An institute of youth work : in whose interests?

Over the next week we intend to post the briefing papers designed to assist the debate at our seminars on January 19 and 20 to be held in London and Manchester respectively. We should emphasise that these are in no way position papers. They are exploratory and questioning in tone. The first to appear examines the proposal to set up an institute for youth work, mooted back in April by Catalyst, whose spokesperson argued, “as part of Catalyst’s workforce development strand, there will be an opportunity to explore the possibilities for developing an Institute for Youth Work. This opportunity has been discussed in the sector for years and would be intended to provide a strong voice for the sector and those individuals within it. The establishment of an institute would develop a much-needed infrastructure at a time when other structures are rapidly changing or being dismantled.

Bernard Davies and Malcolm Ball attended a meeting in late November at the NYA held as part of a consultation exercise. Bernard has drawn together the threads of their reaction to the proposal. Zoom in a couple of times to enlarge the font size.

For discussion at the IDYW seminars: 19/20 January 2012

An institute for youth work?

Why? How? In whose interests?

Some brief history

As always the dilemmas posed by the proposal for an Institute for Youth Work (IYW) have a history. For example:

  • On the one hand – there was a long struggle in the 1950s and early 1960s to establish a joint negotiation committee (JNC) and training and qualification routes for workers who then need have no recognised training or qualification and, especially in the voluntary sector, were on very low wages, working very long hours, expected to clean their own buildings and being exploited in other ways.
  • On the other hand – within a few years of these struggles being substantially won criticisms emerged of a ‘professionalism’ which was seen as too protective of its own interests and as erecting barriers between its practitioners and the groups and communities they work with.

These contradictions, tensions and conflicts re-surface in the IYW proposal.

Some starting points for responding to the IYW proposal


In their response to the IYW proposal, some committed IDYW supporters are increasingly concerned about the current vulnerability of provision and arrangements which they see as having helped safeguard youth work practice for over 50 years. These concerns include:

  • The government’s ‘big society’ emphasis on volunteers and volunteering which is undermining notions of skilled youth work practice developed through specialised training and carried out by paid staff, full- and part-time.
  • The government’s threatened ending of nationally negotiated salaries and conditions of service for some (?eventually all) public service workers which seems likely to further undermine the JNC for youth workers.
  • In the context of the National Youth Agency’s weakened financial and staffing position and its virtual abandonment of support for youth work as IDYW understands it, the increasingly uncertain future of the validation of youth work courses through the Education and Training Standards Committee (ETS) located within NYA.

These concerns are prompting some IDYW supporters including tutors within the youth work training agencies to back the IYW proposal, albeit sometimes reluctantly and with reservations. They see a development of this kind as potentially able to sustain some minimum standards for youth work practice and play the role of flexible gatekeeper in the way courses now do.


Some of the anti-IYW positions would appear to be rooted in a scepticism about any such gate-keeping, not least because, it is argued, this can too easily develop into a ‘professionalised’ drawbridge which only a qualified elite are allowed to cross. These reservations were expressed, sometimes very bluntly, during the NYA/NCVYS consultation event in November 2011 – particularly by voluntary and faith sector representatives. They also emphasised the contributions made by volunteers who, they argued – as do many in IDYW – may not have the expected ‘pieces of paper’ yet often provide high quality youth work.

Towards an IDYW position and response?

How then can IDYW seek to bridge the pro-gatekeeping/anti-professionalisation positions – to say nothing of the many others questions which the IYW proposal may produce?

  • One answer could be: it doesn’t need to. IDYW is after all a broad alliance of youth work ‘interests’ whose bottom line is its defence of emancipatory and democratic forms of youth work. Even this however does not – cannot – assume a handed-down and final definition of what such youth work is. With contradiction and dilemma embedded in the very practice, does IDYW need a single agreed view on whether machinery is needed to safeguard this and what form this machinery should take?
  • Another answer however could be that IDYW’s commitment to engage with the wider politics and ideologies increasingly threatening emancipatory and democratic youth work requires it to struggle with the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in the IYW proposal. At the very least, IDYW may need to clarify and then with others press for some minimum conditions which will help ensure that whatever emerges does not further undermine youth work as IDYW understands it and which could even contribute something to its defence? As this response would require testing the detailed proposals as they emerge, it seems worth interrogating the six ‘broad principles’ on which an IYW would be based which were outlined at the NYA/NCVYS consultation event.

