Educational approaches, programmes, curricula, resources and practices in Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales

Education and training for youth workers is different in each country. North Macedonia has only recently started to develop a national education and training framework. In contrast, there are national occupational standards for youth workers in Estonia, Ireland and Wales, and Ireland and Wales are notable for having independent professional endorsement of their youth work education and training. 

Despite the differences in frameworks, the content and delivery of education and training for youth workers in Estonia, Ireland and Wales, and that planned for North Macedonia, has important commonalities, with their focus upon learning about, for and through youth work.  This reflects the focus upon university-based education for youth workers, coupled with the experiential learning offered by youth work practice placements, and the common threads that unite youth work across Europe. The examples from Estonia, Ireland and Wales also illustrate how youth workers now operate at different levels (for example, strategic, development, management, and delivery) and also in different settings, such as in youth clubs/centres, schools and online, and therefore require differing levels and different types of competences and knowledge. 

The changing nature of society and of youth work, coupled with moves away from the centre-based, traditional model of youth work towards more targeted and often issue-based work in settings such as schools and employment support services, has demanded new knowledge and competences. In taking on these new roles, youth workers have had to reflect upon their practice, and the competences required by these new roles have led to changes in youth work training curricula and practice placements. This also means that continuing education, training and learning is becoming increasingly important to enable youth workers to specialise and to adapt to new demands and new expectations that can emerge after they have completed their training.   

The key factors for youth work and developing youth work education and training 

The examples from Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales illustrate how youth work education and training should both inform (to enhance practice through, for example, professionalization) and be informed by youth work practice (to ensure its relevance to and utility for practice). Therefore, youth worker education and training needs to balance a number of elements such as:

  • learning about youth work, in order to understand its origins, objectives, values and ethos reflected in, for example, the CoE’s (2016) Youth Work Portfolio’s specific youth work competences, such as relating to “young people as equals” and building “positive, non-judgmental relationships with young people”;
  • learning for youth work, to establish foundations such as a theoretical focus on the sociology of youth and the psychology of adolescence, in order to ensure that youth workers are experts on youth and have a solid understanding of the national and European social-political; material-economic and cultural-discursive contexts in which they and young people operate; competences reflected in, for example, the CoE’s (2016) Youth Work Portfolio, such as those linked to supporting and empowering “young people in making sense of the society they live in”; and 
  • learning through youth work, developing the knowledge and skills, and their application, in practical work with young people, building relationships, developing projects, conducting residentials, and much, much more, exemplified by models like the European Training Strategy competence model (SALTO, n.d) and the CoE’s (2016) Youth Work Portfolio.

Each element is important, but too much focus upon any one risks undermining youth work education and training. As noted above, there is also a need to match levels and types of learning to the differing levels and roles youth workers play as, for example, senior youth workers, youth workers or youth support workers, in different types of settings, with different groups of young people, and with different policy goals in mind. 

As the examples from each country illustrate, the development of effective youth work education and training requires collaboration between the state (and policy makers), the youth work sector and education and training providers. In each country, the development of occupational standards is helping drive and shape the education and training of youth workers, and in Ireland and Wales this has been further developed through professional endorsement. However, this also creates challenges, such as the risk of creating or entrenching divisions between paid youth workers who, increasingly, are required to have professionally endorsed accreditation, and volunteer youth workers, who are not required to do so.  This focus upon the quality assurance of youth worker education and training is complemented by the quality assurance and evaluation of practice, illustrated most strongly by Ireland.

Continuing learning is an important part of youth work education and training. It can help ensure that youth workers develop the skills needed to work in changing contexts and where needed, to develop specialist skills and knowledge.  Because much continuing learning, beyond university based post-graduate degrees, is delivered by youth organisations themselves, as registered by Dunne et al. (2014, p.13), there is a need for greater state involvement, including “external recognition of youth workers skills and competences, based on quality criteria against which skills and competences can be recognised.”  

