Understanding youth work’s value proposition

I had a great comment on Friday from a good colleague, Ann Alder of RSVP Design Limited, on the post I made Thursday on Assessing Needs and Evidencing Impact. She wrote:

“I agree John – especially about the need to really engage young people and explore what they want/need. It is interesting to think how this links to your work with Learning Power – maybe if we better supported our youngsters in developing a language to explore what they need to learn and develop, they’d be more articulate and convincing in being able to influence thinking about the value of investing in them!”

She made the link, as I had done, that if young people better understood what they need to learn and develop, they would then be in a much better place to articulate a case for the value of stronger investment in young people. As many like me will know, some of the best examples of youth work practice I have engaged in or observed, particularly engagement activity,  have gone some way towards this. So why, as a sector, are we not learning this lesson?

I realise that it is a sweeping generalisation and yet we still, as a sector, find ourselves having to explain, once again, to a Government of the day what the real value is of what we do? If you’ve not read any of the submissions to the Select Committee, fill your boots at House of Commons – Education Committee – Uncorrected Evidence – http://bit.ly/fn2f3Z – for an eclectic range of thoughts, comments and opinions. They cover a spectrum from those on the money to those that are, in my view, plainly self-serving and self-promoting.

The Committee is also posing some decent but not particularly searching questions. It is also persisting in the use of the concept of universal services, which demonstrates what? My view is simple: if anything, many services since the 70’s have made a form of loose universal offer but have not offered a universal service. Truth is youth services have never had the budgets to provide a universal service.

So, in reality, as an example, most services I worked in from 1978 – 2003 targeted their work as a general rule of thumb, though not necessarily in a New Labour notion of targeting! They did this in a variety of ways: geography [where clubs happened to be situated]; demographics; the ‘-isms’; particular disadvantaged groups; the local authority’s priorities; but most often because there was too little cash to do a full and effective job across the whole of a designated youth population. So, a form of ‘rationing’ [some might say targeting] took place – nowhere near the universal service that many seem to still claim, which bemuses me and perhaps also confuses the notion of the value proposition of youth work!

So, think about your value proposition –  how well are their needs, wants and interests known; are they truly at the heart of what youth work is about; and, after our interventions, what is the real difference made? In addition, how are young people’s views really being articulated, understood and acted upon? These seem to me the keys to an effective value proposition for youth work! What do you think?

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