Reclaiming the Connection

JOHN PAUL

John Paul Fitzpatrick is the Business Development Lead at the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland based at Strathclyde University.

I am currently working through my Doctorate in Education; some might say it’s taking the lifelong learning bit of my Community Education Degree a bit too far. As part of the research for my doctorate I have been doing some interesting work with vulnerable young people across the country. I interviewed 23 young people who are all under a home supervision requirement. Home supervision is supposed to be about promoting positive changes in the life of a child while allowing them to remain at home, the changes can include a reduction in offending or lowering the risk of abuse or neglect although not always perceived as an effective intervention.

The young people in the study have been telling me about the importance of coaching and mentoring to them in navigating education, relationships, dealing with family and stress and really providing one to one guidance and support. This appears to be effective in helping them succeed during critical transition points.

Sadly, it appears that coaching and mentoring support which utilises a youth work approach is not universally viewed as an essential ingredient in helping young people achieve their full potential. Access to such resources across Scotland is currently a postcode lottery.

My contact with the young people in my study got me thinking again about the transformative power of youth work. Our work, regardless of setting, should always strive for deep connection, trust and meaningful relationships with young people that leads to change. Something that can be hard to achieve for those working within the boundaries of formal education and statutory services yet youth work professionals have this skill in abundance. Youth work approaches should be the first method of engaging young people who are the hardest to reach.

Young people tell me that we ask them to recount their stories to professionals daily, over and over again. I can identify with feeling lost and having to retell your story to strangers while negotiating a system that can be quite daunting. As by way of example, in Istanbul recently, my friend lost her mobile phone, ordinarily not really a big deal. However, believe me, it took, four hours, three police stations and telling the same story to 21 different police officers and at the end of day when the Turkish sun set, the mobile was not recovered! During that time we went through a variety of emotions ranging from stress, fear, hilarity, confusion, frustration and incredulity at the absurdity of it all. Sound familiar?

It strikes me this is what we are doing, unwittingly or not, to our young people every day of the week, as they navigate complex systems of work, benefits, school, social work and we strive to survive, manage risk, ensure accountability and often justify our own time and existence.

We need seismic change in the way our work is managed, structured and funded to allow us to connect with young people on a path that is more equitable, on their terms and meets their needs. Yes we need to be accountable – but what is it we are measuring? Funders need to take account of the importance of stability and continuity of workers engaging with young people. They have to consider longer term funding arrangements that mean staff stay rather than move on as funding is lost. If coaching and mentoring are vital to young people and helps them when the system has failed them, then let’s stop the postcode lottery and invest in this work – we would be spending but saving money.

Let’s be bold. It is time to stop merely surviving as a profession and start thriving. Let’s reclaim our relationships with young people – and the lifeblood of our profession.

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