Joan Matthews: Professional skill

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Subtitled ‘Notes written for the guidance of area organizers and supervisors but which may also serve as an introduction to social group work for youth leaders’, this 1968 pamphlet by Joan E. Matthews was a popular introduction to the area.

contents: preface · professional skill · how to cite this piece
Joan E. Matthews was a Principal Lecturer at the National College for the Training of Youth Leaders in Leceister (set up in the wake of the Albemarle Report in 1961). Later, after the College closed, she worked on the Youth and Community Work Programme at Leicester Polytechnic. She was also a member of the Youth Service Development Council (and a member of the ‘Milson’ sub-committee which helped to produce Youth and Community Work in the 70s). Matthews’ particular contribution was in her exploration and promotion of social groupwork in Britain. Her book, Working with Youth Groups (1966, University of London Press) both made a strong case for the validity of social groupwork, and examined some key elements of practice. She also updated Josephine Macalister Brew’s Working with Youth Group in 1968.Professional Skill was part of a popular series of pamphlets published by the National Association of Youth Clubs aimed at the development of practice in club work (other titles included Looking at Youth Clubs and Growing with the Job).

Professional skill

[page 1] Working with people in clubs and other membership organisations has a long and honourable history in this country. Whatever the particular aim of any one club or association, all those who work among the members of any of them share one underlying purpose. This is to help the members develop more fully in socially acceptable ways — to grow in the capacity to form healthy and enjoyable relationships with other people, in the ability to appreciate, tolerate, encourage and assist others, and in the ability to take a lead or allow someone else to take it, for the benefit of the group; to recognise and begin to control their own strengths and weaknesses; to deliberate together, come to decisions together and carry out those decisions co-operatively and responsibly.

The skilled pursuit of this common aim is now often known as Social Group Work. The term was first used in the United States, where this kind of work is seen as a method of social work. Not everyone in this country would agree that working with people in leisure-time organisations should be included in social work because to some social work necessarily means work with people who manifestly have, or are, social problems. If, however, one’s concept of social work is sufficiently wide to denote helping “normal people” to grow positively, as well as helping with the remedial development of those in more obvious difficulties, this problem need not arise. It is true that the same skill that is needed for social group work in leisure-time settings can be used in “treatment” settings, such as hospitals or approved schools, for specifically therapeutic purposes, but these are not the situations we are concerned with here. For social group work is not only concerned with helping people to overcome the problems which they have, but also with helping people to develop in such a way that they are more able to avoid, or to overcome with their own resources, whatever problems come their way.

Here we are concerned with children, adolescents and young adults who choose to join leisure-time clubs, and whether one chooses to think of work in this context as social work or not makes no difference to what follows. Frequently, in areas with many voluntary leaders, the area organisers (voluntary or statutory) are the only people in the district with any [page 2] professional knowledge or skill in club work. Therefore, if the club members are to receive the benefit of the organisers’ professional ability, the organisers must work through the voluntary leaders so that the leaders’ work is guided by professional skill and knowledge. This process is sometimes known as supervision, and this pamphlet is addressed to area organisers and those key professional workers who help to train others in youth work. They can give valuable support to voluntary club leaders and helpers through successful supervision, which is a method of spreading professional skill.

Area organisers do, of course, need to know the clubs at first hand, and visits to clubs in session are necessary for many reasons, but these visits are not the occasions for supervisory discussions with the leader. To try to make them so would be unfair to the member, the leader and the organiser. The first essential is to meet the leaders regularly outside club times for supervisory sessions. Circumstances vary from place to place; in some areas it is possible to bring leaders together at fairly frequent intervals, but in others this is very difficult. In all cases separate meetings with each leader are necessary, and are particularly important for those who are new to the work. For such people it would be well to try to have weekly meetings of three-quarters of an hour to one hour’s length. As leaders become more competent and confident, these sessions can be held less frequently, and in a few cases it may eventually become satisfactory to leave the leader to ask for a meeting as and when needed. Joint meetings of club leaders provide opportunities for group discussion which can often give a stimulus of a kind which individual discussions do not provide. Even in the most difficult areas it is worth making the occasional special effort, such as an annual residential conference, because meetings of this kind can give club leaders real support by letting them feel that they are themselves members one of another, and not just lone toilers.

