Youth Work and the Youth Service in Britain, an overview of professional formation

The following is a transcription of a talk given by Doug Nicholls to policy makers from the youth sector in the United States on March 25th 2003 hosted by the Forum for Youth Investment in Washington DC. The unscripted presentation and response to questions was transcribed by Kalisha Davis a fellow of the Forum. For those seeking further information about the Forum visit their website at

It’s very nice to be here. I just noticed that this house (Cady-Lee) was built in 1887, the year my grandmother was born and also the year after the first-ever attempt was made to bring youth workers together in England and Wales for some kind of professional association or union. They were called the “girls workers” who worked in the mills of Northwest England. Their first task was to try to support women outside of their 14-hour days in the mills.  They fought to build work-place libraries, address health issues that cropped up and to provide general, social and moral education to the young women in the mills. There’s a little bit of history of trying to bring youth workers together to advance the profession and the nature of the work that they do.

Our story goes back to 1938 when another group of women workers decided to get together to establish youth worker and formal education methods of working with young people as a recognized, professional way with some status and some clout.

What I thought I might do today, is focus on professional formation, how we sought to establish youth work as a profession and to guarantee some standards in the formation of training courses and delivery, which is different from policy. If I focus on that, do you think that would be of general interest? [Addressing the audience.] There’s a whole range of policy issues at the moment. 

When Bill Treanor was last in England 30 years ago, it was just after the first major government report to establish youth work.  It took 30 years to get another report, which came out just before Christmas, which changed the landscape dramatically. I can address policy during questions, but I will focus on professional formation to begin.

When the pioneers who formed our union got together, they basically said three interrelated things. We are working with young people in a way that is not like teaching in classroom, not like social welfare support through social services, but a different kind job taking young people on their own terms and seeking to help them through different kinds of methods and therefore a different kind of occupation or job. They set to establish the notion that you would have separate, specialist training in youth work. They said this in the out set, in the 30s and 40s when books on formal education were being written.

They said this is a different, separate kind of occupation, which is as important as school teaching or any other element of the education system.  Therefore it should have a status as a profession with teaching. The quality of training must be very good, the pay must be comparable to teaching and if we’re to have a profession with some social recognition, we should have some state funding. We should have the government back up the commitment to this profession by providing money for services to be delivered.  So there you have three interrelated things:

  • separate, new qualifications,
  • status for profession, and
  • proper funding for the work.

The system that was established to achieve those objectives was originally fairly rudimentary.

Back then, there were large university courses that saw the market need to train the youth worker and brought their proposals for training courses to the union. The union had a committee that used to control entry to the profession, determining whether universities met the needs of modern practice or not. Unions had the power to say yes or no to a qualification/training course. We had criteria for determining whether a qualification course was satisfactory or not.

In the 1960s we decided that is was all very well to have new qualifications, but those qualifications weren’t being respected by employers, which in those days were by and large voluntary organizations.

There were people coming out of Birmingham University with youth work qualification then going to work in New Castle or Belfast and all getting different rates of pay for the same occupation.  The feeling was that this wouldn’t establish respect for the profession and wouldn’t underpin the concept of young people having an entitlement to a nationally available service.

The Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) was formed and that brought together all employers of youth workers. From the voluntary sector and what we call “local education authorities”— the local government, the state—they came together with us. We said to the government, “As employers and representatives of the workforce, we think we have a role in setting the pay and conditions for all youth workers who receive approved qualifications across the whole nation. Would you please give us a license to establish a body, which we call the Education and Training Standards Committee, which would do all the work of approving training courses?”

So the system is relatively straightforward. Anyone—usually a university, but sometimes local government, sometimes a collection of voluntary sector employers, sometimes churches—anyone who wants to put on a training course sends their written proposal to the Education Training Standards Committee, which accesses that proposal according to a set of nationally agreed guidelines and then they send a working party to the institution to scrutinize what’s happening on the ground to see what’s being done matches what’s being said on the piece of paper.

