Why we need professional youth work…

...and not just volunteers!

I just got back from speaking to over 40 leaders in the youth work field.

I was blown away.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Fabio Formaggio

Here’s why…

The UK has seen massive cuts in funding to local authorities in recent years. Like other services, youth work has taken it’s fair share of hits.

Some might say more than its “fair” share.

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Legacy of voluntary service…

Organisations like the Scouts, church youth groups, the Boys/Girls Brigade and many others, have been at the heart of British youth work for generations now. And they continue to do a great job!

Photo courtesy of 123rf/Morozova Tatiana

But the UK government’s recent push to encourage the use of more volunteers in youth work isn’t enough to mitigate the cuts to mainstream services.

For a start there aren’t enough capable people willing to do it. And even if there were, it assumes that there’s no place for a professional workforce of trained youth workers.

And clearly there is…

The case for professionalism…

Youth workers are skilled and qualified people who dedicate their working lives to the engagement and welfare of young people. Often young people who are difficult – if not impossible – for anyone else to reach.

They run the drop in centres, conduct street-based outreach work, give support and advice on a myriad of issues and act as a conduit for disaffected young people to engage with wider services.

This just isn’t something that can be done well by volunteers.

Proving what didn’t happen…

One of the difficulties facing the sector is how to evidence the good that it does.

Much of what youth work achieves is hard to prove. For example, how do you evidence that something didn’t go wrong, get worse or end up in tragedy? You can’t.

Whilst we should all celebrate prevention, that doesn’t help the youth work sector in an age of data gathering and evidence-based practice.

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Data gathering and the modern obsession with statistics does little to help the young people who respond to youth work.

It’s often a massive distraction from the job of engaging young people, but without it how do we demonstrate value for money?

This is one of youth work’s biggest challenges.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/mtr

  • How do you measure if you’ve helped a young woman get mental health advice and avoid suicide or self-harm? because the negative doesn’t happen, there’s nothing substantive to measure.
  • What about the young man who might have contracted an STD or got into a bad crowd and started offending, but doesn’t – how do we know or prove that?
  • What about the kids who head off to the youth club or chat with a friendly outreach worker and get some welcome respite that helps them cope in violent household – measure that if you can!

Yet this is the everyday stuff of youth work. Kids being helped, on their own territory and in a way that they can relate to and trust.

No other service can do this.

What youth work offers…

Here are just some of the reasons we need to hang onto what’s left of our youth service. And, if we can, why we should lobby for a government U-turn on the policy of slash and burn applied to this vital service:

  • A trained workforce – there’re no short cuts to getting good engagement with troubled young people. Youth workers are trained, supported and deployed to do this. They also learn on the job from others who’ve been doing it for years. And they do it brilliantly!
  • A deployed work force – one of youth work’s great values is its availability. For many kids this is rooted in the willingness of youth services to go to where the young people are – meeting them on their own turf. For some, offices and buildings just don’t work.
  • A bridging workforce – the ability of youth work services to engage troubled kids successfully and bridge them into other services is one of the most under-rated aspects of the sector. Without youth work many young people would never access the services they need.
  • A child-centred workforce – many services claim to be child-centred. In my experience very few are. But some of the most acutely child-centred people and services I’ve experienced have been in the youth work sector. The rest of us could learn a lot from them…

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Final word…

In my view, the demise of youth work has been one of the saddest own goals of recent governments.

In an age where youth reoffending rates continue to rise, along with disaffection, substance misuse and social exclusion among young people, we need our youth workers more than ever…

What do you think?…

  • What does youth work offer young people? Do we need it? If so, how do we evidence that?…
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2017

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