The 2021 Budget – the realities versus the rhetoric
The good news?
In a blog piece posted at the end of September, I suggested that ‘though of course, the government won’t be using the word … for many public services another era of “austerity” looks inevitable’. I based this on predictions that in the current financial year there’d be a gap of £234 billion between public spending and government revenue, resulting in planned future spending on public services being cut by between £14 and £17 billion.
If the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget statement on 27 October is to be believed , these predictions were seriously mistaken. Rather than announcing further cuts, he promised that by 2024-25 total spending by government departments would rise by £150 million or 3 per cent a year. This he described as:
… the largest increase this century, with spending growing by 3.8% a year in real terms. As a result of this Spending Review, and contrary to speculation……there will be a real terms rise in overall spending for every single department.
From a youth work perspective, two sentences buried deep in his speech were particularly significant:
As we level up public services, we’re also levelling up communities – restoring the pride people feel in the places they call home.
To do that, we’re providing £560m for youth services, enough to fund up to 300 youth clubs across the country.
And the not-so-good news
Positive though all this seems, penetrating beyond the Chancellor’s rhetoric and his manoeuvring with the stats reveals a rather less encouraging picture.
For services overall…
Given that so many public services have to be provided by local authorities, the Chancellor’s promises need to be seen in the context of what has happened to their funding since 2010 – that for example:
Between 2010 and 2020, they lost 60p out of every £1 of Government funding for those services.
By 2020 almost half of them – 168 – were no longer receiving any Revenue Support Grant funding from central government.
According to a 2018 Local Government Association report, by 2019-20 funding for council services overall would have been reduced by further £1.3 billion, or 36 per cent.
One of the key commentators on the Budget – the Institute for Fiscal Studies – did confirm that the promised increases in public spending were ‘real and substantial’. However, it also drew some much less positive conclusions, some with significant implications for young people.These included that:
‘For many areas … spending will still be substantially less in 2024-25 than it was in 2010’.
Because of the strict limits on what councils can raise through council tax and the demands of the social care system, the next few years ‘could still see some local authorities having to cut services’.
‘Over the whole of the period since 2010 … education spending (will have increased) by less than 3% – in contrast to a 40% increase in spending on health’. As a result – presented by the Chancellor as some great achievement – it will take until 2024 to return schools’ spending on each pupil to 2010 levels.
‘Spending per student in FE and sixth form colleges will remain well below 2010 levels’.
…and for open youth work specifically
Of the funding allocated specifically for ‘youth services’, at least £500 million – that is, nearly 90 per cent – of the promised £560 million is far from the new money suggested by the Youth Minister Nigel Huddleston in his speech at the NYA ‘Youth Work Summit’ conference earlier this month. Much of it in fact is what the Director of Social Change has labelled ‘money recycling’ – the, in effect, third ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund originally announced by the Chancellor’s predecessor way back in September 2019 and over those two years left largely unspent.
Also needing to be highlighted here is that over the next three years one-third (£173 million) of the Chancellor’s promised £560 million for ‘youth services’ will be going to the National Citizens Service. When compared with the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for these services which it was reported to be getting in 2018 , the £158 million it was allocated in 2020 and £100 million in the current financial year, this represents what is being called a ‘significant reduction’ in its funding. This moreover comes at a time when, targeted still at just 16- and 17-years, it is about to launch a new ‘year-round’ offer to replace its current model. This it describes as
…participants spend(ing) two weeks away from home in small teams, guided by a dedicated, trained adult team leader. They then spend an additional 30 hours working in their communities in their own time.
However, with these past programmes in 2019 ‘reaching’ just 600,000 of the age group , NCS surely still needs to be judged alongside the up to 1.5 million 10-15-year-olds (plus some older teens) who, I suggested in my last blog post, might each week be going to a local a youth club – if such a facility still existed.
Welcome though any young people-focused funding is in the present circumstances, this also needs to be set in the context of the continuing impacts of those ten-plus years of austerity cuts. For example:£560 million, averaged out over three years at around £186 million a year, falls well short of the £1 billion cut from local authorities’ spending on Youth Services in England between 2010-11 and 2018-19  with a resultant fall in their spend per young person from an average of £136 to around £54.
The promised ‘up to 300 youth clubs in England’, ‘targeted at areas most in need’, has to be seen alongside the closure across the UK between 2010 and 2019 of more than 760 youth centres.
Nor is there anything in the Budget to help fill the huge skills gaps left by the loss in these years of more than 4,500 youth worker posts ; to cover the salaries or other revenue costs of reinstating at least some of those jobs; or to reverse the fall from nearly 1300 in to 432 between 2009-10 and 2017-18 in the number of students on approved youth and community work courses.
New evidence from the National Youth Agency
While this piece was being drafted the NYA published the initial (and appropriately cautious) findings of its youth sector ‘Census’ carried out earlier this year. Its data – ‘collected from over 2,500 organisations or sub-units of organisations from all parts of the (youth) sector and the country’ – not only provides some significant additional insights into the current state of open youth work in England. It also helps expose the limitations of the Chancellor’s offer for open youth work.
The NYA report for example reveals:
‘… a large disparity in the amount and type of provision available to young people dependent on where they live’, with ‘… twice as much provision in the most affluent areas as opposed to the most deprived’; and ‘… twice as many buildings purpose-built for, or dedicated towards, young people in affluent areas’;
‘… the units of national uniformed organisations, especially those affiliated to Scouts and Girlguiding, … made up 90% of all provision we were able to identify’;
voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations which are not affiliated to national or uniformed organisations are, conversely, more concentrated in the most deprived postcodes’;
VCS organisations ‘are disproportionately providing (and being commissioned by local authorities to provide) universal services, while local authority provision is more focussed on targeted delivery’.
‘15% of upper-tier and unitary local authorities… (said) that they offered no direct delivery…’
On funding specifically, the Census also found that, based on their reserves, only 35 per cent of ‘youth services’ said they would be able to continue to operate normally for between six months and a year.
Given these realities, it’s vital that the Chancellor’s rhetoric be uncompromisingly called out – not least his ‘recycled pledges and commitments’.
‘Building back better’ – often accompanied by a call to work towards a ‘new normal’ –seems to have become the favoured catchphrase for describing the goal of a post-pandemic recovery. Within the youth work field, for example, it was the title of a heartening Northampton University launch event in June of its new MA in Youth and Community Leadership. Reflecting some similar aspirations, the previous month the Institute for Youth Work had focussed its student-led conference on ‘adapting and building youth work’.
Often, it seems, the rebuilding required is explained mainly – even perhaps only – as a response to the pandemic and its impacts. And, from a young person’s perspective, why not, given the growing evidence of the damage this has done to their educational attainment, their job opportunities, their mental health and – of special concern to youth workers – their social relationships?
What this evidence is also showing, however, is that, far from simply being the cause of these problems, the pandemic is often exacerbating ones which, deeply embedded in structural inequalities, have long been ignored by policy-makers and all but denied in two recent reports by government advisers and MPs . All of which suggests that a genuine ‘building back better’ will need to be much more ambitious than just seeking to return to some deeply flawed version of a pre-pandemic ‘old normal’.
What, then, might such a vision look like, particularly for an open youth work practice committed to young people’s voluntary engagement and to starting from the interests and concerns of the ones who actually turn up?
Open youth work: the response so far
With youth work buildings locked down for long periods, as well as drawing on their well-honed detached and outreach skills, youth workers have often sustained and even sometimes extended their relationships with young people by developing a range of ‘remote’ ways of working .These, however, come with significant cautions. One is that, contrary to the success stories dominating much of the early feedback, later anecdotal evidence has suggested that – with, say, parents within earshot of their devices – not all young people are comfortable with ‘digital’ engagement. For many, anyway, this is no substitute for the open youth work spaces where, face-to-face, they can meet friends, relax and have some fun – and where, too, a relationship might build with an adult who comes to be trusted precisely because, beyond that space, she or he has no built-in power over them. As one young man ‘of few words’ put it:
‘I don’t go to school. My support is from the family I trust … and the youth workers at the Youth Centre’ .
An emerging cause for caution, too, is surely the growing interest of cost-conscious policy-makers in those ‘digital’ approaches. The government’s Youth Review consultation earlier this year, for example, asked respondents to comment on ‘the role digital provision (might) have in delivering services for young people?’ In outlining a new strategy for the National Citizens Service which includes proposals for a reduced budget, its Chief Executive also suggested the scheme might offer ‘…greater opportunities for … digital support on issues including mental health and resilience…’ 
An example, perhaps, of: be careful what you wish for?
‘Building back better’ – to where?
Given all that, what more specifically – and more positively – might ‘building back better’ mean for open youth work? Here we should be very clear – and hard-line – that the ‘back’ being set for youth work cannot be the appearance of the pandemic in early 2020. It needs to be located much earlier – at the very least to before 2010 and an ‘austerity’ decade whose destructive impacts, still very much with us, continue to deepen those structural inequalities which so constrain so many young people’s futures.
To justify this I draw on two quite separate pieces of evidence.
One: that in 2013 over 9 per cent of UK 10-15 year olds were using a youth club most days of week and nearly 29 per cent at least once a week. This suggests that – even before the 15-plus age group is taken into account – by 2018-19 up to 1.5 million young people might have been making regular use of a youth work facility .
The other: that for many of them this option is no longer available as, on the back of at least £400 million cuts to local authority Youth Services, over 760 youth centres have been closed and more than 4,500 youth work jobs lost . And all this without taking into account these cuts’ knock-on effects on the voluntary sector.
What follows in no way seeks to downplay the damage done by the pandemic. However, for me these starting points demonstrate that, to have any credibility, ‘building back’ for youth work will at the very least have to have much bolder aspirations. Above all these will need to press for the reinstatement to at least their pre-2010 pre-austerity levels of those open leisure spaces for which so many young people had been voting for with their feet, and of the training routes essential for ensuring these are properly staffed.
Hard though it is to take in, if other (again anecdotal) evidence is to be believed this may also now need to be backed up by efforts to raise the awareness of what a ‘local youth club’ might offer to a teenage generation with little or no lived experience of such a facility.
‘Reinstatement’ – beyond ‘the what’ to ‘the how’
How, then, might we begin to move beyond an easy-to-throw-around word like ‘reinstatement’ towards what this might look like on the ground? One immediate, albeit negative, response is: not necessarily by bringing back those local authority Youth Services too often characterised in the past by top-down bureaucratic structures and procedures.
Indeed, as damaging as their loss has been for so many young people, the huge gaps left by their disappearance now offer an opportunity to think afresh – not least about how we might create bottom-up forms of management and accountability more responsive to open youth work’s ‘on-the-wing’, process-led ways of working with young people.
In my search for how this rather rhetorical aspiration might be turned into more positive practical action, I began to explore what has come to be known as ‘the Preston model’ of local government . Describing itself as ‘solving problems from below without permission from above’, this is linked into a global ‘municipalist movement’ of ‘community-wealth building’ aimed at ‘a meaningful transfer of wealth and power back to local communities’. As a way of spending local money locally, for example, Preston council has sought to take back control of ‘outsourced’ public services – on which by 2015 councils nationally were spending £120 billion. Offering contracts requiring all staff to be paid the living wage, by 2020 Preston was recording ‘its highest employment rate and lowest levels of economic inactivity for over fifteen years…’
For achieving its primary purposes of economic regeneration and adaptation, a key focus at ground-level has been on supporting ‘… worker-owned businesses and credit unions’ and the creation of local co-ops and ‘social enterprises’. Though less clear on how far it has shifted the power dynamics within what it calls ‘community support and solidarity, including welfare and social, cultural and leisure provision’, the model’s decade-plus on-the-ground experience nonetheless suggests a range of approaches which seem relevant, too, to these areas of local state provision – including open youth work.
So – where are we now?
Though too often narrowly preoccupied with ‘preventative’ forms of ‘early intervention’ for dealing with knife crime and mental health problems, before the pandemic hit groups of MPs had begun to give open access youth work some renewed positive attention . This revived recently with, for example, comments by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on how deprived neighbourhoods have been hit hardest by local Youth Service cuts  and – in some detail – by an interim review report from an All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs looking specifically at youth work in England .
Starting by acknowledging how Covid-19 has stopped progress ‘in its tracks’, the latter particularly highlights the delays until 2022 in completing the government’s review of the statutory youth work guidance to local authorities and in releasing money from a promised Youth Investment Fund. And though again rather too preoccupied with youth work’s role in ‘enhanc(ing) young people’s skills for life and work’, the report does confront the evidence that ‘1 in 3 teenagers are not happy with services and activities in their local area’ and that ‘through Covid-recovery young people don’t feel listened to by politicians’.
The report also lays down what could be some important bottom lines for a possible future ‘reinstatement’ programme. It for example:
recognises ‘the role of youth work as a distinctive form of education’;
endorses ‘young people’s expectations for regular access to … somewhere (safe) to go, something (fun) to do with friends and to learn new skills, and (to) a (trusted) adult…’
concludes that, while ‘safe digital spaces … have provided additional support for some’, these are ‘not a substitute for face-to-face provision’;
asserts the need for ‘committed long term funding at the grass roots’ – particularly to replace youth work‘s long-time reliance on ‘short term project or programme-led funding’ with consequences which have included ‘insecurity of employment (and) limited career opportunities’;
insists that the Government has ‘a primary role … to secure sufficient youth places and activities across local youth services’, supplemented by ‘a rich heritage of voluntary sector provision’.
