Youth work week: From lived experience to policy


10th November 2022

It’s a Thursday, so after finishing work yesterday I headed over to a local community centre and spent the evening as part of a team running a weekly youth club. We ate sausage rolls, chatted about how everyone’s week has been and worked on a digital art project that the young people have been leading on for a few months.

Research into youth work practice (including our own) tells us that trusted relationships are at the heart of good youth work. Youth clubs provide opportunities for young people to regularly spend time with adults who think they’re great, and can advise on everything from mental health services in the community, to college courses that fit their interests. Having the time to build these relationships also allows youth workers to adapt plans, making sure that sessions meet the needs of the young people attending.

Research into youth work practice tells us that trusted relationships are at the heart of good youth work. Share on X

For example, in our club, we recently noticed more young people were arriving hungry each week. So we have done what we can to revisit the food plan, allocating slightly more of the overall budget to the food we set out each week, without reducing the activities on offer.

This is one example among many… After 12 years of cuts to youth work, keeping clubs open and staffed with workers that young people can get to know and trust is not easy. When I first started volunteering on a Wednesday night it was at a different youth club, but a year ago that club had to close as it lost its funding. The young people who attended had to look for other spaces, building new relationships from scratch. The youth workers who ran the service moved to other clubs in other parts of the city, or lost a few hours of regular paid work. Most youth workers I know combine youth work with other jobs or caring responsibilities as the pay is rarely enough to live on.

On a typical Wednesday evening, in between jokes, young people often talk to us about difficult situations they’re facing:

  • the creep who sent them a dick pic online
  • teachers who don’t notice racist comments being made to their friends
  • how they are still on a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services waiting list, and worry that they won’t get an initial appointment before they turn 18
  • the time that the dinner club they attend ran out of food before they got a portion.

It’s sometimes hard to feel like the research we do at CfEY is changing things quickly enough for the young people I see each week. While we make sure our work outlines ways that policy and practice can achieve greater impact, I’m impatient. So many of the challenges young people navigate are linked to endless cuts to services – their whole lives so far have been lived with the dreary backdrop of austerity, limiting the support and opportunities they can access.

Last winter several of us here at CfEY decided to explore a new type of project: what if we combined our expertise in training young people to do research with our work encouraging policymakers to adopt our recommendations? We could support young people to carry out research on issues they care passionately about and have lived experience of, formulate policy recommendations with them, and take these to local policymakers to turn their insights into real, systemic change. We know that young people are experts in navigating systems through their own experiences – what could change if we gave them the platform to build on this expertise and design solutions with adults that can actually make things happen?

Young people are experts in navigating systems - what could change if we gave them the platform to build on this expertise and design solutions with adults that can actually make things happen? Share on X

A year later, we’re recruiting our first cohort of 20 Young Expert Citizens, and I’m so ready to see what happens next! While training, paying and supporting these young people to drive forward changes to local policies won’t undo a decade of brutal cuts to services, the research they carry out will improve our understanding of the services and systems around young people, and the work they do will ripple outwards, adding to the small positive changes happening every day in communities across the country.

After the year with the first cohort finishes, we’ll refine our approach and do it again with another 20 young people. We have been fortunate to secure funding from the Rothschild Foundation and Blagrave Trust to run this project in Buckinghamshire and Sussex for two years, and are keen to see where else we can take this exciting and innovative work in the future.

If you…

  • would like to hear more about Young Expert Citizens,
  • know young people in Buckinghamshire or Sussex who might be interested in becoming a Young Expert,
  • are a policymaker in Buckinghamshire or Sussex who would like to work alongside young people to improve things in your area,
  • would be interested in funding Young Expert Citizens to run in a new area, or,
  • would like to work with us on a youth work related project,

…then get in touch with me now, I’d love to hear from you! [email protected]