Keith Towler - Radical action required: the future of youth services in Wales
This time last year I wrote my first Annual Report as the Chair of CWVYS. In the last 12 months a lot has happened, but in a way, not a lot has changed for youth work in Wales.
What do I mean by that? Well, we have seen a number of developments not least the establishment of the Ministerial Reference Group for Youth Work in Wales, the publication of a Charter for Young People in Wales, a focus on youth work in schools and the prospect of youth worker registration with the Education Workforce Council from April 2017. And yet, the voluntary youth work sector finds itself fighting on a daily basis for survival. How many voluntary youth work managers in Wales do you think spend the majority of their time chasing funding opportunities or completing budget forecasts for their trustees? Nearly all of them, I suspect.
This raises some huge questions for voluntary youth work organisations, for CWVYS, for our local authority partners and for local and national government in Wales.
Let’s remind ourselves what youth work is for and the extent of its impact.
Youth work provides a universal, open access offer for all young people in Wales: a voluntary relationship that provides the foundation for the delivery of targeted services, information and support. I said last year that without that universal, open access foundation we will be building on sand and I stand by that assertion.
We want young people to enjoy their youth, to participate in our communities and to grow as individuals who will contribute as adults both economically and socially. It is really important that we recognise two things. Firstly, that good youth work delivers for young people and secondly, the value that young people place on the service is incredibly high.
Wales is a country that is committed to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and central to that commitment is the right that all young people have to have their voices heard in all matters that affect their lives. Young people then must play a central role in the development and growth of youth work in Wales. There is so much talent amongst our young people. We must listen to their experience and work with them in partnership to build a youth service for Wales that delivers for them now and for years into the future.
Simply put, good youth work saves young lives. For many young people, the trusted relationship that they have with their local youth project provides the platform from which they build resilience, self-esteem and find a professional response at times of crisis. Youth work, of course, also provides opportunity, a safe place to meet friends, explore new experiences and helps young people realise their full potential.
For years in Wales we have debated and then debated some more about youth work structures, how we can provide services and support for young people and crucially how young people themselves can get their voices heard to help to shape the way youth work responds to the things that are important to them.
It feels like we are in something of a Groundhog Day. I’m sure we have been here before and I now think that something quite radical needs to happen if we are to break our cycle of debate in Wales, so that something tangible happens to improve things for young people in Wales. That solution has to be grounded in a rights-based approach which frees youth work managers from the demands of funding constraints and worries about service closures so they can support and empower youth work staff. When everyone is so locked into survival mode, how can we expect them to contribute to a radical youth work solution for Wales?
The answer of course is national leadership. Leadership that sets a Youth Work Strategy for Wales, that addresses the funding constraints, supports and develops the youth work workforce, ensures young people’s participation is mainstreamed in civil society and sets an agenda for reform, development and support. To do that we need some kind of national body for youth work in Wales that sets and monitors a strategic approach. Without that, we will have the continuation of a piecemeal collection of non-co-ordinated activity that will achieve nothing more than watch youth work decline one cut at a time till it disappears altogether.
Strong words I know but we have just elected the 5th National Assembly for Wales and a new Welsh Government. We have got to see this political term prioritise young people and youth work. This is crunch time for the sector and so I’m not calling for more of the same. The call this time is for positive change. A change that places young people at the centre of a youth work revolution for Wales, that doesn’t just save a service, but builds a future so that Wales becomes the best country in the world to be young.
Vision, ambition and a programme of work that will get us where we all want to be.
Keith Towler is an independent consultant offering development and review services in areas including children and young people's rights, the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), play, youth work, safeguarding, child protection, youth justice, community safety and rights-based public service delivery. He was the former Children's Commissioner for Wales between 2008 and 2015. He is currently Chair of CWVYS as well as a trustee of Play Wales and Vice Chair of the National Independent Safeguarding Board for Wales.