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.

The highs and lows of youth work

highs-and-lows-of-youth-work

In this week’s blog, Gill Millar from Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West looks at Bristol’s new Strategic Priorities for Young People document and explores the impact that cuts and important managerial decisions has had on the sector.

When I started thinking about this week’s blog I wanted to focus on a really positive event held in Bristol on Tuesday, to launch the new Strategic Priorities for Young People for the city.

The Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West has been involved in pulling together the strategic priorities document, which was initiated by Bristol City Council’s Youth Links team and co-produced with young people from the city’s Youth Council and with voluntary and independent youth and play organisations from across Bristol. The document, launched at a conference of 100 people on Tuesday, identifies four priority themes:

  • Healthy body, healthy mind
  • A child and young people friendly city
  • Young people active and safe in their communities
  • A curriculum for life

These themes emerge from the issues identified through consultation with young people and youth organisations, a review of the statistics about young people in Bristol, and the manifesto commitments of the youth council. The idea is that they will inform decisions about commissioning services for young people, and provide a platform to develop new initiatives and draw in additional funding through collaborative projects and bids. The emphasis is on practical actions with everyone empowered to take a lead, rather than waiting for the ‘authorities’ to act.

The conference was really positive and I left it thinking it was a job well done, a great example of collaboration, commitment and co-operation, and looking forward to continuing to support the process.

Yesterday, however, I met with workers from a youth-related organisation (not in Bristol) enduring the perilous storms of funding changes and lack of resources. Like many other organisations in the public and voluntary sector, it has just experienced its second significant reorganisation (and reduction) in two years, and the workers were feeling deeply unsettled, grieving the loss of experienced colleagues and possibly just beginning to realise that the pain of the reorganisation is only the beginning of a lot of really hard work to keep the organisation’s head above water.

I think that over the last five years I have seen so many good colleagues lose their jobs through redundancies and reorganisations – in our own organisation and across the youth and wider public sector – that I have had to become hardened to the emotional effect on those who go and those who are left behind. Often the managers in those organisations have had to make very difficult decisions about how to operate in an environment with a lot less money and more complex, competitive funding arrangements, and therefore about what roles and posts and people to keep and what/who will have to go. Nobody comes into youth sector management to make those decisions, and it puts terrible strain on managers, as well as on those affected by redundancies. Often the anger workers feel about the loss of colleagues is directed at the immediate managers, which compounds the stress for everyone.

The sad thing is that I can’t see that the alleged ‘good old days’ of reasonably well funded public services, recognition of the value of public sector professionals (I’m including voluntary sector in my definition of public here), a coherent positive intent towards young people across government policy is likely to return. Even if we had a sudden reverse on the austerity policy (otherwise known as ‘shrinking the state’) the priority is unlikely to be for youth services. We have to find other ways of enabling young people to participate in positive, exciting and challenging youth work, and we have to understand that the past is the past – learn from it and adapt to the present while getting ready for the future.

The Bristol co-production approach, engaging youth organisations and professionals, public bodies and young people themselves in agreeing and acting on priorities provides one example of trying to make it work. We can learn from that and try to build local approaches that use the resources and expertise available in each area. It won’t be possible everywhere. But if we are still in youth work jobs, we have a responsibility to do the best we can for the young people we work with, and that in itself can be positive.

Gill Millar, Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West

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