If the college or group of employers is approved to deliver the youth work training course, any student who gets that qualification is entitled to get the JNC paying conditions.

So qualification, a set of nationally agreed terms of conditions subject to what we call “collective bargaining” in other words, a discussion about what the rate should be, what the holidays should be, what the grading should be for each job on the national level.

This committee works with a set of guidelines that sets the core competencies, the core learning outcomes that the profession thinks constitutes youth work practice and modern youth work delivery.

So, employers want this standard and a good level of service delivery, so they’ve been committed to the idea of this committee functioning and have adhere to those guidelines—what the profession thinks constitutes the nature of youth work practice and how to do it.

There are three different sets of guidelines for training: 

  1. Initial training and education—2 years in England, 3 years in Wales, 4 years in Scotland and, in most of Europe, four years for an initial degree or diploma in youth work.
  2. Part-time workers training, who receive guidelines and a certificate to practice. Eight to one is ratio for part-time workers to every one full-time worker. They are the bedrock of face delivery of the service.
  3. Voluntary organizations, all their volunteers and staff.

We also have another set of guidelines, which look at continuing professional development/ in-service training. But these trainings are the critical ones that lead to paying conditions. If workers have been through approved courses, they’re entitled to these sets of pay conditions. In the paying conditions book, it’s not just about X pounds per week, holidays, etc., it actually has a “grading matrix” which breaks down the nature of youth work jobs and their constituent parts, gives rate of pay and defines duties and responsibilities of the work, which forms the basis for the set of guidelines. These are the duties and responsibilities that employers and unions are expected to give youth workers in practice. So therefore, we expect training institutions to provide training that meets those standards. That’s the core of the system.

There are still two substantial weaknesses:

  1. There is no such thing as a license to practice—this a voluntary agreement between employers in voluntary sector, local authorities, government and the workforce. Nothing that says you have to have a certain level of qualifications to work with young people. Anyone can do it, there’s no statute, no law, which says you need X qualification to work in this particular way. The next move that we (the union) want to do is to incorporate a national code of ethics for youth workers, which, if it is transgressed, it means that the worker is no longer able to practice with young people. That’s what we want.
  2. In England –they’ve done it in Republic of Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland—there is still no law that mentions youth service. A 1944 law says all local authorities must provide “adequate facilities” for young people, but it doesn’t define “facilities,” or “adequate.”

So in the good old days of the previous Thatcher government, when the conservative party wanted to get rid of all funding for young people, we challenged one particular local authority in the high court because they were planning to get rid of all funding for youth. We said to the judge, “How can we say that it’s adequate if there is no funding provided for young people?” and he said, “Well I can’t tell you, because no one has defined what adequate means.”

The success we’ve just had is that we got the government now to define what “adequate” means. They’ve set some tough targets on every local authority, about their service provision, but there is still no law, no government directive or act of Parliament in England, anyway.

The government has, since December, taken a very proactive role boosting funding for youth work, they’ve boosted the number of workers that they want JNC qualified and embarked on a whole workforce development strategy to equip youth workers to do their work.

It remains a political weakness in English system that it’s up to every local authority as to how much they invest, and up to the minister of the day to see how much he’s prepared to do to support youth work or otherwise, but from our perspective it has been a bit of a step forward.

Continuing professional development is part of the national agreement. So every worker has got an entitlement, whether full or part time, to a percentage of work on in-service training. We want to incorporate it into in the code of ethics, as many professionals do, so whereby if you want to keep your license you have to go through X training courses every year.

Question & Answer Session


Q: How many qualified youth workers are there? How many belong to union, what’s the difference in pay? How many colleges train youth workers?

A: There are 65 courses and growing. Some colleges have several different courses, but that number is growing all the time.


