The 2021 Budget – the realities versus the rhetoric
The good news?
In a blog piece posted at the end of September, I suggested that ‘though of course, the government won’t be using the word … for many public services another era of “austerity” looks inevitable’. I based this on predictions that in the current financial year there’d be a gap of £234 billion between public spending and government revenue, resulting in planned future spending on public services being cut by between £14 and £17 billion.
If the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget statement on 27 October is to be believed , these predictions were seriously mistaken. Rather than announcing further cuts, he promised that by 2024-25 total spending by government departments would rise by £150 million or 3 per cent a year. This he described as:
… the largest increase this century, with spending growing by 3.8% a year in real terms. As a result of this Spending Review, and contrary to speculation……there will be a real terms rise in overall spending for every single department.
From a youth work perspective, two sentences buried deep in his speech were particularly significant:
As we level up public services, we’re also levelling up communities – restoring the pride people feel in the places they call home.
To do that, we’re providing £560m for youth services, enough to fund up to 300 youth clubs across the country.
And the not-so-good news
Positive though all this seems, penetrating beyond the Chancellor’s rhetoric and his manoeuvring with the stats reveals a rather less encouraging picture.
For services overall…
Given that so many public services have to be provided by local authorities, the Chancellor’s promises need to be seen in the context of what has happened to their funding since 2010 – that for example:
Between 2010 and 2020, they lost 60p out of every £1 of Government funding for those services.
By 2020 almost half of them – 168 – were no longer receiving any Revenue Support Grant funding from central government.
According to a 2018 Local Government Association report, by 2019-20 funding for council services overall would have been reduced by further £1.3 billion, or 36 per cent.
One of the key commentators on the Budget – the Institute for Fiscal Studies – did confirm that the promised increases in public spending were ‘real and substantial’. However, it also drew some much less positive conclusions, some with significant implications for young people.These included that:
‘For many areas … spending will still be substantially less in 2024-25 than it was in 2010’.
Because of the strict limits on what councils can raise through council tax and the demands of the social care system, the next few years ‘could still see some local authorities having to cut services’.
‘Over the whole of the period since 2010 … education spending (will have increased) by less than 3% – in contrast to a 40% increase in spending on health’. As a result – presented by the Chancellor as some great achievement – it will take until 2024 to return schools’ spending on each pupil to 2010 levels.
‘Spending per student in FE and sixth form colleges will remain well below 2010 levels’.
…and for open youth work specifically
Of the funding allocated specifically for ‘youth services’, at least £500 million – that is, nearly 90 per cent – of the promised £560 million is far from the new money suggested by the Youth Minister Nigel Huddleston in his speech at the NYA ‘Youth Work Summit’ conference earlier this month. Much of it in fact is what the Director of Social Change has labelled ‘money recycling’ – the, in effect, third ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund originally announced by the Chancellor’s predecessor way back in September 2019 and over those two years left largely unspent.
Also needing to be highlighted here is that over the next three years one-third (£173 million) of the Chancellor’s promised £560 million for ‘youth services’ will be going to the National Citizens Service. When compared with the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for these services which it was reported to be getting in 2018 , the £158 million it was allocated in 2020 and £100 million in the current financial year, this represents what is being called a ‘significant reduction’ in its funding. This moreover comes at a time when, targeted still at just 16- and 17-years, it is about to launch a new ‘year-round’ offer to replace its current model. This it describes as
…participants spend(ing) two weeks away from home in small teams, guided by a dedicated, trained adult team leader. They then spend an additional 30 hours working in their communities in their own time.
However, with these past programmes in 2019 ‘reaching’ just 600,000 of the age group , NCS surely still needs to be judged alongside the up to 1.5 million 10-15-year-olds (plus some older teens) who, I suggested in my last blog post, might each week be going to a local a youth club – if such a facility still existed.
Welcome though any young people-focused funding is in the present circumstances, this also needs to be set in the context of the continuing impacts of those ten-plus years of austerity cuts. For example:£560 million, averaged out over three years at around £186 million a year, falls well short of the £1 billion cut from local authorities’ spending on Youth Services in England between 2010-11 and 2018-19  with a resultant fall in their spend per young person from an average of £136 to around £54.
The promised ‘up to 300 youth clubs in England’, ‘targeted at areas most in need’, has to be seen alongside the closure across the UK between 2010 and 2019 of more than 760 youth centres.
Nor is there anything in the Budget to help fill the huge skills gaps left by the loss in these years of more than 4,500 youth worker posts ; to cover the salaries or other revenue costs of reinstating at least some of those jobs; or to reverse the fall from nearly 1300 in to 432 between 2009-10 and 2017-18 in the number of students on approved youth and community work courses.
