Into focus? ‘Vulnerable’ young people and Covid-19
At the end of last month the National Youth Agency published Out of Sight , a report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on vulnerable young people. Endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner for England and drawing on statistical and other evidence from a wide range of sources, it also sets out to make the case in the present crisis for youth work to be classified as an ‘essential service’ and for youth workers to be seen as ‘key workers’.
Who are ‘the vulnerable’?
The report suggests three groups of 8–19 year olds who are particularly in need of safeguarding and support:
Those whose ‘known’ vulnerabilities are being amplified by COVID-19 and who meet ‘the statutory threshold’ – for example because they are known to social services. Of these, the report notes, only 5 per cent came into schools before Easter.
Those with ‘at risk’ vulnerabilities which are being exacerbated by COVID-19 but who do not meet the statutory threshold – such as, amongst others, NEET young people and those excluded from school.
Those with ‘emerging’ vulnerabilities caused or triggered by COVID-19 – for example those in homes where it is impossible to self-isolate properly.
In addition to the continuing impact of gangs and county lines and of ‘well-documented’ mental health pressures, the report highlights the young people – many ‘lacking a “safe” space’ – for whom there will be other ‘urgent’ concerns as the lockdown ends. These include the approximately 700,000 already ‘missing from education’; the million at risk of domestic abuse; the approximately 1 million with little or no digital access at home; and the nearly half a million who are homeless or living in a ‘precarious’ housing situation.
The report draws these findings together in two tables, one estimating numbers for twelve of the main ‘vulnerabilities’, the other the ‘needed youth work practice response’ to these and other conditions. It also makes the point that it is this generation which will experience the economic and social costs of this crisis most directly – financially, with reduced employment opportunities and with a consequential increase in those mental health problems. It thus urges that young people are included in evidence-gathering on the COVID-19 challenges and that, to ensure they are treated fairly and equally, they ‘have their voices heard and included in decision-making’ and other responses – adding that ‘without youth clubs and youth workers, far too many young people go unseen and unheard’.
Youth work as a key response
Youth work as open to being shaped by young people’s expectations and needs is recognised at a number of points in the report. Youth services are for example described as ‘a vital life-line to vulnerable young people, joining in activities without stigma but able to access support, talk to a trusted adult or disclose a problem for help’. The practice itself is explicitly defined as having roles which include engaging with young people ‘in non-formal education, out-of school activities’ and providing them with ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to…’ – though, precisely because the youth worker will not know in advance what those young people may bring to the encounter, it cannot be assumed, as the paper seems to do, that they will ‘know what is needed’. Detached and outreach youth work gets specific recognition – identified as able ‘to engage young people in the community’.
Acknowledging that a clear exit strategy from lockdown is going to be needed for young people beyond just re-opening schools, the report also proposes that local authorities, children’s services and academy trusts are encouraged to ‘engage, deploy and up-skill youth workers in support of young people’. Particularly when ‘young people are not at school and (where) a non-formal setting is more appropriate’, it argues that consideration be given, too, to ‘the partial opening of youth projects for outreach and drop-in or small group sessions in line with social distancing measures’. With ‘many youth clubs and services (already) … rapidly adapting their work to go digital, employers and local authorities are also urged to provide the tools which (subject to risk assessments) enable youth workers to engage young people on line, including offering training for meeting vulnerabilities such as trauma and bereavement resulting from the pandemic.
In looking to the future, the report starts from the reality that youth centres and projects are currently closed, that many youth workers have been redeployed out of youth work or furloughed and that ‘trusted adult volunteers normally supportive of youth work are … self-isolating or volunteering for wider community services …’ It also warns that ‘nationally one in five youth clubs will not re-open, more in some regions’, and that ‘a threat (is) hanging over non-statutory youth services should austerity measures return post-pandemic’. The challenges for young people are especially likely to increase through the summer with schools closed and few community activities and other events available.
A cross-departmental response from Government – some critical questions
Feedback on the report from one project very quickly confirmed its value as a source of evidence to support its bid for emergency Covid funding. However, given that one of its recommendations is the need for ‘a cross-departmental response from Government…’ – and given the pre-crisis and even post-crisis track record of many of the ministers in that Government, starting with the Prime Minister – its wider use raises some more critical questions. This is particularly true as the longer-term struggle continues to reinstate those leisure-based, open access forms of youth work in England and also more widely in the UK which the report often seeks to promote.
‘Vulnerabilities’ – individual or structural?
One of those questions focuses on the very term ‘vulnerable’ and how, in taken-for-granted ways which can be dismissive of people’s personal agency, its causes can too easily be assumed to lie within the individual – that its roots are most likely to be found in her or his personal limitations (failures). As George Lamb, a disability rights activist pointed out forcibly in the ‘supplementary’ issue of Concept whose appearance co-incided with that of the NYA report, we need for a start to be careful how we work with the term in our face-to-face practice. As someone who is disabled himself, he thus reminds us that ‘many people classed as “vulnerable” do not necessarily see themselves that way’ and so, ‘like everybody else, will need to keep feeling that they have their own independence’.
