Article: YMCA and Youth Work Education

Author: Tony Jeffs | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Tony Jeffs marks the closure of the YMCA George Williams College in London and the end of the YMCA's 135-year relationship with youth work education. He examines the origins of these educational endeavours in the US, and explores the various international developments that followed, before outlining the story of the YMCA George Williams College in London. This extended article marks the end of an era for youth work education.

As 2020 ended, the YMCA George Williams College (London) effectively shut up shop. Final year degree programmes were being taught out through Coventry University and the further education department had closed. Any remaining work looked to tying up loose ends. Bizarrely, the extant web page still proclaimed the College to be ‘the leading provider of Youth and Community training and qualifications across the UK’. Possibly once a valid claim, this vain glorious boast underscores how precipitously thriving institutions can be brought to their knees. Sadly, closure went unacknowledged, even though it signalled the end of an institution which made a valuable contribution to youth and community work in Britain, and of the YMCA’s 135-year engagement with the professional education of youth workers.



George Williams called the initial meeting which resulted in the formation of the YMCA in 1844. Six years later, after it had become a flourishing movement in Great Britain, it crossed the Atlantic. America proved fertile ground; within a decade of its arrival, the number of branches and the total membership already exceeded Great Britain’s. Expansion eventually triggered a building boom commencing in 1869 with New York’s 23rd Street YMCA. Five storeys and costing the equivalent of $15,000,000 it comprised: residential accommodation for 400 members, a ‘Grand Hall’ seating 1,500, a large gymnasium, bowling alley, reading rooms, a 20,000 volume library, baths, parlours, canteens and restaurants, teaching and lecture rooms, an art gallery, artist studios, penthouse apartment for the General Secretary, premises for a 200 member club for boys aged 14 to 17, and a frontage comprising shops inserted to provide rental income. No vanity project, this edifice was painstakingly designed to dispense a ‘fourfold model’ of practice, devised by its General Secretary, Robert McBurney, devoted to the ‘spiritual, mental, social and physical’ improvement of members.

Prior to 1869, North America had approximately a dozen full-time YMCA Secretaries and six Associations with purpose-built premises. When McBurney died in 1898, New York alone had 15 branches employing 149 full-time staff. Between 1870 and 1914, over a thousand buildings opened across America, most in part or whole replicating McBurney’s blueprint. Scarcely a town or city of note lacked a main street YMCA. Inevitably these buildings re-aligned the Movement’s ethos converting it, as a sympathetic historian remarked, ‘into a business concern’ wherein ‘the executive function came to the fore’. Each ‘factory of manhood’ required platoons of workers. General Secretaries managed the buildings, the ‘fourfold’ programme and the specialist staff who included: instructors competent to coach and administer the gymnastic and sports programmes and facilities; educationalists to organize and teach classes; leaders to manage the boys’ club; caterers and house-keepers to oversee the accommodation; and pastors to undertake evangelical work within and without the building. In addition, capable men were called for to: develop the hundreds of college-based branches; manage the network of buildings catering for railway workers; function as Travelling Secretaries initiating new and sustaining existing Associations; and to serve overseas as ’missionaries’ and Secretaries.

The expectation that senior members, college graduates, professionals and businessmen would transition to fill these vacancies had by 1880 proved erroneous. The initial remedy was a ‘training by contact’ initiative with recruits spending a year learning from experienced Secretaries. Only 64 completed the ‘apprenticeship’ between 1881 and 1882, of whom 52 entered YMCA employment. Unsurprisingly, the mounting shortage of suitable candidates induced prominent members to set in train a campaign to initiate a full-time training programme to prepare a cadre of men willing to embrace YMCA work as their life-time’s ‘calling’.



Professional youth work education originated in Springfield Massachusetts in 1885. David Allen Reed, a Congregational Minister unable to recruit sufficient men and women to undertake parish and Sunday School work – the latter had a weekly attendance exceeding 800 – decided to open a School for Christian Workers to train these workers. Amongst those invited to help plan this venture was Robert McBurney. Reed quickly secured funding to construct a building to house the School and a YMCA branch. The School opened January 1st 1885 with five enrolled on the year-long course. By September 1888, 58 pupils (11 from overseas) were studying on the extended two-year programme; plus four on a one-year post-graduate route.