Looking more broadly, the examples from Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales illustrate how youth work practice and youth work education and training is, to a large extent, determined by the cultural-discursive, socio-political and material-economic context of each country; for example, the increasing status and recognition of youth work has driven, and been driven by, increasing professionalization of youth workers (including, but not limited to, youth work education and training frameworks). The increasing demand for and expectations of youth work and youth workers, from both policy makers and young people, has also contributed to changes to the legal and policy frameworks in each country and in youth work practice. These changes have in turn influenced the resources (most notably funding) which underpin and enable youth work practice and the education and training needed to equip people to do it.

Resources are critical to the development of youth work practice and education and training; for example, much of the initial development of youth work education and training in North Macedonia has been driven by the availability of external, including European, funding, while in Ireland and Wales, as funding increased in the early 2000s, practice and education and training also increased. Conversely, as funding was cut, as was the case after the 2008 economic crisis, so was youth work practice and education and training. In contrast, the importance attached to youth Work in Estonia has helped shield the sector from cuts, and it has continued to thrive, while in Wales there has suddenly been a renewed political interest in youth work, a corresponding increase in resources for the youth work sector, and a resurgence of professional planning for its development.

The changes in the material-economic conditions that followed the 2008 economic crisis (and, indeed, are likely to follow the current Covid-19 crisis), such as the rise in youth unemployment, also increased demand for and expectations of youth work.  These did not, however, always move in the same direction. In Ireland, therefore, while resources were cut, new policy aspirations for youth work emerged, whilst in Wales, the sector retrenched and was increasingly redirected to more targeted work with young people who were not, or who were at risk of not being, in employment, education and training (NEET). Similarly, technological and social changes, such as use of smart phones and the internet, and the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, have driven increasing demands for digital or what has been called “smart” youth work (in an Estonian context) [1]

Youth work practice and youth worker education and training therefore needs to be responsive and agile, able to adapt and change as the cultural-discursive, socio-political and material-economic contexts change, if it is to not only survive, but flourish. The impact of Covid-19 may have been swifter and more sharply felt than other changes, but it is only one of innumerable changes in the world young people live in that youth workers have had to, and will have to, respond to, now and in the future.  As the context changes, the settings in which youth workers operate and the methods they use should change over time; however, youth workers’ principles and values should not; for example, in order to allow any phased return to wider youth work practice (and controlling infection risk in the future), youth work practice and training will have to strengthen its risk assessments and hygiene provisions in relation to social distancing, one way movement (entrances and exits), hand sanitisers, cleaning and so on[2]. In many ways, these new ways of working represent an extension and development of existing safety and safeguarding frameworks, rather than representing a completely new way of operating, and crucially, they do not in any way change the principles and values of youth work.

In responding to changes in its context, the sector should not simply bend with the prevailing winds. There are examples, as in North Macedonia and Wales, where the youth work sector has been able to influence their cultural-discursive, socio-political and material-economic contexts, by influencing the status and recognition, legal and policy frameworks and funding for youth work. This reflects what should be a creative tension between the interests of policy makers, practitioners and young people.

The diverse experiences of Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales also suggest that there no single route to, or blueprint for, developing youth work education and training. The initial impetus for developing youth work education and training can come from the youth work sector itself (as was the case in Wales), from government and policy makers (as was the case in Estonia) and/or from education and training providers (as was initially the case in Macedonia). However, the experience of the four countries suggests that to be successful over time, there is a need to engage and bring the other sectors into the process of developing youth work education and training (making it cross-sectoral). This has been vital to, for example, ensure relevance, recognition (including adequate funding) and effectiveness, which underpin the sustainability of provision. The experience of North Macedonia, where the impetus initially came from  education and training providers, but in which policy makers and the youth work sector were not fully engaged, highlight the dangers, such as those youth workers who graduated, struggled to find jobs, and the courses which closed after two years. Conversely, the experience of Estonia highlights the potential where the youth work sector, education and training providers and government are all engaged in developing youth work education and training.

[1] “Smart youth work” is a recent development in Estonia. It is more a concept than a specific method or approach and requires youth workers to consider the impact of changes in society, technology and culture upon young people and their work. It therefore includes, but is not limited to, the use of digital media and digital technology (Schlümmer 2019, pp. 21-22, cited in Kiilakoski, 2020).

[2] There is now a European Youth Work Convention working group on Youth Work and Corona which is expected to develop recommendations for safe practice.