Mid-2014: The Wider Youth Work Context

Cuts unlimited: the losers

This resource is being produced at a time when, in England, 75 years of development of the only public service mandated to provide open access youth work is being systematically dismantled. The 97 local authorities which responded to a Cabinet Office survey carried out in the autumn of 2013 reported that their spending on Youth Services in the three years from 2011-12 to 2013-14 fell by 22.3%, with many the Services in England having already disappeared by mid-2014. The proportion of that spend committed to open access provision had dropped from just over 55% to 47.5%.

A neo-liberal ideology continues to dominate political thinking across the UK

Clearly a major cause of these cuts was the huge reductions in government funding to support local authority services. However, the survey also showed that more than half of these councils (58%) were often, sometimes or even always ignoring their legal responsibilities by knowingly failing to adhere to the relevant statutory guidance. In addition, only 28.8% said they ‘highly’ valued these services.

Similar funding constraints were being experienced in the other UK jurisdictions. In Wales for example public spending cuts ‘of an unprecedented level’ had resulted in ‘the value of the Youth Service as a specialist education organization … being questioned’.¹ Youthlink Scotland also noted the recession’s ‘devastating impact on the youth work sector’ with a survey of its members revealing that, with 75% ‘losing money’, providers had cut back on services and new programmes, staffing and staff hours.² Though in Northern Ireland a number of factors, including distinctive political considerations, meant that public expenditure had been somewhat protected, by late 2014 severe cuts were being threatened there too.

Economics – or ideology?

By mid-2014, in all four UK countries, financial pressures were therefore a major factor in shaping youth work policies. By then too, however – as they had been for many years before – these policies were being driven by much more than economics. At least as important as the repeated references to ‘deficit reduction’ and the need for ‘austerity’ was a neo-liberal ideology which, despite its role in triggering the near-collapse of the capitalist banking system in 2007-8, continued to dominate political thinking across the UK. In particular heavy policy emphases were being placed on youth work adopting ‘a focused approach to its work within which quantifiable outcomes related to young people Not in Education, Employment and Training or other targeted groups are prioritised.³

The links between this ideology and the state’s widespread abandonment of youth work, at least in England, were not hard to trace:

  • _MG_9841On the (unevidenced) premise that ‘the market’ self-regulates, the banks and other commercial organisations had at least since the 1980s been left free to pursue their profits in largely unregulated ways, with state policy-makers enthusiastically supporting and indeed encouraging competition.
  • As a result, individualistic values such as self-reliance and resilience, personal ambition and freedom of choice became deeply embedded in everyday thinking – a ‘common sense’ assumption that these were the ones to which all citizens should aspire.
  • These values consistently undermined commitments to forms of collective action which were seen as getting in the way of the market’s freedom to make its profits. In the process organisations which promoted and supported collectivity, where they weren’t ‘colonised’ by the government or the market, were weakened or completely eradicated. Trade unions were increasingly constrained by the law, the independence of voluntary (non-governmental) organisations severely damaged and community activism labelled irrelevant or even subversive.
  • Driven by the presumed logic of competition, public services were repeatedly demonised as ‘inefficient’ and ‘bureaucratic’. Via cumbersome commissioning and procurement procedures, this ‘analysis’ led to more and more of them and their assets being passed from the state to the private sector or to versions of ‘voluntary organisations’ whose structures increasingly mimicked its corporate managerialism.
  • From the early 2000s onwards, this public services ‘modernisation’ strategy was in England extended to local authority Youth Services. Initially New Labour governments did this by setting youth workers centrally-defined targets – for example for achieving ‘recorded and accredited outcomes’ with young people – and by requiring them to focus on those seen as ‘risky’ and ‘at risk’ and on their deficiencies rather than their potential. As we saw earlier, parallel redefinitions of youth work and its core clientele were developed in the other UK countries.
  • Eventually judged by Coalition government policy-makers as failing to provide statistical evidence of their ‘impacts’, open access facilities in England, where they weren’t simply closed down, were converted into ‘early intervention’ or ‘troubled families’ projects which young people were often required to attend.

The consequence for young people

Youth facilities which young people choose to use in their leisure time continued to operate in the UK. A small minority of English local authorities had made principled decisions to safeguard their youth centres and detached projects. Much voluntary (including faith) organisations’ provision survived in its many different forms – often vigorously. A more varied picture also existed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Youth facilities which young people choose to use in their leisure time continued to operate in the UK

On the ground, however, the cumulative consequences of these policies for young people went largely unremarked. Since at least the 1960s a number of surveys had shown that between 20% and 30% of the Youth Service age range were at any one time likely to be using neighbourhood-based open access youth work facilities on a regular basis.4 As recently as 2013 the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services’ ‘Youth Report’ had put the proportion of 10-15 year olds using a youth club at least once a week as at nearly 29%5, suggesting that the cuts were putting well over a million young people at risk of being abandoned. And that was without counting the over 5% who according to the NCVYS report attend ‘several times a year’ nor an unknown but possibly significant number of 15-plusses who continued to stay involved, not just as members but also as young volunteers. 

Keeping its focus firmly on the potential of these young people, this resource represents one of the ways in which the UK In Defence of Youth Work campaign has struggled and continues to struggle against such policies. More positively, it sets out one strategy and some specific approaches for continuing to advocate for such facilities and for the distinctive informal educational ways in which the youth workers who work in them relate to and work with young people.

¹John Rose, ‘Youth Work and the Policy Context in Wales’, Youth Work Wales, September 2013, p 8-9, accessed 30 July 2014
²Youthlink Scotland, ‘Finance Committee- Inquiry into preventative spending: Submission from Youthlink Scotland’, Oct 2010, p 4, accessed 30 July 2014. See also Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Managing the Social risks of Public Spending Cuts in Scotland, JRF, April 2013, pp 23, 24, 33; accessed 4 August 2014.

³John Rose, ‘Youth Work and the Policy Context in Wales’, Youth Work Wales, September 2013, p 8-9, accessed 30 July 2014.
4Davies, B. [1999], From Thatcherism to New Labour: A History of the Youth Service in England, 1979-1999, Volume 2, Leicester, National Youth Agency, pp 75,145.
5NCVYS, Youth Report 2013.

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