  • 1,500 students enrolled this year.
  • 6,000 working full time (professionally qualified)
  • 5,000 belong to the union
  • 35,000 are part time (defined as working under 16 hours per week)
  • 500,000 volunteers


Q: Courses means paths?

A: Yes, these guidelines instruct the colleges on their recruitment or selection procedures.

Students don’t take qualification courses until age 21. The average age of a student is 30-years-old on initial training courses.

Q: Speak a little more about that. Are you encouraging people to try youth work before they’re trained?

A:The recruitment and selection criteria on the courses usually have words like: “students need two years of voluntary experience in youth work, substantial experience in youth work.” People come in from voluntary to part-time experience and to them they think they are qualified.

The academic system theoretically allows courses to recruit at 18, but very few will. Experience of youth work is seen as an essential qualification.

Majority of students are “nontraditional entrance,” a good percentage would not have equivalent high school qualifications. Depending on what social economic definitions you have of class, essentially all of the students are what we describe as working class.

Q: You said pay and status for youth workers were equal to formal teaching at one time? What happened?

A: The teaching profession in the mid 1970s was well paid and it had a high social status, as far as level of pay. That was automatically transferred to youth workers. We were on an exact par with them from mid 70s to late 80s. The general election in 1979 changed the value of teacher’s pay.

A teaching degree in any subject was agreed by the JNC committee as being an automatic qualification for youth work. You could have a degree in divinity and be paid as a qualified youth worker.

Both the employers and unions in the 80s said as we begin to specialize and professionalize youth work, we don’t want anyone else’s criteria to be an automatic qualification for our work. So the union broke the teacher link on level of qualification; you have to have specialized qualification to be a youth worker.

One unfortunate consequence is that youth worker groups were smaller than teacher groups and we can’t bargain so hard for pay. Pay went down 25 to 30 percent. The holidays have held up reasonably well, because the work is so stressful. We had to bargain separately from teachers because we’re a smaller group, but we’ve never gone on strike for anything other than protection of funding for young people’s projects, it was never for an increase in pay. So pay levels have declined a bit too much, however the raises they’ve received every year have been better than most other local government workers.

Q: What about local education agencies and their funding, don’t they have a problem with what you’re trying to do because it takes away resources from their work? 

A: No, they are the strongest supporters of the system. The voluntary sector is what we have the most difficulties with. But that will change, because the government is now insisting that local organizations that they fund should pay fair rates, provide pensions, and make applications for grant aid that take into account the best employment practices. The LEAs have supported us because they’ve been the biggest employers and have held out most for getting more money down from government for youth service. One way to do that is to meet the wages bill, which is 60 or 70 percent of youth service budget.

Q: Are there still 40 percent of youth workers in schools as it was 10 years ago?

A: It has become incredibly complicated since then, youth policy in Britain has become center stage to every department in government except for foreign policy. Every single department has to “youth proof” their policies; the expansion of services since 97 has been dizzying.

The union said years ago that we’d have a minister for youth and everyone thought we were being ridiculous. We now have two ministers for youth. Billions and billions poured into services for young people and children. Which means that statistically the core of youth work, although the bedrock of which these new policies exist, is in the minority.

They’ve literally created new professions over night. Created the profession called personal advisor, there are 12,000 full-time personal advisors to provide comprehensive support services to young people that have to operate in every local authority area.

They created a new profession called learning mentor, which are meant to work with young people in school systems, academically and behavior wise.

They are to develop 240,000 play workers, a program set up to help children under 11 develop through play. Youth service has exploded.

Q: What about residential social work? Is there any diversity?

A: The responsibility rests with the social service department, so the contact between youth service and that set of facilities has never been very well developed. The law says that every young person leaving residential care has an entitlement to contact with someone who will advise, befriend and council them. All the worst statistics facing young people in Britain concentrate on young people leaving care. 

There is now a greater concentration of youth leaving care, when all the statistics came out they showed that that was the most vulnerable group. Youth service is being lassoed in to concentrate on this group of youth.

