The Recognition of Youth Work is Long Overdue

  • Youth work is not a professionalised career

  • There are no national pay scales, pensions or terms of employment

  • Youth workers provide the most comprehensive out-of-hours service in the state

William Priestley

One of the fundamental challenges facing youth work in Ireland today is the lack of accreditation. It is one of the few, if not only, professions in the country where practitioners can literally certify their own title. There is no national body overseeing the vocation, nor is any standardised diploma or degree expected of job applicants. Many of the title’s distinguishing merits remain undefined, with the result that it is often assumed by any person who has worked in any capacity with youth. This situation is almost without parallel. Many of us have given our time to help a school-going relative or friend, yet this experience would never be considered tantamount to a Higher Diploma in Education or grounds to present oneself as a de facto teacher. Much to the detriment of the standing of youth work, however, this is exactly what happens on a daily basis.

Youth work means different things to different people. To many of those far removed from the field it is a blurry mix of playing pool and supervision. To others it is a well-meaning, but ultimately flawed, attempt to stem the tide of anti-social behaviour. To others still, it offers an invaluable opportunity of empowerment and possibility for young people. The scope of youth work is immense and not every young person engaged is ‘at risk’ or from a particular background. In many instances, youth workers simply offer alternatives to the boredoms and temptations synonymous with growing up.

Irish youth work has been considerably influenced by developments in Britain and has its origins in a custodial type provision. The Reverend Arthur Sweatman, one of the first pioneers of youth work, spoke of lads and young men having 'special wants and dangers'. Initial programmes were designed to effectively socialise young people so as to become upstanding and responsible members of society. Today the provision of youth services can be divided into two broad areas: mainstream youth work, which seeks to meet needs common to all young people, and targeted youth work for those who require additional support.

Slow Progress

The Youth Act (2001) sought to provide a statutory framework for youth work in Ireland. Under the legislation the National Youth Work Advisory Committee (NYWAC) assumed the role of advisor to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as well as responsibility for drawing up The National Youth Development Plan; and the VEC’s role was formalised as the mainstay of localised state support for youth work. The Act also offered a definition of youth work strongly aligned with ‘non-formal education’: in other words, an educational and developmental process based on young people’s active and voluntary participation.

Critics of this particular interpretation highlight the manner in which youth empowerment had been neglected, specifically the notion that youth work should aim to engage with wider society and bring about social change. Such pro-action would go a long way to promoting a broader community acceptance of young people, especially as demonisation and alienation of youth—particularly in urban settings—is so prevalent.

Ten years on, the definition of youth work practitioners remains as nebulous as ever. Removed from the public domain where there is little discernable understanding of the unique blend of skills and traits needed to be an effective youth worker, there is also a dearth of national structures. There is neither an equivalent to the Teachers’ Council of Ireland, nor a corresponding qualification to the Higher Diploma in Education stipulated for employment. A framework to amalgamate relevant third level credits is also absent. While plans for a ‘Validation Body for Youth Work Training’ were included in the National Youth Work Development Plan 2003-2007 (Annex 3), progress has been painfully slow. The NYWAC has not met in over two years. For a profession that works so intensely with minors, this rate of progress is all the more regrettable.

Public Perception

It could be argued that someone employed as a youth worker in County Limerick has a diametrically different role to that of a youth worker in Dublin and that it is simply not possible to compare the two experiences. To a large extent this is true. The demands made of an effective and energetic youth worker are almost without parallel. One employed in an urban setting may be supporting young people facing the challenges of environmental decay, class and ethnic conflict, overcrowding, delinquency, criminality and social disorganisation; while his or her counterpart in a rural location may be engaging young people battling the problems of inaccessibility, social isolation and the lack of the most basic services and facilities. It is, however, precisely because the breadth of responsibility is so wide that intensive preparation and training is required. In many instances, a youth worker bears the roles of teacher, social worker, counsellor, life coach and, often for those working in targeted areas, role model.

There is a major disconnect between the perceptions of the Oireacthas and the challenges on the ground. Mainstream youth work must be resourced: targeted youth work must be systematic; and youth workers must be adequately prepared.  The realities of a 21st century Ireland where neglect, criminality, hopelessness and drug abuse, to name but a few, are visited on an already marginalised community of young people are purposely hidden away. They are often traumatic to deal with and a frightening contrast to the realm of middle class suburbia. Social workers are unavailable after 5pm or on the weekends in most of the country; most educators are even less accessible; and community Gardai, where they do exist, are stretched to the limit. With this in mind, it seems all the more critical that youth workers, who are often the most constant of all service providers, and whose burnout rate is frighteningly high, are left without recognition or association. In order to serve the best interests of young people around the country, youth work needs a framework of accreditation and with that, state recognition of the profession.


As published in the Sunday Times, Jan 2016