New evidence from the National Youth Agency
While this piece was being drafted the NYA published the initial (and appropriately cautious) findings of its youth sector ‘Census’ carried out earlier this year. Its data – ‘collected from over 2,500 organisations or sub-units of organisations from all parts of the (youth) sector and the country’ – not only provides some significant additional insights into the current state of open youth work in England. It also helps expose the limitations of the Chancellor’s offer for open youth work.
The NYA report for example reveals:
‘… a large disparity in the amount and type of provision available to young people dependent on where they live’, with ‘… twice as much provision in the most affluent areas as opposed to the most deprived’; and ‘… twice as many buildings purpose-built for, or dedicated towards, young people in affluent areas’;
‘… the units of national uniformed organisations, especially those affiliated to Scouts and Girlguiding, … made up 90% of all provision we were able to identify’;
voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations which are not affiliated to national or uniformed organisations are, conversely, more concentrated in the most deprived postcodes’;
VCS organisations ‘are disproportionately providing (and being commissioned by local authorities to provide) universal services, while local authority provision is more focussed on targeted delivery’.
‘15% of upper-tier and unitary local authorities… (said) that they offered no direct delivery…’
On funding specifically, the Census also found that, based on their reserves, only 35 per cent of ‘youth services’ said they would be able to continue to operate normally for between six months and a year.
Given these realities, it’s vital that the Chancellor’s rhetoric be uncompromisingly called out – not least his ‘recycled pledges and commitments’.
In the run-up to the Election I ponder – where is youth work; where is the Youth Service?
General election campaigns don’t usually put much of a focus on youth work or local Youth Services. And – perhaps this time particularly – why would they? Alongside, say, voters’ experience of waiting six weeks for a GP appointment or of schools struggling to put text books on their kids’ desks – to say nothing of the ‘let’s just get Brexit done’ syndrome – why would cheeky teenagers’ complaints about having nowhere to go in an evening be seen as a priority.
Yet a number of top-down Youth Service/youth work policy initiatives have been in the pipeline over the last two-to-three months. They of course come with no guarantees that any of them will be picked up by a new government, and certainly not that they’ll be turned into effective action. Nor can they be treated uncritically by those of us committed to a practice which is open to any young person who chooses to engage and open to ‘outcomes’ as those young people might define them.
Nonetheless as markers that for the first time in at least a decade national policy-makers might just be taking that practice seriously, it seems worth reminding ourselves of some of those interventions and of their pros as well as their cons. Because if we don’t give them some prominence in the run up to the election, who will?
Throughout the post-2010 austerity period, ministers have made repeated gestures to filling the gaps left by their demolition of local authorities’ year-round youth work provision. In comparison to the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for ‘youth services’ which by 2018 was going to the National Citizens Service (NCS) , these new ‘Funds’ – ‘Big Society’, ‘Youth Investment’, ‘Youth Engagement’, ‘Early Intervention’, ‘Life Chances’, to name but a few – have offered small amounts of funding for usually time-limited programmes. Often, too, allocated through competitive tendering, this has proved highly divisive, nationally and also within a local area. Significant proportions anyway have gone to government-favoured organisations and schemes such as Step Up to Serve’s #iwill ‘social action’ programme and uniformed youth groups, including ones linked to the armed services.
Examples of such recent gestures include:
An allocation of £4 million in August 2019 towards the development of an OnSide ‘youth zone’ in Grimsby – part of a wider government ‘Town Deal’ regeneration programme .
A new £500 million Youth Investment Fund, first announced by the Chancellor Sajid Javid in his Spending Round statement in September. In response to the loss since 2012 of some 760 youth buildings and 4500 youth work jobs , this is offering money for 60 new youth centres, refurbishing 360 existing ones, providing 100 mobile youth facilities and ‘an investment in the youth workforce’ .
£12 million allocated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to help address ‘urgent needs in the youth sector – £5 million again for the #iwill programme and £7 million for a new ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’ to ‘expand existing successful projects … delivering extra sessions in youth clubs, and promoting positive activities in sport and the arts to help young people develop skills and contribute to their communities’.
Civil Society Strategy
In August 2018, the government published a Civil Society Strategy ambitiously sub-titled ‘Building a Future that Works for Everyone’ . Framed by ‘a vision of the UK with better connected communities, more neighbourliness, and businesses which strengthen society’, it defined civil society ‘… not by organisational form, but in terms of activity, defined by purpose (what it is for) and control (who is in charge)’. More specifically it saw the term as referring‘… to individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control’ – with, in this context, ‘social value’ understood as ‘enrich(ing)lives and a fairer society for all’.
