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Raising the Village: Speech to heads of local authority youth services

November 8, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have just got back from giving a speech alongside a very positive Tim Loughton MP to heads of local authority youth services at their annual gathering organized by CHYPS the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services. In it I stressed the need to recover the sense of the village as an actor in helping young people succeed and the role that Community Foundations can play in helping those in and outside of government working with and alongside young people. The full text of the speech is below.

I want to thank you for the chance to come and be with you briefly today and pay tribute to CHYPS and the work of those involved in youth services. So often others can take the limelight, whether the young themselves or politicians, but you deserve credit for often the years of hard slog that sadly frequently goes unrecognized. Hearing about the way you are adapting to changing circumstances and innovating today to allow you still to deliver your mission has also been tremendously inspiring.

All over the world it seems we are in the grip of a crisis for young people – whether you look at youth unemployment here in Europe or even in booming China, whether in analyzing the riots or comparing the lives of the baby boomer generation and those of the millennials, struggling sometimes to get housing or on the housing ladder and with fewer entitlements, higher costs and less prospective pensions. For our most marginalized young people, living in social housing estates up and down the country, the challenges have been long-standing – NEET levels have been stubbornly high for over a decade despite so much effort to address them over the years. In an era of even more limited resources, what on earth, many will ask, can we possibly do to tackle these chronic challenges?

I do not pretend to have any silver bullet answers, but I would like to focus on one approach which may help us look at the challenges we face differently and perhaps with a little more hope. I am sure many of the things I will explore today you are already doing already or have witnessed in your professional careers, so I no doubt have more to learn from your experiences. And the approach begins with a provocative question. We perhaps all know the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Could it be that it also takes a village to deliver effective youth services? I ask this because over the years, partly because the challenges relating to youth have been so acute in this country, youth services seem often to have become a highly specialized area, subject to the same silos that persist across Whitehall and in local authorities. This was perhaps fine when the money flowed abundantly, but perhaps it is more of an issue in an era in which the emphasis where limited money remains is now a bit more on early intervention, education, and employment. Areas which can be equally siloed but which can dominate policy because they belong to bigger departments (health, education, work). Everyone it seems, is now doing youth work as it were, or work with youth, and it may be that many of the historic workers will and are going to migrate into these adjacent sectors and departments for that very reason. Which brings us back to what is left for leaders of youth services? Can I suggest, again provocatively, that one opportunity is to almost do the opposite, both of what has been done in the recent past, and also from what those involved in health, education, and work may be tempted to continue to do: raise up the village that raises the child, and not just the child. Or to put it in a more pithy way, and without wanting in any way to make a pun on youth culture as a whole: mix it up. Let us take a mixing approach in three ways.

Firstly, mixing up with those other sectors in and outside government, starting with departments in local authorities as well as outside them. It can be hard to do this, so one way may be first to mix up and collaborate with local businesses and voluntary organisations who may in turn create connections within local government and with central government. Community Foundations here have the potential to be a powerful facilitator, and here I declare an interest as an advisor to their national network. With fifty eight across the country, many of these work closely with business, donors and delivery charities and groups, and government. Over half of all foundations have funds targeted at helping young people.

Community Foundation for Merseyside for example have partnered with Merseyside Police, Liverpool Echo and the Tutu Foundation UK to tackle anti-social behaviour among young people by creating the Merseyside Young Transformers Programme (MYT). MYT aims to provide grants to local groups and community leaders to provide diversionary and transformational activities for young people, especially those on the verge of crime, to create a safer, stronger Merseyside. The Community Foundation approached businesses, individuals, local authorities and MPS for their support. The Foundation’s work on MYT led to them contributing towards Home Office’s Tackling Gangs Action Programme and Tackling Knives Action Programme and also the Channel 4 Street Weapons Commission.

Oxfordshire Community Foundation have recently established a community bond for young people in the area, drawing in donors and businesses, and working with local delivery organisations, with a view to channelling money from across sectors from social investors into helping local youth.

The Outlook Fund aims to improve the lives of Cambridgeshire children that face difficulty and disadvantage, with a focus on the more than 400 Looked After Children. Outlook Fund grants will be made to charitable projects that offer extra activities and opportunities that can help disadvantaged children widen their experience, gain self-confidence, and succeed at school.

