A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

As the Introduction to this blog makes clear, posting on it depends ‘not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.’ The nearly five-month gap since the last piece is therefore only partly explained – excused! – by the distraction of my trying to write or contribute to other articles. Over that period youth work’s presumed ‘preventative’ potential has attracted some attention – for example in supporting young people’s schooling, including in situations like that of 15-year-old ‘Child Q’ who was strip-searched by police while she was having a period[1]. However, the gap in posting has happened mainly because I hadn’t identified significant government or other moves focused on the blog’s primary concerns: open youth work and the facilities which provide it. 

Until, that is, in early February this year when the DCMS published Youth Review: Summary findings and government response[2].

The backstory

This starts in December 2020 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a review of what he called the Treasury’s ‘programmes to support youth services …[3]’ – later explained by the National Youth Agency (NYA) as to ‘set policy direction for the out-of-school agenda’[4]. Led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the review was eventually launched in February 2021 using two digital questionnaires and ‘multiple workshops and focus groups’.

I have to admit that, given the long silence which had preceded it, the DCMS’s sudden release of the report did make me wonder whether it was just another of those rhetorical government ‘policy initiatives’ then being rushed out in an attempt to keep a lame-duck Prime Minister in his job. However, when I managed to push myself beyond my cynicism, I had to take into account that the Review had prompted responses from nearly 6000 young people, 170 ‘youth sector organisations’ and 32 ‘academics/researchers’ – and that, as well as (inevitably?) leaving behind some critical questions, it did offer some possibly hopeful gestures to open youth work.   

The positives

In the words of young people… 

Particularly significant here is the evidence it presents on what young people say they value about their involvement in youth work – opportunities, for example, to

  • ‘… meet people outside of school’; 
  • form new friendships, ‘engage with other young people from different backgrounds’ and ‘be around friends in a safe place and be themselves’; 
  • ‘speak to someone from outside the home and school environment’; 
  • ‘… volunteer and “give back” to their community’; and 
  • be ‘involved in decision-making’ – with ‘their voices heard, opinions respected’.

The Report also explicitly concludes that, as much as young people appreciated how ‘…the youth sector had adapted to keep supporting them during the pandemic’, this for them ‘did not replace the need for in-person opportunities’. 

Also revealing – and valuable – is the evidence young people provided on what they see as the ‘barriers’ to their involvement in open youth work facilities. As well as the ‘loss of youth provision… due to funding cuts’, these include the ‘quality of provision’ and the importance of having ‘trained and passionate youth workers or volunteers to create an inclusive and welcoming environment, where young people felt supported and respected’.

… of the academics…

Some telling inputs came, too, from the academics surveyed – and not just about the need for ‘positive evidence around the impact of youth services’. Expressing ‘a strong preference for resource funding’, they particularly pointed to the need for money for ‘universal services’ ‘to be accessible and long-term …’ They also proposed that ‘where capital funding was needed it should be small-scale, flexible and locally determined’ including for ‘pop-up or modular builds’. 

An On-side Youth Zone

For me, these responses prompted two, albeit tentative, questions. 

  • Is there here, perhaps, an implicit challenge here to those cash-strapped local authorities which have been committing millions of pounds of public money to help build and then run large-scale projects such as the On-Side Youth Zones? [5]
  • Could the small-scale, flexible and pop-up facilities they are suggesting be a way of overcoming another of the ‘barriers’ young people identified to their continuing participation in open youth work facilities – ‘outgrowing the existing provision’? 

… and of the DCMS 

In its ‘Introduction’ to the Report, the DCMS gives explicit recognition to youth work’s core aspirations to, for example, ‘provide young people with somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to …’ including ‘the opportunity to build a relationship with a trusted adult’. It notes, too, the ‘significant role’ this provision plays for an estimated 450,000 young people ‘… not yet (yet?) known to statutory services’[6]. 

Though often sounding rhetorical, some of the DCMS’s more specific proposals also offer some encouragement. A ‘Youth Sector Strategy’ is to be developed, for example, aimed at ‘… provid(ing) clarity on the government’s role in supporting youth services’. By 2025 every young person is to have access ‘to regular out of school activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer’, with the DCMS taking the lead ‘in enabling effective youth participation in decision-making at all levels’. It will also, it says, across the DCMS itself and more widely within government, seek ‘greater alignment … to maximise and coordinate funding opportunities for the youth sector’. 

Most grounded, however, is an allocation in 2022-23 of £790,000 for 547 bursaries to support workers doing Level 2 & 3 youth work training. Coming as the NYA is tentatively predicting some recovery in the number of qualifying courses[7], this extends the three-year bursary programme which it and the Network of Regional Youth Work Units started in November 2019 and which so far has supported the training of some 650 workers[8]. As ‘a starting point’ for re-building a ‘skilled and trained workforce’ decimated by the post-2010 budget cuts, NYA is now calling in the longer term for the recruitment and training of 10,000 qualified youth workers, 20,000 youth support workers and 40,000 volunteers[9].  

… and the doubts


Youth Investment Fund

The Youth Investment Fund (YIF) aims to create, expand and improve local youth facilities and their services, in order to drive positive outcomes for young people, including improved health and wellbeing, and skills for work/employability and life.

Probed further, however, the Report leaves behind a number of serious questions -particularly about the commitment to ‘invest £560 million over the next 3 years to deliver the new National Youth Guarantee’. Far from being new money, this is yet another (?a third) ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund (YIF) first offered in September 2019. According to an MP’s report published nearly two years later, in July 2021, its allocation had been delayed by Covid, with by then ‘substantive funding’ predicted only ‘from 2022’[10]. Though the message isn’t entirely clear, a recent DCMS advert for an ‘intermediary grantmaker for … YIF Phase 2’ seems also to acknowledge that up to March 2022 only ‘£10 million of capital investment (was) being released for early disbursement’[11]. 

The YIF’s £560 million is anyway only just over half of the £1.1 billion cuts in local authorities’ spending on youth services in England since 2010-2011, resulting by 2020-2021in seven councils reporting nil annual expenditure on this provision and 16 less than £15 on each 5-17 year old[12]. Since 2010 these cuts have forced the closure of over 760 youth centres, the loss of 139,000 youth service places and the removal of at least 35,000 hours of ‘outreach work’[13] – an approach which since Covid hit has been increasingly needed and valued[14]. Set in this context, the report’s promise of £368 million over the next three years to ‘create and expand up to 300 new youth centres … (and) over 45,000 extra youth activities per year’ clearly falls well short of any genuine reinstatement of state-funded local Youth Services[15].

 Nor is all of the rest of the YIF’s money intended to fund only open youth work facilities for 13-19-year-olds. Over the next three years, more than 30 per cent of it (£171 million) is being set aside for an NCS programme which, though now quite radically rejigged, is still targeted only at 16 and 17 year olds[16]. By 2025 across England a total of £22 million is also to go to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme so that it can operate in every state-funded secondary school; to create thousands of new ‘iwill’ youth volunteering opportunities; and (more on this later) to ‘eliminate current non-military Uniformed Groups’ waiting lists for teenagers up and down the country’.

Local authorities’ statutory duty 

Another of the DCMS’s own commitments in the Report – to carry out a review aimed at providing ‘greater clarity on the Statutory Duty for Local Authorities on youth services’ – also for me raises serious questions. Why for example in the paper is there no mention of or feedback on a review of this ‘duty’ announced way back in October 2019?[17] Why is the new review to be focused only on local authorities’ requirement to ‘support… the workforce’, when their other key duties include, for example, to ‘… take steps to ascertain the views of young people’ and to ‘offer young people opportunity in safe environments to take part in a wide range of sports, arts, music and other activities…’ And, perhaps most important in the long run, will this new review consider removing the clause in the current (2012) guidance – that local authorities need to provide Youth Services only ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’[18] – which across England has given them permission to cut if not completely wind up their open-access provision[19].

‘Levelling up’[20]

Secretary of State Nadine Dorries

Scattered through the Youth Review Report, too, are passing references to the government’s so-called ‘levelling up agenda’. In her Foreward, for example, Secretary of State Nadine Dorries commits the DCMS ‘to ensuring all young people are given opportunities, levelling up where they are under-served, socially excluded and economically disadvantaged”’. Both her Foreword and the Report itself include promises to ‘ensure that our spending and programmes meet the needs of young people as well as our ambitions on “levelling up”’; and that the ‘new Youth Guarantee (will be) backed up by £560 million funding with a firm focus on levelling up’. Two sub-sections of the Report are headed ‘Levelling up and expanding access to youth provision’, with one promising specifically that the 300 new and expanded youth centres will be for ‘… levelling up youth infrastructure in ‘left-behind’ places, so young people who are most in need have access to youth workers and positive activities’.

All this, however, needs to be placed in the context of the government’s actual ‘Levelling up’ policy, finally set out in a White Paper also published in early February[21]. The sixteen pages of the Executive Summary manage just two references to young people and ‘youth services’. One – reinforcing all those negative ‘they’re-up-to-no-good’ stereotypes – promises ‘… to make sure 16- and 17-year olds who commit crimes pay their community back with visible labour to improve the local environment’. The other, buried in a 135-word paragraph on page 14 of 16, repeats the Youth Guarantee commitments to ensure that by 2025 all young people will have access to ‘out of school activities’, to embed the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in every secondary school and to eliminate uniformed organisations’ waiting lists. 

Combined Cadet Force – Mill Hill School

Particularly revealing, however, in a single paragraph in the White Paper Summary which somehow didn’t find its way into the DCMS’s own Report, is the detail it provides on this last commitment – that getting rid of the uniformed groups’ waiting lists is necessary in order to 

… give more students the transformative opportunity to join the cadets, providing more support to the state school sector to increase Combined Cadet Force participation. (Bold in the original). This will include linking funding of cadet units in private schools with a requirement to ensure support for the expansion of cadet forces in state schools and open access to nearby state school students[22].

So there, it seems, we have it: an indication of the government’s underlying understanding of ‘open access’ youth work and the need for military-type structures and methods to make it truly ‘transformative’.


  1. Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Violence reduction scheme see youth workers chaperone walk to school’, CYPN, 7 January; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘ School must link with youth services to boost pupil wellbeing’, CYPN, 9 February; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Strip-searched by police’, CYPN, 21 March
  2. GOV.UK, 2022, ‘Summary findings and government response’, 1 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response
  3. HM Treasury , 2020, ‘Spending Review 2020’, updated 15 December, Section 7.28 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/spending-review-2020-documents/spending-review-2020;
  4. NYA, 2021, ‘Treasury rapid review of government youth policies’, 11 February, https://www.nya.org.uk/treasury-rapid-review-of-government-youth-policies/
  5. See for example Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Barnsley gives go-ahead to Yorkshire’s first Onside Youth Zone’ CYPN, 18 August; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Green light for South West’s first Youth Zone’ CYPN, 22 September
  6. NYA, 2021, Between The Lines’, p4, March, https://static.nya.org.uk/static/f3fcc0c77f1f2d3b579af6274648540b/Between-the-lines-final-version.pdf
  7. Joe Lepper, 2022, ‘Youth work training levels show signs of recovery after hitting record low’, CYPN, 16 March
  8. NYA, 2022, ‘Youth Work Bursary Places Available Now’, 9 March, https://nya.org.uk/youth-work-bursary-places-available-now/; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘NYA launches new round of training bursaries’ CYPN, 9 March 
  9.  NYA/CYPN, 2022, ‘Guide to Youth Work’, 8 March, https://www.cypnow.co.uk/features/article/guide-to-youth-work
  10.  All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2021, Review of Youth Work in England: Interim report, July, http://www.youthappg.org.uk/review-of-youth-work-in-england-interim-report/
  11. DCMS, 2022, ‘Youth Investment Fund Phase 2: Intermediary grant maker specification requirements’, 23 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-competition/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-specification-of-requirements 
  12. YMCA, 2022, Devalued: A decade of cuts to youth services, February, p 10, https://www.ymca.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/ymca-devalued-2022-1.pdf
  13.  Unison, 2014, The Damage: UK youth services, Unison, August; Unison, 2016, The Damage: A Future at Risk – cuts to youth services,  August, Unison; Hannah Richardson (2016), ‘Youth services heading towards collapse, says union’, BBC News, 12 August, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37046967  
  14. See for example Graeme Tiffany, 2022, ‘COVID19 as a potentially valuable disruptive force in the conceptualisation of Street-based Youth Work’, Youth and Policy, 28 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/covid19-as-a-potentially-valuable-disruptive/ 
  15. See ‘”Building back better” – to what?’, 25 September 2021, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2021/09/25/building-bac
  16.  Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS sees funding reduction in Spending Review’, CYPN, 29 October
  17.   GOV.UK, 2019, ‘Review launched into statutory guidance for Local Authorities on providing youth services’, 10 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-launched-into-statutory-guidance-for-local-authorities-on-providing-youth-services
  18. Department for Education, 2012, ‘Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being’, 1 June, Paras 2, 3, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/statutory-guidance-to-improve-young-peoples-well-being
  19.  Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Dozens of councils ignore youth service legal duty’, CYPN, 8 July 
  20.  For a more detailed analysis of the implications of ‘levelling up’ for open youth work, see Bernard Davies and Jon Ord, 2022, ‘Young People, Youth Work and the “Levelling Up” Policy Agenda’, Local Economy, forthcoming
  21. HM Government, 2022 ‘Levelling up in the United Kingdom: Executive Summary’, February,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052046/Executive_Summary.pdf
  22. HM Government, 2022, p15

Bernard Davies

March 2022 

The 2021 Budget – the realities versus the rhetoric

The 2021 Budget – the realities versus the rhetoric 

The good news?

In a blog piece posted at the end of September, I suggested that ‘though of course, the government won’t be using the word … for many public services another era of “austerity” looks inevitable’. I based this on predictions that in the current financial year there’d be a gap of £234 billion between public spending and government revenue, resulting in planned future spending on public services being cut by between £14 and £17 billion.[1] 

Rishi Sunak

If the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget statement on 27 October is to be believed [2], these predictions were seriously mistaken. Rather than announcing further cuts, he promised that by 2024-25 total spending by government departments would rise by £150 million or 3 per cent a year. This he described as:

… the largest increase this century, with spending growing by 3.8% a year in real terms. As a result of this Spending Review, and contrary to speculation……there will be a real terms rise in overall spending for every single department. 

