Youth Work in the new 'marketised' landscape : the wider context

Find below Bernard’s challenging contribution to the Y&P conference. It represents a backcloth to the two joint IDYW/NCIA workshops on ‘The Drive to the Market’, which will take place on Thursday, April 26 and Friday, April 27 in London and Manchester respectively. More details asap.

Thinking Seriously About Youth Work and Policy

YMCA George Williams College, London

March 15th 2012

Youth work in the new ‘marketised’ landscape: the wider context

Presentation by Bernard Davies on behalf of the In Defence of Youth Work campaign

Given the title of the conference, key focuses over the day have understandably been on the government’s Positive for Youth paper, the Select Committee report and the DfE’s response to it, and the recent DfE draft guidance on the 2006 Education Act. Taking these documents as my starting point, I could point to the occasional crumb of support offered to youth work – for example to Positive for Youth’s recognition that youth workers … can make a crucial difference to young people’s lives (Para 3.12) and its assertion that quality in youth services needs to be judged … by good outcomes as well as reductions in bad outcomes. (Para 5.37). However, in contrast to the view taken in his presentation to the conference by Paul Oginsky [the government’s advisor on the National Citizen Service], for me these fine words are overwhelmed in this as in all the government’s recent policy statements by a preoccupation, rooted in a deficiency model of young people, with dealing with bad outcomes.

Thus, Positive for Youth’s one substantive ‘youth work’ case study focuses on ‘the most vulnerable students … at risk of permanent exclusion’ [from college]. (Page 25), while it returns time and time again to:

The needs of young people from socially excluded groups (Para 3.12)

Those young people who don’t get the support or opportunities they need from their family or community (Para 4.73)

[Youth work as] an important form of early intervention for young people at risk of poor outcomes. (Para 5.20)

Positive for Youth does suggest a need ‘to consider the balance of targeted services and open access services (Para 5.20). However it is not only saying this at the very moment that open access provision is fast disappearing across the country. By suggesting that this shift is the result of decisions which are the local authorities alone, disingenuously if not downright dishonestly it is ignoring the fact that this year’s £200M-worth of cuts in Youth Service budgets is the direct result of government decisions to massively reduce central government support for local authorities and freeze council tax. With some 3000 full-time youth worker posts going as a result, whole swathes of professional skills are also being lost – the very skills which Paul Oginsky highlighted as essential for achieving the consistency in young people’s personal and social development to which, he claimed, the government aspires.

Though these are all crucial issues, there is however another which has received too little attention at the conference and which I see as even more significant: the overall policy framework within which government youth policy is located and which is radically refiguring the landscape for providing and especially funding all public services. With the so-called ‘big society’ as its cover, this is driven by a government aim, in the words of Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby of the University of Kent:

to change fundamentally how the welfare state works, so that private capital and the market are embedded at the heart of public provision’.

For achieving this deeply ideological goal, three interrelated strategies can be identified.

Strategy 1: Get ‘the community’ to take over services – that very same ‘community’, as one of the earlier quotes from Positive for Youth showed, which is often seen as causative part of the ‘youth problem’. For youth work, as for some other public sector practices such librarianship and community organising, this again contradicts Paul Oginsky’s assertion about the importance of professional skill. For it comes with the very specific, and ominous, assumption that most young people no longer need access to skilled professional staff. Instead, it seems, it is now sufficient to give £10M to a number of uniformed youth organisations, including the police cadets and the Army Cadet Force, to train and support volunteers, with the money being distributed by an agency, Youth United, chaired by someone with thirty one years experience in that well know youth organisation, the Metropolitan Police Force. And all this at a time when the future, including the future validation, of professional youth work qualifications is seen by many of those involved as, at the very least, uncertain.

Strategy 2: replace the state and state money in public services by getting rich philanthropists to provide the funding – that is, give democratically unaccountable individuals and organisations the power to decide who is deserving enough to get their money, what ‘these people’ deserve to get and how this should be used. To which my own reaction is sharply captured by the title of article in the Guardian In January by Robert Newman Philanthropy is the enemy of justice’ and by its concluding comment:

Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to (a) life.

Strategy 3: Privatise, ‘marketise’, as many public services as possible, as quickly as possible – that is, get for-profit businesses and ‘enterprises’ to take them over. For me this top priority within government policy sits at very heart of this conference’s debates – even though, clearly it has implications well beyond youth work and youth services.It includes for example:

  • Allowing and indeed encouraging McKinsey and Company – mission statement: theseamless integration of functional expertise with deep industry knowledge – on a global scale – to use its privileged access to the proposed NHS reforms to share information with, amongst others, the world’s biggest private hospital firms.

  • Giving a Swedish firm a ten year contract to run a for-profit school in Suffolk.
  • Handing over whole swathes of the police services to private companies.

This increasing reliance on the private sector proceeds apace even though over recent months its risks have been repeatedly thrust into the public arena. These have been particularly starkly demonstrated by the near-implosion of some key elements of the Work Programme. With contracts on offer over the next five years worth between £3B and £5B, problems with it were being flagged up as early as last October – that is, well before the A4e scandals broke. Trumpeted by ministers at its launch as a great opportunity for the voluntary sector, in its first phase only two voluntary organisations out of 18 became ‘prime contractors’ and the voluntary sector is leading in only three of the forty geographical areas with only around 20% of contract value having gone to the sector.

On the ground, especially at the very local level, some of the effects are threatening the very survival of small voluntary organisations, many of which, the evidence suggests, were only used anyway as ‘bid candy’ by the ‘prime contractors’. These it seems – mainly national and indeed multi-national companies – have then been creaming off the ‘easy to place’ unemployed, leaving small local voluntary groups to find jobs for the ‘hard to place’. Moreover the whole operation assumes a crude form of ‘payment-by-results’ which takes no account of the cash flow needs of those organisations.

