ďIs it important that youth & community workers be
recognised as members of a profession?Ē
I will attempt to answer the
question `is it important for youth and community workers to be recognised as
members of a profession?` by first analysing what is meant by the terms
`profession` and `professional`. I shall then consider the role played by a
youth and community worker and examine the impact that recognition as a member
of a profession may have upon this function and upon the groups they serve. I
will conclude by summing up the benefits and negative aspects of the recognition
of the professionalisation of youth and community work and giving my assessment
of these effects.
is a profession?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary
describes a profession as a `vocation or calling, esp. one that involves some
branch of advanced learning or science`. Reitman (1977) discusses a
laypersonís perception of a professional as a person engaged in work
activities involving a high degree of skill. These descriptions are obviously
very broad and do not help to define what makes a professional in order to
discuss its merits within youth work. What it does show, however is that the
term professional is more complex to define than it may first seem, and
individuals view the term in very different ways.
Reitman (1977, p.70) goes on to
cite William Hicks and Frank Blackington as providing a more serviceable
description of a profession, having at least two distinguishing characteristics.
His synopsis is ` that the professionalís primary motive is to service the
public, not money or power and  this service is based upon the
professionalís specialised knowledge and means of verifying that knowledge for
other members of society`.
Davies (Jeffs & Smith,
1988, p.206) further enlightens on the term professional by citing Sidebottom as
noting `Ö. no group becomes professional by making claims, Status is earned`.
He goes on to spell out how this could occur, with specific regard to youth
workers, by encapsulating the professional ethos of the period (1963) and
emphasising that youth workers need:
To be `carefully selected`;
To undergo `a particular kind of education`;
To develop their `professional ethics`;
To extend `the body of knowledge on which all [their] work is based`; and
To have `supervision available, especially in their first full-time year
in post, to preserve and deepen their trained skill.
Issues of professionalism with
regard to youth and community work have been further discussed and analysed and
the ultimate question posed, `Is youth and community work a profession`?
However, no clear answer is furnished. The difficulties in answering such a
question are offered as follows:
is difficult to pinpoint a body of knowledge which regulates youth and community
the relative lack of trained and qualified youth workers within the service
youth and community workís position as a fringe topic of the social sciences.
However it is acknowledged that
the evolution of youth work skills and techniques allow youth work unique
demands, problems and characteristics. Youth and community work has moulded a
unique body of knowledge from the physical and social sciences. This and its
practice based on considerations of ethics and value, it is argued, increasingly
emphasise the professional nature of youth and community work (Osei-Hwedie et
So one could claim that the
prime requisites for a youth and community worker to be recognised as member of
a profession would involve their recruitment/selection and training. As
professionals they must work to a specific code of ethics and expand the
knowledge base of themselves and others.
As stated by Ahmad and Kirby
(in Jeffs & Smith, 1988, Chap.11) prior to 1939 the majority of youth work
was organised and delivered on a voluntary basis and the little training that
was carried out was done so on an ad hoc
basis and was largely uncoordinated.
The post war period saw a
decline in the number of full-time workers and Ahmad and Kirby
further discuss that `the marginality of youth work` was underlined by
the Ministry of Education annual report for 1952, which commented on the Youth
Service : `Some useful but not
essential work has to be given up` (Ahmad and Kirby ibid. my
It could be argued that the
ensuing depression and panic created by this deterioration of the Youth Service
(Milson, 1970, p.12) and the publication of the Albermarle Report (HMSO, 1960),
which paid particular reference to the training of youth workers, was the
beginning of a move towards youth workerís own desire to be recognised as
professionals. Youth workers required their work to be valued, thus improving
government funding into the Service and increasing job security and development.
The shift towards professionalism was also influenced by media led panic about
young people and the control of adolescent deviance, and the periodís belief
in the welfare state curing social problems via `professional` intervention (Jeffs
& Smith, 1988, Chap.11). Indeed Davies acknowledges the move towards
professionalism in youth work during this period as the second of a three stage
historical cycle, encompassing the 1940ís up to and including the mid-1980ís
(Jeffs & Smith, 1988, Chap.10).