The Strategy’s ‘Mission 3’ – headed ‘opportunities for young people’ – seeks ‘to change the culture of policy design and implementation so that young people are systematically involved in shaping the policies that affect them’. The aim of these policies are explained as to ‘broaden our approach so that all young people from an early age can access a range of positive and integrated activities including youth programmes, cultural activities, and volunteering’. Options are to be explored ‘for building on the cross-sector partnership created by the #iwill campaign, to identify how the existing offer for young people can be improved’. Also given strong endorsement, including via a ‘success story’ case study, are the National Citizens Service and uniformed youth groups.
As always in government youth policy statements of this period, one of the paper’s repeated emphases is on ‘ensuring … the most disadvantaged young people transition into work…’ and that they ‘… develop the skills and habits of social responsibility during their childhood and youth’. This is seen as applying, too, to what the paper calls ‘the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have’ which are described as ‘especially important ‘for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage’.
The Strategy also promised to set up a ‘Civil Society Youth Steering Group’ to ‘oversee the development and implementation of policies affecting young people’. Action on this came in February 2019 with a DCMS 12-month grant of £170,000 to the British Youth Council (BYC), to be used in part to establish a ‘Youth Steering Group’ and a ‘Young Inspectors Group’ .
In October 2019, a new Civil Society minister, Baroness Barran, published a review of progress in implementing the Strategy. In this she talked of ‘continu(ing) to invest in positive activities for young people to enable them to fulfil their potential and contribute to their communities’. Again given particular emphasis was the NCS programme ‘that helps build a more responsible, more cohesive and more engaged society’. ‘Investments’ in other youth programmes and organisations were confirmed. These included £5 million for uniformed youth groups such as Fire Cadets and Scouts to create over 10,000 new places for young people in ‘disadvantaged’ areas and £40 million for volunteering and community engagement through the #iwill Fund .
Just two weeks after the minister’s review appeared, the ‘election manifesto’ of the voluntary sector’s umbrella body, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), suggested some significant gaps in the Strategy. For example, NCVO in called on the government to involve charities more in policy making and in particular to ‘strengthen its commitment to social value’. It made clear, too, that the sector required more, and more reliable, resources, specifically highlighting the need to ensure that lost EU funding to the UK was replaced at ‘a comparable level of investment’. It also proposed that some of the billions of pounds stuck in dormant bank accounts be used to set up a community wealth fund .
Review of the Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being
A policy initiative with the potential for longer-term impact on local authority decision-making – a review of the statutory guidance on the provision of local youth services – was also flagged up in the Civic Society Strategy paper. Though starting from the somewhat limited rationale that since the 2012 revision ‘much has happened to change the way these services are provided’, the aim was explained as to ‘provide greater clarity of government’s expectations, including the value added by good youth work’ 
Almost a year elapsed before the then minister for Civil Society Mims Davies restated the original commitment to it and a further three months for her successor, Baroness Barran, to make a call for evidence . With a closing date of 1st December 2019, this is now being gathered through an 11-page questionnaire for service providers, a 4-page questionnaire for young people and a 6-page ‘Tool for Conversations with Young People’ . The aim – set before the election was called – is currently for updated guidance to be published in the spring of 2020.
Any appraisal of these moves, however, has to start with some crucial cautions.
When the current statutory guidance was published in June 2012 even organisations whose ‘independence of state control’ was by then under growing pressure described the new guidelines as lacking clarity and the ‘objective measures’ needed for judging a local authority’s provision .
In line with post-2010 governments’ highly individualised ways of defining young people’s needs and problems, the 2012 revision of the guidelines narrowed the local authority’s duty from a more broadly educational one to one focused on just young people’s ‘well-being’.
Though within two years of this guidance being issued a Cabinet Office report revealed that 56 of the 97 councils surveyed were not fully adhering to it , it had taken another five years to persuade ministers that another revision might be needed .
With most of the review questions framed in very bland ways, they offer no prompts for locating responses in the wider resource and infrastructure problems which have led to open youth work’s widespread demise across England. For example, question 12 of the questionnaire for service providers’ offers only four tick-box options – from ‘Very well’ to ‘Very poorly’ – for judging how well the existing guidance achieves the aim of ‘advis(ing) local authorities on what to take into account when deciding what services and activities to secure for young people’. No encouragement is given therefore for commenting on how the guidance’ may have allowed local authorities to marginalise open forms of youth work – by for example, in its very first lines, effectively de-prioritising young people who, it says, have ‘the right supportive relationships… ’; and then by repeatedly insisting that the focus must be on the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘disadvantaged’ 
Some embedded assumptions in a later question, number 13, also need to be challenged if the guidance is to contribute to the reinstatement of forms of open youth work. One, for example, by baldly stating that ‘the leadership role of local authorities’ is just about ‘convening key stakeholders’, seems to rule out what will surely often be crucial in the future – that those authorities again act proactively as direct providers. Another – on ‘the role of qualified youth workers’ – not only limits this to ‘leading positive activities for young people’. It also skirts round the fall in the number of students on qualifying courses between 2011-12 and 2017-18 from 951 to 432  and, no less essential, the need for government and others also to re-establish the training routes for part-timers and volunteers.
