Youth work in a changing world

This article was written by Alex Farrow & Bill Badham from Practical Participation for Children England. The article was originally published in Children England’s quarterly member magazine, “Outlook”, in February 2015.

Crisis at home

These are harsh times in England, especially for the young. Relatively progressive policy between 1997 and 2007 saw limited gains for those on the edge. Initiatives and legislation abounded. The Connexions Service was hailed as the new integrated youth and careers service. The Youth Opportunities Fund and Youth Capital Fund stood out among ambitious programmes to increase young people’s participation in matters affecting them. The Education Act 2006 enshrined youth work as a legal entitlement; the Youth Offer spelt out what this should look like. The Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 included young people’s views, speaking truth to power. Their truth was the importance of someone to talk who supported them where they lived: youth workers helping build young people’s confidence, skills and knowledge, helping young people link and connect with things to do in their area and supporting them in decision making (Cutting the Cake, NYA, 2007). Power preferred to invest in one off prestigious capital spend projects, called My Place.

As the policy tide turned and investment drained out, numbers of young people not in education, employment or training refused to budge below the one million mark. Their rights often remained unfulfilled.

And then came the age of austerity. Since 2008 and particularly since 2010, there has been an implosion of central will and local resolve to maintain and build youth work as a vital ingredient of non-formal education and support for young people. In England, local authority youth service provision crumbled by over 60% between 2010 and 2012, with £200m out of a total of £350m taken off youth service budgets (UNISON, November 2011). There is more to follow. Across the voluntary sector and its long established network of support, advice and guidance for the young, leaders anticipate more pain. £3.2 billion will be lost to the sector by the end of this parliament, £405 million relating specifically to children and young people (NCVO, 2011).

Who is counting the cost of this crisis? It will be the young who pay most dearly, with rising youth unemployment hitting 22% in 2013, risk to individual life chances and aspirations and knock on impacts on personal health and wellbeing and wider economic prosperity (FPM, 2011).

Leverage abroad

In contrast to England, young people have been a policy priority internationally. There have been a host of youth summits, such as the Global Youth Forum (Bali, 2012), the World Youth Conference (Colombo, 2014), and the First Global Forum on Youth Policy (Baku, 2014). These have significantly raised the profile of young people’s issues, particularly that of youth work and non-formal education. Whether in youth declarations, ministerial commitments or development agendas, the inclusion of non-formal education – often a simplified phrase for the wider notion of youth work – allows young people to advocate for greater youth spaces and services that are not tied to formal education, or government state programmes.

Many countries include youth work in national youth policies as the main instrument through which opportunities and experiences for young people are channelled and directed at a governmental level. According to the State of Youth Policy 2014 (, 2014), as of October 2014, 127 countries out of 198 (64 %) had a national youth policy; 33 states (17 %) were either developing a new or revising their current youth policy; only 29 countries had no national youth policy (15 %).

What is evident is that across the globe there is increased interest and action on the importance of youth work and non-formal education approaches, developing young civic engagement, creating opportunities for local community action and increasing access to youth centres, support, programmes and projects. This is particularly our experience of where youth work can succeed in today’s environment.

Opportunities home and abroad

Amidst shrinking public services and support for young people at home, the language of localism and community empowerment has too often felt like a cynical veneer masking savage cuts and policy implosion. Yet community based solutions have arisen in adversity, including young people becoming co-creators in seeking sustainable models of generic community based youth provision, such as though youth mutuals.

One such initiative was Young People Friendly Neighbourhoods (YPFN). It was set up in 2011 by Groundwork in partnership with Sanctuary Housing (bringing expertise in social housing and neighbourhood investment), Youth Access (with expertise in supporting young people through youth work and counselling interventions) and FPM (with expertise in the development of new ways of delivering public services, including mutuals and cooperatives). The partnership won two year funding from government to involve young people in 20 English neighbourhoods, working with local residents and partner organisations to develop new ways to provide sustainable youth provision and support.

YPFN gave young people aged 11-19 the chance to shape and run local services with residents and build communities in which young people felt a strong sense of belonging. The programme involved 2,400 young people in over 47,000 sessions of youth work and positive activity in their neighbourhoods. 60% were aged 12-16 and 21% were not engaged in education, employment or training.

YPFN wanted to get away from approaches where trained professionals arrive from outside, deliver services and disappear. YPFN emphasised the importance of the communities in which young people live and the value of partners who shared this long term capacity building belief, such as some Housing Associations. Young people themselves were seen as co-creators in their neighbourhoods.

YPFN’s key principles are transferable and offer hope when workers and organisations put community needs first. Partnerships led by residents not outsiders must be founded in a bedrock of community relationships. Commissioning by communities is vital to ensure locally held power, decision making and control of funding priorities. Investment in the community is a long-term commitment, not short-term grabbing of shrinking funding. Partners putting these values into practice are more likely to see such an approach as fitting with their core values and wider mission, bringing added value for example as a Housing Association or local school, offering support as a local hub or local trusted organisation (Big Local: to support long term resident-led identification and response to local needs. Down the line, such local co-ordination and control increases the opportunity for pooled funding and integrated responses toward a shared community vision and common goals.

Youth work policy and practice abroad

It is clear that conceiving, developing and championing innovative approaches to youth service deliver requires capacity, skills and a wide-range of support. The demise of the Children Workforce Development Council and other professional development programmes, has severely limited the growth of the youth sector. Youth professionals must seize and utilise the many international opportunities that are available, such as the courses, resources and networks of the European Youth Centres, SALTO-YOUTH programmes, and the EU-COE Youth Partnership. Sharing practice, learning new methods, and building the network of youth professionals, strengthens our youth infrastructure and our ability to adequately respond to young people’s needs, challenges and aspirations.

We must challenge ourselves to do better and critically reflect on our profession as well as advocate for youth services at a political level. The face of youth work has probably changed irreversibly, but our sector is better than just waiting for a new government. Let us be honest, brave and broad in our thinking and challenge ourselves to ensure that youth services don’t just survive, but are the best we can provide with and for young people.

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