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CEO’s Thoughts on Youth Organisations Crisis

13 January 2021

The Guardian article of 3 January 2021 does no more than point out the devastating and appalling vandalism of a support service for young people. Youth work should be about supporting young people in the community in which they live and providing opportunities for those most at risk to have positive role models, mentors and support services that help to prevent young people from needing the longer term and expensive statutory social work or medical interventions.

These issues have not just happened overnight: the destruction of preventative youth work began in the early 2000s under a Labour government who gave us outcome measures and rewards for interventions; a system designed to count outcomes cannot measure the enormous advantage of prevention.

Additionally, the youth service has not had champions who could see the value of prevention. Given the choice of cuts to statutory services vs preventative services, the lawyers and leaders will always choose to follow the line of least risk. With the cuts of 2010 and a decade of austerity, local authorities have been forced to make difficult decisions based upon impossible choices.

A very important aspect of youth work has always been to keep young people safe; not to police them, but to encourage and develop an agreed contract of positive engagement. It takes a huge army of volunteers to support the sports and activities in which young people across the country participate. Youth work has always been about young people who cannot access mainstream services, who do not have supportive families, have caring responsibilities and often more difficult circumstances than their peers. Many of them live in our most deprived communities. The case for youth work goes on. What we have is a system of measurement, and educational attainment is the same: schools are judged by the A to C grades that their students attain, teachers are judged by the A to C grades of pupils and parents are also focused on their children’s achievement and attainment. What this means is that we have young people competing with each other, feeling extreme pressure and learning with the aim of passing their exams. On the other hand, we see an increase in self-medication and demand for opiates, parents and carers holding down several jobs to maintain household incomes and a significant increase in the level of working poor.

Furthermore, national funds have been diverted to create a new National Citizens Service. The best part of £1 billion will be spent offering young people aged 16 a 4-week experience at the expense of a national youth service which offered 52-weeks a year of support to some of the most at risk communities and young people. I do not feel that the development of a 4-week volunteering project for one academic year group is a good use of government funds. The expectation was that the holes in the system were to plugged by local authorities from their own budgets, but we have seen their budgets take a huge hit. I would like the government to release the £500 million Youth Investment Fund, promised in the Conservative party’s manifesto, now and as a matter of urgency. I am deeply concerned that there won’t be a youth service to invest in if there is further delay.

Tragically, we have recently witnessed a stabbing in Reading involving young teenagers. It is terrible to see young people at the age of 12, 13 or 14 involved with the death of peers, the distribution of drugs and being targeted by criminal gangs. In spite of all of this, still we see no national youth work strategy and any discussion of forming one is continually delayed even though we know it is so vital now.

I absolutely support the article in the Guardian, but better qualified youth workers than me have been telling the government the value of long term youth work interventions, the value of investing in young people out of school and the positive value of providing safe places for young people where they will have the support of skilled qualified and experienced youth workers. This is especially important for the young people who are most at risk and in need. If the government could make this investment and commitment to young people, we would witness a reduction in the longer term burden to society, whilst keeping young people healthy, safe and well today. The cost to incarcerate young people is economically unrealistic in the long term, in terms of prison costs or through medically sentencing the young people to mental health problems. I would far rather we empowered our young people and looked to preventing these issues than simply prescribing short term interventions. I know from my own personal experience what a positive role youth workers can play in young people’s lives. I still meet with my own youth workers who remain valued members of my support network. I would like this help to be available for this generation who have so much to contend with as a result of the pandemic and chronic underinvestment.

Some of the best small and medium sized businesses have grown out of local people finding their own support from the community, friends and colleagues. Formal education plays a huge role in our lives, but we all need a balance and options; one size does not fit all and young people need a range of support and offers.

Whatever we can do to help and champion young people, to give them a voice and get long term support for their personal development has be important and is in my opinion essential.

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