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Youth work in sport, it makes good sense

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We’ve just come through a decade of convergence, more through necessity than design but also with some unintended and positive outcomes.

When I trained as an informal educator, youth work was a dedicated and distinct sector – we had youth services delivered through local authorities, voluntary sector projects, national initiatives and a number of high performing university led qualifications. We had youth workers in schools, in outreach and centre based provisions and even in A&E admission waiting rooms. We knew who we were and young people knew what to expect from us.

Things aren’t so clear cut now.  After years of cuts and let’s face it, a decimated youth service, youth work seems to have lost some of its authority and certainly its visibility. I was in a city in the southwest of England last week and a group of community representatives explained how their youth workforce had been cut from 116 to 15, staggering. The impact of this is clear to see on very local levels but the national picture will take longer to reveal itself; increased social immobility, unplanned pregnancies, greater isolation, poorer health and well-being outcomes perhaps?

However, all is not lost and alongside the shock of the fall does come opportunity and with opportunity comes optimism.  I’ve heard from many youth workers who have been able to transfer their skills to value aligned services such as care, adoption, disability and families. Many others have gone on to set up social enterprises with a focus on personal development, arts and dance and supporting young people via coaching and focused mentoring. 

There has also been a rise in sports related activity with Sports England seeing more young people participating in netball, boxing, swimming and basketball.  Sport has always attracted young people but I wonder if a decrease in youth service activity has led to an increase in participation at sports clubs and associations? Youth work may well have previously used sports as a vehicle for engagement but is it possible that we now have a situation where sports can use youth work as their vehicle?

"Is it possible that we now have a situation where sports can use youth work as their vehicle?

The research indicates so. The sports focussed organisations that were part of the YWiS initiative say that applying a youth work approach to their sports programmes increased engagement with those who are hard to reach, improved the quality of service delivery and ensured a person-centred approach. This is brilliant news and an example of how working together, sharing skills, ideologies and aspirations can lead to a united purpose and more flexible approach.

Youth worker, sports worker, community worker, family worker, children’s worker; maybe we all share the same DNA. An integrated infrastructure of community programmes and practice sounds like good news for young people.

Youth Work in Sport was a five-year partnership programme between The Robertson Trust, the Rank Foundation, YMCA George Williams College and 11 community sports organisation based in Scotland. Based on learning from the programme, the recently-launched microsite provides practical tips for practitioners interested in using sport to engage and retain hard to reach young people.