The Republic of Youth

A contribution to the Maltese Association of Youth Workers’ Conference.


April 2002.


 Commitment and Professionalism.


This opportunity affords me the time to go back to basics. I will try to sketch what seem to me to be the basic principles that underpin society’s commitment to youth work the Youth Service and professionalism within it.


What are we committed to and how can we be professionals and gain recognition as such ? If we do not get the answers to these questions right, we will get the rest of our programme wrong, tactics depend on strategy and social policy depends on social objectives and philosophy.


Society’s commitment.


We are committed to a society in which young people are valued on their own terms as creative, autonomous citizens who require support and guidance first and foremost. The period of transition from childhood from adolescence needs to be free of risk and uncertainty. This period of transition is long or short depending on cultural, social and economic conditions. In Britain the period has been lengthened by poor housing and labour markets. It now stretches from 13-25 years of age. Within this, the key period is probably still from 16-19. Youth services must however serve the longer period.


Stable family relations are absolutely central to fulfilled youth, so therefore a culture that equally values men and women, the able bodied and the disabled, the old and the young must prevail. It goes without saying that the culture must not be racist, for there is only one race, the human race, if racism hinders a family it demoralises its young people. Full employment must prevail within a high wage, productive, high skilled economy or families are destabilised. Education must be free and vocational and academic skills within this must be equally valued. Active citizenship should begin as early as possible and this means lowering the age of majority to 16.  These are crucial factors in nurturing young people and in establishing the resources for a thriving Youth Service.


Added Value


However, neither decent work, affordable housing, nor free, comprehensive education even when developed within the context of a stable family environment  guarantee the successful enjoyment of youth. Consumer and market pressures, and the sheer emotional and psychological turbulence of growing up from dependence to independence, generate both individual and group problems and more importantly opportunities which are specific to young people in all societies. Minds are set and lifestyles created in the period of adolescence. Therefore, young people need social and political education opportunities available to them, they need support in exploring the world and its environment and advice in taking life choices and in understanding risks and opportunities as well as preserving the natural world in which we live. They need opportunities for learning beyond the class room, learning about themselves and their culture and their rights and responsibilities. They need an entitlement to informal learning and personal support and easy access to public space that is theirs for their enjoyment and shaping. They need forums and councils for debate and decision making and they need mechanisms for negotiation with government structures. These are effective if there is social space for young people to also explore spiritual, emotional, artistic and intellectual capacities outside of the exam system and demands of work. Social and political education outside of the class room nurture the individual and engender a love of learning which is so essential if society is to encourage active learning throughout life.


If you have something to look forward to as a young person, your attitude towards the future changes. Therefore what you commit as a citizen depends very greatly on the sense of worth society conveys to you when you are young. If society provides for you as a young person there is more chance that you will provide for it in the future as the fully fledged tax payer and leader.


Government commitment


Here is the first commitment there must be then, society must be committed to an active, democratically alterable policy for its young people and to resourcing this policy through a legally required, or statutory Youth Service. But we do not rely on a general notion of society in this sense. There must be a commitment expressed by the accountable and democratic government. There must be state commitment. The future of the young is a collective concern and therefore cannot be left to private, or voluntary effort. The state may of course fund voluntary organisations, but the prime mover must be the publicly elected bodies, the national government at the fore. This is a very fundamental point made at the dawn of civilisation by Aristotle:


No one can doubt that it is the legislator’s very special duty to regulate the education of youth, otherwise (1)the constitution of the state will suffer harm.....Since the whole state has a single end, it is clear that education must be one and the same for all, and that it must be in public rather than, as today, in private hands, then every father has authority to provide for the instruction of his children just as he thinks fit. No, the training in matters which are of public concern must be carried out by the state. It is indeed quite false to imagine that any citizen belongs to himself. The correct view is that all belong to the state because each is a part thereof; and care of the whole follows inevitably from that of the parts.


Aristotle, Politics,  Book VIII Youth Training, around 322 BC.


In Britain it was the founders of the voluntary sector youth services and the first trade unionists that created the first state commitment to the Youth Service in its first major national government Report of 1961. The Youth Service was forced on the state by those who had previously provided it through a mixture of faith, hope and charity. The first theories of youth work too came from women workers in the voluntary sector and the first trade union for youth workers also. This Report called for the professionalisation of the work and investment by the state nationally and locally through Local Education Authorities in partnership with voluntary sector organisations. It called for national qualifications for dedicated staff and national terms and conditions to go along with these. It believed the status of the work should be equal to that of teaching.


