Institute for Youth Work?

3 May 2011 — 31 Comments

Do we need an ‘Institute for Youth Work’ and who gets to decide what it does? At the moment, it’s certainly not you and I.

Who makes the decisions?

Children & Young People Now reported last week (registration required) that ‘A consortium of youth organisations is exploring the creation of an independent body to provide youth workers with a strong voice and set standards across the sector… The body has been given the provisional title of the Institute for Youth Work and would champion the role of a broad range of professionals and volunteers working with young people.’

OK, I’m with it so far. An independent body to speak up for workers sounds like a good idea. So how does it work?

The consortium mentioned is called Catalyst, and is made up of the National Youth Agency (NYA), National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS), the Social Enterprise Coalition and the Young Foundation, with FPM (a training provider) also supporting the idea. Catalyst was awarded £2.6m in February by the Department for Education (DfE) and the money to set up the institute will come from this grant.

Right. So by independent, we mean a group of self-appointed organisations supported by the government. Not my first choice, and I get no say anyway.

Even more surprisingly, it seems the Institute might include a register of youth workers and set standards and ethics for the discipline. It could also lead to a licence to practice where workers could be struck off for malpractice.

Hang on a minute! So I’ll need to register to this Institute (who I didn’t get to vote for or choose), just so they can tell me the standards and ethics I should adopt and tell me off if I break them? How does one become a member of this brilliant organisation?

The institute would rely on individual workers paying an annual membership fee… Membership would potentially be open not only to professionally qualified youth workers and youth work volunteers, but also to staff in the field of information, advice and guidance, youth justice and others working with young people.

Amazingly I have to pay to be a part of it! We’ve heard all this before. I previously wrote about the NYA’s move towards registration in an article for Youth Work Now here.

Earlier this year, the NYA committed £30,000 to explore the feasibility of a voluntary register and discovered “considerable support among key stakeholder groups and individuals for a registration scheme”. The agency obviously didn’t ask me.

After some exploration of who will benefit from the scheme, I came to the conclusion:

So if it won’t directly benefit young people, what exactly is it for? If, as the NYA claims, there is demand for a registration scheme then it can only be about professionals wanting further recognition for their work. This may be a fair request given the breadth and diversity of the youth work sector, yet it would potentially be very damaging.

It seems my concerns are not alone. At the end of the CYPNow article last week, it quotes Doug Nicholls, (national officer at Unite) who has some stern criticism of the move:

“It appears that organisations with vested interests in the privatisation of public services have taken an initiative without the support of the profession or any consultation with youth workers,” he said. “It is likely that this could well be yet another money-spinner for cash-strapped organisations. The registration of workers and setting of standards is far too important to be left to unrepresentative bodies.”

I also note that Tony Taylor of the In Defence of Youth Work campaign has picked up on this and is asking similar valid questions about the motives here.

So what do you think?

Is an Institute for Youth Work a good thing? Is it right that a group of organisations can set themselves up to speak on behalf of youth workers and set standards for the field? Is a registration scheme for workers a good idea?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

31 responses to Institute for Youth Work?

  1. Thanks for this Jon. I fear this is the same kind of approach and thing that happened with teachers. I fear this is what happens when professionalism (a good thing) is combined with extreme control and funding issues!

    To be completely honest with you I think the whole professionalisation issue has gone too far in places and is part of the reason why some agencies find it hard to motivate volunteers in youth work. Some “professional” youth workers don’t want to work at weekends or in the evennings anymore… which is when young people are about. Portsmouth City Council actually offered tiny grants to volunteer based groups to do their Friday and Saturday evening provision. I reckon that is almost an admission that there current staffing provision and agreements fail to serve young people… and then on top of that they want the groups to serve standards that they have no say in. The irony is that many groups when asking for training and small amounts of funds to support volunteers are turned down. GO FIGURE!

    There are too many organisations who can’t see the big difference between volunteers and voluntary because statutory bodies want other agencies to deliver for less resource.

    In short i think an institute of youth work will only work if it is about young people and not the workers. Equipping and training workers already happens so i think some of the agencies you mention are pretty guilty of creating a quango that serves professionals rather than young people and well-motivated volunteers!

