Five years ago, having recently qualified, wide-eyed and bushy tailed, I spotted an advert for a village youth club a few miles away that had been closed a year and who were in their last ditch attempt to reinvigorate it before they closed the doors for good. I applied and went for a ‘chat’.
This conversation consisted of being presented with a white box of a space (over three rooms), being told that it would be mine, and then hearing a detailed turn by turn memoir of its circa 70 year history over the next ninety minutes. It was interesting but I must admit that after 10 minutes I was itching to open the doors and get the young people back in.
So it was that not long after, I went to a committee meeting to present all the ways we were going to take the club forward. It dawned on me in the last two minutes that this was actually my interview. Thankfully they liked me and oddly I’m still there five years later. I say oddly because I’ve got one of those sixth sense things whereby I walk into a place and often know how long I’ll be there. With most jobs I’ve not been far off. I’ve currently been running this club longer than I imagined I would be, and a lot’s been achieved. From being full with a waiting list within three weeks of opening, to receiving national accreditation within three months, repainting the entire building in attractive and engaging colours, creating a wellbeing room (who needs an office anyway?!), and running trips, and so much more.
The young people at this club mean a lot to me. Every location I’ve worked with young people they’ve always meant a lot and it’s often sad when you have to finish a piece of work or a project as you’ve built a great working relationship, but there’s something about these young people that makes it hard to contemplate the day I’ll leave, and it will happen of course, as life moves on, but as I’ve been told by my oldest ones that’s not for a while. The recent comment was ‘You’ve got to stay and look after us until we’re 18. Who else cares like you do?’ That’s a bit of a sucker-punch mixed with a sprinkle of blackmail right there!
My degree was finally coming in useful. I studied many topics at Uni, from ethical conduct to handling feelings, through community cohesion and childhoods in crisis, to resilience and wellbeing. It was a hard slog as Uni is and I still remember the Vice-Chancellor saying 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’.
I did. I also studied my final year having collapsed at work and being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The tutor in my final year was outstanding, and I recently contacted her to thank her for the impact she had had. You often hear stories like that with children who seek out old teachers. Rarely happens with youth workers now of course as there’s so few left in settings where they can build relationships. Relationship-building is the bedrock of youth work. These days there’s a lot more focus on six week quick fix ‘solutions’, which leaves little time for building rapport.
My final research project and dissertation surrounded young people’s wellbeing – might as well use my own experiences, eh? – and I was quickly into developing my own coaching and wellbeing business to support young people. This work saw me in schools and family homes (and on Zoom during a pandemic – remember that?). I’ve helped hundreds of young people, especially with anxiety issues, exam stresses, and residential worries. One teenager went so far as to say ‘You have literally saved me’. I even presented in front of a group of health professionals about anxiety and how the brain works.
A lot can happen in five years and if when I qualified you’d have asked what the plan over the next five years was, I’d have said ‘sleep’ because it was a relief it was all over and that’s all I really wanted to do. I’ve not had any great plans. You can’t in youth work. It’s such a fickle world to get into with little stability that you have to go where you can for work. I held a role where I supported all the youth clubs in Oxfordshire, I ventured back into the schools, but here I am now, quite amazingly, five years after graduating, Charity Manager of another youth organisation. Charity Manager? How the heck did that happen? (And at the age of 18. Strange how ageing works. Must be something in the Oxford water).
I’ve never had the confidence that I’d be a manager. In my eyes you had to be in your forties or fifties, greying hair, and all those other stereotypes. In reality, you need someone to see your qualities and skills and remind you that you are capable of more than you ever thought you were. I’ve had quite a few people do that, and it’s surprising what a difference it’s made in the past couple of years. The phrase ‘you were employed for a reason’ rings true. We all need someone to believe in us – another key role of a youth worker.
I’ve only been the Charity Manager for 11 months. In that time I took the organisation, another at risk of closure, to being open three nights a week, having a whole new staff team, new governance and structure, updates to the building, summer schemes, and a dozen really useful partnerships. I get asked by other youth organisations to provide support and guidance to them and have recently secured nearly £40k to realise a dream for this youth club I run. Not something I ever thought I’d do five years ago.