For starting to implement these aspirations, the APPG also has some to-the-point recommendations. That, for example:
to raise youth work’s profile at national policy-making levels, ‘consideration … be given to … a dual role jointly held at the DCMS (Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport) and the DfE (Department for Education), or for a cross-departmental committee to be chaired by the Minister’;
government statutory guidance ‘… be strengthened with a clear understanding of what is a “sufficient” level of youth services for a local area…’;
to overcome youth services’ ‘inconsistent’ funding through local authorities and the resultant ‘patchwork of youth provision across the country’, local youth partnerships be established or developed (which) incorporate young people in consultation and decision-making’;
the introduction of ‘a national strategy … to recruit, train and sustain qualified and entry-level youth workers, and adult volunteers’;
the creation of ‘new “light touch” inspection arrangements’ … to ‘help ensure the quality of youth provision, including safeguarding and equity of access for young people’.
And the money?
Clearly all this leaves us a long way from the kind of sustained ‘reinstatement’ I suggested earlier – above all because in the present circumstances it is far from clear whether or how anything like the necessary resources will be made available. Though of course the government won’t be using the word, despite a Treasury promise of an extra £170 million of government spending in the autumn budget , for many public services another era of ‘austerity’ looks inevitable. Back in July – that is, even before the recent proposals for more money for health and social care – the predicted gap between public spending and revenue for the current financial year was £234 billion, suggesting possible cuts in planned public services expenditure of between £14 and £17 billion . And all this at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urged on by powerful sections of his party, is said to be insisting on ‘fiscally disciplined’ policies which could even block measures crucial to achieving the UK’s zero carbon emission commitments .
Against this background, it seems, the most that open youth work – or indeed other forms of informal work with young people – can expect from this government are bits of what I call ‘gesture funding’. This was surely illustrated again in August by a £2 million DCMS ‘investment’, topped up by £2 million of Lottery money, in #Iwill – the youth volunteering/‘social action’ scheme which evidence indicated last year was becoming less attractive to, particularly ‘disadvantaged’, young people.
It is now four months since I last posted a piece on this blog – a gap in part explained by the time taken to update ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto for Our Times’, hopefully for republication by Youth and Policy in the autumn. Over those months – and especially since August when I posted ‘Where is youth work, where is the Youth Service…’ - significant new pressures have swirled in and around both the practice and what’s left of that local authority provision. What follows therefore seeks to address one of this blog’s original stated aims: to offer an on-going document of record by periodically updating developments like these.
Necessarily, this piece also takes into account some of the impacts of a pandemic which – far from in August being ‘mid-Covid’ as I then optimistically suggested! – will clearly be influencing youth work and indeed practice and policy responses much more widely for a long time to come.
Despite repeatedly changing and often confusing lockdowns and ‘tier’ restrictions, throughout the pandemic many youth workers have not only sustained existing relationships with young people but have reached out to develop new ones. They have done this by extending well-tried detached and outreach approaches and by adopting newer often highly creative ‘digital’ methods. The complexities and contradictions of this practice, its agonies as well as its successes, have been vividly captured by ‘day-in-the-life’ entries in some 40 youth worker diaries focused on the impacts of the pandemic on young people, workers and their organisations. Prompted and analysed by a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ group of practitioners and academics, some of the initial findings have now been published in four Youth and Policy articles . The diaries themselves are being lodged in Sussex University’s Mass Observation archive of materials which record ‘ordinary’ citizens’ everyday lives dating back to the 1930s.
Clearly at a time of so much stress for young people , the ‘remote’ youth work interventions have often been particularly valued. However, given that for many of them ‘the youth sector may be the only place where they will find a trusted adult to support them’, one at least implicit message emerging from the diaries is that ultimately the digital can’t be a substitute for those face-to-face meetings – young person with young person, young person with youth worker – which so define open youth work practice. As one young man ‘of few words’ put it:
‘I don’t go to school. My support is from the family I trust … and the youth workers at the Youth Centre’ 
By the end of January, as well as ‘Covid-secure’ outdoor sessions, government guidelines were again allowing one-to-one and small group indoor meetings with ‘vulnerable’ young people and from mid-May, for under 18’s generally, both indoors and outdoors sessions without limits on group size. However, the National Youth Agency (NYA) was still recommending that providers observe the rules on social distancing, hygiene and face coverings in order to reduce the risk of community transmission .
Inevitably these same pandemic restrictions have had significant impacts on the educational institutions running qualifying youth work courses. Not only have class teaching and tutorials often had to be provided remotely. The body which validates youth work qualifications in England, the NYA’s Education and Training Sub-committee (ETS), re-confirmed for the January lockdown that required supervised and assessed practice – normally 800 hours for undergraduate students and 400 hours for postgraduates – could be reduced to a minimum of 75 per cent. Exceptions were also being allowed for individual students based on other evidence that they could meet ‘threshold standards for professional recognition’ or by their undertaking additional practice hours at a later date .
In response to these kinds of enforced changes, in February the course tutors’ Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth and Community Work (PALYCW), launched a ‘research enquiry’. Focuses included key Covid-related issues and challenges, howlecturers are addressing theseand what the future might look like foryouth and community work training programmes .
As in many other policy areas, the government’s support for the youth work field’s responses to the pandemic has been limited at best and often contradictory. Just as it was classifying youth workers as ‘key/critical workers’, it was also ‘pausing’ its review of the guidance to local authorities on their statutory duty to provide a Youth Service – last updated in 2012. By requiring them to make this provision only ‘so far as reasonably practicable’, in the ‘austerity’ decade after 2010 councils in England and Wales were left free to cut their Youth Service budgets by £1 billion (73 per cent) – including in one year alone (2019-20) by six per cent. As a result over 760 youth centres were closed, over 4,500 youth work jobs lost and an estimated 800,000 young people deprived of a local youth facility.
Even a government promise of a £500 million Youth Investment Fund (YIF) turned out to be largely illusory. First announced in September 2019 and later made an election manifesto commitment, the money – to be spent over five years – was initially due to be released in April 2020. As well as ensuring an ‘investment in the workforce’, it was to be used to ‘…help build 60 new youth centres across the country, refurbish around 360 existing youth facilities, and provide over 100 mobile facilities for harder to reach areas…’ Though absent from the original and also subsequent government statements, in February Baroness Barran, the ‘youth minister’, suddenly insisted that one of the Fund’s key requirement had always been to promote ‘innovation’ – an entirely meaningless concept for a practice defined in part by a commitment, in the here-and-now, to be responsive to the young people who actually turn up and to what they want and need from the encounter.
Not only does the £500 million supposedly on offer clearly fall well short of filling the huge gaps left by all those post-2010 budget cuts. By January, only £30 million of it had been allocated – and that only for capital expenditure and not for spending till 2021-22: a two-and-a-half year wait which, as NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton pointed out, adds up to ‘a huge part of a young person’s life’. Within a month it emerged anyway that the Treasury had taken back the remaining money so that, as part of its pre-budget three-year spending review, its use could be considered in relation to wider priorities for ‘crisis services’.
Also promised as part of the Chancellor’s November 2020 Spending Review was a £100 million fund for ‘youth facilities’ including delivery of a National Citizen Service (NCS) intended only at 16- and 17-year olds; and a £16 million Youth Covid-19 Support Fund for voluntary organisations which, though announced as immediately on offer, was still unspent four months later .
… another ‘youth review’…
On the back of the Treasury’s withdrawal of the YIF, the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) announced a review of ‘youth services’ in order, it said, to ‘set policy direction for the out of-school agenda’. This was carried out in late February and early March using digital questionnaire ‘consultations’ with young people and providers. .Though the review briefing paper recognised ‘the value of open access youth services’ and ‘the distinct role of youth work’, Baroness Barran also made clear that, as ‘choices will have to be made’ because ‘the cheque can’t be unlimited’, this provision would be competing for whatever money was finally made available for ‘broader positive activities for young people’. The latter were explained as again including NCS as well as targeted and residential services and arts and sports programmes .
Moreover, though clearly relevant in the current pandemic moment, the DCMS set out the two future core aims for ‘youth support’ as (i) developing skills for life and work, and (iisupporting mental and physical wellbeing (bold in the original). These again suggested that little attention was being paid to youth work’s openness to what the young people themselves might want and need to take away from it.
Nor was the review paper more encouraging on how the work is to be evaluated. With ‘… ensuring outcomes and metrics’ still the priorities, rather than emphasising any individual or group’s ‘distance travelled’, providers will be expected still to address such questions as ‘How can we better capture the long-term impact of youth provision?’ and ‘How can we better capture the preventative value of early intervention youth provision?’ The review also promised ‘a particular focus on addressing regional differences in opportunities for young people’ – to be understood, surely, as code for the government’s ‘levelling up’ promises to those ‘red line’ constituencies which went Tory for the first time in December 2019 .
… and a new ‘youth survey’.
Three months after the DCMS review the Children’s Commissioner for England announced a ‘Big Ask’ survey of 4–17 year olds in England. With accessible’ versions for different age groups and one specifically for care leavers, this is seeking respondents’ views on ‘the things that matter to you’, ‘what your life is like’, ‘what you want in the future’ and ‘what you see as holding you back’. Questions for the 13-17 age group include ones on friendships, experiences on line, personal safety, access to somewhere to have fun, choice of things to do locally, health – mental and physical, and a family’s ‘ability to buy things we need’.
The Commissioner has promised that the survey results will be used ‘to tell the people who run the country or your local area what you think needs to change to make your life better’ .
Meanwhile, out there in the field …
While all this has been going on, evidence has been accumulating of the struggle many youth work projects and groups are having to sustain their work – or even just to survive. With high street shops closed and many fundraising events cancelled, eight months into the pandemic even a major organisation like the YMCA was reporting a deficit of £5 million . By November, Leigh Middleton was talking about smaller grassroots projects with much less infrastructure capacity facing ‘an unprecedented funding crisis’. Later NYA research indicated that one in four youth charities were ‘running on empty’  – a view underpinned in a very grounded way in February when one youth work manager publicly reflected on his organisation’s imminent ‘redundancy consultation process’ .
Other evidence of these pressures has also been emerging:
An open letter to ministers in December from the Back Youth Alliance – a coalition of ten national youth organisations including government-favoured ones such as NCS and Step Up to Serve – described may of their services as on the brink of collapse’ .
A UK Youth report in January revealed that 58 per cent of over 1700 youth organisations surveyed were operating at a reduced level; a further 20 per cent were closed temporarily or preparing to close permanently; two-thirds with incomes under £250,000 were at risk of closure; and that for 31 per cent that was a possibility within six months .
Also in January, a London Youth report concluded that a third of its 650 members were struggling to operate, prompting its chief executive to point to ‘… a real risk that they will go under at a time when our young people need them more than ever’ .
Towards a more ambitious (state?) vision for youth work?
One albeit usually implicit assumption again in evidence over this period was that philanthropic fund-raising could fill these serious and often ongoing budget gaps. This was illustrated by a Guardian/Observer Christmas appeal which raised £1.4 million for three organisations including UK Youth and an £8 million Youth Recovery Fund launched in March by the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust to ensure that youth centres could stay open 
Welcome though such money is of course, it can nonetheless too easily hide two crucial realities: that adequate services for any (young) person who chooses or needs to use them should be available as a citizen’s right; and that for meeting that commitment a sufficient and guaranteed contribution from the state – national and local – is essential.
If the NYA’s Ten Year Vision for Youth Work 2020-203 published last November is to have any chance of being realised, it will certainly need to be underpinned by these kinds of bottom-lines . Its proposals for example include:
‘A clear, statutory basis … to ensure a base-level of open-access youth services.
‘… a target within in each secondary school catchment area of two full-time equivalent professional, JNC qualified youth workers and a team of at least four youth support workers alongside trained volunteers’.
‘… additional provision of detached and outreach youth work, digitised youth work and transport where needed to access opportunities’.
‘… young people … (to) be involved to co-design and develop services in their locality.
‘A realignment of £1.2bn annual funding (adjusted for inflation) from government ring-fenced for open-access youth services …
‘… a major capital building programme…’
As well as taking on these crucial ‘what’ questions’, the NYA Vision also includes proposals for dealing with some equally tricky ‘how’ issues. It for example recommends:
‘… a diverse range of providers as a flourishing eco-system of community-based youth work’.
‘Local youth partnerships to bring together the public, private, voluntary and community sector to make the most effective use of all available funding and assets’.
‘Increased levels of democratic engagement and young people actively involved in community leadership roles and decision-making across services and organisations’.
Though these proposals certainly have much to recommend them, a post-Covid vision for state-sponsored open youth work will also require that some wider unexplored process questions are addressed. Such as:
Will the procedures for allocating funding and deciding where staff and buildings are best located still have embedded within them those neo-liberal forms of competitive tendering and commissioning which have been so damaging for collaborative ‘community-based eco-systems’ and ‘democratic engagement’?
Can these arrangements avoid the inward-looking bureaucratic mind-set which, within some voluntary organisations now as well as local state providers, too often in the past have diverted youth work’s responsiveness to the young people’s self-chosen priorities?
Indeed, to echo questions I raised in a previous post , can existing ‘youth voice’ assumptions, approaches and arrangements ensure that the proposed inputs by young people into the policy-making processes – local and national – get serious attention and hard responses?
Rather than still relying on those depersonalised forms of ‘metrics’ and ‘measurement’, will more youth work-appropriate – for example ‘narrative’ – methods of evaluation be developed and implemented?