Complex and challenging evidence is already accumulating anyway on who is most likely to end up attracting the ‘vulnerable’ label – and that that has to do with much more than them as individuals. From very early in the crisis, for example, worrying statistics began to emerge on how much more likely you are to die – by 27 per cent – if you are from a BAME community. Also, according to the National Office for Statistics ‘those living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas … 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people in the most deprived places compared with 25.3 in the least deprived’. Here, too, there is an interlinking of poverty with the prevalence of those ‘pre-existing conditions’ such as diabetes which put individuals most at risk of getting the virus. In an area hit hardest by post-2010 austerity policies such as Middlesbrough men’s life expectancy was already much shorter than that of men in Westminster – just 75.3 compared with nearly 84 .
Philanthropic or state funding?
It is in the context of these wider structural factors and their on-going impacts that another caution is needed: the risk that the outreach and generosity prompted by the crisis – such as an initiative like that of a 100-year-old ex-army officers which in two weeks can raise £30 million for the NHS – will allow a government still deeply committed to neo-liberal priorities to argue that philanthropy is a main and even perhaps the best route for funding health and other (including youth) services. Inspiring though such expressions of individual and collective concern and action are, many ultimately rest on judgements by the wealthy and powerful about who is deserving – or therefore, by implication at least, who is not. Strategically therefore these can never be a substitute for provision as a citizen’s right funded out of a taxation system which ensures that, like others, the wealthy and powerful pay up in full.
As Mae Shaw expressed it in her Editorial in the supplementary issue of Concept referenced above:
In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy.
Alternatively she points to:
…attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged .
Young people; ‘vulnerability’ – or potential?
A final caution on making ‘vulnerable young people’ the primary rationale comes very specifically out of a youth work perspective. Precisely because it is a ‘universal’ offer, it is likely that some – perhaps in some places many – of the young people youth work will attract will have been categorised as ‘vulnerable’. That however is very different from starting to relate to them primarily on the basis of a label which, in advance and from above, has been imposed on them by powerful others. Moreover, by adopting ‘vulnerability’as its starting point, Out of Sight also once again risks diverting policy-makers – national but also probably more immediately local – from youth work’s primary focuses: the too-often untapped potential of the young people who engage and the opportunities it can offer for them to ‘go where they’ve never dreamed of going’.
Beyond the a-political?
As an ‘a-political organisation’ – a charity – often in search of government money, NYA clearly finds it difficult to open up these kinds of questions. The reality remains, however, that underpinning and shaping the vulnerabilities it lists are long-standing and deep-seated structural issues with seriously damaging effects, particularly on young people and the services available to them. These, moreover, are issues which over the last decade the government departments it is seeking to address have not only ignored – treated as irrelevant – but have exacerbated.
Above all, in a post-COVID era (whenever that might come and whatever it might look like), such ‘political’ issues will surely have to be made explicit if a youth work is to be advocated which both speaks and responds to the ‘new normal’. If they are not, with even fewer resources likely to be available, far from encouraging youth work as informal education, the overriding message policy-makers are likely to take from Out of Sight is: ‘target, target, target’.
This piece has been in the drafting through most of March and now into April – some six weeks in which everyday life as we have long taken it for granted has changed in many unexpected and uncomfortable ways. At one point this left me asking myself: why am I spending time discussing something as petty as the National Citizens Service when, across the world, macro events are affecting – damaging – so many lives?
And then I thought: why not? By the time we come out of this crisis, our perspectives – on young people, on the services they want and need, on social policy and the crucial importance of the state as an expression of our collective responsibility for each other – all of these will hopefully have changed in numerous post-neo-liberal ways. In the process, with new learning perhaps more personally internalised through direct and often painful experience, even something as marginal as NCS might have become more open to, and even more in need of, critique and rethinking.
So – somewhat arrogantly perhaps – I’ve decided to risk throwing this into the mix.
NCS: the new ‘national youth service’?
If my anecdotal evidence is any guide the National Citizens Service (NCS), at least in England, has become an embedded component of our ‘youth services . This was brought home to me, if rather late, on a Saturday afternoon some weeks ago when I was pressed by a group of young people proudly wearing their NCS T-shirts to join a ‘game’ they were running in the town centre. Very visible, too, in a local community centre a few days later were the left-overs of a junior youth club project carried out the previous evening by a different NCS group.
Evidence from more objective sources is suggesting that, at national policy level also, NCS has achieved a taken-for-granted status. By 2018, for example, it was receiving ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government funding for ‘youth services’. And despite the shadow civil society minister’s highly critical comments on how it operates in a recent Parliamentary debate , all Labour could manage on NCS in its otherwise radical pre-election ‘Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services’ was a passing reference to a ‘national programme’ whose ‘accredited youth social action’ activities it promised to support .
Two developments over the last few months, however, suggest that this consensus around NCS might be starting to fracture a little. One is a legal challenge for breach of contract by one of its voluntary sector ‘suppliers’; the other the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) announcement that it is to review NCS’s use of public money . Though focusing largely on operational matters, both of these nonetheless offer an opportunity to reopen a wider debate not just on NCS’s now priority status within our overall youth provision but also on its rationale and the on-the-ground content and methodology of its practice.
From a prime ministerial vision to a statutory provision
I say ‘reopen’ here because as always history carries some strong and relevant previous messages for the present. A particularly crucial one is how dependent NCS has been for its rise and rise on privileged and powerful promoters and patrons. It was after all David Cameron who in 2005, as recently elected leader of the Conservative Party, first spelt out his vision for what at that stage he was describing as ‘a school leaver programme lasting a few months’. Envisaged as ‘a new national movement’ – a ‘national framework for youth engagement and volunteering’ – this, Cameron asserted, would ‘prepare… young people for their responsibilities as adult citizens’ . The Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto then extended these aspirations to include offering 16 year olds opportunities ‘to … mix with people of different backgrounds, and starting to get involved in their communities’ .
