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.










Youth Work Week 2015


This year, Youth Work Week has given me a chance to reflect and take stock on our profession, on its past, present and future.

Youth Work has a rich history, dating back well over 100 years and its endurance is not only testament to those people who have kept the torch burning over the years but also to its necessity as an educational practice.  Often misunderstood and misrepresented, Youth Work only gained solid professional footing following the Albemarle Report in 1960 which led to new youth club buildings, mass professional training programmes and the foundation for local authority-run Youth Services up and down the land.

Successive neglectful social policy decisions and a lack of purchase to statutory duties is what many would agree has meant that through this drastic programme of austerity Youth Work has suffered. However, some amazing developments have come out of this adversity; publications on Valuing Youth Work from the NYA, the Benefits of Youth Work from Unite the Union, the Youth Manifesto from Choose Youth and ‘This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice’ by In Defence of Youth Work, and more recently, ‘A Real and Present Danger: The Youth Service Crisis’ by Pete Sims, to name a few.  We’ve also seen huge lobbies of parliament and London Rallies organised through Choose Youth.  We’ve attempted to make the necessary changes to legislation through the tabling of an Early Day Motion that was supported by 66 MPs, an online petition that gathered over 6 and a half thousand signatures and even proposed a Youth Services Bill.  We now also have a Centre for Youth Impact, initially funded by the Cabinet Office in order to help the youth sector shout loud and proud about who we are and what we do.

In the middle of these difficult times we also started a national Institute for Youth Work, a membership body for those who use Youth Work in their work or volunteering or simply support Youth Work and want to contribute their knowledge and experience to the professional discussions surrounding the profession.  Some said this would be the worst time to start such a body because so many youth workers are losing their jobs.  Others said this is exactly why it’s the best time to launch an Institute for Youth Work – to show solidarity, galvanise our identity and organise!

As a membership body the IYW needs its members to be the driving force behind discussions and action – it is currently run by an elected Council from the membership who are all volunteering their time and energy for the benefit of the wider members.  It is in this spirit that we ask Youth Workers around the country (and indeed the world!) to take up the challenge that is spreading the word about who we are and what we are doing in spite of our challenges.  It is using the #YWW15 hashtag, posting films and writing blogs that help us to assert our worth to the rest of the world.  We can’t forget the desperate needs of those in our society that are underdogs and need our support to achieve all that they can with their lives.  We need to remember the first youth workers we may have met as youths ourselves and talk about what they did for us; we need to hold up best practice and shout about successes.

It is a time to remember that youth work was born out of social action and that inside of all great Youth Workers is a rebel that is ready to get radical if needs be in order to protect a profession that they know is needed.  We need to create the future for ourselves.

With that, do enjoy your Youth Work Week 2015 but please, please use your Youth Work Week 2015!


Adam Muirhead

Vice Chair

Institute for Youth Work

Data with Soul: Story-telling in Youth Work

Just a few months ago a new website was launched by the team at ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ which seeks to support the “capturing of our practice through a thought-out methodical approach” called ‘Storytelling in Youth Work’.

logo-idywThe initial idea of promoting storytelling for youth work came from a national IDYW conference in 2010 where the storytelling workshops prompted the book, ‘This is Youth Work: Stories from Practice’.  The website has now been primarily developed as a resource for sharing the experience that has come from the workshops that the IDYW team have run.

The site gives a strong account of the benefits of using storytelling and for anyone interested in using their tried and tested workshops it offers support to replicate sessions, or indeed translate them for use in the work setting.  They suggest it could be used in:

  • direct work with young people, including with young volunteers;
  • organisational development through staff training, supervision and monitoring;
  • the teaching and assessment of youth and community work students in higher education;
  • and project evaluation.

It is great to see the extolling of the benefits that come with developing strong narratives around youth work.  It surely has a role to play in making the profession more robust in the face of the testing times that the austerity agenda has forced upon us.

Stories from our practice book

There is an admission that the term ‘storytelling’ lends itself to a more quaint notion of fun anecdotes or to only capturing the best bits, to “uncritically embellish a worker’s or an organisation’s credentials” as they put it.  In fact, the team have provided a good account of the limitations and caveats that come with the use of this methodology and hold it up for us to play with and find out about for ourselves.  If you still have doubts then you will find it also provides solid case studies where youth work practice has been unpicked in order to highlight the skills involved and the unique nature of the educational processes at play.

I, for one, am very welcoming of this new site and the angle it offers on the impact measurement agenda.  It’s my feeling that the idea of communicating youth work’s benefits through a narrative sits better at ease with workers than generating stats and figures and does more credit to youth work processes.  And after all, when you consider that evidence is given to courts in the form of cross-examined stories – why wouldn’t this methodology be robust enough for youth work’s funders?  Perhaps the bigger question here is: would funders and governments care to listen to our stories?