The School of Christian Workers comprised two ‘Training Schools’. One for ‘Sunday School Workers and Pastors’ Helpers’; another specifically for ‘YMCA Secretaries’. In 1887, after it transferred to a new campus, a ‘Physical Department for the Training of YMCA Physical Directors’ was added. All students completed a mandatory ‘General Course’ lasting two years encompassing: Bible History and Exegesis; The History of Evangelical Christianity; Christian Evidences; Old and New Testament Canon; Fundamental Doctrines of the Bible; Books of the Bible; Christian Ethics; Outline Study of Man; Practical Methods of Christian Work; Rules for Deliberative Bodies; Rhetoric and Logic; and Vocal Music. They also undertook an equivalent number of specialist modules taught by their ‘Training School’; and each day attended the gymnasium for instruction and chapel for prayers. Finally, time was allotted at weekends and during the evenings for ‘practice’ at the local YMCA. The timetabled day went from 08.30 to 18.00 and the academic year comprised 40 weeks; in addition, all had to attend a minimum of two off-campus YMCA conventions (conferences) annually. By contemporary standards this was a punishing academic regime.

Following Reed’s departure in 1891, it was retitled YMCA Training School. Three years later, the other original arm of the School of Christian Workers, the ‘Sunday School Workers and Pastors, Helpers School’ was merged with Hartford Seminary partly so that it might admit women, something the YMCA refused to contemplate. In 1912, the remaining YMCA Training School changed name once again to International YMCA Training School to better reflect the increasing numbers joining from overseas. Foreign candidates recommended by their national Association had access to scholarships to cover all or part of their tuition and board.

Degree-awarding status was secured in 1906. Initially, three-year BAs and one-year Master’s degrees were offered in Humanics and Physical Education. A new common core was introduced comprising the study of: (a) the whole person – spirit, mind and body; and (b) ‘cultural’ areas – Biology, Psychology, Sociology and Religion. Simultaneously, a year-long Access Course for those lacking a High School Diploma was initiated. All under-graduate degrees became four-year programmes in 1917 with added specialist routes including boys’ work as well as rural and industrial work.



Lawrence Doggett was appointed President of the YMCA Training School in 1896 and served until 1936. Prior YMCA experience convinced Doggett that Secretaries were best recruited from amongst men with a rich intellectual life, thirst for knowledge and critical mind. Colleagues lacking those characteristics, Doggett noted, usually ‘ran dry or became hack workers’. Springfield therefore, he argued, to avoid a similar fate should avoid becoming a training school priming students for ‘tasks already defined, goals already set’. Hence, the importance he placed upon core cultural courses on, for instance, classical European literature, philosophy and singing. Doggett and a colleague, Hanford Burr, selected the name ‘Humanics’ to describe the revised Secretarial course. Humanics embodied the study of human nature, affairs and relations as well as practical administrative skills. Springfield’s was the earliest Humanics degree. Others followed; a century later over 70 US colleges and universities taught degree programmes recognised by the co-ordinating body American Humanics. In 1927, Springfield closed their free-standing Humanics degree but retained the subject as an option and organizing ideal. Today the concept has virtually vanished from the academic map. American Humanics dissolved itself in 2011 to be re-born as the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance. Teaching institutions followed suit by re-naming and re-calibrating their courses which henceforth focused on management, administration and leadership.



As the nation pressed westwards, the YMCA followed. Come 1880, one in three Associations were located in states either bordering the Mississippi or to the west of it. Robert Weidensall was responsible for much of that growth. Weidensall believed a shortage of well-trained and educated secretaries seriously hindered further expansion. So, in 1884, he met with colleagues besides Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) to inaugurate the Western Secretarial Institute. Land was purchased on what became Williams Bay and building commenced. Weidensall in 1889 outlined his ambitions for the Institute:

What a law school is to a young man who aims to enter the profession of law, or what a medical school is to such a one as desires to practice medicine, so should this Institute be a place where young men could best study the work of the Association and especially of a General Secretary.

Initially, it was as an educational summer camp, providing week-long taught courses on aspects of Associational work and Bible Study, supplemented by lectures, camp-fire meetings, entertainments and leisure activities for members, staff, and families. Within a decade, attendances were counted in the hundreds.