From a youth work perspective, two sentences buried deep in his speech were particularly significant:

As we level up public services, we’re also levelling up communities – restoring the pride people feel in the places they call home.

To do that, we’re providing £560m for youth services, enough to fund up to 300 youth clubs across the country.

And the not-so-good news

Positive though all this seems, penetrating beyond the Chancellor’s rhetoric and his manoeuvring with the stats reveals a rather less encouraging picture. 

For services overall… 

Given that so many public services have to be provided by local authorities, the Chancellor’s promises need to be seen in the context of what has happened to their funding since 2010 – that for example:

  • Between 2010 and 2020, they lost 60p out of every £1 of Government funding for those services. 
  • By 2020 almost half of them – 168 – were no longer receiving any Revenue Support Grant funding from central government.
  • According to a 2018 Local Government Association report, by 2019-20 funding for council services overall would have been reduced by further £1.3 billion, or 36 per cent.[3] 

One of the key commentators on the Budget – the Institute for Fiscal Studies – did confirm that the promised increases in public spending were ‘real and substantial’. However, it also drew some much less positive conclusions, some with significant implications for young people.[4] These included that:

  • ‘For many areas … spending will still be substantially less in 2024-25 than it was in 2010’.
  • Because of the strict limits on what councils can raise through council tax and the demands of the social care system, the next few years ‘could still see some local authorities having to cut services’.
  • ‘Over the whole of the period since 2010 … education spending (will have increased) by less than 3% – in contrast to a 40% increase in spending on health’. As a result – presented by the Chancellor as some great achievement – it will take until 2024 to return schools’ spending on each pupil to 2010 levels. 
  • ‘Spending per student in FE and sixth form colleges will remain well below 2010 levels’.

and for open youth work specifically

 Of the funding allocated specifically for ‘youth services’, at least £500 million – that is, nearly 90 per cent – of the promised £560 million is far from the new money suggested by the Youth Minister Nigel Huddleston in his speech at the NYA ‘Youth Work Summit’ conference earlier this month.[5] Much of it in fact is what the Director of Social Change has labelled ‘money recycling’ – the, in effect, third ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund originally announced by the Chancellor’s predecessor way back in September 2019 and over those two years left largely unspent.[6]

Also needing to be highlighted here is that over the next three years one-third (£173 million) of the Chancellor’s promised £560 million for ‘youth services’ will be going to the National Citizens Service. When compared with the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for these services which it was reported to be getting in 2018 [7], the £158 million it was allocated in 2020 and £100 million in the current financial year, this represents what is being called a ‘significant reduction’ in its funding. This moreover comes at a time when, targeted still at just 16- and 17-years, it is about to launch a new ‘year-round’ offer to replace its current model. This it describes as

participants spend(ing) two weeks away from home in small teams, guided by a dedicated, trained adult team leader. They then spend an additional 30 hours working in their communities in their own time.[8] 

However, with these past programmes in 2019 ‘reaching’ just 600,000 of the age group [9], NCS surely still needs to be judged alongside the up to 1.5 million 10-15-year-olds (plus some older teens) who, I suggested in my last blog post, might each week be going to a local a youth club – if such a facility still existed.[10] 

Welcome though any young people-focused funding is in the present circumstances, this also needs to be set in the context of the continuing impacts of those ten-plus years of austerity cuts. For example:£560 million, averaged out over three years at around £186 million a year, falls well short of the £1 billion cut from local authorities’ spending on Youth Services in England between 2010-11 and 2018-19 [11] with a resultant fall in their spend per young person from an average of £136 to around £54.[12]

  • The promised ‘up to 300 youth clubs in England’, ‘targeted at areas most in need’, has to be seen alongside the closure across the UK between 2010 and 2019 of more than 760 youth centres.[13] 
  • Nor is there anything in the Budget to help fill the huge skills gaps left by the loss in these years of more than 4,500 youth worker posts [14]; to cover the salaries or other revenue costs of reinstating at least some of those jobs; or to reverse the fall from nearly 1300 in to 432 between 2009-10 and 2017-18 in the number of students on approved youth and community work courses.[15] 

New evidence from the National Youth Agency 

While this piece was being drafted the NYA published the initial (and appropriately cautious) findings of its youth sector ‘Census’ carried out earlier this year.[16] Its data – ‘collected from over 2,500 organisations or sub-units of organisations from all parts of the (youth) sector and the country’ – not only provides some significant additional insights into the current state of open youth work in England. It also helps expose the limitations of the Chancellor’s offer for open youth work. 

The NYA report for example reveals:

  • ‘… a large disparity in the amount and type of provision available to young people dependent on where they live’, with ‘… twice as much provision in the most affluent areas as opposed to the most deprived’; and ‘… twice as many buildings purpose-built for, or dedicated towards, young people in affluent areas’;
  • ‘… the units of national uniformed organisations, especially those affiliated to Scouts and Girlguiding, … made up 90% of all provision we were able to identify’;
  • voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations which are not affiliated to national or uniformed organisations are, conversely, more concentrated in the most deprived postcodes’;
  • VCS organisations ‘are disproportionately providing (and being commissioned by local authorities to provide) universal services, while local authority provision is more focussed on targeted delivery’.
  • ‘15% of upper-tier and unitary local authorities… (said) that they offered no direct delivery…’      

On funding specifically, the Census also found that, based on their reserves, only 35 per cent of ‘youth services’ said they would be able to continue to operate normally for between six months and a year.

Given these realities, it’s vital that the Chancellor’s rhetoric be uncompromisingly called out – not least his ‘recycled pledges and commitments’. 


  1. LGA, 2018, ‘Local services face further £1.3 billion government funding cut in 2019/20’, LGA, 1 October, https://www.wired-gov.net/wg/news.nsf/articles/LGA+Local+services+face+further+1.3+billion+government+funding+cut+in+201920+09102018154000?open  accessed 29.10.21
  2. GOV.UK, 2021, ‘Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 Speech’, 27 October, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/autumn-budget-and-spending-review-2021-speech
  3. LGA, 2018, ‘Local services face further £1.3 billion government funding cut in 2019/20’. 
  4. Paul Johnson, ‘Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021’, Institute of Fiscal Studies, https://ifs.org.uk/budget-2021, accessed 28.10.21
  5. Nigel Huddleston, 2021, ‘Nigel Huddleston speech to Youth Work Summit’, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 1 November, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nigel-huddleston-speech-to-youth-work-summit–2
  6. Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Spending Review: Sunak’s pledges for children, young people and families’, CYPN, 27 October 
  7. Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June
  8. NCS, 2021, National Citizens Service Prospectus, Cabinet Office/Department of Education, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61798/NCS-prospectus-Feb-2012.pdf accessed 3 November  
  9. Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS sees funding reduction in Spending Review’, CYPN, 29 October  
  10.  National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, 2013, ‘Youth Report 2013’, http://www.ncvys.org.uk/sites/default/files/Youth%20Report%202013v2.pdf; and Statista (2019), ‘Population of the UK 2019, by age group’, https://www.statista.com/statistics/281174/uk-population-by-age/, accessed 29 June 2021.
  11. Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cuts in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January
  12.  NYA/YMCA, 2021, Time’s Running Out: Youth Services inder threat and lost opportunities for young people, NYA, September, p 6   
  13.  Unison, 2019, Youth services at breaking point, April, https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2019/04/Youth-services-report-04-2019.pdf 
  14. Unison, 2019, Youth services at breaking point.
  15. Derren Hayes’, 2017, ‘Youth work student numbers plunge by 28 per cent’, CYPN, 4 May
  16. Dan Parton, 2018 Youth work training figures reveal record lows’, CYPN, 14 August 
  17. NYA, 2021, Initial Summary of Findings for the National Youth Sector Census, 1 November, https://nya.org.uk/national-youth-sector-census-first-report/; Nina Jacobs, 2021, ‘Quarter of youth services “running on si months worth of reserves”, CYPN, 1 November 

Bernard Davies

November 2021

‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

‘Building back better’ – often accompanied by a call to work towards a ‘new normal’ –seems to have become the favoured catchphrase for describing the goal of a post-pandemic recovery. Within the youth work field, for example, it was the title of a heartening Northampton University launch event in June of its new MA in Youth and Community Leadership. Reflecting some similar aspirations, the previous month the Institute for Youth Work had focussed its student-led conference on ‘adapting and building youth work’.

Often, it seems, the rebuilding required is explained mainly – even perhaps only – as a response to the pandemic and its impacts. And, from a young person’s perspective, why not, given the growing evidence of the damage this has done to their educational attainment, their job opportunities, their mental health and – of special concern to youth workers – their social relationships? 

What this evidence is also showing, however, is that, far from simply being the cause of these problems, the pandemic is often exacerbating ones which, deeply embedded in structural inequalities, have long been ignored by policy-makers and all but denied in two recent reports by government advisers and MPs [1]. All of which suggests that a genuine ‘building back better’ will need to be much more ambitious than just seeking to return to some deeply flawed version of a pre-pandemic ‘old normal’.

What, then, might such a vision look like, particularly for an open youth work practice committed to young people’s voluntary engagement and to starting from the interests and concerns of the ones who actually turn up?

Open youth work: the response so far 

With youth work buildings locked down for long periods, as well as drawing on their well-honed detached and outreach skills, youth workers have often sustained and even sometimes extended their relationships with young people by developing a range of ‘remote’ ways of working [2].These, however, come with significant cautions. One is that, contrary to the success stories dominating much of the early feedback, later anecdotal evidence has suggested that – with, say, parents within earshot of their devices – not all young people are comfortable with ‘digital’ engagement. For many, anyway, this is no substitute for the open youth work spaces where, face-to-face, they can meet friends, relax and have some fun – and where, too, a relationship might build with an adult who comes to be trusted precisely because, beyond that space, she or he has no built-in power over them. As one young man ‘of few words’ put it: 

‘I don’t go to school. My support is from the family I trust … and the youth workers at the Youth Centre’ [3]. 

An emerging cause for caution, too, is surely the growing interest of cost-conscious policy-makers in those ‘digital’ approaches. The government’s Youth Review consultation earlier this year, for example, asked respondents to comment on ‘the role digital provision (might) have in delivering services for young people?’[4] In outlining a new strategy for the National Citizens Service which includes proposals for a reduced budget, its Chief Executive also suggested the scheme might offer …greater opportunities for … digital support on issues including mental health and resilience…’ [5] 

An example, perhaps, of: be careful what you wish for?

Building back better’ – to where?

Given all that, what more specifically – and more positively – might ‘building back better’ mean for open youth work?
Here we should be very clear – and hard-line – that the ‘back’ being set for youth work cannot be the appearance of the pandemic in early 2020. It needs to be located much earlier – at the very least to before 2010 and an ‘austerity’ decade whose destructive impacts, still very much with us, continue to deepen those structural inequalities which so constrain so many young people’s futures.

To justify this I draw on two quite separate pieces of evidence. 

  • One: that in 2013 over 9 per cent of UK 10-15 year olds were using a youth club most days of week and nearly 29 per cent at least once a week. This suggests that – even before the 15-plus age group is taken into account – by 2018-19 up to 1.5 million young people might have been making regular use of a youth work facility [7].
  • The other: that for many of them this option is no longer available as, on the back of at least £400 million cuts to local authority Youth Services, over 760 youth centres have been closed and more than 4,500 youth work jobs lost [8]. And all this without taking into account these cuts’ knock-on effects on the voluntary sector.

What follows in no way seeks to downplay the damage done by the pandemic. However, for me these starting points demonstrate that, to have any credibility, ‘building back’ for youth work will at the very least have to have much bolder aspirations. Above all these will need to press for the reinstatement to at least their pre-2010 pre-austerity levels of those open leisure spaces for which so many young people had been voting for with their feet, and of the training routes essential for ensuring these are properly staffed. 

Southmead Youth Centre

Hard though it is to take in, if other (again anecdotal) evidence is to be believed this may also now need to be backed up by efforts to raise the awareness of what a ‘local youth club’ might offer to a teenage generation with little or no lived experience of such a facility. 

‘Reinstatement’ – beyond ‘the what’ to ‘the how’ 

How, then, might we begin to move beyond an easy-to-throw-around word like ‘reinstatement’ towards what this might look like on the ground? One immediate, albeit negative, response is: not necessarily by bringing back those local authority Youth Services too often characterised in the past by top-down bureaucratic structures and procedures.

Indeed, as damaging as their loss has been for so many young people, the huge gaps left by their disappearance now offer an opportunity to think afresh – not least about how we might create bottom-up forms of management and accountability more responsive to open youth work’s ‘on-the-wing’, process-led ways of working with young people.

In my search for how this rather rhetorical aspiration might be turned into more positive practical action, I began to explore what has come to be known as ‘the Preston model’ of local government [9]. Describing itself as ‘solving problems from below without permission from above’, this is linked into a global ‘municipalist movement’ of ‘community-wealth building’ aimed at ‘a meaningful transfer of wealth and power back to local communities’. As a way of spending local money locally, for example, Preston council has sought to take back control of ‘outsourced’ public services – on which by 2015 councils nationally were spending £120 billion. Offering contracts requiring all staff to be paid the living wage, by 2020 Preston was recording ‘its highest employment rate and lowest levels of economic inactivity for over fifteen years…’ 

For achieving its primary purposes of economic regeneration and adaptation, a key focus at ground-level has been on supporting ‘… worker-owned businesses and credit unions’ and the creation of local co-ops and ‘social enterprises’. Though less clear on how far it has shifted the power dynamics within what it calls ‘community support and solidarity, including welfare and social, cultural and leisure provision’, the model’s decade-plus on-the-ground experience nonetheless suggests a range of approaches which seem relevant, too, to these areas of local state provision – including open youth work.

So – where are we now?

Though too often narrowly preoccupied with ‘preventative’ forms of ‘early intervention’ for dealing with knife crime and mental health problems, before the pandemic hit groups of MPs had begun to give open access youth work some renewed positive attention [10]. This revived recently with, for example, comments by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on how deprived neighbourhoods have been hit hardest by local Youth Service cuts [11] and – in some detail – by an interim review report from an All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs looking specifically at youth work in England [12].