Find the site at http://story-tellinginyouthwork.com/

youthworkable logo clear


The Participation Eco-system for Youth & Community Work

Over the last couple of years I have been working in a deprived estate in Brighton, UK, where I  am required to work in partnership to help co-ordinate youth work provision across the neighbourhood.  When I started I spent some time scoping the existing provision and quickly recognised a few things:

  • All that was on offer was centre-based youth work
  • Attendance at existing projects was dwindling
  • The same young people had been engaged in the same projects for years
  • The young people had little interest in/influence over their projects’ direction

These were symptoms of a ‘participation eco-system’ that was out of whack.

The participation eco-system is a model that illustrates the functions of a symbiotic and harmonious youth work system in a community setting, in the context of youth participation.

participation ecosystem 2

The participation eco-system proposes that it is not enough to have just one or two levels alone.

The model categorises different types of youth work in three different levels depending on the levels of ‘participation’ required by the young people involved: ‘High participation’, ‘Mid-range participation’ and ‘low-level participation’. For example, youth forums usually need a lot of input, focus and dedication by the youth members, therefore would be categorised as ‘High participation’, in contrast to simply rocking up to an open community event – ‘Low-level participation’.

It’s this model’s assertion that all three different levels of participation work need to be in place in a community in order for the work to thrive.  In the case of the neighbourhood in Brighton, the existing services were only offering mid-range participation projects, i.e. centre-based clubs.  Far from damning the great work that can happen in buildings, I’m saying that without the other complimenting parts you miss the opportunity to inspire great things from happening through the mélange.

FNSHLow-level Participation

Back in Brighton, two years on we have redistributed resources and have mobile, detached and outreach work happening, meeting good numbers on street and feeding young people into other projects.

Mid-range Participation

The choice of youth club or nothing is no more; through the week we now have sports clubs, arts groups, a young journalistic group, dance and a bike-maintenance social enterprise.

High Participation

wild park youth festival 2014At the high end we have formed a youth group that raises it’s own money for holiday activities for the rest of the community.  Last year they raised £5k through their own bank account for a summer programme and ‘youth festival’.


The point is that the vibrancy, vitality and variety of the projects now on offer is being fuelled by a healthy interdependence between projects.  They feed into each other, cross-fertilising and each reaping the rewards of others’ success.  By offering projects pitched at differing participation levels we are working with greater numbers of young people who join in at whatever level they are comfortable with at that time.  Of course, it helps too when all the moving parts are communicating with each other well, but that’d be the subject of another blog post!

Projects like Participation Works do a fantastic job in building youth workers’ skills to advocate for participative rights of young people and tell us how important that high-end work is.  But who is out there campaigning for the importance of low-level participation work? Are we, as workers, sometimes missing a trick by keeping our offer too narrow?

If you’d like more information about my organisation and it’s community development approaches in its work with young people you can find our website here.

Youth Worker UK

For a while now I’d been wondering whether the Youth Work world had been lacking something.  I’d been struck with just how disparate we all were when it came to searching for youth work organisations and how difficult it can be to navigate around organisations if you don’t know who or what you’re specifically looking for.  Where could I go for resources? Who would I tap into for the latest news or campaigns?

The result of my pondering was Youth Worker UK:

Youth Worker UK front page

The trouble now is whether this was:

a) A nice idea but executed badly

b) A rubbish idea in the first place, or

c) Fantastic, well done mate!

I have no idea at all.  So it’s out there now and if anyone would like to try to use it and feed back I’d be interested to hear your views.

Currently it’s hosted by Wordpess.com so it’s nice and free! But if this takes off it might be nice to build a CMS that could do some really clever things and not just list sites but stream their latest news/updates etc straight to one page;  People could contribute to a resource library or put up their own organisations to amass a solid database of organisations that are out there.

I’d also be really keen to hear from anyone who knows of things like this that might already exist (and be doing it better!).

Many thanks,

youthworkable logo clear


The shaky foundations of online youth work

Youth work in its various forms is always mediated by the environment in which it takes place – different styles of work are required depending on where it is happening.  The traditional building-based settings of youth clubs have endured since the inception of the profession and street-based detached, mobile and outreach work forms the staple for many brilliant projects up and down the land.  However, in recent years young people in their millions are choosing to socialise somewhere new – online.  With social networking arguably being the fastest growing online activity among young people (O’Neill et al., 2011) youth work has needed to adapt with the times and be present in this new environment – but has it?

facebook likeyYouth Work and Social Networking’ published by the National Youth Agency in 2008, and produced by Tim Davies and Pete Cranston is the only published research available on the uptake of social networking in youth work. It is also, sadly, outdated.  At the time it raised serious issues facing the profession and showed great foresight for the potential of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in our work.  It showed that in 2008 only 29% of youth workers were using any form of social media.  My more recent research into the youth workforce’s use of Facebook alone showed that only 29.3% are now not using it (Muirhead, unpublished.).

