A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?

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’[1]. 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

Early signals

I’ve argued previously [2] 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’[3]. 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)[4]. In 1982 the Thompson Report made passing references to the Youth Service’s ‘experiential curriculum’ implemented through ‘learning by doing’[5], 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[6].   

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’[7].

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[8].            

Ministerial conferences

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[9]. 

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 performance indicators’[10].

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[11], 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’[12].   

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’[13]. 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'[14]. 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[15]. 

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[16]. 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’[18]. At a second conference a year later, as well as ‘… a clear rejection of any centrally-imposed curriculum’[19], ‘uncertainty or anxiety’ was expressed, too, about ‘targeting’ and ‘how outcomes are measured’[20]; while at the third in June 1992 ‘much time was spent revising statements which the (organising) committee had hoped would be uncontroversial’[21]. 

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?[22]  

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[23]. 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[24]. By early 1992 Tony Jeffs was suggesting anyway that ‘We have now moved away from curriculum to performance indicators and outcome measures’[25], while a year later Howarth’s successor Tim Boswell was concluding that ‘the national debate’ … had yielded … no national core curriculum’[26]. 

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[27]. 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[28].  

A journal 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[29]. A critical response from Jon Ord in the Spring 2004 issue of Youth and Policy[30] – precursor to his later books covering the same themes[31] – 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[32]. 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)[33].

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’; and as ‘ 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[34]. 

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[35]. 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. 

Bernard Davies


  1. Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Prioritise youth services to tackle knife crime, government told’, CYPN, 14 February 
  2. Bernard Davies, 2004, ‘Curriculum in Youth Work: An old debate in new clothes’, Youth and Policy No 85, Autumn, pp88-9 
  3. Ministry of Education, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO: Para 41, 142
  4. John Ewen, 1975, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club, NYB
  5. 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.
  6. Youth Work Unit, 1983, Curriculum Development in the Youth Club: A practical guide for use in youth group/staff meetings, NYB, p 1
  7. Ian Morrison, ‘Towards a New Curriculum: A discussion paper of ideas’, unpublished, April 1985
  8. Eileen Newman and Gina Ingram, 1989, The Youth Work Curriculum, Foreword by Stuart McCoy, Further Education Unit, pvii
  9. Bernard Davies, 1979. In Whose Interests? From Social Education to Social and Life Skills, NYB
  10. Janet Paraskeva, 1993, ‘National Youth Agency presentation’, Rapport, February, p 15
  11. Jackie Scott, 1990, ‘Strength through diversity’, Young People Now, No 15, July, p 36
  12. Alan Howarth, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service: Report of the First Ministerial Conference, ‘Keynote Address’, NYB, Paras 7, 13, 26, 37
  13. Janet Paraskeva, 1990, ‘Money is at the core of the youth service debate’, Letter, Times Educational Supplement, 26 October
  14. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘NYA – a New Breed of Agency’, Young People Now, No 24, April, p 34
  15. Chris Heaume, 1989, ‘Accountability is the watchword’, Young People Now, No 8, November, p 11
  16. Chris Heaume, 1989, p 11
  17. Chris Heaume, 1989, p 11
  18. Alan Howarth, 1989, Letter to Chief Education Officers, March; NYB, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service: Report of the First Ministerial Conference, pp 17, 18
  19. Tim Burke, 1990, ;Conference focuses on core curriculum’, Young People Now, No 20, December, p 35
  20. NYB, 1990, Towards a Core Curriculum – the Next Steps: Comments and Recommendations of the Ministerial Conferences Steering Group, Para 22, 32
  21. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘Curriculum creeps nearer after conference’, Young People Now, No 21, January, p 35 
  22. NYB, 1989, Towards a Core Curriculum for the Youth Service? Background papers for the first Ministerial Conference December 1989, NYB, Para 5.37, p 28,
  23. NYA, 1991, ‘Statement of Purpose’, Towards the Third Ministerial Conference, NYA, p 3
  24. Tim Burke, 1991, ‘“Service should embrace idealism”’, Young People Now, No 23,  March, pp 33-4
  25. Tony Jeffs, 1992, Concept Seminar: Youth Work in the 1990s, Moray House Institute of Education, p 13
  26. Janet Paraskeva, 1993, ‘National Youth Agency presentation’, Rapport, February, p 15
  27. HMI, 1990, ‘Initial Training for Professional Youth and Community Work: a report by HMI’, DES, Para 5
  28. NYA/DFEE, 1998, England’s Youth Service – the 1998 Audit, Youth Work Press, pp1 Para 4; p 25
  29. 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
  30. Jon Ord, 2004, ‘The Youth Work Curriculum: and the ‘Transforming Youth Work Agenda, Youth and Policy, Spring, pp 43-59 
  31. Jon Ord, 2016, Youth Work Process ,Product and Practice: Creating an authentic curriculum in work with young people, (Second edition), Routledge
  32. Youth and Policy, 84 (Summer 2004); Youth and Policy, 85, (Autumn 2004)
  33. Department of Education and Skills, 2002, Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, DES Publications, pp 16-17, available at http://www.mywf.org.uk/uploads/policy/REYSDec2002.pdf
  34. Bernard Davies and Bryan Merton, 2009, ‘Squaring the Circle: The State of Youth Work in Some Children and Young People’s Services’, Youth and Policy, No 103, Summer, pp 5-24 
  35. In Defence of Youth Work, 2009, ‘The Open Letter’, available at https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/the-in-defence-of-youth-work-letter-2/; Bernard Davies 2015, ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto For Our Times – Revisited’, Youth and Policy, No 114, May, pp 96-117, Jon Ord, 2016, Chapters 5 and 6 


In the run-up to the Election I ponder – where is youth work; where is the Youth Service? 

General election campaigns don’t usually put much of a focus on youth work or local Youth Services. And – perhaps this time particularly – why would they? Alongside, say, voters’ experience of waiting six weeks for a GP appointment or of schools struggling to put text books on their kids’ desks – to say nothing of the ‘let’s just get Brexit done’ syndrome – why would cheeky teenagers’ complaints about having nowhere to go in an evening be seen as a priority. 

Yet a number of top-down Youth Service/youth work policy initiatives have been in the pipeline over the last two-to-three months. They of course come with no guarantees that any of them will be picked up by a new government, and certainly not that they’ll be turned into effective action. Nor can they be treated uncritically by those of us committed to a practice which is open to any young person who chooses to engage and open to ‘outcomes’ as those young people might define them. 

Nonetheless as markers that for the first time in at least a decade national policy-makers might just be taking that practice seriously, it seems worth reminding ourselves of some of those interventions and of their pros as well as their cons. Because if we don’t give them some prominence in the run up to the election, who will? 

Government agendas

Gestures policies

Throughout the post-2010 austerity period, ministers have made repeated gestures to filling the gaps left by their demolition of local authorities’ year-round youth work provision. In comparison to the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for ‘youth services’ which by 2018 was going to the National Citizens Service (NCS) [1], these new ‘Funds’ – ‘Big Society’, ‘Youth Investment’, ‘Youth Engagement’, ‘Early Intervention’, ‘Life Chances’, to name but a few – have offered small amounts of funding for usually time-limited programmes. Often, too, allocated through competitive tendering, this has proved highly divisive, nationally and also within a local area. Significant proportions anyway have gone to government-favoured organisations and schemes such as Step Up to Serve’s #iwill ‘social action’ programme and uniformed youth groups, including ones linked to the armed services.      

Examples of such recent gestures include:

  • An allocation of £4 million in August 2019 towards the development of an OnSide ‘youth zone’ in Grimsby – part of a wider government ‘Town Deal’ regeneration programme [2].
  • A new £500 million Youth Investment Fund, first announced by the Chancellor Sajid Javid in his Spending Round statement in September. In response to the loss since 2012 of some 760 youth buildings and 4500 youth work jobs [3], this is offering money for 60 new youth centres, refurbishing 360 existing ones, providing 100 mobile youth facilities and ‘an investment in the youth workforce’ [4].
  • £12 million allocated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to help address ‘urgent needs in the youth sector – £5 million again for the #iwill programme and £7 million for a new ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’ to ‘expand existing successful projects … delivering extra sessions in youth clubs, and promoting positive activities in sport and the arts to help young people develop skills and contribute to their communities’[5].

Civil Society Strategy

In August 2018, the government published a Civil Society Strategy ambitiously sub-titled ‘Building a Future that Works for Everyone’ [6]. Framed by ‘a vision of the UK with better connected communities, more neighbourliness, and businesses which strengthen society’, it defined civil society ‘… not by organisational form, but in terms of activity, defined by purpose (what it is for) and control (who is in charge)’. More specifically it saw the term as referring ‘… to individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control’ – with, in this context, ‘social value’ understood as ‘enrich(ing)lives and a fairer society for all’. 

The Strategy’s ‘Mission 3’ – headed ‘opportunities for young people’ – seeks ‘to change the culture of policy design and implementation so that young people are systematically involved in shaping the policies that affect them’. The aim of these policies are explained as to ‘broaden our approach so that all young people from an early age can access a range of positive and integrated activities including youth programmes, cultural activities, and volunteering’. Options are to be explored ‘for building on the cross-sector partnership created by the #iwill campaign, to identify how the existing offer for young people can be improved’. Also given strong endorsement, including via a ‘success story’ case study, are the National Citizens Service and uniformed youth groups.

As always in government youth policy statements of this period, one of the paper’s repeated emphases is on ‘ensuring … the most disadvantaged young people transition into work…’ and that they ‘… develop the skills and habits of social responsibility during their childhood and youth’. This is seen as applying, too, to what the paper calls ‘the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have’ which are described as ‘especially important ‘for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage’. 

The Strategy also promised to set up a ‘Civil Society Youth Steering Group’ to ‘oversee the development and implementation of policies affecting young people’. Action on this came in February 2019 with a DCMS 12-month grant of £170,000 to the British Youth Council (BYC), to be used in part to establish a ‘Youth Steering Group’ and a ‘Young Inspectors Group’ [7].

