At the end of October I was invited to give a formal response to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Affairs report into youth work and youth services. A month on and following the tragic murder in Bellingham and the subsequent four other deaths that week I wanted to offer some of my own reflections from that week.
The APPG report does a good job describing the important contribution youth work can make in young people's lives. It calls for a statutory basis for youth services and a clear definition of what a sufficient service looks like; a return to a regular independent youth service audits and for stronger workforce standards for professional youth work. All these are good ideas but not new to us at Youth First and I am sure to others in the youth sector. These are principles Youth First was set up to create and protect. We believe that in partnership with the London Borough of Lewisham we are already leading the way in making these ideas a reality.
As I noted in my response, Youth First goes further than the report's suggestions. We define youth work to include adventure play and widen the age range by starting at eight; we already define levels of sufficiency and have taken large steps to demonstrate impact. There is still much more to do but what is clear is that it is only possible to achieve these aims with adequate sustainable long term funding. Clear commitments on this are yet to materialise.
After the parliamentary event Lloyd Russel-Moyle MP, the chair of the all-party group, visited our adventure playground in Honor Oak. He seemed genuinely impressed by the amazing work of the staff and this was acknowledged by young people in a pointed BBC Radio London interview explaining how much they get from attending 'adventure' and how it feels safe like a second family. Something I often hear when chatting to young people across YF.
At the very same time at our TNG youth club in Sydenham the Youth First Executive Board signed off our own Futures report. This is a detailed account of what we have achieved in the past two years, the challenges ahead and why we believe Lewisham council should continue to fund and help us grow in the future.
I left the playground that evening happy that we had shown the world our best side and proud to be a part of this organisation. It had by any measure been a successful day.
Yet what a difference 24 hours can make.
The following evening Jai Hughes, a 15 year-old young man and regular participant at our Bellingham Gateway Youth and Community Centre, was tragically murdered a few hundred meters down the road, as he simply stepped out for dinner. He was by all accounts a fun, smart and popular young man with so much potential.
That same week four other young men were murdered in our city; making, at the time of writing this, a total of 127 murders in the capital this year.
I imagine any youth worker hearing about just one of these murders, never mind 127, will be left shocked, saddened and angry; despairing for how to stop this tragic and unnecessary waste of life. From being so sure the day before that what we do is so vital and effective I have found myself wondering why we bother and whether we can in fact make any difference at all.
In the days that followed my doubts have been dispelled. While still grieving themselves, the team at our youth centre in Bellingham dug deep and went out daily to be there for 'their' kids and the community. They showed professionalism in a role that no other public or community service can provide. When a community needed support, we offered it.
I have no doubt, as many commentators have said, that the causes of these tragedies are complex. As Lewisham's Mayor Damien Egan said at a Bellingham Local Assembly, they undoubtedly connect to issues of inequality and poverty which in turn also have an ethnicity dimension.
I know that as youth and play workers we are not the sole solution, for there is no one magic wand. However I believe that by providing safe spaces, positive role models and informal education to over 5,000 young people we are definitely a vital part of the changing things for the better.
Evidence suggests that what is often referred to as a 'health-based model' is the most effective way to tackle these entrenched difficulties. Early intervention of this kind with vulnerable young people is needed now more than ever, but it requires realinvestment which local authorities cannot find and it would seem the Government does not currently want to give.
Much of this was noted in the APPG report, which alongside a similar APPG inquiry on youth violence, is now in the House of Commons library. Will it just sit on the library shelves gathering dust? Or will those with power to make changes, to offer real funding, actually check out the report? On reading it will they finally see the damage being caused by austerity and lack of funding for vital services like the police and youth services?
It is deeply concerning how young people I have spoken to have normalised murder, having dealt with it too many times before. I notice how efficiently I and colleagues in Youth First deal with these events, gathering together information and arranging support. Yet we mustn't ever forget that these were not accidents, they were murders. Murders of children and young people on the streets of the fifth richest city in the world, the capital of the sixth richest economy. Murder is not and never should be seen as normal by anyone, anywhere and surely we in the UK can find the resources to fund activities which are likely to prevent them?
In the meantime I am remain proud of Youth First and Lewisham for protecting youth and play services. But most importantly I remain committed to further improving what we do and fighting for our survival. It would seem that lives truly do depend on our success and I for one cannot bear to see another young life taken and will not do so without putting up a fight to stop it in the best way I know how. By putting Youth (work) First.