In 1890, Weidensall took the next logical step of establishing the Training School of the YMCA. To be housed in the ‘whites only’ Chicago Central YMCA who pledged to support the School with funds drawn from their endowment income and by offering all students part-time employment. The initial intake was 15 and the course comprised three terms plus attendance at the Lake Geneva summer school. Instruction in the early days was mostly provided by serving Secretaries. Six years on, the School merged with the Western Secretarial Institute to form the Institute and Training School of the YMCA, a name retained until 1913 when it changed to YMCA College. After 1896, the programme extended to two years by which point annual intakes were circa 30. Amalgamation meant Summer Institute courses could be accredited and integrated within the syllabus, thereby allowing prospective students to obtain credits prior to entry. An agreement with Northwestern University (Evanston) and the University of Chicago permitted graduates to transfer with credits onto their Liberal Arts degrees.

Degree awarding powers were conferred in 1911. Initially, under-graduate degrees in Association Science and Physical Education, and post-graduate degrees in Physical Education and Secretarial Education were provided, Springfield having rebuffed overtures to fashion a conjoined syllabus. Association Science focussed on YMCA practice. However, it was not narrowly fixated with assembling YMCA Secretaries. Breadth was added and horizons widened via placements with Hull House and other settlements, boys’ clubs, adult education institutes and projects working with neighbourhood gangs. In 1928, a Batchelor of Administration in Boys’ Work was introduced. By then student enrolment had grown to 300 and the criteria for admission had been harmonised with those of the nearby University of Chicago.

Chicago embraced elements of the ‘social gospel’ articulated by local settlement workers such as Jane Addams and Graham Taylor, and prominent academics, for example John Dewey and Grace Abbott. The gospel stressed the importance of teaching a social dimension ‘beyond the recreative social intercourse to embrace also, the individual’s responsibility to shape society around him’. Links with the YMCA ensured that as its work broadened so the degree expanded to include specialisms such as Railroad, Industrial, Boys’ and Play Work. The College in 1915 moved to new premises, close-by the University of Chicago and Hull House, with dormitory space, classrooms and gymnasium. With this move, it also became more realistic for Black students to attend. The student body approached 200, taught by 17 staff, augmented by tutors ‘borrowed’ from the University of Chicago. The College still retained ownership of the William’s Bay site. It became the George Williams College in 1933, primarily to distinguish itself from the far larger Chicago Central YMCA College (founded in 1922) which concentrated on business and engineering. Chicago Central YMCA’s recent decision to cease financial support and guaranteeing students part-time employment essentially ended the partnership.



Between 1919 and 1936, there existed a third US training agency – The Southern YMCA Graduate School (Nashville). This was primarily the creation of Willis Duke Weatherford who from 1902 to 1919 was YMCA Supervising Secretary for 200 affiliated college Associations in the South and Southwest. Weatherford, after visiting Lake Geneva in 1894, raised the funds to create a similar venture to serve the South. Eventually 1,500 acres besides Blue Ridge Mountain North Carolina were procured and developed which May through September functioned along similar lines to the Western Secretarial Institute. Weatherford resigned in 1919 to concentrate on establishing the Nashville Graduate School. Throughout, it relied upon Vanderbilt University, notably the School of Religion, ‘loaning’ teaching staff  and providing students with access to selected courses. The YMCA Graduate School returned the favour by offering Vanderbilt students tuition in Physical Education. Weatherford deemed only those possessing a four-year under-graduate degree were intellectually equipped to serve as YMCA Secretaries hence his refusal to accept non-graduate entrants. Each course was residential and ran for eight quarters or semesters, it comprised two segments. One was devoted to broad cultural studies, the other to technical skills. Just two students graduated in 1921 but numbers increased. By 1925 Weatherford had garnered $500,000 to construct a home for the School, then the Depression precipitated a calamitous decline in philanthropic support and applications. Bankruptcy followed, Vanderbilt acquired the premises in lieu of debt repayments and the School closed during 1936.



Numerous Springfield staff and alumni were active in establishing analogous institutions overseas. In Germany in 1912, Count von Graf Bernstorff, who for a period served on the Corporation of Springfield College, established on behalf of the German YMCA a small School for Secretaries. Located in one of his properties, Bernstoff hoped this would eventually come to serve a similar function to that of Springfield. The outbreak of war in 1914 triggered closure. Political turmoil during the inter-war years coupled with Bernstorff’s courageous opposition to the Nazi regime ensured it remained closed. Bernstorff, following incarceration in two concentration camps, was executed in 1945.

In 1920, Springfield graduate Harry Crowe Buck, who was attached to Madras YMCA, established India’s National YMCA College of Physical Education. Buck remained principal until his death in 1943. The College, which gained university status in the 1930s, still remains active. As does a similar institution launched in Uruguay by Springfield alumni in 1927. Attempts to establish a Physical Education College in China attached to Shanghai YMCA were only partially successful. Shortly after opening, the Japanese seizure of Shanghai in 1937 precipitated the closure of both the course and YMCA.