In October 2019, a new Civil Society minister, Baroness Barran, published a review of progress in implementing the Strategy. In this she talked of ‘continu(ing) to invest in positive activities for young people to enable them to fulfil their potential and contribute to their communities’. Again given particular emphasis was the NCS programme ‘that helps build a more responsible, more cohesive and more engaged society’. ‘Investments’ in other youth programmes and organisations were confirmed. These included £5 million for uniformed youth groups such as Fire Cadets and Scouts to create over 10,000 new places for young people in ‘disadvantaged’ areas and £40 million for volunteering and community engagement through the #iwill Fund [8].

Just two weeks after the minister’s review appeared, the ‘election manifesto’ of the voluntary sector’s umbrella body, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), suggested some significant gaps in the Strategy. For example, NCVO in called on the government to involve charities more in policy making and in particular to ‘strengthen its commitment to social value’. It made clear, too, that the sector required more, and more reliable, resources, specifically highlighting the need to ensure that lost EU funding to the UK was replaced at ‘a comparable level of investment’. It also proposed that some of the billions of pounds stuck in dormant bank accounts be used to set up a community wealth fund [9].

Review of the Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being 

A policy initiative with the potential for longer-term impact on local authority decision-making – a review of the statutory guidance on the provision of local youth services – was also flagged up in the Civic Society Strategy paper. Though starting from the somewhat limited rationale that since the 2012 revision ‘much has happened to change the way these services are provided’, the aim was explained as to ‘provide greater clarity of government’s expectations, including the value added by good youth work’ [10]

Almost a year elapsed before the then minister for Civil Society Mims Davies restated the original commitment to it and a further three months for her successor, Baroness Barran, to make a call for evidence [11]. With a closing date of 1st December 2019, this is now being gathered through an 11-page questionnaire for service providers, a 4-page questionnaire for young people and a 6-page ‘Tool for Conversations with Young People’ [12]. The aim – set before the election was called – is currently for updated guidance to be published in the spring of 2020.

Any appraisal of these moves, however, has to start with some crucial cautions. 

  • When the current statutory guidance was published in June 2012 even organisations whose ‘independence of state control’ was by then under growing pressure described the new guidelines as lacking clarity and the ‘objective measures’ needed for judging a local authority’s provision [13]. 
  • In line with post-2010 governments’ highly individualised ways of defining young people’s needs and problems, the 2012 revision of the guidelines narrowed the local authority’s duty from a more broadly educational one to one focused on just young people’s ‘well-being’. 
  • Though within two years of this guidance being issued a Cabinet Office report revealed that 56 of the 97 councils surveyed were not fully adhering to it [14], it had taken another five years to persuade ministers that another revision might be needed [15].

With most of the review questions framed in very bland ways, they offer no prompts for locating responses in the wider resource and infrastructure problems which have led to open youth work’s widespread demise across England. For example, question 12 of the questionnaire for service providers’ offers only four tick-box options – from ‘Very well’ to ‘Very poorly’ – for judging how well the existing guidance achieves the aim of ‘advis(ing) local authorities on what to take into account when deciding what services and activities to secure for young people’. No encouragement is given therefore for commenting on how the guidance’ may have allowed local authorities to marginalise open forms of youth work – by for example, in its very first lines, effectively de-prioritising young people who, it says, have ‘the right supportive relationships… ’; and then by repeatedly insisting that the focus must be on the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘disadvantaged’ [16]

Some embedded assumptions in a later question, number 13, also need to be challenged if the guidance is to contribute to the reinstatement of forms of open youth work. One, for example, by baldly stating that ‘the leadership role of local authorities’ is just about ‘convening key stakeholders’, seems to rule out what will surely often be crucial in the future – that those authorities again act proactively as direct providers. Another – on ‘the role of qualified youth workers’ – not only limits this to ‘leading positive activities for young people’. It also skirts round the fall in the number of students on qualifying courses between 2011-12 and 2017-18 from 951 to 432 [17] and, no less essential, the need for government and others also to re-establish the training routes for part-timers and volunteers.

One bottom-line demand, however, will need to underpin all such responses: the deletion of a phrase, used three times in the 2012 guidance (paras 2, 3, 5), which allows – requires? – local authorities to provide their ‘local offer’ for young people only ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Under the pressure of the major cuts to councils’ funding since 2010, particularly to their Treasury Revenue Support Grant, those six words have rendered the guidance largely meaningless.

The NYA: in support of government policy 

Under similar financial pressures, the NYA has in recent years often seemed to be operating like any voluntary sector organisation – by for example jointly managing NCS programmes in the North East. However, it still describes itself as ‘the national body for youth work’ and carries out important national functions – particularly, through its Education and Training Sub-committee (ETS), the validation of the youth work qualifications in England recognised by the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC).

In seeking to play this national role, over the last year NYA has taken a number of initiatives which, though at times seeming to tack to what is likely to appeal to ministerial thinking, have supplemented some of the government’s own policy responses. 

  • In 2018, after urging that a ‘youth covenant’ setting out the government’s overall commitment to young people be included in the Civil Society Strategy, it has now published its own Youth Covenant [18].
  • Between July and October this year it ran consultation ‘roadshows’ in eight regions of England, one of whose agenda items was the DCMS’s review of the statutory guidance to local authorities. This was followed in October by a National Youth Work Summit attended by ‘80 youth sector leaders’.
  • Also in October it published a youth service’s ‘Sufficiency Statement’, with ‘sufficiency’ defined as ‘at least two professional youth workers and a team of youth support workers and trained volunteers …. for each secondary school catchment area’. It proposed, too, that such guidance ‘… be supported by a clear statement from government on the importance of providing a sufficient offer to young people’ to include ‘easily available … universal settings’ alongside other services. The statement also endorsed proposals by both the government and the Labour Party (see below) that future Youth Services be managed overall by local youth partnerships, to include representation from young people and the voluntary sector [19]
  • This month NYA launched the £500,000 scheme, announced by the government in July, to in its first year provide 450 bursaries for youth workers qualifying at NVQ Levels 2 and 3. Though greeted sceptically by the Chief Executive of London Youth for failing even to replace ‘the 800 youth work positions that have disappeared in London alone over the last decade’, the scheme was presented by NYA as part of its own ‘national initiative to grow the workforce’ [20].
  • In its own ‘High 5’ General Election manifesto NYA sought commitments from the political parties’ to its proposed Youth Covenant and local youth partnerships and to its definition of Sufficiency [21].

NYA seems, too, to be intending to embed open youth work more firmly in its own programmes by appointing JNC-qualified and experienced staff as a Director of Youth Work and a Youth Work Specialist [22].

The opposition parties: where is the youth work?

The Liberal Democrats

Albeit without any noticeable pre-campaign build-up, in a sub-section in their Election Manifesto headed ‘A Public Health Approach to Violence’, the LibDems’ commitment to youth work is explained as:

Invest in youth services. We will provide a £500m ring-fenced youth services fund to local authorities to repair the damage done to youth services and enable them to deliver a wider range of services, reach more young people and improve training for youth workers [23]

The Green Party

Also framed as a primarily preventative – especially anti-crime – practice, the Green Party’s election commitment to youth work is expressed as:   

Invest in youth services and centres, to help turn at-risk children away from crime. All the evidence shows the cuts in youth services have increased crime, especially knife crime. To end knife crime once and for all we need to invest in specialist programmes provided through youth centres [24].

The Labour Party vision

In two separate sections of its Manifesto the Labour commitments are presented as:

We will rebuild our youth services and guarantee young people’s access to youth workers.

… Too many young people now have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to help them with their problems. Labour will build a properly funded, professionally staffed National Youth Service, and will guarantee every young person has access to local, high-quality youth work [25].

In Labour’s case, however, these two bald statements have to be seen as emerging from a process which, starting in late 2018 with a consultation exercise, led a month before the election to the publication of Only Young Once, Labour’s detailed 35-page ‘vision for rebuilding Youth Services’[26].This has now been followed by an 8-page ‘youth manifesto’, The Future is Ours [27]. Both in its grasp of the defining features of the practice and in its actual proposals, Only Young Once offers the most comprehensive and convincing blueprint yet of how, both strategically and on the ground, open youth work might be genuinely re-embedded in any future ‘youth offer’. Indeed, if Labour’s proposals ever actually get to be implemented, it could come to be seen as the Albemarle report for the 21st century [28].

As I have already offered my response to the paper [29], what follows focuses on the conclusions and proposals which, in the run up to the Election, seem particularly worth restating and on some issues needing further clarification and debate. 

Starting from a recognition of the damage caused by the demolition of local Youth Services since 2010, the paper for example:

  • Tasks Youth Services with recognising ‘the agency young people have as a group to be empowered’; with helping to ‘realise their full potential and live successfully in their communities’; and with ‘address(ing) social inequalities … including discrimination and racial disparities…’.
  • Defines the main purpose of the practice as ‘to provide non-formal education that supports the personal, social and political development of all young people…’.
  • Describes this provision as ‘based on relationships of trust between young people and trained youth workers’, with ‘voluntary participation … applying across all levels’ and ‘interaction … negotiated with young people from the outset’.
  • Locates this practice ‘in a range of contexts and settings in which young people choose to be…’.
  • Identifies youth workers as contributing ‘vital forms of skilled support…’, including to ‘groups with specific identities, such as LGBT+ people, young people with special needs, young women, or specific religious communities’. 

To help ensure that – ‘in its own right’ and ‘independent and complementary to other services’ – this open youth work provision is reinstated, Labour’s proposal include:

  • Appointing ‘a Minister for Children and Young People responsible for the national youth service (to) sit within the Department for Education supporting the Secretary of State’.
  • New legislation setting out local authorities’ statutory duties which, rather than offering ‘a get-out clause: that the youth work activities … be provided only “so far as reasonably practicable”’, instead ‘clearly defines a base level of (youth work) sufficiency’….
  • Long–term, stable funding for youth services to ensure all young people have access to high quality youth work provision that matches their needs’.
  • The development of ‘a national youth workforce development strategy’.