Though over time NCS understandably came to be personalised as Cameron’s ‘vanity project’, it has always had, and still has, a much wider neo-liberal rationale. Not only does this assume a requirement to be competitive – illustrated by NCS’s procedures for awarding and evaluating its contracts. It has also embedded notions of the resilient and aspiring though compliant citizen and how they can be – must be – moulded as they grow into adulthood. Though here NCS and its precursors have made much of the importance of ‘teamwork’, also central to its promotion has been a strong emphasis on individualistic achievement – demonstrated for example by its current reminder to potential participants that when assessing university applicants ‘UCAS look for more than just points’ . In addition, for Cameron as for previous Conservative and indeed New Labour governments , there has been a broader policy prompt: their deep distrust of much of existing leisure-time provision for young people – especially those local authority youth work facilities which sought proactively to work with and through the very peer groups which for many national policy-makers were at the root of society’s ‘youth problems’.
By the time Cameron actually launched the scheme – only two months after becoming Prime Minister – it was therefore not surprising that he was explicitly locating it within his high profile and highly ambitious ‘Big Society’ strategy. This was ‘urgently’ needed, he claimed, to help repair the ‘social fabric’ of Britain’s ‘broken society’ by shifting power downwards from the centre, particularly by encouraging and supporting locally-based forms of volunteering . For the NCS programme, this was quickly relabelled ‘social action’ – a term which, in sharp contrast to its past radical focus, was redefined by the DCMS as: …about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It can include volunteering, giving moneycommunity action or simple neighbourly acts .
Even before its official launch, the scheme had in effect been piloted by a new organisation, The Challenge. This had strong links with other influential Big Society enthusiasts and also with large private corporations such as Poundland and McKinsey Management Consultancy . The 670 young people recruited to its 2009-10 programme were offered ‘intensive’ training … in leadership, management and communication skills’ with a view, it was explicitly suggested, ‘…to testing potential models for (the) National Citizens Service’ When the actual piloting schemes were announced for 2011, The Challenge had to deny it was ‘prospering as a result of friends in high places’ when it emerged as by far ‘the lead provider’ with a £7 million contract to offer 30 per cent (3240) of that year’s planned 11,000 places .
Initially comprising a school summer holiday residential followed by a local ‘social action’ project, by 2014 shorter autumn and spring half-term programmes were also being offered. In 2016 the Cameron government announced that its budget to 2020-21 would be £1.2 billion, with the scheme’s actual spend between 2014-15 and 2017 totalling £475 million . As one of its strategic goals was to increase the number of participants year-on-year, recruitment efforts by then included emailing and texting school-leavers to addresses provided by their schools, and plans, announced in 2018, to mount a four-year £75 million ‘marketing campaign’ .
As the amounts of public money going into the scheme grew, pressures built for it to become – or at least to be seen to be – less dependent on government. In 2014, responsibility for running it was passed to a community interest company which, constituted as a trust, was subsequently given a Royal Charter .When the Trust was put on a ‘permanent statutory footing’ in 2016, a legal duty to promote the programme was placed on schools, sixth-form colleges and local authorities .
Impacts and achievements: positive – and not so positive
Independent evaluations of the scheme in these years reported a range of positive ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’ for the young people – in relation to, for example, their ‘improved teamwork’, their ‘transitions to adulthood’, their ‘social mixing; and their ‘community involvement’ . The evaluations often also claimed significant ‘monetised’ gains – such as in 2016, for every pound spent, £1.79-worth of economic and volunteering ‘benefits’ from the summer programme and £2.21 from the autumn programme .
By 2017, however, reports by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO)  were raising questions about NCS’s transparency and governance as an organisation and about a lack of data on the scheme’s longer-term effects on young people’s lives. Though in 2018-19 NCS did finally meet its recruitment targets , seven years after its launch the NAO was reporting that only 36 per cent of the 333,000 young people who that year had expressed an interest in the programme had then registered and only 28 per cent (92,700) had actually joined – 38 per cent below its recruitment target. This, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), amounted nationally to only 12 per cent of the eligible age group, with the rate in some areas as low as 4 per cent . With eight thousand five hundred (8.6 per cent) of those who did join not completing , by 2018 the government was acknowledging that the scheme had failed to recoup from providers £9.8 million for unfilled places .By then (in 2017) NCS had reduced its recruitment target for 2020-21 from 360,000 to 247,000 – though without at that stage indicating any reduction in its allocated budget .
2020: new questions; new criticisms
Though post-Cameron governments have been less gung-ho about the scheme, until recently their support for NCS has, at least in public, remained largely unquestioned. In 2018 for example, Theresa May’s ‘youth’ minister rejected a Labour Party demand that NCS’s performancebeevaluated against the provision of local authority Youth Services  – the ones, that is, that although also nominally ‘statutory’ had had their budgets in England and Wales cut between 2010/11 and 2018/19 by over £1 billion. Support clearly continues, too, from the wider ‘youth sector’ with organisations as varied as the Jewish Lads Brigade, Young People Cornwall and Bolton Lads and Girls Club acting as programme ‘deliverers’ .
