Student Youth Work Online Home | Theory | Placement Plus! | Talk | Contribute | Contact Us! | Links


Title Youth Workers as Professionals?
Author Sean Harte
Key Concepts Youth Work, Definitions and Models, Empowerment, Community Work, Education



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.

What 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 `[1] that the professionalís primary motive is to service the public, not money or power and [2] 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:

[1] it is difficult to pinpoint a body of knowledge which regulates youth and community work

[2] the relative lack of trained and qualified youth workers within the service world wide

[3] 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 al, 1990).

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.

Professionalism and training

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 emphasis).

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:

`the 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.

The 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 chosen role.

The 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, Chap11).

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.

Youth 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

References & Recommended Reading

Ahmed, Y. and Kirby, R. (1988) `Training the Professional Worker` Ch.11 in in Jeffs, T and Smith, M. (1988) Welfare and Youth Work Practice Hong Kong: Macmillan

Baugh, W. E. (1973) Introduction To Social and Community Services London: Macmillan Press

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (1968) Community Work and Social Change: a Report on Training London:Longman

Cattermole, F., Airs, M. and Grisbrook, D. (1987) Managing Youth Services Great Britain: Longman

Davies, B (1988) `Professionalism or Trade Unionism?` Ch.10 in Jeffs, T and Smith, M. (1988) Welfare and Youth Work Practice Hong Kong: Macmillan

Hardy, J. (1981) Values In Social Policy: Nine Contradictions London: RKP

Jeffs, T. (1979) Young People and the Youth Service London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Jeffs, T and Smith, M. (1987) Youth Work London: Macmillan Press

HMSO (1960) The Youth Service In England and Wales (`The Albermarle Report`) London: HMSO

Middlesbrough Borough Council Youth Service (1998) `M` Power. A Way Forward for Young People in Middlesbrough Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough Borough Council Youth Service

Osei-Hwedie, K., Mwansa, L-K. and Mufune, P. (1990) Youth and Community Work Practice Zambia: Mission Press

Popple, K. (1995) Analysing Community Work. Its Theory and Practice Great Britain: Open University Press

Reitman, Sandford W. (1977) Foundations of Education for Prospective Teachers Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon

Roche, J and Tucker, S. (1997) Youth in Society Wiltshire, Great Britain: Open University Press/Sage

Rosseter, B. (1987) `Youth Workers as Educators` Ch.4 in Jeffs, T and Smith, M. Youth Work London: Macmillan Press

Smith, M. (1993) Youth or Adult? The First Five Years London: Good News Press/YMCA National College

Watkins, O. (1970) Professional Training for Youth Work. The Development of Methods Used at the National College for the Training of Youth Leaders 1960-70 Leicester: Youth Service Information Centre

Site Links

SYWO Informal Education



Click Here!