See for example Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Under-25s hardest hit by Covid-19job loss, ONS figures show’, CYPN, 23 February; Joe Lepper, 2021, One on three Black young people out of work amid Covid-19 pandemic, research reveals’, CYPN, 14 April; denis Campbell, 2021, ‘Extent of mental health crisis in England at “terrifying” level’, Guardian, 9 April.
UK Youth, 2020, ‘Harnessing the power of the youth sector in the Covid-19 crisis: an open letter to government’, 20 March
Amelia Hill, 2021, ‘Generation Z and Covid; “I’m 100% more politicised’, Guardian, 3 January; Rob Merrick, 2021, ‘Hundreds of millions of pounds of promised government cashfor “collapsing” youth services shelved’, Guardian, 30 January
In all the years I’ve been tracking the development of ‘youth volunteering’ in the UK  I’d somehow managed to miss one not insignificant fact: that the life of Step Up to Serve, the organisation which has taken a lead role in its promotion, was ‘time-limited’ to the end of 2020. Launched by the Prince of Wales with cross-party support  in November 2013, it was the response to an ‘independent review’ initiated the previous year by Prime Minister David Cameron. Central throughout to achieving its ambitious goal of ‘encourag(ing) 1.7 million more young people aged 10 to 20 to make helping others a habit for life’ has been its co-ordination of ‘#iwill’ – a campaign also referred to as a ‘movement’. With 400 young people now representing it as ‘Ambassadors and Champions’, (and to date £100 million of ‘investment’), #iwill has been ‘convening and connecting, communicating with and challenging’ over 1,000 ‘pledge partners’ across the UK. As a result, it now claims to have ‘laid the foundations to transform the role and perception of children and young people within society’.
In preparation for its closure, last October Step Up to Serve invited ‘expressions of interest’ from organisations which could show that they shared #iwill’s values and had the necessary ‘expertise and resources’ to ensure its continuation until the end of 2025.
Again – some recent pre-history
As always of course, from at least the 1960s all this has its own history, much of it underpinned by strong state interest and indeed endorsement. In 2009, for example, Gordon Brown suggested when he was Prime Minister that community service might be made compulsory for all under-19 year olds. Though New Labour backed off from this proposal – a response which at least implicitly was endorsed at the time by the young people who described their experience of compulsory participation in rural conservation projects as ‘slave labour’ and ‘grunt work’ – its commitment to youth volunteering remained strong. Having already (in 2006) supported the creation of V’ – later renamed ‘vinspired’ – whose income at its peak reached £50 million, shortly before it lost power in 2010 the Labour government also allocated £6 million to five local authorities for 14-16 year olds to carry out 50 hours of ‘community work’.
In 2016-17 pressure built again to introduce full-time volunteering – defined as, for 16-25 year olds, more than 16 hours a week or more, for 6 months or more. However, in the context of ‘young people from the poorest backgrounds tend(ing) to be the least likely to access structured social action opportunities’, another ‘independent’ review published in January 2018 concluded that ‘the evidence base relating to full-time social action is not strong enough at present to recommend legislative change to widen access’. It did, however, propose that the National Citizens Service (NCS) act as ‘broker and quality assurance body’ for signposting full-time opportunities for young people – a proposal which the Conservative government rejected.
State interest in ‘paid volunteering’ for young people has never, however, quite gone away. It appeared again, for example, last September in the Levelling up our communities report which Boris Johnson commissioned and is said to have received positively. This recommended ‘a structured programme’ to ‘subsidise under-employed young people to work on a range of social and environmental projects’ so that they could ‘serve their local areas in meaningful roles that build their skills and their sense of public duty’. The report also suggested that the programme be linked to the government’s Kickstart scheme for supporting the wages of 350,000 young people mainly in the private sector.
Throughout an austerity decade of, in real terms, nearly £1 billion of cuts to local authority Youth Services, other forms of youth volunteering – by now, in an entirely taken-for-granted way, relabelled ‘youth social action’ – continued to attract substantial amounts of state money, much of it routed through two ‘youth social action funds’ managed by a Cabinet Office ‘Centre for Social Action’. This included a total of £8 million in October 2013 so that ‘every young person can easily get involved and feel valued … and ultimately benefit their community’ (Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd); £11 million in February 2014; and £1.3 million in July 2015 specifically to ‘tackle the challenges facing disadvantaged young people and help embed social action in young people’s lives’ (Youth Minister Rob Wilson).
An initial two-year funding of £10 million was also provided through a Youth United Uniformed Youth Action Fund, again with a focus on ‘deprived areas’. This aimed to attract 2,700 new volunteers to 400 new uniformed youth groups, increase the number of 10-17 year olds ‘engaged in high quality social action’ and ‘support … access for the growing number of NCS graduates aged 16-20 to engage in high quality social action and leadership opportunities’. By mid-2016, one of the organisations targeted, the Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigade, was reporting a 65 per cent increase in leaders and volunteers.
Sports organisations, too, got in on the act. In 2016, for example, Sport England worked with vinspired to use ‘sport and physical activity to engage young people in volunteering’. The following year, this time in partnership with the #iwill campaign and again with ‘areas of high deprivation’ a priority, it launched a £3 million fund to increase volunteering opportunities for 10-20 year olds One of the two volunteering schemes created by Boris Johnson in 2014 when he was Mayor of London aimed to offer work and training for unemployed 16-18 year olds in sporting as well as cultural events. (The other scheme focused on getting 16-18 year olds still in full-time education to commit to 16 hours of volunteering in their local areas.)
With Vinspired folding at the end of 2018, Step Up to Serve has remained a primary conduit for state funding into these kinds of programmes. Evaluated each year since 2014 by the market research organisation Ipsos MORI, the latest Summary Report reveals that young people’s overall participation between 2015 and 2019 fell from 59 to 53 per cent. Their involvement also dropped, from 42 to 36 per cent, in what is called ‘meaningful’ social action – defined as
… those who have participated at least every few months over the last 12 months … or been involved in a one-off activity lasting more than a day; and (who) recognise that their activities had some benefit for both themselves and others.
And though between 2018 and 2019 the participation gap between the most and the least affluent closed slightly (from 14 to 12 percentage points), it remained significant, with 41 per cent of participants defined as ‘ABC1’ and 29 per cent as ‘C2DEs’. More young people in 2019 than in the two previous years also said there were ‘few/no opportunities in my area’ (19 per cent compared with 12 per cent in 2018 and only 4 per cent in 2017).
Gaining – and achieving – what?
According to the 2019 report, only 50 per cent of all respondents believed that the wider public take their participation in social action seriously, with the proportion feeling their efforts had been recognised falling from 60 to 54 per cent between 2016 and 2018. Despite this, eighty eight per cent said they ‘cared about making the world a better place’ and 74 per cent felt ‘they could make a difference’. The report also concluded that ‘this sense of agency in relation to their community and the world is associated with higher levels of young people’s participation in meaningful social action’.
Though not apparently the majority, many young people also recognised a range of personal gains: ‘increased self-confidence/self-esteem’ (mentioned by 44 per cent); ‘improved communication skills’ (42 per cent); improvements in ‘how you work as part of a team’ (38 per cent); and ‘improved social skills (31 per cent). Re-interpreted as ‘character development’, The Challenge’, one of the organisations which has been central to the delivery of NCS, has pointed to outcomes like these as of particular importance for helping NEET young people get ‘back on track’.
Framed by the dominant neo-liberal ideas of the period – a 2017 report for example argued that ‘a national full-time volunteering programme … could boost the UK economy by up to £199m a year – over the years youth volunteering advocates have developed a broad interpretation of ‘making the world a better place’. In 2009 for example an evaluation of vinspired pointed to how it was enabling young people ‘to access new opportunities linked to education, training or employment’. Boris Johnson expressed similar aspirations when he launched his two London schemes, as did the Chief Executive of the sports charity Street Games in 2016 when she credited volunteering experience with acquainting young people ‘with the very skills that will set them up to succeed in the workplace’. As well as at times being considered as a ‘possible intervention’ with young offenders and as a way of combating Muslim ‘radicalisation’, the volunteering element of NCS has been promoted as providing young people with valuable ‘work experience’ and as a ‘sought-after addition to any CV’ including for applications to university.
Getting involved – in what?
The report identifies ‘the most common motivating factors’ for young people’s volunteering as ‘I could do it with my friends’ and ‘If I could do it at school, college, university or work’. Underpinning these motivations, too, would seem to be another of its findings: that 52 per cent of participants (up from 30 per cent in 2018) said ‘they were specifically asked … by a teacher or member of school staff’.
Clearly for many young people these may be the only and perhaps the most realistic routes to getting started – even perhaps to beginning to think of themselves as ‘a volunteer’. Within them, however, are significant built-in constraints, some ideological, on how ‘social action’ is understood and implemented in the Step Up to Serve context – and indeed beyond. When in 2014 Children and Young People Now called the term ‘the apparent buzzword of the moment’, Charlotte Hill – just appointed Step Up to Serve’s chief executive – insisted that it had been embedded in youth work for more than a hundred years and was ‘what people do’, According to the 2019 Ipsos MORI report, what this means for Step Up to Serve practice is ‘… a wide range of activities that help other people or the environment, such as fundraising, campaigning, tutoring/mentoring and giving time to charity’.
Despite fewer young people overall being involved, the 2019 report does identify an increase in ‘campaigning/raising awareness’ – from 8 per cent in 2018 and 2017 to 12 per cent in 2019. This, however, emerges as a minority activity alongside ‘fundraising or a sponsored event’ activities in which 43 per cent young people took part in 2015-2018 and 39 per cent in 2019. Moreover, explicitly drawing on ‘a classification of social action activities used by Step Up To Serve’, an 2016 evaluation of the Uniformed Youth Social Section Fund explained that ‘campaigning activities primarily relate to Remembrance Day activities, such as ‘parades’ and that ‘in the social action context (this) is always non-political’.
For a heavily state-funded organisation like Step Up to Serve this, of course, may well be an unavoidable stance. Such wholly and explicitly de-politicised versions of social action, however, are not only in sharp conflict with the radical notion adopted by ‘liberation’ groups in the 1970s and 1980s of ‘a collective, agitational and politicised practice undertaken by and for communities seeking to change their circumstances’. Particularly given the heavy reliance on teachers to prompt young people’s participation, the Step Up to Serve interpretation also surely excludes activist approaches currently favoured by many young people such as Greta Thunberg-style school strikes for raising the environmental issues frequently mentioned in Step Up to Serve papers and Black Lives Matter demonstrations against the ‘racial injustice’ which it lists as another current’ challenge’.
Beyond Step Up to Serve
After getting ‘overwhelming feedback’ from organisations and young people that they want #iwill to continue, Step Up to Serve used its ‘expressions of interest’ paper to set out detailed ‘transitioning’ plans for its work. One repeated emphasis in this is on ‘empowering’ young people – ‘particularly those from low-income backgrounds’. This is needed, it says, both because their ‘views are still not adequately represented when decisions are made’ and because they ‘are not simply the leaders of tomorrow … (but) have the energy, talent and ideas to make a positive difference today’. Recognising the importance of these insights, James Cathcart, the director of Youth Voices Heard, a ‘Youth Participation Support Service’ and advocate for moving ‘from #iwill to #wewill’, points out that ‘the consequences of meaningful power-sharing will be challenging and change-making (otherwise what’s the point)?’ Indeed, for this to become real I can only reiterate what I suggested in my last blog piece on ‘youth voice’ – that a range of critical tests will need to be applied if, here too, such aspirations are to go beyond the safe and the taken-for-granted.
Step Up to Serve locates this focus on young people’s role and impacts within a ‘set of challenges’ currently facing our society which it calls ‘unprecedented’. As well as ‘the climate emergency’ and ‘racial injustice’, these include ‘poverty, ‘worsening mental health and wellbeing’ and ‘social and economic inequalities’. In recognising that they have been ‘further exacerbated’ by the pandemic, it at least by implication acknowledges that they are not new. What it does not do, however, is make explicit how deeply embedded they are in the power structures of our society which, to be addressed, will require precisely those ‘political’ versions of social action which Step Up to Serve sidelines. Any consideration of these structures is absent, too, from the paper’s discussion of ‘collective action’ for which it sets the important but still limited goals of ‘… connecting organisations, policy-makers and young people’ in order to seek ‘meaningful change’ to ‘culture, policy and practice’.
For achieving the transition from Step Up to Serve, key proposed #iwill routes for interested organisations are via a new ‘Power of Youth Charter’ – ‘a framework to empower more young people to make a positive difference’; a ‘Power of Youth Index’ to enable organisations to assess how they are doing this ‘by receive(ing) scores to benchmark themselves to others within their sector’; and full use of the #iwill Ambassadors and Champions. To ensure all this is sustained up to 2025, organisations are being sought to take on the roles of ‘lead partner’ hosting an #iwill Co-ordination Hub, including strategy development; ‘Ambassadors and Champions Network Delivery Partner’; and ‘Evidence and Insights Partner’ to include designing and delivering the Power of Youth Index.
Clearly such arrangements over time promise some essential and potentially valuable operational pay-offs. However, given the pandemic’s extra-‘exacerbated’ impacts on young people, I can’t avoid again ending with some ‘unpacking’-type questions. Such as:
Is Step Up to Serve’s non- – indeed anti- -political conception of social action good enough to meet the challenges of whatever ‘new normal’ for young people may emerge?
If not, what can and should social action look like, not least under a government which has begun to set class against racial and gender inequalities and disempowerment?
What can and would the processes – including importantly ones that are bottom-up – look like for making any of that real?