Renewed scrutiny of NCS, its role and ways of operating is thus now long-overdue – and important.
Removing The Challenge
The first prompt for this occurred in August last year when NCS’s Chief Executive Michael Lynas suddenly announced that it would not be renewing its estimated £60-million-a-year contract with The Challenge. This was the organisation which, by ‘pre-piloting’ NCS-type schemes in 2009, had, in its own words, ‘played a critical and founding role in NCS for over 10 years from initial design of the programme to directly supporting over 242,000 young people…’. Its programmes in London, the South East and the West Midlands made it, still, NCS’s largest ‘provider’ .
According to Lynas, NCS had been forced to take this action because of The Challenge’s refusal to adopt a shared IT system – later described by The Challenge as ‘unfit for purpose’ . This, he said – perhaps reflecting sensitivity to some past criticisms – ‘ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data’. He also claimed that that summer The Challenge had ‘let down’ 4,000 young people by failing to allocate them places on the programme .
As in its view a new contract was still being negotiated, The Challenge initially expressed surprise at the NCS decision to end its ‘principal funding source’ and said it remained committed to resolving the dispute  However, by October, claiming that the technical failures of the NCS’s IT system had prevented thousands of young people completing the first day of that summer’s programme, it had started a £22 million legal action against NCS for breach of contract and loss of earnings and posted a separate claim for defamation. It also lodged a complaint with the DCMS which the then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said the Department would investigate. This not only talked of ‘the continued poor behaviour of the NCS’s leadership’ and of ‘urgent concerns regarding the mismanagement of the NCS programme by the trust’. It also accused the DCMS of a ‘worrying’ lack of scrutiny of the NCS .
A month later, just as NCS was rebranding itself with a £3 million advertising campaign and a new logo , The Challenge went into administration, putting the jobs of its 400 staff at risk . Its Chair issued a public statement bluntly accusing NCS of having ‘jeopardised many thousands of opportunities for young people’ and calling the whole episode ‘a national scandal’  – claims the NCS strongly rejected .
The NCS Chief Executive: letting go – or not?
Interweaving with these developments have been repercussions of Lynas’s decision to resign as NCS’s Chief Executive, announced in September 2019. As this took effect at the beginning of March  it emerged that his exit package included £15,000 to help him train for a new job and retention as a paid consultant. Declaring the package ‘unacceptable’, the DCMS said it had ‘taken swift action to stop this’ and that it was undertaking ‘a thorough review’ to investigate ‘wider issues around governance’. NCS immediately withdrew its offer to Lynas and also sought to reassure its supporters – including no doubt the many other groups and organisations which had become reliant on its funding – that ‘DCMS had reiterated its support for the trust’ .
A ‘national programme’ fit for the times?
In April, NCS announced that, with its summer programme for a predicted 95,000 young people cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown, it was in discussions with the DCMS and its ‘suppliers’ on providing a free digital programme focused on ‘the skills and life lessons not learned in the classroom’ as well as a possible role for the scheme ‘to help get the country back on its feet by mobilising young people as volunteers .
However, other than the DCMS revealing that it has now had a complaint from another of NCS’s small delivery partners , no updates seem to be available on either its review of the Trust or The Challenge’s legal action. Given their strong echoes of past criticisms of how NCS operates and uses public money, these developments again point to the need to for a wider and more fundamental debate on the programme. Such as: why is it still being treated as the priority provision for young people both by the government and – via a stance of critical neutrality – by so many ‘youth sector’ interests? And amid the growing evidence of the financial, mental health, exam and other pressures which teenagers overall are facing , what justifies focusing so many scarce public resources on just the 16/17 year old age group?
Nor for me have these concerns been allayed by the organisational priorities indicated by NCS’s appointment as Chief Executive (Mark Gifford) of someone who is a newcomer not only to the national voluntary youth sector but also, it seems, to the wider field of leisure-time informal educational provision for young people. Here, according to its Chair, what it judged to be ‘invaluable to NCS as it moves into its second decade, a new delivery network and as exciting new partners come on board’ was Gifford’s 20 years of high-level private sector managerial experience with Waitrose as Director of Shop Trade and of Retail Operations (North).
The question which all this leaves me with, therefore, is: how can this commercialising version of NCS aimed at such a limited age-cohort be an alternative to a provision which, in 2013, was being used by 630,000 8-16 year olds via locally accessible year-round youth facilities and projects?  Indeed, as I was writing this piece, that question became even more pressing with the news that one of the most high-profile of the much vaunted forms of replacement for those lost local authority services – Kensington and Chelsea’s employee-led ‘youth mutual’ EPIC – had been forced to close because of the reduction in just the last fifteen months ‘in the overall level of funding for youth services’ .
Certainly nothing that the current government is offering comes close to reinstating those closed youth centre buildings and disbanded detached youth worker teams – provision which, far from starting from the perceptions and prescriptions of a powerful largely Oxbridge elite, sought to take their lead from the interests, concerns and needs of the young people who, by choice, actually engaged. For filling the huge ‘austerity’ gaps which remain in local authority and indeed many voluntary organisation revenue budgets, the best we have again been offered are what I call ‘gesture policies’. Such as, in October 2019, as a little election sweetener, a new Youth Investment Fund of £500 million to be used – over five years, it is important to remind ourselves – for building and refurbishing youth centres and for mobile facilities. And the DCMS’s ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’, announced last January, with its allocation of £7 million for ‘extra youth club sessions’.
