We are approaching the end of the year, my first year as OnSide’s CEO, and so my thoughts naturally turn to the past 12 months. It has been a momentous year for OnSide – not as daunting as I worried it would be – and a real privilege to work with brilliant, passionate people across the OnSide Network and the youth sector. Four reflections stick out.
The first is how much this year has reenforced just how much we undervalue youth work, considering how vital it is for young people to overcome the major challenges they face today. This generation of young people has it harder than any in living memory. The first headline I read in January this year was about the steep rise in the number of young people treated for mental health problems. Then just last month it was reported that one in five children and young people had a probable mental health disorder. There is almost a year between these headlines, but they sadly tell a very similar picture and show how much more there is to do for young people.
This picture is reinforced by the views of young people I have the privilege of meeting on my travels. During a residential with a group of 20 OnSide young ambassadors, I asked them their biggest concern about which they wanted to see more action from the Government, and they all said mental health. Cost of living, loneliness and social isolation are also growing issues, with our research highlighting that 1.3 million young people have been forced to give up the activities they love as they can no longer afford them.
Secondly, this year has also reaffirmed my belief that youth work is a solution that works. Whether it be through the stories of young people like Archie and Mala; evidence like our impact data (which shows that our members improve across all outcomes) or data from reports like our Generation Isolation report which revealed that 83% of youth club attendees say it has given them new skills – we have taken great leaps in our ability to make the case for youth work. Yet despite this, and the proven need, there is simply insufficient support available for young people to turn to with just 9% of young people attending a youth club.
This has been the mission driving OnSide since we started 15 years ago. With 14 Youth Zones open and 8 in development, we are about to enter into our biggest ever period of growth that will see us double our reach. However, I balance that pride and excitement in all we are achieving with the reality that our mission is far from complete, and has never been more critical.
Thirdly, although we are improving our ability to demonstrate the power of youth work and how its impact ties into broader societal outcomes, we must, at OnSide and across the youth sector, better communicate its importance to society with a single, unified voice. The work of the Back Youth Alliance, which unites leaders from the UK’s leading youth charities, and the National Youth Sector Advisor Board, will be critical to present a unified voice to decision-makers with and for young people. I look forward to seeing how our work continues to grow as we enter what will be a critical year politically.
My final reflection is how proud I am of what the OnSide team has achieved this year, including; planning permission being secured for five Youth Zones, and two Youth Zone brands launched; Salford Youth Zone and 224, South Bristol’s Youth Zone. It’s an honour to be at the helm of this fantastic charity that has achieved so much in its short 15 years of operating. Though there’s much to be done, the focus and determination of our team and the backing of our supporters leave me with no doubt that together, we’ll continue to deliver on our promise to always be here for young people.
Before we head off on the festive break, I wish you all health and happiness for the year ahead – here’s to 2024!