How to Stay ‘Engaged’ at a Distance: Youth Work and COVID-19

Youth work is all about engaging with young people, engaging them because it is what they want and exploring things that they are interested in. For many, the relationship with their youth worker is the only one where they’re recognised in their own right. Recent research has shown that two million young people need such direct support. So how have youth workers continued to give that support during this time of social distancing?

The overwhelming response has been to pivot online. A monumental effort has been put into holding meetings, debates, competitions and one-to-one sessions over PCs, laptops, tablets and smart phones. The degree to which this has been successful is still unclear. There is anecdotal evidence that levels of engagement are dropping with some young people not joining in online at all. On the other hand, the digital offer seems to suit those for whom physical engagement was always tricky, for example young people in rural areas with transport challenges, and those with disabilities. What we have learnt is what we always knew; that relationships are fundamental to youth work, and where there is a pre-existing relationship online contact has largely been maintained. There have been many hurdles to overcome, not least safeguarding and risk adverse local authorities.

Youth work hasn’t completely disappeared from our streets. Some buildings, in one or two areas, are very slowly being opened up for one-to-one sessions for those young people deemed to be the most vulnerable. Detached work, going out and meeting young people where they are, is still happening. It is now, though, more from a safeguarding perspective, finding out why young people are out, whether they are aware of and adhering to the lockdown guidelines, whether they need support…physical, economic or mental.

For some in the sector the move online is long overdue and they point out we are way behind our European colleagues. Others worry it will take away from the face-to-face contact that has been the key feature of youth work for so long. Such questions about what youth work should look like in a post Covid19 world are starting to pre-occupy youth workers. Many of them work in local authorities, charities or the voluntary sector, all of which face a hugely uncertain future.

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.


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