Give youth services more money and it will benefit society and the economy
If youth work is properly invested in now, the ultimate cost to the economy would be minimal but the benefits to our society would be immeasurable
By Ralph Allen on Sunday, June 7th, 2009 - 1,288 words.
I recently entered the youth work sector as a detached (street based) engagement worker for a UK-based charity and, despite being relatively new to the sector, several important issues affecting youth work have become clearly apparent. As my organization is fairly new in Bristol, most of our initial work has involved liaising with local youth services and provisions, building networks essential for aspects of the job such as sign posting. During this time I have met many inspirational youth workers and effective organizations yet I have also gained insight into how government targeting so severely hampers the effectiveness of their work.
The complexities of the social problems that have led to the current widespread disaffection in youth are often overlooked by the media and are portrayed in simplistic terms or are wholly misrepresented. Youth work encompasses myriad societal issues such as homelessness, crime, community dissolution and drugs and is vital in ensuring the safety and maintenance of communities, as well as young peoples’ well being and quality of life. Many of these issues are regarded individually, ignoring the reality of a complex web of their interdependency, with blame often attributed to the irresponsibility of parents or unhelpful generalizations such as Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’. Real and effective solutions are rare and those who have the power to implement them are caught up in an increasingly bureaucratic system.
Youth work in Britain may well now be heading down the same route as the social services, tackling ‘problematic youth’ as statistics with insufficient follow up work to ensure future stability. I feel lucky to be working for a project with corporate backing and at least three years of funding (issues surrounding funding often cause very counterproductive and divisive local politics and contribute to dissolution of credible community projects). With a flexible remit we also have the liberty to tackle problems at their root and work in conjunction with the services that are really striking at the community’s heart, such as Community Resolve, which has very strong ties to the local community due to both their establishment and their youth workers who are well known within it. The working partnerships we have established allow us to pool resources and personnel and work by the most effective means possible.
We are currently working on a particular project with Community Resolve to target conflict in a park in Barton Hill, a deprived inner-city area. While they are council funded and are primarily focused on reviewing the nature of the conflict between the residents and the youth, we can use our resources to engage the young people and work with them on a more involved scale. Several of their youth workers know the area well and are known well within it, which benefits our work greatly, and so we have established a mutually beneficial partnership, as well as increasing the effectiveness of both our projects in areas such as this.
Connexions (a statutory organization set up by the government to support young people) along with the Youth Services are so set on short term targets and overburdened by burgeoning case loads that their work inevitably suffers. The fault does not lie in the staff but in the nature of the system. The focus is taken away from community, where I believe both the problem and the solution lies. Youth clubs in deprived areas are often understaffed and under resourced, at risk of closure and in certain cases deemed by the authorities as insufficiently effective. In many cases this has reached the point of absurdity, with young people given little alternative to making their own entertainment in local parks. Because they do not yield visible results and cannot be directly linked to fluctuation of local criminal activity, the worth of youth centres is dismissed. A very large portion of youth crime is an inevitable product of boredom and these clubs are essential in providing young people with a social environment that keeps them safe and off the streets.
Youth centres are also an essential component of community, promoting cohesion, inter-generational relations and cultural diversity. They inspire certain individuals to volunteer and later get into youth work, and these established community figures then play an intrinsic part in keeping the peace as they have the respect of local youth. Yet youth centres are consistently ignored and undervalued by governing bodies. In Barton Hill there is one youth centre that is open sporadically and at most one night a week. As it is so inconsistent the young people never know when it is open (consequently hanging around in the park), yet all are very vocal in their support for it to be open more often, even being open to the idea of volunteering to make this so. The problem is lack of staff due to lack of funding and lack of modernization (it is called the Crypt as it is literally a church’s crypt, and is closed over winter as it’s too cold).
Instead of seeing progress and investment in youth work, we see Government time after time rebranding existing projects in order to portray an involved approach. After a reshuffle you may hear a minister promoting some brand new initiative that will succeed where previous such projects have failed; what is not immediately evident however, is that what is new is simply the name, the sponsors and the management, not the content or the approach. Without considering and building upon the failings of the past and present, these projects are doomed to failure. What our government seems currently unable to accept is that an investment in youth work now will more than pay for itself by reducing the need for social intervention in the future.
When I was younger I always thought that when an offender is admitted to the relevant institution, he or she is more or less disconnected from society and that their cost to the economy came down simply to food, staff and facilities. I had no idea how economically unviable these institutions really are. Somebody who goes in and out of offending institutions for most of their life racks up astronomical sums of public money. The comparative cost of training and employing youth workers to try and curtail young peoples’ involvement in crime is minimal and, if and when they start working, beneficial to both our society and our economy in the long term.
Youth work is predominantly targeted at 16-18 year olds, but the process in many cases needs to be started earlier and finished later. It’s where the statistics come in; with many who fail this criteria denied support who might need it most. Mentoring allows for relationships to be established and maintained throughout the most turbulent years of a young person’s life. Providing intensive one to one support to the individuals most in need would eventually save our society an incredible sum if they are successfully kept on the straight and narrow and avoid being institutionalized. Organizations like the Youth Offending Team are doing amazing work but are too overstretched for their own case loads, let alone the countless cases of young people who aren’t even registered on the system.
The societal problems that lead to these problems with youth can be tackled if the necessary resources are distributed to the most effective services and the right people. Youth services will need more money but this can be secured by reducing the economic strain that is a result of underfunding. If youth work is properly invested in now, the ultimate cost to the economy would be minimal but the benefits to our society would be immeasurable.
After graduating from Bristol Ralph became a youth worker. He now lives in London as an unemployed yet aspirational musician and activist and occaional factory commentator. www.myspace.com/ralphabetdrclod
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