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Kathryn Morley: The Future of Universal Youth Work

6th November 2020 by Kathryn Morley, Chief Executive, OnSide

As part of National Youth Work Week, our CEO Kathryn Morley was invited to lead a session, ‘The Future of Universal Youth Work’, at the Youth Work in the 2020s conference, delivered in partnership with youth sector trade publication Children & Young People Now magazine, and the NYA.

In case you missed it here is an edited transcript of her talk The Future of Universal Youth Work, covering what the OnSide Network has learned through lockdown and what this could mean for youth work in the future: 

I’d like to start by taking you all back to a date that you will all no doubt remember.  Monday 23rd March 2020 – the day that all youth providers were forced to close their doors as the country went into its first lockdown.

Within days the OnSide Youth Zones had completely re-imagined our previous offer – until then it was open access, centre-based, face-to-face provision, offering thousands of young people nationally our mantra of somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to.

The response was phenomenal and something that I am incredibly proud of as all 14 Youth Zones went digital creating an engaging interactive online service to meet the needs of the thousands of young people who suddenly found themselves without the connectivity, support and social interaction they needed.

In addition, Youth Workers across the Network conducted thousands of one-to-one welfare phone calls to those without internet.

Alongside this, Youth Zones stepped up to meet the community need, delivering food parcels and resources (activity packs, laptops) directly to doorsteps – helping support families, often in crisis, at a time when many of the usual support services had fallen away.


I honestly believe that Youth Workers are society’s unsung heroes, they certainly demonstrated this tirelessly though lockdown.


Of course online provision can only ever scratch the surface of the benefits to young people of face to face. And not all young people would or indeed could engage with youth services remotely.

NYA data supports this – during the first lockdown 68% of youth organisations were reaching less than half of their usual numbers – which could be as many as 1 million young people disconnected from vital services.

We were able to re-open Youth Zones from July and have focused on re-engaging young people in the centres with a revised covid secure offer, whilst also greatly increasing our levels of outreach and detached.

It’s clear that young people have been keen to get back in to see their friends and the youth workers they know and trust. However, there are also significant number of young people who have not re-engaged in youth services and it is critically important that we work hard to reach these young people.

We are also seeing youth services increasing the range and depth of support as a result of Covid. Ahead of National Youth Work Week we undertook a survey of 1000 young people which showed that over half had lost contact with their friends. It will come as no surprise that all youth organisations we have spoken report increased demand for mental wellbeing support and to help young people combat the impact of social isolation.  .

At Bolton Lads and Girl Club, for example, the team are working closely with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services(CAMHS) to manage an overwhelming increase in referrals.


And what does this mean for the future of universal youth work?

Firstly, many in the sector are feeling that the value of universal youth work is recognised now more than ever before

Covid has created an opportunity for youth workers and youth work organisations to demonstrate their value as a key service provider at the heart of the community expanding to fill the gap as others have been forced to contract.

Our fluidity and flexibility, which so often makes our impact hard to measure, have proven to be our greatest strengths at a time when others have struggled to respond.


Youth work is not just valued by the young people who access youth services, but a quarter of those surveyed said that although they didn’t currently access any they would want to – a ‘safe space’ and ‘someone to talk to’ being by far the most common reasons given.

Our strong and trusted relationships with young people means we are able to reach and support families where other services struggle creating a greater impetus for partnerships. For example, Wirral social services are leaning on the Youth Zone to support them to connect with families they have lost contact with during lockdown whereas in Chorley, Bolton and Barking & Dagenham schools are requesting the support of the Youth Zone with young people who have failed to return after the summer.

There is now an opportunity to build on this and ensure that Youth Services are never again seen as a ‘nice to have’ – but continue to be seen as an essential service integrated and working collaboratively with a broad range of services including health, education and social care


I also believe that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the breadth of services we will offer and the skills youth workers will need to deliver these services. We will continue to see more outreach and detached, digital youth work, and family support in addition to centre based provision – and more training in specialist areas such as mental health.


Provision will also continue to adapt to reflect societal changes, for example helping young people respond to the evolving world of work and navigate the impacts of a difficult economy.


Thirdly, now is the time to look more fundamentally at how Universal Youth work is funded. The decline in investment is stark and whilst Government has committed funding through the Youth Investment Fund, it is yet to be released and is widely recognised that it cannot possibly fully compensate for the cuts to provision or the impacts of Covid’

Whilst government investment is important and valued it needs to be balanced with new sources of funding to the sector. The OnSide funding model with tis focus on private sector philanthropy allows us to deliver universal youth provision at scale. With increased recognition of the importance of universal youth work in the wake of Covid, there’s an opportunity to push this further and build a culture of philanthropy nationally, that will secure services for young people for the future.

Lastly – youth services will continue to play a role in helping young people to create change and providing safe spaces for them to take an active role in the issues that matter to them. The huge impact the Black Lives Matters movement continues to have on young people within our network, and the awakening it has driven in young people using their voice to create change, demand opportunities, and stand against disadvantage and inequality is a positive example of this.


Our challenge is ensuring that our offer continues to meet needs that are fast evolving and continues to find new creative ways of reaching all young people that need us.


Now is the time for us to work together to build on what we have experienced and learned this year, while also building in the resilience to weather future challenges.

To keep pushing for greater long-term financial investment so we can reach more young people and provide the support and services they are seeking.

To properly invest in training. That means putting as much value on the people in the youth workforce as we do on the young people we support.

Without an amazing workforce, we won’t achieve our shared ambitions for brilliant universal Youth Work to be a meaningful choice for every young person, from every background and in every community.

And lastly, we must take every opportunity we can to advocate for youth work to be respected and recognised at all levels. Events like National Youth Work Week play an important role in helping us do this.