The IYW ‘broad principles’

Principle 1: An IYW should support professionalism in Youth Work [capitals in the original] and its membership should be limited by the qualification level of the people participating.

  • How is ‘Youth Work’ being defined here? Based on whose understandings, experience and requirements? Young people’s? Field practitioners? Managers? The government’s?
  • How is ‘professionalism’ defined here? Only by ‘qualification level’? And/or by the nature and quality of the practice being carried out?
  • If the latter, who will set and assess the standards for ‘nature and quality’? How?
  • In any case, why does this not read ‘qualification levels’ [plural] – as a way of creating a flexible and perhaps progressive process for admission and therefore a variety of forms of ‘membership’?

Principle 2: An IYW should focus on the self-improvement and development of practitioners in order to improve the quality of provision for young people.

  • How far is ‘self-improvement’ seen here (even just taken-for-granted) as an individual(istic) process?
  • What about shared and collective routes to improving both ‘the self’ and the quality of provision?

Principle 3: Membership of an IYW should require the acceptance of a regulatory role with the power to give and revoke membership.

  • Who will the ‘regulators’ be? With what mandate? Given by whom?
  • What (range of) criteria will be set for giving, monitoring and revoking membership? Defined by whom?
  • How will ‘natural justice’ and ‘due process’ be assured within such arrangements?

Principle 4: Membership of an IYW should be necessary for a license to practice in Youth Work.

  • What precisely does ‘licence to practice’ mean in this context?
  • Why is it seen as necessary?
  • Why should membership of an IYW be a requirement for getting it?

Principle 5: An IYW should enable members to have a clear and co-ordinated voice to influence and shape policy that impacts on the profession and the lives of young people.

  • How open and flexible will the processes be within an IYW for determining the positions it takes up on the policies it is seeking to influence and shape? In whose interests will these positions primarily be decided? Young people’s? ‘The profession’s’? How will a consensus be achieved amongst these groups?
  • Indeed, why here do we need to talk about ‘the profession’ rather than, say, ‘youth work practitioners’ or even ‘youth work practice’? And why does ‘the profession’ come before ‘the lives of young people’?
  • In seeking to play this role, how will an IYW ensure its independence – especially from government but also from other powerful interests which may see it as a useful conduit for their ideas and priorities?
  • How will an IYW relate to and fit with other organisations and groups which seek to influence and shape policy?

Principle 6: An IYW should be based on a clear agreed vision for the profession of youth work?

  • Why does this appear as the sixth principle rather than the first? Shouldn’t the agreed vision underpin and shape everything else an IYW would do, not follow from it?
  • Again why is it necessary to talk about ‘the profession of youth work’ rather than its practice or its practitioners?
  • How open and flexible will the processes be within an IYW for defining such a vision? And whose will be the primary interests determining it? Young people’s? Or ‘the profession’s’?
  • And again –what definition of youth work is being assumed here?

Find here a Word version for printing and further circulation – An Institute of Youth Work?

Both our seminars will be small scale affairs, each open to about a couple of dozen people. Thus we would welcome supporters and critics placing their comments below.

I’m not sure where this fits, but see also a ‘parallel’ development and dispute across in social work, where a College of Social Work has now been set up – Gets off the Ground Perhaps our friends across in SWAN might enlighten us.

2 comments on “An institute of youth work : in whose interests?

  1. […] about our briefing paper on the Institute of Youth Work, ‘In whose interests’ I returned to an essay, ‘Historical Consciousness in Youth Work and Adult Education’. […]

  2. […] from Bernard Davies and Malcolm Ball, who attended on our behalf a meeting in late November, An IYW : In Whose Interests. It remains a very useful summary of the […]

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