In this article, which appeared first in Youth &Policy and is reproduced here with their consent, I seek to provide a critical analysis of the plethora of recent policy documents and announcements relating to youth work in England.
Over the spring and summer of 2019 local authority Youth Services and the youth work practice they provide attracted unaccustomed levels of interest from national policy-makers. Most encouraging was the report in April from an MP’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which specifically addressed the ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’.[i] This was followed in May by data from a second APPG enquiry which, though more narrowly focused on ‘knife crime’, had much to say about the damaging effects of Youth Service cuts.[ii] Its analysis and conclusions were then forcibly reinforced by a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report which appeared at the end of July just as this article was being completed.[iii]
Also in April, the then youth minister Mims Davies made two commitments which were also seen as signalling a renewed interest in youth work: to develop a Youth Charter setting out how the Government will ‘support young people in reaching their full potential’ and to review the statutory guidance on local authority Youth Services – last updated in 2012.[iv] Towards the end of July the government also sponsored a debate in response to the first APPG report during which some of its key conclusions and recommendations attracted endorsements from Mims Davies, from Labour’s ‘youth’ spokesperson Cat Smith and from other MPs.[v]
The view from Parliament
From youth work’s ‘role and sufficiency’…
Coming as it did from a cross-party committee with a broad ‘Youth Affairs’ brief, the first APPG report offered some grounds for optimism that some more supportive messages about youth work might finally be getting through to top policy-makers. It for example started from a recognition that, as a result of what it calls ‘structural shifts’, a breakdown had occurred in the ‘contract’ with young people for providing ‘greater opportunities and a better quality of life than their parents and grandparents’. It went on to in effect endorse the ‘clear message’ it had received that, for helping to address this new situation, ‘youth work remains an important element of the support wanted and needed by young people today’ and so as having a ‘key role’ within what it called ‘the eco-system of Services for Young People’. Significantly, it also explicitly defined this practice as ‘non-formal education that focuses on the personal and social development of participants’, achieved by ‘provid(ing) peer group activities and trusted relationships’.
Accepting the case made by ‘numerous respondents’ to their enquiry for ‘a national youth policy and a long-term strategy for youth services’, the MPs also endorsed proposals that these be made the responsibility of a Cabinet-level Minister located in the Department of Education. For implementing the strategy their more detailed recommendations included:
- ‘Greater investment in youth work’, particularly in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, to include an ‘objective assessment’ of the National Citizens Service (NCS) and its contribution.
- The creation of a ‘national body for youth work’ to oversee the implementation of revised statutory guidance which would set out ‘a minimum and protected level of youth service’ to be ‘discharged’ by an identified ‘lead role’ in each local authority.
- The development of an overall ‘workforce strategy’ covering ‘professional youth workers, trainees and volunteers’.
- A ‘standardised and national system for evaluating … youth services and quality of youth work provision’ which – particularly important from a youth work perspective – would include ‘self-evaluation and “light touch” inspection’.
Gaps remained in these proposals, however – not least in relation to the state structures best fitted to providing genuinely open versions of youth work and where and how young people and youth workers as well as the local authority itself might fit into these. More broadly, this group of MPs seemed unable in the end to free themselves from some of the constraints – both of thought and action – which over the past decade have so damaged local authority Youth Services. While for example acknowledging that references to ‘inequalities’ appeared in the evidence they received, they explicitly ruled as outside their remit consideration the often crucial ‘structural’ features of ‘disadvantage relating to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity’ (or indeed class). Given the serious criticisms of Ofsted within the educational field generally and of the often oppressive pressure it puts on those it inspects [vi], the Committee’s suggestion that it might put new youth work inspection arrangements in place was unlikely to get unqualified bottom-up endorsement. And despite the references to self- and light-touch evaluation, an appendix setting out a complex, multi-coloured ‘Theory of Change’ chart comprising six rows and nine columns again risked creating evaluation processes which actually get in the way of a practice like youth work.
… via youth work as knife-crime prevention …
The second APPG group, ‘set up as a response to the alarming rise in knife crime across the country’, defined its overall purpose as:
To evaluate policies and programmes aimed at reducing knife crime, gain better understanding of its root causes and the wider context of youth violence, and develop recommendations for new measures at both acute and preventative stages with a view to reducing levels of knife crime.
