Reflecting on 13 years in the job

Youth work

Jim Sweeney looks back on his 13 years at YouthLink Scotland to mark his final Youth Work Week

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5th November 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

When I was asked to produce a reflective piece on the past 13 years heading up the national agency I was torn almost immediately between the positives and negatives and then perhaps some of the what if questions:

What if there had been no economic recession?

What if we had become independent?

What if we had continued in a coalition government?

We’ll never know. What I can say is that the big political and economic issues of the day have impacted substantially on youth work, its journey and more importantly on the young people we seek to engage with and serve on a daily basis.

Jim Sweeney

Jim Sweeney

The good

Our influence has, I believe, increased. Across the youth work sector there is, above all, a sense of unity which was not present before. There is also a better, and more productive, partnership between the third sector, local authorities, government agencies and independent funders.

We have a Youth Work Strategy and a set of agreed outcomes. We have built, and continue to build, a body of research and case studies which help prove our worth to others including those holding the purse strings. We have embraced and linked all relevant government priorities to our activities and tried to illustrate how we add value and are value for money.

Each week nearly 80,000 paid and voluntary adults work with around 400,000 young people on a regular basis. They strive to build their confidence, help them grow in body mind and spirit, try new things and have a safe but challenging environment in which they can meet and make friends, blossom and feel a sense of belonging. If we were to try and put a monetary value on that last sentence it would burst the bank.

The bad

And now the bad news. Despite jumping through every hoop required when it comes to resources, we are still in many cases an afterthought and still have to muddle through, make do and mend because of our lack of a strong and defined statutory basis. That, coupled with some old-fashioned ideas about what we are actually about, mitigate against the sea change that is required to take us to the next level where our professionalism and contribution to changing young lives will be celebrated and properly funded by local and central government.

Most councillors and national politicians do fundamentally get youth work. But there are too many budget holders who don’t and who constantly when faced with tough choices, offer an already grossly depleted service up for further cuts. At local authority level, in particular, it is now Groundhog Day. The vast exodus of experience means the collective memory and the knowledge of what services bring to the party in terms of preventative spend and community cohesion are lost in the corporate murk, with executive director’s having unmanageable portfolios.

And the… opportunity

The third iteration of the National Youth Work Strategy is a golden opportunity to stem the negative flow of resource and to put youth work at the centre of the personal and social development of our young people. We need to be an integral part of all youth policies, a necessary and critical building block in the broad education of our children and young people with access to schools during and after the school day and at holiday times. We have so much to offer and we are so willing to be involved in making Scotland the best place to grow up. We are there for young people when most other workers have gone home and we are present in almost all communities in some shape or form.

Our greatest advert is the young people we work with and this Year of Young People has been a marvellous illustration of how youth work changes lives. The resilience of our young people in what is a very confusing, and at times hostile environment, means that youth work’s ability to provide a place of trust, understanding, tolerance and nurture becomes ever more critical.

Let us all work together and make a difference in partnership with our young people. They are a product of the environment we created. Let’s help them make the changes in their lives, and the changes that society requires, to improve their and future generations chances of fulfilling their immense potential.

Youth work changes lives for good.

Jim Sweeney is the chief executive of YouthLink Scotland. He is due to step down from his role at the end of this year. Youth Work Week runs from 5 to 11 November.