So government has to commit itself to our work through public spending and a set of expectations as to what will be delivered in return. The status of the Youth Service in terms of legislation and funding must therefore be equal to that of school education. Youth are not optional add ons, whose rights and entitlements can come and go with the latest ebb and flow of funding. Youth workers are not casual, temporary labourers. We provide a complimentary part of the education system which has a spectrum running from early years, play work, to youth work, community work, adult education, schooling and further and higher education. All parts must be treated equally in terms of status. We have particular importance within this spectrum because very often it is youth workers who instil that unique commitment amongst young people to feeling confident enough to partake in the learning provided by the rest of the system which can more instrumentally equip them with practical and occupational skills and knowledge. Other skills help young people achieve employment, youth work helps with the whole employability and life enhancement agenda. The social education of the adolescent as it used to be called is an indispensable carburettor within the whole organic machine.


National curriculum – human beings.


Our curriculum is that difficult amalgam of emotion, perception, dialogue, intellect and imagination which make up personality and character. We work with young people in a holistic way, engaging with them and making relationships with them that move them on, enabling them to reflect critically and deeply on experience and to make ethical choices about themselves and their peers. We broaden their scope of life experience – climb your first physical, or character building mountain with your youth worker. We empower, or as the French describe it ‘animate’ young people making the best of human talents which are essentially social and not simply reduceable to labour market factors. We politically educate, where the word political reminds us of the Greek ‘polis’ or even better  ‘demos’ the democratic meeting place of minds and social decision making as a collective. Let’s not forget either we do our work with a great sense of fun and humour and we encourage the young to laugh, not at each other, but what is funny in a sometimes upside down world. Not that I am arguing of course that the state should pay for a pack of jokers ? Our work is curriculum is often conducted through the medium of conversation. It is good getting paid to talk ! This should not lead others to believe that anyone can do our work.


Youth work success


Social commitments to youth work which see young people as liberators of the future not threats in the present have been well repaid. Youth work has proved particularly successful in:


-            Supporting young people and adults to return to education and training throughout life, with community based guidance and provision, particularly for those who are disadvantaged.


-            Supporting young people and adults in improving their communities, increasing self help and voluntary community action in tackling problems.


-            Enhancing the ability of central and local government and other agencies to listen to the needs and concerns of local people and the consumers of services.


-            Assisting government and other agencies to raise awareness of issues through public education campaigns such as crime prevention, drugs awareness anti racism and environmental action.


 -                     Stimulating the effective involvement of local people in personal, social, cultural, economic and political development, helping people to participate actively in determining change.


-                     Raising educational achievement and a self esteem, widening opportunities for learning, fostering civic responsibility and promoting positive volunteering.


 -                     Maximising multi agency collaboration in service delivery to young people.    


If society is committed what standards then should it expect of youth workers and the Youth Service in return ?


It should require professional standards of youth workers and their formation into a respected profession.


Hallmarks of a profession.


What is a profession ? Often it is mistakenly associated with elitism. I believe the opposite to be the case. A profession concentrates society’s commitments into skills that can only be gained and transmitted through an egalitarian and public sharing of education and training systems.


In 1993 I Chaired a Working Party of the National Youth Agency and we considered the hallmarks of any profession in assessing whether youth work could be classified as such. There was consensus on the working group that the definition given by Richard Winter (1991) was authoritative and useful when considering the position of youth work. Winter asserts that in addition to the particular skills of an occupation and its specialist knowledge base, seven other factors are required to determine the professional standing of work. These are:


  1. commitment to professional values

  2. continuous professional learning

  3. interpersonal effectiveness

  4. effective communication

  5. executive effectiveness

  6. effective synthesis of a wide range of knowledge

  7. intellectual flexibility


I firmly believe that these seven factors all have to be present to deliver quality youth work. If any one of these is missing, a person is merely working with young people. To develop such capacities I am increasingly of the view that three years full time study or its equivalent are needed. Currently the majority of courses in England are two years Diploma courses. It is ironic in England that the informal education skills of youth workers which represent an advance point in education technique do not require degree level qualification. In Scotland and the rest of Europe, though the focus of the work is different in some senses, this is not the case.


Providing a profession.


So how then do we go about providing such a profession ? We are in the throes of a recruitment and retention crisis for youth workers in Britain at the moment and this topic is under much debate.


We need quality initial training, continuous professional development at work, national terms and conditions on a par with teaching, supportive management structures that foster critically reflective practice and autonomous decision making. Our profession needs to be respected by peers and must be promoted by local and national government. To win its accolade it must ultimately be popular in the eyes of the public. To ensure consistency and social confidence we need to operate to a common professional code of ethics. These things together constitute a profession.