The Outlook Fund has adopted a long term approach to fundraising. All money donated into the fund will be held as an endowed sum and on an annual basis a percentage of the fund (currently 5%) will be used to make grants to local groups that are working to improve the quality of the lives of Cambridgeshire children that face difficulty and disadvantage.

These are just a small selection of many more examples across the UK of community foundations doing their bit. Using web platforms such as localgiving.com, community foundations can also help raise funds from the public who increasingly want to support very local community-led projects even if overall giving to larger and more traditional causes may be slightly declining. The power of harnessing such third parties is about more than just money though, and is increasingly extending towards helping front line charities and organisations, including those that specialize in working with young people, to transition to more mixed funding models away from government grants or contracts alone.

One of the most useful things those of us involved in government can do at this difficult time is to help put youth organisations together with business angels perhaps from networks such as community foundations who can advise them as trustees or pro bono advisors on their strategies for survival and mixed income moving forwards. There are no shortage of opportunities for youth organisations that are ready to exploit them who have had the right strategic input and leadership who by pursuing them may allow you to achieve your policy goals: getting involved in youth intervention impact bonds, mutualisation, being part of consortia targeting vulnerable families with troubled youth in them, participating in community budgets, helping to shape the youth employment strategies of LEPs, partnering with welfare to work providers (including those working with offenders), harnessing initiatives such as somewhere to to provide multi-use spaces for young people to carry out their activities such as in commercial or meanwhile places even as traditional dedicated youth facilities are phased out. The role of businesses here should not be underestimated and is well documented and the appetite out there to help is huge to provide mentors, to help coordinate resources and advice such as through the Big Connect and Business Connectors Programme, and even to provide facilities. If you drew a timeline of a young vulnerable person’s life from before birth to their first job, you could probably find a business in the country interested in helping them at every stage. I recently visited one of the largest gardening centres in the country, Scotsdales in Cambridge, and saw a centre they had built from their profits and local donations for cancer suffers, which was on their land for a peppercorn rent and run mainly by volunteers with one professional coordinator. It was inspirational, and helped them get great goodwill as well as more visitors to their garden centre. But it made me wonder why you could not have similar facilities for youth and young people also backed by businesses on their land, which would also have the effect that positive role models for young people would also be around.

A second way to mix up the approach to youth services is to foster mixing between young people from different backgrounds – particularly socioeconomic backgrounds. I am so proud of having had a hand in developing the national citizen service for young people programme, which contrary perhaps to lines you may hear from government in my view is less about youth per se and more about social mixing. I will never forget the story of the two alumni who spoke about how their perceptions of hoodies and private school kids had been transformed and greater trust built from having been part of the same team for three months despite being from diametrically opposed social backgrounds. This is why there is potential for other future forms of national service for others going through big transitions in their lives, maybe not always ones led by government, in the transition from university to work, from work to unemployment and back, and from work to retirement – each transition creating an opportunity to mix people up and fill the void that sadly has opened up us our housing has become more segregated, or institutions from church to cricket less able to help connect across class lines, and as our society has become more stratified and less socially mobile. Whilst NCS is therefore no replacement for a proper youth strategy, it does not have to have a monopoly over the mixing of young people with each other and I wonder what other opportunities there might be to create links between the young people who would normally be clients of youth services and other young people who can both learn from them and be a support and positive peer group to them, opening up their social capital to help disaffected youth access job opportunities, learning experiences, and to just widen their horizons.

The third and final area for mixing, is between generations, between old and young. I will never forget a programme I watched last year, the Estate We Are in, in which on one estate it was clear that the older inhabitants mistrusted the hoodies on the streets because they did not know them, and did not realize they had nowhere to go, despite the young teenagers being fairly balanced people. I am sure you have experienced this before. Young people often tell me they resent how they are perceived by older people. Perhaps there is more we can do to change this by bringing both sides together perhaps around common activities. Such as when on NCS kids came up with the idea of visiting the elderly in retirement homes and befriending them. Or through schemes such as the Good Gym where young volunteers exercising in the community are coached by lonely elderly people who they drop by to see on their jogging trails. Activities such as time banking and skill sharing can also be a great way for the young and old to mix, swapping knowledge and skills. A social enterprise recently launched in Shoreditch called the Amazings seeks to get retired members of the community to share an amazing skill that others can come and pay to use or benefit from. All this can seem I am sure a million miles away from the day to day work of overseeing troubled youth, but I fear as long as we continue to deal with our elderly and our youth in completely parallel worlds we will suffer deepening mistrust and societal breakdown and youth services themselves will find limited support from an aging electorate, and prison services more.