Some of the realities of such offers were laid bare last month in a UK Youth announcement that, to support what it called ‘positive activities for young people’, it had distributed £1.16 million of the ‘accelerator’ money in grants ranging from £360 to £20,000 to 168 organisations and community groups. However, not only did the statement make clear that many of those receiving the money were not ‘open’ youth work facilities but ‘sports clubs, counselling services (and) creative writing workshops’. In revealing that in just a two-week window it had received over 1400 applications totalling £15 million, it also spoke volumes about the current financial state of even this wider ‘youth’ field .
Meanwhile, even before the virus struck, what had we had by way of follow-up to the government review of the statutory Youth Service guidance to local authorities, initiated in the run-up to December’s election?
Just as this piece was about to be posted it emerged that the NCS Trust had agreed a settlement of their dispute with The Challenge. With DCMS and Treasury approval, it has agreed to pay £2.8m for costs incurred by The Challenge for unfilled places during 2019. NCS, however, said it accepted no liability for two other elements of The Challenge’s legal claim.
The Challenge is still facing claims of £8 million from some local providers.(Darren Hayes, 2020, ‘Collapsed charity settles legal dispute with NCS Trust’, CYPN, 16 April)
1, Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June
2. Kirsty Weakly, 2019, ‘Shadow minister criticises DCMS for withholding data on NCS Trust funding’, Civil Society News, 23 October
3. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, Pp 11, 14.
4. Nina Jacobs, 2019a, ‘“Charity launches legal action over NCS dispute”’, CYPN, 15 October; Neil Puffett, 2020a, ‘DCMS launches review into NCS 4. governance’, CYPN, 2 March
5. David Cameron, 2005, ‘Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre’, 24 August
12. Tania de St Croix, 2015, ‘Volunteers and entrepreneurs? Youth work and the Big Society’, in Graham Bright (ed), Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts, London, Palgrave, pp 58-79
13. Janaki Mahadevan, 2009, ‘“Charity to test concept of National Citizen Service”’, CYPN, 31 March
14. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘National citizen servant’, CYPN, 15 May; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2010, ‘The Challenge Network announced as lead provider of National Citizen Service’, CYPN, 10 November
15. Neil Puffett, 2016, ‘“Queen’s Speech: £1.2bn set aside for NCS expansion”’, CYPN, 18 May; Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“MPs question future of NCS amid concerns over cost”’, CYPN, 14 March
16. Adam Offord, 2016, ‘“NCS marketing budget tops £8m in 2015”’, CYPN, 31 August
17. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Hurd hands NCS over to independent trust’, CYPN, 6 February; GOV.UK, 2016, ‘News story: Government introduces National Citizen Service (NCS) Bill to Parliament’, 12 October
18. Alison Sherman, 2016, ‘National Citizens Service to have permanent statutory status, Queen’s Speech says’, Civil Society News, 18 May
19. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017, National Citizens Service 2016 Evaluation, Kantar/LSE, December, p 27; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘Government hails success of National Citizens Service scheme’, CYPN, 17 May
20. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017
21. National Audit Office, 2017,National Citizens Service, 12 January; www.parliament.uk 2017, National Citizens Service, 10 March
23. Peter Walker, 2018, ‘Cameron’s £1.5bn “big society” youth scheme reaching few teenagers’, Guardian 2 August;
24. National Audit Office, 2017, Summary, para 15; Figure 12, p 34,
25. Joe Lepper, 2018a, ‘“Youth minister prioritises reducing unfilled NCS places”’, CYPN, 19 July
26. Neil Puffett, 2017
27. Joe Lepper, 2018b, ‘”Crouch dismisses call for NCS to be evaluated against traditional youth services”’, CYPN, 26 January
28. Neil Puffett, 2020b, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cut in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January
30. David Harris, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service Trust drops major provider”’, CYPN, 1 August; Andy Hillier, 2019, ‘Largest NCS provider loses contract worth estimated £60m a year’, Third Sector, 1 August; Dan Parton, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service provider vows to continue work following split”’, CYPN, 14 August; Joe Lepper, 2019a, ‘Youth charity The Challenge goes into administration’, CYPN, 28 November
37. Bill Ronald, 2019, ‘Statement from Bill Ronald, Chairman of The Challenge Network’, 27 November
38. Joe Lepper, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019; Bill Ronald, 2019
39. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, ‘“NCS Trust chief Michael Lynas to step down”’, CYPN, 12 September; Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020, ‘Retail expert to take over at top of the NCS Trust, Third Sector,, 8 January;
40. Neil Puffett, 2020a
41 Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Coronavirus: NCS considers volunteering role to help national effort’, CYPN, 27 March; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘NCS cancels summer programme amid pandemic’, CYPN, 8 April
42. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March
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?
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) , 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 .
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 , 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’ .
£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’.
Civil Society Strategy
In August 2018, the government published a Civil Society Strategy ambitiously sub-titled ‘Building a Future that Works for Everyone’ . 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’ .
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 .
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 .
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’ 
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 . 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’ . 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 .
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 , it had taken another five years to persuade ministers that another revision might be needed .
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’ 
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  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 .
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 
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’ .
