I am really pleased that I have had to put an addendum on this post – its because I have since the time of writing it visited The Lighthouse Youth Service in Birmingham. It is the epitome of what a Youth Service centre should be. With contemporary furnishing, beautifully designed, well used and with plenty of resources for young people to access, including sexual health, general health and online safeguarding advice in abundance. Well done Birmingham City Council!
Improving youth services
Second rate venues and graffiti walls will not engage young people.
There has been much talk about mental health services being the “Cinderella” of social care – poor venues, long waiting lists, hoops to jump through not to mention the limited choices once they get to the end hoop. But for real Cinderella stuff, look no further than the environment for staff and young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS) – in fact, look at the whole of Youth Services.
Its not the fault of the providers, that’s for sure. This is real, front-line hard work and its usually housed in a run-down project building that reek of hopelessness. If I am five years out of date on all the Project venues I’ve ever visited – please disgrace me by sending photos of your smart, modern, prestigious venue for NEETS working and I will post them here myself!
Prestigious? I can hear the whaaaaat? from many quarters “Prestigious? What the hell has that got to do with engaging young people and improving youth services?” I understand the finances of it all but if we are not looking to engage, give hope, raise expectations, provide a view of life in the mainstream – why are we bothering at all?
I sit sometimes in a cafe in a health club (the cafe is as close as I get) and watch young people turning up for their swim session, weights, running machines and I see the way they behave – this is a grown up place full of Lycra and purpose. The decor is finished and well designed, people move about with purpose – on their way to one session or another. I have never seen unruly or anti-social behaviour in a health club (it could just have been someone’s day off) because this is a place where everyone is equal, no one is a “disaffected client” who needs help. The “member” is respected and receives a courteous customer service.
There are lots of men and women about coaching people to achieve their best, reach their goals, reach their potential in physical activities. There is a sense of “this is a place that is focused on something measurable”.
I have worked with young people within education and social care, including Youth Services, for over 25 years and would be the last one to criticize the fantastic dedication of youth workers, youth offending services, NEET staff – the whole group of them deserve every credit for their hard work. But the Youth Service is a Cinderella service when it comes to funding and venue, of this there is no doubt. Half of the worker’s energy is spent on “engaging” and the rest on organizing education and job skills that may or may not result in employment one day, one far off day.
If I had my way, and I won’t, but if I did, each young person who had lost their way in the transition from childhood to adulthood would be allocated a Life Coach (same worker but different title) and the Life Coach would help the young person through the process of “creating themselves” not “finding themselves”; attend mini-universities not Alternative Education Centres and be issued with a membership card to attend the local health club where their Life Coach sessions would be held (Lycra optional).
We would consider that the style and approach of the statutory Life Coach can be tailored to mimic the ethos of the Fitness Coach as much as possible in order to create a healthy, collaborative relationship with a similar “prestige”.
I consider that “prestige” is an important element of working with young people and adults alike who have little opportunity, are stuck in a rut of hopelessness, have no structure or hope of employment. The one element that they often report missing from their lives is self-worth, self-esteem, achievement – prestige.
Of course the Life Coach can not bestow prestige but work can be done to ensure that the surroundings they operate within are attractive, modern and comfortable. They can convey the courtesy and grace towards the client that a Coach or Therapist (or Fitness Coach) who is being paid by them, would be expected to convey (in a clear swap for the energy they often spend having to chase young people who have not attended yet again)
Getting the basics right at the beginning can not only encourage engagement but can also send a message that the client is respected, valued and has potential to take control of their lives.
Youth Services always strive to be creative when working to engage young people but no young person is thrilled to find them selves straggling along to a run down project building where the peeling walls remind them of the low status position that they currently hold. No young person is thrilled to be told that they must enter into an education level that their peers left behind 6 years ago.
If you are embarking on engaging people to improve their mood, not to mention their life chances, then it makes sense to improve the environment in which they will be attempting to do that. One young person told me “ I hate graffiti, I think it makes the estate look like shit and on my first day at the XXXX Project, they had a big mock graffiti wall and that’s what we did – what’s that about? Who am I then? I have to like it do I? You’re old Eileen [he said this with such sincerity in case I didn’t know] does that mean you like knitting?
I would urge any one working with young people in any sort of “youth services” to engage them in constructive lifestyle change – do something different, be creative. Beg, borrow or steal a room in the local sports club, the local university, the radio station – somewhere that is interesting, somewhere with esteem that reflects the increased self-esteem we hope to instill in young people.
And avoid the graffiti wall.