A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

As the Introduction to this blog makes clear, posting on it depends ‘not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.’ The nearly five-month gap since the last piece is therefore only partly explained – excused! – by the distraction of my trying to write or contribute to other articles. Over that period youth work’s presumed ‘preventative’ potential has attracted some attention – for example in supporting young people’s schooling, including in situations like that of 15-year-old ‘Child Q’ who was strip-searched by police while she was having a period[1]. However, the gap in posting has happened mainly because I hadn’t identified significant government or other moves focused on the blog’s primary concerns: open youth work and the facilities which provide it. 

Until, that is, in early February this year when the DCMS published Youth Review: Summary findings and government response[2].

The backstory

This starts in December 2020 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a review of what he called the Treasury’s ‘programmes to support youth services …[3]’ – later explained by the National Youth Agency (NYA) as to ‘set policy direction for the out-of-school agenda’[4]. Led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the review was eventually launched in February 2021 using two digital questionnaires and ‘multiple workshops and focus groups’.

I have to admit that, given the long silence which had preceded it, the DCMS’s sudden release of the report did make me wonder whether it was just another of those rhetorical government ‘policy initiatives’ then being rushed out in an attempt to keep a lame-duck Prime Minister in his job. However, when I managed to push myself beyond my cynicism, I had to take into account that the Review had prompted responses from nearly 6000 young people, 170 ‘youth sector organisations’ and 32 ‘academics/researchers’ – and that, as well as (inevitably?) leaving behind some critical questions, it did offer some possibly hopeful gestures to open youth work.   

The positives

In the words of young people… 

Particularly significant here is the evidence it presents on what young people say they value about their involvement in youth work – opportunities, for example, to

  • ‘… meet people outside of school’; 
  • form new friendships, ‘engage with other young people from different backgrounds’ and ‘be around friends in a safe place and be themselves’; 
  • ‘speak to someone from outside the home and school environment’; 
  • ‘… volunteer and “give back” to their community’; and 
  • be ‘involved in decision-making’ – with ‘their voices heard, opinions respected’.

The Report also explicitly concludes that, as much as young people appreciated how ‘…the youth sector had adapted to keep supporting them during the pandemic’, this for them ‘did not replace the need for in-person opportunities’. 

Also revealing – and valuable – is the evidence young people provided on what they see as the ‘barriers’ to their involvement in open youth work facilities. As well as the ‘loss of youth provision… due to funding cuts’, these include the ‘quality of provision’ and the importance of having ‘trained and passionate youth workers or volunteers to create an inclusive and welcoming environment, where young people felt supported and respected’.

… of the academics…

Some telling inputs came, too, from the academics surveyed – and not just about the need for ‘positive evidence around the impact of youth services’. Expressing ‘a strong preference for resource funding’, they particularly pointed to the need for money for ‘universal services’ ‘to be accessible and long-term …’ They also proposed that ‘where capital funding was needed it should be small-scale, flexible and locally determined’ including for ‘pop-up or modular builds’. 

An On-side Youth Zone

For me, these responses prompted two, albeit tentative, questions. 

  • Is there here, perhaps, an implicit challenge here to those cash-strapped local authorities which have been committing millions of pounds of public money to help build and then run large-scale projects such as the On-Side Youth Zones? [5]
  • Could the small-scale, flexible and pop-up facilities they are suggesting be a way of overcoming another of the ‘barriers’ young people identified to their continuing participation in open youth work facilities – ‘outgrowing the existing provision’? 

… and of the DCMS 

In its ‘Introduction’ to the Report, the DCMS gives explicit recognition to youth work’s core aspirations to, for example, ‘provide young people with somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to …’ including ‘the opportunity to build a relationship with a trusted adult’. It notes, too, the ‘significant role’ this provision plays for an estimated 450,000 young people ‘… not yet (yet?) known to statutory services’[6]. 

Though often sounding rhetorical, some of the DCMS’s more specific proposals also offer some encouragement. A ‘Youth Sector Strategy’ is to be developed, for example, aimed at ‘… provid(ing) clarity on the government’s role in supporting youth services’. By 2025 every young person is to have access ‘to regular out of school activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer’, with the DCMS taking the lead ‘in enabling effective youth participation in decision-making at all levels’. It will also, it says, across the DCMS itself and more widely within government, seek ‘greater alignment … to maximise and coordinate funding opportunities for the youth sector’. 

