Dissenting Thoughts on Youth Clubs, Volunteers and Professionalisation


ta to the jack petchey foundation
ta to the jack petchey foundation

Adding fuel to the burning embers of our pre-Xmas exchanges about the relationship between the voluntary and so-called statutory sectors, between volunteers and paid professionals here are two challenging blogs.

The first, courtesy of John, the opinionatednurse, asks ‘What’s a Youth Club?’.

It begins:

Some people are of the opinion that what happens in youth clubs isn’t “real” youth work. In fact it has been suggested to me (by someone hugely respected in the youth and community field) that youth clubs are “disgraceful representations of the archaic class structures of rural Ireland”. My very understanding of the purpose of youth work, and my own experience was questioned. Said person went on to insist that no volunteer has the right to say they do youth work

The notion that the dedicated and passionate volunteers who facilitate youth clubs have no “right” to say that what they do is youth work, or furthermore call themselves youth workers puzzles me. Many contest that the “right” to the title of youth worker is reserved for those who work in the field full time, others suggest that a degree in youth work is necessary to use the title. If we cannot decide on what exactly a youth worker is then how can some quite emphatically deny the title for those who volunteer in clubs?


The second, courtesy of Aaron Garth at Ultimate Youth Worker, muses ‘Is the professionalisation of our sector destroying the very foundation of youth work?’

Calling on the opinions of Dana Fusco and Gerry Fewster, Aaron concludes:

Neither of these professionals believe that youth workers should be less than highly professional. What they do argue is that by limiting the scope and practice of youth workers through managerialism and metrics whilst seeking to gain a better reputation is ludicrous.

Lets be more professional every day, but let us never give up that which makes us unique.
For my part I don’t buy into youth work’s uniqueness, I’ll settle for distinctiveness. However I agree that a serious debate about the consequences of the professionalisation imperative, the desire for a licence to practice, ought to be out in the open and not brushed aside as ‘reactionary’.


  1. As a voluntary youth worker in an overwhelmingly voluntary youth movement I am still trying to find what the incredibly elitist culture of the professional/mercenary sector is actually based on.

    Is there any credible evidence that the massive state intervention in youth work over the last fifty years has actually improved young peoples life chances or well being ? If so where is it ?

    Is there any credible evidence that investing almost exclusively in the state controlled youth club delivery method has done anything other than divert wealth out of communities and into the coffers of bureaucracies ?

    Is In Defence of Youth Work the personal preserve of a few Marxist professionals who consider themselves above answering a mere Scout Leader with anything more than a few well worn prejudices which cannot stand up to any subsequent challenge ?

  2. In order that my response is as public as possible I’ll do it in the form of a new post, A Reply to Just and Unjust Criticism, which will go up in the next 48 hours. Just to say though isn’t a little peculiar that an alleged elitist, professional Marxist mercenary should be putting up posts, which seek to encourage debate about the importance of volunteers, which question the process of professionalisation etc…?

  3. Tony I am been robust in my arguments because some one needs to be the professional youth services are in a dangerous state of denial which endangers any good they may do.

    By all means post a reply but please bear in mind that, much to your credit, you are the only professional contributor who actually wishes to engage in the debate beyond airing some fairly standard put downs of the voluntary sector,

    Which when challenged have not been defended.

    To date I have challenged various professionals to defend statements implying that;

    All volunteers do is play a few games

    All volunteers are rich

    All young people in voluntary organisations are rich

    No young people in voluntary organisations have any issues which might require professional support.

    And have received neither a clarification nor a defence, it is as if people think that the fact that something is uttered by a professional means that it should be accepted without question.

    I have also asked Is there any credible evidence that the massive state intervention in youth work over the last fifty years has actually improved young peoples life chances or well being ?


    Is there any credible evidence that investing almost exclusively in the state controlled youth club delivery method has done anything apart from divert wealth away from communities and into the coffers of bureaucracies ?

    Now I am sure there are answers to these questions, after all state spending on setting up youth services, initiating degree courses and establishing a profession must be based upon evidence that this is the most effective way of improving young peoples outcomes and ‘well being’ rather than say pumping the equivalent sum into supporting voluntary provision. All I am asking is that someone from the professional side produce it.

    After all there must be more to professionalism than a desire to do rather well out of an activity that others are doing voluntarily and if we do not establish the most effective role for the professional ( which in my opinion is not the one they are expected to fill under the present regime) then the profession and its value to the community will be lost.

  4. Well Tony, it seems any reply is going to be down to you after all.

    Pity you already seem to be quite busy. Whilst not expecting you to defend other peoples statements/vague implications, I would really appreciate replies to the questions I have asked.