Starting by acknowledging how Covid-19 has stopped progress ‘in its tracks’, the latter particularly highlights the delays until 2022 in completing the government’s review of the statutory youth work guidance to local authorities and in releasing money from a promised Youth Investment Fund. And though again rather too preoccupied with youth work’s role in ‘enhanc(ing) young people’s skills for life and work’, the report does confront the evidence that ‘1 in 3 teenagers are not happy with services and activities in their local area’ and that ‘through Covid-recovery young people don’t feel listened to by politicians’. 

The report also lays down what could be some important bottom lines for a possible future ‘reinstatement’ programme. It for example:

  • recognises ‘the role of youth work as a distinctive form of education’;
  • endorses ‘young people’s expectations for regular access to … somewhere (safe) to go, something (fun) to do with friends and to learn new skills, and (to) a (trusted) adult…’
  • concludes that, while ‘safe digital spaces … have provided additional support for some’, these are ‘not a substitute for face-to-face provision’;
  • asserts the need for ‘committed long term funding at the grass roots’ – particularly to replace youth work‘s long-time reliance on ‘short term project or programme-led funding’ with consequences which have included ‘insecurity of employment (and) limited career opportunities’; 
  • insists that the Government has ‘a primary role … to secure sufficient youth places and activities across local youth services’, supplemented by ‘a rich heritage of voluntary sector provision’.  

For starting to implement these aspirations, the APPG also has some to-the-point recommendations. That, for example:

  • to raise youth work’s profile at national policy-making levels, ‘consideration … be given to … a dual role jointly held at the DCMS (Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport) and the DfE (Department for Education), or for a cross-departmental committee to be chaired by the Minister’;
  • government statutory guidance ‘… be strengthened with a clear understanding of what is a “sufficient” level of youth services for a local area…’;
  • to overcome youth services’ ‘inconsistent’ funding through local authorities and the resultant ‘patchwork of youth provision across the country’, local youth partnerships be established or developed (which) incorporate young people in consultation and decision-making’;
  • the introduction of ‘a national strategy … to recruit, train and sustain qualified and entry-level youth workers, and adult volunteers’;
  • the creation of ‘new “light touch” inspection arrangements’ … to ‘help ensure the quality of youth provision, including safeguarding and equity of access for young people’.

And the money?

Clearly all this leaves us a long way from the kind of sustained ‘reinstatement’ I suggested earlier – above all because in the present circumstances it is far from clear whether or how anything like the necessary resources will be made available. Though of course the government won’t be using the word, despite a Treasury promise of an extra £170 million of government spending in the autumn budget [13], for many public services another era of ‘austerity’ looks inevitable. Back in July – that is, even before the recent proposals for more money for health and social care – the predicted gap between public spending and revenue for the current financial year was £234 billion, suggesting possible cuts in planned public services expenditure of between £14 and £17 billion [14]. And all this at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urged on by powerful sections of his party, is said to be insisting on ‘fiscally disciplined’ policies which could even block measures crucial to achieving the UK’s zero carbon emission commitments [15].

Against this background, it seems, the most that open youth work – or indeed other forms of informal work with young people – can expect from this government are bits of what I call ‘gesture funding’. This was surely illustrated again in August by a £2 million DCMS ‘investment’, topped up by £2 million of Lottery money, in #Iwill – the youth volunteering/‘social action’ scheme which evidence indicated last year was becoming less attractive to, particularly ‘disadvantaged’, young people.

Not much ‘building back better’ there then.

Bernard Davies, September 2021


  1. See for example GOV.UK, 2021, The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 31 March, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-commission-on-race-and-ethnic-disparities; House of Commons Select Education Committee Report, 2021, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, 22 June, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6364/documents/70802/default/ 
  2. See for example Batsleer et al, 2020/2021, ‘Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID-19’, Youth and Policy, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/tag/diaries/  
  3. Janet Batsleer etc, 2021, ‘The Importance of Our Wild Stories: The Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID-19’, 15 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/the-importance-of-our-wild-stories/. See also for example Anna Bawden, 2020, ‘“Meeting my youth worker is the only time I eat a meal with another person”’, Guardian, 29 April 
  4. Department for Media, Culture and Sport, 2021, ‘Form: Youth sector engagement exercise’, 23 February, p 4, available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/engagement-exercise-on-out-of-school-support-for-young-people/youth-sector-engagement-exercise.
  5. Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS boss sets out plans to expand scheme’, CYPN, 25 May
  6.  National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, 2013, ‘Youth Report 2013’, http://www.ncvys.org.uk/sites/default/files/Youth%20Report%202013v2.pdf
  7. Statista, 2021, ‘Population of the United Kingdom in 2019, by age group’, accessed 17 August 2021,  file:///C:/Users/Owner/Favorites/Desktop/Documents/PolicyPapersetc%20-%20Copy/Yp/PopStats2019(0’19yos).html
  8. Unison, 2018, ‘Youth Services at breaking point’, December, https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2019/04/Youth-services-report-04-2019.pdf
  9. Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones, 2021, Paint your Town Red: How Preston took back control and your town can do too, Repeater.
  10. See for example All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2019, Youth Work Enquiry: Final Report, https://nya.org.uk/static/dd541a2ccc2078f9e9bac988fbfb8e4c/APPG-Youth-Work-Inquiry-Final-Report-April-2019-ONLINE.pdf; House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/1016/1016.pdf, accessed 12 September 2021
  11. Rowena Mason, 2021, ‘Tory cuts to English youth services fuelling crime; say Keir Starmer’, Guardian, 16 August 
  12. All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2021, Review of Youth Work in England: Interim report, July, http://www.youthappg.org.uk/review-of-youth-work-in-england-interim-report/
  13. Philip Inman, 2021, ‘Rishi Sunak confirms autumn budget to take place on 27 October’, Guardian, 7 September  
  14. Richard Partington, ‘UK public services face cuts of up to £17bn, says IFS’, Guardian, 21 July
  15. Teasury blocking green policies key to UK net zero targets’, Guardian, 13 August

What future for open youth work?

What future for open youth work? 

It is now four months since I last posted a piece on this blog – a gap in part explained by the time taken to update ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto for Our Times’, hopefully for republication by Youth and Policy in the autumn. Over those months – and especially since August when I posted ‘Where is youth work, where is the Youth Service…’ [1]- significant new pressures have swirled in and around both the practice and what’s left of that local authority provision. What follows therefore seeks to address one of this blog’s original stated aims: to offer an on-going document of record by periodically updating developments like these. 

Necessarily, this piece also takes into account some of the impacts of a pandemic which – far from in August being ‘mid-Covid’ as I then optimistically suggested! – will clearly be influencing youth work and indeed practice and policy responses much more widely for a long time to come.


Despite repeatedly changing and often confusing lockdowns and ‘tier’ restrictions, throughout the pandemic many youth workers have not only sustained existing relationships with young people but have reached out to develop new ones. They have done this by extending well-tried detached and outreach approaches and by adopting newer often highly creative ‘digital’ methods[2]. The complexities and contradictions of this practice, its agonies as well as its successes, have been vividly captured by ‘day-in-the-life’ entries in some 40 youth worker diaries focused on the impacts of the pandemic on young people, workers and their organisations. Prompted and analysed by a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ group of practitioners and academics, some of the initial findings have now been published in four Youth and Policy articles [3]. The diaries themselves are being lodged in Sussex University’s Mass Observation archive of materials which record ‘ordinary’ citizens’ everyday lives dating back to the 1930s. 

Clearly at a time of so much stress for young people [4], the ‘remote’ youth work interventions have often been particularly valued. However, given that for many of them ‘the youth sector may be the only place where they will find a trusted adult to support them’[5], one at least implicit message emerging from the diaries is that ultimately the digital can’t be a substitute for those face-to-face meetings – young person with young person, young person with youth worker – which so define open youth work practice. As one young man ‘of few words’ put it:

‘I don’t go to school. My support is from the family I trust … and the youth workers at the Youth Centre’ [6]   

By the end of January, as well as ‘Covid-secure’ outdoor sessions, government guidelines were again allowing one-to-one and small group indoor meetings with ‘vulnerable’ young people and from mid-May, for under 18’s generally, both indoors and outdoors sessions without limits on group size. However, the National Youth Agency (NYA) was still recommending that providers observe the rules on social distancing, hygiene and face coverings in order to reduce the risk of community transmission [7].


Inevitably these same pandemic restrictions have had significant impacts on the educational institutions running qualifying youth work courses. Not only have class teaching and tutorials often had to be provided remotely. The body which validates youth work qualifications in England, the NYA’s Education and Training Sub-committee (ETS), re-confirmed for the January lockdown that required supervised and assessed practice – normally 800 hours for undergraduate students and 400 hours for postgraduates – could be reduced to a minimum of 75 per cent. Exceptions were also being allowed for individual students based on other evidence that they could meet ‘threshold standards for professional recognition’ or by their undertaking additional practice hours at a later date [8].

In response to these kinds of enforced changes, in February the course tutors’ Professional Association of Lecturers in Youth and Community Work (PALYCW), launched a ‘research enquiry’. Focuses included key Covid-related issues and challenges, how lecturers are addressing these and what the future might look like for youth and community work training programmes [9].



As in many other policy areas, the government’s support for the youth work field’s responses to the pandemic has been limited at best and often contradictory. Just as it was classifying youth workers as ‘key/critical workers’[10], it was also ‘pausing’ its review of the guidance to local authorities on their statutory duty to provide a Youth Service – last updated in 2012. By requiring them to make this provision only ‘so far as reasonably practicable’, in the ‘austerity’ decade after 2010 councils in England and Wales were left free to cut their Youth Service budgets by £1 billion (73 per cent) – including in one year alone (2019-20) by six per cent. As a result over 760 youth centres were closed, over 4,500 youth work jobs lost and an estimated 800,000 young people deprived of a local youth facility[11].

Even a government promise of a £500 million Youth Investment Fund (YIF) turned out to be largely illusory. First announced in September 2019 and later made an election manifesto commitment, the money – to be spent over five years – was initially due to be released in April 2020. As well as ensuring an ‘investment in the workforce’, it was to be used to ‘…help build 60 new youth centres across the country, refurbish around 360 existing youth facilities, and provide over 100 mobile facilities for harder to reach areas…’[12] Though absent from the original and also subsequent government statements, in February Baroness Barran, the ‘youth minister’, suddenly insisted that one of the Fund’s key requirement had always been to promote ‘innovation’[13] – an entirely meaningless concept for a practice defined in part by a commitment, in the here-and-now, to be responsive to the young people who actually turn up and to what they want and need from the encounter[14]. 

Not only does the £500 million supposedly on offer clearly fall well short of filling the huge gaps left by all those post-2010 budget cuts. By January, only £30 million of it had been allocated – and that only for capital expenditure and not for spending till 2021-22: a two-and-a-half year wait which, as NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton pointed out, adds up to ‘a huge part of a young person’s life’. Within a month it emerged anyway that the Treasury had taken back the remaining money so that, as part of its pre-budget three-year spending review[15], its use could be considered in relation to wider priorities for ‘crisis services’.

Also promised as part of the Chancellor’s November 2020 Spending Review was a £100 million fund for ‘youth facilities’ including delivery of a National Citizen Service (NCS) intended only at 16- and 17-year olds; and a £16 million Youth Covid-19 Support Fund for voluntary organisations which, though announced as immediately on offer, was still unspent four months later [17].

… another ‘youth review’…

On the back of the Treasury’s withdrawal of the YIF, the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) announced a review of ‘youth services’ in order, it said, to ‘set policy direction for the out of-school agenda’. This was carried out in late February and early March using digital questionnaire ‘consultations’ with young people and providers. [18].Though the review briefing paper recognised ‘the value of open access youth services’ and ‘the distinct role of youth work’, Baroness Barran also made clear that, as ‘choices will have to be made’ because ‘the cheque can’t be unlimited’, this provision would be competing for whatever money was finally made available for ‘broader positive activities for young people’. The latter were explained as again including NCS as well as targeted and residential services and arts and sports programmes [19].

Moreover, though clearly relevant in the current pandemic moment, the DCMS set out the two future core aims for ‘youth support’ as (i) developing skills for life and work, and (ii supporting mental and physical wellbeing (bold in the original). These again suggested that little attention was being paid to youth work’s openness to what the young people themselves might want and need to take away from it. 

Nor was the review paper more encouraging on how the work is to be evaluated. With ‘… ensuring outcomes and metrics’ still the priorities, rather than emphasising any individual or group’s ‘distance travelled’, providers will be expected still to address such questions as ‘How can we better capture the long-term impact of youth provision?’ and ‘How can we better capture the preventative value of early intervention youth provision?’ The review also promised ‘a particular focus on addressing regional differences in opportunities for young people’ – to be understood, surely, as code for the government’s ‘levelling up’ promises to those ‘red line’ constituencies which went Tory for the first time in December 2019 [20].

and a new ‘youth survey’.

Three months after the DCMS review the Children’s Commissioner for England announced a ‘Big Ask’ survey of 4–17 year olds in England. With accessible’ versions for different age groups and one specifically for care leavers, this is seeking respondents’ views on ‘the things that matter to you’, ‘what your life is like’, ‘what you want in the future’ and ‘what you see as holding you back’. Questions for the 13-17 age group include ones on friendships, experiences on line, personal safety, access to somewhere to have fun, choice of things to do locally, health – mental and physical, and a family’s ‘ability to buy things we need’.

The Commissioner has promised that the survey results will be used ‘to tell the people who run the country or your local area what you think needs to change to make your life better’ [21].

Meanwhile, out there in the field …

While all this has been going on, evidence has been accumulating of the struggle many youth work projects and groups are having to sustain their work – or even just to survive. With high street shops closed and many fundraising events cancelled, eight months into the pandemic even a major organisation like the YMCA was reporting a deficit of £5 million [22]. By November, Leigh Middleton was talking about smaller grassroots projects with much less infrastructure capacity facing ‘an unprecedented funding crisis’. Later NYA research indicated that one in four youth charities were ‘running on empty’ [23] – a view underpinned in a very grounded way in February when one youth work manager publicly reflected on his organisation’s imminent ‘redundancy consultation process’ [24].

