Facing up to risk

As Scotland has moved into phase 3 and eases further out of lockdown, we are allowed to deliver face to face youth work again.

It feels great to be able to communicate more fluidly, and to not have to worry about all the technical hick ups that can make it difficult to communicate with young people on line.

At the weekend I sat on a beach eating fish and chips and it felt good to see and hear a group of teenagers having fun spending time together.

Young people certainly have made great sacrifices over the past 4 months to keep everybody safe, and it is only natural that they will want to enjoy long summer days in the company of their long lost pals… catching up, sharing stories, planning ahead and having some fun.

It is quite a privilege for youth workers to be amongst some of the first to be allowed to work with groups of young people again. But with this privilege comes responsibility.

How can we build a new kind of youth work that will meet the needs of young people post lockdown whilst also keeping young people safe?

We have learned that the virus is most virilant and does its worst in areas of deprivation and in the homes of the poorest and already most vulnerable families. It is the young people from these communities that we want to help the most… how can we do it whilst ensuring our youth work does not increase risk?

National Guidance has been developed to help youth workers cautiously maneuver our way through this new terrain.

The guidance states that youth workers should work OUTDOORS in groups of up to 15 individuals. When working with over 12’s young people must continue to SOCIAL DISTANCE. Adults should continue to keep a 2 metre distance from children and young people.

Although we are used to working to a set of professional principles and ethics, youth workers are not renowned for being good at setting or keeping to rules. Our work usually encourages young people to push the boundaries and to test their limits.

So, it is likely that youth workers will find the new rules challenging. It is our turn to feel tested.

I think we can make the guidance work for us if we remember our professional values. These are concerned with not only self determination and empowerment, but underpinned by keeping people safe and learning new things every day.

Youth workers need to use this summer as an opportunity to reflect and learn. We should ask ourselves a lot of questions and try out various solutions. We can collaborate, share good practice and talk about our experiences and findings. We need to try hard not to make mistakes, but be open to learning from the ones we make. This will help us get youth work right in the future (it is likely that it will need to change for the long term. We cannot keep doing things the way we always have).

It will take time to plan our sessions properly and assess the risks. This is not new – youth workers are used to assessing risks for summer programmes. Dangerous and adventurous activities usually feature in youth work summer programmes. This year we have a new kind of risk to think about, an invisible but deadly one. We need to make sure it features in all our risk assessments.

We will need to consider the numbers of young people we can manage in a group. If there are more than 15, how can we be creative about splitting that number into smaller ‘bubbles’ and still include everyone who wants to take part?

Young people have not seen each other in a group situation for 4 months – they will be excited. We will be excited. We will need enough staff members and volunteers to manage that excitement.

We’ll need to think about who in the group might be at more risk than others. How do we include older or more vulnerable volunteers in our organisations without putting them at undue risk? How do we ensure children and young people with health conditions in our community feel included and are not left out without putting them at risk?

There will be young people amongst our groups who are nervous about the virus and need to be reassured by our actions. Clear communication during sessions will help them to feel confident and safe and lessen anxiety as they participate in group activities. We need to actively seek to have conversations with young people about the new risks we all face and include them in coming up with solutions, and leading in the planning of sessions and safety measures. This will ensure they feel empowered and safe in youth work sessions.

I think this summer gives us all an opportunity to show the worth of youth work, and that youth work really can change lives

I hope that by being visible in our communities and present in young peoples lives we can develop stronger relationships with communities and partner organisations as we move into an unknown future. Now more than ever, young people are going to need communities to work together to enable them to have the best opportunity to meet their potential.

Youth work needs to be a key feature in that future.