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Youth work and wellbeing - Tim Opie and Darrel Williams
Youth work and wellbeing - Tim Opie and Darrel Williams

Youth work and well-being

In their latest blog for the EWC, Tim and Darrel discuss how youth work fosters positive, trusting relationships which can provide the basis for improving well-being, via the underpinning five pillars of youth work - expressive, educative, participative, empowering and inclusive.

by Tim Opie (Lifelong Learning Policy Officer (Youth), Welsh Local Government Association) and Darrel Williams (Senior Lecturer at the University of Wales, Trinity St David).

The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.
UNICEF (2007)

Through its voluntary relationship with young people aged 11-25 years, the key purpose of youth work is to enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential (Youth Work National Occupational Standards).

There are many reasons why a young person will engage in youth work - a relationship which is led by the young person as defined by the needs and priorities identified by them. One of these is how youth workers can intervene early and prevent negative mental health and emotional well-being issues by using a non-clinical, relationships-based approach.

The New Economics Foundation, among others, value wellbeing as an important concept, identifying five important characteristics which foster wellbeing – 1. to 'connect' with people around us; 2. to be physically active; 3. to take notice of things and to be curious; 4. to keep learning about life, and lastly 5. to give something back, to contribute something to others (NEF, 2008) – all are values which form the basis of the youth work offer to our young people.

Prior to the devastating effects of the pandemic, young people in Wales were already disproportionately affected by the impact of austerity and the struggling economic landscape in Wales. To further compound this situation, Welsh children were found to have fared worse, on average, than their counterparts in England and Scotland under six wellbeing outcomes (Pedace, no date). I want to use this blog as an opportunity to consider some of the current issues impacting on the health and well-being of young people and how youth work might respond.

What are the implications of the pandemic and austerity on young people?

The European Youth Forum have noted that young people have not been adequately provided for, and despite being more educated and driven than previous generations, they face structural hurdles, particularly when reaching the point of accessing the labour market. Many require extra support in order to be equipped to lead a good life, ready for work and the pleasures and challenges of life.

Even if we look at the outcomes of formal education, young people in Wales are not in a strong position in comparison to young people across the developed world. Whilst showing some recent progress, the PISA results from 2018 show that the reading score for Wales (483) has remained stable since 2006, with 22 countries ahead (compared to 30 in 2015). 23 countries outperformed Wales in Mathematics with 19 outperforming us in Science (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, (OECD)). The study also found that “…pupils in all countries of the UK were less satisfied with their life than pupils in other OECD countries.” And that “Pupils in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland had lower expectations of their highest level of qualification than pupils across the OECD” (p. 173). So, whilst huge educational reform is under way, we can see that young people in Wales are not achieving the outcomes from formal education which will enable the country to radically improve its position in the success league of the OECD, regrettably, the results of which could include continued stagnation in job opportunities and quality of life for young people.

What can youth work do to limit some of these problems and enhance well-being?

The Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee recognises youth work as a crucial, non-clinical, ‘upstream’/preventative intervention. The Committee referenced in its Mind Over Matter Report (2018), which led to recent statutory guidance the Whole School Approach to Emotional and Mental Well-being, that “…teachers are not solely responsible – joint working between professionals from across sectors (health, education, social care, third sector, youth work and others) is key to delivering a whole-school approach” (p. 34). They went on to say that “Several stakeholders highlighted the important role youth workers have to play in emotional well-being in school settings” (p. 43) and that “having advocacy and specialist youth workers as part of a crisis team could help save police time, enable crises to be managed at home, work restoratively, and uphold rights and liberty” (p. 111).

Youth work can improve young people's well-being, but there are huge questions for youth work about its role and what those in charge of it want it to achieve. In a sense, even youth work leaders do not grasp what youth work can bring to the lives of young people, their communities and ultimately to society in terms of cultural change.

If we as youth workers begin to see this bigger picture of what youth work can be - liberatory, empowering, conscientising (as Paulo Freire called it), then we can begin to develop that vision of well-being, of human flourishing and ultimately what values we want our society to pass on to young people. The five pillars of youth work (as described above) provide a clear and robust foundation for the conditions necessary to improve young lives in this way.