The recent research (ibid.) conducted with over 100 youth professionals in the UK, as part of a professional enquiry through the University of Brighton, presented a picture of youth workers as keen to recognise and embrace the benefits of online social networking (94% agreed there are benefits to using Facebook, specifically).  The results also showed that much of the workforce is conducting its online youth work on some rather shaky foundations. Popular themes such as a ‘lack of policy/written guidance’ on its use ‘lack of managerial willing/interest’, ‘lack of training’ and ‘lack of managerial support’ clearly suggest that the issue of supporting youth workers to feel safe and confident whilst using Facebook professionally is an urgent matter for the industry.

The research has also uncovered that many youth work practitioners are using Facebook in their work without the knowledge of their managers.  Some respondents even seem to be directly contravening orders from their management regarding the use of Facebook; for example, one research participant explained that their professional Facebook use ‘was under the radar as we were told it would be shut down if discovered’.  Others are evidently receiving unclear messages, one participant stating that their organisation’s policy is a ‘bit of a grey area at the moment so I use my personal Facebook account to connect through’.  Another acknowledges the risks but admits to doing it all the same:

…I do feel vulnerable – the only policy available will probably stop me from using it […], as opposed to allow me to do this whilst protecting me. (However, I, and a lot of other workers still do it! – because it’s SO effective).

The delay in properly discussing and developing policy has left these youth workers in legally unsound positions relating to their employment; should something go wrong, there is a significantly greater risk of being unsupported.  It is my suggestion that service managers take some time to get themselves down off the fence, where they may have been waiting for social networking to blow over, and start better supporting their staff before something goes horribly wrong.

Safeguarding Staff, Safeguarding Young People, or Neither

So why has progress been slow in the world of online youth work to better support the workforce?  It would seem that the main concern is around safeguarding. The recent research with over 100 youth professionals (Muirhead, unpublished) demonstrates that this and related issues are still prevalent and a real worry for practitioners, specifically when using Facebook.

Youth workers' issues with Facebook

These results clearly show that issues remain for today’s youth work practitioners and managers and that the insecurities that have arisen around safeguarding issues in online youth work (as raised by Davies and Cranston, 2008) are persistent.

This begs another question though; are youth professionals worried about staff abusing the boundaries themselves (plenty of opportunities lie within other forms of youth work for this to happen, if it is to happen) or are they more concerned with trusting staff to effectively manage and deal with safeguarding and boundary issues that arise with young people whilst using Facebook?;  Davies and Cranston’s 2008 survey found that 90% of youth workers then believed that Youth Work has a “crucial role in supporting young people to navigate the risks of online social networking” (p.16) – we are part of the solution, not the problem.  Either way, it would appear that for many organisations a head-in-the-sand approach is all that can be done for now.


Without clearly articulated and tested policies for social networking with young people many youth workers will be left in the dark, trying to do what’s best for young people and their work, yet presumably left to fall through the cracks in policy should something go awry.

These feel like shaky foundations indeed for online youth work…

If you would like to look at the rest of my research on this subject you can find it available here – the good stuff starts on page 30…  The research results also helped inform this ‘Simple Guide to Digital & Social Media’ by the award winning  Allsorts Youth Project.

The 4 types of challenging behaviour (and how to deal with them)

Dealing with challenging behaviour is something that features regularly in Youth Work (certainly my work!).  It’s been an issue that comes up often with workers and volunteers on their staff development wish lists, and each time it does I go straight to my main man, Rudolf Dreikurs.


cheery looking chap

Dreikurs wrote mostly about classroom behaviour management but I’ve found it translates easily enough.  However, each time I’ve gone to find a straight forward example for Youth Work settings I can only find poor quality scans of photocopies or tables with five or six columns or versions that are obviously about kids in class so I’ve adapted it (below). 4 types of challenging behaviour copy This (below again) is also something that people seem to have found useful as a practical guide of different approaches to verbal challenges, especially in response to offensive language. Responses to offensive language and behaviourAnother model that I’ve found useful in the past has been John Heron’s Six Category Intervention Analysis (1975) which helps to look at different intervention styles.  Without suggesting that one is better than another it can just be helpful to try something different if what you’re currently doing isn’t working.

Six Category Intervention Analysis


I’d be interested to hear if other people use different frameworks and what they think work well.  And any feedback on the above adaptation is very welcome too!