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 .
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 .
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 
The Green Party
Also framed as a primarilypreventative – 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 .
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 .
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’.This has now been followed by an 8-page ‘youth manifesto’, The Future is Ours . 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, itcould come to be seen as the Albemarle report for the 21st century .
As I have already offered my response to the paper , 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
In this article, which appeared first in Youth &Policy and is reproduced here with their consent, I seek to provide a critical analysis of the plethora of recent policy documents and announcements relating to youth work in England.
Over the spring and summer of 2019 local authority Youth Services and the youth work practice they provide attracted unaccustomed levels of interest from national policy-makers. Most encouraging was the report in April from an MP’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which specifically addressed the ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’.[i] This was followed in May by data from a second APPG enquiry which, though more narrowly focused on ‘knife crime’, had much to say about the damaging effects of Youth Service cuts.[ii] Its analysis and conclusions were then forcibly reinforced by a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report which appeared at the end of July just as this article was being completed.[iii]
Also in April, the then youth minister Mims Davies made two commitments which were also seen as signalling a renewed interest in youth work: to develop a Youth Charter setting out how the Government will ‘support young people in reaching their full potential’ and to review the statutory guidance on local authority Youth Services – last updated in 2012.[iv] Towards the end of July the government also sponsored a debate in response to the first APPG report during which some of its key conclusions and recommendations attracted endorsements from Mims Davies, from Labour’s ‘youth’ spokesperson Cat Smith and from other MPs.[v]
The view from Parliament
From youth work’s ‘role and sufficiency’…
Coming as it did from a cross-party committee with a broad ‘Youth Affairs’ brief, the first APPG report offered some grounds for optimism that some more supportive messages about youth work might finally be getting through to top policy-makers. It for example started from a recognition that, as a result of what it calls ‘structural shifts’, a breakdown had occurred in the ‘contract’ with young people for providing ‘greater opportunities and a better quality of life than their parents and grandparents’. It went on to in effect endorse the ‘clear message’ it had received that, for helping to address this new situation, ‘youth work remains an important element of the support wanted and needed by young people today’ and so as having a ‘key role’ within what it called ‘the eco-system of Services for Young People’. Significantly, it also explicitly defined this practice as ‘non-formal education that focuses on the personal and social development of participants’, achieved by ‘provid(ing) peer group activities and trusted relationships’.
Accepting the case made by ‘numerous respondents’ to their enquiry for ‘a national youth policy and a long-term strategy for youth services’, the MPs also endorsed proposals that these be made the responsibility of a Cabinet-level Minister located in the Department of Education. For implementing the strategy their more detailed recommendations included:
‘Greater investment in youth work’, particularly in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, to include an ‘objective assessment’ of the National Citizens Service (NCS) and its contribution.
The creation of a ‘national body for youth work’ to oversee the implementation of revised statutory guidance which would set out ‘a minimum and protected level of youth service’ to be ‘discharged’ by an identified ‘lead role’ in each local authority.
The development of an overall ‘workforce strategy’ covering ‘professional youth workers, trainees and volunteers’.
A ‘standardised and national system for evaluating … youth services and quality of youth work provision’ which – particularly important from a youth work perspective – would include ‘self-evaluation and “light touch” inspection’.
Gaps remained in these proposals, however – not least in relation to the state structures best fitted to providing genuinely open versions of youth work and where and how young people and youth workers as well as the local authority itself might fit into these. More broadly, this group of MPs seemed unable in the end to free themselves from some of the constraints – both of thought and action – which over the past decade have so damaged local authority Youth Services. While for example acknowledging that references to ‘inequalities’ appeared in the evidence they received, they explicitly ruled as outside their remit consideration the often crucial ‘structural’ features of ‘disadvantage relating to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity’ (or indeed class). Given the serious criticisms of Ofsted within the educational field generally and of the often oppressive pressure it puts on those it inspects [vi], the Committee’s suggestion that it might put new youth work inspection arrangements in place was unlikely to get unqualified bottom-up endorsement. And despite the references to self- and light-touch evaluation, an appendix setting out a complex, multi-coloured ‘Theory of Change’ chart comprising six rows and nine columns again risked creating evaluation processes which actually get in the way of a practice like youth work.
… via youth work as knife-crime prevention …
The second APPG group, ‘set up as a response to the alarming rise in knife crime across the country’, defined its overall purpose as:
To evaluate policies and programmes aimed at reducing knife crime, gain better understanding of its root causes and the wider context of youth violence, and develop recommendations for new measures at both acute and preventative stages with a view to reducing levels of knife crime.
Although no official publication has yet appeared, a press release in early May made a strong and pragmatic case for reinstating Youth Services and their youth work practice based on a suggested ‘growing link between cuts to youth services and the country’s knife crime epidemic’. Drawing on Freedom of Information responses from some 70 per cent of 154 local councils and from local police forces, the MPs reached this conclusion by connecting two sets of figures. The first revealed a ‘51 per cent drop in the overall number of youth centres supported by English local authorities since 2011 and … (a) 42 per cent drop in youth service staff over the same period’; the second that some of the highest knife crime increases had occurred in local authority areas where these cuts had been amongst the most severe.
These purported linkages prompted the Chair of the Group to conclude:
We cannot hope to turn around the knife crime epidemic if we don’t invest in our young people. Every time I speak to young people they say the same thing: they need more positive activities, safe spaces to spend time with friends and programmes to help them grow and develop.