In relatively open-minded ways the paper also addresses two on–going youth work dilemmas:

  • How to develop methods and processes of evaluation which ‘fit’ with the practice’s young people-led and ‘on the wing’ approaches and interventions.
  • How to ‘professionalise’ the work and its workforce by, for example, establishing a formally endorsed ‘licence to practice’ while at the same time continuing to recognise and indeed give credit to the huge contribution made by volunteer youth workers.

Unavoidably, perhaps, given its scope, the paper does leave some important questions unanswered. Two which, for me, stand out are:

  • Within Labour’s proposed highly ambitious open youth work offer, what is to happen to resource-hungry NCS programmes which have regularly failed to meet their recruitment targets?
  • For actually delivering this offer in the young people-focused ways envisaged, can local authorities’ often inflexible internal power relationships, structures and procedures adapt – perhaps radically – to work with and through the paper’s proposed ‘collaborative partnerships at local, regional, national and international level’? 

Even allowing for these ambiguities – and assuming of course that Labour manages to get a handle on power – Only Young Once suggests that buried within those two brief Manifesto sentences are the best prospects we’ve had for a very long time for sustained and appropriately focused state sponsorship and funding for open youth work. 


1. Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to Account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June

2. Neil Puffett, 2019, ‘“Government announces money for new youth zone”’, CYPN, 16 August

3. Unison. (2018) ‘Youth services at breaking point’, at  https://www.unison.org.uk/youth-services-report/

 4. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Javid announces £500m for youth fund”’ CYPN, 30 September; Gov.UK, 2019, ‘Chancellor announces support for post-Brexit future’, 30 September, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-announces-support-for-post-brexit-future–2

 5. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government announces £12m boost for youth sector”’, CYPN, 25 October; GOV.UK, 2019, ‘£12 million boost for youth projects’, 25 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/12-million-boost-for-youth-projects

6. HM Government, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone, August, at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/732765/Civil_Society_Strategy_-_building_a_future_that_works_for_everyone.pdf

7. GOV.UK, 2019, ‘DCMS launches new youth voice projects’, February, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dcms-launches-new-youth-voice-projects

8.  DCMS, 2019, at ‘Policy paper; #OurCivilSociety’, 25 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-civil-society/ourcivilsociety

9. NCVO, 2019, A bigger Role in Building Our Future: Our vision for charities and volunteering, NCVO, 11 November https://publications.ncvo.org.uk/bigger-role-building-our-future/greater-role-more-open-democracy/; Liam Kay, 2019, ‘NCVO calls on the next government to do more to engage with civil society’, Third Sector, 12 November

10. HM Government, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a Society That Works for Everyone, p 42, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-society-strategy-building-a-future-that-works-for-everyone

11. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government launches review of youth work guidance”’, CYPN, 10 July; Derren Hayes, 2019, ‘“Call for evidence into council youth work duties”’, CYPN, 3 October 

12. GOV.UK, 2019, Statutory guidance review for local youth services: have your say’, 3 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/statutory-guidance-review-for-local-youth-services-have-your-say

13. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘“Youth services guidance must be clearer, commission says”’, CYPN, 29 May; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘“Revised youth service guidance still too vague, sector warns’”’, CYPN, 17 July

14. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘“Youth funding and services cut as councils overlook legal duty”’, CYPN, 22 July  

15.  Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘“Youth minister Rob Wilson rejects statutory services motion”’, CYPN, 4 December

16. GOV.UK, 2012, ‘Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being’, p 7, at  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/836238/Statutory_Guidance_for_Local_Authorities_on_Services_and_Activities_to_Improve_Young_People_s_Well-being.pdf

17. Dan Parton, 2019, ‘“Youth work training figures reveal record lows”’, CYPN, 12 August 

18. NYA, Youth Covenant, 2019, at https://nya.org.uk/youth-covenant/

19. NYA, 2019, ‘NYA Sufficiency Statement: ‘A base-line for youth services’, October, at https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/NYA-Sufficiency-Statement-Discussion-Paper.pdf

20. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Youth work bursaries dwarfed by scale of cuts, says charity”’, CYPN, 29 July;  NYA, 2019, ‘NYA to Launch new Bursary Fund’, November, at https://nya.org.uk/2019/11/nya-to-launch-new-bursary-fund/

21. NYA, 2019, ‘High 5 –Full Manifesto’, November, at https://nya.org.uk/high-5-full-manifesto/

22. NYA, 2019, ‘Vacancies with the National Youth Agency, at https://nya.org.uk/about-us/jobs/#id2, accessed 19 November 2019

23. Liberal Democrats, 2019, Stop Brexit: Build a Brighter Future¸ p 71, at https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/57307/attachments/original/1574267252/Stop_Brexit_and_Build_a_Brighter_Future.pdf?1574267252

24. Green Party, 2019, If not Now, When?, p 65, at https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Elections/Green%20Party%20Manifesto%202019.pdf

25. Labour Party, 2019, It’s time for Real Change: Labour Party Manifesto 2019,pp 43, 51,at https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/rebuild-our-public-services/

26. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, October, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Only-Young-Once.pdf

27. Labour Party, 2019, The Future is Ours: Youth Manifesto, November, at https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Future-is-Ours.pdf

28. Ministry of Education, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO

29. See https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/10/15/the-labour-partys-vision-for-open-youth-work/. See also Tony Taylor, 2019, ‘Labour’s Radical Manifesto commits to a National Youth Service’, at https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/11/23/labours-radical-manifesto-commits-to-a-national-youth-service/

Breaching the Social Contract with Young People

In this piece I seek to update the evidence on the ‘condition of youth’ in the UK today and outline a range of personal and structural issues which young people are currently having to negotiate, often with declining support from key state services.

The article appeared first in Youth & Policy at https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/breaching-the-social-contract/

Creating a new youth precariat

Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England started from the proposition that a decade after the 2007-08 banking crisis ‘a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract’ has occurred resulting in young people’s living standards in the future ‘… likely not to be as high as they are for their parents’.[1] Some of the evidence for this came from the government’s own sources such as its Household Income Data – that for the third year running in 2016-17 the number of children living in relative poverty had increased to its highest level since 2007-08.[2] Six months later, a new measure of poverty from the Social Metrics Commission put this total at 4.5 million, with more than half predicted as likely to remain trapped in that situation for years.[3] Though often hidden in reports labelling them ‘children’[4], those in their teens and even into their twenties were thus already being recognised as firmly embedded within what had come to be recognised as the new ‘precariat’.

 By late 2018 it had become clear, too, that this experience of poverty, intersecting with wider structural factors, was contributing to a range of damaging outcomes for young people:

  • Between 2012-13 and 2016-17 the number of young people referred to the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) rose by 56 per cent, with the proportion of under 18’s who had self-harmed increasing by over 20 per cent.[5] A Children’s Society survey of 11,000 14 year olds published the following month revealed that over a year nearly a quarter of girls had self-harmed compared with under one in ten boys.[6]
  • A survey by the charity Crisis reported in 2014 that 8 per cent of 16-24 year olds had been homeless in the previous five years.[7] According to a Homeless Link report published in April 2018, more than a quarter of young people accessing homelessness services in the previous twelve months had been aged 16 or 17.[8] Figures released in November 2018 by the youth homeless organisation Centrepoint, however, revealed that during 2017-18, 52 per cent of 16-24 year olds who had sought help from their local councils had been turned away.[9]
  • Research by the Joseph Rowntrees Foundation and others identified white 16 year old boys living in ‘post-industrial’ communities as the lowest academic achievers.[10]
  • As acknowledged even by the government, ethnic minority young people were facing an ‘enormous social mobility challenge … from reaching their full potential at every stage of their lives’.[11] Its own findings in April 2018 showed that, when only 13 per cent of the UK population as a whole belonged to a BAME group, over 48 per cent of under-18s then in custody were classed as BAME.[12]

It was perhaps hardly surprising therefore that 15 year olds in England and Wales were amongst the least likely to express high levels of satisfaction with their lives.[13] Indeed, according to a 2017 Prince’s Trust survey, 28 per cent of the 2200 16-25 year olds interviewed described themselves as ‘trapped by the circumstances’ and ‘out of control’ of their lives[14].

Youth in poverty (continued)…

Authoritative research has continued to emerge over the past twelve months, including again from government sources, which both confirms and illuminates that generational breach of the social contract. Though some of the evidence is focused on 18-29 year olds, it nonetheless illustrates the likely future for the young people youth workers are meeting now and indeed what those young people themselves are often expecting.

Ta to youthareawesome.com

A Resolution Foundation study published in August 2019, for example, found that at the same stage of life, 26-28 year olds born in the later 1980s were by 2019 earning only 3 per cent more than their counterparts in the 1970s. After allowing for inflation, those in the East Midlands were earning some 2.7 per cent less than their age group had been earning in 2003. By comparison, the earnings of 28 year olds born in the early 1970s had been 16 per cent higher than those born just over a decade earlier.[15]

 For the current generation of young people, direct experience of poverty was already much more widespread. In March 2019, the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) reported that during 2017-18, the number of children living in absolute poverty had increased by 200,000 and those in relative poverty by 300,000 – the latter to 4.1 million or 30 per cent of the age group.[16] Some of the personal as well as material consequences were indicated the following month in a Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report which found that a quarter of children from low-income families were going hungry during the school day with some who qualified for free school meals, such as 15 year old Maddy, left humiliated by the way staff treated them.[17]

Based on a finding that the majority of children in one in every 40 council wards was living below the poverty line, the End Child Poverty coalition thus warned in May 2019 that in some areas child poverty was becoming the ‘new normal’.[18] This conclusion was given at least implicit support two months later by the Social Metrics Commission which found that 7 million people, including 2.3 million children, had been in poverty for at least two of the three previous years.[19] All this was occurring, moreover, just as (in 2017-18) the disposable income of the richest one per cent of individuals was increasing by more than seven times the average.[20]

Some of the most compelling evidence on UK poverty, however, came from a non-UK source – the United Nations ‘rapporteur’ on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. Based on a two-week fact-finding tour in November 2018, his final report (released in May 2019) labelled the situation in which four million children were by then living in poverty in the UK as a ‘social calamity’. It was ‘crystal clear’, he said, that this, the result of the government’s ‘austerity experiment’, amounted to a ‘systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population’ with DWP seemingly having been ‘tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse’. Alston also pointed specifically to the ‘slashed government spending on services’ as a direct cause of ‘the 40 per cent of children predicted to be living in poverty in two years time’.

