A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
That future-gazing will be very different, depending on the part of the youth sector we’re in, and sometimes it can be hard to be positive in the face of contracting budgets, redundancies, and the trials that face young people growing into adulthood now.
And yet somehow recent events at work have conspired to emphasise what, of course, I already hold to be true: that youth work really works and really matters – and that in spite of its proponents shouting about it, it’s still got a long way to go to get its voice heard outside its own sector. (Ironic, really, when youth work gives young people a voice and enables them to be better heard by those who matter…)
I think it’s the convergence of so many themes recently that have reminded me of the power of youth work, and the passion and conviction of its supporters, which made me wonder about other sectors and professions, and whether they have the same internal and external struggles as youth work.
Out of school hours learning
Let me put my cards on the table to start with: I’m a qualified and experienced teacher and lecturer, and then worked in the field of children’s social care before joining Partnership for Young London at its inception in 2005. I was appointed on the basis of my capacity to bring people together to do what they do better, not for my experience of youth work.
In fact, the final project I was involved in before moving to PYL was a short piece of research exploring how well children in care were able to access what was then called ‘out of school hours learning’ (OSHL) and which would now come under the heading of positive activities, I suppose. I had spent a lot of time previously encouraging social workers and foster carers to understand more about the education of children in care, and teachers to be more understanding of what it meant for a child to be looked after.
One of the issues that the OSHL research report raised was how far youth workers were involved in these activities; I think the brief answer was (at the time, and in the limited local authorities with which we were working) ‘not very’; and I moved on before the recommendations of the report could be acted upon. I recount this not out of an autobiographical interest, but to give a sense of how far I had to travel in becoming a youth work convert. I’m sure that if that piece of research were carried out now, the answer would, thankfully, be very different.
Value and contribution
Recently, PYL held a discussion event about the value and contribution of the youth sector workforce, one of the aims of which was to promote the sector to the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services, as a strategic follow-up to the Future Models for Youth report we co-authored for them (that I referred to in the blog back in October). In sitting down to explore the context for that event it was potentially quite daunting to spell out all that we are up against.
After all, the government is publicly rejecting the idea of youth as a focus for national policy (other than as they are unemployed or in receipt of housing benefit) and is devolving responsibility – and, let’s consider, the possibilities – onto local government. Whatever the outcome of the protests from the sector and from young people to this, there are implications for the workforce in how it is perceived by government, by colleagues in other disciplines, by young people and the communities they live in; how it perceives itself; how it is organised; how movement within the sector will be affected by a focus on local requirements and decisions – e.g. what value will be placed on JNC qualifications in future, and how will this affect workers’ ability and willingness to move jobs?
The Choose Youth campaign and manifesto has done well to tackle the issue of public profile, and to bring together what has been – and certainly has been perceived by Government as – a sector that is sometimes dysfunctional and factionalised, obsessed to the point of self-destruction with analysis of the purity of its purpose.
We need to lose the tag of ‘the Cinderella service’, comparing ourselves to sectors with more statutory accountability, and focus on externally promoting our contribution to young people’s life-chances. (This raises the issue of demonstrating outcomes, which is too important to tackle here in brief, and which deserves a blog entry all of its own…)
Having recently attended commissioning sessions in the London Borough of Merton, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the process, the real engagement of young people throughout, and their contributions both as commissioners and in supporting bidding organisations. The transformative power of youth work was much in evidence.
The changes in in local authority structures and the associated commissioning arrangements are having a major impact on what is delivered, how, and by whom. Where does youth sit in that, and how is the workforce being deployed?
The rise of casework as a methodology for working with young people, stemming from the rise of social care as the dominant service-delivery paradigm, has implications for how our workforce performs, both in methodology and in skills. But should we be getting worked up about this, as ADCS is looking at reforming care to be centred around the child first, as seen in its position paper, What is Care For?… Will there be learning for social care workers from youth workers…?
Without jumping the gun, the evaluation work that PYL has been involved in with Learning South West as part of one of the Youth Innovation Zones in the south west of England, seems to be suggesting loud and clear that Troubled/Complex Families Teams can learn significantly from youth work principles (though the debate about how that works in practice may well be the subject of a future blog).
Homogenisation of roles
How best are we to maximise the talents of the youth sector, which are at risk of being lost in the homogenisation of roles within multi-agency teams? Remember the food imagery that accompanied the introduction of the short-lived but intensive development programme for IYSS? – the salad and soup approaches, recognising the distinctiveness of the ingredients in the end product. It is imperative for the youth sector to promote its potential contribution, so that we don’t end up with the ‘smoothie’ approach, in which the professions are blurred entirely, and years of training and development are wasted.
And it’s not just about the state of the sector now: we need to be mindful of the impact of the demographic surge that is currently being felt within primary school settings, and will be making itself felt within ten years in the youth sector. While it’s hard to think that far ahead at times when planning a year’s budget seems challenging, if we are not careful to sustain a workforce that’s skilled in working with young people, how will young people in the next decade benefit from services, and develop into the rounded adults we want and need them to become, let alone considering the effect on the public purse of dealing with their needs?
Youth sector training and development is still undergoing change, as the workforce – both employers and employees – are struggling to fund initial qualifications and continuing professional development. HE institutions are considering their position vis a vis Youth Work qualifications – for example, the recent decision by the University of Greenwich not to recruit to the JNC-accredited BA course this September, while it considers the future need for qualified youth workers. The question of how to develop workers with the dearth of training budgets and, reciprocally, of free or fully-funded training places, is one we need to explore.
At PYL we’re working with Youthforce, one of our members and a training organisation, offering a funded level three management apprenticeship course for those in the youth sector who find themselves leading teams and want to develop skills that sit alongside their youth work experience to help them develop their careers. It’s a small step in the right direction, and we want to explore other opportunities, too.
Creativity, then, is becoming the watchword of the sector, in ensuring its survival – not for survival’s sake, but for the young people whose futures depend on the continued skills and commitment of those who support them.
Strategic Director – Partnership for Young London