What future for open youth work?

What future for open youth work? 

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

… another ‘youth review’…

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

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

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

and a new ‘youth survey’.

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

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

Meanwhile, out there in the field …

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

Other evidence of these pressures has also been emerging:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Davies, May 2021


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

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

The good – and the not-so-good – news

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

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

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

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

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

The new normal?

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

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

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

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

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

Future funding?

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

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

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

‘The youth field’ responds

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

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

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

Needs – with cautions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Davies , August 2020


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

Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19

Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19 

Gathering the evidence 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of reports and other papers have appeared over the last few weeks all wholly or in part focused on the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s employment prospects. 

Young workers in the coronavirus crisis

This Resolution Foundation report published towards the end of May [1] found for example that:

  • One-third of 18-24 year old employees (excluding students) have lost their jobs or been furloughed, compared to one-in-six prime-age adults
  • 35 per cent of non-full-time student 18-24 year old employees are earning less than they did prior to the outbreak … compared with 23 per cent of 25-49 year olds

Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis

Linked to this report was an earlier Resolution Foundation paper [2] focused more on the effects of previous recessions on young people. It for example highlighted that

…for several years after having left education, employment rates across the cohorts that left education during the financial crisis were lower than for those who left education after it – with non-graduates experiencing the largest and longest scarring effects. Graduate ‘recession leavers’ experienced substantial hits too, but more in terms of being stuck in lower-skilled jobs than being out of work altogether. And for several years, both groups had lower hourly pay than their counterparts who left education after the recession. 

Covid-19 and social mobility

Though something of a contentious concept, ‘social mobility’ is used in this report from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the London School of Economics (LSE) [3] to highlight how the pandemic ‘has exacerbated existing inequalities defined by income, place, health and ethnicity’[4]. With the young emerging as one of the groups ‘disproportionately affected’, it points to ‘a strong link between a country’s level of income inequality and intergenerational immobility’ and to how ‘real wage stagnation has particularly hit younger Britons’. 

It also provides some important reminders about the pre-pandemic situation – that:

  • Britain already had a ‘booming gig economy (which) has created millions of jobs … with low incomes and lacking security, progression or rights’ on which young people especially were often reliant.
  • Even those ‘disadvantaged’ young people who do go to university may find that those ‘disadvantages’ are not only ignored while they are there but become further entrenched. 

Reflecting on the evidence: some implications for practice 

The evidence and analysis of these three papers provide some relevant prompts for reflecting critically on the findings of a fourth report – the final evaluation of the government’s Youth Engagement Fund [5] – even though this, published in March, had clearly been drafted well before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The YEF programme had been launched in 2014 with funding of £10 million from the Office for Civil Society, £5 million from the Department for Work and Pensions and £1 million from the Ministry of Justice. Its aims included improving the ‘employability’ of young people classified as ‘disadvantaged’. 

The programme’s design had three defining features which, as we shall see later, had their own impacts on the face-to-face practice:

  • The four projects which implemented the programme were defined as ‘a social investor … seeking social impact in addition to financial return’ and so funded through ‘Social Investment Bonds (SIBs). 
  • The SIBs assumed a process of ‘payment by results’ – defined as ‘… the practice of paying providers for delivering public services based wholly or partly on the results that are achieved’.
  • Those results (or ‘outcomes’) were then defined as ‘…what changes for an individual as the result of a service or intervention. For example, improved learning in school, better mental health.

Though not reflected in this conception of ‘results’ as largely individualised change, the programme sought also to enable ‘schools, academies, local authorities, colleges and others to use their resources more effectively to support disadvantaged young people and reduce the number of young people who become NEET’. With some reservations, the evaluation concluded that this had been achieved by, for example, ‘provid(ing) schools with a solution for the young people they were struggling with’ and ‘offer(ing) a “refreshing” alternative to the pre-established support they had lost faith in’.

