National Youth Work Strategy can only strengthen our increasingly adaptable sector

As the sector continues to adapt to the ever-changing post-Covid landscape, YouthLink Scotland CEO Tim Frew looks to the road ahead with an update on the National Youth Work Strategy.

One of the biggest joys of being in youth work is the ever changing, fast paced, responsive nature of it. There is no standing still, there is only the here and now, because another generation of young people is just around the corner with new ideas, new perspectives, and operating in a very different world. As youth workers we need to be in a perpetual listening mode. What are young people saying today? How might we understand the world they live in? How do we build trusting and supportive relationships with them? How can we support them to consider the world around them, the structures and societal context they inhabit? How do we encourage them as they begin to foster their own agency and begin to make change happen?

If one of the biggest joys of being in youth work is the ever-changing, fast paced, responsive nature of it, it is also one of the biggest challenges. This has never been truer than recently, as we faced increasing uncertainty and challenge presented by Covid-19. What kind of service should we provide? How should we prioritise when demands on services are high? The cycle of living with restrictions this “can we/can’t we", “what could we do/what should we do”, and all the relentless uncertainty has sometimes made planning and prioritising a bit of a folly, maybe a bit like long-term weather forecasting. Nevertheless, that is what we are tasked to do and the youth work sector up and down the country have been brilliant at it, pivoting services, tailoring the delivery to meet the demand be it outdoor, digital, detached, or indoor in small groups or 1-1.

I had the opportunity and privilege towards the end of the summer to visit a number of local authority youth work services and voluntary organisations and to see both high quality delivery and planning in action, as many began to wrap up summer programs and start longer term planning as restrictions lifted. In visiting local authorities I got to hear about the content of CLD plans being finalised this month and in a visit to one voluntary organisation I took part in a planning process using the RSA’s new Future Change Framework

There are great questions that we can all ask ourselves as we begin to move through and beyond the Covid crisis and plan ahead using that framework.

  • How do we go about ending temporary measures, introduced to meet the immediate demands of the crisis, so we can learn from them?
  • How can we amplify and embed the innovations that the crisis made space for so they lead to lasting change?
  • How do we let go of obsolete activities in ways that avoid going back to the norm?
  • How do we restart things we’ve stopped in ways that have the greatest impact?

In many ways uncertainty about the future and the challenge of change has “aye been” a feature of youth work and we have frequently had to navigate the social policy landscape and find new partners and sources of funding to realise our potential as a sector. In the process of planning and developing the next National Youth Work Strategy we have been beset by quite a long process of stop, pause, start, pause, restart. However, there has been an opportunity over the summer to reflect back on key themes identified by young people and the youth work sector back in 2019/20 and to consider and reflect on what has changed, what remains and what needs more emphasis in the new strategy following the coronavirus pandemic and it’s disproportionate impact on young people, especially those facing poverty. The evidence is that Covid-19 has been particularly tough on the wellbeing of young people in some of our most marginalised and disenfranchised communities. We are not all in the same boat in the storm.

As this process is very much an ongoing and collective exercise, involving sector representatives, the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and others I’m not going to attempt to sum up where we are or put my spin on it. I think overall it is very much in line with the co-development approach taken throughout the strategy process and I want to pass on my sincere thanks to the many thousands of young people and practitioners involved in the process to date and those involved at present. Below is a brief summary of where we have got to in the process.

2019/20

The National Young People’s Group (VOICE) was convened, supported by YouthLink Scotland, Young Scot and Scottish Youth Parliament. The group co-designed a national survey with over 800 young people.

A Local and Thematic Events Fund was available to support the co-production process and ensure a diverse range of stakeholders contributed. In total 1400 young people were involved (including those surveyed).

In January 2020, over 100 delegates attended a NYWS strategy event in Glasgow, co-designed and co-facilitated by VOICE to discuss the key themes emerging.

The main themes were sense-checked with key networks in the sector and the Stakeholder Reference Group for the Youth Work Strategy and are as follows:

  • Youth work inclusive and accessible for all
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Skills and Achievement
  • Funding and Investment
  • Workforce Development
  • Youth work is valued, understood and communicated.

In November 2020, following a pause from the Scottish Government due to Covid demands, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead recommitted to ensuring the delivery of a National Youth Work Strategy.

Between 2020/21 officers drafted a skeletal framework for the strategy and completed a wide range of impact assessments. Work was impacted by ongoing demands for guidance and recovery as new Covid variants emerged at the end of 2020.

2021

In March 2021, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead, following a further lockdown period, committed to wider consultation around the strategy in light of CLD’s role in Scotland’s recovery, post the pre-election period.

Meetings of the National Youth Work Strategy Stakeholder Reference Group took place in March 2020 and June 2020 to advise on the strategy framework and the next stages of the co-development process and nominate writers.

The new Minister for Higher Education, Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Jamie Hepburn MSP met with the Scottish Youth Work Leader’s Forum in June and I also had the opportunity to meet with him in July. He reiterated the Scottish Government’s support to an ambitious national youth work strategy.

Based around the key themes identified, sector representatives were invited to draft some of the key outcomes and actions, over the summer period with the support of a secretariat of YouthLink Scotland staff and Scottish Government and Education Scotland officials. This process has also been informed by key sector led networks.

In light of the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on young people as outlined above, additional consultation is now taking place across the range of protected characteristics to inform the strategy and the Equality Impact Assessment that is part of it.

The current Stakeholder Reference Group will meet again in the autumn and it is anticipated that a draft strategy will be available early in the new year, followed by a consultation process. 

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