Breaching the Social Contract with Young People

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

The article appeared first in Youth & Policy at

Creating a new youth precariat

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

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

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

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

Youth in poverty (continued)…

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

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

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

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

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

….Within a structurally unequal society

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

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

Personal pressures…

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

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

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

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

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

…And practical consequences

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

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

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

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

Where are the services: where is state policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…And the future?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Harris Beider, 2011, ‘White working-class views of neighbourhood cohesion and change’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November; Mary Clare-Travers, 2017, ‘White working class boys: Teachers matter’, BERA, 31 August,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22], 2019, ‘Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Tackling intergeneration unfairness’,, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“BYC backs measures to tackle intergenerational inequality”’, CYPN, 26 April

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

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

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

[26] Action for Children, 2019, ‘Childhood in crisis: Almost two thirds of parents and grandparents say childhood getting worse – and nearly two million children in the UK agree’, 9 July, available at; Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘UK “sleepwalking into a crisis of childhood”, charity warns’, Guardian 9 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[36] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Rising trend of state school pupils going to university reverses’, Guardian, 7 February; Sean Coughlan, 2019, ‘Half of universities have fewer than 5% white students’, BBC News, 14 February,

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

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

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

[40] Young Minds, 2019, ‘Huge gaps in early support for young people with mental health problems – new survey’,, 2 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August

[41] Children’s Commissioner, 2019, ‘Childhood vulnerability in England 2019’,; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July

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

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

[44] GOV.UK, 2019, Spending Round 2019: Chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech,, 4 September

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

[46] Sally Weale and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Schools shake-up: the four key areas in leaked Tory proposals’, Guardian, 27 August. See also Community Empowerment Network, 2019, ‘Being Black & Dead While Excluded’ January 2019, available via; Edward Timpson, 2019,Timpson Review of School Exclusions, OGL, May,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from Parliament

From youth work’s ‘role and sufficiency’…

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

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

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

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

… via youth work as knife-crime prevention …

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

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

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

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

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

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

… via  Ministerial responses…

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

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

Austerity: the reality – and the rhetoric

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

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

A Youth Charter – on what?

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

Reviewing statutory Youth Services guidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith also made the more specific point that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From policy – to action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] Available at

[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

[iv] Available at;; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Young people to develop youth charter with government”’, CYPN, 11 April

[v] Available at

[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