The future role of youth work is built on three Ps
Reflections from Paul Fenton on his submission to the inquiry on the role and sufficiency of youth work across the UK.
On Tuesday 24 July NTU’s Paul Fenton provided the opening context for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Affairs inquiry. Paul was invited to share his professional expertise and to stimulate debate for the inquiry.
The inquiry seeks to explore:
- The role of youth work in addressing the needs and opportunities for young people?
- Are the key issues and challenges faced by young people being addressed by current youth service provisions?
- Are there sufficient youth workers to support youth services and other delivery models for good quality youth work?
- What are the training and workforce development needs to secure and sustain youth work?
Youth work can make a significant difference to the character, resilience and life skills of young people. There is a rich history and some great examples of youth work across the public sector, voluntary, community and faith organisations. This includes social action projects and national programmes supported by business and social enterprise.
Gillian Keegan MP, Vice-Chair APPG for Youth Affairs
In his opening statement, Paul highlighted the important partnership work of The Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth & Community Work (TAGPALYCW) in creating good training and support for young people as a community of practice of 250 academics across 50 institutions. He continued to stress, however, that:
an increasing minority of young people are starved of support for life-shaping challenges. In the face of these challenges there is less resource and support available from trained, qualified and supported adult youth workers to support young people in navigating these challenges and enabling them to flourish. If we wish to engage all young people and ensure equality of opportunity for all that enables all young people to fulfil their potential, then we believe a high-quality workforce is needed to develop a diverse and high-quality youth work provision that support all young people according to their needs.
Paul recommended that the inquiry to tackle the three P’s within the UK’s Youth Sector.
(The problem of) precarious practice created by the dominance of short-term funding in the wake of a significant reduction in recurring grants to local authority and voluntary sector agencies. This has created a ‘gig’ economy of employment in the youth sector, seeing multiple short-term contracts and/or seasonal employment replacing established posts and limiting the longevity of youth projects themselves. Short-term funding has also contributed to a loss of expertise as workers move into more stable employment opportunities, destabilising the youth sector workforce base and leaving knowledge gaps (as well as removing resources) in communities around the UK. In the face of current challenges, youth workers should be our biggest asset in the development and delivery of transformational youth work services but are struggling to sustain their practice without a much longer-term commitment to funding.
An outcome of this ‘precarious practice’ and ‘precarious context’, is what we observe as a loss of prestige (and positive profile for the workforce. Only 500 began professional qualifications in 2017 down from 1500 in 2008. We are also witnessing a shift in who is able/attracted into the youth workforce 60% of new recruits were 25 in 2008; 60% are now under 25, as we see mature and part-time students forced out of higher education. New recruits are fearful of the precarious employment opportunities with at least a perceived sense of limited security. However, it is not all doom and gloom. The workforce deserves a much higher profile for its persistence in adversity. We are seeing pockets of innovation – with examples of youth work expertise being sought and valued in none traditional locations such as in hospitals; hospices; arts; and a recent example we observed on a National Trust estate; as well as in a range of new community-based organisations that have reinvented themselves through localised support. But it is becoming an increasing postcode lottery of opportunity as to where we find youth work and youth workers in a fragmented sector that leaves many youth workers feeling isolated and unsupported, and with limited resources to refresh their skills for contemporary challenges. In fact the prestige in the workforce, and it’s dispersal across services and sectors, make it difficult to say where and what the workforce is.
The need for a refreshed professionalisation of the workforce. When the foundations of the youth and community work practice were established under Albemarle in the 1950’s it was observed that (to quote) it had ‘fallen into a haphazard approach to workforce development’. We appear to have drifted to the same point where there is no joined up or coherent approach to the youth sector workforce. There is the need for a coherent workforce strategy that joins up the support, education and continuing professional development for the workforce; and its resourcing. We think this sits best in partnership with local authorities and regional youth work units – facilitated by a national body that advocates for equality of opportunity for all young people. We need a joined-up approach that provides informed, qualified and well-supported staff in conjunction with local authorities, the voluntary sector, training agencies, Universities and professional bodies that can offer initial, qualifying and continuing professional development for youth workers that best serve the needs of young people in troubling times.
The APPG’s Inquiry report will be published at the National Youth Work Conference on Wednesday 31 October. They received over 100 written submissions and will be hosting one final evidence session on Tuesday 11 September. Nottingham Trent University Youth Studies team will continue to monitor the inquiry and engage with the findings and we welcome your thoughts on Paul’s ideas.
Senior Lecturer in Youth Studies at NTU and National Officer for TAGPALYCW. To discuss his work with the APPG on Youth Affairs you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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