Youth justice: the route to qualification

Few sectors are as complicated as youth justice, so choosing how to go about working in this area can seem daunting.

Youth justice can be simplified by being broken down into two distinct groups: those who work with children and young people day-to-day, such as youth offending teams (YOTs), child protection officers or youth court staff; and those who come into contact with them in the course of their work, such as the police, prosecution and court staff. 

The difficulty comes in trying to identify which qualifications are needed for a particular role, a task made harder by the fact the whole area is in flux and involves many organisations.

In England and Wales, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) oversees the youth justice system and has devised its own framework of qualifications for professionals working in the area. But the body tasked with improving workforce standards is Skills for Justice, which helps employers across the justice sector identify skills their staff need and promotes a range of National Occupational Standards (NOS). Skills for Justice is itself a member of the Children's Workforce Network, the alliance of sector skills councils, set up in response to Every Child Matters to help ensure staff working with children have the appropriate skills and knowledge.

That said, there are a number of qualifications that can help entrants secure a post in the youth justice sector. A degree or postgraduate qualification in social care is one way in, as is having a Joint Negotiating Committee-recognised degree in youth work. Both these qualifications cover the core skills that professionals need to work across the children and youth sector.

A number of universities now offer courses that include modules about youth justice. The University of Wales, Newport, offers a BA (Hons) Criminal and Community Justice and Youth Justice that provides a historical and political analysis of the reasons that young people offend and looks at the role of the YJB and its function. King's College London runs a full-time and part-time MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice that covers criminal justice policy. The course is run in conjunction with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, two of the leading research organisations in the field.  

The Open University has also developed a two-year foundation degree in youth justice, in association with the YJB, which provides a tailored introduction to the sector. The course is only open to those already working in the sector and aims to provide students with the skills, values and understanding required to work with children and young people who offend, or who are at risk of offending. 

City & Guilds, Edexcel and Scottish Qualifications Authority also award National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) at both Level 3 and 4 in youth justice services, but the course tends to be run by employers in the youth justice sector.

The YJB has worked in the past with The Trust for the Study of Adolescence to deliver and produce relevant short courses on issues such as parenting techniques and other forms of interventions. Training providers Backstop Support and Voice also offer courses about themes such as restorative justice and secure accommodation, which would be relevant to staff working in youth justice or related fields.

New qualifications being piloted as part of the Integrated Qualifications Framework, such as the IVQ Development Award for Vulnerable Young People, will also help professionals move into the sector.

The YJB has introduced a National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Based on the NOS, it replaces all the YJB's existing training and is transferable not only within the youth justice sector, but also to and from related sectors, such as social work, the police, Connexions and the prison service.

Prevention work

The profile of prevention has never been higher, nor job opportunities so diverse. Youth inclusion programmes (YIPs), for example, which try to stop 13- to 16-year-olds from behaving antisocially or committing offences, employ not just key workers but also activity workers to help deliver YIP and Junior YIP schemes. Many of those working in the areas will have some sort of formal social work or youth work qualification, such as a Diploma in Social Work or an NVQ in Youth Work

Crime prevention charities such as Nacro and Crime Concern, which will merge with Rainer from 1 July, also look for qualifications such as sports leadership awards and first-aid qualifications when seeking to recruit project workers and team leaders. But Chris Dare, national business development manager and youth specialist at Nacro, says that experience and empathy with young people are more important than formal qualifications. "What we look for are people with strong communication skills and a knowledge of the issues that young people face," he says.

Youth offending teams

While YOT workers are typically qualified in social work, many accommodation officers, who ensure young offenders access the housing services they need, have worked in housing, and youth workers tend often to have a BA (Hons) in Youth and Community Studies.

The YJB hopes its Youth Justice NQF will help standardise the training levels across the sector. The NQF is structured around the Professional Certificate in Effective Practice (Youth Justice), which gives professionals a solid grounding in youth justice-related issues. The YJB has also introduced the Effective Practice In-Service Training programme, where workers can take part in sessions and receive credits towards a Foundation Degree in Youth Justice. The foundation degree has been developed in association with The Open University and gives youth justice professionals a grounding in the skills required to work in the sector.

Lucy Dawes, director of performance at the YJB, says: "We introduced the Youth Justice NQF so all youth justice workers can access qualifications -appropriate to their role, education and training."