Early in the 1920s, discussions began in Switzerland within the World Alliance of YMCAs, based in Geneva since 1878, regarding the possibility of opening in the city a school akin to Springfield. Doggett, at the invitation of the Alliance spent six months in Geneva planning its 1927 launch. Courses on Secretarial activities, Boys’ Club Work and Physical Education were devised but only the latter attracted applicants. Hence it became The International YMCA School of Physical Education. Springfield agreed an annual subsidy of up to $10,000 plus the loan of a staff member. The Rousseau Institute (University of Geneva) provided access to certain of their modules which were integrated within the programme, and they also ‘loaned’ staff. Each autumn, five Springfield Juniors received scholarships to join the course for a year. Overall, 83 students, from 22 countries, completed the two-year Diploma. The Depression which sealed the fate of Nashville did not spare Springfield which experienced an abrupt fall in student numbers and endowment income. Consequently in 1934, after spending upwards of $50,000 supporting The International YMCA School of Physical Education, they reluctantly ended the subsidy and scholarships. The World Alliance which displayed marked enthusiasm for the course, as long as others picked-up the tab, declined to help so it closed.

The YMCA in Australia launched two Secretarial training courses based on the Springfield model. The first was part of a programme initiated by the Australian Government in 1919 to provide de-mobbed members of the armed forces an opportunity to train for a new occupation. Amongst the more than 200 careers for which training were offered was that of YMCA Secretary. Lasting only ten months the full-time course closed in 1920, after a single intake, following withdrawal of government funding. Springfield alumni resident in Australia had long held an ambition to create a comparable programme and in 1947 managed to do so. An emergency war-time training scheme for youth workers which started in 1944 had closed and the YMCA which had been the main employer of its graduates stepped forward to inaugurate a replacement. This was a two-year professional youth leadership course based in Sydney. Two tutors were employed who were augmented by Staff from the Extension Studies Department of Sydney University. A generous donation allowed it to relocate to its own premises in nearby Homebush. The content comprised Christian Faith, sociology, psychology and health education, youth work practice (including group work, administration and outdoor activities). However, as one ex-student told a researcher, the emphasis was on practical skills but ‘Theology was our core topic’. Between 1947 and 1963, 124 students enrolled on the programme of whom merely 78 graduated; most entered employment with the YMCA which was by far the region’s largest employer of youth workers. Attempts to negotiate close links with the University of New South Wales failed to come to fruition so the course moved to new premises in Melbourne in 1964 where the YMCA National Offices were located and in-service training was centred. From then, RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) taught those units not delivered by resident tutors. Two years later, the Institute of Social Welfare located in the same city began offering a similar two-year Diploma in Youth Leadership but students on this programme were, unlike those on the YMCA course, entitled to grants and bursaries if their employers did not pay them a full-salary. The uneven competition prompted the YMCA to negotiate an agreement with the State College of Victoria Coburg which led to the course, existing students and both members of staff transferring to it in 1976, where they would be eligible for grants and bursaries. Soon afterwards, radical alterations to the structure and content of the course meant the YMCA programme to all intents and purposes faded from sight.


Drifting apart

Although the YMCA marque lingered, Springfield and Chicago gradually dis-engaged from the former organisation, with Springfield setting the pace. Indeed, as early as 1910, a majority of staff and students petitioned to remove YMCA from the college’s title. The Trustees refused to visibly bow to this pressure but thereafter the connection steadily waned. Nine years later it became popularly known as Springfield College, although YMCA remained part of the title on official documentation. In 1954 the remaining legal remnants relating to historic ties were expunged.

Pre-eminently bonds weakened because the colleges needed to enhance recruitment by broadening their subject base, thereby reducing the centrality of YMCA linked programmes which were steadily marginalised but, as we shall see, other factors played a part. YMCA demand for workers grew rapidly between 1870 and 1920. However, no national structure of qualifications was adopted, therefore Associations were at liberty to appoint whoever they wished. Secretaries still tended to be selected according to traditional criteria such as ‘character’, religious fervour and ‘experience’. Some Associations remained antagonistic towards ‘professionalisation’ of the ‘Secretariat’ so, on principle, they avoided appointing graduates of either college. Therefore, expansion did not axiomatically promote an upswing in demand for places on Secretary courses. Similar antipathy was not discernible regarding Physical Directors, indeed their professional competence was prized. Consequently, college recruitment favoured the Physical Education courses which led to employment within the YMCA and a whole gamut of agencies. Predictably this resulted in both Colleges disproportionately investing in Physical Education related programmes.