Most grounded, however, is an allocation in 2022-23 of £790,000 for 547 bursaries to support workers doing Level 2 & 3 youth work training. Coming as the NYA is tentatively predicting some recovery in the number of qualifying courses[7], this extends the three-year bursary programme which it and the Network of Regional Youth Work Units started in November 2019 and which so far has supported the training of some 650 workers[8]. As ‘a starting point’ for re-building a ‘skilled and trained workforce’ decimated by the post-2010 budget cuts, NYA is now calling in the longer term for the recruitment and training of 10,000 qualified youth workers, 20,000 youth support workers and 40,000 volunteers[9].  

… and the doubts


Youth Investment Fund

The Youth Investment Fund (YIF) aims to create, expand and improve local youth facilities and their services, in order to drive positive outcomes for young people, including improved health and wellbeing, and skills for work/employability and life.

Probed further, however, the Report leaves behind a number of serious questions -particularly about the commitment to ‘invest £560 million over the next 3 years to deliver the new National Youth Guarantee’. Far from being new money, this is yet another (?a third) ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund (YIF) first offered in September 2019. According to an MP’s report published nearly two years later, in July 2021, its allocation had been delayed by Covid, with by then ‘substantive funding’ predicted only ‘from 2022’[10]. Though the message isn’t entirely clear, a recent DCMS advert for an ‘intermediary grantmaker for … YIF Phase 2’ seems also to acknowledge that up to March 2022 only ‘£10 million of capital investment (was) being released for early disbursement’[11]. 

The YIF’s £560 million is anyway only just over half of the £1.1 billion cuts in local authorities’ spending on youth services in England since 2010-2011, resulting by 2020-2021in seven councils reporting nil annual expenditure on this provision and 16 less than £15 on each 5-17 year old[12]. Since 2010 these cuts have forced the closure of over 760 youth centres, the loss of 139,000 youth service places and the removal of at least 35,000 hours of ‘outreach work’[13] – an approach which since Covid hit has been increasingly needed and valued[14]. Set in this context, the report’s promise of £368 million over the next three years to ‘create and expand up to 300 new youth centres … (and) over 45,000 extra youth activities per year’ clearly falls well short of any genuine reinstatement of state-funded local Youth Services[15].

 Nor is all of the rest of the YIF’s money intended to fund only open youth work facilities for 13-19-year-olds. Over the next three years, more than 30 per cent of it (£171 million) is being set aside for an NCS programme which, though now quite radically rejigged, is still targeted only at 16 and 17 year olds[16]. By 2025 across England a total of £22 million is also to go to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme so that it can operate in every state-funded secondary school; to create thousands of new ‘iwill’ youth volunteering opportunities; and (more on this later) to ‘eliminate current non-military Uniformed Groups’ waiting lists for teenagers up and down the country’.

Local authorities’ statutory duty 

Another of the DCMS’s own commitments in the Report – to carry out a review aimed at providing ‘greater clarity on the Statutory Duty for Local Authorities on youth services’ – also for me raises serious questions. Why for example in the paper is there no mention of or feedback on a review of this ‘duty’ announced way back in October 2019?[17] Why is the new review to be focused only on local authorities’ requirement to ‘support… the workforce’, when their other key duties include, for example, to ‘… take steps to ascertain the views of young people’ and to ‘offer young people opportunity in safe environments to take part in a wide range of sports, arts, music and other activities…’ And, perhaps most important in the long run, will this new review consider removing the clause in the current (2012) guidance – that local authorities need to provide Youth Services only ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’[18] – which across England has given them permission to cut if not completely wind up their open-access provision[19].

‘Levelling up’[20]

Secretary of State Nadine Dorries

Scattered through the Youth Review Report, too, are passing references to the government’s so-called ‘levelling up agenda’. In her Foreward, for example, Secretary of State Nadine Dorries commits the DCMS ‘to ensuring all young people are given opportunities, levelling up where they are under-served, socially excluded and economically disadvantaged”’. Both her Foreword and the Report itself include promises to ‘ensure that our spending and programmes meet the needs of young people as well as our ambitions on “levelling up”’; and that the ‘new Youth Guarantee (will be) backed up by £560 million funding with a firm focus on levelling up’. Two sub-sections of the Report are headed ‘Levelling up and expanding access to youth provision’, with one promising specifically that the 300 new and expanded youth centres will be for ‘… levelling up youth infrastructure in ‘left-behind’ places, so young people who are most in need have access to youth workers and positive activities’.