One bottom-line demand, however, will need to underpin all such responses: the deletion of a phrase, used three times in the 2012 guidance (paras 2, 3, 5), which allows – requires? – local authorities to provide their ‘local offer’ for young people only ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Under the pressure of the major cuts to councils’ funding since 2010, particularly to their Treasury Revenue Support Grant, those six words have rendered the guidance largely meaningless.
The NYA: in support of government policy
Under similar financial pressures, the NYA has in recent years often seemed to be operating like any voluntary sector organisation – by for example jointly managing NCS programmes in the North East. However, it still describes itself as ‘the national body for youth work’ and carries out important national functions – particularly, through its Education and Training Sub-committee (ETS), the validation of the youth work qualifications in England recognised by the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC).
In seeking to play this national role, over the last year NYA has taken a number of initiatives which, though at times seeming to tack to what is likely to appeal to ministerial thinking, have supplemented some of the government’s own policy responses.
In 2018, after urging that a ‘youth covenant’ setting out the government’s overall commitment to young people be included in the Civil Society Strategy, it has now published its own Youth Covenant .
Between July and October this year it ran consultation ‘roadshows’ in eight regions of England, one of whose agenda items was the DCMS’s review of the statutory guidance to local authorities. This was followed in October by a National Youth Work Summit attended by ‘80 youth sector leaders’.
Also in October it published a youth service’s ‘Sufficiency Statement’, with ‘sufficiency’ defined as ‘at least two professional youth workers and a team of youth support workers and trained volunteers …. for each secondary school catchment area’. It proposed, too, that such guidance ‘… be supported by a clear statement from government on the importance of providing a sufficient offer to young people’ to include ‘easily available … universal settings’ alongside other services. The statement also endorsed proposals by both the government and the Labour Party (see below) that future Youth Services be managed overall by local youth partnerships, to include representation from young people and the voluntary sector 
This month NYA launched the £500,000 scheme, announced by the government in July, to in its first year provide 450 bursaries for youth workers qualifying at NVQ Levels 2 and 3. Though greeted sceptically by the Chief Executive of London Youth for failing even to replace ‘the 800 youth work positions that have disappeared in London alone over the last decade’, the scheme was presented by NYA as part of its own ‘national initiative to grow the workforce’ .
In its own ‘High 5’ General Election manifesto NYA sought commitments from the political parties’ to its proposed Youth Covenant and local youth partnerships and to its definition of Sufficiency .
NYA seems, too, to be intending to embed open youth work more firmly in its own programmes by appointing JNC-qualified and experienced staff as a Director of Youth Work and a Youth Work Specialist .
The opposition parties: where is the youth work?
The Liberal Democrats
Albeit without any noticeable pre-campaign build-up, in a sub-section in their Election Manifesto headed ‘A Public Health Approach to Violence’, the LibDems’ commitment to youth work is explained as:
Invest in youth services. We will provide a £500m ring-fenced youth services fund to local authorities to repair the damage done to youth services and enable them to deliver a wider range of services, reach more young people and improve training for youth workers 
The Green Party
Also framed as a primarilypreventative – especially anti-crime – practice, the Green Party’s election commitment to youth work is expressed as:
Invest in youth services and centres, to help turn at-risk children away from crime. All the evidence shows the cuts in youth services have increased crime, especially knife crime. To end knife crime once and for all we need to invest in specialist programmes provided through youth centres .
The Labour Party vision
In two separate sections of its Manifesto the Labour commitments are presented as:
We will rebuild our youth services and guarantee young people’s access to youth workers.
… Too many young people now have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to help them with their problems. Labour will build a properly funded, professionally staffed National Youth Service, and will guarantee every young person has access to local, high-quality youth work .
In Labour’s case, however, these two bald statements have to be seen as emerging from a process which, starting in late 2018 with a consultation exercise, led a month before the election to the publication of Only Young Once, Labour’s detailed 35-page ‘vision for rebuilding Youth Services’.This has now been followed by an 8-page ‘youth manifesto’, The Future is Ours . Both in its grasp of the defining features of the practice and in its actual proposals, Only Young Once offers the most comprehensive and convincing blueprint yet of how, both strategically and on the ground, open youth work might be genuinely re-embedded in any future ‘youth offer’. Indeed, if Labour’s proposals ever actually get to be implemented, itcould come to be seen as the Albemarle report for the 21st century .
