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South West Regional Youth Work Unit – what next?

In this week’s blog, Gill Millar reflects on her time at Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West as the organisation closes its doors after 68 years.

It’s been a strange few weeks since the abrupt and unexpected demise of Learning South West – a real emotional turmoil both for those of us who worked there and for those organisations and individuals who are affected by the manner of its ending. I’d like to start this blog with a heartfelt thanks to the many local authorities, voluntary youth organisations, young people and individual supporters who have sent their good wishes to the team and have told us how much they’ve valued the work that the Regional Youth Work Unit has done with the youth sector in the South West. I also want to thank my former colleagues, especially Jane Shipton and Sharon Adams who have both continued to work to fulfil our obligations to members and learners despite the collapse of the organisation.

I am massively impressed, in particular, with the goodwill and determination of our own trainers, ABC Awards, training providers and local authorities who have worked with me in the past month to put together arrangements that mean that the 40+ learners who had started their youth work qualifications at Level 2 and 3 with us, our apprentices and trainee assessors and IQAs will be able to complete their qualifications. It’s been an enormous team effort, at considerable extra cost to local authorities in particular, and I am immensely grateful for the flexibility and willingness to get positive results that everyone has shown. In this crisis, we really have seen the spirit of ‘all in this together’ with everyone genuinely concerned to collaborate and share resources. If they give awards for ‘sorting things out in a crisis’ then I’d recommend the South West youth sector wholeheartedly.

I know a lot of people find it hard to believe that an organisation that looked so stable – Learning South West has existed since 1947, and the Regional Youth Work Unit has been part of it since 1988 – could come to grief so quickly. In truth, it’s hard to believe as an insider as well. After all, we owned our building – everyone’s favourite venue, Bishops Hull House – and had taken steps to reduce our overheads as the funding available to the youth and post-16 learning sectors diminished. But ultimately, the resolute lack of interest in sector infrastructure provision from Government and other funders, the nonsensical notion that organisations can continually ‘do more with less’ and an ever-expanding pension deficit combined with unfounded fear amongst key Board members that they could be personally liable for the pension debt led to an unnecessarily hasty rush to close.

This culminated in the Board appointing administrators for the organisation, leaving creditors unpaid, despite the fact that there was sufficient cashflow to continue for several more months in order to complete committed work, even if no new contracts were achieved. The damage to partner organisations, individual staff members and associates who have lost out both financially and professionally is significant, and will be long-lasting. It is also likely that all the creditors, including the pension scheme, will be worse off than would have been the case with an orderly closure, as the administrator’s fees will need to be taken from the asset pot.

There does, however, seem to be will to retain elements of the Regional Youth Work Unit’s work in bringing together the youth sector around areas of interest and developing areas of practice such as young people’s voice, approaches to evidencing impact and opportunities for developing the youth work workforce at a time of massive change. Other regional organisations have expressed interest in hosting RYWU activities, and we will be talking to the sector and other infrastructure bodies about what people want and what might be possible in the next few months.

So while it does mean goodbye to Learning South West, which has been an amazing source of support and innovation in youth work and post-16 learning for such a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a Regional Youth Work Unit presence in the South West. We’ll be staying in touch with the Network of Regional Youth Work Units, and with luck and continued goodwill, a phoenix will arise from the flames of this particular car-crash.

Gill Millar

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