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