    • “Right. So by independent, we mean a group of self-appointed organisations supported by the government. Not my first choice, and I get no say anyway.”

      I think you hit the nail right on the head. One of the key problems with the professional world of local authority youth work is that it sees itself as the only arbiter of what is good and what is right.

      How can the government give £2.6m to a quango that doesn’t speak for us?!

      • The £2.6m was awarded to the consortium as the new Strategic Partner for Young People to the DfE. Some of this will look into the Institute idea. Not sure on what the rest is for though.

    • Hi Ben,

      I think I totally agree. The concept of a youth work institute is good, but how on earth can it work when it’s all about “professionalism”?

      I just got a tweet response from the NYA who say they’re going to be starting lots of consultation. I’ve asked how they plan to consult and am now awaiting a response!

      Good to have this discussion though. I hope it can inform their consultation!

    • Interesting points. I’m not sure it’s that cut and dry about weekend provision though. It’s certainly a very contested issue – there was a good survey in CYPNOW reflecting the diversity of issues/perspectives.—youth-workers-really-think

      I can only say that what I believe is that clubs should be educational and not a baby-sitting service. In a secular club environment, with very challenging/challenged young people I’d personally opt for midweek as the best time for informal education and being a part of their lives without becoming their only option.

      Keep it mind that budget cuts result in fewer people doing more. This has an impact on the level of provision in local areas.

  2. Mark Walley’s linked to this post and offered an alternative institute for Youth Ministry:

    “I will humbly accredit every Christian Youth Minister who choses to submit to my guidelines on ethics, policy, and bible interpretation, in return for the payment of £100 per annum per youth worker. That’s right, for only £100 (per annum per youth worker) you get a little badge saying “approved by” and me checking up on your small group every now and again. I’ll probably offer some sort of group discount for large churches and projects, and occasionally I’ll send you round e-mails reminding you of all the hard work I’m doing on your behalf,”

  3. Janet Hopper 4 May 2011 at 10:44 am

    Initially the idea of IYW really appeals then you discover the definition of independant they seem to have come up with.

    There in lies the problem, it’s not really independant is it if:
    “So by independent, we mean a group of self-appointed organisations supported by the government.”

    Surely it would need to be independant of the government? Otherwise it seems like a group of organisations who are in for money and are really there so they can tell us the government plans are best.

    It also sounds like we’d pay to be part of a talking shop that may not act on what they are asked to listen to. It also seems quite narrow, it would appear to be a group of organisations who are doing similar things in similar situations.

    I don’t like being cynical (though I worry I’m good at it) it sounds like a vast money scheme that will attract many youth workers or organisations that will want a seal approval.

    • Hi Janet, thanks for the comment. I do agree that there could be some merit in an independent group supporting workers, lobbying government, and drawing the youth sector together. My concern (or cynicism) is just as you say: that this is a way to generate income and provide a ‘role’ for the organisation.

  4. It seems to me like there are two issues:

    Youth Workers want a professionalisation of our work yet with a ‘maverick’ spirt that youth workers tend (need?) to have. So a over arching body may assist with the professionalisation but the control may well stifle the spirt. If a choice had to be made id keep the spirt!

    If a ‘body’ needs to be, then it has to be made up of the correct people. Not self appointed, but a wide rage of organisations and young people that make up the many strands of youth work: faith based, government, independents and charities.

    I think that a registration scheme for workers could be a good idea, however I fear that it will just became yet another hoop to pay to just through.

    • Hi Paul, Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      I think your assessment of professionalism vs free/maverick spirit is interesting as I’m not sure I see it the same way (which is why I love these conversations)! But I do totally agree with you about the make-up of any consortium or over-arching body that speaks on behalf of the sector. It needs to be representative and grounded in locally based, face-to-face work rather than ideals and rhetoric.

      I’m not sold on a registration scheme though. The government announced they have no plans to introduce an occupational licence so why should we create a voluntary one? What goal, purpose or influence would it have?

      Anyway, thanks again for commenting!

