Negative for Youth? Negative for Youth Work?

In the last of the briefing papers prior to this week’s IDYW Seminars, Bernard Davies highlights and criticises key points in the Positive for Youth ‘strategy’, supplemented by some more general observations taken from earlier posts on our site. As with all the papers it is worth repeating that our collective thinking is very much perceived as the catalyst for debate. In this sense we would welcome responses from people unable to attend the seminars. Obviously we will post summaries of this week’s discussions for your delectation and delight!

For discussion at the IDYW seminars: 19/20 January 2012

Notes on the Government’s Positive for Youth (P4Y) ‘strategy’

The purpose of these notes is to highlight some of the key points of the government’s P4Y ‘strategy’ as a basis for asking: what response – if any – should IDYW make beyond what has already appeared on the website. (See also the appendix for more general comments on the appearance of the document.).

Rhetoric and realities

  • The ‘passion for ‘youth’ which this new ‘cross-government’ policy statement constantly proclaims converts into little more than ‘facilitating’, ‘supporting’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘committing to a “one year on” audit’ – and comes with no dedicated money.
  • Its repeated emphasis on young people’s ‘voice’, their role in decision-making, ‘youth proofing’ etc is revealed as little more than empty gesturing. For example:
    • It all but ignores young people demand for open access provision – expressed in ‘demands for ‘safe and attractive places to spend their leisure time’ and holistic services ‘available in one place’;
    • Even as millions of pounds are cut from local authorities’ budgets, it rules out ring-fencing spending on such facilities.
  • The paper also protests too much about how positive for youth the government is. Despite its stated intention to ‘move away from measuring negative outcomes prevented’ (Ministerial introduction), it repeatedly focuses on young people’s ‘risky behaviours’, on the need for ‘targeted support’ (paras 4.14 – 4.19) and ‘intensive support’ (paras 4.20 – 27), on ‘under 18 conception rates’ and ‘the number entering the criminal justice system for the first time’ (para 5.37).

Analysis – what analysis?

  • These ‘negative’ conditions are largely explained as the ‘outcomes’ of being in ‘poorer families’ and ‘deprived communities’. No government or banker or indeed employer can apparently be held responsible for this poverty and deprivation – only individuals (especially individual young people with under-developed brains!), families and ‘communities’.
  • Repeatedly this disconnect with the current realities of young people’s lives is masked by a dishonest shiftiness of language. A financial crisis reaching to the fundamentals of capitalism thus gets translated into ‘the current difficult economic climate’ (Ministerial introduction). Young people’s views on the resultant social divide are explained merely as concerns ‘about those who are materially well-off’ and those who aren’t’ (para 2.14).
  • What is not owned up to further deepens this dissembling:
    • The paper contains no substantive reference to the current, only-too-real experience of the over 1M 16-24 year olds without jobs.
    • It never acknowledges that ‘not in education and training’ may now have something to do with the loss of EMA – and that many squeezed into that category are part of the 1M+.
    • Nor that the homelessness on which the paper dwells for four paragraphs may have something to do with cuts in welfare benefits.
    • And how is it that the battery of statistics quoted from the O2 research ‘Think Big, Start Small’ fails to mention the one that ‘almost one in four (23%) of young people feel(ing) depressed about their future…’1?
  • And then here are the examples of claiming credit for policies which were the previous government’s – such as the MyPlace developments; or which are inferior substitutes for them – such as ‘the new Bursary Fund’ (replacement for the much more generous EMA), and the ‘Early Intervention’ funding (replacement for funding streams which, with all their faults, were much more flexible and, again, more generous).

Action – what action?

  • The ‘consultation’ on which the paper repeatedly claims to rest was from the start tightly boxed in my by non-negotiable assumptions. 2 Two key ones were: minimum government funding and minimum direct government action – unsurprising given this government’s obsession with getting the state out of public services by the end of this parliament.
  • The result: everyone but the government must do the P4Y implementing: young people themselves (in the name, of course, of ‘youth voice’ and ‘young people driving decisions’); ‘parents, carers and families’; ‘community leaders, volunteers and other adults’; the media and advertisers; ‘business leaders, employers and individual professionals’; professionals in education, health and care services, local authorities.
  • This is why the government ends up merely as facilitator, supporter, monitor, auditor – as just to ‘set direction and promote new and positive ways of thinking and working’.
  • For actual action we have to rely on commissioning others, on ‘growing the market’ and making it ‘more contestable’, on ‘social investment’ and ‘social enterprise’.

And youth work and Youth Services?

  • In ways reminiscent of New Labour policy papers, P4Y manages to give youth work and youth workers (though not the Youth Service) an occasional rhetorical stroking. For example:
    • Youth workers … can make a crucial difference to young people’s lives, including by offering ‘informal learning and personal and social development’. (Para 3.12).
    • detached and centre-based youth work and youth workers make a vital contribution to the lives of many young people’ – helping engage them in their communities and supporting their personal and social development through informal learning. (Para 4.73).
    • investment in young people’s capabilities and character through high quality youth work … can have a significant impact on young people’s life chances. (Para 5.20).

