Liverpool’s Lesson: Training has Impact

Tim Burke
September 1, 1998

Thanks to the efforts of a professionally trained youth worker, one poor, grotty neighborhood in this declining port city on the Irish Sea has seen a big drop in complaints from adults about the unruly behavior of young people. That change is opening a new era of cooperation between police and youth workers here — and offers some lessons for the nascent movement to expand college-based youth worker training in the United States.

For youth worker Paul Dagnall, it’s a simple case of a trained youth worker being given the backing to implement the skills of his profession. Dagnall received a nationally recognized youth and community work qualification from the YMCA National College in 1988 at age 23. For Dagnall, this training in the skills of his trade is just as much a prerequisite as it would be for a dentist or a plumber. “Through training you gain specific skills that form a tool bag to help you work more effectively,” he says.

In 1993 Dagnall got a job at Harthill Youth Club in Wavertree, one of the more desolate parts of the city. “There was a high level of concern about young people on the streets, but we knew that it was more about fear and perception rather than actual crime,” he says. His response, he acknowledges, was not particularly innovative: he set up a quality youth program based on what he had learned in college.

“If you are a teacher, you are working to a curriculum prescribed by government,” Dagnall says. “The skill of youth work is to get alongside and allow young people to draw out their personal curriculum, and to do that requires training. You have to train to learn how to be non-judgmental, to gain group work skills, to understand the dynamics of a group, and to understand how aspects of the community impact on young people.
“It requires skills of reflection, of self-evaluation — when you are able to look at how you as an individual are doing, then you can do it for others.”

A crucial element in the project was to bring along the local community and other governmental agencies. “Up to then the conflict between young people and the rest of the community had been met only with a short-term, police response,” he says. “So we held a public meeting to show we could improve the results with a youth work response that addressed the long-term but still addressed their [youths’] quality of life issues.”

Police Join In

Dagnall and his colleagues established Wavertree Youth Forum to bring together residents, local politicians, churches, the police and other services. They explained the process of youth work and the skills a trained youth worker could bring to community development. “There had to be mutual trust and understanding,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that everyone, the police especially, was aware of our aims, our faces, our debates on confidentiality and so on. We had to make clear to everyone that we were in cooperation, not collaboration, with the police.”

The police knew they could not tackle petty crime and vandalism by youth on their own. The local police chief came to the meetings, gave his backing and word went out to the bobbies on the beat not to intervene unnecessarily and to let the club’s detached youth workers get on with the job of making contact and offering support to the highest risk young people.

The youth workers scouted the streets making friends, establishing trust, providing information, finding out what young people wanted and setting up programs to respond. That sometimes meant leisure activities and informal education sessions at Harthill Youth Club. It also meant making the young people feel they had a channel through which to voice grievances: back to the forum and even to the higher echelons of the police. “They felt empowered. They had a mechanism to do something about the problems that were affecting them,” Dagnall explains.

When the project’s pilot stage began in April 1993, police statistics showed 35 percent of their calls were complaints about young people. A year later it had fallen to five percent. The police realized they were on to a good thing; they used the regular law enforcement budget to fund the expansion of the approach to other areas of the city. Dagnall has been brought in to oversee the growth and to work with Liverpool City Council to adopt a Social Crime Prevention Policy across all of the city’s youth work projects. “Other services need to understand why youth workers are able to achieve what social workers can’t, teachers can’t and the police can’t,” Dagnall says.

Education Counts

Wavertree’s good fortune contains an element that is virtually missing in American efforts — a fully qualified team of youth workers. Dagnall’s pre-service training was a two-year, full-time certificate in Youth and Community Work at the YMCA National College in London, one of about 20 British colleges offering qualifying courses in youth work. His study involved college-based skills work, academic study, and placements in a variety of relevant workplaces.

He got to experience a traditional building-based youth club and to work in an advice center where young people come seeking information. That helped him develop practical research skills and refine his counseling techniques. There were also street work placements which involved completely different sets of skills. “Unlike building-based work, you have no sanctions you can apply,” says Dagnall. “On the streets you have to work hard on establishing trust, setting boundaries and negotiating with teens.’’
Throughout his professional training he had support from a placement tutor to supervise his practice, as well as a personal tutor and personal supervisor to help with reflection and evaluation.

There was also a grounding in sociology, educational theory and cultural and religious issues. Youth worker Dagnall sees these as crucial parts of that journey to becoming a reflective practitioner. “It’s important because of the need to understand beyond your own experience,” he says. “Training helps you understand why you react the way you do and then how you treat everyone as individuals, not make assumptions about how they should be.”

“And the skills you gain and the process you go through in training is really what you want to help others to do. It’s about working out where you are now, where you would like to be, and then managing that process.”

Ironically, Dangell and the Harthill Youth Club represent the very type of juvenile crime prevention strategy that would be ineligible for juvenile justice funding under legislation now working its way through the U.S. Congress.


Liverpool’s Lesson: Training has Impact : Nuts and Bolts: How England Does It

Burke, Tim. "Liverpool’s Lesson: Training has Impact."Youth Today, September 1998, p. 32.

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