Springfield elicited much criticism from within the wider YMCA. First, it never discriminated against Black or Native American applicants. Indeed, its first degree recipient was Black. Accordingly, it attracted few white applicants from the ‘South’, who routinely opted for Chicago which, until 1916, was located within the all-white Chicago Central YMCA. Second, Springfield flouted the ‘Evangelical Test’ adopted by the 1868 Montreal Convention. This obliged North American Associations to only accept into full membership or employment active members of an ‘evangelical Christian church’. Springfield contravened this ruling by admitting applicants and employing staff who failed the ‘Test’. One outcome was that certain Associations refused to support members who opted for Springfield; another was that it drove an enthusiasm within sections of the Movement for the ‘rival’ college in Chicago. Finally, Doggett, who wrote a history of the development of the YMCA in North America and a biography of McBurney, was nevertheless primarily an academic rather than a down-the-line “Y” man. A graduate of Oberlin, the Union Theological Seminary (a progressive, liberal and non-denominational institution), and the University of Leipzig he was determined not to create either a ‘training’ or ‘liberal arts’ college but a university which combined the better characteristics of each. To achieve that ambition Doggett sought to attract exceptional scholars and teachers. One such was William G Ballantine, previously President of Oberlin and prior to that Head of the Theology Department at the same university. Ballantine joined Springfield in 1897. A prolific author, he was widely viewed to be an outstanding theologian and exceptional teacher; and to an unbiased observer his recruitment might be interpreted as a remarkable coup. Unfortunately, Ballantine was a liberal theologian loathed by many fundamentalists and literalists. Consequently, his arrival prompted the resignation of the Treasurer, who happened to be the most senior YMCA representative on the Board, plus a number of Trustees. Ballantine’s advent precipitated the loss of substantial donations and endowments; one donor tendered a generous bequest on condition Ballantine was dismissed; whilst prominent YMCA figures repeatedly denounced the appointment both at conferences and in print. Doggett however refused to yield. Nor did he alter his stance on academic freedom a few years later when uproar within the Movement followed publication of a dissenting article by Hanford Burr on ‘The New Reformation’. Following Ballantine’s arrival, the YMCA undertook three investigations within a decade into ‘Biblical’ teaching at the College. After one ‘visitation’ they concluded it was ‘inappropriate’. In the wake of another, an overwhelming majority of staff and students voted to end all official links with the YMCA. Later Doggett refused to capitulate to YMCA calls for the removal of Hartley Cross, a social sciences lecturer, who argued for demilitarisation, consumer co-operatives and an increase in state intervention in the economy. Throughout, Doggett was resolute in his defence of academic freedom but it came at a high cost in terms of diminished student applications from within the YMCA and lost endowments. Finally, as he approached retirement, Doggett yet again enraged YMCA traditionalists by admitting women and Jews. Although individual Associations might display scant enthusiasm for recruiting Springfield graduates, other agencies were less hesitant. Already by the late 1890s, a quarter of graduates found employment outside the YMCA notably with Boy Scouts, settlements, social services, boys’ clubs, leisure services, the burgeoning play sector, and schools and colleges. A survey of 3,500 alumni undertaken in the mid-1930s found just 12 per cent were employed by the YMCA. As this percentage fell so ties loosened. Simultaneously this re-alignment fortified links with adjacent professions and occupations resulting in the inevitable importation of new subjects and courses into the College.

Chicago never sought to unsettle the YMCA membership or leadership. Perhaps that explains why, according to one ex-student, it emerged as the ‘West Point of the YMCA’. Presidents and staff were overwhelmingly solid safe “Y” men. Eduard Lindeman who joined the staff in 1918 found the College stultifyingly conservative, colleagues deemed him a troublesome radical; predictably he departed after a year. Close links with the YMCA and nearby settlements did however encourage the College to develop programmes of tangible value to the field. This resulted in Chicago being the first to take on board the concept of informal education and to it performing a pioneering role with regards play and social group work education. With respect to the latter, Hedley S. Dimmock and Charles E Hendry, long-standing teachers at the College, each emerged as influential figures within group work education.

