Most Local Councillors or youth workers will ruefully sigh and nod at the response when talking to young people or their parents; “there’s nothing to do round here” or “nothing gets put on for kids round here.”
In Oval Ward, London Borough of Lambeth, sitting on the river Thames in Central London the reality of this sentiment could not be further from the truth, but with groups of youngsters ‘hanging about’ every evening, weekends and school holidays clearly there is a problem of young people not accessing opportunities, either because they don’t know of them, don’t know how to access them or they are simply not the right opportunities.
To this end I have spent the last month or so building a partnership of statutory agencies, voluntary sector groups and young people themselves in order to bring together opportunities with those who want to take them.
In the brave new world of being a community leader Councillor this is, I am told, ‘exactly the sort of thing I should be doing’ but having never worked with young people nor with any experience of youth work, the task was quite daunting. Fortunately my background prior to election was working for some of the most successful Local Strategic Partnerships in the country and thus far I am confident that we can make something very real, practical and bottom up actually work, especially fitting into Lambeth Council’s commitment to cooperation and collaboration.
The obvious first step was to talk to the young groups and organisations who provide activities for young people, such as sports, local dance and drama groups, sporting organisations, film makers and media focused groups, A4E and other skills providers, etc. The clear response was the problem of access. They could provide activities and opportunities if only young people would come through the door. However unless they have an ‘in’ they do not get bums on seats or they get young people referred who don’t really want to be there and as a result do not engage and drift off.
I spoke to some young people on my estate and they simply didn’t know what was out there. They didn’t have access to the internet where many activities are advertised and didn’t read the offerings from the housing association which included such opportunities. Unless they had been in trouble with the police or were on the Youth Offending Teams books, they were not pointed in the right direction and their parents just wanted them to “go do something” but often without the knowledge, time and/or energy to help and support.
I spoke to three housing associations about how we could encourage engagement and their thoughts on how we could widen general participation. Each had different personal experiences, different organisational capacity to deliver and relationships with a multiplicity of organisations. The profile of young people on the estates varied in terms of age, gender and demographics, as did the opportunities and community space. But there was an overwhelming willingness from everyone I spoke to do kickstart something.
From these enquiries the answer became clear as it had from looking out of my front window and seeing young people ranging from 14 – 18 smoking, drinking and generally being young people with nothing to do. We agreed that supporting a cohort of 5-6 young people from each of the four big estates in Oval ward was achievable and through them could start to shape a youth offer for young people that actually suited them.
So far, in scoping out this work I have had informal discussions with three housing associations, about a dozen youth organisations, five different departments from the Council, as well as countless discussion with the young people on my estate and with a couple of ‘plugged-in’ older young people from other estates where I have less personal cache. Lesson One is that partnership work takes time and effort.
It is not surprising that the answer seemed obvious: work with a handful of young people and put opportunities in their hands, with the aim that once the knowledge and fear of something new is broken down within a peer group, positive encouragement from respected peers will result in young people getting involved in activities which stimluate, educate and broaden horizons.
In the next week we will all be meeting for the first time as a group to discuss how we deliver a mentoring and support programme. London Youth as well as a couple of local groups will be there, a couple of people from council departments, some young people and the three housing associations. I will update via this blog on developments, obstacles and achievements but my experience of partnership is that if you can get the right people in the same room to work around a common vision the plan will develop itself.
So far the key lesson which has dominated my thoughts is how wrong-headed the focus of some grants and the target setting culture have been in the past, aimed at reducing specific ‘negative behaviours.’ Grants to tackle teenage pregnancy, or anti social behaviour, or poor literacy and numeracy all meant that some aspects of a young person’s life were ignored as they fell out of scope for the project. Teenage pregnancy programmes were often funded to improve young girls resilience but missed the need to work on the young guys on the estate and so the risks to success are obvious. It takes two to tango after all.
This pilot is going to be holistic, and the intrinsic focus will be on young people themselves. But who knows if it will succeed. We can but try and with a partnership of professionals alongside the young people we will undoubtedly get somewhere, and with youth unemployment standing at a one million I cannot really afford not to.
Cllr Jack Hopkins is Chief Whip of the Labour Group and Councillor for Oval Ward, Lambeth