As I have already offered my response to the paper , what follows focuses on the conclusions and proposals which, in the run up to the Election, seem particularly worth restating and on some issues needing further clarification and debate.
Starting from a recognition of the damage caused by the demolition of local Youth Services since 2010, the paper for example:
Tasks Youth Services with recognising ‘the agency young people have as a group to be empowered’; with helping to ‘realise their full potential and live successfully in their communities’; and with ‘address(ing) social inequalities … including discrimination and racial disparities…’.
Defines the main purpose of the practice as ‘to provide non-formal education that supports the personal, social and political development of all young people…’.
Describes this provision as ‘based on relationships of trust between young people and trained youth workers’, with ‘voluntary participation … applying across all levels’ and ‘interaction … negotiated with young people from the outset’.
Locates this practice ‘in a range of contexts and settings in which young people choose to be…’.
Identifies youth workers as contributing ‘vital forms of skilled support…’, including to ‘groups with specific identities, such as LGBT+ people, young people with special needs, young women, or specific religious communities’.
To help ensure that – ‘in its own right’ and ‘independent and complementary to other services’ – this open youth work provision is reinstated, Labour’s proposal include:
Appointing ‘a Minister for Children and Young People responsible for the national youth service (to) sit within the Department for Education supporting the Secretary of State’.
New legislation setting out local authorities’ statutory duties which, rather than offering ‘a get-out clause: that the youth work activities … be provided only “so far as reasonably practicable”’, instead ‘clearly defines a base level of (youth work) sufficiency’….
Long–term, stable funding for youth services to ensure all young people have access to high quality youth work provision that matches their needs’.
The development of ‘a national youth workforce development strategy’.
In relatively open-minded ways the paper also addresses two on–going youth work dilemmas:
How to develop methods and processes of evaluation which ‘fit’ with the practice’s young people-led and ‘on the wing’ approaches and interventions.
How to ‘professionalise’ the work and its workforce by, for example, establishing a formally endorsed ‘licence to practice’ while at the same time continuing to recognise and indeed give credit to the huge contribution made by volunteer youth workers.
Unavoidably, perhaps, given its scope, the paper does leave some important questions unanswered. Two which, for me, stand out are:
Within Labour’s proposed highly ambitious open youth work offer, what is to happen to resource-hungry NCS programmes which have regularly failed to meet their recruitment targets?
For actually delivering this offer in the young people-focused ways envisaged, can local authorities’ often inflexible internal power relationships, structures and procedures adapt – perhaps radically – to work with and through the paper’s proposed ‘collaborative partnerships at local, regional, national and international level’?
Even allowing for these ambiguities – and assuming of course that Labour manages to get a handle on power – Only Young Once suggests that buried within those two brief Manifesto sentences are the best prospects we’ve had for a very long time for sustained and appropriately focused state sponsorship and funding for open youth work.
1. Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to Account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June
2. Neil Puffett, 2019, ‘“Government announces money for new youth zone”’, CYPN, 16 August
In this article, which appeared first in Youth &Policy and is reproduced here with their consent, I seek to provide a critical analysis of the plethora of recent policy documents and announcements relating to youth work in England.
Over the spring and summer of 2019 local authority Youth Services and the youth work practice they provide attracted unaccustomed levels of interest from national policy-makers. Most encouraging was the report in April from an MP’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which specifically addressed the ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’.[i] This was followed in May by data from a second APPG enquiry which, though more narrowly focused on ‘knife crime’, had much to say about the damaging effects of Youth Service cuts.[ii] Its analysis and conclusions were then forcibly reinforced by a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report which appeared at the end of July just as this article was being completed.[iii]
Also in April, the then youth minister Mims Davies made two commitments which were also seen as signalling a renewed interest in youth work: to develop a Youth Charter setting out how the Government will ‘support young people in reaching their full potential’ and to review the statutory guidance on local authority Youth Services – last updated in 2012.[iv] Towards the end of July the government also sponsored a debate in response to the first APPG report during which some of its key conclusions and recommendations attracted endorsements from Mims Davies, from Labour’s ‘youth’ spokesperson Cat Smith and from other MPs.[v]
The view from Parliament
From youth work’s ‘role and sufficiency’…
Coming as it did from a cross-party committee with a broad ‘Youth Affairs’ brief, the first APPG report offered some grounds for optimism that some more supportive messages about youth work might finally be getting through to top policy-makers. It for example started from a recognition that, as a result of what it calls ‘structural shifts’, a breakdown had occurred in the ‘contract’ with young people for providing ‘greater opportunities and a better quality of life than their parents and grandparents’. It went on to in effect endorse the ‘clear message’ it had received that, for helping to address this new situation, ‘youth work remains an important element of the support wanted and needed by young people today’ and so as having a ‘key role’ within what it called ‘the eco-system of Services for Young People’. Significantly, it also explicitly defined this practice as ‘non-formal education that focuses on the personal and social development of participants’, achieved by ‘provid(ing) peer group activities and trusted relationships’.