Like many others Chicago’s numbers tumbled in the wake of the Great Crash. By 1932, bankruptcy loomed. To stave off closure the College President visited over 100 YMCAs seeking their help – those who already supported the college mostly either reduced their contribution or ceased doing so.  His trawl of philanthropic bodies similarly failed. Staff agreed to take a twenty per cent salary cut to prevent financial collapse. In desperation, endorsement was sought from leading young women’s organisations – YWCA, Camp Fire Girls and Girls’ Clubs of America. They did not offer cash but agreed to collaborate with the College. Women were admitted in 1933, the same year the Chicago Central YMCA began to allow them to affiliate. After two mixed intakes, women accounted for a fifth of the 200 students. The new President Harold Coffman, appointed in 1935 was an academic described as ‘a leading representative of the Informal Education field’ whose doctoral supervisor was Lindeman, now at Columbia University. Although Coffman had a YMCA connection and was determined to retain the College’s Christian ethos, he quickly set about encouraging the development of courses in social work, holistic health, recreation, and group work. Yet, as of late 1961, two-thirds of the 307 enrolled students expected to work for the YMCA and a quarter of the donations made to the College came from YMCA sources. In 1965 the College moved to a new larger campus in Downers Grove, an up-market residential neighbourhood outside Chicago, however it remained small and vulnerable. Then in 1985 yet another financial crisis arose and this time it resulted in closure. Midwestern University purchased the campus. Incredibly two courses – physical education with recreation and social work – survived the fire sale. Eventually these were transferred to Aurora University along with the Williams Bay site. The affiliation agreement allowed for the expanded Lake Geneva campus to be designated George Williams College of Aurora University, thus the name endures, albeit symbolically.



Unlike their American and Australian counterparts, the UK YMCAs exhibited no interest in sponsoring full-time professional education. Along with the boys’ clubs, for over a century they held fast to a ‘coming-up-through-the-ranks’ recruitment strategy. All this changed with the Albemarle Report (1959) whose advocacy of a professionally trained workforce precipitated the opening in 1965 of the state funded National College for the Training of Youth Leaders (Leicester). Thus, began a sustained governmental push to professionalise youth work. By 1970, there were four youth leader courses linked to universities including one run in conjunction with the National Association of Boys’ Clubs by Liverpool University, plus a dozen new College of Education programmes bestowing a dual qualification in youth work and school-teaching.

To avoid being left trailing in the sprint to professionalise youth work, the YMCA needed to offer the existing employees of the UK’s 200 plus Associations an opportunity to secure a qualification comparable to that being awarded to new entrants. The English YMCA first developed a programme for Association Secretaries run within the National Council training department and then set up a College in 1970 to offer a two-year full-time Certificate in Youth Work. A new building was erected, and financed by the Department of Education and Science (DES). It was set behind Walthamstow YMCA and next to a new headquarters for the National Council.

The College soon developed a distinctive character. In significant part this was shaped by M. Joan Tash, the senior tutor. At the core of the approach lay an emphasis on the development of the whole person. It had some elements of the Humanics orientation pioneered by Springfield College. But these were combined with a focus on reflection and change using a mix of practice, professional supervision, weekly individual tutorials, recording and group work. In some important respects, this mix was like the approach taken by Josephine Klein in the new Goldsmith’s College training programme, but there were also major differences linked to their contrasting professional backgrounds (Klein’s in sociological research and psychotherapy; Tash’s in the YWCA, non-managerial supervision and fieldwork research).

Previous YMCA youth work training programmes placed material emphasis upon ensuring students were equipped to evangelise the Christian faith. Biblical Studies, Theology and preparation for Discipleship were unfailingly granted due weight within the syllabus. This time the focus was on creating a space where people could develop as youth and community workers in different settings – much as envisaged in the Government report Youth and Community Work in the 70s (Tash was a member of the Committee that produced the report).

Why a secularist route was chosen was never spelt out, however one can hazard an informed guess. First, the YMCA has always been an uneasy coalition of Christians drawn from competing traditions, and the wrath of its evangelical wing was historically easily aroused. Tensions betwixt liberals and fundamentalists remained alive, therefore whatever curriculum was adopted it risked leaving one or both parties disgruntled. As was the case with Springfield College, many of the staff were from the liberal wing of Christianity. Joan Tash, for example became heavily involved with the Iona Community after she left the College. Hence safety lay in treading a more ‘professional’ path. Second, although the absence of a Christian dimension might result in a small minority of YMCA staff opting for a Christian Youth Work course elsewhere it was surely going to be the case that their absence would be amply compensated for by entrants gleaned from other faiths or none. Although early intakes were small and predominately comprised YMCA staff, soon expansion tipped the balance towards those with minimal or no connection with the YMCA.

