The good – and the not-so-good – news
2019 and early 2020 brought some unaccustomed moments of hope for open youth work. A report by an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published in April 2019 focused specifically, and positively, on ‘the role and sufficiency of youth work’. Closer to the ground, Space Youth Services, the public sector mutual running Devon’s youth work services, were awarded a new three-year contract by the Council which, with a possible extension to 2025, could eventually be worth over £10 million. Also in December Newham Borough Council announced it would be opening new drop-in youth club activities and appointing more detached youth workers  while by February Shropshire also agreed to set up a detached work team.
These and other initiatives, it has to be said, often came with mixed messages. Shropshire’s, for example, seemed to be dependent on town and parish councils and ‘charities’ taking over its youth clubs. More broadly, reports from another All Party Parliamentary Group and a Home Office Select Committee  justified the need for youth work, not as a self-chosen informal educational opportunity for young people, but as a targeted ‘preventative’ response to knife crime and ‘youth violence’.
Also severely limiting any significant youth work revival after a decade of austerity were the pressures even then on local authority budgets. This was driven home in March when the mutual which had been running Kensington and Chelsea’s youth services since 2014 collapsed – the result, it said, of an ‘unsustainable financial position’ caused by ‘the reduction in the overall level of funding for youth services (just) since December 2018’. Also on the back of previously agreed budget reductions, news continued to seep out of the closure of youth work facilities elsewhere in England and of lost youth worker jobs.
And where in all this is the government? By early August, on the review of the statutory guidance on Youth Services, still totally silent even though, initiated in late 2019, a report had been promised by ‘early 2020’. As for reversing the £1 billion decade of cuts to English youth services which had left some councils reporting nil or close to nil expenditure , the best that the government has had to offer have been little more than token gestures. Such as:
- A £500 million Youth Investment Fund to be spent, from last April, over five years.
- A £12 million ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’ announced in October 2019 to ‘… address urgent needs in the youth sector’ including ‘delivering extra sessions in youth clubs’. (By early March 2020 UK Youth’s £1.16 million allocation from the Fund had attracted bids totalling £15 million.)
- A Home Office £200 million Youth Endowment Fund to be spent over ten years which last month awarded grants averaging £50,000 to 130 children and young people’s organisations.
The new normal?
And now we have the pandemic, self-distancing – and weeks of locked down youth clubs and centres across the country. From the bottom up, in both the voluntary and statutory sectors, youth workers’ responses – especially digital – have been immediate and often highly creative . Once the guidelines allowed it, as in the area where I live, detached workers have been back on the streets, in the parks and in the play areas, building relationships and offering not just ‘support’ but also ‘things to do’.
By early July an Instagram ‘Involved’ project was also asking 13-25 year olds for their views on the government’s responses to the virus. Though this like all such initiatives raises questions about who in that ‘youth’ demographic is being reached, it was conceived as ‘a government consultation tool … designed by young people (and) managed by the British Youth Council’. It came, too, with a commitment to feed the results into policy-making across government departments.
Despite these efforts, in the early months of the pandemic evidence was emerging of a reducing proportion of young people using youth services. In April for example NYA estimated that by then ‘only one-third of the young people they would normally support’ were being reached. A month later 65 per cent of respondents to the Centre for Youth Impact’s new ‘national data standard survey’ – 60 per cent from small organisations – said they were in contact with less than half of the young people they had been working with before the lockdown. This, the CYI report concluded, meant that these services were no longer reaching some 300,000 young people .
In two different ways, the crisis is also threatening long-term damage to the services themselves. Firstly, with many youth workers redeployed into other community roles or furloughed, by April NYA’s prediction was that ‘one in five youth clubs and services will not reopen’. A month later responses from 462 ‘schools and youth organisations’ to a John Petchey Foundation survey revealed that 57 per cent of respondents saw their long-term survival as at ‘moderate risk’ and 12 per cent as at ‘high risk’.
Secondly, dealing with Covid-19’s wider impacts is likely to divert attention and so money from a revival of open youth work. If the pandemic can be said to have had any ‘beneficial’ effects it has been, in the starkest ways, to expose the decades of neglect of many other vital front-line services. Especially (and justifiably) high profile here are child and adult social care – in England, like the Youth Service, local authority responsibilities. Alongside – or, to express it more honestly, in competition with – services like these, how much priority will councils already facing a £5bn budget black hole  be able to give to the survival, never mind the reinstatement, of local open youth work facilities?
Questions – dilemmas – such as these only deepen as, reluctantly and murkily, the government begins to reveal its longer-term strategy for footing the Covid-19 bill. Despite election and post-election rhetoric about ‘levelling up’ across the country, a review of the local authority funding formula earlier this year threatened many councils located in those ‘red wall’ ‘left-behind’ constituencies which went Tory in the last election with cuts of £320 million a year. (More affluent Tory-controlled areas were predicted to get increases totalling £300 million).
