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The Knowledge. How youth work complements schools

If we were to claim that young people’s access to a wide range of enriching experiences could be increased without placing additional burden on teachers, you might accuse us of cakeism.

In a recent article, Andrew Otty described what he sees as a dangerous blind spot in policymaking. That is, the reliance by policy officials on schools as a lever for social change, without drawing on the expansive knowledge and skills that the youth sector can offer. Otty’s argument that “youth workers are uniquely able to bridge the gap between a school and its local communities” is a powerful one, and prescient in a week when children’s services leaders – alarmed by rising rates of child poverty and growing strain on schools – called for a national ‘plan for childhood’.

New research published this week adds to a growing and compelling body of evidence about the ways in which the youth sector can support broader social and educational goals. The ‘Youth Evidence Base’ comprises three separate studies and has sought to develop our understanding of the different ways in which youth work can impact upon young people and their communities. The research was led by the policy consultancy SQW, in partnership with UK Youth and the universities of Warwick and Essex, with support from a youth panel.

Closing the gaps

The first study involved analyses of longitudinal datasets and found that young people’s involvement in youth clubs is associated with a range of positive impacts across physical health, wellbeing, behaviour and education, both at the time and into adulthood. However, the study also finds that the profile of young people involved in youth activities appears to have changed over time.

In short, while it used to be young people from poorer backgrounds participating in youth activities outside school, the scales have more recently tipped in favour of children from richer families. Schools can help mitigate this either by ensuring their poorest students have opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities, or by commissioning and signposting such activities where capacity is tight.

Beyond the curriculum

The second study – an internal literature review – examined what existing evidence says about the impact of youth activities on young people. It similarly finds the open access youth activities (from national programmes to smaller interventions) generate a range of important benefits for young people.

This has an important implication for teachers: at a time when school resources are squeezed and pupil needs are growing, help is at hand; the youth sector can help schools ensure pupils receive a rounded educational experience without placing further demands on teachers’ time. It could also ease pressure on school curricula by ensuring pupils develop wider life skills outside the classroom.

Prevention is better than cure

The third study examined the impact that youth club closures have had on young people and local communities. It found that spending by local authorities on youth services since the early 2010s has plummeted. Statistical analysis of the effect of these changes on localities shows that a year after a drop in expenditure, local authorities see increased incidences of bike theft, shoplifting, possession of weapon offences, and a higher proportion of young offenders who re-offend.

In our view, this adds to existing evidence highlighting the youth sector’s important preventative role (saving money on more costly, reactive interventions down the line). Interviewees contributing to our study suggested this is because youth clubs can provide young people with a positive place to go. Meanwhile, their absence means young people are arguably more likely to become exposed to negative influences.

It is important to note that there are already encouraging examples of schools working closely with the youth sector, including the Enrichment Partnerships Pilot. However, there is certainly more that can be done. Our belief is that time, money and energy spent on increasing all young people’s access to the sorts of meaningful and enriching activities the youth sector offers would benefit everyone: schools, communities and, most importantly, young people.

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