Organise the Organisers

The first second

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the Community and Youth Workers’ Union argues that the profession of youth work has never been in a stronger position.

By the end of this year there will be more personal advisers and more learning mentors than full time youth workers in England. Two new important professions are being created. Or are they ? In reality, the profession of youth work is being expanded dramatically and new organisational forms of working with young people are drawing on our expertise taking youth work into new places in new ways. CYWU members in young offenders institutions are doing youth work every bit as much as those in detached youth work projects. Mentors are re-engaging young people with education and the voyage of self discovery as much as Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme staff. Job descriptions are becoming increasingly similar in practice despite their titles. There are more opportunities for face to face intervention with young people than ever before. What is now at stake is not so much the question of whether the relationship between a young person and their youth worker is voluntary or not, but the quality of the face to face intervention and where it is designed to conclude. We have to add, regardless of context.

Now this is where things start getting really tricky. In several towns Youth Service run Youth Enquiry Shops exist physically alongside new Connexions services. I visited two such access points in one City. On entering the Connexions facility with its very expensive shop front I was met by a barrage of signs for opening times (9.30am-4.30pm) and directions, I was given the perameters before I had started. A few young people were seated on expensive sofas, beneath rules and regulations as if in a dentists waiting for their time in the chair. The air was still, the expressions glum. Clearly the personal advisers here, former careers officers, were not youth workers. Next door, tatty sign above, the atmosphere was buzzing, the young people animated and loud able to access staff most of the day and night. The notices were exclusively about help, support and development. “Why aren’t you next door ?” I asked, “That’s the Job Centre” said the young woman. In other towns, one stop shops lead by the youth service, successfully combine both careers and youth advice and counselling provision deploying the different professional specialisms of careers, youth work and advice. It saves on bricks and mortar but also works.

Clearly, at one level context matters. But it shouldn’t. At the heart of the Connexions development was an ill thought out view imported from an unelected think tank with minimal experience of youth issues, that the separate professions involved with young people should be broken up and new multi purpose workers drawn from diverse backgrounds should be created – originally it seemed overnight. What we needed in reality was a capacity to break professional boundaries in the interests of young people while creating higher quality specialist intervention at the right time in the right place. This would have cost more.

Now our tale becomes even more difficult. What counts as a successful intervention with young people ? I believe the first second of eye contact and the first few words count most. The demeanour of the professional whether on the street, or behind a desk says it all. A young person gauges the level of interest in them fast. Part of me thinks that the qualification training for youth workers prepares them most for this first instant of relationship building. First impressions as they say are important. But more than this. If a young person needs support, they need to feel at ease and treated as an equal with respect. There is a real danger now that the emphasis on mechanical competences in the youth work National Occupational Standards and the absence of firm educational values in personal advisers’ training, will ruin the ability of professionals in the future to relate to young people wherever they contact them. We are being pushed into an assessment and casework and tracking mould rather than a support and guidance function.

So, why is youth work in such a strong position then ? Because other interventions are already failing and the new professions want a lot of what we have got. Interestingly, personal advisers, often thrown in at the deep end with huge caseloads, want the person centred culture of youth work supervision practice. What gets in the way is the bureaucracy in Connexions and the employment related targets. Mentors draw on the informal education techniques of conversation and group work. Their work is frustrated by the exam and schools formal agenda and diversity of terms and conditions. What hinders both is insufficient training. Hence the move to appoint more JNC qualified staff. We are strong because other professional groups are being asked to work as youth workers. We have a lot to offer and learn. A three year degree for youth work must be just around the corner.

Not a time therefore for the youth work head to dip in the sand, or for the structures which make youth work – the JNC, the Education and Standards Committee and Guidelines to Professional Endorsement to be radically changed. We never were very good at recognising our own strength. Change for change sake, particularly if to advantage the bank account of an adult organisation, has never benefited young people.

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