Other evidence of these pressures has also been emerging:

  • An open letter to ministers in December from the Back Youth Alliance – a coalition of ten national youth organisations including government-favoured ones such as NCS and Step Up to Serve – described may of their services as on the brink of collapse’ [25].
  • A UK Youth report in January revealed that 58 per cent of over 1700 youth organisations surveyed were operating at a reduced level; a further 20 per cent were closed temporarily or preparing to close permanently; two-thirds with incomes under £250,000 were at risk of closure; and that for 31 per cent that was a possibility within six months [26].
  • Also in January, a London Youth report concluded that a third of its 650 members were struggling to operate, prompting its chief executive to point to ‘… a real risk that they will go under at a time when our young people need them more than ever’ [27].

Towards a more ambitious (state?) vision for youth work?

One albeit usually implicit assumption again in evidence over this period was that philanthropic fund-raising could fill these serious and often ongoing budget gaps. This was illustrated by a Guardian/Observer Christmas appeal which raised £1.4 million for three organisations including UK Youth and an £8 million Youth Recovery Fund launched in March by the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust to ensure that youth centres could stay open [28]

Welcome though such money is of course, it can nonetheless too easily hide two crucial realities: that adequate services for any (young) person who chooses or needs to use them should be available as a citizen’s right; and that for meeting that commitment a sufficient and guaranteed contribution from the state – national and local – is essential.


If the NYA’s Ten Year Vision for Youth Work 2020-203 published last November is to have any chance of being realised, it will certainly need to be underpinned by these kinds of bottom-lines [29]. Its proposals for example include:

  • ‘A clear, statutory basis … to ensure a base-level of open-access youth services.
  • ‘… a target within in each secondary school catchment area of two full-time equivalent professional, JNC qualified youth workers and a team of at least four youth support workers alongside trained volunteers’.
  • ‘… additional provision of detached and outreach youth work, digitised youth work and transport where needed to access opportunities’.
  • ‘… young people … (to) be involved to co-design and develop services in their locality. 
  • ‘A realignment of £1.2bn annual funding (adjusted for inflation) from government ring-fenced for open-access youth services …
  • ‘… a major capital building programme…’

As well as taking on these crucial ‘what’ questions’, the NYA Vision also includes proposals for dealing with some equally tricky ‘how’ issues. It for example recommends:    

  • ‘… a diverse range of providers as a flourishing eco-system of community-based youth work’.
  • ‘Local youth partnerships to bring together the public, private, voluntary and community sector to make the most effective use of all available funding and assets’.
  • ‘Increased levels of democratic engagement and young people actively involved in community leadership roles and decision-making across services and organisations’.

Though these proposals certainly have much to recommend them, a post-Covid vision for state-sponsored open youth work will also require that some wider unexplored process questions are addressed. Such as:

  • Will the procedures for allocating funding and deciding where staff and buildings are best located still have embedded within them those neo-liberal forms of competitive tendering and commissioning which have been so damaging for collaborative ‘community-based eco-systems’ and ‘democratic engagement’?
  • Can these arrangements avoid the inward-looking bureaucratic mind-set which, within some voluntary organisations now as well as local state providers, too often in the past have diverted youth work’s responsiveness to the young people’s self-chosen priorities?
  • Indeed, to echo questions I raised in a previous post [30], can existing ‘youth voice’ assumptions, approaches and arrangements ensure that the proposed inputs by young people into the policy-making processes – local and national – get serious attention and hard responses?
  • Rather than still relying on those depersonalised forms of ‘metrics’ and ‘measurement’, will more youth work-appropriate – for example ‘narrative’ – methods of evaluation be developed and implemented?[31]

Bernard Davies, May 2021


  1. https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/08/20/so-where-is-youth-work-where-is-the-youth-service-post-election-mid-covid/
  2. Derren Hayes etc, 2021, ‘Lockdown response: How services deliver vital support for children’, CYPN, 26 January
  3. Janet Batsleer etc, September 2020 (2 articles), November 2020 and January 2021, via https://www.youthandpolicy.org
  4. See for example Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Under-25s hardest hit by Covid-19job loss, ONS figures show’, CYPN, 23 February; Joe Lepper, 2021, One on three Black young people out of work amid Covid-19 pandemic, research reveals’, CYPN, 14 April; denis Campbell, 2021, ‘Extent of mental health crisis in England at “terrifying” level’, Guardian, 9 April.
  5.  UK Youth, 2020, ‘Harnessing the power of the youth sector in the Covid-19 crisis: an open letter to government’, 20 March
  6. Janet Batsleer etc, 2021, ‘The Importance of Our Wild Stories: The Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID-19’, 15 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/the-importance-of-our-wild-stories/. See also for example Anna Bawden, 2020, ‘“Meeting my youth worker is the only time I eat a meal with another person”’, Guardian, 29 April 
  7.  NYA, 2021, ‘Managing youth sector activities and spaces during COVID-19’, May, https://www.nya.org.uk/guidance/
  8.  NYA, 2021, ‘Statement to confirm guidance to Institutions providing NYA approved awards during Covid-19’, 7 January, https://youthworkslivinghistory.files.wordpress.com/2021/05/f0f3f-nyaetsguidancestatementtouniversities07.01.2021.pdf
  9. PALYCW, 2021, Email Bulletin, 5 February
  10. DCMS/NYA, 2021, Letter from Baroness Barran, Leigh Middleton, 7 January; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Youth workers get key worker status’, CYPN, 8 January
  11. Unison, 2018, ‘Axing millions from youth work puts futures at risk, says UNISON’, 3 December; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘300,000 young people missing out on youth work services, analysis suggests’, CYPN, 17 June; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Youth services spending cut by three quarters in a decade, YMCA research shows’, CYPN, 18 February    file:///C:/Users/Owner/Favorites/Desktop/Documents/PolicyPapersetc%20-%20Copy/YouthSv’YthWk/DamageRpt2018.html 
  12. Gov.UK, 2019, ‘Chancellor announces support for post-BREXIT future’, 30 September, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-announces-support-for-post-brexit-future–2
  13. Baroness Barran, 2021, NYA Q&A with the Minister for Civil Society, 11 February; DCMS, 2021, ‘Youth Sector Engagement Exercise’, https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/DCMS-Youth-Sector-Engagement-Pack-FINAL-.pdf, no date; Derren Hayes, 2021, ‘Minister commits to Youth Investment Fund but focus will be on “innovation”’, CYPN, 15 February
  14. See Jon Ord, 2020, ‘Is innovation necessarily a good thing in youth work?’, September, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2020/09/06/is-innovation-necessarily-a-good-thing-in-youth-work-jon-ord-reflects/; Adam Muirhead, 2021, Inno-fucking-vation: The return of the I-word in youth work, IDYW, February, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2021/02/21/inno-fucking-vation-the-return-of-the-i-word-in-youth-work/ 
  15. Amelia Hill, 2021, ‘Generation Z and Covid; “I’m 100% more politicised’, Guardian, 3 January; Rob Merrick, 2021, ‘Hundreds of millions of pounds of promised government cashfor “collapsing” youth services shelved’, Guardian, 30 January 
  16. HM Treasury, 2020, Spending Review 2020, November, para 6.88, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/938052/SR20_Web_Accessible.pdf
  17. Gov.UK, 2020, ‘Government announces £16.5 million youth covid-19 support fund’, 25 November, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-165-million-youth-covid-19-support-fund; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘DCMS fails to spend £17M Youth Covid Support Fund, NAO investigation finds’, CYPN, 23 March
  18. DCMS, 2021, ‘Youth Sector Engagement Exercise’, 23 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/engagement-exercise-on-out-of-school-support-for-young-people/youth-sector-engagement-exercise 
  19.  Derren Hayes, 2021, ‘Minister commits to Youth Investment Fund but focus will be on “innovation”’, CYPN, 15 February 
  20. Baroness Barran, 2021, NYA Q&A with the Minister for Civil Society, 11 February; DCMS, 2021, ‘Youth Sector Engagement Exercise’
  21. Children’s Commissioner for England, 2021, ‘The Big Ask’, https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/thebigask/, accessed 10 May 2021
  22. Derren Hayes etc, 2021, ‘Lockdown response: How services deliver vital support for children’, CYPN, 26 January 
  23. NYA, 2020, ‘The Back Youth Alliance joint statement on the 2020 Spending Review’, 25 November, https://nya.org.uk/2020/11/the-back-youth-alliance-joint-statement-on-the-2020-spending-review/; Amelia Hill, 2021, ‘Generation Z and Covid; “I’m 100% more politicised”’, Guardian, 3 January
  24. Adam Muirhead, 2021, Inno-fucking-vation: The return of the I-word in youth work, IDYW, February
  25. UK Youth, 2020, ‘Harnessing the power of the youth sector in the Covid-19 crisis: an open letter to government’, 20 March, https://www.ukyouth.org/2020/03/harnessing-the-power-of-the-youth-sector-in-the-covid-19-crisis-an-open-letter-to-government/; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Major children’s rights report renews call for youth work investment’, CYPN, 11 December
  26. UK Youth, 2021, The impact of Covod-19 on England’s youth organisations: Executive Summary, March, https://www.ukyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/UK-Youth-Fund-Report-Executive-Summary_1.pdf; Joe Lepper, 2021,’Two thirds of youth organisations report increased demand’, CYPN, 24 February
  27.  Derren Hayes etc, 2021, ‘Lockdown response: How services deliver vital support for children’, CYPN, 26 January
  28. Patrick Butler, 2021, ‘Guardian and Observer 2020 charity appeal raises £1.4m’, 11 January,  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/11/guardian-observer-2020-charity-appeal-raises-14m; Joe Lepper, 2021, ‘£8M youth centre recovery fund launched’, CYPN, 17 March

Youth Voice – the possibilities and constraints

Ta to indian youth voice via twitter

Youth voice: questioning the possibilities – and constraints

In a previous blog post [1] I referred briefly to the Instagram website ‘Involved’ – ‘a government consultation tool for young people designed by young people’, offered as ‘the first stop for young people to be engaged, informed, and empowered to speak up and out’. Managed by the British Youth Council (BYC) – by-line: ‘We empower young people across the UK to have a say and be heard’[2] – the site invites inputs into government policy-making via ‘opinion polls and cross-government consultations on the latest hot topics’. By early November it had over 1150 followers and had fed back to ministers on youth violence, volunteering and ‘youth services’.[3]

As I seem to keep repeating in these posts – and why not? Why shouldn’t young people be able to tell those in power what they think, using technologies they’re most familiar with? Why mightn’t that be especially useful and needed at a time when the pandemic’s impacts on their generation are proving so damaging, directly and indirectly, long-term as well as immediately?

Nonetheless, some critical digging does seem in order, not least because of the complexities and contradictions built into a practice which, to be effective, needs to challenge some of our society’s entrenched power balances. What follows starts by outlining government efforts since the late-1990s to tap into what already in 2012 I felt the need to label ‘the fashionable catchphrase ‘youth voice’.[4] It then considers the challenges of converting the ‘youth voice’ aspirations into practice both in the informal self-chosen settings of open youth work and via more formal structures. Finally, in search of the boundaries embedded within them, it interrogates three of the terms most frequently used to describe and indeed explain this practice – ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’.

The emergence of ‘Youth voice
A youth work pre-history

Maud Stanley

Youth work has laid claim to such a practice from its earliest days. In 1890, for example, girls’ club ‘pioneer’ Maud Stanley described a girls’ committee as ‘a very important element in a girls’ club’. By 1908 Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, writing about boys’ club work, were even contemplating the possibility of ‘… self-government by the members…’ [5] Once it got involved, the state continued to endorse such goals – for example in the government circulars which created the Service of Youth in 1939/1940 and in the key review reports of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. [6]

Questions about how far these aspirations were being turned into action were always around, however, and in 1991 a report on the management of the Youth Service in England brought them to the surface. Describing ‘the participation of young people in the planning process … a neglected aspect’ of the Service’s work, this concluded that ‘few LEAs seem to have made much progress in achieving it’.[7]

New Labour ‘modernisation’

Though drawing little on traditional forms of open youth work, throughout its years in office New Labour looked for ways of filling this gap. In 2000, for example, it created the UK Youth Parliament which today – by-line: ‘Making Our Mark’ – aims to ‘provide opportunities for 11-18 year olds to use their elected voice to bring about social change through meaningful representation and campaigning’. In this period, too, Labour supported the efforts of a consortium of youth organisations to develop a Youth Bank and the launch of the Local Government Association and NYA’s ‘Hear by Right’ campaign for opening up local government decision-making to young people.[8]

By 2005-06, shaped by its Youth Matters papers, Labour’s youth policies were referring frequently to the voice of young people. The second of these included proposals for a Youth Opportunity and a Youth Capital Fund[9] – initiatives which, though not problem-free, were more materially grounded than many in the past. By giving young people a say in how an initial two-year ringfenced funding of £150 million was to be spent on local youth facilities, they adopted an approach which a 2008 National Foundation for Educational Research report judged ‘a success’, with ‘nearly all local authorities consider(ing) that the young people had done a good job in administering the Funds’.[10]

Post-2010: the rhetoric – and the realities

In its own (also much-hyped but now largely forgotten) youth policy paper, Positive for Youth, published in 2011, the Coalition government explicitly recognised young people’s ‘right to have their views taken into account in all decisions that affect their lives’. In a sub-section headed ‘Promoting youth voice’, it pledged itself to ‘… empowering young people … to inspect and report on local services and … help “youth proof” government policy’. At a ‘youth summit’ in March 2011, the children and youth minister Tim Loughton announced that this would be done by working with the Youth Parliament, BYC and the (now defunct) National Council of Voluntary Youth Services to ‘establish a national scrutiny group of representative young people’.[11]

The Youth Parliament and BYC continued to provide important routes for the government’s efforts to fulfil these kinds of commitment. Positive for Youth, for example promised to
protect the distinct identity of the UK Youth Parliament reflecting its unique role in mirroring the UK’s national democratic processes, contribution to democratic civic engagement and relationship with Parliament itself.[12]
For the period 2011-13 BYC was allocated £850,000 of government money; continuation of this funding was confirmed in 2016; and in March 2019 it was awarded a one-year £170,000 contract to lead in the creation of ‘a Youth Steering Group’, ‘a Young Inspectors Group’ and ‘Digital Youth engagement’.[13] With the latter presumably implemented through the Instagram ‘Involved’ website, in August the current youth minister, Baroness Barran, reported that, in response to the pandemic, she had met with the Youth Steering Group to discuss financial support for young people. She also reiterated the government’s wider ‘youth voice’ commitments to continue ‘… listening carefully to young people’, to ‘want(ing) the next generation to be actively at the heart of our decision-making’, and (my emphasis added!), to ‘allow them to contribute to “building back” better’.[14]

This on-going rhetoric on the role of ‘youth voice’ has, however, to be seen in the context of the harder realities of some major youth policies over this decade and how they have been developed and implemented:

  • Immediately it came to power in 2010 – without consultation, least of all with young people – the government cut the Youth Capital Fund’s budget by half. [15]
  • Against the background of huge reductions in the Treasury’s financial support for local authorities, it subsequently removed the ringfencing of the Youth Capital and the Youth Opportunity Funds, leading within months to both programmes being wound up. [16]
  • Despite young people’s opposition[17], in 2013 Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that responsibility for youth policy be moved out of his department.
  • More widely – and again without any consultation – Gove also pushed through radical reforms of the content and format of the GCSE and A level examinations which have had such stressful consequences for so many young people. [18]
  • And then in August this year came the exam-grading fiasco …

‘Youth voice’, it seems, is fine – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the dominant ideological and political priorities determining government policies.