So as I turn five in the official youth work stakes, I looked at what that means for my age. Apparently at the age of five, children love to play and are imaginative. I’d agree with that. As I’ve become manager there’s more desk work and less direct delivery. My ‘playtime’ is when I get to spend time with the young people themselves and as this is less these days it’s all the more exciting when it happens. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Imagination. Yes, that one gets me into trouble sometimes. Only with myself. I dream big. My current mantra at work is ‘go big or go home’. Our young people need our support now more than ever. We need to imagine what we can do rather than be held back and feel down by the knowledge that funding is so limited we might not manage it. ‘Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star’. At the age of five, children are ultra-talkative, exploring the world. Yes, that’s me. I have to stop myself regularly from talking too much. Too many ideas and being a people person go hand in hand to make a chatty man.
If you ask me where I’ll be in five years time, apart from knowing what birthday I’ll be celebrating, I couldn’t honestly say. Will I still be at both organisations? Will I still be in the area? Will I still be involved in youth work? The answers are unknown. I’ve just written a five year business plan for the charity so it sort of makes sense to see that through to completion, but another opportunity may arise that sits right with me, but there’s a lot to do to get this place back on track and I feel like I’ve been chosen as the ideal person to manage it.
The global pandemic of Covid-19 has added to the pressures around support for young people. There is a belief that of the remaining youth clubs that had already been cut, 25% have shut and will never reopen as a result of the past two years. 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.’
Does it have to be all-singing, all-dancing, with flashy toilet facilities, ipads, and wifi? If it did, I wouldn’t be ticking the boxes, apart from the last one. I can provide wifi. Young people don’t need a lot. They need a space. That doesn’t even need to be a building, but a space they can call their own. It can be a square of concrete, where somebody reliable will turn up when they say they will, listen, offer advice, and they can feel safe and secure. They need a space where the pieces of their lives can be picked up by someone who isn’t their parent or teacher, put them together to make a picture that makes sense to them, and who can help plug the gaps in their lives that are getting ever bigger.
No building though? No. I’m an advocate for one. I think it makes a huge difference to have a space you can call your own, but as a young person said to me the other night, ‘We just want to see you cos you listen. There’s nothing else to do around here.’ One young person complained that the village is an ‘old’ village where the older generation will happily complain about the ‘yoof’ but don’t do anything to provide opportunities they can engage with. Based on the attitudes of certain individuals with authority in the area, this much is true. What they sadly fail to recognise is that if they don’t accept young people need a ‘place’, whatever form that takes, they will find their place through whatever means necessary, and when that happens, those who think they know best cannot be the first to complain.
The youth clubs of old cannot survive in the modern climate. They have to be forward thinking to exist. Yes, the wobbly pool table with three legs and the upside down dart board can remain, but youth workers spend a lot of their time now seeking funding, writing bids, running fundraisers, and doing far more administrative work than before in order to keep even the most basic service open. With young people’s lives changing, not only do they need a space to be, they need something to do that will benefit their lives. Mental health support, sexual health advice, and someone to sort out issues that can’t be resolved elsewhere. How many times has a young person come to me, having waited a week, because I’ll sort an issue that someone at school won’t?
Funding is the problem though and the profession has been dejected. Nobody sees the benefit of the work we do. A recent conference I attended where funding is about to pumped into the locality had an air of tension when the positive idea of new youth worker roles being created was announced. As we did the maths, it was clear that our roles were once again, hugely undervalued. Youth Workers have to fulfill the role of nurse, counsellor, warden, mediator, and more. The funding didn’t reflect that.
Youth clubs aren’t 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 essential services for 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 reality is that the work is there, the funding isn’t. Young people need people they can trust to help guide them through the world. People who will coach, guide, and advocate, away from the classroom which is too institutionalised. This isn’t just for the ‘disaffected’ (what a word), but for every young person.
As I sit melting in the heatwave and the summer holidays seep into the middle of the week, I consider all those closed youth provisions and numerous young people crying out for something to do and someone to ‘look out’ for them, with many choosing destruction over engagement, I do wonder how much difference I’m really making, and how much more I’ll make over the next five years. By then I’ll have been qualified for 10 years. What difference can a 10 year old make in the world? In my experience, a heck of a lot.