January is typically a time of new beginnings, especially true for me as I start my role as OnSide’s Chief Executive. Over the Christmas break, I spent a lot of time reflecting on why I got involved with OnSide and why I’m so motivated to lead this amazing charity. And while there are many reasons for this, inequality and its unfairness are front and centre of what drove me to get involved and still drive me today.
OnSide matters because we are working to correct the unfairness that too many young people face – the harsh reality that the lottery of birth affects your life path and prospects. I recently shared a heartbreaking story from a parent that brought this to life far more poignantly than I ever could.
It’s already a tough time to be young in the UK. We know from our research that young people are becoming ever more isolated. Over 1 million spend most of their free time alone, three-quarters spend most of their free time at home, and over half spend most of their free time in their bedrooms. 73% of young people spend most of their free time on screens. Digital skills and connections matter, but more time spent alone on screens means less time spent in the physical world, trying new things and spending time with others. Young people’s self-esteem, confidence, social skills, and mental wellbeing suffer.
It’s no surprise that University College London’s recent study found that half of year 11 pupils are experiencing mental health problems post-Covid, up from one quarter only 15 years ago. The same study found that those suffering from mental health problems are twice as likely to lack motivation at school.
And we know that these challenges aren’t being faced equally. Those less fortunate bear the heaviest weight, and while there is an abundance of opportunity, it goes to too few, with little left for so many.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Youth centres and youth work are a powerful yet largely untapped force for good that can help transform opportunities for our young people. You can see the positive impact of youth work whenever you walk into a Youth Zone. Our survey results also back this, with 81% of young people who attend a youth centre saying attending a youth centre positively impacts their lives. The challenge is that just 8% get to reap these benefits – 92% don’t attend a youth centre.
So, where do we come in? I joined OnSide after seeing the difference made by high-quality youth centres and youth work in some of our most economically disadvantaged communities. We are now on the cusp of another wave of Youth Zones in development, an incredible opportunity to grow the Network of Youth Zones nationwide so that many more young people can benefit from the tremendous impact of high-quality youth and community work. With a further eight Youth Zones being developed in areas like Bristol, Grimsby and Barnsley, we are truly becoming a national movement of like-minded youth charities using youth work skills to positively impact the community.
We have an incredible network of Youth Zones across the country, and continuing to support them to thrive and provide the best possible youth and community work for their members is another big priority for the year ahead. People are central to our success; we’ll continue to invest in their development and growth through our award-winning Talent Academy, ensuring a high standard of youth work is delivered at every Youth Zone. What’s especially important is to continue our efforts to make OnSide and Youth Zones an ever more inclusive workplace. At OnSide, our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group, FREDIE, is playing a vital part in how we further improve our recruitment and culture.
We will also continue to do our bit to raise the profile of youth work. Youth work is just as important as the education kids receive at school. I’d argue it’s a right. That’s why I am fully committed to working with my incredible colleagues within the youth sector to raise the profile of youth work and youth centres and change how youth work is seen, so it gets its due recognition. The Back Youth Alliance has achieved so much already, and I look forward to OnSide continuing to be part of this brilliant group of organisations, contributing to its work to achieve a strong, collective voice that shares the message of why youth work matters.
Taking on the baton of CEO from Kathryn is an amazing privilege. I couldn’t be more excited about what OnSide will achieve through OnSide’s unbeatable youth work offer.