An independent review of the impact of youth work delivered with schools, commissioned by the National Youth Agency, reveals youth work significantly improves engagement with learning and attendance, as well as boosts young people’s mental wellbeing and confidence. 

The Better together: Youth work with schools report, published on 19 June, is the result of a call for evidence and a survey of schools and youth work organisations to illustrate where youth work is taking place with schools and alternative provision, the different models of delivery and the impact on pupils.

The report identifies, and proposes a number of policies, to address the fact that young people today are contending with a myriad of challenges including the risk of online harm, exploitation, and the cost-of-living crisis; added to which many are already struggling with their mental ill health as a result of missing out on regular schooling and social opportunities during the two lockdowns. 

Consequently, we have a crisis in school attendance in secondary schools, with the latest statistics showing that overall absence has increased from 6.5% at the start of the Autumn term 2022 to 9.3% at the start of May 2023, with persistent absence during the most recent spring term at 25.2% (Ref 1). This compares to 10.9% of all enrolments in the pre-lockdown year of 2018/19 (Ref 2). 

Furthermore, an estimated one in six 7- to 16-year-olds have a probable mental health disorder (according to NHS Digital in 2022). Despite this, waiting lists for Children and Mental Health Services remain long, and schools are the main hub for referrals to social care services.

An expert panel drawn from education and youth services supported the review, co-chaired by former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton MP and former Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, OBE. 

Tim Loughton, MP, said: “Children are facing unprecedented challenges, many have been deeply affected by the pandemic, and they are now coping with a cost-of-living crisis. Poor mental-health, wellbeing and anxiety, poverty and hunger are affecting behaviour and attendance. What the review reveals is that skilled youth work practitioners working with schools can make a profound difference to children’s lives and wellbeing, which positively impacts on engagement with school and learning.” 

Kate Green OBE, Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “This report highlights the potential for youth work, hand in hand with formal schooling, to provide young people with the holistic support and interventions needed to enable them to thrive at school. It also demonstrates that we are far from achieving the full potential of youth work with schools. Systemic change will require leadership from government, school leaders and communities to break down the siloes between government departments and different agencies, so that the needs of all young people can be fully met.”

Youth work focuses on personal and social development and youth workers can use the National Youth Work Curriculum to ensure young people’s holistic needs are being met. The report illustrates that whether delivered on the school site, or within the community, in school hours, or after school, youth work has a positive impact on young people’s wellbeing, as well as promoting their safety and supporting community cohesion. It gives them a safe space to discuss the wider issues affecting them, such as family breakdown and the risk of exploitation, as well as providing opportunities to enrich their employability and life skills. It can be particularly effective in supporting young people at key transitions, for example moving up to secondary school and leaving formal education. 

Abbee McLatchie, Director of Youth Work at the NYA said: “Young people supported by a youth worker identify their skills and passions, find their voice on issues which are important to them, feel more able to make safe choices and are happier. We believe that the model of youth workers linked to every secondary school, as part of a team of support workers and trained volunteers, rooted in the local Community, can have a transformational impact on young people’s lives.” 

The Better together: Youth work with schools report highlights a range of youth work models and approaches across the country. One such beacon initiative is at the Oasis Waterloo Hub linked to the Oasis South Bank Academy, Waterloo, London. Young people can self-refer to the Oasis Hub youth work provision if they are experiencing problems at home or school, or simply to explore what youth work can offer them. Young people at risk of exclusion can also be referred in by the school. Games, cooking and sports are all employed as a conduit for building positive peer to peer relationships, learning to work as a team, manage conflict and build confidence. The young people can also access therapy sessions on the adjacent farm, involving animal care and cooking in the farm kitchen.

Stu Thomson, Head of Youth Services, Oasis Waterloo Hub, said: “It’s all about empowering the young person to have a voice. We support them to deal with issues at school. Through the youth worker relationship, we gain their trust, so that we can work with them to own that space.

“A successful outcome is seeing the young person thriving and able to adapt to life, saying they feel better about themselves and feeling that they’re valued in their community.”

Whilst the national curriculum ultimately focuses on academic outcomes, some 73% of head teachers support the aim to embed mental health and wellbeing across the curriculum in a whole-school approach. Indeed, eight in 10 teachers say social and emotional skills are just as important as academic attainment. 

“We know our students will face many different challenges as they grow up, and we do everything we can to help them through whatever life throws in their way. The relationships our youth practitioners build with students make a huge difference to building confidence and improving wellbeing, encouraging and supporting them to succeed at school, and keeping them safe. Youth work is an intrinsic part of our education offer at Southbank, and at the heart of what we provide to students and their families. It can be life-changing,” said Anna Richardson, Principal, Oasis Academy, South Bank.  

The report highlights that where youth work is taking place with schools, teachers are welcoming the benefit this is making to learning – not just by reducing poor attendance, but by bridging the gap between families with other support services and promoting pupil’s wellbeing, and personal and social development. 

The report concludes with a set of recommendations including: 

  • a dedicated Minister for Young People at the Department for Education to drive forward a National Youth Strategy joining up education and youth services 
  • dedicated, stable and joined-up funding is required that is supported by greater accountability from strengthened statutory guidance at national and local levels to put youth work on a surer footing with schools and facilitate more cross-sector working
  • an enhanced Ofsted inspection framework with further measures and metrics to assess quality, consistency and longevity of external partnerships that aim to support the personal wellbeing of young people
  • a joined-up approach for training and workforce planning between schools and youth work, such as integrating youth work values and approaches into initial teacher training and CPD training, and offering a transition pathway from teaching to youth work for recently qualified teachers who leave the profession

The review considered the evidence submitted by more than 150 organisations, as well a survey of schools, and the expert review panel, representing the education and youth service sectors, also supported a number of visits and online hearings. 

In addition to the co-chairs Tim Loughton MP and Kate Green, Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, the review panel comprised Abbee McLatchie, Director of Youth Work, National Youth Agency; Carole Willis, Chief Executive, National Foundation for Educational Research; Damian Allen, Chief Executive, City of Doncaster Council; Jonathan Hopkins, policy adviser; Nick Brook, Chief Executive, Speakers for Schools; and Somia Nasim, Head of Research and Knowledge, UK Youth. 

Read now >> Better Together: Youth work with schools report

Complementing formal education to change young lives. 

New approaches to improving wellbeing and attendance.

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