Converting ‘voice’ into practice 

From the formal 

The Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report quoted earlier pointed to one of the challenges which governments face anyway when they set out to turn their often ambitious-sounding ‘youth voice’ intentions into action: 

On the one hand, it (participation) is a process by which the views of young people are gathered and allowed to exert some influence…; on the other, it is a learning experience for the individuals involved … These two aspects are usually in harmony but can sometimes be in conflict. For example, there may be a tension between seeking representatives who will be the most able advocates for young people and representatives for whom the learning experience would be most beneficial.[19]

This dilemma runs alongside – indeed intersects with – another: the assumption often built into conceptions of ‘participation’ that the (perhaps only) way to achieve it is via representative structures relying on some form of electoral process. In some situations these have, of course, proved valuable. Yet the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte Report also concluded that as ‘formal structures of this kind have rarely proved effective in involving young people in strategic planning’ ‘the emphasis should be on efforts to introduce more informal methods’.[20]The case study below seeks to illustrate the challenges posed by too taken-for-granted a resort to more ‘formal structures’.

Participation’ through formal structures: a cautionary tale?

Some years ago, three long-time ‘users’ were co-opted as trustees onto a youth organisation’s Board. All were in their mid- to late teens and clearly committed to the organisation. Having expressed an interest in the role, they had particularly recommended themselves for it by their willingness in groups and to the workers they knew to speak their minds about what they thought the organisation was and wasn’t doing, or not doing as well as it should.

The ‘milieu’ of the Board meetings was for them, however, a new one. Behaviour there was shaped not only by its formal procedures but also by more informal and so largely unarticulated ‘rules’ developed over many years. For any new arriva into this setting, never mind someone for whom a ‘Board meeting’ might be an entirely new experience, finding and expressing their ‘voice’ could thus be far from straightforward.

Taking lessons from this false start, the organisation subsequently offered both individual and group induction sessions and on-going support to any young person showing an interest in becoming a trustee

Today, it is true, the formalised ways in which the ‘youth voice’ can express itself have become more diverse and flexible, particularly with the adoption of social media forms of communication and organising. Nonetheless, in the current ‘youth voice’ context, some questions on its ‘how’ and its ‘why’ still seem worth considering – such as: 

  • Who – which sections or segments of the youth population – are managing to get their voice included in these outlets and in particular in ones which get the attention of policy-makers, the media and other powerful opinion-shapers? 
  • When it does manage to penetrate those arenas, what then happens to what that ‘voice’ is communicating? How able – how well prepared and positioned – are those young people to get it converted into actions which genuinely respond to what they’re asking for? 
  • Even when (if) such penetration does occur, in light of the government rhetoric-vs-realities examples quoted above, how influential will such ‘youth-proofing’ be on the policy-making processes which most affect them when this hits the barriers of entrenched government financial, political and other priorities?

 to the informal

So what, then, about those more informal approaches and responses advocated by the Cooper and Lybrand Deloitte report? Here, even when the state is ‘the provider’, open youth work may have some relevant messages to offer. After all, one of the defining features of the settings in which this takes place is that, because young people choose to engage (or not), they bring to these, and retain within them, a significant degree of power. Indeed, I would suggest, for youth workers the unavoidable question is not whether but how ‘participation’ should happen and to what ends.

In the 2015 update of my youth work ‘manifesto’, for example, I proposed that for youth workers:… such (participation) goals are not incidental luxuries – the icing on the cake – while implementing them is often not achieved through committees or other formal machinery. Rather, they are pursued through the workers’ everyday routine exchanges with the young people who turn up; exchanges whose built-in power balances mean that, from day one and throughout, they have to be shaped by ‘participatory’ principles and the mutuality of respect and influence which these assume. [21] 

Even for youth workers, however, this still raises further questions. Such as, via those self-chosen youth work relationships, how to tap into and then support young people’s more organised and especially collective use of that power? And beyond that, too – and perhaps even more challenging: how to bring together and mobilise less formalised, bottom-up expressions of the ‘youth voice’ in settings which are not open access, which may be (even) more bureaucratic, and where the power balances are pre-set in more rigid and excluding ways? [22]

Setting boundaries for ‘consultation’, ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’

Finally, it seems relevant here, too, to unpick three of the terms used most often to describe this practice in order to identify the boundaries which, again usually unarticulated, lurk within them. 


Here, perhaps, the boundary is the most upfront: that the views/preferences/choices of those most likely to be affected by a decision or action will be gathered before this is taken or implemented. Such a process is of course often both essential and helpful. In itself, however, it gives no guarantee that those being consulted will have any control over, or even significant influence on, a final decision or its implementation. Indeed, given that the views/preferences/choices of those consulted may differ or even be in conflict, if ‘consultation’ is all that’s on offer then the final decision-makers may end up with considerable room for manoeuvre on, and even increased power over, what to do. 

Ta to liberationist.org


Here, too, the process is boundaried, though in ways which may only get identified by posing the question: participation in what? To this, surely, the most realistic answer is usually: in a setting which already exists and so has aims, structure and procedures which, it is assumed, any new ‘participant’ will accept and substantially work within. Initially at least, therefore, the effectiveness and impacts of any new ‘voices’ may depend on their willingness and ability to adapt to the setting’s given conditions and ways of operating – an expectation which (as also illustrated by the case study above) could be a tough ask of a young person entering adult-shaped and adult-dominated settings.  



Probably the most ambitious of the aims set for ‘youth voice’ is to ‘empower’ young people – at least within youth settings as such though often it is suggested also within society’s wider institutions. Here, as colleagues and I have argued previously, it is important first to highlight how a notion with radical origins has been appropriated to serve much more conforming purposes: 

Empowerment was introduced into the English vocabulary of youth and community work by activists involved in the social movements of the 1970’s. Explicitly it rejected the idea that the more powerful could empower the less powerful; that the youth worker could empower young people. Whilst the youth worker could seek to facilitate, the acid test was whether young people, typically in those days, young women or black young people, started to organise autonomously and collectively. Today’s overwhelming neo-liberal emphasis on ’empowering’ individuals from above masks the structural inequalities which restrict most young people’s choices.[23]

Given what earlier I labelled ‘our society’s entrenched power balances’, some tough practice realities do of course have to be faced here. Nonetheless, in negotiating these and the dilemmas they pose, rather than – as the empowering label implies – simply assume young people’s powerless, why can’t the implicit and indeed over time explicit practitioner starting points be: 

  • ‘So – what power do you/might you, the young person, already have in this situation? 
  • ‘What is blocking your use – even perhaps your recognition – of that power?’
  • ‘How might you act to exercise it – collectively as well as individually?’
  • ‘To what ends?
  • ‘With – of your choosing – what (if any) support?’

Bernard Davies

November 2020  


  1. https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/08/20/so-where-is-youth-work-where-is-the-youth-service-post-election-mid-covid/ , 20 August 2020
  2. British Youth Council, 2020, https://www.byc.org.uk/, accessed 19 September
  3. Instagram, 2020, ‘Involved UK’, https://www.instagram.com/involved.uk/?igshid=f64mcwwo7yvw; British Youth Council, 2020, ‘You are the voice of the future’, https://www.byc.org.uk/involved; both accessed 18 October 2020; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘#Chances4children: young people to influence Covid-19 policy using Instagram’ , CYPN, 3 July
  4. Bernard Davies, 2012, StreetCred2: The View From 42nd St, 42nd St, p 74
  5. Stanley, M.,1890, ‘Clubs for Working Girls’, in Booton, F., Studies in Social Education Vol 1, 1860-1890, Benfield Press, p 62; Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, 1908, Working Lads’ Clubs, MacMillan and Co Ltd, p 85
  6.  Board of Education. 1939, Circular 1486 – the service of youth’, Appendix para 2; Board of Education. 1940, The Challenge of Youth (Circular 1516), 27 June, para 7; Albemarle Report, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO, p. 48; Fairbairn-Milson Report, 1969, Youth and Community Work in the 70s, London, HMSO, para 195; Thompson Report, 1982, Experience and Participation: Report of the Review Group on the Youth Service in England, HMSO, para 5.17
  7. Department of Education and Science, 1991, ‘Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s’, May, para 318 
  8. See Bernard Davies, 2008, The New Labour Years: A History of the Youth Service in England Vol 3 1997-2007, pp 131-140.
  9. Department of Education and Skills, 2005, Youth Matters, July; Department of Education and Skills, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps, , March, paras 4.6-4.8
  10.  National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008, Outcomes of the Youth Opportunity Fund/Youth Capital Fund, Research Report DCSF-RR046, p.iv
  11. HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth: A New Approach to Government Policy for Young People Aged 13 to 19, Executive Summary, para 6.12, 6.13, p 88; Andy Hillier, 2011, ‘Young people will have a say in government’s youth policy, says Loughton’, CYPN, 10 March
  12.  HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, para 6.13
  13. HM Government, 2011, Positive for Youth, Executive Summary, p. 4; Adam Offord, 2016, “Government commits to long-term funding for youth project”, CYPN, 26 January;  Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“British Youth Council receives £170k to lead ‘youth voice’ projects”’, CYPN, 28 February
  14. Baroness Barran, 2020, ‘Youth Minister: Young people have a key role to play in our nation’s recovery’, CYPN, 20 August
  15. For example Youth Association, 2010, ‘LS $ash’, 14 October, http://youth-association.org/tag/youth-capital-fund
  16. Andy Hillier, 2010, ‘Youth Opportunity Fund at risk as ringfence expected to go’, CYPN, 7 June
  17. Neil Puffett, 2013, ‘Young people to probe Gove’s dismissal of youth policy’ CYPN, 8 February; Neil Puffett, 2013, ‘Young people call on Gove to invest in youth services’, CYPN, 11 February
  18. See for example Sally Weale, 2018, ‘Stress and serious anxiety: how the new GCSE is affecting mental health’, Guardian, 17 May 
  19. DES, 1991, Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s: Report, paras 319
  20. DES, 1991, Managing the Youth Service in the 1990s: Report, paras 322, 323
  21.  Bernard Davies, 2015, ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto For Our Tomes – Revisited’ Youth and Policy, No 114, May, p 103, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/davies-youth-work-manifesto-revisted.pd
  22.  Does this article perhaps offer some pointers on this? George Monbiot, 2020, ‘Extinction Rebellion is showing Britain what real democracy could look like’, Guardian, 16 September
  23. Tony Taylor, Paula Connaughton, Tania de St Croix, Bernard Davies and Pauline Grace, 2018, ‘The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Character and Purpose of English Youth Work and Beyond’, in Pam Aldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards and Dana Fusco, The Sage Handbook of Youth Work Practice, Sage, pp 84 -97

So – where is youth work, where is the Youth Service: post-election; mid-Covid?

The good – and the not-so-good – news

2019 and early 2020 brought some unaccustomed moments of hope for open youth work. A report by an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) published in April 2019 focused specifically, and positively, on ‘the role and sufficiency of youth work’[1]. Closer to the ground, Space Youth Services, the public sector mutual running Devon’s youth work services, were awarded a new three-year contract by the Council which, with a possible extension to 2025, could eventually be worth over £10 million[2]. Also in December Newham Borough Council announced it would be opening new drop-in youth club activities and appointing more detached youth workers [3] while by February Shropshire also agreed to set up a detached work team[4].

These and other initiatives, it has to be said, often came with mixed messages. Shropshire’s, for example, seemed to be dependent on town and parish councils and ‘charities’ taking over its youth clubs. More broadly, reports from another All Party Parliamentary Group[5] and a Home Office Select Committee [6] justified the need for youth work, not as a self-chosen informal educational opportunity for young people, but as a targeted ‘preventative’ response to knife crime and ‘youth violence’.

Also severely limiting any significant youth work revival after a decade of austerity were the pressures even then on local authority budgets. This was driven home in March when the mutual which had been running Kensington and Chelsea’s youth services since 2014 collapsed – the result, it said, of an ‘unsustainable financial position’ caused by ‘the reduction in the overall level of funding for youth services (just) since December 2018’[7]. Also on the back of previously agreed budget reductions, news continued to seep out of the closure of youth work facilities elsewhere in England and of lost youth worker jobs.

And where in all this is the government? By early August, on the review of the statutory guidance on Youth Services, still totally silent even though, initiated in late 2019, a report had been promised by ‘early 2020’[8]. As for reversing the £1 billion decade of cuts to English youth services which had left some councils reporting nil or close to nil expenditure [9], the best that the government has had to offer have been little more than token gestures. Such as:

  • A £500 million Youth Investment Fund to be spent, from last April, over five years[10].
  • A £12 million ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’ announced in October 2019 to ‘… address urgent needs in the youth sector’ including ‘delivering extra sessions in youth clubs’[11]. (By early March 2020 UK Youth’s £1.16 million allocation from the Fund had attracted bids totalling £15 million.[12])
  • A Home Office £200 million Youth Endowment Fund to be spent over ten years which last month awarded grants averaging £50,000 to 130 children and young people’s organisations[13].