….Within a structurally unequal society

A key overall conclusion drawn by the government’s Social Mobility Commission from this accumulating evidence was that inequality in Britain was ‘now entrenched from birth to work’ – that is, including within the teenage period – and that ‘being born privileged means you are likely to remain privileged…’ Children who had ‘professional’ parents were thus 80 per cent more likely to go into a professional occupation, while even those from working class backgrounds who made this journey successfully still on average earned 17 per cent less than ‘more privileged colleagues’.[21]

These conclusions – including again at least implicitly that the social contract with the young had been broken – were supported by a House of Lords Select Committee report published in April 2019. It pointed, for example, to ‘a structural shift’ between the generations and the ‘failure of successive governments to plan for the future and prepare for social, economic and technological change’. It also warned that if the government did not act, young people could soon ‘grow to resent older people for having … benefited from a lifetime of well-paid secure employment of which younger generations can only dream’. The Lords’ report attracted immediate endorsement from the British Youth Council which listed five issues which were key for young people including ‘investment in services such as youth provision’.[22]  

Personal pressures…

For many young people, their lived experiences of poverty continued to bring damaging personal consequences. Research by the Social Mobility Commission for the then Education Secretary Damian Hinds found ‘huge disparities’ in 10-15 year olds’ involvement in out-of-school activities when related to household income, with for example, the gap in participation in sporting activities reaching around 20 per cent. As well as pointing to cost and difficulties of access as likely explanations, the report noted, too, that ‘youth provision has been cut back by local councils’.[23]

Young people also continued to register a wider and deeper personal disillusion with their condition – as indicated, for example, by a Prince’s Trust survey published in February 2019. Over the previous decade, this found, the number of 16-25 year olds who judged life not worth living had doubled from 9 per cent to 18 per cent. Though many did see positives in their involvement with social media, just under half of those responding said that when comparing themselves with others using these sites, they became more anxious about their future, with 57 per cent feeling that they created ‘overwhelming pressure’ to succeed.[24] Related findings emerged from an August 2019 Young Minds report: that, as well as 77 per cent of the 7,000 young people it surveyed citing school as a pressure and 69 per cent worried about their appearance, 27 per cent said that spending too much time on social media had impacts on their mental health.[25]  

An Action for Children survey of 11-18 year olds and their parents and grandparents published in July 2019 also identified pressures to meet peers’ expectations and to achieve at school as well as anxieties about poverty, Brexit and climate change. A significant conclusion drawn from this evidence was that ‘The country is sleepwalking into a crisis in childhood and, far from being carefree, our children are buckling under the weight of unprecedented social pressures, global turmoil and a void in government policy which should keep them well and safe’.[26]

Climate change and sexual harassment again appeared as serious concerns for the 14-25 year old young women surveyed by Girlguiding, prompting the organisation to publish a ‘Future Girls’ manifesto in April 2019 addressing these and other issues.[27] Rising levels of dissatisfaction with life – what the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society called ‘a national scandal’ – were recorded, too, by the Society’s ‘Good Childhood’ annual survey of 2,400 households and its longitudinal study covering 40,000 households. Released in August 2019, this pointed to a fall in overall contentment amongst the 10-15 year olds interviewed which had left some 219,000 children in the UK describing themselves as unhappy. More specifically, a third said they were very or quite worried about having enough money in the future, 29 per cent about getting a job and 41 per cent about the environment, with those living in poverty most likely to worry about their mental health. Of particular relevance to youth workers, perhaps, was the finding that they were ‘increasingly unhappy with their friendships’.[28]

Within this overall environment of pressure and anxiety, disturbing evidence again emerged on how serious the mental health impacts had become for a growing number of young people. By 2019, for example, the rate of teenage suicides in England had increased from just over three in 100,000 in 2010 to more than five in 100,000; while in 2018 the rate amongst 20-24 year old men was 31 per cent higher than it had been the previous year. New evidence on self-harming also revealed that between 2000 and 2014, it rose amongst 16-24 year old young women from 6.5 per cent to 19.7 per cent of the age group and amongst young men from 4.2 per cent to 7.9 per cent.[29]

…And practical consequences

Behind this personal disillusion and indeed desperation lay a wider range of everyday, often structural-rooted, realities with significant practical impacts. Updated statistics from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, for example, revealed that that 48 per cent of young men in young offender institutions who in 2016-17 had identified as from a BAME background had a year later risen to 51 per cent.[30]    

For young people more widely, in some crucial areas their life choices were narrowing substantially. Co-inciding with a fall by half since 1997 in the proportion of 26-28 year olds owning their own home[31], the proportion of 20-34 year olds living with their parents rose in the same period from 2.4 million (19.48 per cent) to 3.4 million (25.91 per cent).[32] In mid-2019 the largest-ever survey of potential first-time buyers carried out by the mortgage lender Santander revealed that, though 91 per cent of those interviewed still aspired to buy their own home, by 2026 fewer than 25 per cent of the 18-34 year old age group would be in a position to do that. (This compared with half of under-34 year olds who were homeowners in 2006).[33] For the founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, this provided further evidence of the ‘breaking (of) the social contract’ and prompted a warning from Generation Rent, an organisation representing young people priced out of housing market that ‘resentment is growing’.[34]

Another crucial component of the purported social contract – opportunities for personal advancement via educational participation and achievement – also seemed to be under growing strain. New evidence showed, for example, that 22 per cent of pre-1992 graduates and 34 per cent those who had graduated in or after 2007 were not doing jobs requiring degree-level qualifications.[35] Perhaps not unconnected, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that, albeit by only 0.2 per cent, for the first time since 2010-11 the proportion of UK state pupils going to university had fallen; and that in the period since 2012 when tuition fees were raised to £9,000 recruitment of students from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ had gone up by only 0.7 per cent, to 11.6 per cent. Moreover, at time when according to a National Educational Opportunities Network report more than half of England’s university intakes still included fewer than 5 per cent of ‘poor white students’,[36] funding for an alternative route which some 16-19 year olds might have chosen – further education – had since 2012 been cut by 12 per cent.[37]

Even about a ‘youth’ policy area where, it could be argued, progress had been made – a 61.1 per cent reduction between 2009 and 2019 in the under-18s pregnancy rates – Public Health England’s teenage pregnancy advisor remained cautious. ‘Significant reductions in inequalities’, she said, ‘will also depend on tackling the wider determinants of early pregnancy and poor outcomes’ including family poverty.[38]

Where are the services: where is state policy?

Far from responding to these ‘wider determinants’ of young people’s condition, state policy, local and national, was usually in denial about them. In responding to the Alston UN report on UK poverty the DWP, for example, chose to highlight UN data which, it claimed, showed that ‘the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live’. In direct contradiction of Alston’s conclusion that ‘millions of those who are in work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope’, it also went on insisting that ‘… full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life’[39].

In this environment, the core services on which the young relied continued to struggle to provide even crucial everyday support.

  • The Young Minds survey quoted earlier, for example, found that 67 per cent of its 7000 respondents hadn’t been able to get help with their mental health problems when they first needed it; that 78 per cent had had to manage their mental health on their own when help elsewhere wasn’t available; but that only 17 per cent were confident about doing this. Forty five per cent of those interviewed who had sought support from youth clubs said they had found this helpful (21 per cent said it hadn’t been) – though only 13 per cent had actually been able to find this source of help in their area.[40]
  • Research carried out by Homeless Link concluded that in 2018, young people continued to be over-represented in the use of homelessness services in England with 30 per cent of 16-25 year olds accessing these services even though this age group made up only 12.3 per cent of the population.
  • The annual ‘Vulnerability Report’ of the Children’s Commissioner in England estimated that in 2019, 2.3 million children were then living in a ‘vulnerable family’. Some 829,000 of these were seen as ‘“invisible” (in the sense that they were not known to services) and therefore not getting any support’ while for an additional 761,000 known to the services, the level of care was ‘unclear’. The report thus concluded that the care being offered to around 1.6 million children from a vulnerable family background was ‘either patchy or non-existent’.[41]

The Children’s Commissioner drew from her findings one particularly challenging message for the government: that ‘it might cost in the region of £10bn per year to fix this broken problem’. For her, ‘fixing’ had, amongst other things, to include opening schools in the holidays and providing ‘youth services to tackle gang violence’. With 25 per cent of all spending on children going on just the 1.1 per cent defined as needing acute and specialist services, the Chair of the Local Government Association’s used the report’s appearance to remind ministers that ‘children’s services were at a “tipping point” as a result of increasingly high levels of demand for support and cuts in central government funding’.[42]

Moreover, despite repeated promises from at least late 2018 that austerity was coming to an end, including in the Chancellor Sajid Javid’s recent Spending Review statement in Parliament, its impacts continued to be felt well into 2019. For the current financial year, for example, Derbyshire’s Conservative administration planned to cut its ‘early help’ budget from £12.9 million to £4.5 million, with the loss of 160 jobs. This meant ending all funding for ‘generic youth activity clubs’, a ‘community grants scheme’ was proposed ‘to help more organisations provide a wider range of community-based youth activities for teenagers.’[43]

As a way, he said, of ‘getting young people off the streets and changing lives for the better’, Javid did allocate money to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘to develop proposals for a new Youth Investment Fund…… to set out plans to build more youth centres, refurbish existing centres, and deliver high quality services to young people across the country’. No details were given in the Statement and none appeared in the days immediately afterwards on how much money is to be made available or on how, precisely, it is to be used. Given how Javid introduced the announcement, however – with a glowing account of a visit to ‘the fantastic Onside Youth Zone in Barking…. a brilliant example of how much Britain’s network of youth centres add to our communities’ – it was clear that this new example of ‘gesture funding’ had nothing to do with reviving locally based forms of open access youth work. [44] This conclusion was given greater credence by one highly significant ‘absence’ in Javid’s Statement: any indication that he might be considering reversing the ‘cuts in central government funding’ referred to above by the LGA spokesperson. These had been achieved particularly by his Department’s virtual elimination of its Revenue Support Grant to local councils – a policy which over the previous decade had had very direct and especially damaging impacts on local authority Youth Services.