Accepting the case made by ‘numerous respondents’ to their enquiry for ‘a national youth policy and a long-term strategy for youth services’, the MPs also endorsed proposals that these be made the responsibility of a Cabinet-level Minister located in the Department of Education. For implementing the strategy their more detailed recommendations included:
‘Greater investment in youth work’, particularly in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, to include an ‘objective assessment’ of the National Citizens Service (NCS) and its contribution.
The creation of a ‘national body for youth work’ to oversee the implementation of revised statutory guidance which would set out ‘a minimum and protected level of youth service’ to be ‘discharged’ by an identified ‘lead role’ in each local authority.
The development of an overall ‘workforce strategy’ covering ‘professional youth workers, trainees and volunteers’.
A ‘standardised and national system for evaluating … youth services and quality of youth work provision’ which – particularly important from a youth work perspective – would include ‘self-evaluation and “light touch” inspection’.
Gaps remained in these proposals, however – not least in relation to the state structures best fitted to providing genuinely open versions of youth work and where and how young people and youth workers as well as the local authority itself might fit into these. More broadly, this group of MPs seemed unable in the end to free themselves from some of the constraints – both of thought and action – which over the past decade have so damaged local authority Youth Services. While for example acknowledging that references to ‘inequalities’ appeared in the evidence they received, they explicitly ruled as outside their remit consideration the often crucial ‘structural’ features of ‘disadvantage relating to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity’ (or indeed class). Given the serious criticisms of Ofsted within the educational field generally and of the often oppressive pressure it puts on those it inspects [vi], the Committee’s suggestion that it might put new youth work inspection arrangements in place was unlikely to get unqualified bottom-up endorsement. And despite the references to self- and light-touch evaluation, an appendix setting out a complex, multi-coloured ‘Theory of Change’ chart comprising six rows and nine columns again risked creating evaluation processes which actually get in the way of a practice like youth work.
… via youth work as knife-crime prevention …
The second APPG group, ‘set up as a response to the alarming rise in knife crime across the country’, defined its overall purpose as:
To evaluate policies and programmes aimed at reducing knife crime, gain better understanding of its root causes and the wider context of youth violence, and develop recommendations for new measures at both acute and preventative stages with a view to reducing levels of knife crime.
Although no official publication has yet appeared, a press release in early May made a strong and pragmatic case for reinstating Youth Services and their youth work practice based on a suggested ‘growing link between cuts to youth services and the country’s knife crime epidemic’. Drawing on Freedom of Information responses from some 70 per cent of 154 local councils and from local police forces, the MPs reached this conclusion by connecting two sets of figures. The first revealed a ‘51 per cent drop in the overall number of youth centres supported by English local authorities since 2011 and … (a) 42 per cent drop in youth service staff over the same period’; the second that some of the highest knife crime increases had occurred in local authority areas where these cuts had been amongst the most severe.
These purported linkages prompted the Chair of the Group to conclude:
We cannot hope to turn around the knife crime epidemic if we don’t invest in our young people. Every time I speak to young people they say the same thing: they need more positive activities, safe spaces to spend time with friends and programmes to help them grow and develop.
The Home Affairs Select Committee on ‘serious youth violence’ was even blunter in driving home this message, concluding for example that in part ‘the current epidemic … has been exacerbated by a perfect storm emerging from the cuts to youth services’. It thus went on to recommend that the government introduce ‘a fully-funded, statutory minimum provision for youth outreach workers and community youth projects in all areas, co-designed with local young people’. This it described as ‘a national Youth Service Guarantee with … ring-fenced funding from central Government’.
… via Ministerial responses…
Proposals such as these have undoubtedly helped raise political and wider public awareness of the need for local Youth Services and the opportunities they can provide. They also offered some relevant starting points for considering how, with guaranteed state support, open forms of youth work practice might begin to be reinstated locally.
Serious doubts remained, however, about if and how their key messages were being understood by ministers and if and how their policy proposals were turning them into action.
Austerity: the reality – and the rhetoric
This kind of ‘absence of mind’ was demonstrated in April when Mims Davies, announcing her plan for a Youth Charter, blandly described the huge budgetary problems currently facing local councils as a ‘challenging funding landscape’. What this typically evasive ministerial language masked were two brutal financial realities: a 60 per cent (£16 billion) cut since 2010 in the Treasury’s Revenue Support Grant to local authorities; and, largely as a result, a projected combined gap in their funding in this financial year of £14.4 billion.