The Home Affairs Select Committee on ‘serious youth violence’ was even blunter in driving home this message, concluding for example that in part ‘the current epidemic … has been exacerbated by a perfect storm emerging from the cuts to youth services’. It thus went on to recommend that the government introduce ‘a fully-funded, statutory minimum provision for youth outreach workers and community youth projects in all areas, co-designed with local young people’. This it described as ‘a national Youth Service Guarantee with … ring-fenced funding from central Government’.
… via Ministerial responses…
Proposals such as these have undoubtedly helped raise political and wider public awareness of the need for local Youth Services and the opportunities they can provide. They also offered some relevant starting points for considering how, with guaranteed state support, open forms of youth work practice might begin to be reinstated locally.
Serious doubts remained, however, about if and how their key messages were being understood by ministers and if and how their policy proposals were turning them into action.
Austerity: the reality – and the rhetoric
This kind of ‘absence of mind’ was demonstrated in April when Mims Davies, announcing her plan for a Youth Charter, blandly described the huge budgetary problems currently facing local councils as a ‘challenging funding landscape’. What this typically evasive ministerial language masked were two brutal financial realities: a 60 per cent (£16 billion) cut since 2010 in the Treasury’s Revenue Support Grant to local authorities; and, largely as a result, a projected combined gap in their funding in this financial year of £14.4 billion.
Nonetheless Davies came to that Parliamentary debate seeking credit for the government’s planned increase over the next year in spending on English public services of £1.3 billion and also, more specifically, for her own Department’s allocation of £195 million to ‘youth programmes … to enrich young people’s lives’ covering ‘sport, digital and culture’. She also announced a youth employment programme to be implemented via a new ‘Youth Futures Fund’ whose £90 million funding, allocated through social investment bonds, was to come from ‘dormant bank accounts’ rather than from the government itself. She referred, too, to the Youth Endowment Fund with its £200 million Home Office allocation ‘to support programmes and communities working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence’ – one of the government’s many ‘gestures policies’ which the Home Affairs Committee later dismissed as ‘far too fragmented and small-scale’.
A Youth Charter – on what?
The overall aim of the proposed Youth Charter was defined most positively as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’. As well as addressing their ‘concerns about the environment and climate change’, however, its aims were, as so often within current ‘youth policies’, narrowed down to meeting such preventative priorities as (again) ‘…combating serious violence and knife crime’ and ‘addressing mental and physical health challenges’. In confirming these, Mims Davies’s colleague, Nadhim Zahawi, the (now replaced) Minister for Children and Families, also made clear the largely individualistic thinking driving the proposal when he asserted: ‘Every young person, whatever their background or the challenges they face, should have the chance to shape their own futures’.
Reviewing statutory Youth Services guidance
Mims Davies’s promise of the review of the statutory guidance for Youth Services came with some supportive ministerial statements – about ‘the positive role local authorities can play’, ‘the value added by good youth work’ and how ‘access to youth workers … transforms people’s lives’. Her most aspirational expectation of youth work – that it would give young people ‘opportunities to develop new skills and have fun outside the classroom’ – was however again underpinned by familiar preventative tropes emphasising work with ‘the most vulnerable’. Implicit in her statement, too – suggested for example by references to the ‘many local areas (which) have adapted to the new models of delivering services’ – were continuing neo-liberal assumptions about a minimal provider role for the state.
One qualifying phrase in the existing (2012) guidance – repeated three times – was however left unremarked by Mims Davies: that a council’s duty to provide a Youth Service extends only so far ‘as is reasonably practicable’. Given that, in her ‘challenging funding landscape’, the government’s own evidence as far back as 2014 had revealed that under half of local councils were taking their legal duty into account when deciding Youth Service budgets[vii], not only did this phrase clearly need to be deleted from any new guidance . If the duty was to be made real and effective, it would be crucial, too, that within it much more positive expectations of ‘role and sufficiency’ be embedded and indeed defined.
… to a House of Commons debate on ‘The role and sufficiency of youth services’
In opening this debate – held on 24 July 2019 – Mims Davies did include some new and more detailed information on training and qualifications. As ‘an essential first step … to arrest the decline in the number of qualified, professional youth workers and skilled volunteers’, she announced a new Level 3 apprenticeship qualification. This, aimed at ‘those working in a volunteer capacity’, was to be backed by £500,000 to provide bursaries for 400 students.
By then, too, the first of nine NYA-hosted regional consultative events on the revision of the statutory guidance had taken place aimed at providing ‘greater clarity’ on what was required – though during the debate Mims Davies did ‘absolutely recognise that many Members … feel that it is just the start’.
On the proposed Youth Charter, the nearest Davies came to clarifying the process by which this was being developed was to talk of a timescale of ‘over the coming months’ and to register ‘a huge thank you to the youth sector organisations that have shared in and embraced the opportunity to work with us … so far’. She however took time to restate its rationale as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’ and indicated that this was to be achieved by ‘bring(ing) together policies from across Government and listen(ing) to views from young people, those who work with them and, importantly, those who care for our young people’.
