Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

Are there reasons to be cheerful for youth work?


In this week’s blog, Gill Millar from Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West explores the relationship between the youth work sector and the education sector and why it’s important to get it right.

It’s easy to be gloomy about the future for youth work, with the expectation of more cuts to local authority budgets and the inevitable consequence of focusing more on young people in crisis and less on preventing them from needing crisis services. Now that the post-election direction of travel is clear, there is a need to reinvent youth work in ways that will mean that it benefits as many young people as possible and doesn’t simply become an arm of children’s social care. That will mean thinking in different ways and outside some of the structures that have provided the ‘architecture’ for youth services for most of my professional life in youth work. And it’s hard to move away from structures that have generally been seen as a positive environment throughout that period.

So it was refreshing last week to meet John Lee from South Bristol Youth who do seem to be finding new ways of using informal education, exciting and challenging experiences and positive thinking to encourage young people to understand themselves, increase their aspirations and develop new skills and confidence.

Key to South Bristol Youth’s approach is partnership with schools, and between schools, which is often more of a challenge. We talked about what makes school partnerships work, and agreed that schools need to understand how the programmes on offer will help them meet their key objectives – increasing achievement, engaging and keeping young people in education and expanding their horizons and aspirations. So youth organisations pitching project to schools need to be really sharp and precise about how their work will help achieve these outcomes. This means programme plans, clear outcomes, evidence of success and an overall message that teachers as professional educators will understand and buy into. If you can’t convince them that you know what you will achieve, they are unlikely to welcome you with open arms, even if your service is free.

The conversation with John got me thinking about why youth work organisations often find it so hard to sell their activities and programmes to potential ‘buyers’ and commissioners. I thought about the countless occasions when I’ve been in meetings with youth workers who have dissed other professionals – teachers, careers advisers, social workers and others for not understanding young people, not understanding informal education and basically being a bit rubbish at building relationships with young people. I suspect if I looked more closely, I would remember occasions when I’ve been the one doing the dissing. This characteristic makes us appear arrogant and rude and (at least in the case of teachers), as if we are telling grandparents to suck eggs. We shouldn’t really be surprised then, if those professionals are not that enthusiastic about buying our services – especially if competitors are clearer about their outcomes and their programme.

Obviously, youth work is under threat with shrinking budgets and a dearth of champions in central and local government. Local authority youth services are a rare breed in the South West region, and as they are phased out, the main losers are young people who participate in local open-access youth work. Professional youth workers are either adapting to different roles (sometimes with different employers) where their skills with young people are used in different ways, or they are leaving work with young people altogether.

In these circumstances we have choices, even if they feel as though they’ve been forced upon us. We can mourn for the old youth service structure and tell the world how good it was (even though many of us moaned about quite a lot of it back in the day). We can campaign for more resources for youth work as a positive approach to building young people’s resilience and creativity (and this will be easier as we get a better evidence base). And in the meantime we can get on and sell not just our methods but our outcomes to schools, public health, police and crime commissioners and other potential funders with an interest in getting a better deal for young people.

This might be the time to stop drawing the line between ‘us’ (supporters of young people) and ‘them’ (those who don’t care about young people’s development) quite so close to home. Youth work is not being cut because it is so effective at giving young people a voice – in fact youth voice is one of the few areas that are seeing stable funding. It’s being cut because public services, and local government in particular, are being radically restructured with a view to providing a lot less in house and local authorities have to make really hard decisions – and sometimes get them wrong.

My resolution from today is to use those much-vaunted relationship building skills to build relationships with the wider education sector, to find ways of collaborating for the benefit of young people. My desired outcome is to open doors to funding youth work-led programmes in education-centred environments. Let’s see how it goes!

Gill Millar

Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West


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