    Thanks the other Tony

    • Hi Tony R, I though I would respond here rather than to an earlier comment on another post because this one is more recent.
      I too am a GSL a relatively new one and a ‘professional youth worker’. I am a Scouter and have been for a long time, my years at 24th Poplar had a significant impact on my formative years and influence my youth work practice to this very day.
      It is easy within Scouting to see how these issues do not affect us within the movement, but they can, the second of which is theoretical but a real possibility, the first is more obvious.
      There are some groups and Explorer Scout Units who measure their success on the number of badges their members earn, specifically the Chief Scout’s Awards, Queen’s Scout Award and the DofE. I have been to meetings where members are doing nothing but striving for these awards, completing badge requirements as if their life depended on it. It’s not every group, and I don’t know if it is a majority or minority of groups. But I do wonder where leaders get this idea that earning badges is paramount for young people taking part in Scouting? I suspect that it is from the same type of managerialism, focus on outcomes and somehow measure the work being done. Scouts has been doing accredited outcomes longer than most, this is not the game the founder intended. But how long will it be before parents start asking whether badges will help their child get a job or when a decision has to be made between paying subs and going to camp or getting those extra hours of private tuition before the SATs exams, are leaders ready to make the case for their members if it comes to it? Many youth workers weren’t.
      My second example is about what young people are doing for the world. Other national Scout movements are much better at this than we are. In the UK we are half a million strong and as a movement committed to doing our best and helping others, [long sentence warning] this mission becomes more difficult the more Scouting and other ‘balanced programmes’, values led organisations, social movements and opportunities to create social change are replaced with an agenda to plug young people into capitalism and consumerism, to become an economic unit more than anything else, we have adverts on our badges! Doing your best and helping others will turn into ‘just help yourself, but don’t be too good at it’.
      Scout leaders don’t depend on salary and their programmes for most part don’t rely on government money. This means our movement is in a good position to defend youth work, if not for itself then for other kids, who don’t access Scouts for whatever reason (which despite our increased membership, is still most young people).
      Should Scouting defend Youth Work? Yes, Scouting is youth work and is not immune to what is going on.

  5. Hi Aston great to hear from you and thank you for your reply.

    I agree scouting has been using accredited learning long enough to know its strengths and its dangers. The obvious temptation would be to count the number of awards and badges ( accredited outcomes) as the only measure of success, which is of course a nonsense. Young people can have all the awards in the world but if they have discovered little about themselves and nothing about working with others or their responsibilities towards others then in my opinion they have been failed.

    Parents are already pressuring us to put more emphasises on better known award schemes such as D of E rather than our in house scouting schemes and the way some schools are using the D of E scheme as just another accreditation to be churned out, is truly disturbing as is the idea that ever longer school hours will solve the nations problems.

    Scouts certainly have better things to do with life than spend it lock up in school.

    Your second point about the way outside pressures are eroding the value of communities is valid, but in my experience those pressures include the big state as well as big business. Wealth taken from the community and held in the coffers of government bureaucrats has proved just as inaccessible as wealth taken from the community and paid to shareholders. Do you really think we would be walking around with adverts on our badges if there had been a fair and rational way of disrupting funding for youth activities rather than the systematic exclusion of voluntary youth organisations by the professionals.

    Which is why I keep asking if there is any credible evidence that the professional youth services have actually improved young peoples life chances and well being?

    I ask you to go back to my original question on the Young People Now site and review the answers both on that site and here your fellow professionals have given and consider if perhaps they were less elitist and the funding for youth activities disrupted more fairly whether youth work would be more defensible ?

  6. Tony/Aston

    I’ll jump on the back of your exchange to add a few thoughts that have been buzzing around for weeks. I apologise for the delay in responding, but have been somewhat distracted by family matters.

    As far as the relationship between the so-called statutory and voluntary sector goes, I’ll quote from the opening paragraph of our book, This is Youth Work.

    “For those involved in doing it, whether voluntary or paid, whatever their ideological differences, there has long been a consensus. It ought to be founded on a voluntary engagement with young people in their leisure time. It ought to be informal and educational,focused on the personal, social and
    political awareness of the young people drawn to its provision. Over
    the last twenty years successive governments have undermined these defining characteristics. Armed with an often negative view of youth they have introduced an increasingly narrow raft of measures, whereby youth work
    has been pushed ever nearer to being no more than an agency of behavioural modification or the mere provider of predetermined
    ‘positive activities’.”