These ideas around greater mixing are in themselves not new. In many ways the focus on raising the village harks back to age old principles around community, apprenticeship, and respect for old and young. The question is how this might affect our roles, and yours specifically as heads of local authority youth services. Let me suggest three ways in which a focus on mixing might affect the day job as leaders, consultants, and commissioners of youth policy locally.

Firstly, it might affect how we share information (in a sanitized form) and broker between different groups to draw in resources and initiatives to develop more mixed organisations and work roles. We have heard a lot about data transparency from central government but how many local business and other partner organisations regularly get data on where youth hotspots might be, and what the issues you face are which you could benefit from help in tackling. It takes courage perhaps in government to admit they need that information and may be that one cannot do everything, but it can be worth it. How many local youth services could benefit from being put in touch with a community foundation, or business connector, or business mentors to help them work out their next step strategically in this new more austere world? And will we maybe see a return of the youth worker who is also a community worker and community organizer, able to be sustained from multiple funding streams and plugged in sufficiently to facilitate mixing across government and other sectors, across socioeconomic barriers, and generations?

Another fertile area is in consultation about developing policy and strategy, which may lead to local commissioning frameworks. I prefer to call this co-creation, which if done well can lead on to co-production. Because as we have learnt from experiments in participatory budgeting a good cross community consultation can sometimes have an even more impactful effect on supporting young people than the eventual commissioning process and delivery itself. If multiple departments locally, old and young, rich residents and poor ones, business and charities can work together to address issues relating to young people – hearing each other’s grievances and being invited to come up with the solutions together – we at least build understanding. And participatory budgeting shows that people can end up being satisfied even when their ideas were not adopted and complain less at implementation stage because they felt part of a process and heard the reasons why not – often from other citizens. Too often we invite only the youth to certain consultations – maybe we should invite their village too.

And finally commissioning itself. Perhaps we need to find ways to commission less on hard youth outcomes, and more on outcomes relating to innovative ways of mixing youth, or harnessing a mix of resources to help youth, and on mixing young and old. I know from my brief time in government that commissioning can actually separate those who do the commissioning from those who are bidding – rightly for legal reasons. But I fear that such a separation can often lead to poor commissioning. Commissioners in my view should ideally have frequent exposure to the context in which they are commissioning. One way might be to co-locate – even a day a week as has been trialled in healthcare by the likes of the Young Foundation – with non-government organisations who have complementary resources but who are unlikely to bid for contracts directly – such as local foundations or businesses: this stimulates contextual understanding on both sides. Jointly developed commissioning frameworks with such organisations probably stand a better chance of being better designed, and there is the added potential of matched resources too. One innovative way of changing the commissioning model comes from the places like Seattle led by the likes of Jim Diers and Cormac Russell in the UK, in which local government, businesses, and foundations created a local match pot for community groups – in this context ones perhaps wanting to work with youth – in which local people could unlock grants or funding as long as they matched as well either with money or pledged time (ten dollars equaling an hour). Bureaucracy was reduced because forms were pre-filled to help make it easier for residents to participate. Not only did this multiply the money available, but also gave the community real ownership because of their matched commitment – though it worked best when there were also local community organizers involved.

To sum up, it takes a village to raise a child. Maybe the future of youth services is now in raising villages that raise children. Perhaps only by having this kind of focus will we be able to truly address the many challenges we face alongside our young people in the coming decade of austerity without the kind of violence and instability now being witnessed around the world and this last summer. You are truly at the frontline of holding our society together and I again am genuinely grateful for the role you play and wish you all the best in the challenging but also noble task that lies ahead. But never forget, no matter how tough it gets, there are many villages out there who want to help you succeed. If you let them support you, you surely will.

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