Let's be honest - good youth work works

In spite of recent bad press there is plenty of good work being done with young people, says Phil Kerry of London Youth

Phil Kerry
Phil Kerry

If you spend a lot of time reading the mainstream press you’d be forgiven for thinking that charities have lost their way somewhat: too big, too greedy, badly run vanity projects that aren’t serving the needs of those who we were set up to help. Our overheads are too high, our chief executives are paid too much, beneficiaries come second to raking in the cash. Extra, extra read all about it.

I’m really not sure how this all happened. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

London Youth, where I work, has a long and proud history of supporting and challenging young people to become the best they can be; ensuring they grow up healthy, able to navigate a fulfilling career and make a positive contribution in their communities. We support high quality youth work through our network of quality assured and diverse member youth clubs, embedded in communities right across the capital.

Like me, I am not sure many of the dedicated youth workers in our membership take much notice of the increasingly bad press around our sector. They know that bad news sells and good news stories from charities are the reserve of extremely quiet news days. And if they do read them they certainly won’t strike any chords.

Youth workers won’t have dedicated their careers to young people for the promise of wealth, and in an increasingly tough funding environment they certainly won’t be worrying about excessive overheads – quite the opposite in fact. Amongst a back drop of cuts and competition for funding with the profile of need in the capital changing rapidly, I am sure they have more than enough to think about. After all, they do between them support tens of thousands of young people who attend each week for positive activities in a place they’ve chosen to go, with an adult they trust.

And so I’m delighted that after two years of robust impact evaluation work collecting significant amounts of data across all our programmes, we can begin to say with some confidence that the collective work of our membership really does make a difference. Youth work is a powerful way of supporting young people to become the best they can be; it develops young people’s confidence, their resilience and their relationship skills.

Our evidence not only shows that good youth work makes a difference to this, but suggests that the higher quality the experience, the greater the impact on social and emotional skills –  whether the young person is having fun, the relationship they have with their youth worker and how much they are learning, all matter. This reinforces our emphasis on quality and evidences the point we’ve been making for some time: that good youth work works. And we now have the emerging evidence base to prove it.

As an organisation committed to learning I am sure there are lessons for us all in the recent media coverage we’ve seen about Kids Company, telephone fundraising and whatever other stories break across newspapers. Charities are certainly not perfect and I know from our own learning work that our programmes don’t always hit the mark. But like so many others we are honest about what works (and what doesn’t) and we are committed to improve. I hope our learning and impact reports also reflect this honesty and our drive to ensure young Londoners get the very best support.

A newspaper, it is said, is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier. So before we all lose the plot further let’s be honest: good youth work doesn’t have to be associated with the need for paper bags of cash. Instead, it should be seen as vital support for young people to become great adults, with an impact that can be measured. Good youth work works and if journalists want to fill those column inches with one of those rare stories on the value of charities, we would be more than happy to show them it.

Phil Kerry is programmes director at London Youth

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