After the College had been in operation for a few years it also became clear that there was demand for part-time qualifying routes – and that significant numbers of potential students could not access existing programmes through lack of qualification. Being part of the National (English) YMCA, the College could access DES developmental project monies for youth work. This put it in an advantageous position compare to other higher education institutions. Income was secured to develop and establish, from 1980 onwards, the first Access programme for youth work training. This programme ran with DES funding until the mid-1980s. At around the same time, the Department also paid for a research project exploring the demand and functioning of a part-time distance learning route to qualification. The Brixton, and then Toxteth, riots in 1981 appeared to have strengthened the DES interest in youth work training and in January 1982, the first cohort started the new College distance learning programme. Following Tash, it placed supervision and practice at the core and used residentials, regional study groups and study materials to augment and focus learning. Practice processes informed the structuring of the programme. Working with individuals, groups and communities provided the foci and this was underpinned by a concern with management and action research.

The experience of running the access and distance learning programmes, combined with being part of a major voluntary organization placed the College in a unique position. It had long-term relationships with HMI and could draw from and feed into, a wide range of networks. In addition, it also had the capacity to work across the UK. The most significant example of this was the close to thirty-year partnership that began with the Rank Foundation in the second half of the 1980s. Rank Foundation offered longer term developmental funding to local agencies and, also, looked to give young people ‘with a gap in their lives’ the chance to work for six to nine months in those agencies. The first of these included the opportunity for agencies to employ a worker for five years and for them to be inducted into the work and gain a professional qualification; the second required foundation training around working with others. The College developed special programmes for them both which also adopted the broader concept of ‘Informal Education’ as the main organizing idea. Introduced by the Chicago/George Williams College during the 1930s and championed in the UK by Josephine Macilister Brew in the 1940s, it can in one view be seen as reverting to an earlier tradition, in another it broke with convention. The qualifying programme was renamed Diploma in Higher Education (Informal Education) in 1991.

Scotland had abandoned the youth work model operating in the remainder of the UK in 1980 by adopting the broader concept of ‘Community Education’ which incorporated youth work, adult education, community work and development, and social group work across the age-bands. It became clear to many staff at the College that informal and community education was a helpful way of articulating the nature of the programmes. Given the Rank Foundation was also funding projects in Scotland and that a significant number of YMCA staff were now working with adults, children and communities the next step was to seek professional recognition for community education – and that meant a degree.

Up until this point, the College had worked with the North East London Polytechnic (known as the Polytechnic of East London from 1989 and the University of East London post 1992) as its awarding body. The decision was made in 1991 to change to Canterbury Christ Church College (with the University of Kent) to develop the degree programme. It was to include professional recognition from CeVe Scotland and the National Youth Agency (England). The new degree was in Informal and Community Education and it ran from 1992. It was the only degree to offer such dual recognition, and the only one with that name. Both the distance learning and the full-time taught programmes were popular – with over 250 students in total registered on the DipHE and Degree in any one year in the second half of the 1990s. While the demand for professional youth workers was lessening, the title and content of the degree allowed students to apply for a range of jobs. The College had also taken the precaution of designing the programme so that it could be mapped against many of the social work outcomes required for the Dip SW which started in 1994.

Alongside these developments the College changed its name – and its governance. With students being drawn from across the UK the title ‘National College’ had become increasingly problematic. In 1994, and with the celebration of 150th anniversary of the YMCA, using the founder’s name seemed appropriate. In addition, the College was disentangled from the National Council and became a separate charity – and a YMCA in its own right. Separate governance also allowed the College to control its own finances. This was vital as it had outgrown its buildings. A move was necessary – and that involved a mortgage. In 1996, the College relocated to what was the old Docklands labour exchange in south Canning Town.

Building on the Foundation programme designed for trainees and volunteers on Rank Foundation initiatives, the College also developed an access programme at this time. It met CeVe prequalification, NYA level 3, and Wales Youth Agency requirements for part-time youth work qualification. The programme was accredited as an Access Programme through the Open College Network and later via Laser (for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). These level three (level 6 Scotland) programmes attracted a significant number of students through both the Rank Foundation network and various local agencies located across the UK. In 2009/2011 there were 260 students registered. This programme continued to develop, and was to offer various specialisms under the banner of working with children, young people and families. They included outdoor learning, community sports, Christian work with young people and communities, and three different social pedagogy options focused on work with vulnerable young people, working in residential settings, and working in specialist education settings.

