The dangerous policy blind spot that’s driving workload

Policy makers have become so school-centric they can’t see the willing army of support under their noses. I know. I missed them too

Policy makers have become so school-centric they can’t see the willing army of support under their noses. I know. I missed them too

19 Jan 2024, 5:00

It is a worn-thin joke that every policy initiative relating to young people should be delivered through schools. Whether that’s the popular desire for more extra-curricular activities and “life skills” seen in Public First’s recent report, the same organisation’s sensible call for wellbeing supervisors, or the more niche – from gardening and litter patrols to meditation and ‘sleeping skills‘. This snowballing list is directly in tension with teacher recruitment and efforts to avoid driving the existing workforce over the brink.

It’s as though policy folk can’t imagine any provision for young people that isn’t a school or anyone skilled at working with children who isn’t a teacher. Thanks to the billion-pound real-terms cut to annual spending on youth services since 2010, the nation’s rich array of youth groups and services and its downsized-but-heroic army of professional youth workers are frequently sidelined.

To my shame, I have suffered from the same school-centric mindset. I was formerly a policy lead in the Department for Education. In 2021, I was working on the team supporting Sir Kevan Collins with post-Covid education recovery plans, including the longer school day.

The idea that this would look like a wraparound extra-curricular and wellbeing offer was generally welcomed by parents and schools, even if alarmist visions of 5pm Latin classes were rattling the commentators. The difficulty was finding the additional workforce to deliver it so as not to stretch over-worked teachers further.

There were certainly some novel ideas (and some simply naïve ones) but I can’t claim to have made the connection that, in retrospect, I realise everyone was missing. Youth workers are experienced and expert in this space and have been standing ready to meet young people’s needs for pastoral support, broader skills and adventure while austerity has cut deep into their funding and esteem.

This crisis was avoidable – and it is reversible

In one generation, local authority spending on youth services has been cut by 73 per cent across England and an increasing number of local authorities now have no youth offer whatsoever. We have lost 4,500 qualified youth workers from the front line. Cross-sector, integrated working is much diminished. And we find ourselves in a crisis of absenteeism, exclusions and exploitation.

This crisis was avoidable. New research from the University of Warwick demonstrates a link between youth centres closing and permanent exclusions in an area increasing by an incredible 20 per cent. Young people spend 85 per cent of their waking hours outside of school, so failing to invest in that time has had entirely foreseeable consequences.

It was avoidable – and it is reversible. The National Youth Agency’s Better Together: Youth Work With Schools report highlights case studies where schools and youth services are already collaborating successfully to improve the lives of young people. One example is The Mix, a youth organisation that works with its local schools to provide coaching, wellbeing groups and crisis support for their students, stepping in for those who are struggling most and helping them to keep studying.

We’re seeing some small but encouraging changes. Updated government guidance for Working Together to Safeguard Children now includes youth workers as partners in supporting referrals, assessments and strategy discussions. Youth work is also described as a supportive service and associate for multi-agency arrangements.

We know that youth workers are able to contribute wider contextual insights, so this is a positive recognition of their value among allied professionals. At the same time, the revised guidance increases the ask of schools, so this undoubtedly feels like the moment for our allied sectors to renew their partnerships.

Youth workers are uniquely able to bridge the gap between a school and its local communities and tackle barriers towards engagement with learning. They do this through building a trusting, voluntary relationship with young people that is focussed on their wellbeing and giving them a voice, freeing capacity for teachers and improving the long-term outcomes of the young people we all serve.

The task ahead of teachers after Covid of pulling academic engagement and performance out of their nosedive is challenging enough. The key to supporting them in that effort is to pull youth services funding out of its own freefall.

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