Let's stop treating the voluntary sector like the C stream, says Doug Nicholls.
Over the past 18 months, the Community and Youth Workers' Union has become the biggest provider of in-service training in the youth and community sector. The expansion of a trade union into training reflects the impact of the policies that encourage employers and employees to foster learning in and out of work and beyond the classroom.
The new Act also offers a possible resolution to the dilemma in England. To date, our education system has been seen to reside chiefly in schools, colleges and universities. Yet the strength of our system has been that it also includes a huge and diverse community learning sector, encompassing adult education, play work, youth and community services and community development and education.
Our sector is too often seen as a slightly odd C stream that refuses to wear a uniform, but it has in fact pioneered techniques that improve formal learning, active citizenship and communication skills. Our success no doubt stems from the relationship between learner and educator being a voluntary one and because our curriculum emerges from its local setting.
All very 1970s you might say. Yet the skills have never been in greater demand of, for instance, youth and community workers with qualifications from the Joint ational Council, the forum that represents the industry and sets standards. Employers know that young people need self-esteem and communication skills. There is no national curriculum to cover such things.
Neighbourhood renewal strategists and local authorities know that they need articulate community organisations and civic leaders to work with on regeneration and social inclusion. Childcare planners know what children need and look to play-workers to boost learning in the early years.
The learning and skills councils' greatest challenge will be to engage community educators and learners in a truly comprehensive system. Lifelong learning should mean provision from cradle to grave, evenly and without funding favours. The tyranny of tick-box competences, which has often created the illusion of learning, must now make way for a genuinely human exchange.
For too long, youth and community organisations have been ignored by funders. Yet people keep coming back. We are still in great demand and we still deliver value-added education.
Engage this sector, fund it coherently, ensure professional parity and the new Act might really achieve something.
Doug Nicholls is general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union. For further information on the youth and community sector, visit www.infed.org.