Broader government policies since Johnson became Prime Minister have made it clear that reinstating these ‘soft’ forms of provision for young people is unlikely to appear on his administration’s agenda. Amongst the earliest decisions, for example, were to fund 20,000 additional police posts, to extend virtually unrestricted stop-and-search procedures across the country and to provide 10,000 new prison places. By August 2019, the Home Office had published draft guidance for the introduction of ‘knife crime prevention orders’ which, amongst other punishments, could impose a curfew on anyone aged 12 or older who the police believed was carrying a knife or who had a previous knife crime conviction.[45]

The same hard-line ‘populist’ approach to young people was demonstrated in the new government’s proposed educational ‘reforms’, leaked in August 2019. One of their wider contexts (some of which the drafters were clearly aware) was that permanent school exclusions were already at their highest level for nearly a decade; that they were being targeted disproportionately at Black students; and that the young people left in limbo as a result often found themselves at risk on the streets and more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system.[46] Despite evidence that these exclusions were in some schools driven by their strict disciplinary procedures, the leaked papers nonetheless revealed that the government was intending to give renewed and explicit endorsement to the use by teachers of ‘reasonable force’.

…And the future?

One uncomfortable message coming out of policies with priorities such as these, is that reinstating a practice like youth work with its commitment to being personally educational and to operate in people-centred ways, is likely to be well down the present government’s agenda, if it appears at all.

More broadly, however, these policies, materially and ideologically, are unlikely in any substantive way to address many of the ‘condition of youth’ challenges outlined in this piece. Despite Javid’s beyond-austerity claims for his spending plans, the Department of Education will still be dealing with an 11 per cent cut in its resources since 2009-10 and the DCMS a 12 per cent cut.[47] No less damagingly in the long run, embedded within these policies are explanations of the problems with which so many young people are struggling, which miss or marginalise some of their most crucial features. Implicitly as well as explicitly, for example, they repeatedly locate responsibility – blame – for those problems in the young person as an individual and/or, at its widest, in her/his ‘dysfunctional’ family. Not only, therefore, do they ignore deeper structural causes – shaped for example by the class, gender and race factors reflected in some of the statistics quoted earlier; they also are liable to sideline closer-to-home institutional factors such as, in schools, how a focus on ensuring a top place in the examination league tables can result in some 10,000 year-10s and 11s being ‘off-rolled’ and then no longer traceable within the state system.[48]

All of which seems to point to a pretty gloomy conclusion: that current government approaches and initiatives will not only do little to relieve the pressures as evidenced in this post on young people and on the services working with them. They could even make them worse.


[1] John Lanchester, 2018, ‘After the Fall’, London Review of Books, Vol 40, No 13, 5 July

[1] Tristan Donovan, 2018A, ‘“Child poverty hits highest level in decade”’, CYPN, 22 March

[2] Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘New study finds 4.5 million UK children living in poverty’, Guardian, 17 September

[3] See for example Brigid Francis-Devine et al, 2019, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, Briefing paper 7096, House of Commons Library, 2 July which defined ‘children’ as ‘… aged under 16, or who are aged 16-19, not married or co-habiting and in full-time non-advanced education’.

[4] Denis Campbell, 2018, ‘NHS unit on the frontline oin a child mental health crisis’, Guardian, 3 July

[5] Sarah Marsh and Amanda Boateng, 2018, ‘Quarter of UK girls self-harm at 14, “deeply worrying” survey reveals’, Guardian 29 August

[6] Emma Jackson, 2016, ‘We are on the brink of a homelessness crisis among young people’, Guardian, 9 February

[7] Joe Lepper, 2018A, ‘Youth homelessness rise linked to welfare reforms, report finds”’, CYPN 16 April

[8] Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘Half of young people facing homelessness denied help – report’, Guardian, 11 November

[9] Harris Beider, 2011, ‘White working-class views of neighbourhood cohesion and change’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November; Mary Clare-Travers, 2017, ‘White working class boys: Teachers matter’, BERA, 31 August,  https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/white-working-class-boys-teachers-matter

[10] Social Mobility Commission, 2017, ‘Young Muslims in the UK face enormous social mobility barriers’, GOV.UK,

[11] Neil Puffett, 2018A, ‘“Surge in proportion of black, Asian and ethnic minority children in custody”’, CYPN, 8 June

[12] Sally Weale, 2016, ‘British teenagers amongst the least satisfied in western world’, Guardian, 15 March

[13] Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“One in four young people ‘don’t feel in control of their life”’, CYPN, 6 January; Owen op cit

[14] Owen Jones, 2017, ‘The Tory policy for young people in Britain is victimisation by design’, Guardian, 12 January

[15] Richard Partington, 2019, ‘East Midlands shows biggest slip in living standards from previous generation’, Guardian, 29 August

[16] Phillip Inman and Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Poverty increases among children and pensioners across UK’, Guardian, 28 March; Brigid Francis-Devine et al, 2019, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, Briefing paper 7096, House of Commons Library, 2 July.

[17] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Quarter of children from low-income families ‘go hungry’”’, CYPN, 2 April

[18] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Child poverty becoming the ‘new normal’, campaigners warn”’, CYPN, 15 May

[19] Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘More than 4m in the UK trapped in poverty, study finds’, Guardian, 29 July

[20] Danny Dorling, 2019, ‘Letters – Anti-Masochism’, London Review of Books, Vol 41, no 12, 20 June 

[21] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in UK “virtually stagnant” since 2014’, Guardian, 30 April

[22] www.parliament.uk, 2019, ‘Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Tackling intergeneration unfairness’, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldintfair/329/32911.htm#_idTextAnchor107, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“BYC backs measures to tackle intergenerational inequality”’, CYPN, 26 April

[23] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Disadvantaged children missing out on out-of-school activities”’, CYPN, 19 July

[24] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February

[25] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August      

[26] Action for Children, 2019, ‘Childhood in crisis: Almost two thirds of parents and grandparents say childhood getting worse – and nearly two million children in the UK agree’, 9 July, available at https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-blogs/press-releases/2019/july/childhood-in-crisis/; Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘UK “sleepwalking into a crisis of childhood”, charity warns’, Guardian 9 July

[27] Amy Walker, 2019, ‘Climate change and sexual harassment top list of girls’ concerns’, Guardian, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Manifesto draws on views of 76,000 girls and young women”’, CYPN, 25 April

[28] Matthew Weaver, 2019, ‘Children in the UK least happy they have been in a decade, says report’, Guardian, 28 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Happiness study raises fears of children’s mental health”’, CYPN, 29 August

[29] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February; Denis Cambell, 2019, One in five young women have self-harmed, study reveals’, Guardian 4 June; Damien Gayle, 2019, ‘Men hit hardest as UK suicide rate soars to its highest since 2002’, Guardian, 4 September

[30] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Half of boys in YOIs are from BME backgrounds’ CYPN, 29 January; Jamie Grierson, 2019, ‘Half of young inmate are from BAME background’, Guardian, 29 January

[31] Richard Partington, 2019, ‘East Midlands shows biggest slip in living standards from previous generation’, Guardian, 29 August

[32] Aamna Mohdin, 2019, ‘Nearly one million more adults now live with their parents – study’, Guardian, 8 February

[33] Miles Brignall, 2019, ‘Young Britons believe dream of owning home is over, survey says’, Guardian, 31 July

[34] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Young adults have less to spend on non-essentials, study says’, Guardian, 20 June

[35] Sally Weale, 2019, ‘Third of UK graduates over qualified for their job’, Guardian, 29 April

[36] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Rising trend of state school pupils going to university reverses’, Guardian, 7 February; Sean Coughlan, 2019, ‘Half of universities have fewer than 5% white students’, BBC News, 14 February, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-47227157

[37] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in UK “virtually stagnant” since 2014’, Guardian, 30 April

[38] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Teenage pregnancy rate falls for 10th Year”’, CYPN, 15 April

[39] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘UN report compares Tory welfare policies to creation of workhouses’, Guardian, 22 May; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“’Nearly Half’ of UK children in poverty by 2021, UN expert warns”’, CYPN, 22 May

[40] Young Minds, 2019, ‘Huge gaps in early support for young people with mental health problems – new survey’,   https://youngminds.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/huge-gaps-in-early-support-for-young-people-with-mental-health-problems-new-survey/, 2 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August

[41] Children’s Commissioner, 2019, ‘Childhood vulnerability in England 2019’, https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/publication/childhood-vulnerability-in-england-2019/; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July

[42] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July

[43] Derbyshire County Council, 2019, ‘Report of the Strategic Director for Children’s Services: Early help services for children, young people and their families – (Young People), 31 January; Eddie Bisknell, 2019, ‘Here’s the services which could be affected as Derbyshire County Council faces another year of multi-million pound budget cuts’, Derbyshire Times, 22 January; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘Council axes 160 jobs as it cuts £8.6m from early help budget’, Children and Young People Now, 6 February

[44] GOV.UK, 2019, Spending Round 2019: Chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/spending-round-2019-sajid-javids-speech, 4 September

[45] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Curfews for young people planned in bid to tackle knife crime”’, CYPN, 21 August

[46] Sally Weale and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Schools shake-up: the four key areas in leaked Tory proposals’, Guardian, 27 August. See also Community Empowerment Network, 2019, ‘Being Black & Dead While Excluded’ January 2019, available via https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/01/18/being-black-dead-while-excluded/; Edward Timpson, 2019,Timpson Review of School Exclusions, OGL, May, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/807862/Timpson_review.pdf

[47] Phillip Inman, 2019, ‘Has the age of austerity  really come to an end?’, Guardian, 5 September

[48] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘GCSEs: 10,000 pupils disappear from English schools at “critical” stage’, Guardian, 6 September

Is the youth work tide turning? MPs’ reports, a Youth Charter and a review of statutory guidance

In this article, which appeared first in Youth &Policy and is reproduced here with their consent, I seek to provide a critical analysis of the plethora of recent policy documents and announcements relating to youth work in England.