Where in any of that can and should open youth work processes fit – processes which seek to start from and respond to the starting points of the young people who actually engage; and which, in places and at times over that 100-year history mentioned so proudly by Charlotte Hill, have tried to stay supportive even when these point to ‘political’ forms of ‘social action’?
Questions like these do not, of course, have straightforward ‘answers’. But a more expansive debate within the youth volunteering/social action field around these kinds of challenges, too, would surely be revealing – and very welcome.
Ilana Tyler-Rubinstein, Fiona Vallance, Olivia Michelmore and Julia Pye, 2016, Evaluation of the Unformed Youth Social Action Fund 1: Final Report, Ipsos Mori, October 2016, pp 5, 46 Campaigning in the social action context is always non-political.(46)
Tony Taylor, Paula Connaughton, Tania de St Croix, Bernard Davies and Pauline Grace, 2018, ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Character and Purpose of English Youth Work and Beyond’, in Pam Aldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards and Dana Fusco, The Sage Handbook of Youth Work Practice, Sage, pp 90-1
James Cathcart, 2020, ‘The power of youth, from silent service to youth voice leadership’, CYPN, 18 February
Youth voice: questioning the possibilities – and constraints
In a previous blog post  I referred briefly to the Instagram website ‘Involved’ – ‘a government consultation tool for young people designed by young people’, offered as ‘the first stop for young people to be engaged, informed, and empowered to speak up and out’. Managed by the British Youth Council (BYC) – by-line: ‘We empower young people across the UK to have a say and be heard’ – the site invites inputs into government policy-making via ‘opinion polls and cross-government consultations on the latest hot topics’. By early November it had over 1150 followers and had fed back to ministers on youth violence, volunteering and ‘youth services’.
As I seem to keep repeating in these posts – and why not? Why shouldn’t young people be able to tell those in power what they think, using technologies they’re most familiar with? Why mightn’t that be especially useful and needed at a time when the pandemic’s impacts on their generation are proving so damaging, directly and indirectly, long-term as well as immediately?
Nonetheless, some critical digging does seem in order, not least because of the complexities and contradictions built into a practice which, to be effective, needs to challenge some of our society’s entrenched power balances. What follows starts by outlining government efforts since the late-1990s to tap into what already in 2012 I felt the need to label ‘the fashionable catchphrase ‘youth voice’. It then considers the challenges of converting the ‘youth voice’ aspirations into practice both in the informal self-chosen settings of open youth work and via more formal structures. Finally, in search of the boundaries embedded within them, it interrogates three of the terms most frequently used to describe and indeed explain this practice – ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’.
The emergence of ‘Youth voice’ A youth work pre-history
Youth work has laid claim to such a practice from its earliest days. In 1890, for example, girls’ club ‘pioneer’ Maud Stanley described a girls’ committee as ‘a very important element in a girls’ club’. By 1908 Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, writing about boys’ club work, were even contemplating the possibility of ‘… self-government by the members…’  Once it got involved, the state continued to endorse such goals – for example in the government circulars which created the Service of Youth in 1939/1940 and in the key review reports of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 
Questions about how far these aspirations were being turned into action were always around, however, and in 1991 a report on the management of the Youth Service in England brought them to the surface. Describing ‘the participation of young people in the planning process … a neglected aspect’ of the Service’s work, this concluded that ‘few LEAs seem to have made much progress in achieving it’.
New Labour ‘modernisation’
Though drawing little on traditional forms of open youth work, throughout its years in office New Labour looked for ways of filling this gap. In 2000, for example, it created the UK Youth Parliament which today – by-line: ‘Making Our Mark’ – aims to ‘provide opportunities for 11-18 year olds to use their elected voice to bring about social change through meaningful representation and campaigning’. In this period, too, Labour supported the efforts of a consortium of youth organisations to develop a Youth Bank and the launch of the Local Government Association and NYA’s ‘Hear by Right’ campaign for opening up local government decision-making to young people.
By 2005-06, shaped by its Youth Matters papers, Labour’s youth policies were referring frequently to the voice of young people. The second of these included proposals for a Youth Opportunity and a Youth Capital Fund – initiatives which, though not problem-free, were more materially grounded than many in the past. By giving young people a say in how an initial two-year ringfenced funding of £150 million was to be spent on local youth facilities, they adopted an approach which a 2008 National Foundation for Educational Research report judged ‘a success’, with ‘nearly all local authorities consider(ing) that the young people had done a good job in administering the Funds’.
Post-2010: the rhetoric – and the realities
In its own (also much-hyped but now largely forgotten) youth policy paper, Positive for Youth, published in 2011, the Coalition government explicitly recognised young people’s ‘right to have their views taken into account in all decisions that affect their lives’. In a sub-section headed ‘Promoting youth voice’, it pledged itself to ‘… empowering young people … to inspect and report on local services and … help “youth proof” government policy’. At a ‘youth summit’ in March 2011, the children and youth minister Tim Loughton announced that this would be done by working with the Youth Parliament, BYC and the (now defunct) National Council of Voluntary Youth Services to ‘establish a national scrutiny group of representative young people’.
The Youth Parliament and BYC continued to provide important routes for the government’s efforts to fulfil these kinds of commitment. Positive for Youth, for example promised to …protect the distinct identity of the UK Youth Parliament reflecting its unique role in mirroring the UK’s national democratic processes, contribution to democratic civic engagement and relationship with Parliament itself. For the period 2011-13 BYC was allocated £850,000 of government money; continuation of this funding was confirmed in 2016; and in March 2019 it was awarded a one-year £170,000 contract to lead in the creation of ‘a Youth Steering Group’, ‘a Young Inspectors Group’ and ‘Digital Youth engagement’. With the latter presumably implemented through the Instagram ‘Involved’ website, in August the current youth minister, Baroness Barran, reported that, in response to the pandemic, she had met with the Youth Steering Group to discuss financial support for young people. She also reiterated the government’s wider ‘youth voice’ commitments to continue ‘… listening carefully to young people’, to ‘want(ing) the next generation to be actively at the heart of our decision-making’, and (my emphasis added!), to ‘allow them to contribute to “building back” better’.
This on-going rhetoric on the role of ‘youth voice’ has, however, to be seen in the context of the harder realities of some major youth policies over this decade and how they have been developed and implemented:
Immediately it came to power in 2010 – without consultation, least of all with young people – the government cut the Youth Capital Fund’s budget by half. 
Against the background of huge reductions in the Treasury’s financial support for local authorities, it subsequently removed the ringfencing of the Youth Capital and the Youth Opportunity Funds, leading within months to both programmes being wound up. 
Despite young people’s opposition, in 2013 Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that responsibility for youth policy be moved out of his department.
More widely – and again without any consultation – Gove also pushed through radical reforms of the content and format of the GCSE and A level examinations which have had such stressful consequences for so many young people. 
And then in August this year came the exam-grading fiasco …
‘Youth voice’, it seems, is fine – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the dominant ideological and political priorities determining government policies.
Converting ‘voice’ into practice
From the formal…
The Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report quoted earlier pointed to one of the challenges which governments face anyway when they set out to turn their often ambitious-sounding ‘youth voice’ intentions into action:
On the one hand, it (participation) is a process by which the views of young people are gathered and allowed to exert some influence…; on the other, it is a learning experience for the individuals involved … These two aspects are usually in harmony but can sometimes be in conflict. For example, there may be a tension between seeking representatives who will be the most able advocates for young people and representatives for whom the learning experience would be most beneficial.
This dilemma runs alongside – indeed intersects with – another: the assumption often built into conceptions of ‘participation’ that the (perhaps only) way to achieve it is via representative structures relying on some form of electoral process. In some situations these have, of course, proved valuable. Yet the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte Report also concluded that as ‘formal structures of this kind have rarely proved effective in involving young people in strategic planning’ ‘the emphasis should be on efforts to introduce more informal methods’.The case study below seeks to illustrate the challenges posed by too taken-for-granted a resort to more ‘formal structures’.
‘Participation’ through formal structures: a cautionary tale?
Some years ago, three long-time ‘users’ were co-opted as trustees onto a youth organisation’s Board. All were in their mid- to late teens and clearly committed to the organisation. Having expressed an interest in the role, they had particularly recommended themselves for it by their willingness in groups and to the workers they knew to speak their minds about what they thought the organisation was and wasn’t doing, or not doing as well as it should.
The ‘milieu’ of the Board meetings was for them, however, a new one. Behaviour there was shaped not only by its formal procedures but also by more informal and so largely unarticulated ‘rules’ developed over many years. For any new arriva into this setting, never mind someone for whom a ‘Board meeting’ might be an entirely new experience, finding and expressing their ‘voice’ could thus be far from straightforward.
Taking lessons from this false start, the organisation subsequently offered both individual and group induction sessions and on-going support to any young person showing an interest in becoming a trustee
Today, it is true, the formalised ways in which the ‘youth voice’ can express itself have become more diverse and flexible, particularly with the adoption of social media forms of communication and organising. Nonetheless, in the current ‘youth voice’ context, some questions on its ‘how’ and its ‘why’ still seem worth considering – such as:
Who – which sections or segments of the youth population – are managing to get their voice included in these outlets and in particular in ones which get the attention of policy-makers, the media and other powerful opinion-shapers?
When it does manage to penetrate those arenas, what then happens to what that ‘voice’ is communicating? How able – how well prepared and positioned – are those young people to get it converted into actions which genuinely respond to what they’re asking for?
Even when (if) such penetration does occur, in light of the government rhetoric-vs-realities examples quoted above, how influential will such ‘youth-proofing’ be on the policy-making processes which most affect them when this hits the barriers of entrenched government financial, political and other priorities?
to the informal
So what, then, about those more informal approaches and responses advocated by the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report? Here, even when the state is ‘the provider’, open youth work may have some relevant messages to offer. After all, one of the defining features of the settings in which this takes place is that, because young people choose to engage (or not), they bring to these, and retain within them, a significant degree of power. Indeed, I would suggest, for youth workers the unavoidable question is not whether but how ‘participation’ should happen and to what ends.
In the 2015 update of my youth work ‘manifesto’, for example, I proposed that for youth workers:… such (participation) goals are not incidental luxuries – the icing on the cake – while implementing them is often not achieved through committees or other formal machinery. Rather, they are pursued through the workers’ everyday routine exchanges with the young people who turn up; exchanges whose built-in power balances mean that, from day one and throughout, they have to be shaped by ‘participatory’ principles and the mutuality of respect and influence which these assume. 
Even for youth workers, however, this still raises further questions. Such as, via those self-chosen youth work relationships, how to tap into and then support young people’s more organised and especially collective use of that power? And beyond that, too – and perhaps even more challenging: how to bring together and mobilise less formalised, bottom-up expressions of the ‘youth voice’ in settings which are not open access, which may be (even) more bureaucratic, and where the power balances are pre-set in more rigid and excluding ways? 
Setting boundaries for ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’
Finally, it seems relevant here, too, to unpick three of the terms used most often to describe this practice in order to identify the boundaries which, again usually unarticulated, lurk within them.
Here, perhaps, the boundary is the most upfront: that the views/preferences/choices of those most likely to be affected by a decision or action will be gathered before this is taken or implemented. Such a process is of course often both essential and helpful. In itself, however, it gives no guarantee that those being consulted will have any control over, or even significant influence on, a final decision or its implementation. Indeed, given that the views/preferences/choices of those consulted may differ or even be in conflict, if ‘consultation’ is all that’s on offer then the final decision-makers may end up with considerable room for manoeuvre on, and even increased power over, what to do.
Here, too, the process is boundaried, though in ways which may only get identified by posing the question: participation in what? To this, surely, the most realistic answer is usually: in a setting which already exists and so has aims, structure and procedures which, it is assumed, any new ‘participant’ will accept and substantially work within. Initially at least, therefore, the effectiveness and impacts of any new ‘voices’ may depend on their willingness and ability to adapt to the setting’s given conditions and ways of operating – an expectation which (as also illustrated by the case study above) could be a tough ask of a young person enteringadult-shaped and adult-dominated settings.
Probably the most ambitious of the aims set for ‘youth voice’ is to ‘empower’ young people – at least within youth settings as such though often it is suggested also within society’s wider institutions. Here, as colleagues and I have argued previously, it is important first to highlight how a notion with radical origins has been appropriated to serve much more conforming purposes:
Empowerment was introduced into the English vocabulary of youth and community work by activists involved in the social movements of the 1970’s. Explicitly it rejected the idea that the more powerful could empower the less powerful; that the youth worker could empower young people. Whilst the youth worker could seek to facilitate, the acid test was whether young people, typically in those days, young women or black young people, started to organise autonomously and collectively. Today’s overwhelming neo-liberal emphasis on ’empowering’ individuals from above masks the structural inequalities which restrict most young people’s choices.
Given what earlier I labelled ‘our society’s entrenched power balances’, some tough practice realities do of course have to be faced here. Nonetheless, in negotiating these and the dilemmas they pose, rather than – as the empowering label implies – simply assume young people’s powerless, why can’t the implicit and indeed over time explicit practitioner starting points be:
‘So – what power do you/might you, the young person, already have in this situation?
‘What is blocking your use – even perhaps your recognition – of that power?’
‘How might you act to exercise it – collectively as well as individually?’
‘To what ends?
‘With – of your choosing – what (if any) support?’
