I need to start with a confession. Before joining the world of youth work, my professional career had been spent in the hard nosed world of criminal justice and latterly as the YOT manager for Kensington and Chelsea. One day back in 2005, I received a call from the then DCS that went along the lines of ‘The youth service has just had a terrible Ofsted. Get in there and sort it out.’ Great I thought. What could be easier than managing a service where adults are paid to have fun with kids? It will be a nice respite from real work!
With that ingrained prejudice I really shouldn’t have been offered the job in the first place, but what did I find in reality? Given the circumstances, a mixture of good and bad, but more of the former than the latter. And the good was very good. In fact I quickly came to realise that some extraordinary work was taking place under the banner of youth work. I found youth workers tackling complex personal and social issues with passion, skill and verve. I found unwavering commitment and deeply held values about the capacity of young people to succeed against insuperable odds. I found youth workers with an uncanny ability to get alongside even the most challenging young people in the community and work with them and their families no matter what the difficulties presented. A ‘never give up’ ethos, underpinned by extraordinary resilience, was a wonder to behold.
However, too much of it was happening out of public view and critically, out of the view of funders and decision makers (hence perhaps, the prejudice!). I experienced an atmosphere of mystique about youth work that felt positively cultish at times. I also found a profession that seemingly relished positioning itself somewhere between the periphery and anarchy. Now some highly creative things can happen in that space, but detaching yourself from the mainstream while expecting to be funded by it is a tad self indulgent and positively dangerous in times of scarcity.
Nevertheless, the more I immersed myself in the youth service, the more I wanted to stay. What followed was a period of plenty with money flowing from central government to fund all manner of youth support programmes. Happy days! Little did we know then, but the good times were about to come to an abrupt halt. Lehman Brothers fell off the cliff and the Ponzi economics of Northern Rock and RBS and others brought the economy to its knees. Almost overnight the money tree withered and youth services were amongst the first to feel the full force of austerity.
Dismantling a service through attritional cuts – which frankly is a far easier job for a local authority senior manager than actually thinking creatively – was hugely unappealing to me. Not least also to my colleagues and to say nothing of the young people we support. We needed to put ourselves in a place where we could access other forms of funding. We needed to be brave and innovative – core characteristics of a good youth service. And that’s why we created Epic CIC, the UK’s first independent youth services mutual. It was a leap in the dark but all of us agreed the work were doing was too important to give up without a fight. Staff voted unanimously to back the venture (and I mean voted). Credit is also due to the councillors and officers of Kensington and Chelsea who were prepared to back a totally untried entity led by people who had never done anything like this before!
By creating Epic CIC, we have been able to continue to do the things we do best. The contribution youth work can make, not only to individuals but to whole communities, is immense. Take the example of serious youth violence, high on the agenda at the moment. Knowing what I know about the cases we are working with, I can say with certainty there would be more extreme violence, more victims and more families left in anguish were it not for the input of youth workers. The work is highly skilled and undertaken without the backup of security guards or the safeguards present in an office environment and without a stab vest or a pepper spray in sight. This is replicated in every town and city where youth workers operate. Were it not for youth workers having both the skill and indeed, the physical courage to tackle this issue head on, our streets would be more dangerous for everyone. In places where youth services have been decimated however, ..……. well complete the sentence yourself.
The strong sense of attachment youth workers feel for the community was never more in evidence than on the morning of 14 June 2017. As the Grenfell disaster unfolded on our doorstep, an extraordinary community response developed. Local youth VCS organisations were front and centre to the response. For several days we became of necessity, disaster relief agencies. No-one waited for a senior management briefing. No-one screamed for the business continuity plan. Everyone knew intuitively the right thing to do. Spontaneity and determination – core characteristics of the youth sector – came to the fore. I don’t think I have ever been more proud of the sector than I was during that fateful period.
Thirteen years later and my early prejudices obliterated by rich experience, I have had the privilege to work with some of the most gifted and talented professionals I have ever met in my career. These are not the best of times for youth services. However, we have been around for 100 plus years and shown a tremendous capacity to adapt and survive. We are not done yet and our time will come again.