Last night I went along to a great event at the RSA House organised by London Youth. They’re launching a report next week called Hunch, which makes a fiercely-argued case for the importance of youth work in the face of spending cuts. They're better placed than most to argue the point – as a network of 400 youth organisations (from youth clubs to community centres) across the capital, they know what good youth work looks like, and the impact it has. They came to the RSA partly to share the findings with Fellows and leading voices in the sector, but also to issue a friendly challenge to this group for practical responses to the report.
The room was a lively mix of youth workers and people involved in charities and social enterprises, all of whom warmed to the theme that youth work should be seen as a way of supporting and empowering young people, not simply a tool for tackling social problems. Rosie Ferguson from London Youth (an RSA Fellow and member of our Fellowship council) gave an efficient demonstration of the logic behind this, asking: “How many of you here today are carrying a weapon? Is it because you went on a knife crime awareness course when you were 14?”
Rosie then invited Francisco Augusto, who has been involved with the DareLondon youth advisory board, to make the case for a more positive approach to supporting young people from his own experience. Having been in serious trouble with the police at the age of 13, he explained how a chance encounter with a committed local youth worker, Roger Jilal, set him on the right track. What made the difference? Talking to him later, he explained Roger’s knack for relating to the young people he worked with as equals, seeing their potential and sticking with them to provide support and reassurance. In Francis’ case, that meant persuading him to stay in school and get some qualifications – he’s now studying for a degree at Roehampton and setting up a social enterprise.
What became clear in the discussion that followed was the degree of consensus about what really helps young people develop and thrive, but also the challenges of gathering an evidence base to support that consensus. Individual success stories such as Francis’ are powerful, but there's clearly a need (recognised in the report) for youth work organisations to build a better pool of evidence about what works and what doesn’t: a challenge for small, local, highly effective projects that they often lack the time or resources to carry out detailed research. What’s more, several people remarked that much of the value of good youth work is in its effect on young people's self-confidence and social skills — not an easy thing to quantify.
Individual success stories such as Francis’ are powerful, but there's clearly a need to build a better pool of evidence about what works and what doesn’t
If this is the friendly challenge, what was the response? Many in the room argued for better collaboration between practitioners, and hoped that this could happen within the RSA – both through making connections between Fellows involved in youth work, and initiatives such as our Social Entrepreneurs’ Network (which already features many businesses that support young people). Another proposal was to identify youth work ‘champions’, people who can persuade politicians and the media of the merits of their craft.
This echoed a point that our own Matthew Taylor made about the challenge of maintaining pride in good professional practice in a targets-led culture: he was clear about the importance of this for youth work, which he said should recognised as not just a means to positive social outcomes but “a public good in itself”. Hunch has its official launch next week at the House of Lords (I'll add a link when it's published) and will be a great rallying point for those who agree. The question, though, is what can the RSA do to support Fellows who want to work together to raise the profile of effective youth work initiatives – and make sure that the best and the bravest ideas and approaches are able to spread.
Sam is @iamsamthomas on Twitter