Bernard Davies, 2012, StreetCred2: The View From 42nd St, 42nd St, p 74
Stanley, M.,1890, ‘Clubs for Working Girls’, in Booton, F., Studies in Social Education Vol 1, 1860-1890, Benfield Press, p 62; Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, 1908, Working Lads’ Clubs, MacMillan and Co Ltd, p 85
Board of Education. 1939, Circular 1486 – the service of youth’, Appendix para 2; Board of Education. 1940, The Challenge of Youth (Circular 1516), 27 June, para 7; Albemarle Report, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO, p. 48; Fairbairn-Milson Report, 1969, Youth and Community Work in the 70s, London, HMSO, para 195; Thompson Report, 1982, Experience and Participation: Report of the Review Group on the Youth Service in England, HMSO, para 5.17
Department of Education and Science, 1991, ‘Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s’, May, para 318
See Bernard Davies, 2008, The New Labour Years: A History of the Youth Service in England Vol 3 1997-2007, pp 131-140.
Department of Education and Skills, 2005, Youth Matters, July; Department of Education and Skills, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps, , March, paras 4.6-4.8
National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008, Outcomes of the Youth Opportunity Fund/Youth Capital Fund, Research Report DCSF-RR046, p.iv
HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth: A New Approach to Government Policy for Young People Aged 13 to 19, Executive Summary, para 6.12, 6.13, p 88; Andy Hillier, 2011, ‘Young people will have a say in government’s youth policy, says Loughton’, CYPN, 10 March
HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, para 6.13
HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, Executive Summary, p. 4; Adam Offord, 2016, “Government commits to long-term funding for youth project”, CYPN, 26 January; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“British Youth Council receives £170k to lead ‘youth voice’ projects”’, CYPN, 28 February
Baroness Barran, 2020, ‘Youth Minister: Young people have a key role to play in our nation’s recovery’, CYPN, 20 August
Does this article perhaps offer some pointers on this? George Monbiot, 2020, ‘Extinction Rebellion is showing Britain what real democracy could look like’, Guardian, 16 September
Tony Taylor, Paula Connaughton, Tania de St Croix, Bernard Davies and Pauline Grace, 2018, ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Character and Purpose of English Youth Work and Beyond’, in Pam Aldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards and Dana Fusco, The Sage Handbook of Youth Work Practice, Sage, pp 84 -97
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
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
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
Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of reports and other papers have appeared over the last few weeks all wholly or in part focused on the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s employment prospects.
Young workers in the coronavirus crisis
This Resolution Foundation report published towards the end of May  found for example that:
One-third of 18-24 year old employees (excluding students) have lost their jobs or been furloughed, compared to one-in-six prime-age adults.
35 per cent of non-full-time student 18-24 year old employees are earning less than they did prior to the outbreak … compared with 23 per cent of 25-49 year olds.
Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis
Linked to this report was an earlier Resolution Foundation paper  focused more on the effects of previous recessions on young people. It for example highlighted that
…for several years after having left education, employment rates across the cohorts that left education during the financial crisis were lower than for those who left education after it – with non-graduates experiencing the largest and longest scarring effects. Graduate ‘recession leavers’ experienced substantial hits too, but more in terms of being stuck in lower-skilled jobs than being out of work altogether. And for several years, both groups had lower hourly pay than their counterparts who left education after the recession.
Covid-19 and social mobility
Though something of a contentious concept, ‘social mobility’ is used in this report from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the London School of Economics (LSE)  to highlight how the pandemic ‘has exacerbated existing inequalities defined by income, place, health and ethnicity’. With the young emerging as one of the groups ‘disproportionately affected’, it points to ‘a strong link between a country’s level of income inequality and intergenerational immobility’ and to how ‘real wage stagnation has particularly hit younger Britons’.
It also provides some important reminders about the pre-pandemic situation – that:
Britain already had a ‘booming gig economy (which) has created millions of jobs … with low incomes and lacking security, progression or rights’ on which young people especially were often reliant.
Even those ‘disadvantaged’ young people who do go to university may find that those ‘disadvantages’ are not only ignored while they are there but become further entrenched.
Reflecting on the evidence: some implications for practice
The evidence and analysis of these three papers provide some relevant prompts for reflecting critically on the findings of a fourth report – the final evaluation of the government’s Youth Engagement Fund  – even though this, published in March, had clearly been drafted well before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The YEF programme had been launched in 2014 with funding of £10 million from the Office for Civil Society, £5 million from the Department for Work and Pensions and £1 million from the Ministry of Justice. Its aims included improving the ‘employability’ of young people classified as ‘disadvantaged’.
The programme’s design had three defining features which, as we shall see later, had their own impacts on the face-to-face practice:
The four projects which implemented the programme were defined as ‘a social investor … seeking social impact in addition to financial return’ and so funded through ‘Social Investment Bonds (SIBs).
The SIBs assumed a process of ‘payment by results’ – defined as ‘… the practice of paying providers for delivering public services based wholly or partly on the results that are achieved’.
Those results (or ‘outcomes’) were then defined as ‘…what changes for an individual as the result of a service or intervention. For example, improved learning in school, better mental health.
Though not reflected in this conception of ‘results’ as largely individualised change, the programme sought also to enable ‘schools, academies, local authorities, colleges and others to use their resources more effectively to support disadvantaged young people and reduce the number of young people who become NEET’. With some reservations, the evaluation concluded that this had been achieved by, for example, ‘provid(ing) schools with a solution for the young people they were struggling with’ and ‘offer(ing) a “refreshing” alternative to the pre-established support they had lost faith in’.
Interventions aimed at prompting even these kinds of limited institutional change were not however made explicit in the report’s summary of the programme’s methodology. For each of the projects this focused wholly on direct work with individual young people, albeit sometimes within their family or peer group contexts:
group meetings, individualised tutoring and careers coaching and sign-posting;
… individualised action plans … which could include resilience training, coaching, employability support, the completion of qualifications and sign-posting to other specialised provision’;
… a range of tailored in- and out-of-school activities supported through a personal career coach, including volunteering, skills and enrichment activities, group work, employment integration activities, youth applied positive psychology and work with the young person’s family.
personal mentor(ing) over an extended time-period, as well as group work, skills development, enrichment activities, work experience opportunities and spot purchasing of specialist support.
It was in implementing these face-to-face approaches that the payment-by-results funding framework could clearly at time be constraining or even obstructive. Comments from the practitioners interviewed for example included:
You always have to bear in mind that you’re doing this for an outcome, so you’re limited in what you can do. So the support you want to give, you have to say no because you don’t have time to do that.
It’s not necessarily in the young person’s interest – we’re working to the outcome not the individual…It’s like selling windows sometimes.
More fundamentally, the programme’s overwhelming focus on the individual young person as the primary if not the only focus for change left unaddressed some key broader questions.
If improving young people’s ‘employability’ is a main goal, and if more widely it is their ‘disadvantage’ which acts as a significant obstacle to their achieving this, might not the causes of their labour market problems go beyond their individual limitations or family dysfunction – or even some localised institutional shortcomings?
In the light of the evidence on how the coronavirus crisis has exposed and indeed exacerbated already entrenched and interlinked structural inequalities, don’t policy interventions now needed also to be focused on these including, in relation to young people’s ‘employability’, the dominant values, priorities and ways of operating of the labour market itself?
The need for such thinking is further supported by one of the Resolution Foundation papers which points to the limitations – even often the irrelevance – of policy responses based on individualised notions of ‘disadvantage’. While acknowledging that some young school-leavers ‘lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, with few specific job destinations in their plans’, the paper is also explicit that ‘the population of unemployed young people will be diverse indeed’. It points out, for example, that some ‘may have left education with an apprenticeship or a career destination in mind, only to find their sector of choice in severe contraction’. And this before you even begin to try to fit all those ‘graduate recession leavers …stuck in lower-skilled jobs’ into policy-makers’ dominant conceptions of ‘disadvantage’.
Significantly – and refreshingly – far from skirting round these kinds of questions, the YEF evaluators were clear that wider systemic barriers affect a young person’s place and progress through the labour market. They, for example, pointed out that ‘Aside from educational and personal difficulties, structural risk factors (emphasis in the original)can notably increase the risk of (young people) becoming NEET’. And they concluded that:
The projects paid limited focus to external factors that might also impact on NEET rates, such as the quality of the local employment market… Towards the end of the projects, the service providers reflected that they should have done more workto engage employers, and encourage them to provide more apprenticeships and/or be more open to recruiting more disadvantaged young people.
In support of this conclusion, the evaluation went on to recommend that programme interventions of this kind need to ‘provide more holistic support, focusing on support that addresses the wider and more structural factors that contribute to NEET prevalence’, including a greater focus on employers
And in response?
How far then have current policy interventions given attention to these kinds of messages with their at least implied advocacy of more radical responses to young people’s labour market struggles?
A ‘National Youth Cohort…
Launched in an open letter in The Observer signed by twelve people describing themselves as having ‘experience of working with young people’, this initiative quoted evidence that ‘30% of university students have lost their job or offer of a job’ and that ‘one in three (young people) is receiving less pay than they were in January’. Its base-line conviction is that the COVID-19 generation ‘can be transformed into a powerful engine to create a UK that is “more innovative more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing” . To tap into this potential it proposes that the government to set up a ‘National Youth Corps’ which, ‘in effect’, would offer ‘a work guarantee’ to all 16-25 year olds who apply by ‘guarantee(ing) at least the minimum wage in a wide variety of work and training opportunities…’ ‘Employers and institutions’ would also have the choice ‘to offer a top-up wage for particular skills’.
Seen as ‘crucial’ to the programme – predicted to attract up to a million applications – is its aim to ‘embed Britain’s most ambitious ever mentoring capability’. Through this, ‘Youth Corps members will be guided and supported to acquire the knowledge, network, skills, experience and confidence they need to succeed in this “new normal”’ and so ‘ensure that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are able to fully participate and benefit from the scheme’. The letter asks a wide range of ‘British-based employers’ to ‘pledged a range of job offers depending on their financial circumstances’, with ‘third sector organisations that specialise in working with young people … eligible for tailored investment to enable them to build capacity to participate in the programme’.
With the government urged to ‘announce its intent to create the Youth Corps along with the necessary funding as soon as possible’, by late June over 2150 of a targeted 2500 people had signed a petition supporting the proposal.
… a ‘Civic Army’…
At about the same time a second proposed initiative came from the UPP Foundation  – a body which gives grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies. Backed in this case by a ‘coalition of youth work groups’ with some overlap with the Open Letter signatories, it stresses that ‘the (pandemic’s) economic and educational impacts on young people go much further than immediate issues of school closures’ and includes ‘the job market for young people disappearing (and) apprenticeship(s) … plummeting’. However, given what it calls the ‘disruption to university terms’, it particularly focuses on the need for universities to work ‘collaboratively’ to support young people so that they ‘engage with, or remain in, higher education’ – a goal to be achieved, it suggests, through ‘tutoring or catch up academic support, or other pastoral provision’.
The UPP proposes that to provide these services a ‘Civic Army’ be established, described as a ‘Community Leadership Academy scheme’. Costing £500 million a year, this would create 75,000 six-month paid placements for work in communities which, though open part-time to university students, would again particularly target ‘disadvantaged’ young people. The offer would also include ‘20% off-the-job support for (young people’s) own development…’ and ‘additional Pupil Premium funding for wrap around support’.
… and more government ‘gesture policies’?
Though neither of these initiatives attracted any explicit response from government, some of its own policy proposals focused specifically on the youth labour market and the pandemic’s impacts on it. In a speech on June 30th the Prime Minister flagged up an intention to introduce an ‘opportunity guarantee’ to provide young people with an apprenticeship or an in-work-placement ‘so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them’. More detail on this came from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on July 8th in his summer statement to Parliament. In this he acknowledged that ‘young people bear the brunt of most economic crises, but they are at particular risk … because they work in the sectors disproportionately hit by the pandemic’. He also recognised that their experience of unemployment would have ‘long-term impact on jobs and wages’.
The most substantial of Sunak’s proposals for dealing with these threats was to establish a job creation scheme, to start in the autumn with £2 billion funding. This will enable employers to offer six-month placements or jobs to 350,000 18-24 year olds ‘claiming universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment’. With employers again able top it up, the funding will, for a 25-hour-week, cover 100 per cent of the minimum wage – that is, for apprentices £4.15 an hour and for 16-17 year olds £4.55 an hour. (The current adult minimum wage is £8.70).
The Chancellor’s statement also promised:
An extra £111 million in the current year for tripling participation in traineeships for 16-24 year olds in England with a view to funding ‘high quality work placements and training’.
For six months from August, a new £2,000 payment to employers in England for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25. This will be in addition to the £1,000 already available for new 16-18 year-old apprentices.
For the 2020-21 academic year £101 million to enable 18-19 year olds in England who are having difficulties finding a job to study on ‘targeted high value Level 2 and 3 courses’.
Extra money is also to be allocated to a range of support and advisory services for job seekers .
But… the ‘absences’
When looked at from a young person’s perspective, proposals like these can’t simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Why in the emerging ‘new normal’ might a 16 year old school-leaver not look favourably on an apprenticeship or even a temporary job which pays the minimum wage (plus perhaps an employer top-up and an additional Premium Payment) and which may even offer some time off for training? Or an 18 year old who’s been working towards getting into university for two years or more not welcome extra support and advice to make that happen?
And yet, once again policy responses like these focus mainly on providing limited (and indeed mostly temporary) forms of individualised support. They therefore do little if anything to address those ‘wider and more structural factors’ which the YEF evaluation identified as underpinning what it called ‘NEET prevalence’. They also miss important more positive priorities – and opportunities.
