What does it mean to be professional in 2016?

I was honoured to be invited to speak at an event hosted by IDYW to discuss what it means to be professional in 2016. Given the wealth of experience and knowledge in the room I was expecting a thorough and informed discussion and I wasn’t disappointed.

What was…

Bernard Daviesbernard-davies

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 professional. 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.

There is a real strength in the voluntary foundations of our work and we should take pride in the way services capture the enthusiasm of youth work volunteers whilst maximising value for money by doing so.  But the tensions have been recurrent as far as situating them congruently in the structures of the profession.  The example that was talked about was that of the National College for the Training of Youth Leaders when it began, again post-Albemarle; once people had started to gain their qualifications from the College, youth leaders would return to their work places ‘outranking’ the rest of the extremely dedicated workforce who had previously been at the heart of services.

Bernard did posit an important question that had been offered up by a supporter in early 2014 on the In Defence of Youth Work Facebook page: Where is the evidence that professionalisation has brought improved outcomes for young people?

Back on the history, 1972 in ‘Youth Review’ the then quarterly journal, an article pleaded “Don’t join the professionals! That would kill youth work”.  It was believed that workers would start siding with the powerful and abandon the weak in exchange for money and power.  It was suggested that prescribing to a uniform set of ‘professional’ values would narrow the view and scope of youth work as this had happened in other professions.

In 1983 the workers’ professional association (the CYSA) turned into a union (the CYWU).  Many were against becoming a trade union and hostile to the radical politics emerging e.g. the feminism of the Women’s Caucus. Bernard was elected as President to try to smooth the waters.

My feeling on the back of the discussion is that a commitment to practicing professionally is entirely welcome.  When these things develop into professional frameworks and structures they inherently create hierarchical power dynamics – of this we need to be very careful.  People are right to be cautious.

Susan Atkins

Sue-AtkinsSue 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 heir professional status.  Yet it still wasn’t on a par with teachers whose two year course carried more kudos.

Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly), the body of knowledge on youth work at the time was extremely thin on the ground – “a page from this book and a chapter from that” as Sue put it.  It wasn’t really until the 70’s that the written knowledge started to be created in greater volume, and mostly as a result of the debates and discussions that were happening at the time.  The feminist voice was added to this and continued throughout the 80’s.  By the sounds of it this was a marked improvement on the old ‘stale, male and pale’ set up of the preceding years as far as make-up of overseeing bodies in youth work went.

Throughout, it would seem, the external perception of youth work has been that it exists to tackle the problem of youth crime, or of youth delinquency, for example.  Whilst they can be outcomes, Sue notes, those things are never the purpose of youth work.


Nigel PimlottFYT-Nigel-Pimlott

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”.

It’s within this context that we heard, not dissimilar to Bernard’s points, the faith sector is suspicious of professional frameworks.  In part this may be because they have largely been excluded from the discussions regarding professionalisation.

The phrase popularised by the eponymous 1985 book “Voluntary But Not Amateur” seems to resonate here although people’s understanding of work in the voluntary and faith sectors didn’t preclude the popular discourse surrounding the Statutory sector being ‘the professional sector’.  Seemingly, ‘professional’ has been more about who you work for and with.  This certainly runs contrary to messages in Nigel’s own book, ‘Embracing the Passion: Christian Youthwork and Politics’.

We were given a very interesting anecdote from Nigel’s own experience of a young man who wouldn’t use the local authority-run youth centre, instead choosing to only frequent the volunteer-run service further down the road.  His reasoning being that “those youth workers are paid to like young people, these ones are here because they actually care”.

To conclude it was discussed how often faith priorities can actually be quite different to other youth workers, which has in some cases led to active resistance against and deviation from professionalisation.  After all, professionalism doesn’t equal increased funding…

Helen Gatenby

Helen GatenbyFor 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.

On another level, Helen recognised that the personal values she lives by that inform her vocational experience of her youth work can’t be divorced from the work.  A practical example that I felt it interesting to capture was when Helen was approached by an organisation working with an isolated, pregnant young woman who had no birthing partner.  The service the young woman had been working with wasn’t in a position to support her; their working hours were proving prohibitive.  What did Helen do?  Bent the rules and made it happen.  Does that make her more or less professional than the other service?  The challenge put to the group was that we have to choose where we stand as professionals; it’s our duty to ensure that remains with young people.

Helen concluded by highlighting where there have been warnings around investing too much stock in education and professionalisation, notably with Mark Smith’s quote from ‘Developing Youth Work‘ (1988) below:

A particular danger here is that people may be encouraged to take on ways of working that serve neither their interests, nor those they work with.  This can happen as people adopt what are apparently the technical concerns of the profession without directly addressing what the cultural and political implications of these may be.

Helen’s parting argument was for education, and not necessarily formal education of the youth workforce. What may be required is the development of ‘organic intellectuals’, to borrow a term from Gramsci.


On the back of the discussion about contradictions, some interesting points were raised to add a little flavour to what had come before:

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.

I asked a question about where the ‘Four Cornerstones of Youth Work’ had originally come from seeing as I’d found it difficult to hunt down their origins.  The conversation led us in a few directions but ultimately to acknowledging that often the body of work relating to our profession trickles into common knowledge and practice rather that finding explicit footing at the behest of the majority.

The state of things…

Adam MuirheadAdam-Muirhead

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.

I discussed the fact that we still have our professionally qualified status and that there are ways to develop this in collaboration to ensure, going forwards, it is fit for purpose.

On another point, public perception and the perception of our non-youth work colleagues has an understandable impact on our own perceived value and self-worth as professionals.  Maybe being professional is more tied up with the recognition from others than our egos would care to admit sometimes.

My parting thoughts were for the ability of the IYW to be a home for youth work and youth workers. The home that the NYA was never mandated to be.  We can run public-facing campaigns that address the above point – altering the public perception of youth work might assist us in our quest;

Youth workers as the teachers at the school of hard knocks and the professors at the University of Life.

If the public could relate to those messages, the profession and the professionals within it might be more resilient.

More discussion…

The general feeling in the room seemed to be that the building of professional structures including codes of ethics can have the effect of constricting and girding and narrowing the focus of youth work.  Our abilities to be autonomous and responsive can be limited and the inherent accountability to some higher authority feels at odds with our political/radical sensibilities.  I tend to agree with the sentiment and will commit now to vigilance around the IYW assuming power and maintaining accountability.

The future…

Janet Batsleer

Janet-BatsleerJanet 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.

Tony Taylor suggested that a significant number within youth work – but far from all – have welcomed the imposition of order upon the unruly world of informal practice with things like Every Child Matters.

* 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.

We ended on the point that in education settings, current available placements aren’t reflecting the types of work that is being lectured on.  We had examples of where one worker was not allowed to do 1:2:1 work in their placement as it was “a child protection risk”…


All in all a very interesting and insightful day.  Thanks to In Defence for hosting and I look forward to the annual conference on 8th April.










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