All this implies that the organiser will make considerable demands on the time of the club leaders. Not only will they prepare for and play their part at the club but they will be expected to give perhaps an hour a week to supervision, to attend leaders’ meetings, [page 3] and, as we shall see later, to spend more time preparing for the consultation sessions. An organiser may well ask how one can make such demands on volunteers giving their services on behalf of independent committees or sponsoring bodies. To recognise that the demand is great is certainly important, and it is equally important to recognise that the purpose justifies the demand. To allow people to think that anyone can do good club work by the light of nature alone, is no service to the clubs. These clubs, their leaders and sponsoring committees choose to affiliate to the association, and it is at the point when affiliation is sought that the demand can reasonably be made, and that supervision or training can be presented as an integral part of the work being undertaken within the association. This approach presents the voluntary leader with a challenge to his abilities, and at the same time offers a source of assistance to meet it. Good volunteers will respond to this, for they will realise that they have a need for and a right to this assistance, and that it is the organiser’s duty to provide it.

In general, the supervisory process is one in which the club leader recalls to the supervisor the events of a club session, or part of it, and the supervisor helps the leader to interpret these events in terms of the members’ experience—their satisfactions, discontents, their progress and their problems. Thus the leader gradually learns to think not merely in terms such as:

“Jim and Mike and three others spent three-quarters of an hour at table tennis. Jim and Mike are good players, and Jim wants to arrange a tournament. Bill was with this group. He is a poor player and was a nuisance most of the time, running off with the ball, etc. Jim became angry with him and threatened to box his ears. When the others had left the table Mike took Bill back and tried to teach him some good shots.”

but in such terms as:

“Jim, Mike, A, B, and C, get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from table tennis, and like to play seriously. Jim is very anxious to establish his superiority in the game. He wants to be appreciated by others, but does not shine in the club as a whole as he is usually too self-conscious to participate [page 4] fully except when he knows he can excel. Mike is more mature, and much more secure. He can tolerate competition and even distraction. Bill is socially backward compared with the other members, and seems to have no close friends. He very much needs to be accepted by some of the others, but expects rejection all the time, because he has no accomplishments. He tries to avoid this rejection by playing the clown every time serious participation is called for. His reaction to Mike’s gesture of acceptance and help was well marked. While Mike was giving him his whole attention, and for a while afterwards, Bill was attentive, cooperative and much quieter than usual.”

This, of course, might not be the true interpretation, and at first the supervisor can only suggest what the interpretations might be. The club leader is the person who knows the members and observes what goes on, and in the end is the only person in a position to make the real interpretations.

This process will help the club leader to observe the club and its members in a trained way: the way that is focused on the needs and progress of the members and regards the activities that take place primarily as a means to helping the members’ sound development rather than as an end in themselves. Training in observation of this kind is the first step.

As the club leader begins to be able to interpret for himself, he will soon realise that he needs more information about some members before complete interpretation is possible. Bill, for instance, is observed to be socially backward, but it will be difficult to know how to help him without knowing how the backwardness arises. Perhaps he is the youngest child of old parents, and his older brothers or sisters were grown up while he was still a baby; perhaps he has been regarded as a baby for too long. Perhaps he has lived in a quite different place until recently, and is simply not yet used to the ways of his contemporaries in his new environment. His need may therefore be mainly for added opportunities to practise social skills, and these the club can provide. He may, however, be socially backward because he comes from a family that has been socially ostracised due to one member’s criminal record or mental illness. If so, he is unlikely to be able to make use of the [page 5] opportunities offered by the club without some individual encouragement and help. It might even be that his coming to the club is not approved of by his family, and that his attendance is part of an effort on his part to become independent of an over-strict home. In such a case his inability to co-operate and his destructiveness may well be expressions of the conflict he is in, and not illustrations of his real social ability.

Knowledge of a member’s home background, school, or work may be all important in the interpretation of his behaviour. Having realised this, the club leader will need help in collecting and storing such information. One way of helping is to ask the leader in the supervisory sessions to recount the new information he has gathered, and to say what further information he is aware of needing. Many club members are ready to pour out a great deal of information about themselves, at any opportunity, and when this happens their attitudes as well as the information can be noted. Others are more reticent, but may sometimes give the club leader cues that should be followed up, though not necessarily on the spot or in the presence of other members. An example of this occurred when on hearing the club leader offer to call at the home of one of the other members to collect something, one boy came up to him and said urgently, “You won’t ever call round my place, will you?” The leader needs not only encouragement to notice all these things, but assistance in deciding how to follow them up. It is, of course, essential that the club leader should understand that much of the information he receives from members is given in confidence, and that he must treat it confidentially, with all that this implies.

