What inspired you to take up a career in youth work?
Whilst studying Furniture Design at Preston University in 1997 – something probably as far away from youth work as you can get – I delivered some summer schooling to young people on behalf of Preston Borough Council. I found that I enjoyed it, had a flair for it and that the young people responded well. After graduating in 2002, I did some volunteer music work which involved vocal coaching, lyric writing – basic artist development. From there I got into voluntary youth work and applied for a role as a part-time youth worker, which I really enjoyed as I really felt that I could make a difference. In 2004, I started working full-time for Manchester City Council’s youth contact team, which was a Home Office funded pilot project aimed at reducing incidences of youth nuisance and anti-social behaviour and something I knew I had a real passion for. I studied at the University of Manchester to achieve my professional youth and community work status, graduating in 2011.
What does your role involve and what is the most rewarding part?
One of the main requirements of my job is the project management of youth programmes and initiatives, including delivery. This might be on behalf of local commissioners like Manchester Council, national organisations like the Department for Education or as part of nationwide projects like Our Bright Future for which we deliver the Young Green Leaders programme in Crumpsall and West Gorton for Groundwork UK.
In practice, what doesn’t it involve! Meetings, home visits, one-to-one work Achievement Coaching young people in school, group work outside of school e.g. trips and excursions, traditional evening youth club activities, plus more targeted sessions focusing on the Groundwork ethos of developing and empowering young green leaders of the future.
The most rewarding part is seeing young people smile, succeed and be happy. That’s it! A lot of young people today are carrying a lot of baggage and trauma. Being able to work with them to break open the hard shells they may have developed and help them recognise their own power, strengths and skills is what it’s all about. And then just see them fly.
What skills do you need to be successful in your role?
Resilience, endurance, robustness and a strong work ethic. You need to be punctual, really clear about delegating tasks and ensure that everything is done on time. Young people won’t wait!
The ‘Reflection in action and on action’ youth worker theory/tool is also a key part of what we do. As a professional youth worker, you are not a technician where you learn a set of skills and then go out and replicate them in different settings; instead you have a mix of confidence, experience, skills and knowledge. When you effectively group them all together, you become a reflective, creative practitioner who can think on your feet and respond quickly to any given situation – something vital as youth work is a hundred miles a minute! You find that you develop a professional toolkit that you can use wherever you are – the boot of my car is pretty much a mobile youth centre! My bag also has a few things that I always take with me.
You also need great communication skills – the ability to listen to young people, not just continually tell them what to do. Instead, you need to just let them tell you; it’s true what they say: out of the mouth of babes – they talk the most sense.
You also need to be very enthusiastic, passionate and have a good sense of humour – essentially I’m a big kid! If you don’t have a good sense of humour and the ability to have banter with young people, you won’t go very far; they will see straight through it and literally shut you down, which makes it really difficult to do any type of work with them.
What advice would you give an aspiring youth worker?
Be tenacious. Keep striving, keep going and hang on in there. Learn all you can, whether formally or informally, and get as much experience as possible. If you have to go elsewhere to study, do it; if you have to study online do it; if you have to read books or speak to people, do it.
Supervision is a massive part of youth work and it feeds back into reflection in action and on action – by having someone that you can discuss ideas, thoughts and feelings with, it means you’re continually levelling up, so to speak, when it comes to your practice.
Also, you need to really, really, care about it. It’s the emotion that carries you through the hard and harrowing times that you will probably face as a youth worker. Whether it’s Special Educational Needs, child sexual exploitation, mental health, learning needs, housing problems or money worries; the amount of issues young people face is massive. And because they’re under 18, they don’t have the autonomy to self-direct their lives to get themselves out of it. Because of that, you have to really, really care. It’s not about being intellectual and having ten degrees – if you don’t care enough, then you’re not going to make a strong enough impact.
If you were to change one thing that affects young people today, what would it be?
I’d say education. At the moment, I feel that education in the UK isn’t equitable, instead young people are seen as receptacles that are spoon-fed information which they then have to regurgitate every year, two years, or at the end of their school life. There may be some credence and mileage in that, but to me, there’s more on top of it. Education needs to be a bit more holistic and focus on emotional intelligence, non-cognitive skills, resilience, confidence and grit. It needs to empower young people to achieve and recognise that this achievement can come in all forms, it doesn’t have to just be in school or academic. In essence, education needs to be from the inside out.
What do you think youth work will look like five years from now?
There are lots of exciting changes in Manchester right now, with things like devolution and Horizon 2020 coming up, which will definitely have a positive impact. I suspect there will be more spaces for young people and more emphasis on consulting with them and making them feel in the thick of what is happening in their city.
I think there will also be more emphasis on joined-up working. This has always happened in youth work, but its importance has really started to hit home in the voluntary sector in light of the pressures facing local authorities and other public bodies. I can also see there being more emphasis on street-based work i.e. detached, face-to-face outreach contact work and also a more clinical approach to youth work. Youth workers are providing more therapeutic interventions – like our new MindSteps programme that has just started in Salford – because a lot of young people are suffering low-level mental health issues as a result of localised and global trauma. This may be as a result of things they see in the media and also things they may experience in and out of the home such as domestic abuse, something we are aiming to alleviate in Tameside through our ReSPECTful Relationships awareness toolkit.
In summary, I think there will be more access and more emphasis on youth work both in Manchester and nationally and I really hope to be part of it.
Find out more about all of our youth work services at the Groundwork MSSTT website.
Guest post by the Communications team at Groundwork MSSTT