In addition, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s assurance that ‘… we will not be responding to this crisis with what has been called austerity’, Chancellor Rishi Sunak seems to be working on the premise that a change of language need not necessarily mean much of a change in policy. Already, for example, the Treasury has asked (instructed?) all government departments to ‘identify opportunities to reprioritise and deliver savings’. In announcing a one-year pay rise for 900,000 public sector workers – fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce – not only did Sunak exclude those much-applauded nurses, junior doctors and care workers. He also warned all public employees to be ready for another ‘austerity’ tactic – a new pay freeze .
Any real rebuilding of the public sector which will require local authority funding may have been put even more out of reach by Sunak’s failure to provide additional money to fund the new pay increases. For schools, for example, this will mean that a previously announced budget increase for 2020-21 of 5.1 per cent will in real terms now be worth only 1.9 per cent . It has also been predicted that over the next four years the funding increases for disadvantaged pupils will anyway be at about two-thirds of the rate for their better-off peers.
‘The youth field’ responds
Despite the imaginative and often effective ways in which youth workers have used ‘remote’ methodologies, if this rebuilding is to happen the ‘youth field’s aspirations will clearly have to go well beyond a ‘default to digital’ approach . The references to detached work in NYA’s recent papers are not only recognition that in the current crisis these particular workers are crucial for reaching out to ‘disconnected’ young people. They are reminders, too, that in the end there is no youth work substitute for those face-to-face in-the-moment voluntary encounters – young person with worker, of course, but also young person with young person – focused on the interests and concerns the young people bring to them. Hopefully this message – extended, too, to cover all those threatened youth work buildings – is embedded in NYA’s proposals for ‘a Youth Service Guarantee to secure universal access to youth work’, a base-line standard of two full-time youth workers in every school catchment area and that youth workers be categorised as ‘key workers’.
Yet repeatedly the preoccupations of many of the current responses still, implicitly or explicitly, require that youth work be defined as ‘deficit-focused’ and preventative. This is clearest in the continuing calls from non-youth work bodies (including MPs) for youth workers to help reduce young people’s involvement in knife crime and drug-related gang activities. And though the sudden rediscovery of youth work by some senior social services’ officers is of course welcome , given the decade-long indifference (or worse) of so many of the local authorities they work for to open access provision , the youth work they have in mind seems most likely also to be strongly ‘child-saving’ oriented.
What has to be acknowledged, too, is that – albeit perhaps in more nuanced ways – this same perspective is shaping many of the youth sector’s own proposed responses to the pandemic. A UK Youth open letter to the government in March, for example, advocated ‘harnessing the power of the youth sector’ for dealing with ‘expected … increases in teenage pregnancy, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and youth homelessness’. In its recent papers NYA also points to young people’s ‘increased exposure to physical and emotional abuse and exploitation, and risks of self-harm, loneliness and safeguarding’. Youth services, it therefore argues, need to ‘be enabled, empowered and up-skilled … to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable young people…’. A follow-up paper published in June presses for additional support for young people ‘to socialise after self-isolation and to cope with increased anxiety, trauma and bereavement’. The role of youth work in ‘re-imagined schools’, in health settings and in ‘contextual safeguarding’ is also the focus of programme sessions for a conference in November which, under the title ‘Youth work in the 2020s’, NYA is organising jointly with the magazine Children and Young People Now.
Needs – with cautions
And why not, you may ask? Why not those priorities? Given the pressures on the time of a now much-reduced workforce – part- and full-time, volunteer and paid – why would youth workers not give immediate and dedicated attention to the consequences for young people of such a dramatic and demanding collapse of so many taken-for-granted features of their everyday lives?
And yet even here there are important cautions. One – as I argued in my last blog post on young people’s increasingly gloomy employment prospects - is about the risks of yet again so personalising their problems that, even with ‘support’, the message they take away is in effect: ‘In the end it’s down to you to sort this out’. Here too, therefore, a crucial starting point is to recognise that, structurally, this and also later generations are, as young people, going to be amongst the hardest hit. Intersecting with that, too, will be the implications for young people specifically of Covid-19’s now well documented, wider and disproportionately damaging impacts on BAME groups and on women. How high will priorities like these be in the youth sector’s post-pandemic youth work strategies?
The individualising problem-focused balance of many of the current demands of the ‘youth field’ and of the new advocates from other services also carries direct risks for open youth work itself – not least, in those national and local state policy-making arenas which organisations like UK Youth and NYA seek to influence. If – as – understandings of youth work as prevention are reinforced, how then will these policy-makers – already, as we have seen, under the huge financial pressure – be persuaded to focus on saving, never mind re-instating, open youth work provision with which young people engage precisely because they don’t see it and it isn’t experienced as labelling and stigmatising?
With this as the starting point, it seems vital that we make much more of the fact that, in its own right, open youth work is often the route anyway for young people to find the personal help which in the present crisis they are seen as needing more than ever. Long supported by anecdotal feedback from both young people and workers, more objective research evidence to support this view has recently also emerged. Unsurprisingly, many in the London borough where this was carried out identified ‘“crime and safety” and “mental health and wellbeing” as pressing needs facing young people’. However, based on responses from over 400 young people, parents and youth professionals, the project came to two other significant conclusions.
