A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
All over the country there have been major council cuts to youth services causing the complete shutdown of many youth clubs, leaving young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go in their local area.
A generation of young people now feel lost as they no longer seem to have a place within their community to meet with friends, seek advice from professionals and make a difference in their local area. All in all, the future for young people with no youth provision all sounds very depressing. However, an article written by Mark Easton titled ‘Can the Big Society save Youth Clubs?‘ highlights how many youth clubs have been taken over by their local communities and volunteers, supported by professional expertise, or that they raise money to buy in a youth worker. Could this be the answer?
So we posed the following question to each of the Regional Youth Work Units in England – ‘Can the Big Society save Youth Clubs?’. Here’s their responses:
“I started my youth work career as a volunteer, if I hadn’t have had that opportunity I would not have made the decision to become a youth worker and look for a training course. The support I got from qualified staff helped me understand the role of the youth worker and that made the difference in helping make a decision. I believe that volunteers of all ages have a role to play but to make the best possible offer to young people they need and deserve the support of qualified and experienced youth workers.”
“Youth work has always had its roots in the voluntary and community sector, and encourages the development of qualities that make volunteer-run activities possible: teamwork, leadership, care for others, commitment, organisational skills to name but a few. Whoever provides a service, we need to consider the quality of experience the young people have, the genuine opportunities for personal development, the skills of those supporting them, and the sustainability of the provision so that young people engaging with them are not let down.”
“It is to be commended that local volunteers and young people are taking the opportunity to run their local youth clubs, rather than see them close. It is an indication that young people value their local services and want to make a positive contribution to their peers and other members of the community.
“However, is it a sustainable model? Initial enthusiasm needs to be tempered with the reality of running a project over the long-term. A number of the new ‘volunteer-led’ youth clubs are being supported by the rump of existing youth services, and being provided with additional practical and financial support from their local authority. What happens when this support has gone? Can local volunteers really provide the level of support needed to keep a building open, fundraise for resources, deal with crises and emergencies and provide the necessary human infrastructure needed to run a safe, secure and attractive youth club?
“We will only know the answer in the longer-term. It is far too soon to laud, or condemn the concept of volunteer-led youth services.
“It does beg the question why I bothered getting qualified in the first place. If what I do is not worthy of a salary, then I might as well have stayed a deckchair attendant.”
“Local volunteers have always played crucial roles in starting up and sustaining youth clubs and projects in their areas. The majority of those who become professional youth workers started off as volunteers. Many of those who are taking on youth clubs that have been closed by local authorities were involved in the youth club while it had council funding.
“In areas where local authorities are massively reducing their funding for youth work, local people, supported by local organisations including Parish & Town Councils, are busting a gut to keep youth work going in their communities, and their efforts are a testament to their commitment to local young people.”
Support and celebrate...
A lot is lost though: without professional guidance – safety, safeguarding and quality assurance can slip, placing not just young people but the volunteers who work with them at risk. Youth work is a form of informal education, helping young people to build their resilience, develop their confidence and skills and enjoy working together. Volunteers will benefit from professional support in designing the offer to young people, and making sure it is dynamic and responsive to changing needs. Young people often say that they value building relationships with youth workers who are able to support them in making difficult decisions about their lives – while some volunteers are naturally good at this, many will struggle with the complex process of support and challenge that makes up youth work.
So let’s support and celebrate volunteers working with young people in their communities – it’s great that they are willing to put in the time and effort. But let’s make sure they have the right professional support and guidance, relevant and accessible training to develop their work with young people. Let’s also make sure they have enough money to keep going, so they don’t have to spend all their efforts on fundraising just in order to open the doors. And let’s make sure there is a network of organisations providing support and pathways to specialist services for young people.
Regional Youth Work Units and local youth sector infrastructure organisations need to work together to make sure that the limited funding available is used sensibly, providing easily accessible pathways for volunteer clubs to access consistent professional support and guidance.
On a slightly different tack, I’ve got concerns about the communities where volunteers are less likely to come forward. They are the areas where young people are seen as problems, and behave accordingly. Often these young people need youth work more than others – who will provide for them when the professionals are pulled out?