Thus, as the chancellor made explicit, the government’s main priority is not to refocus or reorient the labour market in any radical way but to ‘kickstart’ it so that it again begins to operate in its historic ways. The references in the Observer Open Letter to ‘green initiatives’, ‘infrastructure improvements’ and an ‘industrial strategy’ do suggest some significant trigger points for more far-reaching aspirations. However, by getting merely glancing and unexplained mention within a diverse list of suggested routes for implementing its suggested ‘Youth Cohort’ scheme, their potential for seeking more fundamental structural changes is left entirely unexplored. Similarly, while repeatedly endorsing ‘the renewed civic action inspired by the crisis’, the UPP proposal has nothing to say on how this bottom-up upsurge of collective energy and enterprise might be converted into permanent jobs for young people (and indeed others) focussed not on private profit but on radical social (again including green) regeneration.
For thousands the often tragic personal consequences of this moment of major rupture to our society’s everyday activities and relationships are stark. Moreover, as the emerging evidence is also revealing, the age dimensions of the fall out highlighted in the piece are as ever closely interwoven with inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and region. And yet, from an economic perspective, this moment has also been described in more positive terms – as for example ‘the most benign borrowing environment imaginable to invest in the future’ . By breaking decisively with that neo-liberal ‘payment by (financial) results’ mind-set, could it also therefore be used to pursue more strategic and systematic aims? Such as an assault on a labour market which, for young people particularly, has always be constraining and often exploitative and which the pandemic is threatening to make even less accommodating?
11 Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Heather Stewart, 2020, ‘Summer statement: Rishi Sunak plans temporary job creation scheme for under-25s, Guardian 8 July; Richard Partington and Kate Proctor, 2020, ‘Summer statement 2020: the chancellor’s key points at a glance’, Guardian, 8 July; HM Treasury, July, 2020, Plan for Jobs,
12 Larry Elliott, 2020, Low interest rates offer a rare solution that left and right can agree on’, Guardian, 22 June
Into focus? ‘Vulnerable’ young people and Covid-19
At the end of last month the National Youth Agency published Out of Sight , a report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on vulnerable young people. Endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner for England and drawing on statistical and other evidence from a wide range of sources, it also sets out to make the case in the present crisis for youth work to be classified as an ‘essential service’ and for youth workers to be seen as ‘key workers’.
Who are ‘the vulnerable’?
The report suggests three groups of 8–19 year olds who are particularly in need of safeguarding and support:
Those whose ‘known’ vulnerabilities are being amplified by COVID-19 and who meet ‘the statutory threshold’ – for example because they are known to social services. Of these, the report notes, only 5 per cent came into schools before Easter.
Those with ‘at risk’ vulnerabilities which are being exacerbated by COVID-19 but who do not meet the statutory threshold – such as, amongst others, NEET young people and those excluded from school.
Those with ‘emerging’ vulnerabilities caused or triggered by COVID-19 – for example those in homes where it is impossible to self-isolate properly.
In addition to the continuing impact of gangs and county lines and of ‘well-documented’ mental health pressures, the report highlights the young people – many ‘lacking a “safe” space’ – for whom there will be other ‘urgent’ concerns as the lockdown ends. These include the approximately 700,000 already ‘missing from education’; the million at risk of domestic abuse; the approximately 1 million with little or no digital access at home; and the nearly half a million who are homeless or living in a ‘precarious’ housing situation.
The report draws these findings together in two tables, one estimating numbers for twelve of the main ‘vulnerabilities’, the other the ‘needed youth work practice response’ to these and other conditions. It also makes the point that it is this generation which will experience the economic and social costs of this crisis most directly – financially, with reduced employment opportunities and with a consequential increase in those mental health problems. It thus urges that young people are included in evidence-gathering on the COVID-19 challenges and that, to ensure they are treated fairly and equally, they ‘have their voices heard and included in decision-making’ and other responses – adding that ‘without youth clubs and youth workers, far too many young people go unseen and unheard’.
Youth work as a key response
Youth work as open to being shaped by young people’s expectations and needs is recognised at a number of points in the report. Youth services are for example described as ‘a vital life-line to vulnerable young people, joining in activities without stigma but able to access support, talk to a trusted adult or disclose a problem for help’. The practice itself is explicitly defined as having roles which include engaging with young people ‘in non-formal education, out-of school activities’ and providing them with ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to…’ – though, precisely because the youth worker will not know in advance what those young people may bring to the encounter, it cannot be assumed, as the paper seems to do, that they will ‘know what is needed’. Detached and outreach youth work gets specific recognition – identified as able ‘to engage young people in the community’.
Acknowledging that a clear exit strategy from lockdown is going to be needed for young people beyond just re-opening schools, the report also proposes that local authorities, children’s services and academy trusts are encouraged to ‘engage, deploy and up-skill youth workers in support of young people’. Particularly when ‘young people are not at school and (where) a non-formal setting is more appropriate’, it argues that consideration be given, too, to ‘the partial opening of youth projects for outreach and drop-in or small group sessions in line with social distancing measures’. With ‘many youth clubs and services (already) … rapidly adapting their work to go digital, employers and local authorities are also urged to provide the tools which (subject to risk assessments) enable youth workers to engage young people on line, including offering training for meeting vulnerabilities such as trauma and bereavement resulting from the pandemic.
In looking to the future, the report starts from the reality that youth centres and projects are currently closed, that many youth workers have been redeployed out of youth work or furloughed and that ‘trusted adult volunteers normally supportive of youth work are … self-isolating or volunteering for wider community services …’ It also warns that ‘nationally one in five youth clubs will not re-open, more in some regions’, and that ‘a threat (is) hanging over non-statutory youth services should austerity measures return post-pandemic’. The challenges for young people are especially likely to increase through the summer with schools closed and few community activities and other events available.
A cross-departmental response from Government – some critical questions
Feedback on the report from one project very quickly confirmed its value as a source of evidence to support its bid for emergency Covid funding. However, given that one of its recommendations is the need for ‘a cross-departmental response from Government…’ – and given the pre-crisis and even post-crisis track record of many of the ministers in that Government, starting with the Prime Minister – its wider use raises some more critical questions. This is particularly true as the longer-term struggle continues to reinstate those leisure-based, open access forms of youth work in England and also more widely in the UK which the report often seeks to promote.
‘Vulnerabilities’ – individual or structural?
One of those questions focuses on the very term ‘vulnerable’ and how, in taken-for-granted ways which can be dismissive of people’s personal agency, its causes can too easily be assumed to lie within the individual – that its roots are most likely to be found in her or his personal limitations (failures). As George Lamb, a disability rights activist pointed out forcibly in the ‘supplementary’ issue of Concept whose appearance co-incided with that of the NYA report, we need for a start to be careful how we work with the term in our face-to-face practice. As someone who is disabled himself, he thus reminds us that ‘many people classed as “vulnerable” do not necessarily see themselves that way’ and so, ‘like everybody else, will need to keep feeling that they have their own independence’.
Complex and challenging evidence is already accumulating anyway on who is most likely to end up attracting the ‘vulnerable’ label – and that that has to do with much more than them as individuals. From very early in the crisis, for example, worrying statistics began to emerge on how much more likely you are to die – by 27 per cent – if you are from a BAME community. Also, according to the National Office for Statistics ‘those living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas … 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people in the most deprived places compared with 25.3 in the least deprived’. Here, too, there is an interlinking of poverty with the prevalence of those ‘pre-existing conditions’ such as diabetes which put individuals most at risk of getting the virus. In an area hit hardest by post-2010 austerity policies such as Middlesbrough men’s life expectancy was already much shorter than that of men in Westminster – just 75.3 compared with nearly 84 .
Philanthropic or state funding?
It is in the context of these wider structural factors and their on-going impacts that another caution is needed: the risk that the outreach and generosity prompted by the crisis – such as an initiative like that of a 100-year-old ex-army officers which in two weeks can raise £30 million for the NHS – will allow a government still deeply committed to neo-liberal priorities to argue that philanthropy is a main and even perhaps the best route for funding health and other (including youth) services. Inspiring though such expressions of individual and collective concern and action are, many ultimately rest on judgements by the wealthy and powerful about who is deserving – or therefore, by implication at least, who is not. Strategically therefore these can never be a substitute for provision as a citizen’s right funded out of a taxation system which ensures that, like others, the wealthy and powerful pay up in full.
As Mae Shaw expressed it in her Editorial in the supplementary issue of Concept referenced above:
In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy.
Alternatively she points to:
…attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged .
Young people; ‘vulnerability’ – or potential?
A final caution on making ‘vulnerable young people’ the primary rationale comes very specifically out of a youth work perspective. Precisely because it is a ‘universal’ offer, it is likely that some – perhaps in some places many – of the young people youth work will attract will have been categorised as ‘vulnerable’. That however is very different from starting to relate to them primarily on the basis of a label which, in advance and from above, has been imposed on them by powerful others. Moreover, by adopting ‘vulnerability’as its starting point, Out of Sight also once again risks diverting policy-makers – national but also probably more immediately local – from youth work’s primary focuses: the too-often untapped potential of the young people who engage and the opportunities it can offer for them to ‘go where they’ve never dreamed of going’.
Beyond the a-political?
As an ‘a-political organisation’ – a charity – often in search of government money, NYA clearly finds it difficult to open up these kinds of questions. The reality remains, however, that underpinning and shaping the vulnerabilities it lists are long-standing and deep-seated structural issues with seriously damaging effects, particularly on young people and the services available to them. These, moreover, are issues which over the last decade the government departments it is seeking to address have not only ignored – treated as irrelevant – but have exacerbated.
Above all, in a post-COVID era (whenever that might come and whatever it might look like), such ‘political’ issues will surely have to be made explicit if a youth work is to be advocated which both speaks and responds to the ‘new normal’. If they are not, with even fewer resources likely to be available, far from encouraging youth work as informal education, the overriding message policy-makers are likely to take from Out of Sight is: ‘target, target, target’.
This piece has been in the drafting through most of March and now into April – some six weeks in which everyday life as we have long taken it for granted has changed in many unexpected and uncomfortable ways. At one point this left me asking myself: why am I spending time discussing something as petty as the National Citizens Service when, across the world, macro events are affecting – damaging – so many lives?
And then I thought: why not? By the time we come out of this crisis, our perspectives – on young people, on the services they want and need, on social policy and the crucial importance of the state as an expression of our collective responsibility for each other – all of these will hopefully have changed in numerous post-neo-liberal ways. In the process, with new learning perhaps more personally internalised through direct and often painful experience, even something as marginal as NCS might have become more open to, and even more in need of, critique and rethinking.
So – somewhat arrogantly perhaps – I’ve decided to risk throwing this into the mix.
NCS: the new ‘national youth service’?
If my anecdotal evidence is any guide the National Citizens Service (NCS), at least in England, has become an embedded component of our ‘youth services . This was brought home to me, if rather late, on a Saturday afternoon some weeks ago when I was pressed by a group of young people proudly wearing their NCS T-shirts to join a ‘game’ they were running in the town centre. Very visible, too, in a local community centre a few days later were the left-overs of a junior youth club project carried out the previous evening by a different NCS group.
Evidence from more objective sources is suggesting that, at national policy level also, NCS has achieved a taken-for-granted status. By 2018, for example, it was receiving ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government funding for ‘youth services’. And despite the shadow civil society minister’s highly critical comments on how it operates in a recent Parliamentary debate , all Labour could manage on NCS in its otherwise radical pre-election ‘Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services’ was a passing reference to a ‘national programme’ whose ‘accredited youth social action’ activities it promised to support .
Two developments over the last few months, however, suggest that this consensus around NCS might be starting to fracture a little. One is a legal challenge for breach of contract by one of its voluntary sector ‘suppliers’; the other the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) announcement that it is to review NCS’s use of public money . Though focusing largely on operational matters, both of these nonetheless offer an opportunity to reopen a wider debate not just on NCS’s now priority status within our overall youth provision but also on its rationale and the on-the-ground content and methodology of its practice.
From a prime ministerial vision to a statutory provision
I say ‘reopen’ here because as always history carries some strong and relevant previous messages for the present. A particularly crucial one is how dependent NCS has been for its rise and rise on privileged and powerful promoters and patrons. It was after all David Cameron who in 2005, as recently elected leader of the Conservative Party, first spelt out his vision for what at that stage he was describing as ‘a school leaver programme lasting a few months’. Envisaged as ‘a new national movement’ – a ‘national framework for youth engagement and volunteering’ – this, Cameron asserted, would ‘prepare… young people for their responsibilities as adult citizens’ . The Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto then extended these aspirations to include offering 16 year olds opportunities ‘to … mix with people of different backgrounds, and starting to get involved in their communities’ .
Though over time NCS understandably came to be personalised as Cameron’s ‘vanity project’, it has always had, and still has, a much wider neo-liberal rationale. Not only does this assume a requirement to be competitive – illustrated by NCS’s procedures for awarding and evaluating its contracts. It has also embedded notions of the resilient and aspiring though compliant citizen and how they can be – must be – moulded as they grow into adulthood. Though here NCS and its precursors have made much of the importance of ‘teamwork’, also central to its promotion has been a strong emphasis on individualistic achievement – demonstrated for example by its current reminder to potential participants that when assessing university applicants ‘UCAS look for more than just points’ . In addition, for Cameron as for previous Conservative and indeed New Labour governments , there has been a broader policy prompt: their deep distrust of much of existing leisure-time provision for young people – especially those local authority youth work facilities which sought proactively to work with and through the very peer groups which for many national policy-makers were at the root of society’s ‘youth problems’.
