Alchemy in the UK (part #2): Re-thinking youth work in the North East


For their 25th birthday, the Regional Youth Work Unit in the North East has given itself a vibrant re-brand.

And why not? 25 years is a significant achievement, especially in the current climate. And having reduced their dependency on local authority funding from 80% to just 3% of turnover in ten years, who better to lead the region in a constructive exercise entitled Re-thinking Youth Work, their annual conference at which I was honoured to speak in Middlesbrough last week.

Despite much apparent evidence to the contrary, I share Youth Focus: North East’s optimism for the future. With just a little alchemy and the right kind of mindset I believe a new, self-determined golden age for youth work is well within the sector’s grasp. Getting us to the that point – stripping down the scaffolding around the profession and re-assembling it into something fit for current times – was very much the subject of my contribution.

Here’s a selection of the many positive aspects I took from the day’s debate.

1. Get your toolbox, we’re building new supply chains

Without the resources and political will to impose a new top-down, government-led model, we have something of a vacuum of leadership in youth work. Despite the efforts made under Positive for Youth, there is not yet a co-ordinated approach to youth policy across central government; in practice different departments want very different things from and for young people.

And with Local Authorities struggling to reconcile the conflict between the new freedoms afforded them under Localism with the realpolitik handbrake of year-on-year cuts, there is little vertical alignment between what they are doing and the aims of the state centrally.

No sector can (any longer) afford to lead or fund youth work alone. Government instead must act as an aggregator of shared resources across sectors – a whole new supply chain, where mutual trust and a shared vision are key assets – if a postcode lottery of youth services is to be avoided long term.

This is a tricky one for the voluntary youth sector, which has historically allowed its position to be defined in relation to government policy and isn’t used to articulating its value on its own terms.

One interesting part of this supply chain might be Public Heath England. In his presentation, Eustace de Sousa outlined the impressive bank of data being built to make the case for early intervention in statutory adolescent services. These assets could prove to be an important ally of youth work, and preventative intervention more broadly.

2. Leadership matters – at all levels

‘Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing’ – this old maxim helpfully illuminated a lively workshop discussion on the kind of leadership the north east wants to guide it into this brave new world.

A necessary focus on the characteristics of formal leadership was balanced by the many practitioners in the room who saw informal leadership as a vital part of their every day practice – leading by example, exerting soft influence where needed, championing the voice of young people and taking a stronger role in the governance of their organisations.

My view is that practitioners can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines of youth work management – they are custodians of their particular approaches and values, and have a powerful stake in where all this is heading.

3. The market is growing – consider all options

Since government began to scale back it’s role in leading and funding youth work in 2010  a range of other actors have entered the frame, all of which provide opportunities for voluntary youth providers looking to build themselves a new supply chain.

Corporations like O2, Starbucks and Vodafone have in recent times embarked on a variety of partnerships with national youth organisations. Motivations vary, from new forms of CSR to active investment in their future customers – clearly such players have a strong interest in fostering a new generation of economically-active young consumers sympathetic to their brand.

The wider business community – the kind of CBI-driven rhetoric that bemoans a lack of communication skills or self-efficacy in young people – will hopefully catch up. They’re beginning to realise that schools alone can’t provide the well-rounded, ready-to-go young workforce they’re seeking, even if they haven’t quite yet bought into the idea that maybe they should fund some of this themselves.

But they might, and hopefully youth work can position itself as The place to invest, complementing formal education but remaining upstream enough of the labour market to make a real difference. Furthering this argument is my one my hopes for the Step up to Serve campaign, which will target the business community to invest in youth social action.

And finally there are opportunities in academia, where institutions increasingly realise they cannot compete for their young customers on academic grounds alone. During the end of my tenure at NCVYS I negotiated a seven figure investment from a university looking to place its undergraduates in youth sector volunteering roles, to complement their studies. The premium on the wider quality of the student experience will grow – a boon for the more creative youth organisations.

4. The role of infrastructure

Where these new supply chains take off, the value of bodies like Youth Focus: North East will increasingly lie in connecting the dots – acting as trusted brokers and facilitators of the shared vision cited earlier as a must-have.

Complementing this, new initiatives such as the Institute for Youth Work present fresh opportunities for youth workers to shape the future in their own image. Having survived the early debates keen to tie it down in old dogma, the IYW remains a force waiting to be unleashed.

Youth workers alone can do this, so you might as well join up and use it to forge a new identity for the profession, outside of discussions on terms and conditions that don’t serve the most important constituency of all – young people. Plus, membership is ridiculously cheap.

5. So in conclusion, does youth work need a re-think?

As always, yes and no. On the one hand there is much I took from last week’s conference that sparks confidence – a willingness to embrace change, a positive mindset from practitioners and a genuine concern to ensure young people are at the heart of their vision.

On the other hand though there is understandable caution: a ripping up of the rule book can feel like an abandoning of long-held values, getting used to government’s new role will take some re-adjustment, and many practitioners seem tired and defensive.

But without change the profession risks zombification – hanging on to structures and approaches that no longer serve its best interests, limbs that eventually drop off and die while the body staggers on, increasingly incapacitated.

One interesting transplant might be the practice of social pedagogy – almost identical to youth work in practice, but applicable to fostering learning and development with all ages, as more commonly practiced in northern Europe.

Applying youth work practices beyond young people will not be something all youth workers wish to embrace, but for the willing it might offer the profession vital flexibility (and paid work) in this awkward moment in which we find ourselves, stuck between the curves of change management.

And in doing so it might just promote youth work methodologies in some helpful new arenas, strengthening our collective hand. Anecdotally there appears to be demand for this within Local Authorities, particularly in working with older people or in health and social care.

Embracing uncertainty is a difficult skill to master. It’s easy to reach for comforting tradition in such times. But as every good youth work knows, honest reflection is an  essential precursor of positive growth.

What more powerful example could we set the young people we serve?

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