In the early 21st century, the time required to create a new degree programme meant new courses kept emerging in higher education institutions even as demand for new youth and community workers diminished. Included amongst these were, for the first time, some cheaper and less demanding distance learning programmes. Competition for students became cut-throat. Worse, the employment opportunities available to graduating students was fast shrinking. What commenced as a trickle in the 1990s after 2010 became a torrent. Between 2010 and 2019 estimated youth service funding in England and Wales decreased by 70 per cent; in London, from where most of the College’s full-time students came, over half the units closed prompting 500 redundancies and low levels of recruitment. One backwash from this regression was the widespread closure of courses. Some avoided, often only temporarily, this fate by adopting modular structures whereby adjacent courses within a given institution shared units to generate economies of scale. What was feasible for a university with say a Social Work, Childhood Studies or Education degrees was never an option for a monotechnic institution. For the latter, their only routes to survival lay in either creating new courses or planned retrenchment – and staff at the College were arguing for both.

The number of students attending the full-time programme had shrunk and it was effectively being subsidized by the distance learning programme. In 2014 the total number registered on the three years of the full-time programme was 50. There were more than three times that on the distance learning programme. With an eye on the changing pattern of demand for the programmes, and starting in 2012, the College developed three different routes through the degree programme which led to a BA(Hons) in Youth Work and Community Learning and Development, or in Education and Learning, or in Social Pedagogy. The last of these was the first social pedagogy honours degree in the UK. They all satisfied NYA and CLD Scotland requirements for professional qualification, and when the Social Pedagogy Professional Association was formed the Social Pedagogy degree was recognized.

While many of the staff had argued for retrenchment it was not a strategy shared by College governors nor a series of principals from 2010 to 2019. They moved the College to new premises in Whitechapel. They looked to grow numbers in a challenging market and to take the College into areas of activity not easily linked to the core areas of expertise and to existing networks. One or two developments seemed like they could flourish given time. Level 3 programmes concerned with housing management and with developing the role of teaching assistants as pedagogues within specialist education looked promising. However, time was not on their side and funding for such work was in short supply. Numbers on the full-time programme continued to decline – and the cuts to youth services affected recruitment to the distance learning programme. This was further exacerbated by the Rank Foundation’s decision to alter its focus and approach to supporting local agencies. It led to the dismantling of their existing youth work programme – and the loss of a significant number of students on the distance learning programme. Poor management never helped but one senses the College, like similar courses elsewhere, folded simply because youth and community work as a practice format was in terminal decline.

The monotechnic format which, in all likelihood, proved the fatal weakness, was long the College’s greatest strength. Maybe given the teaching team were locked into face-to-face teaching whilst writing distance learning materials meant they generated an exceptional array of texts, on-line open-access resources and research material relating to youth work, informal education, group work and counselling. Staff undoubtedly benefited from being based in a free-standing institution which meant they were never enmeshed in the ridiculous ‘research assessment’ procedures which blighted universities. Whilst university contemporaries were forced to churn out rarely, if ever, read formulaic articles published in expensive, and for practitioners, unobtainable journals, College tutors were free to focus on writing material associated with the very worlds of practice their students engaged with. Irrespective of the causal factors this tiny staff team has left an incredible legacy.



Apart from the fact the staff’s contribution to the field was enviable, or that the College’s capacity for innovation was exceptional, the tide was on the turn. Yes, it is unfair that other far, far weaker less academically rigorous programmes are still running. But nowadays, Higher Education is a corrupted market which generally pays scant attention to scholarship or the educational, as opposed to the monetary, needs of students. It is impossible to envisage, given the organisation’s current ethos, that another college devoted to the degree-level education of youth workers, informal educators or social pedagogues will be established in the UK or North America by the YMCA. They are too busy chasing income to invest in educational projects that offer no immediate cash windfall. However, maybe one day, perhaps in Africa or Asia the flame might be re-ignited in which case a new chapter may yet be attached to this story.

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Last Updated: 8 April 2021


This is an abridged version of an article to be published online by the Infed website later in 2021.


Tony Jeffs is an Emeritus member of the Sociology Department Durham University.