Although no official publication has yet appeared, a press release in early May made a strong and pragmatic case for reinstating Youth Services and their youth work practice based on a suggested ‘growing link between cuts to youth services and the country’s knife crime epidemic’. Drawing on Freedom of Information responses from some 70 per cent of 154 local councils and from local police forces, the MPs reached this conclusion by connecting two sets of figures. The first revealed a ‘51 per cent drop in the overall number of youth centres supported by English local authorities since 2011 and … (a) 42 per cent drop in youth service staff over the same period’; the second that some of the highest knife crime increases had occurred in local authority areas where these cuts had been amongst the most severe.
These purported linkages prompted the Chair of the Group to conclude:
We cannot hope to turn around the knife crime epidemic if we don’t invest in our young people. Every time I speak to young people they say the same thing: they need more positive activities, safe spaces to spend time with friends and programmes to help them grow and develop.
The Home Affairs Select Committee on ‘serious youth violence’ was even blunter in driving home this message, concluding for example that in part ‘the current epidemic … has been exacerbated by a perfect storm emerging from the cuts to youth services’. It thus went on to recommend that the government introduce ‘a fully-funded, statutory minimum provision for youth outreach workers and community youth projects in all areas, co-designed with local young people’. This it described as ‘a national Youth Service Guarantee with … ring-fenced funding from central Government’.
… via Ministerial responses…
Proposals such as these have undoubtedly helped raise political and wider public awareness of the need for local Youth Services and the opportunities they can provide. They also offered some relevant starting points for considering how, with guaranteed state support, open forms of youth work practice might begin to be reinstated locally.
Serious doubts remained, however, about if and how their key messages were being understood by ministers and if and how their policy proposals were turning them into action.
Austerity: the reality – and the rhetoric
This kind of ‘absence of mind’ was demonstrated in April when Mims Davies, announcing her plan for a Youth Charter, blandly described the huge budgetary problems currently facing local councils as a ‘challenging funding landscape’. What this typically evasive ministerial language masked were two brutal financial realities: a 60 per cent (£16 billion) cut since 2010 in the Treasury’s Revenue Support Grant to local authorities; and, largely as a result, a projected combined gap in their funding in this financial year of £14.4 billion.
Nonetheless Davies came to that Parliamentary debate seeking credit for the government’s planned increase over the next year in spending on English public services of £1.3 billion and also, more specifically, for her own Department’s allocation of £195 million to ‘youth programmes … to enrich young people’s lives’ covering ‘sport, digital and culture’. She also announced a youth employment programme to be implemented via a new ‘Youth Futures Fund’ whose £90 million funding, allocated through social investment bonds, was to come from ‘dormant bank accounts’ rather than from the government itself. She referred, too, to the Youth Endowment Fund with its £200 million Home Office allocation ‘to support programmes and communities working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence’ – one of the government’s many ‘gestures policies’ which the Home Affairs Committee later dismissed as ‘far too fragmented and small-scale’.
A Youth Charter – on what?
The overall aim of the proposed Youth Charter was defined most positively as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’. As well as addressing their ‘concerns about the environment and climate change’, however, its aims were, as so often within current ‘youth policies’, narrowed down to meeting such preventative priorities as (again) ‘…combating serious violence and knife crime’ and ‘addressing mental and physical health challenges’. In confirming these, Mims Davies’s colleague, Nadhim Zahawi, the (now replaced) Minister for Children and Families, also made clear the largely individualistic thinking driving the proposal when he asserted: ‘Every young person, whatever their background or the challenges they face, should have the chance to shape their own futures’.
Reviewing statutory Youth Services guidance
Mims Davies’s promise of the review of the statutory guidance for Youth Services came with some supportive ministerial statements – about ‘the positive role local authorities can play’, ‘the value added by good youth work’ and how ‘access to youth workers … transforms people’s lives’. Her most aspirational expectation of youth work – that it would give young people ‘opportunities to develop new skills and have fun outside the classroom’ – was however again underpinned by familiar preventative tropes emphasising work with ‘the most vulnerable’. Implicit in her statement, too – suggested for example by references to the ‘many local areas (which) have adapted to the new models of delivering services’ – were continuing neo-liberal assumptions about a minimal provider role for the state.