Ahmad and Kirby go on to state
`For the Youth Service and youth worker to have legitimacy it would have to
professionalise. The vehicle for this was to be training` (Jeffs & Smith,
ibid.). To this end a National College was set up in Leicester in 1961,
to enhance the status and credibility of youth work. Citing Owen Watkins, a
member of staff associated with the college as writing:
training for youth work is professional training in that the youth worker can
act professionally. This implies, among other things, certain principle methods
and skills are common, irrespective of personalities and working situations Ö.
it also means that to practice professionally the youth worker must display
certain personal characteristics, such as the ability to plan ahead, express
himself effectively, to exercise emotional control, etc.` (Watkins, 1970 p.8).
So it would seem that the
National College was set up out of necessity in order to legitimise youth work,
is it therefore reasonable to assume that professionalism is a requirement to
legitimise youth work? This perspective is endorsed by Ahmad and Kirby whilst
reflecting `The National College played a central role in creating a relative
legitimacy for youth leaders as a profession` (Jeffs & Smith, 1988, p.221).
Training at the National
College was much influenced by the Albermarle Reportís commentary on the
workers social and pastoral role, as well as its emphasis on `helping young
people grow to maturity, to make choices, to find a meaningful scale of values,
to develop satisfying personal relationships` (Watkins, 1970, p.9).
However the difficulties
encountered by this `professionalisation` did not go unnoticed as Ahmad and
Kirby (ibid.) go on to comment on the
obsession with the ideology of professionalism deflecting from the collegeís
ability to enable students to have a comprehensive and critical view of the
world. Furthermore citing Jeffs (1979), by emphasising a `superior professional
status` as its uppermost objective this ethos began to distance the full-time
from the part-time workers.
youth and community worker and professional identity
Tucker (Roche & Tucker,
1997, Chap.9) describes a concept of working with the young as `playing the
game` (citing Baden-Powell, 1909). Within this concept he describes the `myriad
of criticisms` which concern young peopleís lifestyles, attitudes and
ambitions and the varied sources of these criticisms including media,
government, religious organisations, parents etc. Tucker argues that youth
workers, a term he uses to describe those involved with the health, welfare and
education of young people, are required to develop a professional identity in
order to respond to `the game`. That is, in order to work with `conditions of
existence which impact on the lives of young people`, such as unemployment and
homelessness, the youth worker must be professional with regard to social
policy, training, work priorities and visions. Thus creating a skilled and
knowledgeable work force with a sound code of practice and developing
professional work methods.
He pursues the relative
influences that social policy, contemporary priorities and practices, roles,
relationships, expectations and the influence of training have on the
development of a `professional identity`. He concludes by stating that key
social figures such as trainers, academics and politicians have the major
influence on how those who work with young people should behave. Thus, his
argument infers his belief that youth workers are dictated towards a
`professional identity`, by the society and environment surrounding them,
effectively eliminating the individuals choice over professionalism within their
role of the youth and community worker
Popple informs us that
community work is a profession, however `not a profession like any other` (1995,
p.5). He describes the profession as dedicated to increasing the expertise of
non-professionals and increasing the ability of people in situations of
disadvantage to take control over their lives. This concept is also recognised
by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1968) who define community work as `a
method of dealing with problems of social change`.
The `youth service` is made up
of the `many local authorities and voluntary organisations which provide
informal education and social activities for young people` (Baugh, 1973, p.166).
This message is reinforced by a youth work policy document issued earlier this
year by my own local authority which states `Youth work offers a wide range of
informal education activities in the community which provide young people with
opportunities for their personal and social development` (Middlesbrough Borough
Council Youth Service, 1998). This is all very well, but what is informal
education and is it fundamental to the role of a youth and community worker?
The most important element of
informal education is that an individualís participation is entirely voluntary
and based on elements of mutual trust, respect and understanding. A less
significant contributory factor is the ability for informal education to occur
virtually anywhere, despite having particular aims. Though these aims are
organised, time frames are generally very flexible (Smith, 1993).
So it is argued that the
primary function of a youth and community worker is education and learning, in
one form or another. Indeed Cattermole, Airs and Grisbrook define the Youth
Service as `a structural arrangement of voluntary and statutory agencies
designed to encourage the personal development and social education of young
people by a process of experiential learning` (Cattermole et al, 1987). This
argument is also pursued by Rosseter and is validated by his statement `First
and foremost, youth workers are educators` (Jeffs & Smith, 1987 p.52).