Q: What about smaller group homes? How would youth workers staff it?

A: They wouldn’t, that’s under social work for social services. Youth work is different because it’s voluntary.

Q: Are there youth workers in schools?

A: Very few youth workers are in schools; they work with 13-to 19-year-olds mainly, and work mostly 16-to 19-year-olds in youth centers.

Q: Is it for youth who’ve left school?

A: No.

Q: So they have two systems with young person having access to both?

A: Yes, but you have to define access. Young people have to go to school until age 16, but they never have to be involved in youth service, it’s a voluntary relationship. That’s the distinction from some of these new services. Where there is some element of compulsion to see their personal advisor or they won’t get unemployment benefit, etc. Youth service’s distinctive role has been a voluntary relationship with young people. Young people led service.  Youth vote with their feet, if service isn’t good they don’t contact it.

I should also mention that professional practice is inspected. We have a strenuous system of inspection for schools, youth service and adult education! A group of people called “Her Majesty’s Inspectors,” the Office for Standards In Education. They have a duty to inspect youth services. When they’re not up to par, they can tell the minister and he can throw something in to make it better. The criteria they use is reflected in criteria found in the union book/guidelines.

Q:  When did the interest begin in your country to address teens and youth?

A: I joined the union in 1976. I was elected in 87, and in 87 to 97 when I met with conservative ministers their line was, “there is no such thing as society, therefore there is no such thing as young people, therefore there is no need for funding.” They completely neglected things and it got very bad and political lobbies formed. The union isn’t a political lobby, but we worked with the liberal democratic party and labor party to make as much noise as possible and to get some of the think tanks involved and lobbied for change. It was good old lobbying and we absolutely humiliated the government.

We formed the youth work alliance; we ditched old differences and established common ground, fighting together.

Q: In the very beginning, were youth workers seen as a part of the education system?

A: Most who organized argued successfully that it should be a function of education. One of the presidents of the union was Josephine Macalister Brew wrote Theories of Informal Education and her view was, this was a part of education: the social, personal development educational process. From adult education to play work. Youth work had an important place in formal education.

Q: Academic accomplishment, where does it fit?

A: The cynical answer is that it fits funding streams. Too much of it going on. If government wants to reduce teenage pregnancy, teen crime all resources go into that. What gets lost is what the majority of youth workers see—the liberal core. It’s about emotional, social intelligence and education for its own sake, but it has had to become more mechanistic because of the world we live in.

Q: You said that the full time youth workers were primarily from the working class, are the youth who participated considered working class too?

A: The service tries to say it’s for all young people, but it’s unevenly funded. It hasn’t met the needs of all. Recently efforts have been made to target more and more in poorer areas, to serve the youth with more needs.

Q: Are some activities more universally available than others?

A: Yes, we have what you call “postcode inequality”, the idea that young people don’t have access in certain communities.

Q: Have there been trends where youth work has become more popular? Curriculum areas?

A: Youth work skills are in major demand at the moment, everyone wants a youth worker.  Social services, housing departments, criminal justice departments want them. All of these agencies want a slice of the youth worker. The thing that they want is the relationship-building skills and instant rapport with young people and the ability to create a trusting relationship.

Q: With billions going into young people, can you see current impacts?

A: There is probably more money going into research on impact than into direct services. The research is government funded and the research says that all the government projects are going very well.

One statistic that won’t go away, during the last general election there were 150,000 youth at least who were not on any register in education, employment, or training. They called them NEET: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. A lot of new services were created to fish those youth back into the system. I think now you’ll find 200,000 young people in that category despite the fact that employment has gone up.

Why? It’s hard to determine. I think its got a lot to do with not having youth workers on the front lines to connect with youth right away. Some young people have sixteen professionals glued to them. They’d have an education/welfare officer, social worker, teacher, police officer, juvenile justice officer, probation officer, etc. A lot of young people play the system by not playing the system. They’re trying to keep track of young people in juvenile justice, electronic tagging. In the youth-related field they are creating credit cards or “sweetie cards” to keep track of youth. 