The new normal?

And now we have the pandemic, self-distancing – and weeks of locked down youth clubs and centres across the country. From the bottom up, in both the voluntary and statutory sectors, youth workers’ responses – especially digital – have been immediate and often highly creative [14]. Once the guidelines allowed it, as in the area where I live, detached workers have been back on the streets, in the parks and in the play areas, building relationships and offering not just ‘support’ but also ‘things to do’.

By early July an Instagram ‘Involved’ project was also asking 13-25 year olds for their views on the government’s responses to the virus. Though this like all such initiatives raises questions about who in that ‘youth’ demographic is being reached, it was conceived as ‘a government consultation tool … designed by young people (and) managed by the British Youth Council’. It came, too, with a commitment to feed the results into policy-making across government departments[15].

Despite these efforts, in the early months of the pandemic evidence was emerging of a reducing proportion of young people using youth services. In April for example NYA estimated that by then ‘only one-third of the young people they would normally support’ were being reached[16]. A month later 65 per cent of respondents to the Centre for Youth Impact’s new ‘national data standard survey’ – 60 per cent from small organisations – said they were in contact with less than half of the young people they had been working with before the lockdown. This, the CYI report concluded, meant that these services were no longer reaching some 300,000 young people [17].

In two different ways, the crisis is also threatening long-term damage to the services themselves. Firstly, with many youth workers redeployed into other community roles or furloughed, by April NYA’s prediction was that ‘one in five youth clubs and services will not reopen’[18]. A month later responses from 462 ‘schools and youth organisations’ to a John Petchey Foundation survey revealed that 57 per cent of respondents saw their long-term survival as at ‘moderate risk’ and 12 per cent as at ‘high risk’[19].

Secondly, dealing with Covid-19’s wider impacts is likely to divert attention and so money from a revival of open youth work. If the pandemic can be said to have had any ‘beneficial’ effects it has been, in the starkest ways, to expose the decades of neglect of many other vital front-line services. Especially (and justifiably) high profile here are child and adult social care – in England, like the Youth Service, local authority responsibilities. Alongside – or, to express it more honestly, in competition with – services like these, how much priority will councils already facing a £5bn budget black hole [20] be able to give to the survival, never mind the reinstatement, of local open youth work facilities?

Future funding?

Questions – dilemmas – such as these only deepen as, reluctantly and murkily, the government begins to reveal its longer-term strategy for footing the Covid-19 bill. Despite election and post-election rhetoric about ‘levelling up’ across the country, a review of the local authority funding formula earlier this year threatened many councils located in those ‘red wall’ ‘left-behind’ constituencies which went Tory in the last election with cuts of £320 million a year. (More affluent Tory-controlled areas were predicted to get increases totalling £300 million)[21].

In addition, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s assurance that ‘… we will not be responding to this crisis with what has been called austerity’, Chancellor Rishi Sunak seems to be working on the premise that a change of language need not necessarily mean much of a change in policy. Already, for example, the Treasury has asked (instructed?) all government departments to ‘identify opportunities to reprioritise and deliver savings’. In announcing a one-year pay rise for 900,000 public sector workers – fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce – not only did Sunak exclude those much-applauded nurses, junior doctors and care workers. He also warned all public employees to be ready for another ‘austerity’ tactic – a new pay freeze [22].

Any real rebuilding of the public sector which will require local authority funding may have been put even more out of reach by Sunak’s failure to provide additional money to fund the new pay increases. For schools, for example, this will mean that a previously announced budget increase for 2020-21 of 5.1 per cent will in real terms now be worth only 1.9 per cent [23]. It has also been predicted that over the next four years the funding increases for disadvantaged pupils will anyway be at about two-thirds of the rate for their better-off peers[24].

‘The youth field’ responds

Despite the imaginative and often effective ways in which youth workers have used ‘remote’ methodologies, if this rebuilding is to happen the ‘youth field’s aspirations will clearly have to go well beyond a ‘default to digital’ approach [25]. The references to detached work in NYA’s recent papers are not only recognition that in the current crisis these particular workers are crucial for reaching out to ‘disconnected’ young people. They are reminders, too, that in the end there is no youth work substitute for those face-to-face in-the-moment voluntary encounters – young person with worker, of course, but also young person with young person – focused on the interests and concerns the young people bring to them. Hopefully this message – extended, too, to cover all those threatened youth work buildings – is embedded in NYA’s proposals for ‘a Youth Service Guarantee to secure universal access to youth work’, a base-line standard of two full-time youth workers in every school catchment area and that youth workers be categorised as ‘key workers’[26].

Yet repeatedly the preoccupations of many of the current responses still, implicitly or explicitly, require that youth work be defined as ‘deficit-focused’ and preventative. This is clearest in the continuing calls from non-youth work bodies (including MPs) for youth workers to help reduce young people’s involvement in knife crime and drug-related gang activities[27]. And though the sudden rediscovery of youth work by some senior social services’ officers is of course welcome [28], given the decade-long indifference (or worse) of so many of the local authorities they work for to open access provision [29], the youth work they have in mind seems most likely also to be strongly ‘child-saving’ oriented.

What has to be acknowledged, too, is that – albeit perhaps in more nuanced ways – this same perspective is shaping many of the youth sector’s own proposed responses to the pandemic. A UK Youth open letter to the government in March, for example, advocated ‘harnessing the power of the youth sector’ for dealing with ‘expected … increases in teenage pregnancy, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and youth homelessness’[30]. In its recent papers NYA also points to young people’s ‘increased exposure to physical and emotional abuse and exploitation, and risks of self-harm, loneliness and safeguarding’. Youth services, it therefore argues, need to ‘be enabled, empowered and up-skilled … to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable young people…’[31]. A follow-up paper published in June presses for additional support for young people ‘to socialise after self-isolation and to cope with increased anxiety, trauma and bereavement’[32]. The role of youth work in ‘re-imagined schools’, in health settings and in ‘contextual safeguarding’ is also the focus of programme sessions for a conference in November which, under the title ‘Youth work in the 2020s’, NYA is organising jointly with the magazine Children and Young People Now[33].

Needs – with cautions

And why not, you may ask? Why not those priorities? Given the pressures on the time of a now much-reduced workforce – part- and full-time, volunteer and paid – why would youth workers not give immediate and dedicated attention to the consequences for young people of such a dramatic and demanding collapse of so many taken-for-granted features of their everyday lives?

And yet even here there are important cautions. One – as I argued in my last blog post on young people’s increasingly gloomy employment prospects [34]- is about the risks of yet again so personalising their problems that, even with ‘support’, the message they take away is in effect: ‘In the end it’s down to you to sort this out’. Here too, therefore, a crucial starting point is to recognise that, structurally, this and also later generations are, as young people, going to be amongst the hardest hit. Intersecting with that, too, will be the implications for young people specifically of Covid-19’s now well documented, wider and disproportionately damaging impacts on BAME groups and on women[35]. How high will priorities like these be in the youth sector’s post-pandemic youth work strategies?

The individualising problem-focused balance of many of the current demands of the ‘youth field’ and of the new advocates from other services also carries direct risks for open youth work itself – not least, in those national and local state policy-making arenas which organisations like UK Youth and NYA seek to influence. If – as – understandings of youth work as prevention are reinforced, how then will these policy-makers – already, as we have seen, under the huge financial pressure – be persuaded to focus on saving, never mind re-instating, open youth work provision with which young people engage precisely because they don’t see it and it isn’t experienced as labelling and stigmatising?

With this as the starting point, it seems vital that we make much more of the fact that, in its own right, open youth work is often the route anyway for young people to find the personal help which in the present crisis they are seen as needing more than ever. Long supported by anecdotal feedback from both young people and workers, more objective research evidence to support this view has recently also emerged. Unsurprisingly, many in the London borough where this was carried out identified ‘“crime and safety” and “mental health and wellbeing” as pressing needs facing young people’. However, based on responses from over 400 young people, parents and youth professionals, the project came to two other significant conclusions.

One: that for young people and their parents ‘the most needed provision’ was youth clubs.

And two: that ‘specialist support is not necessarily separate from youth club provision as it can be offered as part of a youth club’s programme of activities’[36].

Getting those messages across to policy-makers and funders in the coming months should surely be one of our top priorities.

Bernard Davies , August 2020


  1. All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2019, Youth Work Enquiry: Final Report 
  2. Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘Council recommissions Youth Services mutual in £10M deal’, CYPN, 18 December 
  3. Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘London council to invest in Youth Service to tackle knife crime’, CYPN,17 December; Joe Lepper, 2020, ‘Newham invests £4.5m in Youth Services’, CYPN, 13 February  
  4. Joe Lepper, 2020, ‘Council scraps youth clubs in favour of detached workers’, CYPN, 12 February 
  5. Barnardos/Redthread, 2020, Knife Crime and Violence Reduction, March 2020; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Violence and youth work cuts’, CYPN, 31 March
  6. House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, 2019, Serious Youth Violence, 31 July
  7.  Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth Mutual EPIC CIC folds due to government cuts’, CYPN, 25 March   
  8. Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘Youth Service guidance under scrutiny ahead of government review’, CYPN, 2 December; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Statutory guidance review: youth bodies set out the case for change’, CYPN, 2 January  
  9. Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Youth services “suffer £1BN funding cuts in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January  
  10.  Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Javid announces £500m for youth fund”’, CYPN, 30 September  
  11.  Fiona Simpson, 2020, Youth projects to benefit from £7m boost’ CYPN, 30 January
  12. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government announces £12m boost for youth sector”’, CYPN, 25 October; Nina Jacobs, 2020, ‘Youth groups benefit from £1.16M funding’, CYPN, 6 March
  13.  Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth Endowment Fund announces 130 organisations granted share of £6.5M’, CYPN, 22 July
  14. Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth work services move online to protect vulnerable children’, CYPN, 17 April; Graham Duxbury, 2020, ‘We can’t Zoom our way out of the C 19 crisis’, CYPN, 27 May; IDYW, 2020, ‘Youth work responses to the pandemic: the news from Chilypep’, June, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2020/06/05/youth-work-responses-to-the-pandemic-the-news-from-chilypep/; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘#Chance4Children: Council leaders praise “commitment” of Northumber land youth workers’, CYPN, 4 August
  15.  Instagram, 2020, ‘Involved UK’, https://www.instagram.com/involved.uk/?igshid=f64mcwwo7yvw, accessed 5 August 2020; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘#Chances4children: young people to influence Covid-19 policy using Instagram’ , CYPN, 3 July  
  16. NYA, 2020, Out of Sight – Vulnerable Young People: Covid-19 Response, NYA, April, p 4
  17. Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘National data standard for youth work launches’, CYPN, 15 May; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘300,000 young people missing out on youth work services, analysis suggests’, CYPN, 17 June
  18.  NYA, 2020, Out of Sight , p 4
  19. Trudy Kilcullen, 2020, ‘Shaping the “new normal” for youth services’, CYPN, 28 May; Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Lockdown restrictions threaten youth groups’ future’, CYPN, 28 May
  20. Graham Duxbury, 2020
  21. Partick Butler, 2020, ‘Former “red wall” areas could lose millions in council funding review’, Guardian, 25 January 
  22. Richard Partington, 2020, ‘Rishi Sunak warns public sector workers of new pay squeeze’, Guardian, 21 July
  23. Richard Adams, 2020, ‘Pay rise for teachers will halve school funding boost in England’, Guardian, 3 August
  24. Sally Weale, 2020, ‘“Levelling up” school funding policy favours wealthy pupils – study’, Guardian, 7 August  
  25. Graham Duxbury, 2020
  26.  NYA, 2020, Time out: Re-imagining schools – A youth work response to Covid-19, June; NYA, 2020, Re-imagining schools – A youth work response to Covid-19, July, p 4
  27.  Derren Hayes, 2020, ‘Youth workers to be trained to lead violence response in London’, CYPN, 8 June  
  28. Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘Youth workers’ “magic touch” can help transition back to school’, CYPN, 28 July
  29.  See for example Peter Magill, 2011, ‘Lancashire County Council unveils £8.4m youth services cuts’, Lancashire Telegraph, 23 May
  30.  UK Youth, 2020, ‘Harnessing the power of the youth sector in the Covid-19 crisis – an open letter to Government’, 20 March
  31. NYA, 2020, Out of Sight, pp 6, 9, 4
  32. NYA, 2020, Time Out, p 6
  33. CYPN Conferences, 2020, ‘Youth Work in 2020s: Policy, Practice and Opportunities’, at http://www.youthworkconference.com/home, accessed 28 July 2020
  34. See IDYW, 2020, ‘Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19’, July, https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2020/07/20/young-people-jobs-and-the-impact-of-covid-19-bernard-davies-reflects/
  35. See for example Josh Halliday, 2020, ‘Average BAME Covid-19 patient decades younger than white Britons in study’, Guardian, 29 July; Alexandra Topping, 2020, ‘Covid-19 crisis could set women back decades, experts fear’ Guardian, 29 May  
  36. Naomi Thompson and David Woodger, 2020, ‘Young people need youth clubs. A needs analysis in a London borough’, Youth and Policy, 15 May

Into focus? ‘Vulnerable’ young people and Covid-19 : dilemmas and contradictions

Into focus? ‘Vulnerable’ young people and Covid-19 

At the end of last month the National Youth Agency published Out of Sight [1], a report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on vulnerable young people. Endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner for England and drawing on statistical and other evidence from a wide range of sources, it also sets out to make the case in the present crisis for youth work to be classified as an ‘essential service’ and for youth workers to be seen as ‘key workers’.  

Who are ‘the vulnerable’?

Ta to steps-training.co.uk

The report suggests three groups of 8–19 year olds who are particularly in need of safeguarding and support: 

  • Those whose ‘known’ vulnerabilities are being amplified by COVID-19 and who meet ‘the statutory threshold’ – for example because they are known to social services. Of these, the report notes, only 5 per cent came into schools before Easter. 
  • Those with ‘at risk’ vulnerabilities which are being exacerbated by COVID-19 but who do not meet the statutory threshold – such as, amongst others, NEET young people and those excluded from school.
  • Those with ‘emerging’ vulnerabilities caused or triggered by COVID-19 – for example those in homes where it is impossible to self-isolate properly. 