All this, however, needs to be placed in the context of the government’s actual ‘Levelling up’ policy, finally set out in a White Paper also published in early February[21]. The sixteen pages of the Executive Summary manage just two references to young people and ‘youth services’. One – reinforcing all those negative ‘they’re-up-to-no-good’ stereotypes – promises ‘… to make sure 16- and 17-year olds who commit crimes pay their community back with visible labour to improve the local environment’. The other, buried in a 135-word paragraph on page 14 of 16, repeats the Youth Guarantee commitments to ensure that by 2025 all young people will have access to ‘out of school activities’, to embed the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in every secondary school and to eliminate uniformed organisations’ waiting lists. 

Combined Cadet Force – Mill Hill School

Particularly revealing, however, in a single paragraph in the White Paper Summary which somehow didn’t find its way into the DCMS’s own Report, is the detail it provides on this last commitment – that getting rid of the uniformed groups’ waiting lists is necessary in order to 

… give more students the transformative opportunity to join the cadets, providing more support to the state school sector to increase Combined Cadet Force participation. (Bold in the original). This will include linking funding of cadet units in private schools with a requirement to ensure support for the expansion of cadet forces in state schools and open access to nearby state school students[22].

So there, it seems, we have it: an indication of the government’s underlying understanding of ‘open access’ youth work and the need for military-type structures and methods to make it truly ‘transformative’.


  1. Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Violence reduction scheme see youth workers chaperone walk to school’, CYPN, 7 January; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘ School must link with youth services to boost pupil wellbeing’, CYPN, 9 February; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Strip-searched by police’, CYPN, 21 March
  2. GOV.UK, 2022, ‘Summary findings and government response’, 1 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response
  3. HM Treasury , 2020, ‘Spending Review 2020’, updated 15 December, Section 7.28 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/spending-review-2020-documents/spending-review-2020;
  4. NYA, 2021, ‘Treasury rapid review of government youth policies’, 11 February, https://www.nya.org.uk/treasury-rapid-review-of-government-youth-policies/
  5. See for example Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Barnsley gives go-ahead to Yorkshire’s first Onside Youth Zone’ CYPN, 18 August; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Green light for South West’s first Youth Zone’ CYPN, 22 September
  6. NYA, 2021, Between The Lines’, p4, March, https://static.nya.org.uk/static/f3fcc0c77f1f2d3b579af6274648540b/Between-the-lines-final-version.pdf
  7. Joe Lepper, 2022, ‘Youth work training levels show signs of recovery after hitting record low’, CYPN, 16 March
  8. NYA, 2022, ‘Youth Work Bursary Places Available Now’, 9 March, https://nya.org.uk/youth-work-bursary-places-available-now/; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘NYA launches new round of training bursaries’ CYPN, 9 March 
  9.  NYA/CYPN, 2022, ‘Guide to Youth Work’, 8 March, https://www.cypnow.co.uk/features/article/guide-to-youth-work
  10.  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/
  11. DCMS, 2022, ‘Youth Investment Fund Phase 2: Intermediary grant maker specification requirements’, 23 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-competition/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-specification-of-requirements 
  12. YMCA, 2022, Devalued: A decade of cuts to youth services, February, p 10, https://www.ymca.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/ymca-devalued-2022-1.pdf
  13.  Unison, 2014, The Damage: UK youth services, Unison, August; Unison, 2016, The Damage: A Future at Risk – cuts to youth services,  August, Unison; Hannah Richardson (2016), ‘Youth services heading towards collapse, says union’, BBC News, 12 August, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37046967  
  14. See for example Graeme Tiffany, 2022, ‘COVID19 as a potentially valuable disruptive force in the conceptualisation of Street-based Youth Work’, Youth and Policy, 28 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/covid19-as-a-potentially-valuable-disruptive/ 
  15. See ‘”Building back better” – to what?’, 25 September 2021, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2021/09/25/building-bac
  16.  Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS sees funding reduction in Spending Review’, CYPN, 29 October
  17.   GOV.UK, 2019, ‘Review launched into statutory guidance for Local Authorities on providing youth services’, 10 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-launched-into-statutory-guidance-for-local-authorities-on-providing-youth-services
  18. Department for Education, 2012, ‘Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being’, 1 June, Paras 2, 3, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/statutory-guidance-to-improve-young-peoples-well-being
  19.  Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Dozens of councils ignore youth service legal duty’, CYPN, 8 July 
  20.  For a more detailed analysis of the implications of ‘levelling up’ for open youth work, see Bernard Davies and Jon Ord, 2022, ‘Young People, Youth Work and the “Levelling Up” Policy Agenda’, Local Economy, forthcoming
  21. HM Government, 2022 ‘Levelling up in the United Kingdom: Executive Summary’, February,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052046/Executive_Summary.pdf
  22. HM Government, 2022, p15

Bernard Davies

March 2022