Alchemy in the UK (part #1): Slotting together the youth work pieces in the South West


Having gone through something of a personal brand realignment in 2013 (Voluntary Sector Evangelist to Alchemist, with Jedi already in pre-production), I was thrilled recently to have an opportunity to flesh out my threadbare new philosophy at Slotting the Pieces Together – the annual youth work conference of Learning South West.

LSW are the South West’s Regional Youth Work Unit, whom I’ve known well since my time at NCVYS. They’re a progressive bunch who, not unlike many in the youth work firmament, are currently trying to help ‘the profession’ (and all who sail in her) take their future into their own hands and reassemble the base materials of youth work into something golden, something against which they can trade and prosper in the coming years.

And why the hell not. That youth work has an enormous amount to offer is self-evident. That there’s an acute need for universal youth services is self-evident. And that the youth sector itself is vulnerable, nervous, fractured and lacking direction is, regrettably, self-evident.

A quest for gold then, at this stage of the game, seems perfectly reasonable. Enter the Alchemist. But what might you ask has gold to do with youth work? Let’s go prospecting:

  • Gold is distinctive and, like youth work, you know what it is when you see it. Distinctiveness is a very under-rated quality – any good fundraising consultant will tell you that one of the best things to do in your bids is to be distinctive – give the funder a clear choice between you and the other applicants;
  • Much of gold’s value is based on scarcity, which as the religion of economics teaches us, only increases its value. In the youth sector we’ve been driving down costs in order to stay competitive for some years now. Perhaps it’s time to be a little more bullish;
  • And finally, gold is used to set standards – against currencies and so forth – and we just love a standard in youth work don’t we? So, you now, something about standards (mental indiscipline basically prevents me from rounding off this analogy properly, but you get the idea).

Lessons from the field: embracing change

So the LSW conference was a fascinating day. Firstly to hear from from Tracy Clark of Young Gloucestershire, who’d nimbly re-invented their business model at the onset of The Cuts (TM) by subsidising their youth work through a commercial training arm. Three years later and thinking they were almost out of the woods, Tracy has just witnessed the ground shift once again and risks the progress she’s made being pushed back to square one.

And secondly to hear from Jeff Brown of Somerset Youth Services – a Local Authority that faced eye-watering 84%, 3 year cuts, forcing them to embark on a radical new community-led model of provision. Three years down the line they’ve successfuly navigated the curve of change management (have that, jargon fans) but have only just reached the point of getting back to actual youth work, and what that looks like under their new, largely-outsourced delivery model.

What both the examples have in common was their willingness to embrace change early on, and to do it on their own terms.

Both routes involved compromise – devoting a lot of energy to change at the expense of service. But not unreasonably they both considered this is risk worth taking if it meant survival, and hoped for better days ahead. Although in both cases it’s probably still too soon to say whether their approaches will pay off.

“Oh you’re an entrepreneur?  What’s your latest ‘preneur?”

Nevertheless having an entrepreneurial and determined attitude is essential and – as I argued on the day – could and should extend beyond management to the workforce themselves. When change is a-coming, better to be an agent of it than a passive recipient. And when faced with this kind of situation, the only appropriate mental state to have is something akin to Brad Pitt and the Myrmidons as they prepared to storm the Trojan beaches.

More like this….

I’m really looking forward to continuing this conversation with colleagues and partners of the Regional Youth Work Unit in the North East in March, where I’m speaking at their Rethinking Youth Work conference. I’ll be posting more thoughts in the run up to that, but in the meantime if you have your own take on what the future of youth work looks like, I’d love to hear it.

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