Youth work and youth services: a lifeline for young people


5 Nov 2017

By Leigh Middleton, managing director of the National Youth Agency

Youth services are vital and provide a lifeline for many young people.

That’s the premise behind the theme of this year’s Youth Work Week, youth services: youth work for today and tomorrow.

Youth Work Week, now in its 24th year, is an annual celebration of youth work providing an opportunity for youth organisations, youth workers and young people to celebrate their achievements and the impact of their work.

It’s run by the National Youth Agency, the national body for youth work and youth services.

In previous years our theme has reflected a current issue that’s relevant and topical to lots of young people – last year it was social mobility and two years ago it was youth voice. This year we wanted something that everyone in the youth sector felt strongly about. Youth services are important to all young people, their families, youth workers, youth organisations. It’s an issue everyone can get behind.

At their most basic youth services provide a place for young people to go and something for them to do. But with the involvement of skilled youth workers they can be much more; contributing to young people’s social and emotional development, helping them feel more confident, understand themselves and other people, and develop into resilient, responsible citizens.

Over the past ten years youth services have undergone massive change. Swingeing cuts have reduced the local authority youth offer or in some cases destroyed it completely. An estimated £387m has been cut from youth service spending by local authorities in the last six years according to Unison, and cuts are still being announced.

Yet whilst youth services are taking a battering, the need for good youth work has not gone away. And despite huge uncertainty, dedicated, committed youth workers continue to deliver creative provision that has positive outcomes for young people.

Recent events have also focused politicians and policy makers on young people’s vulnerability to exploitation and radicalisation, and the role of youth work in supporting vulnerable young people and reporting safeguarding concerns at an early stage is once again being discussed.

NYA believes there is a clear role for youth work in local services that support young people. Young people like Leo, who struggles at school but started attending Smile, an art based youth work project in his school in Milton Keynes. His parent wrote to youth workers Andy and Adele about the impact they have had on him.

At school, Leo is seen as a struggling student; with Andy and Adele, he became the expert. At school, Leo has ‘social communication difficulties’; at Smile, he was made to feel a valued member of the group.  Often overwhelmed by the manic paced, inconsistencies of a school day, Leo found stability and peace of mind with Adele and Andy.   Away from the grind of assessments, target meeting and compliance, Leo found himself – the polite, caring, funny lad we know him to be at home, not the stressed, troublesome teenager in the classroom.

As well as helping individual young people’s social and emotional health, youth work supports community cohesion, bringing diverse groups together to promote greater understanding.

Woking Youth Team ran a girls only session for young women aged 11 to 19 years old, aimed at girls from the Asian community who may not be allowed to interact where boys may be present. A core group of seven Asian girls had been formed when three girls from the travelling community began attending sessions. The divide was clear. The girls stayed on opposite sides of the youth centre with no real interaction with each other. Youth workers ordered take away and engaged them in an exercise to compare their experiences and the expectations of their families.

Very quickly the girls realised that they had a lot in common, from restrictions on their freedom to having to know how to cook and clean. The two groups of girls exchanged phone numbers and learnt about each others’ cultures destroying preconceived ideas from family, friends or their community.

At NYA we believe youth work is more relevant than ever to the challenges young people, families and communities are facing. Let’s celebrate and share its impact this Youth Work Week.

Youth Work Week runs 6-12 November. For more information visit http://www.nya.org.uk/supporting-youth-work/youth-work-week/