    We are defending a tradition that goes back at least to the early 20th century and not at all defending just ‘professional’ youth work. In one of my last jobs, mistakenly, a Chief Youth and Community Officer in Wigan in the 90’s I had a close relation with the CVYS, which brought together the voluntary youth organisations. We saw our work as complementary. The statutory sector was seen as working with young people, not necessarily drawn to the vol orgs. The voluntary sector was proud of its independence and whilst it would have happily received more grant aid no strings were to be attached.

    If the goal of youth work, remembering the sub-title of Scouting for Boys, is to play a part in the making of the ‘good citizen’, providing credible evidence is a daunting, if not impossible task for all of us. Leave aside we will have differing definitions of the good citizen, how on earth do we prove that our particular engagement with a young person led to them becoming so? We could embark on a longitudinal study of a cohort of young people, say, from the age of 12 to 42 years, but who would finance such a time-consuming venture and even so, given all the influences on a person’s history, all the variables, how would we single out and prove that youth work was key.

    The truth, in my opinion, is that a compassionate and democratic society would have faith in the youth work process, just as it would have faith in the place of music, art and drama, amongst other things, in the education of our children and young people. Our possible influence upon a young person’s life chances and choices cannot be measured to suit the demands of bureaucrats, accountants, managers and politicians.

    Problematically at this moment there are those in youth work and this includes major voluntary youth organisations, who are selling their soul, pretending that they can deliver prescribed outcomes via the use of pseudo-scientific tests, which distort utterly our relations with young people.

    As for the funding question my own experience, for what it’s worth, is that the voluntary sector has historically treated State funding with great caution. Ironically as I have noted above some voluntary organisations are now being funded so long as they deliver the State’s agenda. In the so-called statutory or professional sector the contradiction is that open, voluntary youth work is being decimated and resources diverted into youth social work. It is this shift with all its consequences we are criticising and opposing. In this, Tony, I believe we have common cause.

  7. Thank You Tony

    I believe it was a cohort study [ freedoms orphans] which triggered the changes which have ravaged the traditional youth services.

    I have to admit that at first I welcomed its findings that there was evidence that traditional community organisations such as Scout Groups and Church Youth Clubs actually improved young peoples well being and life chances. Rather than just occupied their time with a few games which appears to be what is taught on degree courses.

    I naively assumed that any subsequent reorganisation would lead to a shift of emphasise to area youth work where professional youth workers would work alongside the voluntary sector helping them establish provision in the disadvantaged communities that the self funding ethos has traditionally been weakest in and using their expertise to introduce the issue based work they are so strong in.

    It would not have been easy as has been demonstrated there is no love lost between some volunteers and their professional opposite numbers. But the end result would have been a service with a broader reach and deeper roots within the community and a base of support which would have made it far more defensible.

    Instead Scout Leaders have stuck their heads out of our tents and found Youth Service Managers busy parking their tanks on our camp site. precious funds are been spent re branding buildings, Youth Clubs are out Youth Projects are in, every activity must have a verifiable outcome, huge sums are spent on IT systems to make workers accountable but still there is no meaningful support for the very organisations which were praised in the study

    As Scout Leaders we know there is a difference between a game, the swimmers level three badge and drug awareness, some things can be dealt with through accredited outcomes others are better approached on those quite moments around camp-fires or whilst talking on a night hike or in an environment completely separate from where young people go to relax.

    As an alternative to giving perfectly healthy seventeen year olds a certificate for catching a bus, you could claim that your investment in supporting voluntary organisations such as the scouts has enabled them to award X number of scout awards to young people who would never have been able to take part without your support, in fact you could probably be able to claim all the scout awards in your area and meet your targets if you were willing to change the mindset which is so scornful of the volunteer, then you will have an advantage over the Managerlists, well funded and supported volunteers who already occupy the positions the managers want to drive you towards.

  8. Tony – forgive me but I don’t think you are listening to much that I say, which might well be fair enough. My response is perhaps facile and inadequate. However I tried to respond to your questions e;.g around the issue of credibility of evidence. You have totally ignored my reply. Where have I suggested that Scout Leaders do not understand the differences between approaches determined by the specific situation?. Where is there evidence that I am scornful of volunteers? Whenever have I given certificates for brewing a cup of tea etc..? I argued for the defence of a youth work tradition, that has been undermined in the so-called statutory sector; which in part is being undermined in parts of the voluntary sector. However in your hostility you spurn any idea that we have common cause. I’m not sure what more I can say.

  9. No Tony forgive me.

    I was actually agreeing with you and trying to find a way forward clearly I am not expressing myself very well.

    I think Freedoms Orphans is the root of the current attacks on the traditions you wish to defend,

    It and a subsequent report Get Happy by the same author concluded that attendance of Youth Clubs, the youth services main delivery system, actually harmed young peoples life chances and well being, whilst attendance of traditional voluntary provision Church clubs, Scouts Guides and the State Controlled Military Cadets seemed to enhance their life chances etc

    Knowing the way research tends to produce counter research and reports, I have repeatedly asked if there was any current research which countered these findings and received no reply from any of your readers.