Over the spring and summer of 2019 local authority Youth Services and the youth work practice they provide attracted unaccustomed levels of interest from national policy-makers. Most encouraging was the report in April from an MP’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which specifically addressed the ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’.[i] This was followed in May by data from a second APPG enquiry which, though more narrowly focused on ‘knife crime’, had much to say about the damaging effects of Youth Service cuts.[ii] Its analysis and conclusions were then forcibly reinforced by a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report which appeared at the end of July just as this article was being completed.[iii]

Also in April, the then youth minister Mims Davies made two commitments which were also seen as signalling a renewed interest in youth work: to develop a Youth Charter setting out how the Government will ‘support young people in reaching their full potential’ and to review the statutory guidance on local authority Youth Services – last updated in 2012.[iv] Towards the end of July the government also sponsored a debate in response to the first APPG report during which some of its key conclusions and recommendations attracted endorsements from Mims Davies, from Labour’s ‘youth’ spokesperson Cat Smith and from other MPs.[v]

The view from Parliament

From youth work’s ‘role and sufficiency’…

Coming as it did from a cross-party committee with a broad ‘Youth Affairs’ brief, the first APPG report offered some grounds for optimism that some more supportive messages about youth work might finally be getting through to top policy-makers. It for example started from a recognition that, as a result of what it calls ‘structural shifts’, a breakdown had occurred in the ‘contract’ with young people for providing ‘greater opportunities and a better quality of life than their parents and grandparents’. It went on to in effect endorse the ‘clear message’ it had received that, for helping to address this new situation, ‘youth work remains an important element of the support wanted and needed by young people today’ and so as having a ‘key role’ within what it called ‘the eco-system of Services for Young People’. Significantly, it also explicitly defined this practice as ‘non-formal education that focuses on the personal and social development of participants’, achieved by ‘provid(ing) peer group activities and trusted relationships’.

Accepting the case made by ‘numerous respondents’ to their enquiry for ‘a national youth policy and a long-term strategy for youth services’, the MPs also endorsed proposals that these be made the responsibility of a Cabinet-level Minister located in the Department of Education. For implementing the strategy their more detailed recommendations included:

  • ‘Greater investment in youth work’, particularly in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, to include an ‘objective assessment’ of the National Citizens Service (NCS) and its contribution.
  • The creation of a ‘national body for youth work’ to oversee the implementation of revised statutory guidance which would set out ‘a minimum and protected level of youth service’ to be ‘discharged’ by an identified ‘lead role’ in each local authority.
  • The development of an overall ‘workforce strategy’ covering ‘professional youth workers, trainees and volunteers’.
  • A ‘standardised and national system for evaluating … youth services and quality of youth work provision’ which – particularly important from a youth work perspective – would include ‘self-evaluation and “light touch” inspection’.

Gaps remained in these proposals, however – not least in relation to the state structures best fitted to providing genuinely open versions of youth work and where and how young people and youth workers as well as the local authority itself might fit into these. More broadly, this group of MPs seemed unable in the end to free themselves from some of the constraints – both of thought and action – which over the past decade have so damaged local authority Youth Services. While for example acknowledging that references to ‘inequalities’ appeared in the evidence they received, they explicitly ruled as outside their remit consideration the often crucial ‘structural’ features of ‘disadvantage relating to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity’ (or indeed class). Given the serious criticisms of Ofsted within the educational field generally and of the often oppressive pressure it puts on those it inspects [vi], the Committee’s suggestion that it might put new youth work inspection arrangements in place was unlikely to get unqualified bottom-up endorsement. And despite the references to self- and light-touch evaluation, an appendix setting out a complex, multi-coloured ‘Theory of Change’ chart comprising six rows and nine columns again risked creating evaluation processes which actually get in the way of a practice like youth work.

… via youth work as knife-crime prevention …

The second APPG group, ‘set up as a response to the alarming rise in knife crime across the country’, defined its overall purpose as:

To evaluate policies and programmes aimed at reducing knife crime, gain better understanding of its root causes and the wider context of youth violence, and develop recommendations for new measures at both acute and preventative stages with a view to reducing levels of knife crime.

Although no official publication has yet appeared, a press release in early May made a strong and pragmatic case for reinstating Youth Services and their youth work practice based on a suggested ‘growing link between cuts to youth services and the country’s knife crime epidemic’. Drawing on Freedom of Information responses from some 70 per cent of 154 local councils and from local police forces, the MPs reached this conclusion by connecting two sets of figures. The first revealed a ‘51 per cent drop in the overall number of youth centres supported by English local authorities since 2011 and … (a) 42 per cent drop in youth service staff over the same period’; the second that some of the highest knife crime increases had occurred in local authority areas where these cuts had been amongst the most severe.

These purported linkages prompted the Chair of the Group to conclude:

We cannot hope to turn around the knife crime epidemic if we don’t invest in our young people. Every time I speak to young people they say the same thing: they need more positive activities, safe spaces to spend time with friends and programmes to help them grow and develop.

The Home Affairs Select Committee on ‘serious youth violence’ was even blunter in driving home this message, concluding for example that in part ‘the current epidemic … has been exacerbated by a perfect storm emerging from the cuts to youth services’. It thus went on to recommend that the government introduce ‘a fully-funded, statutory minimum provision for youth outreach workers and community youth projects in all areas, co-designed with local young people’. This it described as ‘a national Youth Service Guarantee with … ring-fenced funding from central Government’.

… via  Ministerial responses…

Proposals such as these have undoubtedly helped raise political and wider public awareness of the need for local Youth Services and the opportunities they can provide. They also offered some relevant starting points for considering how, with guaranteed state support, open forms of youth work practice might begin to be reinstated locally.

Serious doubts remained, however, about if and how their key messages were being understood by ministers and if and how their policy proposals were turning them into action.

Austerity: the reality – and the rhetoric

This kind of ‘absence of mind’ was demonstrated in April when Mims Davies, announcing her plan for a Youth Charter, blandly described the huge budgetary problems currently facing local councils as a ‘challenging funding landscape’. What this typically evasive ministerial language masked were two brutal financial realities: a 60 per cent (£16 billion) cut since 2010 in the Treasury’s Revenue Support Grant to local authorities; and, largely as a result, a projected combined gap in their funding in this financial year of £14.4 billion.

Nonetheless Davies came to that Parliamentary debate seeking credit for the government’s planned increase over the next year in spending on English public services of £1.3 billion and also, more specifically, for her own Department’s allocation of £195 million to ‘youth programmes … to enrich young people’s lives’ covering ‘sport, digital and culture’. She also announced a youth employment programme to be implemented via a new ‘Youth Futures Fund’ whose £90 million funding, allocated through social investment bonds, was to come from ‘dormant bank accounts’ rather than from the government itself. She referred, too, to the Youth Endowment Fund with its £200 million Home Office allocation ‘to support programmes and communities working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence’ – one of the government’s many ‘gestures policies’ which the Home Affairs Committee later dismissed as ‘far too fragmented and small-scale’.

A Youth Charter – on what?

The overall aim of the proposed Youth Charter was defined most positively as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’. As well as addressing their ‘concerns about the environment and climate change’, however, its aims were, as so often within current ‘youth policies’, narrowed down to meeting such preventative priorities as (again) ‘…combating serious violence and knife crime’ and ‘addressing mental and physical health challenges’. In confirming these, Mims Davies’s colleague, Nadhim Zahawi, the (now replaced) Minister for Children and Families, also made clear the largely individualistic thinking driving the proposal when he asserted: ‘Every young person, whatever their background or the challenges they face, should have the chance to shape their own futures’.

Reviewing statutory Youth Services guidance

Mims Davies’s promise of the review of the statutory guidance for Youth Services came with some supportive ministerial statements – about ‘the positive role local authorities can play’, ‘the value added by good youth work’ and how ‘access to youth workers … transforms people’s lives’. Her most aspirational expectation of youth work – that it would give young people ‘opportunities to develop new skills and have fun outside the classroom’ – was however again underpinned by familiar preventative tropes emphasising work with ‘the most vulnerable’. Implicit in her statement, too – suggested for example by references to the ‘many local areas (which) have adapted to the new models of delivering services’ – were continuing neo-liberal assumptions about a minimal provider role for the state.

One qualifying phrase in the existing (2012) guidance – repeated three times – was however left unremarked by Mims Davies: that a council’s duty to provide a Youth Service extends only so far ‘as is reasonably practicable’. Given that, in her ‘challenging funding landscape’, the government’s own evidence as far back as 2014 had revealed that under half of local councils were taking their legal duty into account when deciding Youth Service budgets[vii], not only did this phrase clearly need to be deleted from any new guidance . If the duty was to be made real and effective, it would be crucial, too, that within it much more positive expectations of ‘role and sufficiency’ be embedded and indeed defined.

… to a House of Commons debate on ‘The role and sufficiency of youth services’

In opening this debate – held on 24 July 2019 – Mims Davies did include some new and more detailed information on training and qualifications. As ‘an essential first step … to arrest the decline in the number of qualified, professional youth workers and skilled volunteers’, she announced a new Level 3 apprenticeship qualification. This, aimed at ‘those working in a volunteer capacity’, was to be backed by £500,000 to provide bursaries for 400 students.

By then, too, the first of nine NYA-hosted regional consultative events on the revision of the statutory guidance had taken place aimed at providing ‘greater clarity’ on what was required – though during the debate Mims Davies did ‘absolutely recognise that many Members … feel that it is just the start’.

On the proposed Youth Charter, the nearest Davies came to clarifying the process by which this was being developed was to talk of a timescale of ‘over the coming months’ and to register ‘a huge thank you to the youth sector organisations that have shared in and embraced the opportunity to work with us … so far’. She however took time to restate its rationale as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’ and indicated that this was to be achieved by ‘bring(ing) together policies from across Government and listen(ing) to views from young people, those who work with them and, importantly, those who care for our young people’.

