because they fear people will be suspicious of them.

How do you like to relax?

I'm a very bad golfer and bowler but I enjoy both. I read a lot, travel a lot, have an advanced certificate in whisky appreciation and study red wine.


Born: Motherwell, 1953

Education: Cathedral Primary, Motherwell; St Peter Claver, Yorkshire; Sacred Heart College, Berkshire; diploma youth work and community services and master of science in advanced professional studies, Strathclyde University

Career: Trainee youth and community worker in 1972, west of Scotland; divisional principal officer in Strathclyde, then North Lanarkshire, 1996; YouthLink Scotland chief since 2006.

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