Laura Kelly and Ellie Munro
1 August 2018

Since 2010, youth work and services for young people outside of formal education in England have been under threat. Under the Education Act 1996, as amended by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, local authorities have a statutory duty to secure young people's access to sufficient educational and recreational leisure-time activities for the improvement of their well-being, and sufficient facilities for such activities. However, the duty is qualified by the term ‘reasonably practicable’, which means there is no minimum level of service specified in law.

Cuts to central government grants to local authorities, combined with the removal of ring-fenced funds, have led many local authorities to reduce or withdraw their own youth services and cut grants to other providers. Unison estimates that £387m was cut from local authority youth service spending across the UK between April 2010 and April 2016, which represents the loss of over 3500 posts, the closure of over 600 centres and the loss of over 130,000 youth service places. Figures produced by the House of Commons library confirmed this: the total net expenditure on services for young people was £787.2m in 2011/12 but fell to £364.9m by 2017/18.

Coalition and Conservative Government spending has been piecemeal and focused on a limited number of initiatives, particularly the National Citizen Service. The National Citizen Service Act 2017 established a National Citizen Service Trust to provide or arrange for the provision of NCS programmes, but its future and value for money has been questioned by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Meanwhile, calls for youth services to be placed on a stronger statutory footing have been made by parts of the sector  and by policymakers. The Labour party has recently announced plans for a statutory youth service, which would help ensure universal access to services.

The nature, aims and values of provision are also under debate. Work with young people occurs in a diverse range of educational and recreational services, which may or may not involve youth work or qualified youth workers. Fiona Blacke, previously CEO of the National Youth Agency, defines youth work as a ‘deliberative educational approach with its own pedagogy and professional base’. Campaigns such as ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ have expressed concern about the erosion of the principle of voluntary participation in the move from open-access to targeted services, the increased focus on individual rather than cooperative outcomes, and the co-option of youth work in the service of state agendas that may not reflect or serve young people’s own priorities or needs. Meanwhile, other representatives of the sector, notably UK Youth, have tried to work collaboratively with policymakers and advise organisations on how to adapt to a new political and funding context.

The Government has recently invited comments on the future of ‘youth provision’, as part of a broader ‘engagement exercise’ to shape a new Civil Society Strategy. Structured around the themes of ‘people, partnership and place’, the consultation looked to reset the definition of civil society, to ‘build stronger local public services’ and to consider the role of ‘responsible business’ within that. The consultation document also included a significant parallel focus on young people, particularly supporting young people to ‘achieve important outcomes’, ‘youth social action’ in communities, and ‘youth participation’ in national policy and service design. Matt Hancock, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, stated at a strategy engagement event, that young people as a theme ‘runs through everything we’re doing in the Civil Society Strategy. I want to give young people a meaningful stake in society and a meaningful role - a job to do.’

Within days of the consultation closing date of 22nd May 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Affairs (APPG) and the National Youth Agency launched a national inquiry into youth work. This calls for evidence about key issues and challenges faced by young people, the extent to which these are addressed by current youth service provisions, the value of youth work, and the sufficiency of current operational and workforce training arrangements to support youth work. Then, on June 7th 2018, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour Cooperative MP for Brighton Kempton launched a Private Members Bill to promote and secure youth services and provision of a requisite standard and to impose a duty on local authorities to provide youth services and establish local youth service partnerships with youth participation. On 31st July, The Labour Party announced plans for a statutory youth service to provide ‘inclusive, open access youth services’ for all young people. A consultation has been launched to develop their proposals.

So what does this activity mean for the future of youth service provision? And what might this mean for young people?

Philanthropic youth services emerged in industrial societies to occupy working class young people with wholesome activities and prepare them for prescribed and differentiated social roles. While some contemporary organisations, including uniformed youth groups, can trace their history to this period, they now operate in a very different world. The Scouts, for example, originally divided activities by sex, but has admitted girls to all sections from the early 1990s. The core promise, previously focused on a duty to God and the Queen, can now be varied to accommodate different faith groups and atheists. However, while young people may now be – or at least may feel themselves to be – less constrained by social divisions such as class, gender, ethnicity or religion when making choices about their future, transitions to ‘adulthood’ have also become more varied, protracted and precarious. Social markers such as leaving home are increasingly decoupled from chronological age, as many young adults struggle to obtain secure employment with pay sufficient to meet rising housing costs.