The next step is to help the club leader to give the members, through their membership, the kind of experience that will help them most. For instance, it may well be that Bill does need, among other things, opportunity to be successful. The club leader should be able to teach him to do well something that is useful to the club, and to show some appreciation of his efforts in the presence of other members, thus raising his status and reducing his need to play the clown at inappropriate times. The leader has already noted that Mike is a person who can help Bill. Mike [page 6]might be shown that the leader recognises this, and he may need some advice, for instance on how to prevent Bill becoming too dependent upon him. Jim might be helped through individual discussion to relax a little and realise that he would get on better with the others if he were less of a perfectionist.

Attention so far has been directed to the club leader helping individual members, but he will also need guidance in thinking about and handling the group as a group. Much of this part of the work has to do with the club’s ability to manage its own affairs. The first task is to estimate the club’s ability for this, and there are several dimensions to take into account here:

  1. The range of the members’ ideas about the possibilities that membership can offer. How compatible with each other different members’ ideas for the club are. How realistic these ideas are.
  2. Their attitude towards regulation. Has their experience led them to think of all rules and regulations as irksome impositions made by outside authority, or do they see them as convenient ways of avoiding difficulty and making it possible to get on with things?
  3. Their ability to control themselves and each other within whatever limits they do accept. Their degree of reliability and responsibility.
  4. The extent to which they need to let off pent-up feelings and energy, or to be stimulated out of apathy, before anything can happen.

It is not easy to say how one makes an initial assessment of where the club stands in these matters, but a reasonable judgment can usually be made from conversation and general behaviour and this may have to be tested by trial and error. The general rule is that club leaders should give members as much “rope” as they can possibly handle in the management of the club’s affairs, and should increase the amount as their capacities increase. The general tendency among leaders is to give too little rather than too much, most of the time. This is sometimes due to a confusion of ends and means in their minds, and is often encouraged by a desire to be able to [page 7] demonstrate some “end product” to sponsoring committees and other authorities, who tend to judge a leader’s work on this superficial but tangible level.

Leaders need help in realising that for the members to go through the process of deciding what shall be done, and of making the arrangements that are necessary, is often quite as important as doing whatever was decided, even though this process takes longer and arrangements are not always as efficient as they might have been had the leader done all this himself. His function is to give members help appropriate to the level of ability they have reached. With young groups particularly, this often entails even reminding them what it was that they decided to do. It is often a question of pointing out what a decision, for instance to put on a show or hold a dance, entails so that the decision is made realistically; and it often means pointing out that the sponsoring committee’s advice or approval should be sought before certain actions are taken, and why. At the stage of making arrangements it may be a matter of ensuring that everything has been looked after, reminding members of things they seem to have forgotten, telling them of things they did not think of, and it may often be a matter of showing them how to do things they have not done before; but it is not a matter of taking the job out of their hands and doing it for them, even though it may be necessary to come quickly to their assistance in an emergency. From this kind of experience members can learn not only how to do things, but how to plan ahead, what being reliable about one’s allotted task really means, what happens to oneself and other people when one fails to do one’s job, and which kind of contributions different people can make. As the members’ experience of this kind of activity increases, so the qualities and abilities called for develop in them.

When the range of ideas of what the club can do is limited, as it is always to some extent with young people, the leader needs to be able to make suggestions that supplement these ideas, and the suggestions should be made bearing in mind what he already knows of the members’ needs and abilities.

Young and immature groups should not be expected to regulate their own behaviour except in limited [page 8] ways, and the club leader must expect to have to set the limits and deal with transgressors. Pre-adolescent groups not only need but expect this from the leader, for they need a framework within which to exercise their own initiative and control, and to know that they will be kept within its limits. Unlimited responsibility for themselves is too heavy for most of them. Young adolescents usually need a similar but slightly wider framework, though the leader should understand that it is part of their normal behaviour to begin to question all restrictions on their growing powers. Adolescents frequently vacillate between being able to set and hold their own limits and regressing to less controlled behaviour, especially under stress or in excitement, thus relieving themselves of adult responsibility which they have not yet fully accepted. This kind of vacillation often worries leaders, who need to understand that this is all part of normal development, and that they can help adolescents to progress towards adult stability by showing that, while they expect an effort at adult behaviour from the group, they are not shocked by these regressions. Leaders can help further by ensuring that programmes for club sessions include opportunities for legitimate release of tension and expression of excitement, such as noisy games, energetic dancing and community singing.