Interventions aimed at prompting even these kinds of limited institutional change were not however made explicit in the report’s summary of the programme’s methodology. For each of the projects this focused wholly on direct work with individual young people, albeit sometimes within their family or peer group contexts:  

  • group meetings, individualised tutoring and careers coaching and sign-posting
  • … individualised action plans … which could include resilience training, coaching, employability support, the completion of qualifications and sign-posting to other specialised provision’
  • … a range of tailored in- and out-of-school activities supported through a personal career coach, including volunteering, skills and enrichment activities, group work, employment integration activities, youth applied positive psychology and work with the young person’s family.
  • personal mentor(ing) over an extended time-period, as well as group work, skills development, enrichment activities, work experience opportunities and spot purchasing of specialist support. 

It was in implementing these face-to-face approaches that the payment-by-results funding framework could clearly at time be constraining or even obstructive. Comments from the practitioners interviewed for example included:

You always have to bear in mind that you’re doing this for an outcome, so you’re limited in what you can do. So the support you want to give, you have to say no because you don’t have time to do that.

It’s not necessarily in the young person’s interest – we’re working to the outcome not the individual…It’s like selling windows sometimes.

More fundamentally, the programme’s overwhelming focus on the individual young person as the primary if not the only focus for change left unaddressed some key broader questions. 

  • If improving young people’s ‘employability’ is a main goal, and if more widely it is their ‘disadvantage’ which acts as a significant obstacle to their achieving this, might not the causes of their labour market problems go beyond their individual limitations or family dysfunction – or even some localised institutional shortcomings?
  • In the light of the evidence on how the coronavirus crisis has exposed and indeed exacerbated already entrenched and interlinked structural inequalities, don’t policy interventions now needed also to be focused on these including, in relation to young people’s ‘employability’, the dominant values, priorities and ways of operating of the labour market itself? 

The need for such thinking is further supported by one of the Resolution Foundation papers which points to the limitations – even often the irrelevance – of policy responses based on individualised notions of ‘disadvantage’. While acknowledging that some young school-leavers ‘lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, with few specific job destinations in their plans’, the paper is also explicit that ‘the population of unemployed young people will be diverse indeed’. It points out, for example, that some ‘may have left education with an apprenticeship or a career destination in mind, only to find their sector of choice in severe contraction’[6]. And this before you even begin to try to fit all those ‘graduate recession leavers …stuck in lower-skilled jobs’ into policy-makers’ dominant conceptions of ‘disadvantage’. 

Significantly – and refreshingly – far from skirting round these kinds of questions, the YEF evaluators were clear that wider systemic barriers affect a young person’s place and progress through the labour market. They, for example, pointed out that ‘Aside from educational and personal difficulties, structural risk factors (emphasis in the original)can notably increase the risk of (young people) becoming NEET’. And they concluded that: 

The projects paid limited focus to external factors that might also impact on NEET rates, such as the quality of the local employment market… Towards the end of the projects, the service providers reflected that they should have done more work to engage employers, and encourage them to provide more apprenticeships and/or be more open to recruiting more disadvantaged young people. 

In support of this conclusion, the evaluation went on to recommend that programme interventions of this kind need to ‘provide more holistic support, focusing on support that addresses the wider and more structural factors that contribute to NEET prevalence’, including a greater focus on employers 

And in response?

How far then have current policy interventions given attention to these kinds of messages with their at least implied advocacy of more radical responses to young people’s labour market struggles? 

A ‘National Youth Cohort… 

Launched in an open letter in The Observer signed by twelve people describing themselves as having ‘experience of working with young people’, this initiative quoted evidence that ‘30% of university students have lost their job or offer of a job’ and that ‘one in three (young people) is receiving less pay than they were in January’[7]. Its base-line conviction is that the COVID-19 generation ‘can be transformed into a powerful engine to create a UK that is “more innovative more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing” [8]. To tap into this potential it proposes that the government to set up a ‘National Youth Corps’ which, ‘in effect’, would offer ‘a work guarantee’ to all 16-25 year olds who apply by ‘guarantee(ing) at least the minimum wage in a wide variety of work and training opportunities…’ ‘Employers and institutions’ would also have the choice ‘to offer a top-up wage for particular skills’.