On most of the broader policy and funding questions, however, Davies had little specific information to offer. Instead she relied heavily on reiterating claims about the success of the Youth Investment Fund, of government funding to support uniformed youth work, and of a range of other organisations such as the Centre for Social Action, Sport England and even the Football Association. Included in this listing, too, was the NCS, though this came with the unexpected caveat that ‘…it is very important for us to look at (its) future underspend. I would personally love to see it directed towards detached youth services’.

In a couple other a replies to MPs questions Davies made clear that in her view ‘the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport … really is the right place (for youth policy)’; and acknowledged that ‘… open access to [sic] youth services has in some cases been far too easy to target for cuts’.

In her summing up statement at the end of the debate, Mims Davies also again revealed her rather shaky understanding of open youth work by apparently assuming that, even with a quite broad remit, a specialist table tennis club was ‘a youth centre or youth club’:

We heard from Cat Smith (Labour ‘youth’ spokesperson) that this is not just about ping-pong, but I would like to look at ping-pong, because the Brighton Table Tennis Club … is fantastic. I have never been to a youth centre or youth club that does not have table tennis, and I would like to praise that one in particular. It works with a pupil referral unit and with people with dementia. There are fantastic, elite table tennis players.

After reminding the minister that ‘austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity’, Cat Smith’s reference to table tennis came when she dismissed the depiction of youth clubs as ‘a meeting place for young people to knock a ball about on a battered ping-pong table. She set out her own understanding of youth work as,

a distinct educational process that focuses on young people’s defined needs through non-formal learning. Its key purpose, as outlined in the recent all-party group inquiry, is to facilitate young people’s personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.

Smith also made the more specific point that:

Young people in rural areas can feel particularly isolated because when the school bus drops them back off in their village at perhaps 3.30 or 4 o’clock, that is it until the next morning.

Throughout the debate other MPs interjected a range of often sharply critical comments and questions including:

NCS lasts for two weeks (which) are no replacement for the long-term relationships and commitment that youth workers give young people… (Ruth George, Labour)

Will (the minister) ensure that the (revised statutory) guidelines set out a basic right for every young person to access youth services every night of the week, or will this review just be a wishy-washy statement of principles for councils. (Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour, Chair of APPG)

so much of the delivery now is on a project basis, so we do not get the career, the professionalisation and that real expertise and experience in our youth workforce that we have had previously. (Jenny Chapman, Labour Shadow Minister)

…the applications (for one funding scheme) were due in yesterday, and the money has to be spent by March. It is a complete waste of money to try to do these projects in an ad hoc way, year after year. We need a proper, costed programme that runs from the beginning of the year and can be planned properly, instead of squandering the money that is put in place. (Lyn Brown, Labour Treasury spokesperson)

I see … voluntary organisations providing fantastic work … but … there needs to be a backstop and that backstop needs to be the statutory services. (Jeremy Lefroy, Conservative)

From policy – to action?

When drawn together in this way, the developments and initiatives outlined in this article suggest that new levels of responsiveness in political circles to the crisis which has hit local authority Youth Services since 2010. That certainly represents an advance on where we’ve been over the last decade given how, in one local authority after another – often in the teeth of defensive reactions – the cuts were implemented as unavoidable, with little debate on their consequences for the up to a million young people.

None of this, however, would seem to justify the (over)-optimism with which some of the most influential voices in the youth sector have reacted – exemplified by the recent ‘verdict’ of NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton: ‘Great progress made late in the day… as we enter a period of fundamental change with a new government … and the Spending Review which will follow’.[viii]

This, however, fails to take into account some crucial limiting factors – that:

  • The Spending Review referred to here is now to be carried out by a government whose knee-jerk reaction to the ‘knife crime crisis’ has been to promise to fund an extra 20,000 policemen and women and to increase their powers of stop and search.
  • At local authority level anyway austerity is still working its way through the system and will go on doing so for a number of years yet. The Local Government Association has estimated for example that in 2019-20 even services still labelled ‘statutory’ such as child protection will be facing an overall funding gap of £3 billion – likely to rise to £8 billion by 2025.
  • Children and Young People Now’s (not unreasonable) ‘take’ on the Home Affairs Select Committee report was that its recommended future statutory and ringfenced funding for local authority provision is to be ‘focused on preventing young people becoming caught up in violence’. If correct then this must surely be taken as a clear warning that if ‘youth services’ money were ever to be fed down from central government to local councils they would be under huge pressure to use it ‘preventatively’ rather than for informal education. Which perhaps makes the question I (tentatively) posed in a post on the IDYW website back in April[ix] both more relevant – and even more challenging: rather than just ignoring the burgeoning ‘tackling knife-crime’ justifications for youth provision, might there be ways of negotiating them to support a revival of genuinely open forms of youth work practice?

Even when Mims Davies made her Youth Charter announcement in April factors such as these were shaping the overall youth policy climate. It was in this context, therefore, that she described youth work as a ‘youth space’ where young people could meet ‘on a Friday evening away from the rain with some high speed internet and with a chance to hang around with friends away from parents’. These were the kinds of spaces, she added, which the government was looking to fund in the future.

None of this came, however, with any indication of how much funding; where it would come from; who would decide its use; how any of this might, on their terms, be developmental for the young people – or where they might be able to go on the other six evenings of the week.

Crucial bottom-line material questions which – in spite of all the rhetoric of the last few months – still remain substantially unanswered.


[i] Available at https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/APPG-Youth-Work-Inquiry-Final-Report-April-2019-ONLINE.pdf

[ii] See Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Youth club closures put young people at risk of violence, warn MPs’, Guardian, 7 May; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May

[iii] Available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/1016/1016.pdf

[iv] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-youth-charter-to-support-young-people-across-the-country; https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-04-11/debates/997DC4C3-05EF-4BEC-8E5C-02D00FBAA943/FundingForYouthServices; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Young people to develop youth charter with government”’, CYPN, 11 April

[v] Available at https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2019-07-24b.1369.2

[vi] See for example Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Ofsted under fire in its own survey of teachers’ wellbeing’, Guardian, 22 July

[vii] Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Youth services and funding cut as councils overlook legal duty’, CYPN, 22 July

[viii] Derren Hayes, 2019, ‘“Leaders call for a clearer vision of council youth work duties”’, CYPN, 30 July

[ix] Available at https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/04/09/tackling-knife-crime-a-dilemma-for-youth-work/

Youth Services cuts: The rhetoric and the reality

Austerity over? – Neo-liberalism under scrutiny

The event which arguably most shaped governments’ economic and social policy-making in the second decade of the 21st century was the near-collapse in 2007-08 of the world’s banking system – often described more abstractly, if evasively, as ‘the global financial crisis’.[1] Though the roots of this lay in the dominance over the previous three decades of neo-liberal thinking and assumptions, in the UK at least these and their often damaging consequences only began to attract a more critical public debate after the 2016 EU referendum delivered the ‘wrong’ result. Scrutiny here focused particularly on how, far from prompting the promised ‘trickle down’ of wealth through society, neo-liberalism’s highly individualistic, competitive and market-driven priorities had deepened economic inequality and exacerbated social exclusion, in the process providing a breeding ground for often extreme forms of anti-democratic ‘populisms’.[2]

Evidence from a range of sources revealed, for example, that by early 2019 the equivalent income of the richest one percent of the population was seven times the average; that in the UK one child in three was living in poverty; and that by 2021 that figure would be nearer fifty per cent.[3] The ‘freedoms’ of neo-liberalism had also contributed significantly to a climate change crisis on which young people, increasingly and in increasingly organised and activist ways, were voicing their concerns.

Nor was it just the usual left-wing suspects who were putting out these messages. One early, at least partial and rhetorical, convert to them was the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney. In December 2016 for example he noted that

… many citizens in advanced economies are facing heightened uncertainty … and losing trust in the system… Rather than a new golden age, globalisation is associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities’.[4]

By early January 2019 Christine Lagarde, speaking as the head of the International Monetary Fund, was also advocating some very non-neo-liberal solutions:

There are more members concerned about inequality – which is excessive in many areas of the world – and how to remedy it… We have surveyed all the mission chiefs and asked them whether social spending was likely to be macro critical and were happily surprised that 80% said it was’.[5]

By then, as part of her prime ministerial commitment to work for ‘a country that works for everyone’[6], Theresa May had felt the need to assure her party’s 2018 annual conference that ‘a decade after the financial crash … the austerity it led to is over…’[7] As, nine months later she was forced out of office, she sought to bolster her political legacy by urging her party to commit to ‘welfarist’ policies such as reinvesting in further education and restoring grants for some higher education students.[8]

The depth and reach of this rethinking was however limited, particularly within those elite groups which continued to control most of the policy making processes. In anticipation of the damage Brexit could do to the British economy, for example, at the same party conference at which May had claimed austerity was ending her Chancellor made it clear that he was far from committed to making this happen.[9] The same report that encouraged May to re-embrace student grants also recommended that government support of university courses should take account not just of their cost but also of their economic and social value.[10] More broadly, the ‘pitch’ of some of the candidates in the Conservative Party’s leadership election in June and July 2019 included proposals to reduce taxation, in one case specifically for higher earners; cut corporation tax (28 per cent in 2010) to 12.5 per cent; and abolish university tuition fees for graduates who subsequently became ‘entrepreneurs’.[11]

Given their long reign, neo-liberal ideas were clearly going to be very hard to uproot from the political (and indeed public) mind-set and from the wider political and economic culture.