Contemporary youth services promise to produce young people who can negotiate these complex and risky transitions. Positive for Youth, published in 2011 under the Coalition Government, followed earlier youth strategies in emphasising the importance of supportive relationships and opportunities to help young people achieve their ambitions. There is evidence to support claims that youth services benefit young people, that relationships with workers with are valued, and that such work saves public money. However, Positive for Youth was also criticised for cutting funding to the youth workers praised by the strategy. It saw a movement from state-run or state-supported voluntary provision to private provision, and from a youth service justified with reference to social benefits to one that is either unsupported and volunteer-run, or profit-driven and an opportunity for corporate investment.

The Civil Society Strategy Consultation thus reflects and consolidates intentions already signalled by Government.  The desire to increase ‘youth social action’ is framed in a familiarly instrumental way; there remains a focus on employability, and social action itself is defined as people improving their own lives, solving ‘their’ problems, taking over services or performing ‘simple neighbourly acts’. The focus on partnership for sustainability looks to shape the nature and operations of organisations within the field, in a way that is consistent with voluntary sector strategies past. There is an encouraging emphasis on young people actively shaping local and national policy with some practical ideas for development, but these will need resourcing if they are to become a reality. It will be interesting to see the policy streams that emerge from this exercise, and how they might act to further shape the organisational field, but there is a question to be asked about the positioning of these issues within this consultation, and without reference to other existing policy initiatives, rather than as an agenda in itself.

Similarly, while policymakers may wish the youth sector to help young people achieve ‘important outcomes’, it could prove challenging for the state to steer services it will not fund. The necessity of appealing to a more diverse range of funders and donors could also shape the sector in unpredictable ways. Despite acknowledged benefits, the ability of youth services to promote positive outcomes is also limited by broader social inequalities. Analyses of young people's subjective accounts demonstrate that supportive workers may not be able to help young people overcome social and material disadvantage if the structural causes of poverty and social exclusion are not addressed. The ‘options’ for priority development within the Civil Society Strategy Consultation broadly reflect the current Government’s emphasis on entrepreneurial skills and young people’s contribution to their communities. In this, the future youth ‘offer’ looks set to further embed an emphasis on civic responsibility while young people’s entitlements – to affordable housing, to secure employment and to educational and recreational services – are side-lined.

Labour’s plans are more encouraging, with a focus in their draft charter on ensuring active participation in local decision-making and the ‘specification, governance, delivery and scrutiny of services’, and empowering young people to run their own activities and organisations. But it still falls short on young people’s rights, including mechanisms through which political participation will be achieved, and the relationship between youth provision and broader youth policy. An early emphasis on the crime-reducing potential of youth services is also reductive and unhelpful. As the influential Albemarle Report, commonly understood to have laid the foundations for the modern youth service in England and Wales, suggested:

… to make this [youth crime] a ground for the existence of a Youth Service is either to exaggerate the number of delinquents or to underestimate the way in which a Youth Service may be of value to the great majority who will never enter a juvenile or adult court.

A more radical view of youth work suggests it should support young people in identifying and collectively challenging the factors that threaten their security and wellbeing. Such ideas are largely absent from the individualised and outcome-focused vision exemplified by the National Citizen Service, but reflected in sector campaigns and the newly launched inquiry. The APPG and NYA represent youth work as a means to promote equality, challenge discrimination, and champion the positive place for young people in society, as well as a mechanism for building confidence and skills. Facilitating democratic participation by young people also has the potential to achieve this. Whether politicised – and potentially oppositional – forms of youth social action can be accommodated within the approaches that follow from the Civil Society Strategy ‘engagement exercise’, or from Labour’s ongoing consultation, remains to be seen.

A shorter version of this piece has been published in The Conversation.