Q: What kind of transition is there from service to service for younger teens and older teens?

A: No transition. No automatic routes or pathways. The systems are different. The best theory was in Scotland and their community education system that said there should be system for providing services from the cradle to the grave. Youth workers were trained in generic educational skills to become play workers, youth workers, all the community education stuff and local authorities ran youth services on education support and collective action services from nursery services, play, youth, social, and education connection. An increasing number of qualification courses are called department for play work, youth work and community-work studies. The goal is to create a seamless set of services for various stages in life. The rest is ad-hoc, we don’t have any policy bringing it together, someone is now writing policy to interrelate various services.

Q: What percentages of youth have jobs?

A: Very low percentages in full-time work. Government wants to put half of young people in university. It’s going in that direction, but we’re losing that whole concept of 16-year-olds learning apprentice skills that last them a lifetime. But 70 to 80 percent stay in some form of school.

Q: When you raised standards why did you move away from teachers to break that connection?

A: You couldn’t have a degree in divinity and necessarily be a good youth worker. It wasn’t a possibility to adjust the standards to receive a teacher’s degree in youth work. We had to have separate qualifications.

Q:  Is more academic training necessary to train youth workers?

A: My group picks up all the consequences of people not being properly trained. There have been serious cases (500) of lawsuits, deaths, abuse and neglect that the union had to solve. We went back and it amounted to a lack of training (health, safety, etc.). People weren’t aware how to construct a safe outdoor activity.  I lean towards training becoming more rigorous. It doesn’t need to be strictly academic. Guidelines say 50 percent is training, 50 percent real field work. The practice-based route to qualification is necessary. We’ve experimented successfully with apprenticeship. Government targeted the most excluded groups of young people and it brought out our best workers. Training doesn’t have to be academic, but does need to be occupation specific.

Q: The 6,000 youth workers were not university graduates?

A: They are graduates of JNC courses, which is like a diploma.

Q: Is there a process to define competencies for youth? 

A: Generally we’re opposed to breaking up the education process into blocks of competencies. Skills in good youth work are very complicated. New training framework is that you break down any job or skill set into a long list of interrelated boxes, which are no more than descriptors of parts of behavior. We’re opposed to competency-based evaluation. What we do is more holistic.

For example: a look at communications skills in one service location. You might see posters, involvement with community, communications with parent, beautifully presented curriculum for youth, but it’s a youth center promoting Fascism. They haven’t got a tick box for that. We were concerned about devaluing educational processes from a mechanistic, behaviorist approach. We held it off for a long time. We’ve now got an agreed set of standards for youth and community work. Both with several CD-ROMs, both with several thousand tick boxes and descriptors on the Internet, their role is a mystery to me.

Youth workers are certified by union qualifications instead of assessment tools. There are some very, very powerful tools in self-assessment. One that I advocate people getting hold of is First Claim which was developed in Highland for accessing play workers.

Q: How did you  go about defining outcomes?

A: Professional Validation was a key document.  A range of consultant conferences (working parties) originated the JNC report qualifications.

Q: Who pays for the courses?

A: At the student level, students pay tuition fees. I discourage this effort.

At a government-funded university, the school gets money for related courses based on the number of students. Government will pay if universities can prove a certain number  attend. They are now developing a distance-learning course called Open University. Government is also exploring the apprentice route.

Q: What is the cost for union membership?

A: ETS and unions have member subscriptions and the government provides money for training and other work. ETS is funded by the national government by way of local government. Membership fees are on a sliding scale based on income.

Q: Immigrant communities, do they have a way to give priority to certain youth workers?

A: Special emphasis, yes, but their presence doesn’t affect the funding formula, not focused on criteria.


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