The paper also ‘confirms’ local authorities’ statutory duty to secure sufficient leisure-time educational and recreational activities. (Para 5.7).

  • However all these are qualified in ways which leaves at serious risk youth work with which young people choose to engage in open access settings, which starts from their concerns and interests and which is therefore genuinely emancipatory. For example:
    • The local authorities’ statutory duty is only ‘to secure’ provision and, as the paper twice reiterates, extends only as far as ‘is reasonably practicable’.
    • The government is now to consult anyway, ‘including with young people’, on new statutory guidance on this duty – which in present circumstances must raise serious concerns that it is to be watered down still further.
    • The ‘stroking’ inserts all end with caveats which betray where this policy’s priorities for youth work really lie:
      • Page 25 – The one substantive ‘youth work’ case study included focuses on ‘the most vulnerable students … at risk of permanent exclusion’ from college.
      • Para 3.12 – with ‘the needs of young people from socially excluded groups’;
      • Para 4.73 – with ‘those young people who don’t get the support or opportunities they need from their family or community’ – even though, we are repeatedly told, it is just these ‘communities’ which must now take over this provision;
      • Para 5.20 – with youth work as ‘an important form of early intervention for young people at risk of poor outcomes’.
  • Para 5.20 also re-emphasises that ‘local areas will need to consider what balance of targeted services and open access services will best meet local needs’ – which, with up to £200M and 3000 full-time youth worker posts disappearing in this financial year, can only be a formula for abandoning open access provision.
  • It is in this context, who then has the responsibility for providing the explanatory ‘narrative for the role and impact of youth work’? ‘A group of national youth sector leaders’ which, because ‘commissioned’ by the minister, can claim no representation of the field or guaranteed independence of government. (Para 5.12).

And instead?

Instead we could have the open access youth work as documented by IDYW book, with accounts of practice – contradictory and often unfinished – which illustrate how some of the very outcomes sought by P4Y could be pursued – for example:

  • Releasing the ‘voice’ of young people. (‘On the boundary’; ‘Creative improvisation’; ‘The power of graffiti’; ‘A modest journey in self-discovery’).
  • Helping ‘ethnic minority’ young people to confront ‘discrimination’ (‘Holding onto your dignity’; ‘Beyond stereotype and prejudice’).
  • Helping young people to engage ‘positively with, within but also beyond their communities. (‘On the boundary’; ‘Creative improvisation’; ‘Beyond stereotype and prejudice’).
  • Dealing with ‘knife crime’ (‘Creative improvisation’)
  • Responding to young people’s personal, family and mental health stresses. (‘Pen and paper youth work’; ‘I wouldn’t be the person I am today’; ‘The youth centre as sanctuary’)
  • Diverting young people from adult-perceived risks of ‘anti-social behaviour’. (‘The power of graffiti’; ‘Beyond aggression to eye contact’; ‘The youth centre as sanctuary’).
  • Supporting young people to get the most out of their schooling and re-engage in education. (‘Casual – and informal’; ‘Getting accredited’; ‘A modest journey in self-discovery’; ‘The youth centre as sanctuary’).
  • Making accessible ‘careers advice’ available to young people. (‘Casual – and informal’; ‘The youth centre as sanctuary’).
  • Supporting young carers. (‘The youth centre as sanctuary’).

How to respond?

P4Y’s proposed ‘accountability and transparency’ arrangements include:

  • A national scrutiny group of representative young people … (to) advise Government ministers. (Para 6.12).
  • An annual UK Youth Parliament debate in the House of Commons chamber. (Para 6.13).
  • Meeting with the ‘partners’ who have contributed to the policy’s development – which in practice largely means those that signed a Guardian letter dated 20 December offering uncritical support for P4Y.3
  • A ‘Youth Action Group’ made up of the Chief Executives seven ministerially selected ‘Large national charities’, two of whom signed the Guardian letter.
  • Advise from Catalyst, the Department for Educations’ ‘strategic partner for the voluntary and community sector’ which include NCYVS and NYA (also a signatory to the Guardian letter). (Para 6.17).
  • Scrutiny by the Children’s Commissioner – whose future role is now unclear as it is to be combined with that of Ofsted’s Children’s Right Director. (Para 6.19).
  • Using these ‘collaborative arrangements’, a ‘one year on’ audit of progress in implementing the policy. (Para 6.20).

For discussion

What can IDYW do to influence P4Y via these arrangements?

Is that anyway where it should be putting its energies and limited resources?


The Youth Service is dead : Long live youth services? A sorry tale!

20 December 2011

In the dying days of 2011 youth work as a distinctive form of voluntary, young people-centred education seems to have been laid to rest, no longer recognised as such within government policy. It’s been coming for a while. New Labour started the rot, replacing talk of youth work with an insistence on ‘positive activities’ and the targeting of ‘anti-social’ youth.  Reciting the same mantra the Coalition in the ‘P4Y’ policy statement of December 19 seeks to consign the unruly world of authentic social and political education to the graveyard.