The first thing that was done to create the profession in Britain was to create a system whereby training courses had to be professionally endorsed. If an institution wants to provide a training course for full time workers it must submit its proposals to an Education and Training Standards Committee. This committee, which originally incidentally was the Union alone, will consider the course according to national agreed guidelines. These guidelines are written by the profession itself. If the proposals on paper match the guidelines on paper a working party visit will take place and the course will be scrutinised in greater depth to see if what is written on paper matches reality. The working party has the power to accept or reject the course proposal and to make conditions for improvement and to monitor it before it comes up for renewal in five years time. This is the quality assurance side of things. But of course it is not a neutral process. If the course is approved all those successfully completing this course are entitled to national agreed terms and conditions.


In Britain there is an agreement between the government and a national bargaining committee of employers on one side and unions on the other that they will delegate power to Education and Training Standards Committees


And anything they approve of by way of initial training and part time worker training will be translated into actual terms and conditions of employment. Calculating the terms and conditions of employment also rests on a grading matrix which is the key document in actually defining what youth and community work practice entails.


Our Education and Training Standards Committees have also produced guidelines for endorsing part time workers training, in service training and the training programmes of voluntary organisations.


Of course initial training preparation is only one step towards full professionalisation. The next step must be to ensure that employers have fully developed induction programmes and staff development policies. Continuing Professional Development through regular entitlements to in service training and time to reflect and experiment are essential. New laws are being introduced in Britain this year which will create new rights to time off with pay for trade union learning representatives. Their role is like that of Health and Safety Officers at work to ensure that the intellectual health and training opportunities of all staff are catered for. CYWU incidentally is the largest supplier of in service training to youth workers in Britain as so many employers have failed in this responsibility.


How can we be professional if we do not have a clear code of ethical practice ? CYWU the Principal Youth Officers and Middle Managers are all committed to the achievement of a clear code of Ethics backed up by an Ethical Committee. An excellent draft has been produced following considerable consultation throughout the UK. I commend this to you and you can find it on our website. Our Union is the only organisation in youth work in Britain which has the right to expel members for bad ethical practice. This is a right that we exercise once or twice a year regrettably, but a nationally agreed Code of Ethics would ensure that the profession as a whole had some consensus about its boundaries and declared this publicly. Remember anyone in Britain can call themselves a youth worker in the absence of such a code and any form of meaningful regulation and indeed there are several tragic consequences of this gap.


So, to constitute the profession we have a peer led system of quality control over qualification, we have initial training courses, part time workers training, a framework of Continuous Professional Development, we should have a system of registration for all workers, a national code of ethics and national terms and conditions. How ultimately will we monitor and improve these systems ? The professionals themselves must be organised. For some this means trade unionism, for some professional associationism. While the actual purpose of both in my view are complete indistinguishable, these two types of organisation are very different in law and capacity. I put briefly to you that professional trade unionism is the only way and we only have to look at Britain to see that where staff have a professional association and not a specialist trade union as in Scotland the profession is in a weaker position than elsewhere. My Union used to be called the Community and Youth Service Association and many of us thought that we were changing the world when we changed its title to that of the Community and Youth Workers Union in 1982. But in retrospect we were not. Sometimes things called associations can be better trade unions than things called unions. It is all a question of power and attitude. In reality CYWU was always a constituted trade union.


Let’s look briefly at the difference between unions and associations.


Trade unions can accommodate the professional association function, but the latter cannot accommodate the former.


Professional associations have no legal status or entitlements unless registered in some other way as institutes or charities. Such registration can minimise the political capacity of lobbying for the profession.


Trade unions attract legal rights and opportunities for their members – such as time off for training and organisational duties, which professional associations do not. Trade unions have legal rights to negotiate with employers, professional associations do not. Trade unions are part of wider civic political society and the general pressure group of trade unionism, professional associations have no family. A trade union can insist on an ethical code of conduct of members. Trade unions now have extensive external funding opportunities not available to professional associations unless charity registered.


There is a tendency for trade unions to be more accommodating for different grades of staff. For example CYWU organises from volunteer to Principal Officer to Agency Chief Executive, the constitution permitting exclusions where there are real conflicts of interest at meetings. Professional associations tend to organise around one, usually senior grade.


Of course there are different types of trade unions as well. There are basically two types. Some trade unions organise horizontally across a variety of occupation areas into generalist trade unions –e.g. T&G, UNISON – or vertically into specialist trade unions – e.g. Musicians’ Union, CYWU. Most unions are in the TUC and in addition most specialist unions are in a Federation which gives additional support. The EIS model of federation across an industry is one increasingly favoured by education unions. Even within small specialist trade unions like CYWU, specialist occupational, or geographical groups can organise around their professional, or other interests.

An empowering profession requires the most empowered organisation and this in my view must be a trade union. Our Union wishes you all the very best in considering how you will organise and professionalise and whatever form you choose we can guarantee we will be your friends and look forward to creative exchanges and links in the years to come.



This website uses cookies. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Close   I agree