The promise of youth

The ultimate test of a society is the future it leaves for its children.

Last month, with the publication of the new Youth Work Strategy, we took another step towards becoming a nation that truly embraces opportunity for all its citizens. It will help widen young people's access to youth work opportunities; grow the army of youth work volunteers and paid workforce; develop the sector's partnerships with formal education; and establish an evidence base to demonstrate its value.

Youth work was born in Victorian times when there was a fear of young people being abused and dehumanised. Organisations such as the YMCAYWCA came into being to offer young people activities that would help them in mind, body and spirit. Fundamentally, the offer hasn't changed and in excess of half a million young Scots participate in youth work on a regular basis.

In 2007, with the publication of the sector's first strategy, Moving Forward, the main challenge was to improve recognition of youth work's role in the delivery of government priorities. We have come a long way in seven years. YouthLink Scotland's Statement on the Nature and Purpose of Youth Work received widespread support and its ethos is now central to strategy delivery.

The new statement sets out the sector's unique selling points, its ability to attract young people from across society, including those for whom traditional routes into education, training or employment don't work, and positive options based on a philosophy of partnership.

Fundamentally, it is a blueprint for the future that recognises the central role young people play in their own development and within the wider community. They should be co-designing the services they benefit from. This "assets-based" approach is underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and fits squarely with the community empowerment agenda laid out by the Christie commission.

In its many different forms - from partnerships with schools, colleges and employers, to those with sport, health and justice - youth work maximises the life chances of young people by developing their skills, opportunities, self-confidence and sense of community cohesion.

It has a significant role to play within Curriculum for Excellence, specifically the senior phase, in supporting young people as they move into further learning and employment. As part of the government's preventative agenda, youth work offers incredible value for money, with research showing a social return of about pound;13 for every pound;1 invested, depending on the activity. Add to this the replacement value of volunteers, which has been estimated at pound;128 million, and its impact is clear.

To borrow that almost universal phrase uttered by kids on a journey, "Are we there yet?", the answer is "no". But the sector is on a road that I hope will lead to sustained core investment.

Jim Sweeney is chief executive of YouthLink Scotland

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