By the time Cameron actually launched the scheme – only two months after becoming Prime Minister – it was therefore not surprising that he was explicitly locating it within his high profile and highly ambitious ‘Big Society’ strategy. This was ‘urgently’ needed, he claimed, to help repair the ‘social fabric’ of Britain’s ‘broken society’ by shifting power downwards from the centre, particularly by encouraging and supporting locally-based forms of volunteering . For the NCS programme, this was quickly relabelled ‘social action’ – a term which, in sharp contrast to its past radical focus, was redefined by the DCMS as: …about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It can include volunteering, giving moneycommunity action or simple neighbourly acts .
Even before its official launch, the scheme had in effect been piloted by a new organisation, The Challenge. This had strong links with other influential Big Society enthusiasts and also with large private corporations such as Poundland and McKinsey Management Consultancy . The 670 young people recruited to its 2009-10 programme were offered ‘intensive’ training … in leadership, management and communication skills’ with a view, it was explicitly suggested, ‘…to testing potential models for (the) National Citizens Service’ When the actual piloting schemes were announced for 2011, The Challenge had to deny it was ‘prospering as a result of friends in high places’ when it emerged as by far ‘the lead provider’ with a £7 million contract to offer 30 per cent (3240) of that year’s planned 11,000 places .
Initially comprising a school summer holiday residential followed by a local ‘social action’ project, by 2014 shorter autumn and spring half-term programmes were also being offered. In 2016 the Cameron government announced that its budget to 2020-21 would be £1.2 billion, with the scheme’s actual spend between 2014-15 and 2017 totalling £475 million . As one of its strategic goals was to increase the number of participants year-on-year, recruitment efforts by then included emailing and texting school-leavers to addresses provided by their schools, and plans, announced in 2018, to mount a four-year £75 million ‘marketing campaign’ .
As the amounts of public money going into the scheme grew, pressures built for it to become – or at least to be seen to be – less dependent on government. In 2014, responsibility for running it was passed to a community interest company which, constituted as a trust, was subsequently given a Royal Charter .When the Trust was put on a ‘permanent statutory footing’ in 2016, a legal duty to promote the programme was placed on schools, sixth-form colleges and local authorities .
Impacts and achievements: positive – and not so positive
Independent evaluations of the scheme in these years reported a range of positive ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’ for the young people – in relation to, for example, their ‘improved teamwork’, their ‘transitions to adulthood’, their ‘social mixing; and their ‘community involvement’ . The evaluations often also claimed significant ‘monetised’ gains – such as in 2016, for every pound spent, £1.79-worth of economic and volunteering ‘benefits’ from the summer programme and £2.21 from the autumn programme .
By 2017, however, reports by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO)  were raising questions about NCS’s transparency and governance as an organisation and about a lack of data on the scheme’s longer-term effects on young people’s lives. Though in 2018-19 NCS did finally meet its recruitment targets , seven years after its launch the NAO was reporting that only 36 per cent of the 333,000 young people who that year had expressed an interest in the programme had then registered and only 28 per cent (92,700) had actually joined – 38 per cent below its recruitment target. This, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), amounted nationally to only 12 per cent of the eligible age group, with the rate in some areas as low as 4 per cent . With eight thousand five hundred (8.6 per cent) of those who did join not completing , by 2018 the government was acknowledging that the scheme had failed to recoup from providers £9.8 million for unfilled places .By then (in 2017) NCS had reduced its recruitment target for 2020-21 from 360,000 to 247,000 – though without at that stage indicating any reduction in its allocated budget .
2020: new questions; new criticisms
Though post-Cameron governments have been less gung-ho about the scheme, until recently their support for NCS has, at least in public, remained largely unquestioned. In 2018 for example, Theresa May’s ‘youth’ minister rejected a Labour Party demand that NCS’s performancebeevaluated against the provision of local authority Youth Services  – the ones, that is, that although also nominally ‘statutory’ had had their budgets in England and Wales cut between 2010/11 and 2018/19 by over £1 billion. Support clearly continues, too, from the wider ‘youth sector’ with organisations as varied as the Jewish Lads Brigade, Young People Cornwall and Bolton Lads and Girls Club acting as programme ‘deliverers’ .
Renewed scrutiny of NCS, its role and ways of operating is thus now long-overdue – and important.
Removing The Challenge
The first prompt for this occurred in August last year when NCS’s Chief Executive Michael Lynas suddenly announced that it would not be renewing its estimated £60-million-a-year contract with The Challenge. This was the organisation which, by ‘pre-piloting’ NCS-type schemes in 2009, had, in its own words, ‘played a critical and founding role in NCS for over 10 years from initial design of the programme to directly supporting over 242,000 young people…’. Its programmes in London, the South East and the West Midlands made it, still, NCS’s largest ‘provider’ .
According to Lynas, NCS had been forced to take this action because of The Challenge’s refusal to adopt a shared IT system – later described by The Challenge as ‘unfit for purpose’ . This, he said – perhaps reflecting sensitivity to some past criticisms – ‘ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data’. He also claimed that that summer The Challenge had ‘let down’ 4,000 young people by failing to allocate them places on the programme .
As in its view a new contract was still being negotiated, The Challenge initially expressed surprise at the NCS decision to end its ‘principal funding source’ and said it remained committed to resolving the dispute  However, by October, claiming that the technical failures of the NCS’s IT system had prevented thousands of young people completing the first day of that summer’s programme, it had started a £22 million legal action against NCS for breach of contract and loss of earnings and posted a separate claim for defamation. It also lodged a complaint with the DCMS which the then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said the Department would investigate. This not only talked of ‘the continued poor behaviour of the NCS’s leadership’ and of ‘urgent concerns regarding the mismanagement of the NCS programme by the trust’. It also accused the DCMS of a ‘worrying’ lack of scrutiny of the NCS .
A month later, just as NCS was rebranding itself with a £3 million advertising campaign and a new logo , The Challenge went into administration, putting the jobs of its 400 staff at risk . Its Chair issued a public statement bluntly accusing NCS of having ‘jeopardised many thousands of opportunities for young people’ and calling the whole episode ‘a national scandal’  – claims the NCS strongly rejected .
The NCS Chief Executive: letting go – or not?
Interweaving with these developments have been repercussions of Lynas’s decision to resign as NCS’s Chief Executive, announced in September 2019. As this took effect at the beginning of March  it emerged that his exit package included £15,000 to help him train for a new job and retention as a paid consultant. Declaring the package ‘unacceptable’, the DCMS said it had ‘taken swift action to stop this’ and that it was undertaking ‘a thorough review’ to investigate ‘wider issues around governance’. NCS immediately withdrew its offer to Lynas and also sought to reassure its supporters – including no doubt the many other groups and organisations which had become reliant on its funding – that ‘DCMS had reiterated its support for the trust’ .
A ‘national programme’ fit for the times?
In April, NCS announced that, with its summer programme for a predicted 95,000 young people cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown, it was in discussions with the DCMS and its ‘suppliers’ on providing a free digital programme focused on ‘the skills and life lessons not learned in the classroom’ as well as a possible role for the scheme ‘to help get the country back on its feet by mobilising young people as volunteers .
However, other than the DCMS revealing that it has now had a complaint from another of NCS’s small delivery partners , no updates seem to be available on either its review of the Trust or The Challenge’s legal action. Given their strong echoes of past criticisms of how NCS operates and uses public money, these developments again point to the need to for a wider and more fundamental debate on the programme. Such as: why is it still being treated as the priority provision for young people both by the government and – via a stance of critical neutrality – by so many ‘youth sector’ interests? And amid the growing evidence of the financial, mental health, exam and other pressures which teenagers overall are facing , what justifies focusing so many scarce public resources on just the 16/17 year old age group?
Nor for me have these concerns been allayed by the organisational priorities indicated by NCS’s appointment as Chief Executive (Mark Gifford) of someone who is a newcomer not only to the national voluntary youth sector but also, it seems, to the wider field of leisure-time informal educational provision for young people. Here, according to its Chair, what it judged to be ‘invaluable to NCS as it moves into its second decade, a new delivery network and as exciting new partners come on board’ was Gifford’s 20 years of high-level private sector managerial experience with Waitrose as Director of Shop Trade and of Retail Operations (North).
The question which all this leaves me with, therefore, is: how can this commercialising version of NCS aimed at such a limited age-cohort be an alternative to a provision which, in 2013, was being used by 630,000 8-16 year olds via locally accessible year-round youth facilities and projects?  Indeed, as I was writing this piece, that question became even more pressing with the news that one of the most high-profile of the much vaunted forms of replacement for those lost local authority services – Kensington and Chelsea’s employee-led ‘youth mutual’ EPIC – had been forced to close because of the reduction in just the last fifteen months ‘in the overall level of funding for youth services’ .
Certainly nothing that the current government is offering comes close to reinstating those closed youth centre buildings and disbanded detached youth worker teams – provision which, far from starting from the perceptions and prescriptions of a powerful largely Oxbridge elite, sought to take their lead from the interests, concerns and needs of the young people who, by choice, actually engaged. For filling the huge ‘austerity’ gaps which remain in local authority and indeed many voluntary organisation revenue budgets, the best we have again been offered are what I call ‘gesture policies’. Such as, in October 2019, as a little election sweetener, a new Youth Investment Fund of £500 million to be used – over five years, it is important to remind ourselves – for building and refurbishing youth centres and for mobile facilities. And the DCMS’s ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’, announced last January, with its allocation of £7 million for ‘extra youth club sessions’.
Some of the realities of such offers were laid bare last month in a UK Youth announcement that, to support what it called ‘positive activities for young people’, it had distributed £1.16 million of the ‘accelerator’ money in grants ranging from £360 to £20,000 to 168 organisations and community groups. However, not only did the statement make clear that many of those receiving the money were not ‘open’ youth work facilities but ‘sports clubs, counselling services (and) creative writing workshops’. In revealing that in just a two-week window it had received over 1400 applications totalling £15 million, it also spoke volumes about the current financial state of even this wider ‘youth’ field .
Meanwhile, even before the virus struck, what had we had by way of follow-up to the government review of the statutory Youth Service guidance to local authorities, initiated in the run-up to December’s election?
Just as this piece was about to be posted it emerged that the NCS Trust had agreed a settlement of their dispute with The Challenge. With DCMS and Treasury approval, it has agreed to pay £2.8m for costs incurred by The Challenge for unfilled places during 2019. NCS, however, said it accepted no liability for two other elements of The Challenge’s legal claim.
The Challenge is still facing claims of £8 million from some local providers.(Darren Hayes, 2020, ‘Collapsed charity settles legal dispute with NCS Trust’, CYPN, 16 April)
1, Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June
2. Kirsty Weakly, 2019, ‘Shadow minister criticises DCMS for withholding data on NCS Trust funding’, Civil Society News, 23 October
3. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, Pp 11, 14.
4. Nina Jacobs, 2019a, ‘“Charity launches legal action over NCS dispute”’, CYPN, 15 October; Neil Puffett, 2020a, ‘DCMS launches review into NCS 4. governance’, CYPN, 2 March
5. David Cameron, 2005, ‘Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre’, 24 August
12. Tania de St Croix, 2015, ‘Volunteers and entrepreneurs? Youth work and the Big Society’, in Graham Bright (ed), Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts, London, Palgrave, pp 58-79
13. Janaki Mahadevan, 2009, ‘“Charity to test concept of National Citizen Service”’, CYPN, 31 March
14. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘National citizen servant’, CYPN, 15 May; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2010, ‘The Challenge Network announced as lead provider of National Citizen Service’, CYPN, 10 November
15. Neil Puffett, 2016, ‘“Queen’s Speech: £1.2bn set aside for NCS expansion”’, CYPN, 18 May; Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“MPs question future of NCS amid concerns over cost”’, CYPN, 14 March
16. Adam Offord, 2016, ‘“NCS marketing budget tops £8m in 2015”’, CYPN, 31 August
17. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Hurd hands NCS over to independent trust’, CYPN, 6 February; GOV.UK, 2016, ‘News story: Government introduces National Citizen Service (NCS) Bill to Parliament’, 12 October
18. Alison Sherman, 2016, ‘National Citizens Service to have permanent statutory status, Queen’s Speech says’, Civil Society News, 18 May
19. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017, National Citizens Service 2016 Evaluation, Kantar/LSE, December, p 27; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘Government hails success of National Citizens Service scheme’, CYPN, 17 May
20. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017
21. National Audit Office, 2017,National Citizens Service, 12 January; www.parliament.uk 2017, National Citizens Service, 10 March
23. Peter Walker, 2018, ‘Cameron’s £1.5bn “big society” youth scheme reaching few teenagers’, Guardian 2 August;
24. National Audit Office, 2017, Summary, para 15; Figure 12, p 34,
25. Joe Lepper, 2018a, ‘“Youth minister prioritises reducing unfilled NCS places”’, CYPN, 19 July
26. Neil Puffett, 2017
27. Joe Lepper, 2018b, ‘”Crouch dismisses call for NCS to be evaluated against traditional youth services”’, CYPN, 26 January
28. Neil Puffett, 2020b, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cut in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January
30. David Harris, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service Trust drops major provider”’, CYPN, 1 August; Andy Hillier, 2019, ‘Largest NCS provider loses contract worth estimated £60m a year’, Third Sector, 1 August; Dan Parton, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service provider vows to continue work following split”’, CYPN, 14 August; Joe Lepper, 2019a, ‘Youth charity The Challenge goes into administration’, CYPN, 28 November
37. Bill Ronald, 2019, ‘Statement from Bill Ronald, Chairman of The Challenge Network’, 27 November
38. Joe Lepper, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019; Bill Ronald, 2019
39. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, ‘“NCS Trust chief Michael Lynas to step down”’, CYPN, 12 September; Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020, ‘Retail expert to take over at top of the NCS Trust, Third Sector,, 8 January;
40. Neil Puffett, 2020a
41 Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Coronavirus: NCS considers volunteering role to help national effort’, CYPN, 27 March; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘NCS cancels summer programme amid pandemic’, CYPN, 8 April
42. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March
A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?