When members’ experiences outside the club have led them to be hostile to all authority, the club and its leader may sometimes become the target for this hostility which has found no other outlet. This sometimes happens with adolescents whose general environment is restricting and frustrating. The occurrence of this kind of outbreak, which is generally characterised by rowdiness, damage to equipment and general hooliganism, is hard for any leader to face and is often interpreted as a personal failure unless he understands the source of the hostility and the fact that it is not directed at him in a personal way, but at the club agency as a representative of authority which the members can reach to give vent to their feelings. The trouble may start with just one member who has reached a crisis point in his feelings, but the mood is infectious among frustrated or under-privileged adolescents. A discerning club [page 9] leader, who was liked and respected by his members, happened to catch a 16-year-old boy attacking the billiard table with a home-made cosh. He immediately and feelingly remarked, “Ray, you must be having a hell of a time with someone; is it your girl friend, your old man, or your boss?” thus showing not only admirable control of his own feelings, but immediate understanding of the boy’s. In one sentence he went a long way to counteracting the boy’s hostility by giving him assurance that someone in authority accepted him as he was. The damage was done, and the boy had to make it good, but having to pay up was less like an authoritarian imposition and more like common justice than it could ever have been without the leader’s expressed understanding.

A club’s ability to use formal methods of self-government usually grows as its members come to accept that some limits and controls are necessary, and that planning ahead is a good thing. Whether they understand the more sophisticated and elaborate methods or not will depend on their previous experience, and a club leader should not assume that any particular methods of holding elections or making decisions is understood, without first making sure. He will often be doing something far more valuable with a young and inexperienced group by spending the last ten minutes of each session helping the whole group to make certain decisions and then spending a short time at the start of each session reminding the group of those decisions and helping it to carry them out, than he will by pushing them through the actions of electing a formal committee before they understand the substance of self-management or the meaning of committee membership.

These are some of the things that leaders need to know, and some of the ways in which they may be helped in their work through supervision. For supervisory sessions to be successful, both the leader and the supervisor must prepare for them. The leader will need to recall to himself what has been going on and to record his observations, so that he can easily recount them to the supervisor, offer his interpretations, explain his problems and ask his questions. The [page 10] sooner after the club session he does this, the more reliable the record is likely to be. In time, his accumulated observations will make it possible to compare the present with the past, and make some reasonable estimate of the progress of individuals and of the group. Without records, such estimations can only be based on long memories, which are generally quite unreliable. The supervisor too, must keep records of supervisory sessions to enable him to have a reliable estimate of the leader’s progress and to plan satisfactory help. These records are not reports for committees, or essays, but essentially notes which serve to recall observed facts accurately. They may very well be limited at first to quite restricted observations, and the supervisor need not even see them. They should never go to anyone except the leader and the supervisor, and would often be justifiably meaningless to anyone else. (In passing, it should be noted, however, that in this country we are in great need of good club records for anonymous use in professional training, and therefore if and when anyone shows a flair for writing these he should be encouraged.)

In view of the varied conditions under which area organisers work, it is impossible to draw up a programme of supervision for all of them to follow, but it is clear that each will need to develop a programme of his own if these ideas are to be put into practice. At first leaders may be only asked to make and record observations on two or three members over a period of time. From this a beginning may be made on the interpretation of behaviour. Later, more concentration may be put on gathering information and following up cues. As circumstances permit, some subjects such as normal adolescent development may be more easily handled at joint meetings.

Since the future development of club work is almost bound to depend largely on the continued services of voluntary leaders, it seems vital that the trained people available, who are area organisers or leader/organisers, should regard themselves as the local sources from which professional skill must flow through the voluntary leaders to the clubs where it is needed.

How to cite this piece: Matthews, J. E. (1968) Professional Skill. London: National Association of Youth Clubs. Available in the informal education archives:

Acknowledgement: The photograph is from Newcastle Libraries Torday’s Tyneside series and is listed as being in the public domain

This piece has been reproduced here with permission of UK Youth.
First placed in the archives: April 2003.