Imagine you gathered a group of people together and gave them the ingredients and instructions to bake a cake. If they followed the instructions eventually, they should all be able to bake a cake. At a much bigger level if you gathered your top scientists and gave them the resources and instructions to make a rocket, they should eventually be able to make it. However, if you gave parents a set of instructions as to how bring their child up and applied this to all children, you would not only expect this to fail, you might well anticipate the children involved being unhappy and troubled by such a linear and rigid approach.
Which is where washing machines comes in. A while ago I purchased a washing machine that operated on fuzzy logic principles. This basically meant you set the washing cycle, but it could adjust how it washed clothes if the selected cycle was not working. Of course you can stretch a metaphor too far and get lost in lots of philosophical debates about who determines outcome and who defines success; but there is I believe, a lot we can from fuzzy logic and the need to work with young people in an adaptive and agile manner, where they are empowered to set the agenda, determine the outcomes and become the author of their own story.
Sadly, it is increasingly the case that provision for young people especially those who are disadvantaged is very much linked to a pre-determined linear agenda. This agenda may well go something like; “the NEET young people will participate within the skills scheme and three months later have entered employment and hold this down for at least 13 weeks”. Of course it is good to have goals and it is good to be able to tell people, especially when you are being funded by public or charitable funds ,what you are trying to achieve but as anyone who has spent time working with disadvantaged young people will know life is often more complex than this.
There are often young people who have a whole range of complex and often overlapping needs and who do not fit easily into anyone tick box. For example, it might be “a young man, who has mental health issues, is living in temporary accommodation, has a criminal record, is in debt, has drug and alcohol issues and has a daughter by an estranged partner who is in care”. I could go on and on but many workers who work in youth projects targeting disadvantaged young people will know the picture. If you add in variables based on identify, disability, sexuality, race, class, culture and educational attainment the various intersections and diversity of young people we work with becomes immense and means that one size fits all solutions are at best meaningless at worst harmful and a waste of limited resources.
As government is now looking to review how it funds youth services and what youth services should look like now might be a good time to embrace a more “agile and adaptive approach”. To accept that for many of the most disadvantaged young people we are often talking about long term support and encouragement as they “yoyo” their way towards finding the spark, self-belief and support structures that will enable them to live their life to the best of their ability. We also need to move on from highly individualised approaches to facilitating young people working in groups where they are encouraged to build links, discuss the world as they see and live it and identify their own narratives.
Of course, they should be challenged, and different perspective included but at the heart of this approach is a belief that young people are often best placed to define who they are, what their issues are and what support they might need to move on. As they develop this may well change and they may well go through a prolonged period of try, give up, drop out but a relationship with a skilled worker can often turn that experience into learning that enables them to better identify how they might change their life situation. The process of working with a group with whom they feel a
common bond can also help them place their life situation in a context, help them offer and receive support, develop support networks and to think more holistically about what change is needed for them to live fulfilling lives.
It may well be that not all this change is centred on them but might see them asking questions about the way their local community is organised and run, whose agenda is running it and how much does it relate to their lived experience. In short this approach can start the process of young people developing into engaged citizens who are “creators” not just “consumers” and surely that is the bedrock of a successful and cohesive community?
Kieran is CEO of Leicestershire cares but is writing in a personal capacity