A Year of Youth Work in Lockdown: What have we been doing if not innovating?

Covid Anniversary Blog

A year ago I was planning a workshop hosted by Youth Focus NW. Speakers were coming from across the country and there were lots of discussions over whether the event should be cancelled or go ahead. Taking the lead from the Cheltenham Festival, we went ahead with our chairs spaced a metre apart. That was the last time I saw my colleagues in person.

Twelve months ago the youth sector was also already looking ahead and thinking what provision would look like post-COVID. That now seems naïve. We never thought we would still be in lockdown a year later.

Now we proceed with a mixture of wariness and flexibility, moving between different styles of delivery depending on the operating ‘level’. Together the National Youth agency have worked with Government to develop a system of levels that allow youth organisations to understand what they can and can’t do under the restrictions that are in place.

As a result, over the past year youth workers have carried on, fitting their practice to meet the current guidance, planning and replanning, innovating and making sure they reach as many young people as possible they can.

Youth services and organisations have learnt how to offer provision online, they have continued to meet vulnerable young people in person. Many organisations haven’t stopped, they have just used their ingenuity to find a way to make sure young people have support.

The impact of the pandemic and the needs of young people are now also becoming clear. NHS data suggests one in 6 young people have a mental health problem. Research from UK Youth indicated 66% of youth organisations are experiencing increased demand. Demand is increasing but income is falling. Almost two thirds of organisations that took part in the research think they may have to close in the next 12 months. Young people need those services and the relationships with youth workers. We should be planning how we  are going to support young people return to, what we hope will be, a more normal life. 

In response the government is undertaking a rapid review to inform policy for the out-of-school agenda until 2025. This will determine the future of the £500m Youth Investment Fund (YIF), promised in the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto for boosting the infrastructure of open access youth provision. On hold since the start of the pandemic, the delay has been attributed to a perception that it was “impossible to expect people to innovate at the moment”. Yet the pandemic has forced us all – willingly or not – to innovate. So what better time to invest these much needed funds in the future of our young people?

Elizabeth Harding is the former CEO of Youth Focus NW, she is a Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Social Responsibility, and now a freelance consultant with a focus and interest in youth work.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 18th May 2020 by Liz which can be found here.

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