Youth work as informal education
Dona Milne, Chair of the National Youth Work Research Group, explores why increasing educational attainment in Scotland means more than investing in schools alone.
We all know that increasing the educational attainment of all our children and young people is a key priority for the Scottish Government, which has outlined its commitment to reducing the gap between those children and young people who do well in school and those that don’t. But do we understand and accept that investing in schools alone will not achieve that goal?
It has been heartening over recent months to hear from our Deputy First Minister, Mr John Swinney that he recognises and values the role of youth work as a form of informal education. He also accepts that we need to look beyond schools and the traditional curriculum in order to improve attainment, and health and wellbeing. Earlier this week our HM Chief Inspector of Education issued some key messages for schools, including a recognition of the need for “additional activities, interventions and resources” to reduce the attainment gap. This will require schools and education departments to work with a wide range of partners - a lot already do - and many of these will be youth work agencies who are embedded in local communities and have relationships with the children, young people and families who live there.
This is important because it really is all about relationships. It is the welcoming relationship between school staff and children and young people that support their attendance at school. It is the support from families that enable children and young people to benefit fully from the education available to them, and we know that for those families that are struggling that providing support to them can increase a child's attendance and engagement with education in whatever form that takes.
Then there is the relationship between a youth worker and a young person which is different to those with parents and teachers. Youth work offers an opportunity for young people to participate on their own terms, when they want to and where they want to. A good youth worker is clear about their intent and understands their role as an informal educator. They believe that all children and young people want to learn but we need to create the right conditions for them to do so. This may be about providing a listening ear when things are tough at home, creating a bit of time out away from the community in which they live or creating a group work programme where they can learn along with their peers in an informal setting.
We now have research that confirms the role of youth work in improving educational outcomes, employability, and health and wellbeing. We have opportunities to accredit young people’s engagement in youth work if this is something that they would benefit from. All of this should be welcome news to schools as they consider how best they can support their children and young people – part of the answer might just be on their doorstep in the form of their local youth work agency. So, my message to head teachers is look beyond the school gates if they want to close the gap.