One qualifying phrase in the existing (2012) guidance – repeated three times – was however left unremarked by Mims Davies: that a council’s duty to provide a Youth Service extends only so far ‘as is reasonably practicable’. Given that, in her ‘challenging funding landscape’, the government’s own evidence as far back as 2014 had revealed that under half of local councils were taking their legal duty into account when deciding Youth Service budgets[vii], not only did this phrase clearly need to be deleted from any new guidance . If the duty was to be made real and effective, it would be crucial, too, that within it much more positive expectations of ‘role and sufficiency’ be embedded and indeed defined.
… to a House of Commons debate on ‘The role and sufficiency of youth services’
In opening this debate – held on 24 July 2019 – Mims Davies did include some new and more detailed information on training and qualifications. As ‘an essential first step … to arrest the decline in the number of qualified, professional youth workers and skilled volunteers’, she announced a new Level 3 apprenticeship qualification. This, aimed at ‘those working in a volunteer capacity’, was to be backed by £500,000 to provide bursaries for 400 students.
By then, too, the first of nine NYA-hosted regional consultative events on the revision of the statutory guidance had taken place aimed at providing ‘greater clarity’ on what was required – though during the debate Mims Davies did ‘absolutely recognise that many Members … feel that it is just the start’.
On the proposed Youth Charter, the nearest Davies came to clarifying the process by which this was being developed was to talk of a timescale of ‘over the coming months’ and to register ‘a huge thank you to the youth sector organisations that have shared in and embraced the opportunity to work with us … so far’. She however took time to restate its rationale as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’ and indicated that this was to be achieved by ‘bring(ing) together policies from across Government and listen(ing) to views from young people, those who work with them and, importantly, those who care for our young people’.
On most of the broader policy and funding questions, however, Davies had little specific information to offer. Instead she relied heavily on reiterating claims about the success of the Youth Investment Fund, of government funding to support uniformed youth work, and of a range of other organisations such as the Centre for Social Action, Sport England and even the Football Association. Included in this listing, too, was the NCS, though this came with the unexpected caveat that ‘…it is very important for us to look at (its) future underspend. I would personally love to see it directed towards detached youth services’.
In a couple other a replies to MPs questions Davies made clear that in her view ‘the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport … really is the right place (for youth policy)’; and acknowledged that ‘… open access to [sic] youth services has in some cases been far too easy to target for cuts’.
In her summing up statement at the end of the debate, Mims Davies also again revealed her rather shaky understanding of open youth work by apparently assuming that, even with a quite broad remit, a specialist table tennis club was ‘a youth centre or youth club’:
We heard from Cat Smith (Labour ‘youth’ spokesperson) that this is not just about ping-pong, but I would like to look at ping-pong, because the Brighton Table Tennis Club … is fantastic. I have never been to a youth centre or youth club that does not have table tennis, and I would like to praise that one in particular. It works with a pupil referral unit and with people with dementia. There are fantastic, elite table tennis players.
After reminding the minister that ‘austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity’, Cat Smith’s reference to table tennis came when she dismissed the depiction of youth clubs as ‘a meeting place for young people to knock a ball about on a battered ping-pong table. She set out her own understanding of youth work as,
a distinct educational process that focuses on young people’s defined needs through non-formal learning. Its key purpose, as outlined in the recent all-party group inquiry, is to facilitate young people’s personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.
Smith also made the more specific point that:
Young people in rural areas can feel particularly isolated because when the school bus drops them back off in their village at perhaps 3.30 or 4 o’clock, that is it until the next morning.
