What does Covid recovery look like for young people?

Dona Milne, Director of Public Health & Health Policy at NHS Lothian, and Independent Chair of the Scottish Youth Work Steering Group, argues that youth work is at the heart of a community-based response to Covid-19 - and its increasing importance needs to be reflected in policy.

Current discussion in policy circles centres around what recovery from Covid looks like. This is a broad and complex debate; for me, a key issue is how we support our children and young people during this period of societal upheaval and recovery. 

I have been reflecting recently on what our children and young people have faced during the pandemic. For some, the experience has been stark. Understandably, there are concerns about loss of educational attainment and the impact of isolation from friends and family on their mental health and wellbeing. So how are we responding and what more can we do? 

Public health measures have been put in place to protect children and young people where they interact; including schools, youth work and community settings. The changes are essential for young people’s development, and they have taken many of these in their stride. We don’t know yet if future measures will need to be further enhanced as a result of our immediate response to new variants, but it is good to see an increasing number of measures reduced. Whatever actions we take, they need to recognise the wider influence of Covid on young people’s longer term outcomes.  

Across the country, our children and young people have in the main coped extremely well over this past year and should be congratulated. However, there will be those who have missed out, which raises questions about the longer-term impact of the pandemic. 

Engagement in formal education is important and we know that school attendance is a protective factor for many young people, providing them with a safe and supportive environment. But it is unrealistic to leave this entirely to schools and their staff – and school doesn’t work for everyone.  

Placing such a heavy emphasis on schools fails to recognise the importance of informal education on young people’s lives. Youth work, and other forms of informal education, provide significant opportunities for both achievement, attainment and development outside of the school setting. 

We have a growing body of evidence that points to the need for community support for children, young people and their families. Community-based youth work engages with the issues faced in local neighbourhoods, some of which have been magnified by the pandemic. Youth work practitioners respond to young people’s interests and are viewed as trusted adults that respect and listen to them. Working in partnership with schools, community and young people, youth workers are in a unique position to support those most detrimentally impacted by covid in a way that no other profession is. 

Research undertaken in recent years captured how youth work improves outcomes for young people, the evidence has confirmed: 

  • Youth clubs are spaces which reduce isolation, create a sense of belonging and provide new experiences and opportunities for learning 
  • Young people recognise and articulate the importance of having a trusted adult and a safe space created by youth workers with whom they often form long-term relationships continuing into young adulthood 
  • The youth work setting was recognised as an inclusive, friendly, fun and safe environment that offers young people opportunities to develop through structured educational and leisure activities 
  • Youth work supports young people to develop confidence and life skills and provide a vehicle to harness ambition and ability to achieve their potential 

Youth workers (both staff and volunteers) across Scotland have, as expected, adapted their practice during the pandemic to continue to support young people in local areas. Some have taken work online, some have delivered their services outdoors and some have made a welcome return to face-to-face delivery. 

This breadth of approaches is essential if we are to continue to support young people effectively during this period of Covid recovery, which as we know from public health experts could take years. As my colleague, Tim Frew of YouthLink Scotland, said recently “The evidence is that COVID19 has been particularly tough on the wellbeing of young people in some of our most marginalised and disenfranchised communities”.  

Our young people need youth work more than ever.  

To mitigate the long-term impact of Covid on our children and young people, we need to create a plan now to get more face-to-face youth work up and running: providing support in local communities, ensuring those trusted adults are building relationships with young people and supporting improvements in mental health and wellbeing.  

Youth work has stepped up during this pandemic and will be a key part of the Covid recovery programme alongside formal education and universal healthcare. Within this partnership, the youth work sector needs to receive the recognition it deserves and parity of funding to allow practitioners to continue to play an essential role in meeting the needs of young people. 

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