Seen as ‘crucial’ to the programme – predicted to attract up to a million applications – is its aim to ‘embed Britain’s most ambitious ever mentoring capability’. Through this, ‘Youth Corps members will be guided and supported to acquire the knowledge, network, skills, experience and confidence they need to succeed in this “new normal”’ and so ‘ensure that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are able to fully participate and benefit from the scheme’. The letter asks a wide range of ‘British-based employers’ to ‘pledged a range of job offers depending on their financial circumstances’, with ‘third sector organisations that specialise in working with young people … eligible for tailored investment to enable them to build capacity to participate in the programme’.

With the government urged to ‘announce its intent to create the Youth Corps along with the necessary funding as soon as possible’, by late June over 2150 of a targeted 2500 people had signed a petition supporting the proposal.        

… a ‘Civic Army’

At about the same time a second proposed initiative came from the UPP Foundation [9] – a body which gives grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies. Backed in this case by a ‘coalition of youth work groups’ with some overlap with the Open Letter signatories, it stresses that ‘the (pandemic’s) economic and educational impacts on young people go much further than immediate issues of school closures’ and includes ‘the job market for young people disappearing (and) apprenticeship(s) … plummeting’. However, given what it calls the ‘disruption to university terms’, it particularly focuses on the need for universities to work ‘collaboratively’ to support young people so that they ‘engage with, or remain in, higher education’ – a goal to be achieved, it suggests, through ‘tutoring or catch up academic support, or other pastoral provision’. 

Graduating to a Civic Army? Ta to hrmmagazine,co.uk

The UPP proposes that to provide these services a ‘Civic Army’ be established,  described as a ‘Community Leadership Academy scheme’. Costing £500 million a year, this would create 75,000 six-month paid placements for work in communities which, though open part-time to university students, would again particularly target ‘disadvantaged’ young people. The offer would also include ‘20% off-the-job support for (young people’s) own development…’ and ‘additional Pupil Premium funding for wrap around support’. 

… and more government ‘gesture policies’?

Though neither of these initiatives attracted any explicit response from government, some of its own policy proposals focused specifically on the youth labour market and the pandemic’s impacts on it. In a speech on June 30th the Prime Minister flagged up an intention to introduce an ‘opportunity guarantee’ to provide young people with an apprenticeship or an in-work-placement ‘so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them’[10]. More detail on this came from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on July 8th in his summer statement to Parliament. In this he acknowledged that ‘young people bear the brunt of most economic crises, but they are at particular risk … because they work in the sectors disproportionately hit by the pandemic’. He also recognised that their experience of unemployment would have ‘long-term impact on jobs and wages’. 

The most substantial of Sunak’s proposals for dealing with these threats was to establish a job creation scheme, to start in the autumn with £2 billion funding. This will enable employers to offer six-month placements or jobs to 350,000 18-24 year olds ‘claiming universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment’. With employers again able top it up, the funding will, for a 25-hour-week, cover 100 per cent of the minimum wage – that is, for apprentices £4.15 an hour and for 16-17 year olds £4.55 an hour. (The current adult minimum wage is £8.70). 

The Chancellor’s statement also promised:

  • An extra £111 million in the current year for tripling participation in traineeships for 16-24 year olds in England with a view to funding ‘high quality work placements and training’.
  • For six months from August, a new £2,000 payment to employers in England for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25. This will be in addition to the £1,000 already available for new 16-18 year-old apprentices.
  • For the 2020-21 academic year £101 million to enable 18-19 year olds in England who are having difficulties finding a job to study on ‘targeted high value Level 2 and 3 courses’. 

Extra money is also to be allocated to a range of support and advisory services for job seekers [11].

But… the ‘absences’

When looked at from a young person’s perspective, proposals like these can’t simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Why in the emerging ‘new normal’ might a 16 year old school-leaver not look favourably on an apprenticeship or even a temporary job which pays the minimum wage (plus perhaps an employer top-up and an additional Premium Payment) and which may even offer some time off for training? Or an 18 year old who’s been working towards getting into university for two years or more not welcome extra support and advice to make that happen? 

