Responding to an Institute for Youth Work : Your Thoughts

We’ve been asked by Mike Counsell, Chair of the Education and Training Standards Committee, to respond to the idea of an Institute of Youth Work – see the original letter below.

IYW letter to IDYW

As of now we are posting this draft response, which, true to the Campaign’s raison d’etre,  focuses on the fundamental question of what is meant by youth work.  Any comments would be appreciated either using the COMMENTS facility on the site or by mailing Tony direct at before the end of the week. We are conscious that you may well have already contributed via your trade union or professional body such as the Training Agencies Group.


We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate around the concept of an Institute of Youth Work [IYW]. In truth opinion is divided across the diversity of our supporters. Some believe strongly that such a body is vital to the future of the work and the profession. Others are much more cautious about the appearance of a regulatory body with the prospect of a licence to practice dangling on the horizon. Whilst pragmatically many wonder whether such an Institute is financially viable in these straitened times. In this context we remain agnostic about an IYW, not yet ready to lend our endorsement to the initiative, but committed to a serious involvement in the unfolding process and debate.

Leave aside the differing stances in our own ranks, given the thrust of our Campaign, we are at one in questioning whether the Institute will be committed to defending and indeed extending youth work as a distinctive practice, as informal education through voluntary association founded on young people’s agendas. Our concern is sparked by the definition of youth work and youth worker offered in your letter.

By the terms ‘youth work’ and ‘youth worker’ we mean those who are engaged in work to enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development, so they develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.

The omission of any reference to the centrality of the voluntary principle is striking. We make no apologies for repeating that the voluntary relationship has been at the heart of youth work theory and practice from the early pioneers through to McAlister Brew, thence to Davies, Jeffs and Smith, right up to Batsleer today.

The omission, we presume, is not an accident. Indeed it is even understandable. Across the last fifteen years successive governments have undermined open access youth work in favour of targeted programmes based on imposed outcomes. Under the Coalition this tendency has deepened. Thus in the present shifting landscape many youth workers are now finding themselves undertaking work with young people, arguably valid and valuable on its own terms, which is located in the fields of social care, youth justice, employment and training, social inclusion and so on. Within the withered remains of many local authority services youth workers have had no choice, but to become youth social workers complete with referred case loads.

Clearly a viable Institute has to embrace this contradictory array of youth workers across this miscellany of settings. In our view though it is misleading and counter-productive to call these forms of involuntary intervention youth work, which begs therefore the name of the Institute. A more accurate if clumsy title would be the Institute for Work with Young People, but we might well agree ‘what’s in a name?’

In our eyes it is vitally important to preserve the distinctive identity of youth work, all the more so that we can hold a critical and respectful dialogue with youth workers, who find themselves involved in prescribed forms of work with young people. Our passionate advocacy does not stem from an inability to grasp new ways of thinking as some would have it. The essence of the voluntary association is its optimism and its creativity. In these troubled and oft authoritarian times it is our responsibility to protect this inheritance. We hope that an Institute can rise to this challenge, at one and the same time as responding necessarily to the messy reality on the ground. We doubt whether the contradictions of practice can be resolved by using youth work as a ‘catch-all’ to describe any work with young people that attracts funding.

In closing we do think that your proposed time-scale and appropriate sense of caution makes very good sense and should allow a weighty process of ongoing discussion and action.

Apologies for the change in font – still trying to sort it out!!





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