Opinion

How youth centres can help thousands of young people unlock their potential and shine

OnSide is a national youth charity raising funds to build a network of state-of-the-art Youth Zones in the UK’s most disadvantaged areas

man in a blue shirt beside a sports field

Jamie Masraff. Image: supplied

Jamie Masraff, chief executive of OnSide, explains how youth centres across the country are driving a revolution in aspiration.

The Big Issue’s call to rethink and invest in education is both timely and spot on as the RAAC issue exposes decades of capital underfunding in school buildings. 

The demands we place on teachers increase daily. More than three million children in the UK live in poverty. These young people are already several yards behind more privileged peers when starting school. Families often have limited access to education resources, digital access and health living environments. Children’s mental health has spiralled, many arrive at school hungry, recently we heard about hygiene poverty because families don’t have money to run the washing machine, and absenteeism has doubled. Schools can’t be expected to address all of these problems and do the day job of teaching the curriculum.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

As we lead into an election year all political parties want to convince the public how seriously they take education. Prime minister Rishi Sunak says: “It’s the single most important reason why I came into politics, to give every child the highest standard of education.” Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson says her priority in government would be “to break down barriers to give all young people the chance to get on”.

Very few would argue with these goals, there is less consensus on how to achieve them. My strong belief is that, alongside the formal education sector, there is a real and untapped opportunity for the youth sector to play a role in helping young people aspire and achieve.

OnSide’s 14 youth centres, or Youth Zones as we call them, built in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, provide a powerful antidote to entrenched inequality by helping thousands of young people unlock their potential and shine, regardless of the lottery of birth.

Anna had been to six different secondary schools before she found us, aged 15. A turbulent home life and subsequent mental health issues meant her behaviour had deteriorated and her trust in adults was non-existent.

When she walked into Legacy Youth Zone, Croydon, on the suggestion of a friend, she had missed a lot of learning through exclusion, but she had also lost interest in life. Anna says: “I couldn’t see the point in school because I didn’t want there to be a future for myself.”

OnSide youth workers worked with Anna to rebuild her self-esteem. She was assigned a mentor and two counsellors, and we connected her with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). As her trust in adults was slowly rebuilt, so was her self-confidence and ambition. Anna realised she wanted to become a mental health youth worker and would need qualifications.

Rose, a teacher by day and Legacy youth worker by night, worked with Anna on her English Language revision in the Youth Zone’s Library Club, in a small group that a school would have found it hard to provide. Legacy’s art youth worker helped Anna express herself through different media for an Art GCSE. She also took Maths.

For Anna the achievement wasn’t jumping in the air for a press photograph, waving nine A* GCSE certificates. Instead she says: “Just turning up for exams was the win. I couldn’t have imagined being mentally strong enough to do that without the help from Legacy.” She is now working with Legacy to pursue further education.

Anna is just one of 50,000 we see through the doors of our network of Youth Zones every year. Each is an inspirational, welcoming space, designed to be packed full of opportunity. Each helps level the playing field by offering mentoring, support, revision clubs, employability tips, leadership opportunities, skills development and more.

We believe children deserve the best environment in which to thrive. There are at least 20 activities in each Youth Zone every evening. A teenager might come in to dunk balls on the basketball court, but discover the enterprise club and a talent for business.

We are not alone, youth clubs across the country are driving a revolution in aspiration. We know this works. Evidence shows young people do better at school and attend more frequently because of the confidence and interests they develop with us.

Youth workers achieve incredible change every day. Having someone believe in you and tell you that you’re good at something is monumental and missing in many young people’s lives.

OnSide’s funding comes through local and central government but also from local businesses and philanthropists. Each Youth Zone is chaired by someone with a business background, bringing private sector expertise to the model. It’s a great example of communities reinvesting in their young people.

Children spend 85% of their time outside of school. Research by UK Youth found that investment in youth work saves society £3.2 billion annually. By investing in young people now, we’ll create a generation that’s willing and equipped to contribute to society – it is morally right, it is economically sensible and it gives children a future they deserve.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
There's so many questions needing answers this general election it's hard to zone in on just one
Rishi Sunak calling a July 4 general election on May 22
Paul McNamee

There's so many questions needing answers this general election it's hard to zone in on just one

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence
The Criminal Justice Bill criminalises rough sleeping
Tom Kerridge

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence

So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand
Cath Hill

So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all
people experiencing homelessness also face stigma
Matthew Torbitt

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know