The relationship between national and local government, the youth work sector and education and training providers is not cast in stone and indeed ebbs and flows as the influence of one is strengthened or weakened; for example:
- in Estonia, following independence, the communist/pre-independence era youth work sector was transformed through a radically new policy direction and investment from government and the European Union, the work of education and training providers, such as Tallinn Pedagogical School and Narva College at the University of Tartu, to develop new courses, and new bodies, such as the Estonian Youth Work Centre;
- in Ireland, with the notable exception of Dublin, there was little state involvement and the sector was dominated by the non-governmental sector and in particular, churches, until the 1990s. Thereafter, state involvement, funding and regulation gradually increased, and in the late 2000s and 2010s, despite severe economic challenges and cuts to funding, youth policy flourished, and a strong focus upon improving the quality and accountability of youth work developed;
- in North Macedonia, the effective withdrawal of the state involvement in the youth sector following independence created space that the non-governmental sector colonised, with the support of external funding. Now, after years of relative neglect and privatisation of the sector, state involvement and interest in the sector is increasing again; and
- in Wales, there was a golden age of youth work in the 1960s and 1970s. The youth work sector’s strength grew and education and training provision was established and then flourished. This was followed by lengthy periods when the sector’s influence and strength has waned, and funding for training was cut, punctuated by shorter periods when the political space and funding for the sector opened up and increased, and youth worker training was expanded.
This fluidity in relationships and the ebb and flow of influence reflects changes in:
- the cultural-discursive context, and changes in the ways in which youth work is understood and described. This is marked most obviously in Estonia and North Macedonia by the shifts from models such as “hobby education” under forms of state socialism, toward models of youth work as seen across the European Union. Less dramatically, in Ireland and Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, increasing state involvement in planning, funding and regulating youth work increased the status of youth work and contributed to the professionalization of the sector. In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus of youth work shifted from universal, often centre-based provision, to increasingly targeted work with young people seen as at risk, along with models such as “detached” and “issue”-based youth work, including work in non-traditional settings such as schools and the youth justice system. More broadly, there have been shifts away from a focus upon “youth work” and “youth services” to a wider set of “services for young people” (Smith, 2013);
- the social-political context, most notably through the shifts from forms of state socialism in Estonia and North Macedonia, and less dramatically, changing political priorities, interest in, and support for, youth work in Ireland and Wales; for example, in Wales, following devolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s, flagship programmes like Extending Entitlement were launched, and in Ireland in 2008, the creation of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, following a change in government, marked a significant change in the position, power and status of youth work vis à vis other sectors. The position and power (or influence) of the sector has also depended upon the changing relationship between government, the youth work sector and its representative bodies. This is illustrated by the growing influence of the youth work sector in Macedonia in the last decade, and conversely, by the declining influence of the youth work sector in Wales, until changes in government and the civil service contributed to a restoration of the sector’s influence in Wales at the end of the decade; and
- the material-economic context, most notably reflected through the strength of the economy and corresponding funding for youth work and youth worker training. This is illustrated most starkly by the cuts in funding in Wales and Ireland following the 2008 economic crisis but also, for example, by the opportunities created by European Union funding in Estonia, and European and international funding in North Macedonia. It is also reflected by the expansion of centre-based provision in Estonia and the cuts in centre-based provision in Wales, which have changed the physical places and spaces where youth work happens, and therefore youth work practice and the skills and competences youth workers need.
As we outline in the next section, this changing context has meant that youth worker training has had to change and adapt to keep up with the demands of government and the market (i.e. what employers and prospective youth workers want from training). Education and training providers have often been overshadowed by the youth work sector and government, and have had to balance the demands of each with the demands of their own institutions. Provision has tended to expand or contract as funding has expanded or contracted. Yet despite these constraints, at times education and training providers have sometimes skilfully played the youth work sector and government off against the other, to achieve a degree of autonomy.
The relationship between government, the youth work sector and education and training providers should be a creative tension. If the development of education and training is overly dominated by one sector, it risks becoming ineffective; for example, if dominated by:
- national and central government, it risks creating training that is too narrowly focused upon contemporary political and policy priorities such as, for example, forms of targeted youth work that do not reflect the breadth and diversity of youth work practice and limit youth work’s potential contribution to young people’s lives;
- the youth work sector, it risks creating education and training that is too purist, focused upon youth work’s cherished values which, if it fails to engage with policy priorities, jeopardises political support and funding for the sector, and also that very education and training which may mean youth workers are ill equipped for the job opportunities in areas such as targeted youth work or in non-traditional settings like youth justice, schools and hospitals; or
- education and training providers, it risks creating education and training that focuses too preciously on cherished values and principles, that can leave youth workers inadequately equipped to work in a diversity of settings, where they need to exercise considerable discretion as to how to apply youth work’s principles and values within the specificities of those settings.