Nonetheless Davies came to that Parliamentary debate seeking credit for the government’s planned increase over the next year in spending on English public services of £1.3 billion and also, more specifically, for her own Department’s allocation of £195 million to ‘youth programmes … to enrich young people’s lives’ covering ‘sport, digital and culture’. She also announced a youth employment programme to be implemented via a new ‘Youth Futures Fund’ whose £90 million funding, allocated through social investment bonds, was to come from ‘dormant bank accounts’ rather than from the government itself. She referred, too, to the Youth Endowment Fund with its £200 million Home Office allocation ‘to support programmes and communities working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence’ – one of the government’s many ‘gestures policies’ which the Home Affairs Committee later dismissed as ‘far too fragmented and small-scale’.
A Youth Charter – on what?
The overall aim of the proposed Youth Charter was defined most positively as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’. As well as addressing their ‘concerns about the environment and climate change’, however, its aims were, as so often within current ‘youth policies’, narrowed down to meeting such preventative priorities as (again) ‘…combating serious violence and knife crime’ and ‘addressing mental and physical health challenges’. In confirming these, Mims Davies’s colleague, Nadhim Zahawi, the (now replaced) Minister for Children and Families, also made clear the largely individualistic thinking driving the proposal when he asserted: ‘Every young person, whatever their background or the challenges they face, should have the chance to shape their own futures’.
Reviewing statutory Youth Services guidance
Mims Davies’s promise of the review of the statutory guidance for Youth Services came with some supportive ministerial statements – about ‘the positive role local authorities can play’, ‘the value added by good youth work’ and how ‘access to youth workers … transforms people’s lives’. Her most aspirational expectation of youth work – that it would give young people ‘opportunities to develop new skills and have fun outside the classroom’ – was however again underpinned by familiar preventative tropes emphasising work with ‘the most vulnerable’. Implicit in her statement, too – suggested for example by references to the ‘many local areas (which) have adapted to the new models of delivering services’ – were continuing neo-liberal assumptions about a minimal provider role for the state.
One qualifying phrase in the existing (2012) guidance – repeated three times – was however left unremarked by Mims Davies: that a council’s duty to provide a Youth Service extends only so far ‘as is reasonably practicable’. Given that, in her ‘challenging funding landscape’, the government’s own evidence as far back as 2014 had revealed that under half of local councils were taking their legal duty into account when deciding Youth Service budgets[vii], not only did this phrase clearly need to be deleted from any new guidance . If the duty was to be made real and effective, it would be crucial, too, that within it much more positive expectations of ‘role and sufficiency’ be embedded and indeed defined.
… to a House of Commons debate on ‘The role and sufficiency of youth services’
In opening this debate – held on 24 July 2019 – Mims Davies did include some new and more detailed information on training and qualifications. As ‘an essential first step … to arrest the decline in the number of qualified, professional youth workers and skilled volunteers’, she announced a new Level 3 apprenticeship qualification. This, aimed at ‘those working in a volunteer capacity’, was to be backed by £500,000 to provide bursaries for 400 students.
By then, too, the first of nine NYA-hosted regional consultative events on the revision of the statutory guidance had taken place aimed at providing ‘greater clarity’ on what was required – though during the debate Mims Davies did ‘absolutely recognise that many Members … feel that it is just the start’.
On the proposed Youth Charter, the nearest Davies came to clarifying the process by which this was being developed was to talk of a timescale of ‘over the coming months’ and to register ‘a huge thank you to the youth sector organisations that have shared in and embraced the opportunity to work with us … so far’. She however took time to restate its rationale as to ‘develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’ and indicated that this was to be achieved by ‘bring(ing) together policies from across Government and listen(ing) to views from young people, those who work with them and, importantly, those who care for our young people’.
On most of the broader policy and funding questions, however, Davies had little specific information to offer. Instead she relied heavily on reiterating claims about the success of the Youth Investment Fund, of government funding to support uniformed youth work, and of a range of other organisations such as the Centre for Social Action, Sport England and even the Football Association. Included in this listing, too, was the NCS, though this came with the unexpected caveat that ‘…it is very important for us to look at (its) future underspend. I would personally love to see it directed towards detached youth services’.
In a couple other a replies to MPs questions Davies made clear that in her view ‘the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport … really is the right place (for youth policy)’; and acknowledged that ‘… open access to [sic] youth services has in some cases been far too easy to target for cuts’.
