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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Is there a value to youth work?

This opinion piece is about 8 years old

Susan Smith questions whether Scotland's youth work sector is really worth half a billion pounds

The problem with social good is that it’s really hard to measure. We all know that helping people in a rut makes them healthier and happier and better able to contribute to society themselves, but exactly how much does it help?

YouthLink Scotland has this week put a financial value on youth work with the publication of a Social Return on Investment model citing £7 return for every £1 spent. This suggests that Scotland’s youth work sector contributes half a billion pounds to the economy. Impressive.

But does it?

You cannot measure the ingredients that go into creating a healthy human being

Imagine a young woman who grows up in care, competes for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games, gets a degree in sports science, becomes a PE teacher and ends up a role model for the next generation. What led to her success? Was it foster carers, teachers, natural talent that encouraged her to work hard, a fighting spirit that motivated her to improve her lot, friends and family or a fantastic youth group? Was it all of these things or something else entirely? How much did each element contribute?

This also begs the question – how much is this paragon of society worth herself? Does her value lie in how much tax she pays or her spending power? Does she get credit for a slice of Commonwealth Games ticket sales? How much is the inspiration she provides to her pupils, who have a little more ambition by association, worth?

The third sector is under a huge pressure to justify investment in services that some sections of question the value of. But people are not commodities. You can measure how much time and money is spent making ice-cream and come up with an accurate return on investment, but you cannot measure the ingredients that go into creating a human being.

If believing Scotland's youth worth sector is worth half a billion pounds justifies its paltry £90 million annual investment – that’s just £90 a child – then fantastic, let's believe it. In reality though youth groups across Scotland are giving our young people the chance to have fun, make friends, learn skills, develop talents and grow into the adult they will one day become. That’s not worth half a billion pounds – it’s priceless.

Susan Smith is editor of Third Force News.