If they could be bothered with my comments, the spin-doctors of such as the NYA, NCVYS and UK Youth would be aggrieved. Having had the ear of the Minister for the last 18 months they hail the report, its emphasis on the role of business partnerships, its vision and sycophantically announce, “Today we can be positive about the Government”.  From this position of utter capitulation they promise us they are going to insist on decisive Action Plans for its implementation. The Coalition, indeed Capitalism, trembles.

How did this come about? Let me try out the following as a simple starter for discussion:

  1. Under New Labour, wedded itself utterly to the neo-liberal agenda, discussion about youth work was replaced by talk of ‘positive activities’ and youth services in the plural. If conscious the latter was a clever move. Youth work had always been synonymous with the Youth Service. The idea of youth services seems to retain this relationship, but in reality this is an illusion.
  2. For under the Coalition the Youth Service is on the edge of extinction while a plethora of youth services are said to be rushing to the aid of young people. By now youth services means any and every intervention into young people’s lives undertaken by Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Some of these are useful and necessary, if flawed in their emphasis on young people and families as deficient – related to employment and training, enhanced PSE in schools, early intervention – but they do not constitute youth work. More and more these incursions into young people’s lives are imposed on the state’s terms. Youth work, let us repeat, starts from young people’s agendas and is founded on a voluntary relationship.
  3. But the job’s been done. Today, youth service, youth services and youth work are used interchangeably as it suits. And in the vanguard of  those it suits are local authorities bent on outsourcing and commissioning, together with major voluntary youth organisations such as NCVYS and UK Youth and the host of aspiring social enterprise outfits queuing up to bid for contracts to rescue the ‘vulnerable and disadvantaged’. The rationale for this promiscuity of principle is that these agencies and their workers are taking with them their youth work values, skills and methodologies packaged neatly in an all-purpose tool kit – youth work is dead, long live youth work. Thus we come full circle. The notion of youth work is resurrected when pragmatically necessary to describe any form of work with young people [for which funding can be procured] and is thus rendered meaningless.


In addition Tony Taylor gave the following responses to questions posed by Charlotte Goddard for her research for an article to appear in CYPN.

Why do you think many youth organisations are being so positive about the paper?

I think the senior management of major voluntary organisations made their and thus their agencies’ minds up that survival depended on adapting to the State agenda. I have to say too that the mentality of the present breed of chief executives is different than those of the past, who would indeed never have taken the title of chief executive. Frankly the present crop are new managerial in inclination and sycophantic in their relationship to government. Interestingly they have rationalised that the way forward is for their organisations to embrace the notion of youth services. Indeed I have heard at least one of them claim a higher moral ground than those of us defending youth work, suggesting that our stance is narrow and that he/she is concerned to address the width of young people’s problems. This is an attractive, if disingenuous stance, as it allows these leading organisations under commissioning/privatisation to put in bids to deliver almost any form of work with young people, be it early intervention family and youth social work, restorative justice, preparation for employment and training, soft policing/surveillance projects, leisure and diversion etc…..In essence what this means – and is shamefully brushed under the carpet – is that these organisations abandon their historical role as independent actors in civil society and become no more than agents for the delivery of the government’s welfare measures. I should modify this by noting it will be interesting to see if BYC, under pressure from its members, can chart a more critical course in leading the Youth Voice initiative.

Can youth work be delivered through the models suggested by the paper (mutuals, involvement of business, payment by results etc)?

If by youth work we mean an emancipatory practice that is a critical, creative and unpredictable form of informal education, any imposition of prescribed outcomes, necessary guarantees and results is its very antithesis. Whilst it is not impossible for mutuals or indeed business to support such open-ended work, the neo-liberal ideology underpinning P4Y seems to preclude this way forward.

What will be the effect on young people if the proposals for delivering services to young people in this paper come about?

I have never been one of those, who exaggerate the impact of youth work upon young people in our society. What I am convinced about is that where and when youth work holds to its democratic principles and emancipatory practice it contributes greatly to the nourishing of critically aware citizens. As a distinctive form of education it ought to be sustained and developed. Instead it is being suffocated. As we can see much work with young people will continue. It would be a terrible cock-up if, for instance, young people didn’t enjoy parts, if not the whole, of the NCS – at least the residential weekend, which is hardly earth-shatteringly innovative!! However the overriding emphasis of P4Y is upon social conformity. If I am to speculate I can see a trend in which the youth services engage with either  ‘anti-social’ young people defined as needing early intervention or the aspiring social entrepreneurs, would-be politicians, symbolised by the raft of Young Advisors, Young Commissioners. Young Entrepreneurs type initiatives. Many young people not falling into these contrasting camps will simply be sidelined. None of this is immediately measurable. None of this takes serious account of a profound economic and political crisis, ignored utterly in the government’s document.

1 O2 Youth Matters report: Think Big, Start Small, December 2011.

2 See ‘What’s P4Y: A critical look at the Government’s emerging “youth policy”’, Youth & Policy 107, Nov 2011, at

One comment on “Negative for Youth? Negative for Youth Work?

  1. […] Positive for Youth was hardly a benign and neutral document. As we noted in our reaction, ‘Negative For Youth’, a year ago, “the ‘passion for ‘youth’ which this new ‘cross-government’ policy […]

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