This leads me to the look at
other `educators` and their professionalism. Teachers, lecturers and trainers
are all educators, some of a more formal style than others. These groups are
classed as members of a profession, and as such may be granted membership of a
professional body such as the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) upon
verification of their academic ability and professional status. This
organisation seeks to improve the standing of its members by facilitating a
collective approach to their work and promoting specific values and ethics
through its commentaries and publications.
Banks describes workers as
`practitioners with particular values, skills and responsibilities relating to
the job they have to do`. She explains that practitioners use the term
`professionals` to emphasise the special expertise and duties, which are part of
their occupational role (Roche & Tucker, 1997, Chap. 24). She also
highlights that the narrow definition some attach to this term may work towards
the exclusion of many unqualified and voluntary youth workers, reiterating the
problem highlighted earlier by Ahmad and Kirby (Jeffs & Smith, 1988,
This, however, is not the only
negative aspect of the professionalisation of youth and community work. Davies
(1988) informs us of a 1972 article by youth worker Robert Hamilton, who
explicitly attacked professionalism claiming it would `kill youth work`. He
claims that the money, status and power would also induce the `weak` being
abandoned, as workers identify with the `powerful`. Thus it is claimed that with
professionalism workers distance themselves from the young people and
communities they hope to serve and therefore although the professionís status
is improved its effectiveness will decline.
and community worker ethics and values
So we have explored the
professionalism of the youth and community worker with regard to their education
and training and the role which they carry out. It is also fundamental to the
concept of a professional that we explore the code of ethics by which the youth
and community worker stands. There is something about a professional ethos,
which makes the individual think and behave in a particular way. If we look, for
example, at doctors we see that they swear to a professional code of practice,
the Hippocratic Oath. However this code is not a `black and white` ethical code
which ensures all doctors will act in the same responsible manner. On the
contrary, there are many shades of grey creating a flux by which an
individualís own personal ethic and moral values will interact with and
impinge upon their professional code of practice.
For example take a Christian
youth worker dealing with a young person and an issue of sexual relationships.
The workerís personal morals and religious beliefs will have an impact on the
way they deal with this issue, which could be altogether different with the
stance a non-Christian worker may take. However it is hoped that the
`professionalism` within the worker will allow them to look at what they feel is
right for the young person.
Is it important that youth
& community workers be recognised as members of a profession? We have looked
at what is meant by a profession and professionalism and have seen that amongst
the benefits it brings are a level of legitimacy, status and power. We have seen
that the traits of a profession can be seen as:
Skill based on a theoretical knowledge base
A high level provision of training
Possible organisation and membership of a professional body (perhaps with
academic entry requirements)
Adherence to a professional code of ethics
Looking purely at these traits
it is difficult to argue that these attributes would not indeed benefit youth
and community work by legitimising our work and showing it has a sound
theoretical and practical foundation.
We have also viewed an argument
implying that by becoming professional the youth and community worker will
become distanced from the communities and individuals with which they work,
ultimately leading to a reduction in the quality of their work. However, is not
the notion that all workers will
become less effective through a process of more thorough training, adherence to
a professional code of ethics and collective professional membership quite
contrary? Would it not be the duty of our trainers and professional peers to
prevent this? As individuals are we not capable of perceiving this process and
being proactive with, and on behalf of, our community and youth groups in order
to ensure the continued quality of service?
We have also seen that by being
recognised as professionals we create barriers and obstructions between the
part-time or voluntary and full-time worker who currently work together as a
team. Are these barriers insurmountable, or is their recognition merely the
first step to overcoming them? If youth and community workers, be they
full-time, part-time or voluntary, focus upon their primary objectives can they
not work together towards their greater goals? As Hardy (1981, p59.) states in
his discussion of a professional ethos ` the professional does not have to be
bound by bureaucratic rules to do his job. He has, hopefully, already absorbed
the message`. Are we, therefore, not individual enough to use our professional
knowledge and skills in the best interest of our clients.
In conclusion I feel that in
order for the work the youth and community worker carries out to be recognised,
accepted and valued, the road to professionalism may well loom winding before
us. In order that the youth and community worker may not only survive, but
thrive, their contribution to society must be acknowledged. Only with a move
towards a more professional face can we hope to achieve this.
© Sean Harte & Student
Youth Work Online 2000