In praise of a neglected profession;Community and youth;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
IT'S BEEN a most revealing week. I acted as an external examiner to a youth and community work qualification course. One of the most fascinating aspects was meeting students and considering their work. As general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union I am continually staggered by the difficulty, complexity and variety of what students do, even on placements which form half the qualification course of the Joint National Council, a forum to represent the industry and set standards.

Imagine running five different projects as a student: literacy training with compulsive car thieves; drugs education sessions with school groups; establishing a youth council to scrutinise the local town council; a trip to India for Asian women; supporting a music project.

Unlike social work or teacher training, youth and community courses do not get funding to pay for work placements. This is a fact rarely mentioned by critics who take side-wipes at the quality of youth and community work training.

Before entering the field for practice, students are asked to consider individually and as a group their value systems, attitudes and behaviour. The youth and community work method requires the most intimate educational intervention, where the educator's ideas and personality are vital to the learning.

During the week, I helped give some of the in-service training for part-time workers that the Community Youth Workers Union is delivering, thanks to the Government's trade union learning fund scheme. Part-timers doing one session a week told me that their involvement three hours a week with young people had been subject to no fewer than seven forms of appraisal. These ranged from Office for Standards in Education inspections to local audits to finance department checks. One worker described it as feeling "assessinated".

Only the OFSTED framework comes close to establishing criteria of appraisal which recognise the quality of the youth work intervention, and the difficulty of measuring its immediate educational benefit. How do you judge the value of a young person's having an adult to listen to him or her - maybe for the first time? Or the long-term benefit of a few subtle, seemingly inconsequential words of advice?

A recent Department for Education and Employment audit of the youth service since 1996 revealed that youth workers in some authorities were responsible for services to 5,000 young people.

Things have badly deteriorated since then. In fact, the youth service is the only part of the education system to have been neglected and horrendously cut by successive governments.

I took on a regrading appeal for a multi-talented youth worker who was responsible for a huge range of quality work in nine different youth centres with the equivalent of nine full-time volunteers. In an area of extreme deprivation, there were 9,000 young people on her books.

Before our appeal she was paid pound;20,000 a year and managed highly skilled staff in drugs education, hazardous pursuits and behavioural support units.

A JNC report in 1961 spelled out not only terms and conditions for workers in this sector but also defined the nature of the work and its contribution to lifelong learning, a definition that still stands.

Partnership work now demanded by Government has always been at the heart of our training and delivery. It features as a separate element in the 1961 JNC report. Often youth and community workers will be the centre of the local learning partnerships and support networks that have existed for years. They are the only group of staff professionally trained and employed to create such things.

I was heartened therefore to see the Conference of Local Education Authorities recently pass a priority motion asserting the central importance of the JNC report. Heartened because the next day I witnessed youth and community workers in Slough vote unanimously for strike action against their authority, which is seeking to deprofessionalise the service by removing the JNC provisions. This is likely to trigger the first national strike of youth and community workers, just at this time of potential positive change.

Also in Slough, I noticed how the number of Government reports that demand the involvement of youth workers is greater than the number of full-time workers left on the ground in many areas.

I spent the last day of the week with voluntary sector staff who said they backed the UK Youth Work Alliance's plan for a a code of ethics among all those working with young people, as recommended in the Cullen Report on the Dunblane massacre of Scottish schoolchildren. They said it would demonstrate that this sector can voluntarily and imaginatively raise standards.

One participant also remarked that it is probably the closeness of youth workers to real communities that has led to the neglect of our work at national level.

Before Slough and the proponents of National Vocational Qualifications (which some want to impose on our training systems) go further in saying "anyone can do this work" they should reflect hard on both the need and the difficulty in extending the franchise of learning.

As a postscript, the regrading appeal succeeded in raising the overworked youth worker's salary by 20 per cent to pound;24,042.

Doug Nicholls is general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union.

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