And yet, once again policy responses like these focus mainly on providing limited (and indeed mostly temporary) forms of individualised support. They therefore do little if anything to address those ‘wider and more structural factors’ which the YEF evaluation identified as underpinning what it called ‘NEET prevalence’. They also miss important more positive priorities – and opportunities. 

Thus, as the chancellor made explicit, the government’s main priority is not to refocus or reorient the labour market in any radical way but to ‘kickstart’ it so that it again begins to operate in its historic ways. The references in the Observer Open Letter to ‘green initiatives’, ‘infrastructure improvements’ and an ‘industrial strategy’ do suggest some significant trigger points for more far-reaching aspirations. However, by getting merely glancing and unexplained mention within a diverse list of suggested routes for implementing its suggested ‘Youth Cohort’ scheme, their potential for seeking more fundamental structural changes is left entirely unexplored. Similarly, while repeatedly endorsing ‘the renewed civic action inspired by the crisis’, the UPP proposal has nothing to say on how this bottom-up upsurge of collective energy and enterprise might be converted into permanent jobs for young people (and indeed others) focussed not on private profit but on radical social (again including green) regeneration.

For thousands the often tragic personal consequences of this moment of major rupture to our society’s everyday activities and relationships are stark. Moreover, as the emerging evidence is also revealing, the age dimensions of the fall out highlighted in the piece are as ever closely interwoven with inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and region. And yet, from an economic perspective, this moment has also been described in more positive terms – as for example ‘the most benign borrowing environment imaginable to invest in the future’ [12]. By breaking decisively with that neo-liberal ‘payment by (financial) results’ mind-set, could it also therefore be used to pursue more strategic and systematic aims? Such as an assault on a labour market which, for young people particularly, has always be constraining and often exploitative and which the pandemic is threatening to make even less accommodating?


For some heartfelt accounts of the pandemic’s personal effects on young people see Sirin Kale, ‘The class of Covid-19: meet the school-leavers facing an uncertain future’, Guardian, 16 July

Bernard Davies July 2020


1 Maja Gustafsson, 2020, Young workers in the coronavirus crisis, Resolution Foundation, May

2 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis, Resolution Foundation, May

3 Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin, 2020, Covid-19 and social mobilityCentre for Economic Performance/LSE, May

4 See also for example Denis Campbell, 2020, ‘Racism contributed to disproportionate UK BAME coronavirus deaths, inquiry finds’, Guardian, 14 June

5 John Ronicle and Kate Smith, March, 2020, Youth Engagement Fund Evaluation: Final Report

6 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, p 6

7 Will Hutton and others, 2020,

8 change.org, 2020, ‘Support the launch of a Youth Corps to create employment and speed recovery’, accessed 27 June 2020

9 Richard Brabner, 2020, ‘Recruit a “civic army” of 75,000 young people…’, 29 May,

10 GOV.UK, 2020, ‘PM Economy Speech’, 30 June.

11 Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Heather Stewart, 2020, ‘Summer statement: Rishi Sunak plans temporary job creation scheme for under-25s, Guardian 8 July; Richard Partington and Kate Proctor, 2020, ‘Summer statement 2020: the chancellor’s key points at a glance’, Guardian, 8 July; HM Treasury, July, 2020, Plan for Jobs,

12 Larry Elliott, 2020, Low interest rates offer a rare solution that left and right can agree on’, Guardian, 22 June

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

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

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

Who are ‘the vulnerable’?

Ta to steps-training.co.uk

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

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

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

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

Youth work as a key response

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

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

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

A cross-departmental response from Government – some critical questions

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

‘Vulnerabilities’ – individual or structural? 

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

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

Philanthropic or state funding?

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

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

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

Alternatively she points to:

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

Young people; ‘vulnerability’ – or potential? 

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

Beyond the a-political?

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

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

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