Surviving the shutdown – who will be there to help young people?

Graham Duxbury
Friday, March 27, 2020

If there are any positives to be found in the current situation it’s that many of us will never take the work of teachers for granted again. Keeping young and enquiring minds busy while juggling the rest of your day’s work – and remember teachers also have plenty of ‘work’ to do besides running lessons – can be physically and mentally draining.

It’s also a time to reflect on the value of the wider infrastructure we have in place to support the safety and development of our young people – from social workers to scout leaders. The peculiar conditions under which we’re living are testing the resilience of our systems and structures, but are also driving new forms of collaboration and prompting real innovation.

In my own organisation we’re seeing youth workers finding new ways of keeping in touch with those they support, from moderating online ‘hangouts’ to conducting telephone mentoring sessions. Virtual colleges are being created to ensure those unlikely to receive structured home learning support can continue to progress, and we’re even managing to continue programmes aimed at helping young people appreciate the great outdoors while being stuck indoors.

Amidst this flurry of activity, however, there is a deep and growing anxiety. The prognosis appears to be that, although the pandemic will eventually subside, disruption to our lives and our economy will persist for many months. As we emerge from the difficult days ahead, despite the huge interventions being made by government, more people will be out of work and out of pocket and young people may continue to be intermittently in and out of school. The longer this lasts, the more challenging it will be for families living in hardship or coping with conflict and the more likely it is that a generation of young people will be set back economically.

In normal times, these are the margins in which the voluntary sector operates, plugging gaps in statutory services and bringing additional support to those with the most complex needs. But for many charities and social purpose organisations, life is literally being put on hold, and there is a real question mark about whether this part of our support system will weather the storm.

With fundraising activity halted, trading income gone and other grant funds being repurposed to respond to the immediate crisis, many charities are being forced to put large parts of their operations into effective hibernation using the government’s job retention scheme. Whilst this will prevent major redundancies in the short term, it’s a scheme designed for businesses who have lost their customers and therefore have no demand for their service. In the case of charities, our income may have disappeared, but those we exist to support still need help – and in a few months’ time demand for that service will increase.

The legal mechanism underpinning the scheme – furlough leave – explicitly forbids laid-off workers from providing a service to their organisation, which means tens of thousands of committed, capable people will be out of action. While for some there is no realistic alternative, others could be redeployed to support communities and vulnerable people now while working to prepare their organisations for the surge in demand that will follow the shutdown. Allowing charities the flexibility to use the job retention scheme as a wage subsidy to keep people working rather than an incentive to lay people off is an obvious solution.

The government has moved fast to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the economy. It needs to show the same commitment to protecting the social infrastructure that’s going to be needed even more when the crisis is over.


Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork UK

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