‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

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

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

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

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

Open youth work: the response so far 

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

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

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

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

Building back better’ – to where?

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

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

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

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

Southmead Youth Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

So – where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the money?

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

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

Not much ‘building back better’ there then.

Bernard Davies, September 2021


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

What future for open youth work?

What future for open youth work? 

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

… another ‘youth review’…

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

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

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

and a new ‘youth survey’.

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

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

Meanwhile, out there in the field …

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

Other evidence of these pressures has also been emerging:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Davies, May 2021


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

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