A Framework of Ethics : Useful or Ornamental?

The basis for today’s would-be Institute of Youth Work meeting in London is the following document circulated by the NYA in March.

IYW proposal 3 of 4 – ethical framework march 13

We will be represented and our steering group has put together the following initial response.



We are conscious of time limitations re the discussion on April 25, 2013 so we will content ourselves with expressing four areas of concern.

  1. At the heart of the debate remains the question of defining youth work. The NYA paper continues to fudge the issue. It seeks to retain definitions, which stress the voluntary and young person-led character of the work, whilst referring to a commissioned NCVYS paper, A Narrative for Youth Work, which explicitly calls for an acceptance of the imposition of prescribed outcomes on the youth work relationship and process. Meanwhile in the field many youth workers are all but youth social or youth justice workers in name.

  1. A renewed engagement with Ethics demands that we talk Politics. To take but one glaring example from the 2004 Statement on Ethical Conduct, social justice is first and foremost a political rather than an ethical concept. The struggle for social justice is fundamentally a collective project. Indeed this is partly acknowledged in the background notes which talk of actively seeking to change unjust policies and practice. Unfortunately there is a gulf between rhetoric and practice here, which cannot be ignored. Over the last couple of years a large number of workers have been warned under threat of discipline not to get involved in campaigns against unjust social policy – with or without young people.

  1. This observation leads us to the possible Code for Employers, which is to be welcomed. However for now we will register concern about a future in which workers bound to the IYW’s code of conduct are employed by agencies, who refuse to be part of the overall deal. More immediately a management commitment to staff development, to the encouragement of critical internal debate has in the main been conspicuous by its absence. In this context too we note another contradiction that this discussion about an Ethical Framework with its focus on professional guidelines is taking place within a culture of profound mistrust with regard to worker/professional autonomy. Indeed we suggest that the managerial fixation upon predetermined outcomes is the antithesis of the youth work tradition of improvised young person-centred practice. It is at odds with the very notion of the distinctive, trained youth work professional, be they paid or voluntary.

  1. Our final point is perhaps obvious. The shift from Ethical Guidelines to an Ethical Code is highly significant, even contentious. Ethics can be a minefield of differing interpretation. The danger with moving to a Code is that it suggests, even if this is strenuously denied, the possibility of generally agreed ethical judgements on, say, what constitutes ‘clear evidence of danger’ or ‘the nature and limits of confidentiality’ or indeed appropriate behaviour outside work. Inevitably this caution is heightened if the Code is to be used as a regulatory mechanism to decide who is fit to be a youth worker. All manner of issues are thrown up. For example, can an individual member of IYW charge another with unethical conduct? At the very least we are obliged to unravel the present formulations with a great deal of care.

In the light of this final expression of concern we think that a pluralist Ethics Working Group should be set up to take things further. If possible the next draft of a Framework should be less sprawling than the present version on the table.

The IDYW Steering Group