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Over the last six months I have been party to events, discussions and insights into projects across the country that are working with young people who have tough lives and difficult circumstances.  These young people will almost all live in areas which lack investment – low incomes, poor housing, unaffordable credit, lack of appropriate work, low aspiration and fragile support networks – and which define their lives. They will almost certainly have a history of difficult relationships with their families, teachers and other adults in positions of authority.


The Leeds based organisation, Involve works with young people at Key Stage 3 who are at risk of exclusion from school. Involve takes them out of their daily environment and puts then into a structured development programme three days a week for fifteen weeks, in a way that also keeps them in touch with the school system. They provide professional tuition, physical and creative activities, personal support, tough boundaries and reflective development. Involve teaches the young people it works with how to understand and deal with their feelings and behaviour and, as one grateful parent observed, teaches them ‘common sense’. The aim is reintegration into education – which is what Involve achieves, significantly reducing the risk of permanent exclusion and the resulting downward trajectory that we know so often follows.

Youth at Risk, based in the south of England, works with young people in their late teens and twenties, who are often in and out of trouble and trapped in a cycle of negative peer influence. But young people who can also be trapped by a cycle of sometimes conflicting responses from the agencies tasked to work with them. By firmly challenging negative behaviour with constructive and empathetic support and by providing clear boundaries, Youth at Risk tasks these young people with shedding the labels which have been assigned to them since childhood and which they have adopted for themselves (I’m ‘a clown’, ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’). What struck me as a silent observer at one of the sessions was the incredible intellect, insight and reflection of these young people. They grasped concepts and produced solutions for each other that adults often believe only they are capable of. This ability, and their life histories, were a humbling experience.

Local Solutions in Liverpool, a large social enterprise, works with older youth, often referred from single-focus agencies unequipped to deal with the whole young person. The unequivocal message from the young people Local Solutions worked with was that they first need generalist help and advocacy before receiving specialist support. Someone who can help them sort out the immediate emergencies and then support them to identify and achieve their personal goals. Someone to build a relationship and trust with before engagement with more specialist service providers. Too often it’s service first, personal needs last.

So, what is the common thread amongst the organisations listed above? Well, they are community based. They have been set up in response to local needs and the inflexibility of the state to provide support relevant to young people.

That isn’t to say that many people working in agencies wouldn’t love to be able to work differently. However, successive governments have never managed to develop values based systems and services that provide what is needed. These are nuanced, community responses, which place unconditional positive human regard at their heart – an approach which transforms communities, where others fail.

These were largely the findings of the Department of Education, Neighbourhood Support Fund, which CDF managed from 1999 – 2006.

Wouldn’t it be great if the some of these lessons had stuck?

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