On most of the broader policy and funding questions, however, Davies had little specific information to offer. Instead she relied heavily on reiterating claims about the success of the Youth Investment Fund, of government funding to support uniformed youth work, and of a range of other organisations such as the Centre for Social Action, Sport England and even the Football Association. Included in this listing, too, was the NCS, though this came with the unexpected caveat that ‘…it is very important for us to look at (its) future underspend. I would personally love to see it directed towards detached youth services’.
In a couple other a replies to MPs questions Davies made clear that in her view ‘the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport … really is the right place (for youth policy)’; and acknowledged that ‘… open access to [sic] youth services has in some cases been far too easy to target for cuts’.
In her summing up statement at the end of the debate, Mims Davies also again revealed her rather shaky understanding of open youth work by apparently assuming that, even with a quite broad remit, a specialist table tennis club was ‘a youth centre or youth club’:
We heard from Cat Smith (Labour ‘youth’ spokesperson) that this is not just about ping-pong, but I would like to look at ping-pong, because the Brighton Table Tennis Club … is fantastic. I have never been to a youth centre or youth club that does not have table tennis, and I would like to praise that one in particular. It works with a pupil referral unit and with people with dementia. There are fantastic, elite table tennis players.
After reminding the minister that ‘austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity’, Cat Smith’s reference to table tennis came when she dismissed the depiction of youth clubs as ‘a meeting place for young people to knock a ball about on a battered ping-pong table. She set out her own understanding of youth work as,
a distinct educational process that focuses on young people’s defined needs through non-formal learning. Its key purpose, as outlined in the recent all-party group inquiry, is to facilitate young people’s personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.
Smith also made the more specific point that:
Young people in rural areas can feel particularly isolated because when the school bus drops them back off in their village at perhaps 3.30 or 4 o’clock, that is it until the next morning.
Throughout the debate other MPs interjected a range of often sharply critical comments and questions including:
NCS lasts for two weeks (which) are no replacement for the long-term relationships and commitment that youth workers give young people… (Ruth George, Labour)
Will (the minister) ensure that the (revised statutory) guidelines set out a basic right for every young person to access youth services every night of the week, or will this review just be a wishy-washy statement of principles for councils. (Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour, Chair of APPG)
…so much of the delivery now is on a project basis, so we do not get the career, the professionalisation and that real expertise and experience in our youth workforce that we have had previously. (Jenny Chapman, Labour Shadow Minister)
…the applications (for one funding scheme) were due in yesterday, and the money has to be spent by March. It is a complete waste of money to try to do these projects in an ad hoc way, year after year. We need a proper, costed programme that runs from the beginning of the year and can be planned properly, instead of squandering the money that is put in place. (Lyn Brown, Labour Treasury spokesperson)
I see … voluntary organisations providing fantastic work … but … there needs to be a backstop and that backstop needs to be the statutory services. (Jeremy Lefroy, Conservative)
From policy – to action?
When drawn together in this way, the developments and initiatives outlined in this article suggest that new levels of responsiveness in political circles to the crisis which has hit local authority Youth Services since 2010. That certainly represents an advance on where we’ve been over the last decade given how, in one local authority after another – often in the teeth of defensive reactions – the cuts were implemented as unavoidable, with little debate on their consequences for the up to a million young people.
None of this, however, would seem to justify the (over)-optimism with which some of the most influential voices in the youth sector have reacted – exemplified by the recent ‘verdict’ of NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton: ‘Great progress made late in the day… as we enter a period of fundamental change with a new government … and the Spending Review which will follow’.[viii]
This, however, fails to take into account some crucial limiting factors – that:
The Spending Review referred to here is now to be carried out by a government whose knee-jerk reaction to the ‘knife crime crisis’ has been to promise to fund an extra 20,000 policemen and women and to increase their powers of stop and search.
At local authority level anyway austerity is still working its way through the system and will go on doing so for a number of years yet. The Local Government Association has estimated for example that in 2019-20 even services still labelled ‘statutory’ such as child protection will be facing an overall funding gap of £3 billion – likely to rise to £8 billion by 2025.
Children and Young People Now’s (not unreasonable) ‘take’ on the Home Affairs Select Committee report was that its recommended future statutory and ringfenced funding for local authority provision is to be ‘focused on preventing young people becoming caught up in violence’. If correct then this must surely be taken as a clear warning that if ‘youth services’ money were ever to be fed down from central government to local councils they would be under huge pressure to use it ‘preventatively’ rather than for informal education. Which perhaps makes the question I (tentatively) posed in a post on the IDYW website back in April[ix] both more relevant – and even more challenging: rather than just ignoring the burgeoning ‘tackling knife-crime’ justifications for youth provision, might there be ways of negotiating them to support a revival of genuinely open forms of youth work practice?
Even when Mims Davies made her Youth Charter announcement in April factors such as these were shaping the overall youth policy climate. It was in this context, therefore, that she described youth work as a ‘youth space’ where young people could meet ‘on a Friday evening away from the rain with some high speed internet and with a chance to hang around with friends away from parents’. These were the kinds of spaces, she added, which the government was looking to fund in the future.
None of this came, however, with any indication of how much funding; where it would come from; who would decide its use; how any of this might, on their terms, be developmental for the young people – or where they might be able to go on the other six evenings of the week.
Crucial bottom-line material questions which – in spite of all the rhetoric of the last few months – still remain substantially unanswered.
[ii] See Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Youth club closures put young people at risk of violence, warn MPs’, Guardian, 7 May; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May