The ‘lost youth services’ – the rhetoric…  

Nonetheless, this somewhat more open post-Referendum environment did create space for some public agonising about the ‘lost youth services’ of the previous ten years and the resultant gaps in many young people’s out-of-school lives. One high profile All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Affairs, explicitly focused on ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’, concluded for example that, even though they could be ‘transformational’, open access … youth services have all but disappeared’.[12] A month later a second APPG report, while largely ignoring evidence that many of the causes of knife crime might lie in the structural conditions which neo-liberalism had helped create[13], directly linked its rise in Wolverhampton, Westminster, Cambridgeshire and Wokingham to those councils’ up to 91 per cent cuts to their Youth Service budgets.[14]

Often the rationale for reinstating Youth Services was a need to tackle other ‘youth problems’ as well as knife crime – young people’s growing mental health pressures; ‘employment, training and education issues’; reduced ‘healthy’ summer holiday activity programmes.[15] Nonetheless, government and Labour Party policy statements as well as some media reports and newspaper articles did begin to point, sometimes in detail, to the loss of hundreds of youth work jobs and buildings across the country and to the need for youth work to be reinstated at least as a ‘preventative’ intervention.[16] 

… the continuing realities …

Occasionally an example of rhetoric being turned into action did emerge. After cutting its Youth Service expenditure from £2.1 million in 2011-12 to £400,000 in 2017-18, Newham Council announced in June 2019 that – in its own neo-liberal terms – it was ‘committed to investing in our young people’. It thus planned, as a first stage, to extend its ‘universal youth offer’ by increasing from 12 to 20 per cent the proportion of 9-19 year olds accessing the Service. An extra £1.4 million was to be provided to increase the number of sessions at its four youth hubs, open four more hubs, appoint a detached youth team and create a range of roles for ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ youth workers. The proposals also aimed to ensure that SEND, looked-after and LGBTQ young people and young carers had enhanced access.[17]  

Much of the bottom-up evidence, however, suggested that material change of this kind was likely to be rare – and was going to be very hard to achieve. Two days before May’s 2018 Conference speech, the Local Government Association (LGA) had highlighted that, with the Treasury cut to their Revenue Support Grant already estimated at 60p in every £1, half of local authorities (168) were assuming that the Grant would have disappeared completely within two years. As a result, the LGA predicted that in the financial year 2019-20 funding for council services overall would reduce by a further 36 per cent (£1.3 billion).[18] By then, too, austerity measures already in place were predicted to bring cumulative cuts to social welfare progammes exceeding some £27 billion – that is, the equivalent of some £800 a year for every working-age person in the country.[19] 

In order to help find resources to keep public services running between 2014-15 and 2018-19 local authorities generated some £9.1 billion of income by selling off more than 12,000 ‘public spaces’ – including no doubt, as well as school playing fields[20], some of the 760 youth centres closed since 2012[21]. Even so, throughout this period ‘children and youth services’ remained under severe, growing and sometimes contradictory pressures. DfE figures released in the same month that May made her conference speech revealed, for example, that in 2018-19 local authorities were expecting to increase spending on children in care by £370 million to a total of £4.16 billion; while at the same time – presumably to help fill this gap – reducing their ‘youth service’ spending by £31.4 million[22].

Other reports published towards the end of 2018 and in the first half of 2019 added to this evidence:

  • A September 2018 County Councils Network (CCN) report indicated that in 2019-20 of the 36 authorities surveyed were budgeting to cut their children’s services budgets overall by an estimated £918 million.[23]
  • A February 2019 report from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) revealed that because of ‘budget restraints’ 24 per cent of councils were planning ‘to reduce activity in children’s care services’.[24]
  • Later that month an analysis by a group of charities found that between 2011-12 and 2017-18 central government funding for children aged 0 to 19 had fallen by 32 per cent – from £813 to £553 per child.[25]             

Despite a warning from Ofsted’s Chief Inspector that such cuts were ‘a false economy, simply leading to greater pressures elsewhere’[26], by January 2019 the Department’s own returns were showing that in 2017-18 councils’ spending on children’s centres and the under-5’s had fallen by £110 million. The cut to ‘services for young people’ specifically had been £32 million, with the proportion of the overall spend on them dropping from 4.9 per cent to 4.4 per cent.[27]

Two examples illustrated what such cuts could mean on the ground:

  • In February 2019 Derbyshire County Council’s announced that over the five financial years up to 2023-24 it would be reducing from £12.9 million to £4.3 million its funding for ‘early help’ – the provision into which authorities had often relocated youth workers when they closed down their Youth Services.[28]
  • The following month the Green party co-leader and London assembly member Sian Berry’s updated enquiry into cuts to London borough Youth Services revealed that since 2011 the number of youth centres in the capital had fallen from 234 to 130; that 560 youth workers had lost their jobs; and that overall spending had been reduced by 46 per cent, with the cuts in 29 councils totalling £26.3 million.[29]

… and the future?

As ‘the Brexit debate’ increasingly – and increasingly bitterly and divisively – diverted policy-makers’ attention from issues as crucial as growing staffing shortages in the NHS and schools’ growing reliance on parents and charities to fund core activities, youth workers were thus faced with a very challenging question: (how) could they persuade a government – even one which in opposition had committed to reinstating local Youth Services – to find the time, the money or indeed the will actually to do this?

[1] John Lanchester, 2010, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, London, Penguin; John Lanchester, 2018, ‘After the Fall’, London Review of Books, Vol 40, No 13, 5 July; Aditya Chakrabortty, 2018, ‘Ten years on, it’s as if we’ve learned nothing from the crash’, Guardian, 5 September

[2] See for example George Monbiot, 2016, ‘Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems, Guardian, 15 April; Katie Allen, 2016, ‘Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation’, Guardian, 6 December; Nikil Saval, 2017, ‘The great globalisation backlash’, Guardian, 15 July; Andy Beckett, 2017, ‘How Britain fell out of love with the free market’, Guardian, 5 August; William Davies, 2018, ‘Against Responsibility’, London Review of Books, 8 November 

[3] Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Nearly half of UK children in poverty by 2021, UN expert warns”’, CYPN, 22 May; Danny Dorling, 2019, ‘Letters – Anti-Masochism’, London Review of Books, Vol 41, no 12, 20 June   

[4] Katie Allen, 2016, ‘Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation’, Guardian, 6 December

[5] Larry Elliott, 2019, ‘Nations must protect spending on the vulnerable, says IMF chief’ Guardian, 14 June 

[6] Theresa May, 2017, ‘Theresa May: Building a country that works for everyone’, 10 October, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB8KUK68UYc

[7] Heather Stewart, 2018, ‘Theresa May pledges end to austerity in Tory conference speech’, Guardian, 3 October, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/03/theresa-may-conference-speech-ambasts-labour-as-she-calls-for-tory-unity      

[8] Rowena Mason and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘May urges Tories to cut tuition fees and revive student grants’, Guardian, 30 May, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/30/may-urges-tories-cut-tuition-fees-revive-student-grants

[9] Phillip Inman and Larry Elliot, 2018, ‘“Phillip Hammond: party must offer answers to Labour’s questions”’, Guardian, 1 October, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/01/philip-hammond-vows-to-stick-with-austerity-in-conference-speech-amazon-google; Rob Merrick, 2018, ‘Budget 2018: Austerity to continue for five more years if Britain leaves EU with no deal, Hammond warns’, Independent, 29 October, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget-2018-philip-hammond-brexit-eu-no-deal-theresa-may-austerity-a8607766.html    

[10] Anna Fazackerley, 2019, ‘Universities condemn “catastrophic” plan to link fees to graduate pay’, Guardian, 11 June

[11] Polly Toynbee, 2019, ‘Behold, the Tory leadership candidates: all in denial, all in dreamland’, Guardian, 10 June

[12] All Party Parliamentary Group, 2019, Report from the Inquiry into the Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work, NYA, April, https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/APPG-Youth-Work-Inquiry-Final-Report-April-2019-ONLINE.pdf

[13] Sonia Sodha, 2019, ‘Knife crime and school exclusions are symptoms of a wider malaise’, Guardian, 8 March

[14] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May   

[15] Cat Smith, 2018, ‘How Labour would rebuild Britain’s devastated youth services’, Guardian, 3 December; UNISON, 2018, ‘Axing millions from youth work puts futures at risk, says UNISON’, 3 December https://www.unison.org.uk/news/press-release/2018/12/axing-millions-youth-work-puts-futures-risk-says-unison/; Tanni Grey-Thompson and Lawrence Dallaglio, 2019, ‘Opening up school sport facilities would give every child a healthy summer’, Guardian, 3 May;

[16] Helen Mulholland, 2018, ‘Youth work cuts leave young people out in the cold’, Guardian, 31 October; Joe Lepper, 2018, ‘“Call to boost after-school youth work to reduce risk of violence”’, CYPN, 11 October; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Mayor of London fund aims to boost youth crime prevention”’, CYPN, 22 February; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Young people to develop youth charter with government”’, CYPN, 11 April; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Mayor launches new £15m youth funding round”’, CYPN, 16 May 

[17] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Council invests £1.4m in youth service to combat austerity”’, CYPN, 12 June

[18] Guardian, 2018, ‘Council spending: A cash-starved politics will entrench the disaffection that blights Britain today’, 9 February; LGA, 2018, ‘Local services face further £1.3 billion government funding cut in 2019/20’, LGA, 1 October, https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/local-services-face-further-ps13-billion-government-funding-cut-201920 

[19] Peter S. Goodman, 2018, ‘Britain’s Big Freeze: In Britain, Austerity is changing everything’, New York Times, 28 May

[20] Suzanne Moore, 2019, ‘George Osborne’s policies took a wrecking ball to our public services – and our money’, Guardian, 4 March  

[21] UNISON, 2018, ‘Axing millions from youth work puts futures at risk, says UNISON’, 3 December; https://www.unison.org.uk/news/press-release/2018/12/axing-millions-youth-work-puts-futures-risk-says-unison/

[22] Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“Spending on children in care exceeds £4bn for first time”’, CYPN, 27 September 

[23] Joe Lepper, 2018, ‘“Councils plan £900m of cuts including children’s services and early years”’, CYPN, 20 September.    

[24] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“One on four councils plan children’s services cuts”’, CYPN, 14 February    

[25] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Children’s services ‘ay breaking point’ due to funding cuts, charities warn”’, CYPN, 26 February  

[26] Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“Children’s services cuts ‘a false economy’, Ofsted warns”’, CYPN, 4 December 

[27] Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Spending on children’s centres and youth services down by £140m”’, CYPN, 9 January  

[28] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Council axes 160 jobs as its cuts £8.6m from early help budget”’, CYPN, 6 February 

[29] Dan Hancox, ‘Number of London youth clubs nearly halved since 2011 riots, report finds’, Guardian, 22 March 

Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England is published by Palgrave MacMillan (https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030038854