Youthworkers may have disappeared from communities – but their legacy lives on (and is more expensive than before)

‘We have to find things that young people are interested in, and good for them, despite it not necessarily being profitable’ 

‘Recently we’ve been trying to challenge young peoples views on society and their contribution in it’

we have problems with the whole confidence agenda, its not a false confidence we want young people to have, but one based on competence, and being genuinely good at something’ 

‘its great to see young people contributing positively in the local community’

theres no point in putting things on for young people, those days are over, we need to find out what young people want to participate in

These are the kind of statements I might have expected to hear from a youthworker, or at least someone who had been trained as one. But they are not. What is more surprising is that they have been said to me in a town in the north east of England in the last few days, a town that hasnt had any paid youthworker involved in the town (from the council) since the cut backs. Cut backs that have desperately affected the town in a number of ways by the way. However, thats for a different post.

These were statements from either school teachers, representatives from the police, council or MP’s.

The unsaid white elephant in the room in many of the conversations with significant institutions in this town was that the best thing for young people in the town was to have youthworkers who were able to develop and work to youth work approaches and philosophies, of inclusion, participation, conversation and empowerment. What was revealed here, and probably occuring elsewhere is that the institutions were having to do themselves was fulfil the roles of a youthworkers , doing so without the disempowered status (one person was a integration officer for the police. another a school teacher) and try as they might, their intention was to ‘be’ or ‘act’ like a youthworker, but status, role and power and the ethics of the relationship prevented it. Despite knowing all the words, and having all the intentions.

But credit to youthwork.

Its what has been recognised as what is still needed in a town that has none, and its legacy lives on. And many institutions like schools have shifted towards it. Some might say trying to fill a gap, or having to, and doing so even more expensively than the youthworker previously. Or it might be said that schools have necessarily adapted for some young people, and common human values have been adopted, ones that youthworkers had as a badge of honour, such as value of the individual (not the system) and inclusion. However, being able to create the right kind of space for the magic of youthwork to happen is more than just words, its about the space being created that has integrity and an ethics that underwrites the relationship. However hard it might be to say otherwise a police officer is still one.

It is of course fascinating to see how a school has had to back fill and provide internally the kind of provision and support that voluntary or statutory youthworkers may have done so in the past (and not all schools had this) and police officers have removed the uniform and donned polo shirts to be ‘less official’. All done at the same time as when there are still youthworkers employed in the local council. But speaking to them they now say:

‘we’re helping out social workers by using our youth work manner to connect with young people social workers are unable to’

‘the youthworkers targets are about helping to support the broken families initiative’

Its as if the jigsaw pieces have been moved around and everyone is doing the back filling, but in the wrong places, and where square pegs and round holes and triangle pegs and square holes dont all match. Youthworkers are needed both in schools and on the streets, but theyre doing home visits for social work. And whilst they’re there, theyre not being youthworkers, when they could still be doing so, and the police and schools are paying double for the role. It doesnt make sense, economically or socially.

At the moment, not only are the services all losing out with the wrong people in the wrong places, but as are the young people, families and communities. Maybe the schools, police and others should just get together and employ youthworkers. Far cheaper than recruiting their own staff to try and do a ‘youthwork approach’ , which is currently going on, without the ethics of the relationship. Maybe the church or voluntary sector could pitch in too.

So, whilst youthworker have been one of the many great losses in many communities, what hasnt been lost is the need for the way in which a youthworker worked with young people, optimistically Id say that the ghost of youthwork lives on, as it is being realised that it is still what is needed where there are young people. Its just that it is all a bit blurred, and and the roles that adults are fulfilling in their lives lacking the clarity, going beyond the normal duty, but confusing the relationship and its nature. Youth workers are demised as social workers, teachers and police try and play less formal roles, some they might want to but its like playing out of position in a sports team. Itll take good management and support to stop trying to resume a default role into safety.

The sentiment of what young people need was captured by this person who said:

‘we can do as many short term interventions as we can, but its having a consistent presence with them them that’ll help young people the most’

Just a shame theres no youthworkers around then..

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