In addition to the continuing impact of gangs and county lines and of ‘well-documented’ mental health pressures, the report highlights the young people – many ‘lacking a “safe” space’ – for whom there will be other ‘urgent’ concerns as the lockdown ends. These include the approximately 700,000 already ‘missing from education’; the million at risk of domestic abuse; the approximately 1 million with little or no digital access at home; and the nearly half a million who are homeless or living in a ‘precarious’ housing situation. 

The report draws these findings together in two tables, one estimating numbers for twelve of the main ‘vulnerabilities’, the other the ‘needed youth work practice response’ to these and other conditions. It also makes the point that it is this generation which will experience the economic and social costs of this crisis most directly – financially, with reduced employment opportunities and with a consequential increase in those mental health problems. It thus urges that young people are included in evidence-gathering on the COVID-19 challenges and that, to ensure they are treated fairly and equally, they ‘have their voices heard and included in decision-making’ and other responses – adding that ‘without youth clubs and youth workers, far too many young people go unseen and unheard’. 

Youth work as a key response

Youth work as open to being shaped by young people’s expectations and needs is recognised at a number of points in the report. Youth services are for example described as ‘a vital life-line to vulnerable young people, joining in activities without stigma but able to access support, talk to a trusted adult or disclose a problem for help’. The practice itself is explicitly defined as having roles which include engaging with young people ‘in non-formal education, out-of school activities’ and providing them with ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to…’ – though, precisely because the youth worker will not know in advance what those young people may bring to the encounter, it cannot be assumed, as the paper seems to do, that they will ‘know what is needed’. Detached and outreach youth work gets specific recognition – identified as able ‘to engage young people in the community’. 

Acknowledging that a clear exit strategy from lockdown is going to be needed for young people beyond just re-opening schools, the report also proposes that local authorities, children’s services and academy trusts are encouraged to ‘engage, deploy and up-skill youth workers in support of young people’. Particularly when ‘young people are not at school and (where) a non-formal setting is more appropriate’, it argues that consideration be given, too, to ‘the partial opening of youth projects for outreach and drop-in or small group sessions in line with social distancing measures’. With ‘many youth clubs and services (already) … rapidly adapting their work to go digital, employers and local authorities are also urged to provide the tools which (subject to risk assessments) enable youth workers to engage young people on line, including offering training for meeting vulnerabilities such as trauma and bereavement resulting from the pandemic. 

In looking to the future, the report starts from the reality that youth centres and projects are currently closed, that many youth workers have been redeployed out of youth work or furloughed and that ‘trusted adult volunteers normally supportive of youth work are … self-isolating or volunteering for wider community services …’ It also warns that ‘nationally one in five youth clubs will not re-open, more in some regions’, and that ‘a threat (is) hanging over non-statutory youth services should austerity measures return post-pandemic’. The challenges for young people are especially likely to increase through the summer with schools closed and few community activities and other events available.

A cross-departmental response from Government – some critical questions

Feedback on the report from one project very quickly confirmed its value as a source of evidence to support its bid for emergency Covid funding. However, given that one of its recommendations is the need for ‘a cross-departmental response from Government…’ – and given the pre-crisis and even post-crisis track record of many of the ministers in that Government, starting with the Prime Minister – its wider use raises some more critical questions. This is particularly true as the longer-term struggle continues to reinstate those leisure-based, open access forms of youth work in England and also more widely in the UK which the report often seeks to promote. 

‘Vulnerabilities’ – individual or structural? 

One of those questions focuses on the very term ‘vulnerable’ and how, in taken-for-granted ways which can be dismissive of people’s personal agency, its causes can too easily be assumed to lie within the individual – that its roots are most likely to be found in her or his personal limitations (failures). As George Lamb, a disability rights activist pointed out forcibly in the ‘supplementary’ issue of Concept whose appearance co-incided with that of the NYA report, we need for a start to be careful how we work with the term in our face-to-face practice. As someone who is disabled himself, he thus reminds us that ‘many people classed as “vulnerable” do not necessarily see themselves that way’ and so, ‘like everybody else, will need to keep feeling that they have their own independence’[2].

Complex and challenging evidence is already accumulating anyway on who is most likely to end up attracting the ‘vulnerable’ label – and that that has to do with much more than them as individuals. From very early in the crisis, for example, worrying statistics began to emerge on how much more likely you are to die – by 27 per cent – if you are from a BAME community. Also, according to the National Office for Statistics ‘those living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas … 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people in the most deprived places compared with 25.3 in the least deprived’. Here, too, there is an interlinking of poverty with the prevalence of those ‘pre-existing conditions’ such as diabetes which put individuals most at risk of getting the virus. In an area hit hardest by post-2010 austerity policies such as Middlesbrough men’s life expectancy was already much shorter than that of men in Westminster – just 75.3 compared with nearly 84 [3].

Philanthropic or state funding?

It is in the context of these wider structural factors and their on-going impacts that another caution is needed: the risk that the outreach and generosity prompted by the crisis – such as an initiative like that of a 100-year-old ex-army officers which in two weeks can raise £30 million for the NHS – will allow a government still deeply committed to neo-liberal priorities to argue that philanthropy is a main and even perhaps the best route for funding health and other (including youth) services. Inspiring though such expressions of individual and collective concern and action are, many ultimately rest on judgements by the wealthy and powerful about who is deserving – or therefore, by implication at least, who is not. Strategically therefore these can never be a substitute for provision as a citizen’s right funded out of a taxation system which ensures that, like others, the wealthy and powerful pay up in full. 

As Mae Shaw expressed it in her Editorial in the supplementary issue of Concept referenced above:

In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. 

Alternatively she points to:

…attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged [4].

Young people; ‘vulnerability’ – or potential? 

A final caution on making ‘vulnerable young people’ the primary rationale comes very specifically out of a youth work perspective. Precisely because it is a ‘universal’ offer, it is likely that some – perhaps in some places many – of the young people youth work will attract will have been categorised as ‘vulnerable’. That however is very different from starting to relate to them primarily on the basis of a label which, in advance and from above, has been imposed on them by powerful others. Moreover, by adopting ‘vulnerability’ as its starting point, Out of Sight also once again risks diverting policy-makers – national but also probably more immediately local – from youth work’s primary focuses: the too-often untapped potential of the young people who engage and the opportunities it can offer for them to ‘go where they’ve never dreamed of going’.

Beyond the a-political?

As an ‘a-political organisation’ – a charity – often in search of government money, NYA clearly finds it difficult to open up these kinds of questions. The reality remains, however, that underpinning and shaping the vulnerabilities it lists are long-standing and deep-seated structural issues with seriously damaging effects, particularly on young people and the services available to them. These, moreover, are issues which over the last decade the government departments it is seeking to address have not only ignored – treated as irrelevant – but have exacerbated. 

Above all, in a post-COVID era (whenever that might come and whatever it might look like), such ‘political’ issues will surely have to be made explicit if a youth work is to be advocated which both speaks and responds to the ‘new normal’. If they are not, with even fewer resources likely to be available, far from encouraging youth work as informal education, the overriding message policy-makers are likely to take from Out of Sight is: ‘target, target, target’. 

  1. ‘NYA, 2020, Out of Sight: Vulnerable Young People: COVID-19 Response, April, available at https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Out-of-Sight-COVID-19-report-Web-version.pdf 
  2. George Lamb, 2020, ‘How to help the “vulnerable”’, Concept, Vol 11, Covid-19 Supplementary Issue, available at http://concept.lib.ed.ac.uk/article/view/4367/5957
  3. Helen Pidd, Caelainn Barr and Aamna Mohdin, 2020, ‘Calls for health funding to be prioritised as poor bear brunt of Covid-19’, Guardian 1 May
  4. Mae Shaw, 2020, ‘Editorial’, available at http://concept.lib.ed.ac.uk/article/view/4364/5954

The National Citizens Service under scrutiny: past – and future?

A preamble for Coronavirus times

This piece has been in the drafting through most of March and now into April – some six weeks in which everyday life as we have long taken it for granted has changed in many unexpected and uncomfortable ways. At one point this left me asking myself: why am I spending time discussing something as petty as the National Citizens Service when, across the world, macro events are affecting – damaging – so many lives? 

And then I thought: why not? By the time we come out of this crisis, our perspectives – on young people, on the services they want and need, on social policy and the crucial importance of the state as an expression of our collective responsibility for each other – all of these will hopefully have changed in numerous post-neo-liberal ways. In the process, with new learning perhaps more personally internalised through direct and often painful experience, even something as marginal as NCS might have become more open to, and even more in need of, critique and rethinking.

So – somewhat arrogantly perhaps – I’ve decided to risk throwing this into the mix.

NCS: the new ‘national youth service’?  

If my anecdotal evidence is any guide the National Citizens Service (NCS), at least in England, has become an embedded component of our ‘youth services [1]. This was brought home to me, if rather late, on a Saturday afternoon some weeks ago when I was pressed by a group of young people proudly wearing their NCS T-shirts to join a ‘game’ they were running in the town centre. Very visible, too, in a local community centre a few days later were the left-overs of a junior youth club project carried out the previous evening by a different NCS group. 

Evidence from more objective sources is suggesting that, at national policy level also, NCS has achieved a taken-for-granted status. By 2018, for example, it was receiving ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government funding for ‘youth services’. And despite the shadow civil society minister’s highly critical comments on how it operates in a recent Parliamentary debate [2], all Labour could manage on NCS in its otherwise radical pre-election ‘Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services’ was a passing reference to a ‘national programme’ whose ‘accredited youth social action’ activities it promised to support [3].

Two developments over the last few months, however, suggest that this consensus around NCS might be starting to fracture a little. One is a legal challenge for breach of contract by one of its voluntary sector ‘suppliers’; the other the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) announcement that it is to review NCS’s use of public money [4]. Though focusing largely on operational matters, both of these nonetheless offer an opportunity to reopen a wider debate not just on NCS’s now priority status within our overall youth provision but also on its rationale and the on-the-ground content and methodology of its practice. 

From a prime ministerial vision to a statutory provision

I say ‘reopen’ here because as always history carries some strong and relevant previous messages for the present. A particularly crucial one is how dependent NCS has been for its rise and rise on privileged and powerful promoters and patrons. It was after all David Cameron who in 2005, as recently elected leader of the Conservative Party, first spelt out his vision for what at that stage he was describing as ‘a school leaver programme lasting a few months’. Envisaged as ‘a new national movement’ – a ‘national framework for youth engagement and volunteering’ – this, Cameron asserted, would ‘prepare… young people for their responsibilities as adult citizens’ [5]. The Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto then extended these aspirations to include offering 16 year olds opportunities ‘to … mix with people of different backgrounds, and starting to get involved in their communities’ [6].

Though over time NCS understandably came to be personalised as Cameron’s ‘vanity project’[7], it has always had, and still has, a much wider neo-liberal rationale. Not only does this assume a requirement to be competitive – illustrated by NCS’s procedures for awarding and evaluating its contracts. It has also embedded notions of the resilient and aspiring though compliant citizen and how they can be – must be – moulded as they grow into adulthood. Though here NCS and its precursors have made much of the importance of ‘teamwork’, also central to its promotion has been a strong emphasis on individualistic achievement – demonstrated for example by its current reminder to potential participants that when assessing university applicants ‘UCAS look for more than just points’ [8]. In addition, for Cameron as for previous Conservative and indeed New Labour governments [9], there has been a broader policy prompt: their deep distrust of much of existing leisure-time provision for young people – especially those local authority youth work facilities which sought proactively to work with and through the very peer groups which for many national policy-makers were at the root of society’s ‘youth problems’. 

By the time Cameron actually launched the scheme – only two months after becoming Prime Minister – it was therefore not surprising that he was explicitly locating it within his high profile and highly ambitious ‘Big Society’ strategy. This was ‘urgently’ needed, he claimed, to help repair the ‘social fabric’ of Britain’s ‘broken society’ by shifting power downwards from the centre, particularly by encouraging and supporting locally-based forms of volunteering [10]. For the NCS programme, this was quickly relabelled ‘social action’ – a term which, in sharp contrast to its past radical focus, was redefined by the DCMS as: …about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It can include volunteering, giving money community action or simple neighbourly acts [11].

Even before its official launch, the scheme had in effect been piloted by a new organisation, The Challenge. This had strong links with other influential Big Society enthusiasts and also with large private corporations such as Poundland and McKinsey Management Consultancy [12]. The 670 young people recruited to its 2009-10 programme were offered ‘intensive’ training … in leadership, management and communication skills’ with a view, it was explicitly suggested, ‘…to testing potential models for (the) National Citizens Service’ [13]When the actual piloting schemes were announced for 2011, The Challenge had to deny it was ‘prospering as a result of friends in high places’ when it emerged as by far ‘the lead provider’ with a £7 million contract to offer 30 per cent (3240) of that year’s planned 11,000 places [14].

Initially comprising a school summer holiday residential followed by a local ‘social action’ project, by 2014 shorter autumn and spring half-term programmes were also being offered. In 2016 the Cameron government announced that its budget to 2020-21 would be £1.2 billion, with the scheme’s actual spend between 2014-15 and 2017 totalling £475 million [15]. As one of its strategic goals was to increase the number of participants year-on-year, recruitment efforts by then included emailing and texting school-leavers to addresses provided by their schools, and plans, announced in 2018, to mount a four-year £75 million ‘marketing campaign’ [16].

As the amounts of public money going into the scheme grew, pressures built for it to become – or at least to be seen to be – less dependent on government. In 2014, responsibility for running it was passed to a community interest company which, constituted as a trust, was subsequently given a Royal Charter [17].When the Trust was put on a ‘permanent statutory footing’ in 2016, a legal duty to promote the programme was placed on schools, sixth-form colleges and local authorities [18].

Impacts and achievements: positive – and not so positive 

Independent evaluations of the scheme in these years reported a range of positive ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’ for the young people – in relation to, for example, their ‘improved teamwork’, their ‘transitions to adulthood’, their ‘social mixing; and their ‘community involvement’ [19]. The evaluations often also claimed significant ‘monetised’ gains – such as in 2016, for every pound spent, £1.79-worth of economic and volunteering ‘benefits’ from the summer programme and £2.21 from the autumn programme [20].

