We need to help young people prepare for the long haul

Graham Duxbury
Thursday, October 1, 2020

Rules set by adults have always seemed confusing and contradictory to the young, but just imagine how many must be feeling now.

You can spend all day with your friends at school, but you can’t have them round for a party at the weekend. You can play for your football team and go to an outdoor Scouts meeting but can’t do the same things with the same people in the park on your own. And at any point you may be told that you’re confined to the house for a fortnight – even longer if you’ve just started university.

Many of us are mentally adjusting to the fact that 2020 is a write-off and hunkering down for a cold, unpleasant winter hoping for some kind of renewal in the spring. For children those timescales are astronomical and require a huge emotional shift.

This is why now more than ever we need to be focusing on the support available to young people.

As the National Youth Agency has pointed out, one of the consequences of the pandemic has been a significant scaling up in the number of young people who have gone ‘off radar’.

Meanwhile, as reported by Children & Young People Now, multiple surveys of young people have pointed to the anxiety generated by returning to school. This will only be compounded if school becomes a stop-start experience punctuated by intermittent shutdowns and a lack of staffing continuity.

The challenge is stark and children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield is doing us all a great service by keeping it at the forefront of policymakers’ minds. It was good to see many of the funders receiving a share of the government’s Community Match Challenge Scheme pledging to use the cash to support projects for vulnerable children and young people. I’m also really pleased that, between now and Christmas, the small grants Groundwork distributes on behalf of Tesco will be exclusively focused on community projects that support young people.

But we need to go much further.

The government seems committed to prioritising education over the economy, willing to put the brakes on trade if it means more teaching and, if reports are to be believed, timing more significant restrictions to coincide with school holidays. Now that we know we’re facing an extended period of disruption, we need to ensure teachers have the backup of youth workers and mental health professionals to provide the emotional and practical support many young people will need to stay on track and realise their potential.

We also know that we need to embrace the outdoors. Finding safe, accessible spaces that can accommodate the meetings – both formal and informal – that are so important to young people’s development will become a priority. And yet, young people often feel unwelcome in the very spaces that it would be most beneficial for them to use. We need to see a concerted effort to invest in parks and green spaces and in consultation exercises that will help young people feel they have somewhere to go and something to say about what goes on in their neighbourhood.

For those young people who have seen their job prospects diminish and their career aspirations dashed, we need more than the Kickstart scheme, significant and welcome though that is. A six-month placement will go a long way towards ensuring young people retain the habits of work and can add valuable experience to their CV, but we need to ensure as many of these as possible are genuine stepping stones to rewarding roles and that the support is there for those who were already struggling to find work before Covid put them at the back of an even longer queue.

The next few months are likely to be characterised by short-term thinking and knee-jerk decision-making as we chase virus hotspots around the country. In the midst of this it’s vital that we stay focused on the immediate wellbeing and long-term prospects of those for whom a ‘lost year’ can have much more significant repercussions.

Graham Duxbury is national chief executive of Groundwork

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