I have worked in youth services for some time. As Creative Youth Network approaches our first anniversary of delivering youth services across the whole of Bristol and kicks-off a new contract to work with young people in South Gloucestershire, I’m aware that services for young people have never felt as stretched as they do now.  

Take The Station, the central Bristol youth hub we own and run in the city centre. It opens at 9.00am and remains open until 10.00pm weekdays, long after other services have closed, and most evenings we run popular open-access sessions. Ever since The Station has opened we’ve worked well in partnership with police, our neighbours and wider community to manage these and keep young people safe in and outside the building. But lately we’ve had a spike in anti-social behaviour from a few young people attending. 

This is to be expected. The Station is a citywide destination accessible to all young people, some of whom are in crisis. When creating spaces and places where young people with different issues and needs come together, there will sometimes be consequences, and we are experiencing ever greater demand coupled with growing complexity of need. 

Everyone who works in youth services will be familiar with the balancing act of meeting the needs of very vulnerable young people while supporting the needs of a wider group. When a small number of our users pose a risk to the safety of other young people and our staff, we have to take difficult decisions. As a result we have recently banned a small number of young people who have been a threat to other young people and staff in recent weeks.

Our learning

We’ve learned lessons. We’ve reviewed training for staff, particularly those on reception who are the first point of contact for any of our users, around identifying when a young person is at risk, or a risk to others. We’ve reviewed our rosters to ensure we have an even more robust ‘duty’ offer whenever The Station is open, with a youth worker able to spend time with any young person who is in need of more 1-2-1 support, and to support session youth workers if faced with challenging behaviours including violence.

But this is a complex area. Bristol City Council is already doing good work to meet this complexity with cross-agency working between health, police, education, social care and youth services (including ourselves) to respond to growing exploitation of young people by criminal gangs, and a rise in knife crime and youth violence.  

But it’s also not rocket science. What does a gang offer a young person? Power, safety and solidarity amongst peers, a sense of belonging. We’ve known about the hierarchy of needs for decades now. So when we get young people who experience none of this in their personal lives, who are often in care, who have gone missing many times, and who come to The Station looking for help because it’s one of the few places for them that remains open after 5:00pm, but whose needs we can’t meet because of their aggression, and who we have to ban to keep other young people safe, I ask myself what is the solution?

There are no quick wins.

Rather than knee-jerk responses to high profile issues like knife crime, and proposals for a duty on teachers and nurses to be responsible for spotting and reporting youth violence, let’s invest in meeting young people’s needs early in order to minimise the adverse childhood experiences that become indicators of problems later.  Over the shorter term here are my top two suggestions for better supporting young people in Bristol and South Gloucestershire:

  • More local open access youth centres, providing a safe place where young people can build relationships and be in the company of peers and experience a sense of community and belonging.
  • Youth workers in every school to support young people when they need it in a place where they spend a lot of time, with particular focus on engaging pupils in danger of exclusion.

To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi you can judge a nation by how it treats its vulnerable, and I’d say these two things well-resourced would be a really good indicator of how we value young people. What do you think?