Youth custody

Custodial settings for children and young people take three forms: young offender institutions (YOIs); secure training centres (STCs); or local auth-rity secure children's homes (LASCHs).

There is currently no formal route to working in the area and staff tend to come from all walks of life. However, once recruited the key qualification in YOIs and STCs is the Juvenile Awareness Staff Programme, developed by the YJB for staff who work more than half of their time with young people.

Custodial settings employ a wide range of staff, including education specialists, healthcare professionals, psychologists and substance misuse workers. Each of these roles will require the worker to have a specialist qualification, usually to BA (Hons) level or above.

Since LASCHs house children aged 12 to 14 and vulnerable boys aged 15 and 16, the staff who work within these institutions are required to have a social care qualification.

Paul Bowers, the YJB's director of secure accommodation, says: "At the moment, with YOIs, STCs and LASCHs, we have three settings with very different histories, yet even so the basic skills required - empathy and resilience, say - are common to all."

Northern Ireland

The youth justice system in Northern Ireland is run by the Youth Justice Agency, which comprises three directorates. Most of those working in the first of these, Community Services, are registered social workers, which requires them to have a degree in social work. The second directorate is Custodial and relates to the new Youth Justice Centre near Bangor. Staff there tend to be a mixture of social workers with degrees and social care workers with NVQs in youth justice.

The third directorate is Northern Ireland's Youth Conferencing Service, which is based on restorative justice. It employs a range of specialists, from psychologists and social workers to teachers and voluntary organisations, such as Extern and Niacro. One difference to England is that the Probation Board for Northern Ireland still has statutory supervision for young people.


Scotland differs markedly to the rest of the UK when it comes to youth justice. Some practitioners consider efforts by Skills for Justice to harmonise Scottish qualifications with the rest of the UK as unworkable, due to the fundamentally different approach towards children in Scotland, and the fact that the Scottish Qualifications Authority will not ratify proposed NOS until all four countries in the UK agree to them.

However, Scottish youth justice, like the rest of the UK, aims to harmonise qualifications within. For example, the Scottish Prison Service has introduced the Youth Justice Services Level 3 Award for staff, now nationally recognised by employers across the justice sector.

Volunteers in the sector will need to receive basic training. However, over the next five years, Scotland is moving towards a minimum standard of qualification for those wanting to work professionally. Required qualifications are at present left to the organisation's discretion, but soon it is likely that a candidate will need a Health and Social Care SVQ Level 3 qualification

Jon Scott

Additional reporting by Andy Hillier



Children's Workforce Network 0113 244 6311

Crime Concern 01793 863500

Nacro 020 7840 7200

Niacro 028 9032 0157

Skills for Justice 0114 261 1499

Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland 028 9031 6400

Youth Justice Board for England and Wales 020 7271 3033

Youth Justice Scotland 0131 556 8400



Paul Dawkins, youth offending team worker, Torfaen & Monmouthshire

Paul Dawkins, 44, has worked as a YOT worker for Torfaen & Monmouthshire for more than five years and has just completed a supplementary qualification in social work through the Post-Qualifying Consortium for Wales.

"I was working as a painter and decorator until 1993, but became disillusioned with the building industry when recession hit," he says. "Wanting a career change, I was prepared to earn very little - just as well as I took a job as a support worker in a care institution for people with learning disabilities called Llanfrecfa Grange.

"I stayed 15 months and while working there, got a job as a community support worker for Torfaen social services."

Noticing that most advertised jobs that appealed to him stipulated experience in working with children, Dawkins began volunteering for his current YOT team in 1998, doing reparation work and specified activities, such as swimming and walking.

"But I realised I had to gain more formal qualifications," he continues. "So with the help of a bursary available to postgraduates and some part-time sessional work at the YOT, I took a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Social Studies at the University of Wales, Swansea.

"After that, I was a social worker in Cardiff through the agency Reed Social Care, and then did some development work with Torfaen Voluntary Alliance. After all that I felt like a break from social work, to be honest."

However, when a temporary job at Torfaen & Monmouthshire YOT came up, Dawkins jumped at the chance. He still wants to learn more and is committed to the sector, but remains unsure about where he wants to go from here. "I'll have to wait and see."

Jon Scott

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