A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
In this week’s blog, Gill Millar from Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West looks at the impact of Kids Company’s closure and the sudden interest the media currently has in youth services.
The sudden closure of Kids Company earlier this month generated an intense burst of media interest in charities working with young people, as press, TV and radio shows that have never previously shown the slightest interest in the state of the youth sector, tried to find themes that link the wider sector to the difficulties faced by Kids Company. According to some of the ‘experts’ invited to comment, apparently there are too many youth charities; they are inappropriately led and not accountable for the vast sums of money they receive from government.
It is really not helpful, and it is really not true.
For a start, it is impossible to extrapolate issues for the wider sector from Kids Company’s experience. No other charity working with young people has had anything like the sums of central government money that have been granted to Kids Company in recent years. The annual grant to Kids Company, which, in my understanding, never went through any kind of competitive bidding process, is larger than the total amount of Cabinet Office grants available for the rest of the youth sector this year. The rest of the sector, if it wants government funding, has to bid for very targeted grant pots and contracts focused on government priorities rather than simply grants to keep doing what they already do well.
It is true, however, that many youth charities face real financial challenges as historic sources of funding disappear. Smaller local charities are often dependent on one main source of grant funding, often the local authority, and if that funding ends they really struggle to find alternatives to maintain their work with young people. Those that survive and thrive have become adaptable, able to take on new projects targeted at specific groups of young people, and have learnt to balance a wide range of short term funding streams to keep the organisation going in the long term. Getting through the last five years has meant diversification, even if that is sometimes at the expense of their original work in their communities.
Much of this takes place below the radar of the media, and out of sight of government departments and ministers. Local media coverage and locally led campaigns to save organisations can sometimes be successful – we have seen some positive young people-led campaigns to save local youth services – but they rarely evoke a positive response from government ministers even when direct requests are made.
Kids Company is/was a unique organisation with its own methodology drawing on therapeutic approaches as well as some basic relationship building with young people in challenging circumstances. It is also uniquely well connected to politicians and media, and has used those connections to great effect to maintain a high profile over many years. Its passing is a real shame for those young people who relied on its provision, and the abrupt nature of its closure leaves no opportunity to prepare vulnerable young people for life with less wrap-around support. Most youth organisations facing terminal difficulties do manage to put in place an orderly closure, with time to refer young people to other providers and end the relationships in more appropriate ways. Sudden closure was media gold, but I doubt that it helped the young people.
One of the issues this has highlighted for me is the lack of critical and investigative journalism focused on work with children and young people. Outside the trade press, there is very little regular coverage of a sector that has seen massive decline in local and central government funding since 2010, maintains high numbers of volunteers alongside professional staff and works with young people who are most likely to be excluded from the labour market and learning.
In decades gone by the weekly New Society provided critical journalistic analysis of policy and practice but there are very few journalists today focusing on this field. There are stories to be found – Rotherham’s CSE failings as an example – and more investigative journalists would make it more likely that dubious practice, or the impact of policy initiatives would be exposed. Maybe one of the bigger philanthropic trusts could consider scholarships for young journalists in the children and youth sector to encourage more journalistic talent to specialise in the sector and bring the issues faced by children and young people into the public view?
Regional Youth Work Adviser
Learning South West