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We need a clear national vision and strategy for youth services

The Civil Society Strategy (2018) recognises that youth work can have a transformational impact on young people’s lives but we have not yet seen a clear vision or strategy for youth services. Instead the National Citizenship Service (NCS) has been promoted as a flagship programme. Without a clear policy statement, one which recognises the wider benefits of youth work to both the individual and society, it remains somewhat adrift from wider children’s services, particularly education and schools.

There are many misconceptions about youth work amongst the public and I fear amongst our politicians and their policy makers. Youth work is rooted in the principles of building trusting relationships, improving wellbeing and promoting personal resilience. Sadly, the reach and scale of these services has been restricted by a decade of year-on-year budget cuts in many areas meaning school-based facilities, mobile units and dedicated neighbourhood youth centres have been lost. However, the community and voluntary sectors, including faith groups, continue to step into the space left by statutory services.

Youth workers don’t undertake a 9 to 5 role but make no mistake, they are skilled professionals. They make a valuable contribution to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people at risk of poor outcomes, or harm, by signposting them to information and support. Increasingly they are also engaged in targeted interventions in neighbourhoods experiencing high levels of anti-social behaviour, for example, or working with specific groups e.g. unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or LGBT groups. Detached youth work lends itself well to efforts to identify and disrupt sexual and/or criminal exploitation by targeting known hotspots.

ADCS has consistently called for the development of a comprehensive children’s workforce strategy. The need to recruit and retain the best staff to support children, young people and their families, is more pronounced than ever yet the number of degree-level youth work courses has fallen significantly in recent years. The youth work bursary and the development of a new suite of youth work apprenticeships led by the National Youth Agency are bright spots on the horizon.

The new government has pledged a significant investment in youth services over the course of the next parliament, this is welcome news but it’s important that we get real bang for our buck. The NCS, a four-week programme aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds and it currently accounts for around 95% of the government’s youth services budget. The NCS is now part of the wider youth services offer and participant feedback is largely positive. However, there is more that could be done to ensure NCS contracts dovetail with local youth services and providers reach out to the groups that could benefit from engagement the most. The need to self-fund some costs can be a barrier to some, and more could be done to help children in care and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities engage with the programme. All children and young people deserve the chance to access to good quality youth services, all year round, not just in the summer months.

Rachel Dickinson, ADCS President 2019/20 and Executive Director People at Barnsley Metropolitan Council.

This column first appeared on the CYP Now website on 28 January 2020 | More

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