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Four years a Youth Worker

Social media’s good for something. This morning, Facebook reminded me that I’m a Youth Worker, like I could forget. But four years on, am I some sort of superman and is Youth Work actually relevant? [12 minute read]

Way back in the year dot when I was a lad (I’m sounding old before my time, I know), something sparked inside of me that made me want to work with children and young people. Even sat here now, I can’t fully remember why or what it was, and I’ve been asked many times the same question, often by parents, although it’s usually phrased as ‘Why on earth do you want to work with my child?’

It’s a far cry from where I thought I was heading when I studied media at college, although perhaps not so far removed from my belief that I would one day be a teacher. Having worked in and with many schools I quickly came to realise that teaching wasn’t going to be for me. Teaching brings the joys of seeing young people develop, but it also brings to light the fact that teachers do not have the time needed to deal with the pastoral care of our young people, and that’s the element that I love, and that’s what I get from being a Youth Worker.

I’d decided to dip my toe into long distance University life with the Open University and quickly gave it up. Then, some years later, when everybody else seemed to be progressing and the only way to get ahead was to have a piece of paper with your name and a couple of letters after it, I decided to leap in and spend six more years studying for my BA. I remember heading a few miles out of town to the leafy countryside overlooking Oxford’s dreaming spires and being let loose in an empty careers library with permission to pull apart the study materials for each course that interested me. I settled on Youth Work.

It was a hard slog as Uni often is and I still remember at graduation (of which I had two due to the degree), being told by the Vice-Chancellor that ‘if anybody ever says you studied with the OU and it’s part-time, let us remember that most of you studied at least 18 hours a week, on top of full-time jobs where you have put your skills into practice. Compared to most people, you have worked double’.

And it was true. The majority of my degree was studied whilst working in pastoral support in a secondary school. Taking the rough with the rougher, I’d spend (officially) eight hours a day (but usually more) dealing with the issues my young people were facing whilst studying the field that I had ventured into. On top of that I was leading a Beaver Scout Colony and an Explorer Scout Unit, and all the joys that that brings from programme planning to delivering training and leading expeditions and residentials. It was all good experience of course. Then there was hobbies to slot in as well including directing a musical! By the end of my time with the OU, I had covered, but not limited to:

  • Ethical conduct and accountability
  • Identifying/meeting needs
  • Helping them find their ‘place’
  • Counselling and handling feelings
  • Group work and tribes
  • Anti-discriminatory practice
  • Professional development
  • Leadership and managing people
  • Young people’s active involvement
  • Community cohesion
  • Managing change and influencing
  • Partnerships and networks
  • Managing integrated services

  • Childhoods in crisis
  • Historical, developmental, anthropological, and sociocultural approaches to childhood.
  • Play and friendships
  • Cultures
  • Media and participation
  • Homes, families, and public spaces
  • Creating schools for young people
  • Children in the workplace
  • Health, poverty, and violence
  • Resilience and wellbeing
  • Undertaking research on and with young people.

All of this culminated in a final research project and dissertation on young people’s wellbeing, which came about in part due to issues being faced in two settings I was involved with, and allowed scope to explore these matters, as well as my own mental health diagnosis in the final year of my degree. Interestingly, I actually left both of the settings having realised where improvements could be made but knowing that effecting change was highly unlikely.

Many thousands of words later, research projects under my belt, two three-hour exams sat, several day classes in London (one requiring traipsing through the snow), and the turning down of social events and reliance of family, friends, and chocolate to see me through, that little Facebook pop-up this morning made me realise how far I’ve come and how much I achieved, but with any vocation, it doesn’t end there. You keep learning and developing in order to provide the best that you can.

It’s four years since I graduated so as it’s basically my fourth birthday and I’m all for the development of young people, I looked back at the stages of development of a four year old. How do I compare? According to the CDC, by four, a child will be ‘enjoying new things’. I certainly do that. I’m loving the opportunities that have come my way; ‘Can play mum or dad’. Yes, I’m frequently playing dad, although I do feel more like a big brother or uncle. Dad makes me sound old. ‘More creative’. Heck, yes. In this role you have to be to get the results you need. ‘Can sing songs from memory’ – covered. I’ll sing and I’ll lead a campfire too. ‘Tells stories’ – again, got this one down to a fine art now, even offering Storytelling Workshops.

It seems that on my fourth birthday, I’m bearing up quite well in the development stakes then, but in reality, I’ve been involved with youth organisations for nearly 20 years now. In that time, although truly it’s been going on much longer, youth work has been decimated by central government cuts. I’ve lost count of the number of peers who once were leading and managing activities in statutory youth services, and who continue to fight for these to be reinstated, yet billions of pounds worth of cuts has led to more than 60% of services being destroyed, jobs lost, and it is making it harder to see us ever going back.

These cuts have led to rises in knife crime and violence, as well as mental health conditions. Fewer services results in higher pressure on those services that remain and fewer young people able to access the support that they truly need. The global pandemic of Covid-19 has only added to this, and at one stage there was a belief that of the remaining services, 25% would likely shut and never reopen as a result. A needs analysis published in May 2020 covering part of London, which sought the opinions of young people, parents, and professionals, showed that whilst the majority of respondents knew specialist support was required, ‘youth clubs were identified as the most needed service, followed by targeted support around crime. This suggests universal youth work and other group activity is seen as the most appropriate response to young people’s needs.’ (youthandpolicy.org) You read that right.

‘Youth clubs were identified as the most needed service… This suggests universal youth work activity…is seen as the most appropriate response to young people’s needs.’