There is a question next of what values are really important - what do 'we' as a society think is really important - is it jobs, continual economic growth with all the pressures that brings for individuals, society and the environment? Should we begin to think differently about what 'success' looks like? Or is there a third way, a compromise between these potentially competing perspectives? Crucial in this debate is how the new curriculum (and, therefore, our young people) will be assessed. It has been recognised that our current curriculum is neither meeting the needs of employers, young people or society in general and that many young people are not achieving as a result. This does NOT mean that many young people do not have skill sets or huge ability – it means that the current system does not accommodate, recognise or celebrate them.

In Wales, alongside huge curriculum reforms, we are also reconfiguring our approach to mental health and emotional well-being in a move to a Whole System Approach, with the Whole School Approach being an integral part of this alongside the NEST/NYTH Framework (Nurturing, Empowering, Safe and Trusting – based on a No Wrong Door approach), which clearly resonates with the five pillars of youth work. Now that the new curriculum framework is in place, the next important step is to ensure that the accompanying assessment processes meet both the needs of the ‘system’ and young people, by recognising a broader range of skills and dispositions. Youth work can play an important role in all of this, if provided with appropriate opportunities…

What can youth work do to combat some of these effects?

The European Youth Forum proposes that youth work organisations, through their principled approach to non-formal education, help to foster the kind of qualities needed to work with others which employers so often require of young people and so often bemoan their lack. Youth workers, when asked, will agree that these soft skills (a term which does little to illustrate their elusiveness among the young) as they are often described are the stock in trade of youth work where young people take part in activities which help them to learn commitment, show initiative and take responsibility. Youth work additionally offers young people opportunities for interpersonal interaction, conflict resolution, leadership, management, planning, team-working skills, and problem-solving skills (European Youth Forum, 2011).

Youth work in Wales is based upon a form of non-formal learning (NFL) which has been described as:
learning embedded in planned, organised and sustained education activities that are outside formal education institutions. The purpose of NFL is to provide alternative learning opportunities for those who do not have access to formal schooling or need specific life skills and knowledge to overcome different obstacles. Non-formal learning is also intentional from the learner’s point of view, as opposed to incidental or random types of learning (UNESCO, 2006, p.39).

This form of learning has potential to complement formal education and to respond to young people at times and in locations that are not traditionally associated with learning. One of the keys though to a successful outcome from non-formal learning is that those taking part in it recognise and appreciate the potential of the process they are involved in.

The National Youth Service Strategies for Wales have set out desired outcomes from youth work, these being active participation, wider skills development and enhanced emotional competence (WAG, 2007, Welsh Government, 2014, 2019).

These outcomes are entirely consistent with an approach which prioritises well-being and the enhancement of soft skills. The strategies suggest youth work providers should offer opportunities through active participation for young people to enjoy themselves, contribute to society, improve their health, fitness and wellbeing, learn new skills, enhance their knowledge and learn to manage risk (WAG, 2007).

Youth work is ideally situated to encourage and foster young people’s active participation in social life, whether at the most basic level of simply enjoying themselves through trying new activities or by contributing more directly to society by helping organise a community event or as a young carer. Regularly taking part in youth work serves a useful social function and encourages young people to see for themselves the positive effects of consistency.

Youth work can provide a space where young people have opportunities to experience new activities and alternative approaches to life, to learn the importance of contributing to society, family and friendships. Youth work should position itself to enable young people faced with the difficulties outlined above to ask questions, to pose themselves questions about what sort of person they want to be and the kind of life they want to live.

Youth work is about developing a young person holistically, which might also include making a really valuable contribution in enabling them to gain the skills so valued by employers including confidence, understanding customer needs and following instructions, good communication and working with others, adaptability and flexibility and showing initiative along with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy (Futureskills Wales). Youth work should take the opportunity presented by the current challenges facing young people and maximize its contribution to wider social progress for children, young people and communities through its unique contribution of a radical and empowering social education in communities, for communities and by communities.

and Darrel Williams (Senior Lecturer at the University of Wales, Trinity St David)