Leicester, England – While a movement to help youths earn various forms of credentials is growing in the United States, a similar movement in England is producing some worthwhile results but has stirred a heated debate among youth workers.
The divide was summed up by Vince Attwood, a youth worker at an arts program in this central England city of some 300,000. “For some young people who have never achieved anything, a certificate and an award ceremony are very useful. But there’re others who have no respect for all that stuff at all.”
Youth work, with its traditions of informality and voluntary engagement, is increasingly expected to show evidence of its impact through defined, measurable outcomes, just as in the United States. Here, one of those outcomes is getting youth various forms of accreditation.
The term is used here to mean any of a wide range of awards that require evidence of some level of achievement and are endorsed by some form of specialist or educational body. These might include certificates in skills such as canoeing or sports coaching, or programs such as the Youth Achievement Awards, which encourage young people to take responsibility for selecting, planning and leading activities for themselves and their peers. Supporters claim expanding the use of accreditation ensures that youth work is purposeful and doesn’t sink into just supporting unstructured leisure activity.
Youth work has long contained elements of certification, from Scout merit badges to certificates for specific job skills. The controversy stems from pressure from the national government, which provides much of the funding for youth work, to reach certification targets.
Since 2002, the government has expected local councils (local governments), to report their progress toward having 30 percent of young people in contact with their youth services achieve “accredited outcomes.” This requirement was recently removed, in part because of objections from the field, but many local councils still use this approach to measure their impact.
For some, this is simply acknowledgment that youth work must be accountable for the public funds it receives – echoing the movement within the United States for government-funded programs to be able to show results that can be independently verified.
Dissenting voices call this “the very antithesis of the youth work process,” arguing that youth work can’t be measured by the number of certificates awarded. Some say the pressure to meet the targets has resulted in agencies issuing certificates that are worthless or were not actually earned.
The accreditation movement has also forced youth workers to engage more with the jargon and institutions of formal education. Increasingly these “accredited outcomes” gained through youth programs are expected to meet the standards of the nation’s Qualification and Curriculum Development Agency, a national government agency that sets the national school curriculum and associated tests, assessments and examinations. That way, proponents say, the certificates can help to give young people access to further achievement through formal and vocational education at college.
It’s hard to come up with wide-scale quantitative evidence of the impact of different forms of accreditation, but in 2009, the University of Teeside reported on a study of the Youth Achievement Awards, which are taken by some 20,000 young people every year. [Youth Achievement Awards is a program through which out-of-school work with peers can earn a credential.] Researchers said there was “strong evidence to show that YAAs support young people in making positive life choices and transitions to adulthood.” Typically, young people were more engaged with the learning process than they were in school, felt well supported by youth workers and reported improved life and employability skills. “Accreditation brings real benefits to the participants and alumni of the program in employment terms,” concludes the report.
Pros and cons
Youth work consultant Wendy Flint, who has worked with England’s National Youth Agency to help local councils meet the target, believes the development of accreditation helps to protect youth work approaches at a time when youth workers are increasingly expected to form part of integrated teams with others, such as social workers and youth justice workers.
“It’s about trying to raise the profile of what it is that youth workers can do,” she explains. “Youth workers can talk about youth work for hours, but often in a way which makes no sense to others. Every other profession has a way of recording and describing the impact they made. We didn’t.”
The Avon Tyrrell Youth Achievement Foundation in Hampshire, southern England, uses the Youth Achievement Awards to work with young people who are not progressing well in school. They can choose to attend the Foundation two days a week, working with a youth worker to set themselves a series of challenges, which might start with simply controlling their behavior and then perhaps progress to sports skills or running a small community activity.
Head of the foundation Nick Armitage-Smith says that much of the learning goes “under the radar,” and that assessment is low-key – making use of peer assessment, photos and videos, as well as written records.
Karl, 14, seems not overly bothered by having to record his progress: “You don’t do work – well you do work, but not maths, English and that. We do sheets at the end of the day saying what we’ve learned and achieved.
“I’m much better behaved here,” he adds. “The kids are fine. At school, I was always getting into fights.”
For some, though, the movement betrays youth work principles. A campaign group called In Defence of Youth Work has held public meetings and agitated in the news media to protect what it calls “emancipatory and democratic youth work.” An open letter that launched the group last year called on people to question “the insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalized and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.”
How it works
So how does this pressure work in practice? Consider the observations of Attwood at Soft Touch Arts, a Leicester-based group that works extensively with young people who are commonly designated as NEET – Not in Education, Employment or Training.
Attwood says that getting young people through accreditation is a huge issue, because his funders demand it. “If you don’t put it [accreditation] into your bids, you probably won’t get the money. So we as an organization engage with it, but underneath I’m not happy. I think it’s often superficial.”
The pressure to hit targets, and to risk using accreditation inappropriately, can be even higher within the so-called statutory sector – the youth clubs and projects that each council runs. One youth worker (who asked not to be named) says he has witnessed senior youth workers within his program falsify young people’s portfolios to ensure awards are gained. “They are forced to, because the process doesn’t work, but they have to do it. It breeds a culture of dishonesty,” he says.
When someone puts in the effort to complete an accreditation, Attwood says, that effort is not always reciprocated in the form of recognition with employers or society as a whole. He says the old-fashioned relationship-building and networking support provided by youth workers can be of more importance.
He points to a talented, creative young person he has worked with – an ex-offender with no qualifications and no interest in obtaining an Arts Award, the standard low-level qualification. With support from Soft Touch staff, he was accepted by his local college, where he achieved a significant, nationally recognized qualification and is desperate to go to a larger, national university.
“I guarantee if he’d turned up at college with an Arts Award but without our backing, he wouldn’t have got in,” says Attwood.
The youth worker who asked not to be named takes a similar view. He ran a disc jockey project that made a remarkable impact on a group of nervous, low-achieving young people who became competent and confident performers of DJ sets in front of 300 of their peers. “The trouble is, the bureaucrats don’t want that kind of evidence,” he says. “They think that’s all very nice, but they want a piece of paper.”
When the agency moved to make the DJs get accredited awards (requiring the kind of extra tasks and assessment the young people associated with school), the worker says that their interest dried up.
What’s the alternative to this system? Attwood wants funders and local authorities to trust professionals to know when and with whom accreditation will work, and not to force targets on them. He says the message is starting to get through: “Some funders are now saying ‘OK, as long you have accreditation built in as an option, we won’t put numbers on it.’ ”
The National Youth Agency convenes the Network for Accrediting Young People’s Achievement, made up of youth organizations seeking to promote the value of the kind of accredited awards gained through youth work. Sue Quinn, national program manager at the NYA, said the accreditation movement won’t distort youth work if it is done with a focus on the benefits to the young person, rather than an obsession with issuing certificates.
“Showering young people with certificates and being shoe-horned into accreditation programs that have little relevance to their lives and aspirations will only serve to devalue the awards in the eyes of future employers, educators and the young people themselves,” she says.
Contact: Soft Touch www.soft-touch.org.uk; In Defence of Youth Work, www.indefenceofyouthwork.org.uk/; Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, www.qcda.gov.uk/.
Tim Burke, a former journalist with the National Youth Agency, is a writer based in Leicester, England whose specialty is youth work. He can be reached at email@example.com.