I’m fortunate to have been able to lead a youth organisation still. Admittedly this is only what some may refer to as a ‘traditional village club’ and in some respects that’s true, but it’s in these spaces that conversations can be held, skills can be learnt, and lives can be changed. It is these spaces where our young people can seek advice, support, sanctuary, and safety. It is these ‘cosy’ spaces though, once reserved for a wobbly pool table and some broken table tennis bats, that they are picking up many of the pieces and having to find new funding streams in order to plug the gaps that are getting ever wider.

That same report identified that young people in the modern world need their youth club to provide support around the themes of crime and safety, mental health and wellbeing, drug and alcohol misuse, problems at school, and family relationships way above simply having somewhere to hang out. The youth clubs of old must provide so much more if they are to exist today. The remainder of the list covered discrimination and bullying, sex and relationships education, unemployment, and teen pregnancy, with a smaller group wanting advice on housing, poverty, social media, disability, and domestic abuse. It’s a massive spectrum and interesting reading.

So, sure the dart board still hangs precariously on the wall, but the target has changed and with it, the adult teams are having to review, retrain, and reconsider whether they have the competencies, time, and most importantly funding to be able to provide the services that young people are looking to them to give. And if it seems too much hassle to keep up to date with it all these days, it’s probably because it is. It’s a fast-paced ever-changing field. We have a Curriculum like schools do, we have National Occupational Standards to guide our work, and we are expected to fulfill the role of nurse, counsellor, warden, mediator, and more. Our policies and procedures are so watertight, no flooding of cash could ever seep in to support the good work being done. Shame that, if not ironic.

Gone are the days of turn up, play about, have a chat, and go home. Those things are still intrinsically important to the development of our youth, but now, more than ever, these grass roots groups have to step up and pick up the pieces of a society that has failed them. No longer do they count on 50p to get in somewhere just to ‘doss’. The price is either increased, which makes you exclusive and cuts out part of the demographic, often those most at risk and needing of the adult support, or the time when direct delivery is most important is actually spent filling out reams of paperwork to get a grant of £1000 to cover the ‘get through the door fee’ in order to reach more young people, which actually quickly gets eaten up in insurances, rents, and utilities.

Through the pandemic, I along with my team were able to keep our provision open virtually every week. We were fortunate. Many could not, but we’re not out of the woods, and there’s still a long way to go as we emerge slowly from lockdown restrictions. Lockdown. Who would have thought I’d be typing that four years ago? It’s become a big part of our vocabulary.

The thing is though, for many of our young people, ‘lockdown’ is becoming a way of life. Isolation and loneliness is one of the biggest risks to our young people and is affecting their mental health, and suicide rates continue to rise as a result. In the past couple of days I read about a 12 year old boy who seemed like the happiest boy on the planet and who was found by his parents hanging in his bedroom the following morning having spent a wonderful evening with the family. This should not be happening.

I’m not saying that youth clubs and organisations are the be all and end all. They’re already pushing harder than they’ve pushed before to retain services for our young people, but it is vital that something is done now in order to save our future generations. There are skilled and talented qualified youth workers up and down the country who are in jobs that are completely unrelated simply because the work’s not there. The work NEEDS to be there. Well the reality is that the work is there, the funding for the jobs isn’t. Young people need to learn about life from those who understand its in and outs and what’s happening in the scary world we inhabit; people they’re comfortable talking with, who they trust; who will guide, mentor, coach, and advocate for them, and all away from the classroom where often those that need to be reached aren’t being reached anyway. I don’t just mean the ‘disaffected’ if you want to use that word.

A teacher from probably 15 years ago now told me ‘We focus a lot on the high achievers and those that are the ones that will always struggle, but what about those that coast along and just get on? Those who fall between those parallels? What do we do with them? More often than not, they’re forgotten, and they’re the ones who shouldn’t be.’

I wonder how many young people are being forgotten…I wonder if we’ll ever get a high-quality youth service again…I wonder…often…and then I count myself lucky that I have had the experiences I have to be able to pay it forward and help a small pocket of them at club, but not only there, to have had the insight to realise that in some settings you can’t help decision makers and you’re better off going it alone, or turning to places where they appreciate that you have to look forward and be progressive if you’re going to make a difference.

Through my own business I’ve met so many children and young people who have made a massive difference to their lives with my support. Probably the biggest moment for me was being told ‘You have literally saved me’. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but what I did do was be available. I know I can’t help everyone, but there are many youth leaders out there that could, or at least reach many more.

As I look back on what has happened during my time working with young people, reflect on where we currently are, and wonder (and perhaps wish) for a greater future, I come back to my initial ponder and you know what, YES, youth work is still relevant. In fact, it’s probably more relevant today than it was all those years ago in the annuls of time when it began to form as something worthwhile rather than shoving children into workhouses. Youth work is so relevant, more could and should be done. I’ve not reached my childhood dream of being a teacher, although in some ways you could say I perhaps have, just not the conventional idea of one, but I have been able to make a difference, and for as long as I can, I will continue to do so.

And my superhuman powers? As one of my degree supervisors and peers told me ‘You can’t do it all. You’re not superman, but you are a super man.’ I’ll take that.

Now, as a new week breaks and I mull over a looming summer holiday period of numerous closed youth provisions and young people wandering aimlessly around wanting something to do, turning to destruction (of property, others, and themselves) from boredom and loneliness, I’m off to find my cape and see who I can try and save. The next mission awaits.

  • Roy Peach, BA (Hons) Youth Work (OU)

‘Youth clubs were identified as the most needed service… This suggests universal youth work activity…is seen as the most appropriate response to young people’s needs.’

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