One: that for young people and their parents ‘the most needed provision’ was youth clubs.
And two: that ‘specialist support is not necessarily separate from youth club provision as it can be offered as part of a youth club’s programme of activities’.
Getting those messages across to policy-makers and funders in the coming months should surely be one of our top priorities.
Bernard Davies , August 2020
- All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2019, Youth Work Enquiry: Final Report
- Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘Council recommissions Youth Services mutual in £10M deal’, CYPN, 18 December
- Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘London council to invest in Youth Service to tackle knife crime’, CYPN,17 December; Joe Lepper, 2020, ‘Newham invests £4.5m in Youth Services’, CYPN, 13 February
- Joe Lepper, 2020, ‘Council scraps youth clubs in favour of detached workers’, CYPN, 12 February
- Barnardos/Redthread, 2020, Knife Crime and Violence Reduction, March 2020; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Violence and youth work cuts’, CYPN, 31 March
- House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, 2019, Serious Youth Violence, 31 July
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth Mutual EPIC CIC folds due to government cuts’, CYPN, 25 March
- Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘Youth Service guidance under scrutiny ahead of government review’, CYPN, 2 December; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Statutory guidance review: youth bodies set out the case for change’, CYPN, 2 January
- Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Youth services “suffer £1BN funding cuts in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January
- Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Javid announces £500m for youth fund”’, CYPN, 30 September
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, Youth projects to benefit from £7m boost’ CYPN, 30 January
- Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government announces £12m boost for youth sector”’, CYPN, 25 October; Nina Jacobs, 2020, ‘Youth groups benefit from £1.16M funding’, CYPN, 6 March
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth Endowment Fund announces 130 organisations granted share of £6.5M’, CYPN, 22 July
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth work services move online to protect vulnerable children’, CYPN, 17 April; Graham Duxbury, 2020, ‘We can’t Zoom our way out of the C 19 crisis’, CYPN, 27 May; IDYW, 2020, ‘Youth work responses to the pandemic: the news from Chilypep’, June, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2020/06/05/youth-work-responses-to-the-pandemic-the-news-from-chilypep/; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘#Chance4Children: Council leaders praise “commitment” of Northumber land youth workers’, CYPN, 4 August
- Instagram, 2020, ‘Involved UK’, https://www.instagram.com/involved.uk/?igshid=f64mcwwo7yvw, accessed 5 August 2020; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘#Chances4children: young people to influence Covid-19 policy using Instagram’ , CYPN, 3 July
- NYA, 2020, Out of Sight – Vulnerable Young People: Covid-19 Response, NYA, April, p 4
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘National data standard for youth work launches’, CYPN, 15 May; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘300,000 young people missing out on youth work services, analysis suggests’, CYPN, 17 June
- NYA, 2020, Out of Sight , p 4
- Trudy Kilcullen, 2020, ‘Shaping the “new normal” for youth services’, CYPN, 28 May; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Lockdown restrictions threaten youth groups’ future’, CYPN, 28 May
- Graham Duxbury, 2020
- Partick Butler, 2020, ‘Former “red wall” areas could lose millions in council funding review’, Guardian, 25 January
- Richard Partington, 2020, ‘Rishi Sunak warns public sector workers of new pay squeeze’, Guardian, 21 July
- Richard Adams, 2020, ‘Pay rise for teachers will halve school funding boost in England’, Guardian, 3 August
- Sally Weale, 2020, ‘“Levelling up” school funding policy favours wealthy pupils – study’, Guardian, 7 August
- Graham Duxbury, 2020
- NYA, 2020, Time out: Re-imagining schools – A youth work response to Covid-19, June; NYA, 2020, Re-imagining schools – A youth work response to Covid-19, July, p 4
- Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Youth workers to be trained to lead violence response in London’, CYPN, 8 June
- Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth workers’ “magic touch” can help transition back to school’, CYPN, 28 July
- See for example Peter Magill, 2011, ‘Lancashire County Council unveils £8.4m youth services cuts’, Lancashire Telegraph, 23 May
- UK Youth, 2020, ‘Harnessing the power of the youth sector in the Covid-19 crisis – an open letter to Government’, 20 March
- NYA, 2020, Out of Sight, pp 6, 9, 4
- NYA, 2020, Time Out, p 6
- CYPN Conferences, 2020, ‘Youth Work in 2020s: Policy, Practice and Opportunities’, at http://www.youthworkconference.com/home, accessed 28 July 2020
- See IDYW, 2020, ‘Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19’, July, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2020/07/20/young-people-jobs-and-the-impact-of-covid-19-bernard-davies-reflects/
- See for example Josh Halliday, 2020, ‘Average BAME Covid-19 patient decades younger than white Britons in study’, Guardian, 29 July; Alexandra Topping, 2020, ‘Covid-19 crisis could set women back decades, experts fear’ Guardian, 29 May
- Naomi Thompson and David Woodger, 2020, ‘Young people need youth clubs. A needs analysis in a London borough’, Youth and Policy, 15 May