Youth services & Covid recovery: A missed opportunity

Written by: Leigh Middleton | Published:
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Youth services could form a crucial part of the effort to fully re-open schools from September and, in the longer term, could help pupils to recover from the impact of lockdown – but the government is failing to recognise this potential, says Leigh Middleton

The role of youth work in education represents a policy blind spot in government, with too little acknowledgement of this untapped resource working with schools and colleges.

In the absence of clear guidance, opportunities are being missed to support summer activities.

Any provision made over the summer holidays is at the discretion of schools and academy trusts. Yet, just when they are needed most, youth services and activities were closed and are only now emerging gradually from the coronavirus lockdown – too late for most schools’ summer plans.

Furthermore, as we reach the end of the school year the role of youth work is largely absent from the discussions on fully re-opening schools and colleges from September.

Current guidelines cause an unnecessary divide, with schools and colleges viewed as education and youth work provision as leisure. However youth work has a strong educative value and has a bigger part to play to ensure no young person is left behind.

At its core, youth work is a distinctive form of education. It has its own curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice supporting a broader base of trusted adult volunteers. In turn, youth services are a vital lifeline to many vulnerable or disadvantaged young people in particular – offering early help and interventions that support their engagement at school, college or alternative provision.

Therefore, just as the pandemic has heightened a national debate on the relationship between health and social care (and how they can come together seamlessly), it is necessary for a similar debate to re-imagine schools around the relationship between schools, colleges and youth services.

Looking back, the 1944 Education Act defined youth work provision as taking place in young people’s leisure hours. This concept of educational leisure time has driven much of the policy agenda since. Youth services came to be seen as a discrete service, separate from, but sometimes complementary to, schools and colleges. This has created a false divide.

Looking forward, while each profession and practice has its own distinctive approach, it is important for schools and youth services to come together seamlessly to offer new ways of working to engage young people in education and training.

Bolting on youth work or schools simply buying-in youth services falls short of the changes needed to meet the challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic world. The challenge is for a broad and rich curriculum that includes prescribed subject-based curricula as well as other areas of work negotiated with young people.

This is not a dichotomy of academic versus vocational. Rather, it is recognition of a knowledge-based society in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, recognising too that 85 per cent of a young person’s waking hours throughout the year are spent outside of school.

For schools and colleges, the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework puts an emphasis on pupils’ personal development and broader achievements, which youth workers can help foster. For youth work the challenge is to provide the capacity and scale of high-quality activity needed in and around the school.

As the national body for youth work in England, the National Youth Agency (NYA) has produced a short series of reports and formal guidance on the role of youth work in response to Covid-19. These identify the scale of need for young people, amplified by the pandemic, and the distinctive part that youth work and services can play.

In the latest of our reports, entitled Time out: Re-imagining schools, there is a clear set of recommendations to meet the immediate needs of young people to be ready for school and supported in their learning, and to ensure that emotional health and wellbeing is at the forefront of delivery. So, what now?

Government guidance needs to classify youth services as an essential service and mobilise youth workers as part of a clear plan to re-open schools, colleges and alternative provision. It also needs to support vulnerable young people with a carousel of activities in schools and youth services over the summer to ensure they are school-ready and re-engaged in their education.

Preparation for the new school year needs to move on quickly from the logistical arrangements of social distancing and desk-space. Youth work has a clear role to play to support the return to schools and colleges. This must be emboldened by guidance from the Department for Education for greater clarity, recognised by local authorities, schools and academy trusts.

Furthermore, we need to be bold in our approach to embed youth work with schools, colleges and alternative provision – as learning mentors in one-to-one or small group tuition, and as part of extended school time to provide pastoral support and participation activities, for example.

In addition, targeted youth services can provide additional wraparound support for early help and interventions – with the deployment of qualified youth workers in alternative provision and to ensure all young people aged 16 and over have the choice of an education place, Apprenticeship, or job opportunity.

To sustain this approach over the long term, NYA is calling for a Youth Service Guarantee for at least two qualified youth workers and a team of youth support workers for each secondary school catchment area. This can be underpinned by opening up professional learning and career pathways in teaching and youth work.

In school, teaching assistants and other support staff who currently provide some functions that can be identified as youth work-related can be trained in youth work, making use of government bursaries and the Apprenticeship Levy. Similarly, young people or school-leavers can be up-skilled and trained as peer educators and youth support workers.

Meanwhile, the NYA is soon to publish a revised youth work curriculum alongside qualifications and national occupational standards. This will pave the way for youth work practice and pedagogy to be reinstated as a module within initial teacher training, with further opportunities for CPD to include the development of a diploma in youth work.

Moving forward, there are further recommendations to fully align formal education (schools and colleges) and non-formal education (youth work and youth services) – with examples of in-school practice, after-school provision, outreach from school and specialist services.

To meet the scale of need requires significant investment in training and stronger local partnerships – anything less means selling our young people short. At a time of crisis and great uncertainty, we need to support young people now.


  • Leigh Middleton is chief executive of the National Youth Agency. The professional, statutory and regulatory body for youth work in England. Visit www.nya.org.uk


Further information & resources

NYA: Time out: Re-imagining schools, April 2020: https://nya.org.uk/resource/time-out-re-imagining-schools-covid-19/


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