In her summing up statement at the end of the debate, Mims Davies also again revealed her rather shaky understanding of open youth work by apparently assuming that, even with a quite broad remit, a specialist table tennis club was ‘a youth centre or youth club’:
We heard from Cat Smith (Labour ‘youth’ spokesperson) that this is not just about ping-pong, but I would like to look at ping-pong, because the Brighton Table Tennis Club … is fantastic. I have never been to a youth centre or youth club that does not have table tennis, and I would like to praise that one in particular. It works with a pupil referral unit and with people with dementia. There are fantastic, elite table tennis players.
After reminding the minister that ‘austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity’, Cat Smith’s reference to table tennis came when she dismissed the depiction of youth clubs as ‘a meeting place for young people to knock a ball about on a battered ping-pong table. She set out her own understanding of youth work as,
a distinct educational process that focuses on young people’s defined needs through non-formal learning. Its key purpose, as outlined in the recent all-party group inquiry, is to facilitate young people’s personal, social and educational development, to enable them to develop their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.
Smith also made the more specific point that:
Young people in rural areas can feel particularly isolated because when the school bus drops them back off in their village at perhaps 3.30 or 4 o’clock, that is it until the next morning.
Throughout the debate other MPs interjected a range of often sharply critical comments and questions including:
NCS lasts for two weeks (which) are no replacement for the long-term relationships and commitment that youth workers give young people… (Ruth George, Labour)
Will (the minister) ensure that the (revised statutory) guidelines set out a basic right for every young person to access youth services every night of the week, or will this review just be a wishy-washy statement of principles for councils. (Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour, Chair of APPG)
…so much of the delivery now is on a project basis, so we do not get the career, the professionalisation and that real expertise and experience in our youth workforce that we have had previously. (Jenny Chapman, Labour Shadow Minister)
…the applications (for one funding scheme) were due in yesterday, and the money has to be spent by March. It is a complete waste of money to try to do these projects in an ad hoc way, year after year. We need a proper, costed programme that runs from the beginning of the year and can be planned properly, instead of squandering the money that is put in place. (Lyn Brown, Labour Treasury spokesperson)
I see … voluntary organisations providing fantastic work … but … there needs to be a backstop and that backstop needs to be the statutory services. (Jeremy Lefroy, Conservative)
From policy – to action?
When drawn together in this way, the developments and initiatives outlined in this article suggest that new levels of responsiveness in political circles to the crisis which has hit local authority Youth Services since 2010. That certainly represents an advance on where we’ve been over the last decade given how, in one local authority after another – often in the teeth of defensive reactions – the cuts were implemented as unavoidable, with little debate on their consequences for the up to a million young people.
None of this, however, would seem to justify the (over)-optimism with which some of the most influential voices in the youth sector have reacted – exemplified by the recent ‘verdict’ of NYA’s Chief Executive Leigh Middleton: ‘Great progress made late in the day… as we enter a period of fundamental change with a new government … and the Spending Review which will follow’.[viii]
This, however, fails to take into account some crucial limiting factors – that:
The Spending Review referred to here is now to be carried out by a government whose knee-jerk reaction to the ‘knife crime crisis’ has been to promise to fund an extra 20,000 policemen and women and to increase their powers of stop and search.
At local authority level anyway austerity is still working its way through the system and will go on doing so for a number of years yet. The Local Government Association has estimated for example that in 2019-20 even services still labelled ‘statutory’ such as child protection will be facing an overall funding gap of £3 billion – likely to rise to £8 billion by 2025.
Children and Young People Now’s (not unreasonable) ‘take’ on the Home Affairs Select Committee report was that its recommended future statutory and ringfenced funding for local authority provision is to be ‘focused on preventing young people becoming caught up in violence’. If correct then this must surely be taken as a clear warning that if ‘youth services’ money were ever to be fed down from central government to local councils they would be under huge pressure to use it ‘preventatively’ rather than for informal education. Which perhaps makes the question I (tentatively) posed in a post on the IDYW website back in April[ix] both more relevant – and even more challenging: rather than just ignoring the burgeoning ‘tackling knife-crime’ justifications for youth provision, might there be ways of negotiating them to support a revival of genuinely open forms of youth work practice?
Even when Mims Davies made her Youth Charter announcement in April factors such as these were shaping the overall youth policy climate. It was in this context, therefore, that she described youth work as a ‘youth space’ where young people could meet ‘on a Friday evening away from the rain with some high speed internet and with a chance to hang around with friends away from parents’. These were the kinds of spaces, she added, which the government was looking to fund in the future.
None of this came, however, with any indication of how much funding; where it would come from; who would decide its use; how any of this might, on their terms, be developmental for the young people – or where they might be able to go on the other six evenings of the week.
Crucial bottom-line material questions which – in spite of all the rhetoric of the last few months – still remain substantially unanswered.
[ii] See Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Youth club closures put young people at risk of violence, warn MPs’, Guardian, 7 May; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May