Dr Fiona Factor is a Senior Research Fellow in the IC, working on the CSE & Policing Knowledge Hub. Her professional background is youth work and here she reflects on how she appears to have come full circle in her current professional role and is back where she started 30 years ago.
On 30th September 2016 I attended the ‘In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW)’ 7th National Conference. I’ve been around the field in different guises for 30 odd years, from practice to teaching to research, but this was my first IDYW event. I felt unsure about whether, being outside of frontline youth work practice, I would feel like an imposter. I’m delighted to say it gave me a chance to reconnect with my ‘professional’ family. I renewed old acquaintances not seen for decades and made exciting new connections.
I heard stories from youth workers about their attempts to retain their professional identity and integrity in a commissioning world that does not ‘get it’- youth work that is. I felt almost embarrassed in my small group to share the news of my forthcoming organization of a residential in October half term. This would bring together young people (‘Experts by Experience’) and the police to talk about how the police can protect and support young people more effectively in the context of child sexual exploitation and associated vulnerabilities. I reflected how fortunate I was to come to this from the current comfort of an academic research post based in the International Centre: researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking that embraces participatory action research, and is committed to giving young people a voice in all that we do.
The residential (based on traditional youth work principles) was a phenomenal success and since then, the Experts by Experience and police officers have co-presented their work at a research forum entitled ‘Marginal Gains’ (see photo above) which took place just a couple of weeks ago to an audience of over 70 police officers representing over 20 police force areas. The feedback was excellent, so yes, we can tick the ‘impact’ box. But more than that we saw evidence of a significant willingness and appetite to take these ideas forward, something I am committed to seeing through.
Research we have undertaken at the International Centre repeatedly highlights the importance of relationships and how preventative services like open access youth work provision contributes to the safeguarding needs of young people. Now, because of the virtually non-existent opportunities young people have to use such support services, frustratingly, we need to persuade others to view it through the lens of academic research.
I take my hat off to those on the frontline of youth work practice who are still able to maintain their professional integrity and provide services that young people value despite the relentless cuts to youth work provision, particularly in England; many of these practitioners were present at the IDYW event. Now more than ever, young people need youth workers as advocates and educators. The professional context within which the dialogue takes place is almost immaterial, what matters is the opportunity for young people to know that there is an alternative to the current limited choices they are offered and the social and political environment in which they are growing up.
Finally, on reflection (and in case you were wondering), I am now proud to have managed this process and am busily looking to find ways to sustain the legacy of the work undertaken and mechanisms to promote the core traditions of an educational and ethical youth work practice. My experience recently proves what I’ve always known, the power and significance of environments which offer respectful dialogue, empowerment through education and the potential to create real change. Lastly, and whilst running the risk of appearing self-indulgent, I am proud that someone as old as me can still do youth work and survive a residential.
Coming full circle reaffirmed my commitment to the core professional principles I adopted 30 years ago; I am confident that the value of this practice will be recognised once more in the not too distant future.