A Training Agencies Group (TAG) email ‘bulletin’ last December carried the following item:
Request for information – Youth Work Curriculum for England The National Youth Agency (NYA) is being supported by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) to develop a Youth Work Curriculum for England. This document will set out what youth work does directly for and with young people. The NYA wants to develop this with young people and practitioners to create a contemporary Curriculum that works for the modern contexts of youth work.
Despite my best efforts to keep up with youth work developments, this was for me an out-of-the-blue announcement of an initiative which, coming as it does from our ‘national body for youth work’, could have considerable long-term impact. However, as I write in mid-February 2020, with no reference to it on the NYA website, the only other information I have is that, according to the TAG bulletin item, a consultant has been appointed ‘to support the Curriculum development process, which is in its beginning stages’ and that she is asking for ‘curriculum, material and views’.
One feature of the project which immediately grabbed my attention was that it is ‘being supported’ by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS). Any ‘curriculum’ which NYA proposes will surely, therefore, need ultimately to be acceptable to a government which, with a new five-year mandate, is committed as a high priority to a range of ‘populist’ youth policies including, according to a recent report by young people, ‘an increasingly punitive approach to knife crime’. How likely is it therefore that what emerges and gets agreed will fit with an educationally-focussed youth work practice which is open to any young person who chooses to engage and open to developing opportunities for new learning and experience which start from their concerns and their interests?
For the youth work sector this is of course far from a new question. Indeed in the past it has been both upfront and contentious. Might that history perhaps suggest some messages – even perhaps cautions – for NYA’s current initiative?
Curriculum in youth work: history revisited
I’ve argued previously  that much of the practice known from its earliest days as ‘youth leadership’ had embedded within it implicit ‘curriculum’ frameworks in the form of the worker-designed programme content intended to achieve worker-defined outcomes. In the 1960s the relevance and effectiveness of these ‘model-centred’ approaches were challenged in quite fundamental ways, most influentially by the Albemarle report. This for example went so far as to assert that, as ‘young people can today … turn away from many of the good enterprises specially designed for them’, they ‘… must have the liberty to question cherished ideas, attitudes and standards, and if necessary reject them’. As a result for many youth work came often to be described and indeed explained in much less prescriptive terms – as for example ‘young people-led’ or ‘process-led’.
Perhaps in reaction to these trends, from the mid-1970s and into the 1980s the term curriculum began to be used explicitly in a youth work context. Offered ‘as a credible way of grappling with the question: “What are we doing in the youth club”?’, it for example appeared in the title of a 1975 booklet written by John Ewen, then the Director of the National Youth Bureau (NYB). In 1982 the Thompson Report made passing references to the Youth Service’s ‘experiential curriculum’ implemented through ‘learning by doing’, while a year later NYB ‘updated’ Ewen’s booklet, now sub-titled ‘A practical guide for use in youth group staff meetings’. Significantly, it did this in part for reasons which later advocates of ‘curriculum’ also offered – that:
… there seems to be a deal of woolly-mindedness around when some youth workers are asked to be more precise about the methodology and curriculum of their social educational role.
In 1985 a paper was also circulating written by a tutor on a youth and community work qualifying course entitled ‘Towards a New Curriculum: A discussion paper of ideas’.
Though little commented on subsequently, in 1989 the Further Education Unit (FEU) reported on a research project which had had both NYB and HMI representation on its steering committee. Its main objective as outlined by FEU’s Development Officer had been
… to identify and describe the curriculum (already) being used by youth workers in four chosen authorities, and to investigate the issues arising … with regard to organisation, staff training and co-operation with other agencies.
Ahead of the debates which were to emerge later that year, he noted, too, that ‘following the 1988 Education Reform Act’ which had introduced a national curriculum into state schools:
… it is essential that the Youth Service is able to defend successfully its existing role and mark out clearly its contribution to work with young people within the education service and with other agencies.
By then, for the ‘Thatcherite’ (in today’s terms, ‘neo-liberal’) governments of the period, the methods and approaches which had taken hold since the 1960s were increasingly unacceptable – dismissed across a range of policy areas and services as too ‘permissive’ and so as poor value for the public money invested in them. Indeed, during the 1970s Labour governments had already initiated arms-length efforts to counter these perceived weaknesses, most notably through the Manpower Services Commission. These had included trying to refocus youth work away from the ‘social education’ approaches developed post-Albemarle and onto training in ‘social and life skills’ required for getting and keeping a job.
In contradiction of their oft-stated determination to reduce the role and impacts of the central state, the Thatcher governments continued to pressure key youth services to meet its top-down expectations and indeed requirements. On the back particularly of that unprecedented intrusion into ‘the secret garden’ of the school curriculum mentioned earlier, between 1989 and 1992, via three ‘ministerial conferences’, a succession of ‘youth’ ministers tried to persuade youth work organisations – voluntary as well as statutory – to reach a ‘consensus’ on a national or ‘core’ curriculum which would also provide ‘common learning outcomes and performanceindicators’.
In the run-up to the first of the conferences, Alan Howarth, the minister then in post spelt out the government’s bottom lines in blunt terms. Starting from the view that ‘there is a lack of cohesion’ in the Youth Service, he proposed that its approach be defined in ‘commercial terms’ – by ‘finding a gap in the market, identifying the service needed, assessing consumer demand or need, finding backers and providing evidence of effective delivery’. He then went on:
I cannot repeat too strongly what I have said about the importance of this (first) conference achieving some consensus. Publicised agreement by the youth service about its curriculum … will help funders, including the DES, to allocate resources as effectively as possible.
In a comment which resonates strongly today, he also noted that, as other services had by then adopted youth work approaches, it was particularly through its ‘detached and outreach work, and work with the seriously at risk, (that) the youth service can be a first point of contact for young people in distress’.
To operationalise the conferences’ aims, NYB and its successor organisation the National Youth Agency (NYA – launched in 1991) sought to play proactive and influential roles. Its then Director was clear, for example, that a curriculum was needed to ‘put the service further up the educational agenda’ and ‘demonstrate the need for proper resourcing’. To help achieve this, a NYB ‘curriculum development team’ was formed briefed to develop ‘a framework for the new curriculum by producing resources on specific issues, issuing guidelines on good practice, and running pilot studies on new approaches'. Revealing, too, was the title of an article by a member of this team – ‘Accountability is the Watchword’ – which appeared in NYB’s house journal Young People Now a month before the first conference in December 1989.
For some of the 200- 250 participants and observers (including many ‘senior officers’), the conferences were accepted as a belated response by government to their demand for a lead from the centre. Even before and then during the first conference, however, it was reported that some in the sector ‘reel(ed) with concern at the very notion (of a youth work curriculum)’; ‘took issue with the concept’; and expressed a need for ‘“ownership” from the field of any “core curriculum” which should emerge’. At a second conference a year later, as well as ‘… a clear rejection of any centrally-imposed curriculum’, ‘uncertainty or anxiety’ was expressed, too, about ‘targeting’ and ‘how outcomes are measured’; while at the third in June 1992 ‘much time was spent revising statements which the (organising) committee had hoped would be uncontroversial’.
Throughout the conference process, the youth work field often also found itself having to contend with a government assumption that, rather than having value in its own right, youth work’s main role was to support and complement other ‘youth’ practices – particularly teaching and social work . One of the background papers for the first conference for example was explicit that:
To assert a legitimate right to ‘do what others aren’t doing – but differently’ … may still leave the youth service facing the sharp, but dominant question – will this be enough to justify continuing to fund a separate youth service?
What eventually emerged from the conferences was not a curriculum as such, nor as was also proposed at one stage a ‘Mission Statement’, but a Statement of Purpose reaffirming youth work as an educational practice. To this Howarth’s response was said, at best, to be ‘mixed’. He especially had reservations about some of its ‘politically charged’ language which, he suggested, risked stereotyping and demeaning young people by seeing them as victims of oppression. By early 1992 Tony Jeffs was suggesting anyway that ‘We have now moved away from curriculum to performanceindicators and outcome measures’, while a year later Howarth’s successor Tim Boswell was concluding that ‘the national debate’ … had yielded … no national core curriculum’.
In the longer run, however, as the use of ‘curriculum’ within youth work became normalised, the conference sponsors’ goal seemed largely to have been achieved. As early as 1990, for example, HMI were advocating that on professional youth and community work courses ‘curriculum development’ should be given as much attention as the development of skills in counselling and group work. And by 1998 the annual Youth Service Audit was recording that 77 per cent of local Youth Services had a written curriculum statement – something which by then anyway the New Labour had made a requirement of all local authorities.
Ajournal debate– and beyond
A decade later a more nuanced but still often divisive debate again developed. This was initiated by an NYA pamphlet, Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work, written by Bryan Merton and Tom Wylie – both former senior Youth Service HMIs, the latter at the time Chief Executive of NYA. A critical response from Jon Ord in the Spring 2004 issue of Youth and Policy – precursor to his later books covering the same themes – prompted a series of follow-up articles which, as well as again focusing on whether a ‘curriculum’ was needed or even appropriate for youth work, also explored what the concept could and should mean in a youth work context. In particular they considered whether its priority concern should be the ‘content’ of the work, its ‘product’ (that is, in current national policy language, its outcomes) – and/or, what was core for Ord, its (young person-centred and -driven) ‘process’.
Here too, policy developments at the time intruded into the debate in significant ways. Four months after the Merton and Wylie pamphlet appeared, the Labour government released Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services which required all local authorities to agree ‘a clear curriculum statement’ specifying ‘content’, ‘pedagogy’ and ‘assessment’. The paper also made clear that the statement needed to be underpinned by ‘Annual Youth Service Unique Targets’ and by a ‘Youth Service Specific Performance Measure’. Through these local authority Youth Services were set percentage targets for young people contacted, for those involved at least 4 times a year and for those worked with intensively. Resourcing Excellent Youth Services also laid down that to help achieve these targets its curriculum framework must amongst other features specify in advance:
what learning needs and content should normally be covered within a year’s programme;
the pedagogy and structured experiences which may be used; and
the arrangements for monitoring and assessment of the learning gained by individuals (and any accreditation thereof).
By the time Labour lost power in 2010 practitioners were describing these requirements as for them posing a choice between ‘young people-led versus target-led’; as ‘… top to bottom not the other way round’; andas ‘… not about tailor-making responses to need’.As more and more resources were allocated to targeted work, workers as well as some managers were talking, too, of a ‘diversion from the role’ as they experienced practice being increasingly funding- rather than needs-led.
A youth work curriculum: contradictions, dilemmas – and risks
Given the diverse and often contradictory ways (as ‘content’ and/or ‘outcome’ and/or ‘process’) in which ‘curriculum’ is still understood; given how easily these understandings can, almost unnoticed, slide into one another; and given particularly how state policy-makers have used the term to justify and even impose their requirements for targeting and for ‘measured’ impacts – for all these reasons the question that looms for me is: why, at this not very promising political moment, is NYA again exposing youth work to another ‘curriculum’ initiative?
The interactive processes – young person with young person, young person with worker – which are central to defining the distinctiveness of an ‘open’ youth work practice certainly need to be articulated as clearly as possible. Indeed, this is something which I and others have tried to do in the past. However, trapping those clarifications within a ‘curriculum’ framework – especially one that will need to be acceptable to the present government – carries the considerable risk of again diverting practitioners, managers and especially policy-makers from what young people have judged to be most helpful in their encounters with youth workers.
Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Prioritise youth services to tackle knife crime, government told’, CYPN, 14 February
Bernard Davies, 2004, ‘Curriculum in Youth Work: An old debate in new clothes’, Youth and Policy No 85, Autumn, pp88-9
Ministry of Education, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO: Para 41, 142
John Ewen, 1975, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club, NYB
Department of Education and Science, 1982, Experience and Particiipation: Report on the Review Groupon the Youth Service in England, HMSO, Para 5.5 (1) ;pp 34 and 122.
Youth Work Unit, 1983, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club: A practical guide for use in youth group/staff meetings, NYB, p 1
Ian Morrison, ‘Towards a New Curriculum: A discussion paper of ideas’, unpublished, April 1985
Eileen Newman and Gina Ingram, 1989, The Youth Work Curriculum, Foreword by Stuart McCoy, Further Education Unit, pvii
Bernard Davies, 1979. In Whose Interests? From Social Education to Social and Life Skills, NYB
HMI, 1990, ‘Initial Training for Professional Youth and Community Work: a report by HMI’, DES, Para 5
NYA/DFEE, 1998, England’s Youth Service – the 1998 Audit, Youth Work Press, pp1 Para 4; p 25
Bryan Merton and Tom Wylie, 2002, Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work, NYA; See also ‘Towards a Contemporary Curriculum for Youth Work’, Young People Now, No 162, October, pp 18-19; No 163, November, pp 19-20
Jon Ord, 2004, ‘The Youth Work Curriculum: and the ‘Transforming Youth Work Agenda, Youth and Policy, Spring, pp 43-59
Jon Ord, 2016, Youth Work Process ,Product and Practice: Creating an authentic curriculum in work with young people, (Second edition), Routledge
Youth and Policy, 84 (Summer 2004); Youth and Policy, 85, (Autumn 2004)