Article: The ‘secular culture’ of youth work training

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Youth & Policy were pleased to support the production of a new research report by Naomi Thompson and Lucie Shuker, that was launched in May 2021, exploring the place of religion, faith and spirituality in JNC-recognised youth work training programmes in English universities. The research concludes that there is some way to go to ensure that training programmes equip youth workers to engage with diverse religious communities. The research was supported by Goldsmiths University, Youthscape Centre for Research, the Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth & Community Work (TAG:PALYCW) and Youth & Policy. Below you can read the foreword to the report by Tony Jeffs. A summary of the findings and the full report can be accessed via the Youthscape website.

Click here to read a summary of the research findings and to access the full report.

This authoritative publication has surfaced at a timely moment. Lucie Shuker and Naomi Thompson rightly acknowledge that the topography of youth work is once more in a heightened state of flux. During the last thirty or forty years the tectonic plates have shifted in ways few predicted. A once ascendent secular orthodoxy within the youth sector has, for good or ill, been seriously undermined. First, by the collapse of the previously dominant local authority sector, which initially lost its sense of purpose and direction, then its funding. Second, as a consequence of the loss of once conspicuous secular youth work agencies and providers such as the boys’ clubs, the political youth wings, school-based clubs and units managed by non-aligned community groups. As the authors rightly stress these shifts have resulted in faith-based organisations once again emerging as key providers and the pioneers of many, if not most, innovative formats. Almost alone amongst contemporary writers on youth work policy, the authors urge us to take these changes on board and genuinely address their implications for both the field and training sector.

In the following chapters, all of which draw liberally upon their own research, Naomi Thompson and Lucie Shuker articulate a compelling case for youth and community work education to take steps to ensure those entering the profession possess an intellectually coherent level of ‘religious literacy’. A literacy sufficiently broad and academically rigorous to equip a practitioner to not only enter into dialogue with young people and adults on issues relating to faith, religion and spirituality but to work effectively with faith-based colleagues, ‘as well as alongside or within faith-based organisations, many of whom are seeking to work with civil society’ (p. 14).

In part, this research conveys a dispiriting portrait of inertia amongst some charged with educating the next generation of youth and community workers. Like shipwrecked mariners many have held fast to the flotsam and jetsam of a fast vanishing practice model. This may prove risky, even fatal, for, as the authors show, given the existing configuration, we can no longer assume a secular culture holds sway within the field. In the light of this reality it is unwise for existing courses to continue operating on the basis that religion, faith and spirituality can be ignored or dealt with ‘informally and implicitly’ (p. 29).

Thompson and Shuker’s seemingly ‘modest proposal’ that community and youth work courses should henceforth teach ‘religious literacy’ embodies a number of weighty implications. If their ‘modest proposal’ was to be embraced, doing so would entail more than a perfunctory tinkering with the current offer. First, because it requires us to ask ourselves what other literacies might be of equal value when it comes to ensuring graduates are equipped to effectively educate those they work with and alongside. What about, for example, ‘political literacy’ or ‘economic literacy’? What to include or exclude is not an issue to be debated here but it is one that inevitably arises as a consequence of this research.

Second, imparting religious literacy is not something that can be a student-led process. Nor can it be reduced to a white-board list of words and concepts offered up by a random collection of attendees. If key issues, core ideas and challenging concepts are not to be side-lined, it will require a taught course founded upon a broad syllabus and which avoids rote learning. That embraces dialogue, questioning and self-scrutiny.  

That leads us to the third point, namely who might be competent to teach a group of undergraduate or postgraduate students ‘religious literacy’? The breadth of the topic and the complexity of the subject matter, in my view, surely demands the task be entrusted to a qualified theologian. In which case one must acknowledge that few of the current training agencies have the staff to hand who are qualified to teach at the required level.

Finally, if as the authors urge, we adopted in whole or part a ‘literacy’ model it will entail a total or partial abandonment of the current competency model of youth and community work training and the creation of a far more demanding knowledge and subject based education. One that will require all parties to finally embark on the task of thinking deeply regarding what knowledge a well-educated community and youth worker requires to become an educator rather than a mere ‘deliverer of programmes’.

Besides making a cogent case for the need for ensuring all youth and community work graduates are taught the essentials required for the acquisition of a ‘religious literacy’, Lucie Shuker and Naomi Thompson oblige us to re-assess the format and content of professional education. Hence the importance of this perceptive and challenging publication which rightly deserves the widest possible readership.  

Click here to access and read the full report

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Last Updated: 22 July 2021