We build relationships with young people. We build relationships because we know this is the best way to understand their needs, find the right support for them and then walk alongside them as they move forward in their lives. 

I put the word ‘know’ in italics because, of course, we can never know the exact impact of our work with young people. Sometimes they will tell you their lives have changed, sometimes you can see it has changed. But, most of the time, it is really difficult to tell. Many youth workers will tell you stories of bumping into a young person in the supermarket they worked with years ago. They often tell you how much the relationship meant at the time, but it took 5 years to realise it.

Young people’s lives, like all of us, have ups and downs – a job secured today may be a redundancy tomorrow. A young person in love today can be abused tomorrow. In other words, it is often really difficult to tell what difference we make.  

And yet, we are consistently asked to ‘measure’ our success.

We are asked to prove how much a young person’s confidence has grown, whether they understand their rights and choices better, how many have a new job or how many are not now carrying knives. Funders, local authorities, government and donors are asking us to ‘prove’ our worth. 

It is, of course, important that the money spent on supporting young people is well spent. Taxpayer funding should be accounted for and donations from the public or through grants need to have real impact. But I think we are measuring too much. The more we measure, the more we imagine young people are like rockets. Rocket science is complicated but predictable. Every action has a predictable reaction and you will get the same result with the same change every time. But young people are not like rockets – they are not predictable. Each young person needs a different kind of support, and even then you cannot predict how a young person will react or what difference it will make or when. 

And the problem is the more we try to measure the more we are asking youth workers to sit at desks in front of computers instead of talking with young people. Data must be inputted and reports written. Ultimately, a good youth worker is great with young people – they can build relationships quickly, see what help they might need, inspire and support them.  But when you try to categorise that change onto a computer database you lose so much, and we know that this desire to measure is starting to put people off working with young people.

We are in danger, I think, of over measuring to the point where we start to lose good youth workers and take time away from young people. And in return we get data that is not very useful because the wisdom comes from the relationship, not the statistics. Youth work is likely to see more money soon. The government is turning on the financial taps to tackle knife crime and exclusion. Almost certainly they will demand data in return.

Our youth workers are amazing people who can help young people navigate the barriers they face and start out in the lives with the best chance of success. You can’t measure that!

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