A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
This time nine years ago, I was being interviewed for a post which was then called Regional Co-ordinator of Partnership for Young London. It was a brand new organisation, the brain-child of a group of Heads of Youth Services (as they then were), CEOs of voluntary sector organisations, the CEOs of the five Connexions Partnerships (remember them?), Government Office for London (ditto), London Councils (then known as the Association of London Government) and the GLA (in the pre-Boris days). The role was offered as a time-limited consultancy, the organisation funded from a top-slice of local authorities’ Transforming Youth Work grant (remember that?), and my colleague and I were told to come up with a package of services to support the membership, with two years to “make it or break it”.
I had been working as Head of Education Development at a national charity, developing resources and networking for local authorities and the voluntary sector to improve outcomes for children in care. My colleague in those early days, Sam Dimmock (now Sam Whyte, Policy and Parliamentary Manager at UNICEF UK), had worked with me previously; we knew how to network organisations, to provide them with regular briefings, and how to run events. We were told that the experts in youth work were ‘out there’; our role was not to be experts, but to ‘bring people together to do what they do better’ – which I think is a pretty good ambition, and one we still work towards.
We understood many of the issues facing young people, and spent the early months getting up to speed with youth work and London-specific issues. As a an East Midlander living in the West Country, I fondly remember learning to list the 32 boroughs and the City of London in alphabetical order, to be sure I didn’t forget anyone (a great alternative to counting sheep, may I say).
Partnership for Young London has changed a lot around the edges, but remains very similar at the core, since those early days. We very soon developed our strapline: to promote, support and improve services for young people in London; we were very clear that we would never shorten the name (as PYL, people might call us Pile); and we were not a Regional Youth Work Unit. OK, so one out of three ain’t bad.
Clearest of all was the knowledge that the key word in our name was Partnership: in being so truly cross-sector, including Connexions as members, we were, for that time, unique. Interestingly, as time has gone on, we have focused more on youth work, and our colleagues in the other regions have become increasingly cross-sector, blurring the distinctions between us. In the early days, I used to sit in meetings with the other Units and hear the phrase “except Partnership for Young London” repeatedly in discussions. This is uttered much more rarely these days.
Having that cross-sector membership was, and remains, very useful, even though Connexions Partnerships have been replaced as a PYL membership category by the private sector. It provided us with a prism through which to view our activities. The representation of all the sectors on our Board of Trustees was yet another way in which our activities were monitored and kept appropriate for all, and this holds true still.
Changes internally at PYL have been few but significant, and we have weathered the storms that our colleagues in all areas of the youth sector have faced. We’ve had five office locations in nine years, but all within the City of London, our host, for whose ongoing support we are very grateful; five full-time staff (never more than three at once); and a core of loyal and supportive trustees. Our offer to the sector has been flexibly tailored according to their needs and our capacity to deliver, within a changing policy environment, endless restructures, and the world of pain that the cuts have brought.
A changing landscape
The policy environment is probably the biggest change we’ve seen in nine years, affecting as it does everything else. We were set up just in time to draw organisations together to respond to Youth Matters – remember those heady days of policy accompanied by funding (and targets)? Youth Opportunity Funds left a legacy of young people trained as commissioners (amidst a plethora of dragons’ dens) and gave them skills and experiences unknown to previous generations; Youth Opportunity Cards failed to flourish. Targeted Youth Support and Integrated Youth Support Services forced local authorities into reshaping services whether they wanted to or not, and paved the way for the present focus on targeted services driven by affordability. Those times of plenty were all too soon over – as were the central pronouncements on how to structure services.
Positive for Youth – which had a fair amount in common with Youth Matters, except the money and targets – felt at the time less like a strategy and more like a directory of what government thought was happening across the youth sector. Based on sound principles of youth engagement and personal and social development (whisper it – youth work by another name) it provided a justification but no real driver for further activities apart from NCS – the Next Big Thing.
Since PYL started, we’ve seen Youth sit in various places in government – or rather, to begin with, the same place variously named: DFES; DCSF; DfE; under Ruth Kelly, Ed Balls, Tim Laughton and Michael Gove. And now the Cabinet Office, which feels vaguely promising in the hands of Nick Hurd, but masks the issue that Youth is an inconvenient topic that can be shuffled around at the whim of a minister, in a form of government by personality. If William Hague has a bad experience on holiday, should we expect to see responsibility for dealings with France also shuffled off to Cabinet Office?
Youth has been Ofstedded (is that the correct form of the verb?) but now no longer is; it was measured by the NYA audit, then the Cabinet Office survey, and looks likely to be NYA audited again. It was scrutinised by the Commons Select Committee, and chastised for an inability to demonstrate its value. The focus on measuring outcomes and impact, brought into focus by the Outcomes Framework, looks set to remain, and will hopefully demonstrate what we all know to be true, which is the transformative power of good youth work.
We’ve seen the rise of academies and apprenticeships, the rise and demise of Diplomas, the short-lived Children’s Workforce Development Council (remember the Rainbow?); we worked alongside three Learning and Skills Councils (LLUK, IfL, LSIS) as youth, typically, was passed around to see where it might fit; we tried to help the sector understand the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (when people had resources for staff development). It feels like another world, now.
In London we’ve seen the first live Mutual floated off from a local authority youth service (good luck, Epic CiC!); tri-borough and bi-borough arrangements for Children’s Services; services commissioned out entirely; services brought back in house; and every variation in between of what is commissioned and grant-funded. We’ve seen two Mayors of London (and nine Lord Mayors), the 2012 Olympic Games, the 2011 riots (civil unrest if you prefer), the 7/7 bombings, and the Occupy London protest, to name just a few landmark events in PYL’s lifetime.
There isn’t space here to explore what the experience of young people themselves has been over the past nine years. That’s a whole other blog in itself, and it would be tokenistic of me to attempt it here. It is, however, with their prospects still firmly at heart that I entrust PYL to the future, in the capable hands of its staff, trustees, members and partners, and I sign off from this my last blog with very best wishes to you all, and my thanks for making my time in the youth sector so rewarding.
Strategic Director, Partnership for Young London