We are very much in debt to Adam Muirhead, Chair of the Institute of Youth Work, for his informative and wide-ranging report on our seminar, ‘What does it mean to be Professional in 2016?’ It’s to be found on his blog at YOUTHWORKABLE – A PLACE OF YOUTH WORK MUSINGS AND REFLECTIONS. We’d encourage you to to read it in full, but here are some extracts to whet your appetite.
The day kicked off with Bernard Davies and Sue Atkins discussing the history of the seminar’s subject. Bernard usefully started by distinguishing practicing professionally from being a profession.Having himself been involved in the post-Albemarle struggles to get a JNC for workers’ terms and conditions with the trade union he talked about seeing the arguments for the case of constructing ‘the profession’ but rightly worries about the power dynamics between the inherent structures and the practitioners. In particular youth work is a profession that relies heavily on volunteers as a large part of the workforce and how structures can exist that are exclusive of them and their needs.
Sue brought incredible stories of being amongst the first cohorts at the National College for the Training of Youth Leaders. A prerequisite of joining was that you had to be at least 23 years old and, if it was targeted or otherwise, the courses attracted mainly working class men – famously dubbed ‘Albemarle’s boys’. In fact, in Sue’s cohort, out of 147 students only 17 were women. The yearlong residential training was a massive commitment and strain with lots of burn out. This naturally gave those who did complete it a strong sense of achievement and they felt a significant change through gaining their professional status. Yet it still wasn’t on a par with teachers whose two year course carried more kudos.
Nigel’s Christian youth work background offered an extremely useful view of the professionalisation agenda in light of the fact that the majority of people doing youth work in the faith sector are volunteers or unqualified; a workforce that is “proud, but rarely described as professional”.
For Helen, being professional means being the best youth worker she can but she also recognised how one’s sense of professionalism is often tied up with others’ perceptions of you.
She also astutely noted that youth work is a highly political activity and as such will jar with professionalisation. Her observation of the current state of play attests to this in that youth work has proved to be safest outside of the bureaucratic, ‘professionalised’ spaces.
Tony Taylor offered values such as a commitment to Social Justice, Equality,Diversity etc.. or pedagogical or communication skills are in no sense the property of youth work. He argued that we pursue those values and practice those skills in a distinctive setting. It is the setting, the voluntary encounter that makes us qualitatively different. I would be interested in exploring this further.
Mark Price from the University of Brighton offered an interesting parallel with professionalism and being paid, in so much as that he himself took the paid positions because it allowed him to do more of what he loved. Amusingly, the switch for him from teaching to youth work (going back a few years) saw his salary jump from £6,000 a year to £9,000!
Mark also offered the term ‘professionality’ as a useful way to posit the discussions about people’s own sense of professionalism. He suggested that a large part of a person being deemed professional, for him, was linked to their ability to be autonomous.
Representing the Institute for Youth Work (IYW) and acknowledging parts of its raison d’etre were around professionalisation I had the job of talking to how the Institute has been linked with the license to practice and qualifications amongst other things, such as the Code of Ethics ‘housed’ within the IYW. Following a potted history of the Institute’s inception I offered up the pro’s and the cons surrounding a license to practice for youth workers. In spite of a 2014 Children and Young People Now survey reporting that the majority of the workforce was in favour, recent experience with similar strategies, such as the ill-fated Youth Professional Status, showed that actually there just isn’t the appetite for such a thing; not least when the bill would be footed by individuals. There are interested parties out there but their arguments will need to be much better articulated to convince the current IYW membership, who seem to afford it a quite a low priority.
What now happens with the JNC was one of the issues that precipitated the seminar today. Speaking on behalf of those members who responded to the IYW’s quick consultation on the subject, I recounted feelings of disappointment but resignation. I will be very surprised (and happy!) should we win the battle to retain the JNC’s terms and conditions, but I don’t hold out huge hope. Either way I would be up for a fight – there are ways to lose fights – that shouldn’t be overlooked.
[Unfortunately due to illness Jed Sullivan from the JNC Staff Side was unable to make his contribution to the debate. His message would have been that the JNC is far from over.]
Janet offered some concise points in order to promote discussion on what we need to consider for the future. Many concepts linked with ‘how to affirm a practice’.
To mention these succinctly I’ve bullet pointed them:
* We need alliances and we need active young people
* It would be beneficial to enlist digital industries, film, social media etc that help us to create new narratives
* We’ve already handed over too much to the funders who would lead us away from the core tenets of our practice and towards the common misconceptions that youth work’s purpose is to counter gangs/drugs/etc.
* We need to develop a language about our practice that is worth shouting about and fighting for.
* Janet was keen to promote the theatres where theory of practice can be played out with an acknowledgement that the IDYW storytelling workshops do provide this. We’d like to see more.
* Janet continued by explaining her theory that workers need to be secure in themselves and have a solid experience of being loved in order to actually be disruptive. It’s a much more secure platform to launch radicalist activity from.
Adam captures well a sense of the day’s volatile and stimulating discussion. The task in the coming months is to encourage a frank debate within the ‘sector’ [forgive me I’m still uncomfortable with this turn of phrase], responding to the Youth Sector Briefing, to the forthcoming TAG, ChooseYouth and IYW events, not forgetting our national conference in Leeds. Somewhere along the line, by the Autumn perchance, some sort of gathering of all the constituencies will be necessary if common ground is to be achieved. The odds may be against this happening, we can but try.