By 2017, however, reports by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO) [21] were raising questions about NCS’s transparency and governance as an organisation and about a lack of data on the scheme’s longer-term effects on young people’s lives. Though in 2018-19 NCS did finally meet its recruitment targets [22], seven years after its launch the NAO was reporting that only 36 per cent of the 333,000 young people who that year had expressed an interest in the programme had then registered and only 28 per cent (92,700) had actually joined – 38 per cent below its recruitment target. This, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), amounted nationally to only 12 per cent of the eligible age group, with the rate in some areas as low as 4 per cent [23]. With eight thousand five hundred (8.6 per cent) of those who did join not completing [24], by 2018 the government was acknowledging that the scheme had failed to recoup from providers £9.8 million for unfilled places [25].By then (in 2017) NCS had reduced its recruitment target for 2020-21 from 360,000 to 247,000 – though without at that stage indicating any reduction in its allocated budget [26].

2020: new questions; new criticisms 

Though post-Cameron governments have been less gung-ho about the scheme, until recently their support for NCS has, at least in public, remained largely unquestioned. In 2018 for example, Theresa May’s ‘youth’ minister rejected a Labour Party demand that NCS’s performance be evaluated against the provision of local authority Youth Services [27] – the ones, that is, that although also nominally ‘statutory’ had had their budgets in England and Wales cut between 2010/11 and 2018/19 by over £1 billion. [28]Support clearly continues, too, from the wider ‘youth sector’ with organisations as varied as the Jewish Lads Brigade, Young People Cornwall and Bolton Lads and Girls Club acting as programme ‘deliverers’ [29].

Renewed scrutiny of NCS, its role and ways of operating is thus now long-overdue – and important.

Removing The Challenge

The first prompt for this occurred in August last year when NCS’s Chief Executive Michael Lynas suddenly announced that it would not be renewing its estimated £60-million-a-year contract with The Challenge. This was the organisation which, by ‘pre-piloting’ NCS-type schemes in 2009, had, in its own words, ‘played a critical and founding role in NCS for over 10 years from initial design of the programme to directly supporting over 242,000 young people…’. Its programmes in London, the South East and the West Midlands made it, still, NCS’s largest ‘provider’ [30]. 

Michael Lynas

According to Lynas, NCS had been forced to take this action because of The Challenge’s refusal to adopt a shared IT system – later described by The Challenge as ‘unfit for purpose’ [31]. This, he said – perhaps reflecting sensitivity to some past criticisms – ‘ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data’. He also claimed that that summer The Challenge had ‘let down’ 4,000 young people by failing to allocate them places on the programme [32].

As in its view a new contract was still being negotiated, The Challenge initially expressed surprise at the NCS decision to end its ‘principal funding source’ and said it remained committed to resolving the dispute [33] However, by October, claiming that the technical failures of the NCS’s IT system had prevented thousands of young people completing the first day of that summer’s programme, it had started a £22 million legal action against NCS for breach of contract and loss of earnings and posted a separate claim for defamation. It also lodged a complaint with the DCMS which the then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said the Department would investigate. This not only talked of ‘the continued poor behaviour of the NCS’s leadership’ and of ‘urgent concerns regarding the mismanagement of the NCS programme by the trust’. It also accused the DCMS of a ‘worrying’ lack of scrutiny of the NCS [34].  

A month later, just as NCS was rebranding itself with a £3 million advertising campaign and a new logo [35], The Challenge went into administration, putting the jobs of its 400 staff at risk [36]. Its Chair issued a public statement bluntly accusing NCS of having ‘jeopardised many thousands of opportunities for young people’ and calling the whole episode ‘a national scandal’ [37] – claims the NCS strongly rejected [38].

The NCS Chief Executive: letting go – or not?

Interweaving with these developments have been repercussions of Lynas’s decision to resign as NCS’s Chief Executive, announced in September 2019. As this took effect at the beginning of March [39] it emerged that his exit package included £15,000 to help him train for a new job and retention as a paid consultant. Declaring the package ‘unacceptable’, the DCMS said it had ‘taken swift action to stop this’ and that it was undertaking ‘a thorough review’ to investigate ‘wider issues around governance’. NCS immediately withdrew its offer to Lynas and also sought to reassure its supporters – including no doubt the many other groups and organisations which had become reliant on its funding – that ‘DCMS had reiterated its support for the trust’ [40].

A ‘national programme’ fit for the times?

In April, NCS announced that, with its summer programme for a predicted 95,000 young people cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown, it was in discussions with the DCMS and its ‘suppliers’ on providing a free digital programme focused on ‘the skills and life lessons not learned in the classroom’ as well as a possible role for the scheme ‘to help get the country back on its feet by mobilising young people as volunteers [41].

However, other than the DCMS revealing that it has now had a complaint from another of NCS’s small delivery partners [42], no updates seem to be available on either its review of the Trust or The Challenge’s legal action. Given their strong echoes of past criticisms of how NCS operates and uses public money, these developments again point to the need to for a wider and more fundamental debate on the programme. Such as: why is it still being treated as the priority provision for young people both by the government and – via a stance of critical neutrality – by so many ‘youth sector’ interests? And amid the growing evidence of the financial, mental health, exam and other pressures which teenagers overall are facing [43], what justifies focusing so many scarce public resources on just the 16/17 year old age group? 

Nor for me have these concerns been allayed by the organisational priorities indicated by NCS’s appointment as Chief Executive (Mark Gifford) of someone who is a newcomer not only to the national voluntary youth sector but also, it seems, to the wider field of leisure-time informal educational provision for young people. Here, according to its Chair, what it judged to be ‘invaluable to NCS as it moves into its second decade, a new delivery network and as exciting new partners come on board’ was Gifford’s 20 years of high-level private sector managerial experience with Waitrose as Director of Shop Trade and of Retail Operations (North)[44].

The question which all this leaves me with, therefore, is: how can this commercialising version of NCS aimed at such a limited age-cohort be an alternative to a provision which, in 2013, was being used by 630,000 8-16 year olds via locally accessible year-round youth facilities and projects? [45] Indeed, as I was writing this piece, that question became even more pressing with the news that one of the most high-profile of the much vaunted forms of replacement for those lost local authority services – Kensington and Chelsea’s employee-led ‘youth mutual’ EPIC – had been forced to close because of the reduction in just the last fifteen months ‘in the overall level of funding for youth services’ [46].

Certainly nothing that the current government is offering comes close to reinstating those closed youth centre buildings and disbanded detached youth worker teams – provision which, far from starting from the perceptions and prescriptions of a powerful largely Oxbridge elite, sought to take their lead from the interests, concerns and needs of the young people who, by choice, actually engaged. For filling the huge ‘austerity’ gaps which remain in local authority and indeed many voluntary organisation revenue budgets, the best we have again been offered are what I call ‘gesture policies’. Such as, in October 2019, as a little election sweetener, a new Youth Investment Fund of £500 million to be used – over five years, it is important to remind ourselves – for building and refurbishing youth centres and for mobile facilities. And the DCMS’s ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’, announced last January, with its allocation of £7 million for ‘extra youth club sessions’. 

Some of the realities of such offers were laid bare last month in a UK Youth announcement that, to support what it called ‘positive activities for young people’, it had distributed £1.16 million of the ‘accelerator’ money in grants ranging from £360 to £20,000 to 168 organisations and community groups. However, not only did the statement make clear that many of those receiving the money were not ‘open’ youth work facilities but ‘sports clubs, counselling services (and) creative writing workshops’. In revealing that in just a two-week window it had received over 1400 applications totalling £15 million, it also spoke volumes about the current financial state of even this wider ‘youth’ field [47].

Meanwhile, even before the virus struck, what had we had by way of follow-up to the government review of the statutory Youth Service guidance to local authorities, initiated in the run-up to December’s election? 



Just as this piece was about to be posted it emerged that the NCS Trust had agreed a settlement of their dispute with The Challenge. With DCMS and Treasury approval, it has agreed to pay £2.8m for costs incurred by The Challenge for unfilled places during 2019. NCS, however, said it accepted no liability for two other elements of The Challenge’s legal claim. 

The Challenge is still facing claims of £8 million from some local providers.(Darren Hayes, 2020, ‘Collapsed charity settles legal dispute with NCS Trust’, CYPN, 16 April) 


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

2. Kirsty Weakly, 2019, ‘Shadow minister criticises DCMS for withholding data on NCS Trust funding’, Civil Society News, 23 October

 3. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, Pp 11, 14.

4. Nina Jacobs, 2019a, ‘“Charity launches legal action over NCS dispute”’, CYPN, 15 October; Neil Puffett, 2020a, ‘DCMS launches review into NCS 4. governance’, CYPN, 2 March

5. David Cameron, 2005, ‘Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre’, 24 August

6. Conservative Party, 2010, An Invitation to join the Government of Britain: The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, https://www.conservatives.com/~/media/Files/Manifesto2010

7. Sean Murphy, 2017, ‘The National Citizen Service and The ‘Magic Money Tree’”, Youth and Policy, 9 Oct, http://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/ncs-money-tree/

8. NCS, 2020, ‘Frequently asked questions’, https://wearencs.com/faqs, accessed 8 April 

9. See for example my blog post ‘A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?’, Feb 2020, https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/02/27/a-curriculum-for-youth-work-why-now-why-at-all/

10. Conservatives, 2007, ‘It’s time to inspire Britain’s teenagers: National citizen service for the 21st century: A six-week programme for every school leaver’, http://conservativehome.blogs.com/interviews/files/timetoinspire.pdf, p. 3; Gov.UK, 2010, ‘PM to launch National Citizen Service pilots for young people’, 22 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-to-launch-national-citizen-service-pilots-for-young-people

11. Gov.UK, 2016, ‘Policy Paper: Social Action’, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/centre-for-social-action/centre-for-social-action, 13 July

12. Tania de St Croix, 2015, ‘Volunteers and entrepreneurs? Youth work and the Big Society’, in Graham Bright (ed), Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts, London, Palgrave, pp 58-79

13. Janaki Mahadevan, 2009, ‘“Charity to test concept of National Citizen Service”’, CYPN, 31 March

14. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘National citizen servant’, CYPN, 15 May; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2010, ‘The Challenge Network announced as lead provider of National Citizen Service’, CYPN, 10 November

15. Neil Puffett, 2016, ‘“Queen’s Speech: £1.2bn set aside for NCS expansion”’, CYPN, 18 May; Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“MPs question future of NCS amid concerns over cost”’, CYPN, 14 March   

16. Adam Offord, 2016, ‘“NCS marketing budget tops £8m in 2015”’, CYPN, 31 August

17. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Hurd hands NCS over to independent trust’, CYPN, 6 February; GOV.UK, 2016, ‘News story: Government introduces National Citizen Service (NCS) Bill to Parliament’, 12 October 

18. Alison Sherman, 2016, ‘National Citizens Service to have permanent statutory status, Queen’s Speech says’, Civil Society News, 18 May 

19. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017, National Citizens Service 2016 Evaluation, Kantar/LSE, December, p 27; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘Government hails success of National Citizens Service scheme’, CYPN, 17 May

20. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017

21. National Audit Office, 2017,National Citizens Service, 12 January; www.parliament.uk 2017, National Citizens Service, 10 March

22. NCS Trust, 2020, Annual Report and Accounts 2018 – 2019, February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-citizen-service-annual-report-and-accounts-20182019

23. Peter Walker, 2018, ‘Cameron’s £1.5bn “big society” youth scheme reaching few teenagers’, Guardian 2 August;  

24. National Audit Office, 2017, Summary, para 15; Figure 12, p 34,

25. Joe Lepper, 2018a, ‘“Youth minister prioritises reducing unfilled NCS places”’, CYPN, 19 July

26. Neil Puffett, 2017

27. Joe Lepper, 2018b, ‘”Crouch dismisses call for NCS to be evaluated against traditional youth services”’, CYPN, 26 January  

28. Neil Puffett, 2020b, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cut in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January  

29. NCS, 2020, ‘The NCS Delivery Network’, https://wearencs.com/network-providers 

30. David Harris, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service Trust drops major provider”’, CYPN, 1 August; Andy Hillier, 2019, ‘Largest NCS provider loses contract worth estimated £60m a year’, Third Sector, 1 August; Dan Parton, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service provider vows to continue work following split”’, CYPN, 14 August; Joe Lepper, 2019a, ‘Youth charity The Challenge goes into administration’, CYPN, 28 November 

31. Unite for Our Society, 2020a, ‘National Citizens Service accused of “mismanagement and failure of leadership”’, Blog, 23 March, https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/national-citizen-service-accused-of-mismanagement-and-failure-of-leadership/  

32. David Harris, 2019

33. David Harris, 2019

34. Nina Jacobs, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019, ‘Ministers accused of “worrying” lack of scrutiny in NCS case’, Third Sector, 15 October; Unite for Our Society, 2020a 

35. Fiona Simpson, 2020a, ‘NCS Trust names Waitrose director as new chief’”, CYPN, 8 January 

36. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March, , https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/more-trouble-ahead-for-ncs-trust/ 

37. Bill Ronald, 2019, ‘Statement from Bill Ronald, Chairman of The Challenge Network’, 27 November 

38. Joe Lepper, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019; Bill Ronald, 2019

39. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, ‘“NCS Trust chief Michael Lynas to step down”’, CYPN, 12 September; Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020, ‘Retail expert to take over at top of the NCS Trust, Third Sector,, 8 January;  

40. Neil Puffett, 2020a

41 Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Coronavirus: NCS considers volunteering role to help national effort’, CYPN, 27 March; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘NCS cancels summer programme amid pandemic’, CYPN, 8 April 

42. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March

43. See for example ‘Breaching the social contract with young people’, 20 0ct  2019, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2019/10/20/breaching-the-social-contract-with-young-people/

44. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020; Linkedin, 2020, ‘Mark Gifford’, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/mark-gifford-1a9a1215, accessed 30 March

45. NCVYS. (2013) ‘Youth Report 2013’

46. Fiona Simpson, 2020b,’Youth mutual EPIC folds due to government cuts’, CYPN, 25 March


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/

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/