    I expressed how whilst at first welcoming their findings as validating our way of working with young people and countering the dismissive attitude some professionals [not you] have to the voluntary sector, I was disappointed by the way the new breed of youth service managers [not you] responded to it.

    Rather than reallocating resources to supporting the voluntary sector by beefing up area work they appear to have re-branded their buildings and turned a useful tool, accredited outcomes, in to an inflexible dogma to an extent that those who are experienced using it Aston, myself and many other scout leaders would consider harmful.

    I have not accused you of been scornful of volunteers, however if you retrace my journey from the original Young People Now correspondence through to this site you will find some comments which it would be difficult to describe as any thing other than scornful of volunteers.

    I did not say you had given out certificates which are not worth the paper they are written on, but do you deny that since the introduction of targets for accredited outcomes some of the new breed of youth services have done exactly that.

    Finally in an attempt to find common cause with you I suggested a possible strategy to defend the youth work traditions we both value, which was to invest some significant resources in bringing the traditional voluntary sector on to your side, as the new breed of managers appear to either missed them out or lack the skills to bring them on board.

    Please read my comments again from the perspective that my barbs are aimed not at you personally but at those who dismiss the work of volunteers as ‘playing a few games’ or a rich persons hobby and the new breed of managers who would prefer to ruin perfectly useful youth work tools by clumsy over application than learn from the voluntary sector with its hundred years of experience of providing effective and economical youth work.

  10. I am cautious of sparking up this debate, but I am interested in this point about the state involvement in youth work an whether this and other campaigns are more about self protection than young people.

    In my view we will always have youth work regardless, whether via charitable organisations, like the Scouts, religious and community groups, or through philanthropic endeavour. If state funding is removed and as is happening moved toward those who need it most will it have real impact upon the youth population?

    If not then this an other campaigns such as Choose Youth are more about protecting the existing structures rather than a coherent defence of youth work as a whole.

    The difficulty is how to prove or disprove this as identified above. Yes there was a report that showed young people who engage with positive activities have better outcomes long term across a number of indicators, but does that say more about the individuals and their choices than the work undertaken. A young person who continues through Scouts or Guides through to their eighteenth birthday will have made a conscious decision at some stage continue when many of their contemporaries would have chosen to move on. Are all those who engage with youth provision so generally motivated?

    One aspect I often find frustrating is that often when questioned about their practice workers will point to activities we have undertaken rather than where the relationship has progressed. Thus the person working with the more challenging group is seen to often be deficient even though their achievements, e.g. having a discussion without racial language being used or getting to the end of the road before turning the minibus round seem pale in comparison.

    I quite liked the recorded outcome as a tool, but it was undermind by many factors, including the need for a target, which led to many awarding outcomes for turning up to a workshop rather than due to an identified change. The best use I ever witnessed of an outcome was a young man who a non professional worker identified had stopped using a certain racist term in their presence. This was presented to me as an outcome on the basis he showed a degree of personal understanding of the workers desire not to hear this language than as an indicator he was less racist in his views

    Anyone I think I am digressing and I need to move on. I just hope the intentions of this are not lot.

  11. Hi Paul

    I wouldn’t be over cautious about continuing any debate you want to contribute to, how else will things progress?

    To be clear I accept that THIS campaign is about preserving traditions such as young people voluntary engaging in projects rather than been compelled to and the importance of providing activities and accredited learning as a means to help young people develop socially rather than as an end in themselves.

    I suspect that some of the attitudes I have encountered during this and other debates, the drive towards professionalism, licencing and the wish to control the use of Youth Worker as a description, are all about self protection rather than young people and typifies the culture which has driven youth services into the ambush they now find them selves in.

    If very few workers in the voluntary sector can understand what the professional youth services claim to be doing and the few who do are fairly convinced they not actually doing it, what hope have the services of mobilising the wider community when they are under threat.

    Many in the voluntary sector would find the protests about cut backs farcical as for the cost of deploying a single youth worker, the scouts could provide free membership and activities for three hundred disadvantaged young people, or a community transport group could provide free transport for any amount of youth sports clubs.

    Faced with those options decision makers would ask what would help the young people in disadvantaged areas the most and the latest evidence says ?

  12. Sorry haven’t discovered how to correct typos on here yet, that should of course be membership and activities for one hundred disadvantaged young people.

    100 yp X £300 pa = £30,000

Leave a Reply to Aston Wood Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.