  5. Jon and all

    Amongst the many worrying aspects of the Institute proposal is that the consortium is made up of the very organisations, who have been quickest to embrace uncritically both under New Labour and the Coalition the imposition of prescribed outcomes and behavioural programmes on our practice. In doing so they have been in the forefront of abandoning youth work as an open-ended, voluntary and unpredictable educational engagement with young people. What price the forms of work with young people they would like to define as youth work?

    • Hi Tony,

      Thanks for the response. The dilution of ‘traditional’ youth work values against outcome and target-driven agendas is not something I’ve written about for a while, but still feel very strongly about. And you raise a good point about who has embraced this concept.

      I think that this is my biggest concern over the Institute idea; that these organisations may not understand, represent or endorse what I believe is central to youth work practice.

      • Anything that takes youth work in the direction of target-driven agenda is a bad thing in my book. It would be great if they were just small targets or helpful goals, but that’s not what they become. i think the points above about these not being represented properly are the biggest concern to me! oh and the finance, I don’t want to pay to be part of an organisation that may not represent my view and I have no say into. So needless to say, I just agree with all that’s been said!

  6. Just to say that Bernard davies has posted some early thoughts on the notion of the Institute on

    • Great! Thanks for the link Tony, I would have missed that! Bernard has quite an eloquent way with words, but he raises some good points around how a ‘competitive’ Institute will address (or exacerbate) the current crisis in youth work, and what a ‘coherent framework’ might be and for whom! Very interesting times.

      I hope to be able to further clarify some of these points soon, as I’ve asked the NYA for more details and they’ve kindly agreed to meet and bring me up to speed so far. Watch this space…

  7. John

    I think the struggle is who speaks for whom in relation to government and the channels through this and legitimacy.

    An institute sounds a fossilizing way of engaging work that is primarily organic. Unfortunately performance management went crazy in the last 10 years with command and control which ended up killing some really good practice within the voluntary sector.

    With the impact on voluntary sector services and the struggle for survival in the statutory sector, the faith communities might be one of the few places of stability to carry on conversations.

    Another observation I have noted is that uniformed organisations might be resurgent with a real push for them and resources. I have seen it in my own locality where wider work with young people are less on the agenda.

    I have serious issues around access for young people who are not connected with statutory youth work. Now might be the time to do some re-thinks and creative partnerships especially amongst those who are not on the radar.

    Just a few thoughts.

    • Hi Dean, welcome and thanks for commenting.

      I think you’re entirely right. The issue is precisely who speaks for whom and that’s the problem because everyone has very different ideas about their practice, values and purpose due to the dilution of common youth work principles over the past 10 years or so. You’re also right about the changes in the sector that killed some great practice.

      What’s your background and experience? I assume you’re involved in the voluntary sector?

      Thanks again.

  8. Jon

    Not everyone is homogeneous, that is why diversity can never be an optional extra in who sits around the table and should be seen as a strength. Could we not be counter-cultural and not buy into this. I view consortia as a better way forward for a more organisationally and organically inclusive agenda than institutionalisation.

    My key functional question is this
    Those who sit at the table need to think ask should I be there? or who really needs to be here? This for me is where the rubber hits the road.

    For those christians is it about ‘kenosis’ or ‘power’ in our theological reflection. I can sit at a table and just be a passenger or participate and create space from the table to include. Isn’t that what youthwork and ministry is about?

    I am not sure that this is the case and can seem same ole. People and I include myself need to be creating space for advocates that see things differently for the radical to take place.

  9. Thanks to Dean for the stimulation, which goes far beyond the issue of the Institute, As someone, who thinks philosophically rather than theologically, is there room for me at the table?

    • Simple Answer Tony – Yes! Thinkers, Activists, Those of Faith – None if you into the common good for young people flourishing in whatever neighbourhood. I’ll work with you brother 😉

      I also noted your blog re Lambeth. I will be passing this on to some significant people. I am a Lambeth boy and so ready this is heartbreaking but need to do something. Thanks for the heads up!