Throughout the debate other MPs interjected a range of often sharply critical comments and questions including:
NCS lasts for two weeks (which) are no replacement for the long-term relationships and commitment that youth workers give young people… (Ruth George, Labour)
Will (the minister) ensure that the (revised statutory) guidelines set out a basic right for every young person to access youth services every night of the week, or will this review just be a wishy-washy statement of principles for councils. (Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour, Chair of APPG)
…so much of the delivery now is on a project basis, so we do not get the career, the professionalisation and that real expertise and experience in our youth workforce that we have had previously. (Jenny Chapman, Labour Shadow Minister)
…the applications (for one funding scheme) were due in yesterday, and the money has to be spent by March. It is a complete waste of money to try to do these projects in an ad hoc way, year after year. We need a proper, costed programme that runs from the beginning of the year and can be planned properly, instead of squandering the money that is put in place. (Lyn Brown, Labour Treasury spokesperson)
I see … voluntary organisations providing fantastic work … but … there needs to be a backstop and that backstop needs to be the statutory services. (Jeremy Lefroy, Conservative)
From policy – to action?
When drawn together in this way, the developments and initiatives outlined in this article suggest that new levels of responsiveness in political circles to the crisis which has hit local authority Youth Services since 2010. That certainly represents an advance on where we’ve been over the last decade given how, in one local authority after another – often in the teeth of defensive reactions – the cuts were implemented as unavoidable, with little debate on their consequences for the up to a million young people.
None of this, however, would seem to justify the (over)-optimism with which some of the most influential voices in the youth sector have reacted – exemplified by the recent ‘verdict’ of NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton: ‘Great progress made late in the day… as we enter a period of fundamental change with a new government … and the Spending Review which will follow’.[viii]
This, however, fails to take into account some crucial limiting factors – that:
- The Spending Review referred to here is now to be carried out by a government whose knee-jerk reaction to the ‘knife crime crisis’ has been to promise to fund an extra 20,000 policemen and women and to increase their powers of stop and search.
- At local authority level anyway austerity is still working its way through the system and will go on doing so for a number of years yet. The Local Government Association has estimated for example that in 2019-20 even services still labelled ‘statutory’ such as child protection will be facing an overall funding gap of £3 billion – likely to rise to £8 billion by 2025.
- Children and Young People Now’s (not unreasonable) ‘take’ on the Home Affairs Select Committee report was that its recommended future statutory and ringfenced funding for local authority provision is to be ‘focused on preventing young people becoming caught up in violence’. If correct then this must surely be taken as a clear warning that if ‘youth services’ money were ever to be fed down from central government to local councils they would be under huge pressure to use it ‘preventatively’ rather than for informal education. Which perhaps makes the question I (tentatively) posed in a post on the IDYW website back in April[ix] both more relevant – and even more challenging: rather than just ignoring the burgeoning ‘tackling knife-crime’ justifications for youth provision, might there be ways of negotiating them to support a revival of genuinely open forms of youth work practice?
Even when Mims Davies made her Youth Charter announcement in April factors such as these were shaping the overall youth policy climate. It was in this context, therefore, that she described youth work as a ‘youth space’ where young people could meet ‘on a Friday evening away from the rain with some high speed internet and with a chance to hang around with friends away from parents’. These were the kinds of spaces, she added, which the government was looking to fund in the future.
None of this came, however, with any indication of how much funding; where it would come from; who would decide its use; how any of this might, on their terms, be developmental for the young people – or where they might be able to go on the other six evenings of the week.
Crucial bottom-line material questions which – in spite of all the rhetoric of the last few months – still remain substantially unanswered.
[ii] See Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Youth club closures put young people at risk of violence, warn MPs’, Guardian, 7 May; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May
[iii] Available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/1016/1016.pdf
[iv] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-youth-charter-to-support-young-people-across-the-country; https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-04-11/debates/997DC4C3-05EF-4BEC-8E5C-02D00FBAA943/FundingForYouthServices; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Young people to develop youth charter with government”’, CYPN, 11 April
[v] Available at https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2019-07-24b.1369.2
[vi] See for example Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Ofsted under fire in its own survey of teachers’ wellbeing’, Guardian, 22 July
[vii] Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Youth services and funding cut as councils overlook legal duty’, CYPN, 22 July
[viii] Derren Hayes, 2019, ‘“Leaders call for a clearer vision of council youth work duties”’, CYPN, 30 July