The Mismeasurement of Education

It’s been one of those revealing weeks. I acted as an external examiner to a youth and community work qualification course. One of the most fascinating parts of this process was meeting students and considering their work. I am continually staggered by the difficulty, complexity and variety of what they do even on placements which form half of the JNC qualification course. Imagine running five different projects as a student: literacy training with compulsive car thieves: drugs education sessions with school groups: establishing a youth council to scrutinise the local town council: a trip to India for Asian women: supporting a music project. Easy in our world.

There are two other aspects of the placement based courses that are interesting. Unlike social work or teacher training, youth and community courses do not get funding for placement hosts. This is a fact rarely mentioned by side swipe type critics of the quality of youth and community work training. Secondly, before entering the field for practice students are asked to consider individually and as a group their own value systems, attitudes and behaviours. The youth and community work method requires the most intimate educational intervention where the educator’s ideas and personality are vital to the learning. Hence, at source, the impossibility of introducing an NVQ to this area of work, though one has been ‘prepared earlier’ for youth work and others are failing in community work and play.

Next day, I helped deliver some of the in service training for part time workers that CYWU is delivering thanks to the government’s trade union learning fund scheme. In conversation with the one session a week part timers I discovered that their three hour a week involvement with young people had been subject to no less than seven forms of appraisal. These ranged from Ofsted inspections to local audits, best value to finance department checks. One worker described the feeling of being “assessinated” by seven different types of measure of the work. Interestingly only the Ofsted framework comes close to establishing criteria of appraisal which appreciate the quality of the youth work intervention and the difficulty of measuring its instantaneous educational benefit. How do you measure the value of a young person having for the first time an adult to listen to them, the long term benefit of a subtle three word piece of seemingly inconsequential advice ?

A recent DfEE audit of the Youth Service as of 1996 revealed in some authorities that youth workers were responsible for provision for 5,000 young people. Things have badly deteriorated since then. In fact, the Youth Service is the only part of the education system to have been neglected and horrendously cut by the government. So I took a regrading appeal for a multi talented youth worker who was responsible for a huge range of quality provision in nine different youth centres with the equivalent of nine full time staff and countless volunteers in an area of extreme deprivation and 9,000 young people. She was paid the princely sum (before our appeal) of 20,000 a year and managed highly skilled staff in drugs education, hazardous pursuits and behavioural support units.

She also worked according to the Grading Matrix of the JNC Report for youth and community workers. This has not only provided the terms and conditions for workers in this sector since 1961, but it has defined the nature of the work and its contribution to lifelong learning. Partnership work has always been at the heart of our training and delivery and features as a separate element in the JNC Report. Often youth and community workers will be the centre of the local learning partnerships and support networks that have existed for years. They are the only group of staff professionally trained and employed to create such things. Interagency work is a JNC contractual requirement.

I was heartened therefore to see the Council for Local Education Authorities pass another priority motion asserting the central importance of the JNC Report. Heartened because the next day I witnessed youth and community workers in Slough vote unanimously for strike action against their authority which is seeking to deprofessionalise the service by removing the JNC provisions. This is likely to trigger the first ever national strike of youth and community workers, just at this time of potential positive change. Also in Slough I noticed how the number of government reports that demand the involvement of youth workers is greater than the number of full time workers left on the ground in many areas.

Finally, a restful day with voluntary sector employed staff explaining how they thought that the current consultation by the UK Youth Work Alliance on adopting a code of ethics amongst all those working with young people would not only provide the most cost effective solution to the as yet untouched recommendations of the Cullen Report, but would demonstrate that this sector can voluntarily and imaginatively raise standards. One participant also remarked that it is probably the closeness of youth workers to real communities that has led to the neglect of our work. Before Slough and the NVQ proponents go further in saying ‘anyone can do this work’ they should reflect hard on both the need and the difficulty in extending the franchise of learning.

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