What this new policy landscape means is that a new tipping point is being reached for youth work as we’ve known it since the Albemarle Report and indeed since the 1944 Education Act first gave legislative recognition to a Service of Youth. As this shift takes place key government-inspired and funded initiatives are appearing which present ‘opening up the market’ as the only possible organising and funding driver of the work – for example.

  • The so-called ‘national citizens service’ is shaped by the ideas and experience of people (men) whose career progression has been though large multi-nationals such as Rio Tinto and McKinsey – and the military.
  • The consultation papers for the proposed ‘institute for youth work’ simply took as a given the notion of a ‘youth work market’ – not surprisingly, perhaps, given that it is being promoted by government-funded consortium, Catalyst, which includes two out-and-out market oriented bodies (the Young Foundation and the Social Enterprise Coalition) as well the NYA and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCYVS).
  • NCYVS itself, while continuing to describe itself as ‘the independent voice of voluntary youth sector’, shows barely a sign of playing the role of critical friend to the government, still less of outright critic.

The Positive for Youth strategy, strongly reinforced by both explicit and implicit messages from other DfE statements over the past months, are dominated by these same ‘marketising’ assumptions. The ‘consultation’ papers which went out ahead of the publication of Positive for Youth in 2011 thus invited no consultation on these while the final document is peppered with phrases like (overcoming) barriers to a more competitive market, a more contestable market for publicly funded services and growing the market for social investment and with throw-away terms like vibrant provider market, asocial market strategy,industry standard and business brokerage.

As with achieving any such major cultural shift – for that is what is what is being attempted here – a crucial tactic is to treat such notions as givens, as the ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ way to think, as what of course everyone simply knows and accepts – as the conventional wisdom. Here in fact is the latest example of the TINA syndrome – ‘there is no alternative’ – which renders anyone who even asks questions about this way of thinking as odd, out of touch – not worth listening to.

Though, unashamedly, I come to the conference today as one of those oddities, I want first to make clear that I do not bring to this debate a view of the role of state, including of the welfare state, seen through rose coloured spectacles. I believe – indeed have long argued – that a very serious and searching debate is needed on the role of state as a provider of public, and especially human, services – not least about its often monolithic and top-down structures and its (not unconnected) insensitive ways of dealing with its users. I believe this debate needs to be extended, too, to state-provided youth work which has too often failed to deliver on its aspirations and promises – and on its claims.

Nonetheless, none of this for me excuses a failure to ask at least two questions about the current abandonment of the state in favour of the market.

  • Question 1 is a pragmatic one: Where is the proof that the market works in providing sensitive human services? After all, in recent months we have had some less than reassuring examples that it does not work – from A2E and the Work Programme more broadly; from Southern Cross’ failure last year to sustain residential care for the elderly; and apparently, too, from private health providers who offer women breast implants. Are these just examples of the odd bad apple – what we might now begin to call the NOTW, the News of the World, syndrome? Or are they evidence of ‘the market’s’ systemic maladjustment to providing for people when profits have to be made?
  • Question 2 – for me even more important – is a moral one, posed by Stuart Hall in a Guardian interview in January. What kind of people, he asked, would want to make a profit out of people being ill – or, we might want to add, out of young people in search of personal support and stimulating opportunities for personal and social development? Nor need – indeed, should – this question be posed only negatively. For, in a highly complex and deeply unequal society like ours, it at least implies an unashamedly positive moral position in favour of the state – where the state is seen still, despite its many flaws, as potentially the most effective and most humane vehicle for expressing our collective responsibility for each other, not least in such crucial areas of life as health and (informal as well as formal) education.

In IDYW we of course recognise that in a post-Thatcher, mid-Condem world that is a very old fashioned and idealistic (some might say romantic?) position to take up – and that it certainly doesn’t face the hard pragmatic issues of how to survive in this new competitive world, today, next month, next year. Nonetheless, it certainly remains a position worth stating and at the very least needing to be debated.


This is why IDYW is offering, jointly with the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), two events on April 26th (in London) and April 27th (in Manchester). Rather than just treating the drive to marketisation as a fait accompli, these will offer opportunities for sharing and thinking through the dilemmas posed by our new predicament, the challenges of the new policy landscape and what, even marginal, alternatives might be open to us.

Please think about joining us.



Some sources


Patrick Wintour, Compassionate Conservatives find it’s time to think again’, Guardian, 5 March 2012, at

Daniel Boffey, ‘Who’s making the money as the private firms move in on the public sector’, Guardian, 25 February 2012, at

See also links on IDYW website:


David Rose, ‘The firm that hijacked the NHS’, Mail Online, 12 February 2012, at–Companys-role-Andrew-Lansleys-proposals.html?ito=feeds-newsxml


Seamus Milne, ‘Crony capitalism feeds the corporate plan for schools’, Guardian, 14 Feb 2012

Work Programme

NCVO, Work Programme: initial concerns for civil society organisations, Oct 2011, at

Pushed to the Edge: Locality’s analysis of … the Work Programme, Oct 2011, at

ACEVO: Third Sector Work Programme Survey’, Oct 2011 at

Nick Bailey, ‘Work programme contract is putting providers out of business’ Guardian letters, 13 January 2012, at

National Citizen Service

Tania da St Croix, ‘Struggles and silences’: Policy, Youth Work and the National Citizen Service’, Youth & Policy, 106, May 2011, at

Voluntary sector

National Coalition for Independent Action, ‘Voluntary action under threat: what privatisation means for charities and community groups’, in pack and at

March 2012



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