  10. steve monaghan 11 May 2011 at 10:54 am

    Hi Jon et al

    I have not read the whole article or comments but ….
    The Institute of Further Learning exists and provides the same non-democratic but financially subscribed service for those teaching adults. We, Derbyshire Youth Workers, we given no choice but to join, funded by authority, if we taught on the part-time youth work course, which many of us do. If you try to leave the Institute they email you to `encourage` you to remain a member.

    This is a form of social enterprise i.e. we are teaching people to learn a worthy subject `youth work`. This social improvement is difficult to argue it is not needed. However, to put a price i.e. membership on it somewhat defeats the object of people engaging with others to improve themselves.

    An Institute for Youth Work is not necessary it is just a convenient way to maintain what exists but in the new world of social enterprise. i.e recieve government, national or local, funding to pursue a worthy outcome.

    The values and the method are what we need to promote not just vague values of we are all in this together working with young people. Recently, i attended a course which the participants were either working with young people or intending to work with young people. It was clear that I had a skill many of them didn`t i.e. how to encourage young people to participate to their benefit even when they were not keen to do so. Is this experience rather than qualification ?

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for highlighting the parallel with the Institute of Further Learning. The idea of charging workers to sign up to the scheme does sit uneasily with me and simply seems to be a form of income generation (although I guess admin costs need to be covered somehow).

      I think your last point is key and fuels the whole “professionalism” debate. Training and qualifications, while important, do not make someone professional or experienced. Therefore why would we need a scheme to police standards for the profession? It’s our practice and values that makes youth work happen and I’m not sure how that can be effectively supported by this proposal.

  11. Jon and all

    I missed this ‘Community Organisers’ initiative the first time round.

    The government has announced the selected partner who will deliver and train up to 5,000 Community Organisers.

    Locality – a new nationwide network of community led organisations, formed through the merger of the Development Trusts Association (DTA) and bassac – has been chosen to carry out a range of work including developing a training framework, Code of Conduct for Community Organisers, and an Institute for Community Organising.

    Another Institute!!!!! With what ideological agenda?

    • Thanks Tony

      I want to remain objective and try not to be cynical. However, I do think that community organising is just that…community organising! Once you get the government dictating, it is command and control and therefore anything organic does not grow.

      I fear that this was done in the light of the most famous community organiser – being the current President of the US, looking at this as something cool. Worth reading Prez O’s book to get a sense of some of the issues in community organizing. Now he is part of one of the most powerful institutions in the world and therefore those experiences are now difficult in government/power. However, it was in the backdrop of speaking truth to power not delivering as a third sector arm for the Big Society.

      Check out the philosophy before one buys in methinks.

  12. I’ve just posted about my discussion with the NYA over the Institute here!

  13. Hi, I have come to you from adam muirhead @youthworkable. I asked him for more info and I sure got some. You have some startup probs.which I understand. If you go to my Twitter a/c you will find our website.Onthe website you will find our gmail. pls find out what we are all about then let me know by email if I can help you.Best Regards Robin

  14. Charles W Shaw 9 June 2012 at 3:50 am

    The whole issue with the Catalyst thing is that this is a clear continuation of top down strategies that more and more emanate at the moment from out of NCVYS and NYA based on a reluctance to have a real debate about what the organisations are about and who should plan for youth work.

    Much of what has been said above is relevant. The points made
    by Tony Taylor, Ben Mizen, Jon Jolly and Steve Monaghan are very
    relevant – Associations and Institutes etc for youth workers should come from the grass roots up and the comparison with the
    Institute for Learning is not to be lost – and the Derbyshire comment is very relevant.

    Whatever the politics this type of initiative doesn’t even accord with the current government’s espoused principle’s if it
    goes in the direction of the ifl style.

    It is somewhat ironic that in the very field of Youth and Community Work which is mean’t to be empowering and open the famous Not Youth Agency and partners could end up being quite
    the opposite and delude themselves into believing they are
    promoting the youth work agenda.

    Ho Hum!

  15. Charles W Shaw 9 June 2012 at 3:53 am

    Correction – I mean’t Not Your Agency but the same principle applies.

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