Thirty-something years ago I trained as a teacher and youth worker. In those days it wasn’t unusual to have school-based youth work with a member of the teaching staff combining both roles – and it was a route I considered at the time.
As it turned out my teaching career was short-lived – I often joke that I left teaching because I was interested in learning, but there is an element of truth in that. I chose youth work, but throughout my career have often worked with or in schools, and when those schools have had enlightened head teachers it has worked well.
With enlightened head teachers I have been able to agree boundaries – in particular ensuring that a young person’s exclusion from the school does not mean their exclusion from the youth club. But of course the opposite is also true – head teachers who don’t want excluded young people on the premises, who expect youth workers to share confidential information, who have no understanding of, or interest in, the principles of youth work. Or, which has also been my experience, the school encroaches more and more on the youth club and eventually finds a reason to shut it down because they need the space.
So I have understandably mixed feelings about Labour’s ideas around putting more youth clubs in schools. I welcome the recognition that there will need to be investment in youth work following the current unprecedented decimation of the youth service and I understand the need to find more cost effective ways of providing services.
However, given that 1 in 7 children and young people say that they hate school, for some of those young people most in need of youth work intervention, provision on a school site may be a turn off. School-based provision will also potentially restrict the opportunity that free standing youth clubs are able to offer for young people from different areas and backgrounds to mix. If school A has a youth club and school B across town does not, will school A provision offer a sufficiently neutral environment to ensure access for all?
And then of course there is the problem I have already touched on the attitudes of the senior management of the school. Will head teachers appreciate the need for excluded pupils to continue to have access to the youth club? Will excluded or disaffected pupils feel comfortable attending anyway? It is not clear from Labour’s policy paper who they have consulted. They have a very positive case study from a school where the arrangement clearly works well, but would this be the universal response?
Having said all that I am reminded of the time I was working as a detached youth worker on an estate in a northern town where the young people had no provision at all. There had been various problems within the local community, including incidents when the young people breaking into the local primary school to use their playing fields. When things came to a head with an incident on the estate involving the police, the head teacher of the school became involved in discussions about how to improve youth provision on the estate.
As a result he offered access to the school building once a week and access to the playing fields every evening. One of the unintended consequences was that his bill for dealing with vandalism on the school premises went down to zero, but more importantly the young people felt heard and cared for.
Of utmost importance though is any initiative that ensures young people have access to good-quality provision and that if and when that provision is school based, it should be carefully negotiated to ensure that it is inclusive and in line with sound youth work principles.