We are pleased to receive these challenging thoughts from Ian McGimpsey, Lecturer in Education at the University of Birmingham, about the tensions inside of the demand for a statutory funded youth service. Hopefully it will prompt some critical responses.
An Early Day Motion has been filed proposing that ‘all young people across the UK should have access to a statutory funded, wide-ranging and universal youth service’. At the time of writing, the motion has attracted only modest support from MPs and is unlikely to see a full House of Commons debate. However, it will stimulate a debate outside parliament among those working with young people. But will this be the debate we need?
On the face of it, perhaps any debate on the subject is odd. The still recent loss of State funding has undeniably had devastating effects on jobs and services. How could the promise of ring-fenced money not receive widespread support? And for a universal service!
However, controversy is found all-too easily in the rest of the paragraph, which argues that statutory funded youth services would:
- be provided by professionally qualified workers (controversial given the voluntary basis of much of the service)
- provide information, advice and guidance and support (arguably representing an impoverished view of the educative and democratic role of the service)
- create safe and secure environments (which might be read as youth-specific spaces of enclosure in the absence of any talk of making public spaces safe and inclusive for young people or of working from young people’s existing ‘territories’)
- teach the life skills needed to contribute socially and economically (representing education as skills acquisition for the purpose of economic utility)
- support young people’s ‘journey’ into higher education, training and employment (see the point above, with the added wrinkle that the expansion of the higher education and training industries since the 1970s relates more to reduced demand for youth labour in post-industrial economies than to young people’s needs, meaning that perhaps adults shouldn’t predetermine the destination of their journeys)
- be returned to the remit of the Department for Education from the Cabinet Office (which some might argue means little)
My purpose here is not really to express a view about these debates. Rather, it’s to point out the predictability of the lines of that debate. It takes just a few sentences to expose the ‘youth sector’ as a composite of diverse interests and values, united in survival.
These divides create an invidious position. I have strongly held commitments relating to some of the issues above. However, I also accept that the Early Day Motion does a decent job of articulating youth services in a language politicians might get. It triangulates the needs of the ‘youth sector’ to mainstream political goals of economic management and the management of social problems.
And such pragmatism matters. After all, what do I want from a political campaign? For politicians to agree with me about the value of the work? I’m not sure I care much what they think about how youth work is done or its value. I want politicians to provide money and autonomy for educators to work with.
This leads me to a different line of debate, about which I suggest we argue uncompromisingly. The way money is distributed regulates what practitioners do. It changes who they work for, and it changes how their efforts are monitored and evaluated. Therefore, it is not sufficient to argue for money to flow. We must win the argument about how that money flows. And the simple principle I suggest is that money should flow so as to give more autonomy to youth workers.
The Early Day Motion says three notable things about money. First, that money should be ring-fenced. Second, that money would flow to ‘local authority services working closely with schools and voluntary organisations’. Third, that the ‘youth service will constitute value for money in that such a service will lead to many young people not having to access higher tiered and more costly interventions later in their lives’.
These are complicated issues, but, briefly stated, I would argue three things.
The first is that the ring-fencing of funding is welcome. It is specifically the lack of ring-fencing in the Early Intervention Grant that has devastated the State financing of youth services.
Second, how the local authority distributes money to its own teams or to other providers is key. The market has been the way this is done in the recent past, but this has badly failed the autonomy principle. As such, we should argue first for the removal of the public duty on Local Authorities to competitively commission services. This has effectively enforced narrow output targets and the fixed-term project form on youth work. We should also carefully consider how the provision of funding might be used to encourage the professional education of youth workers without excluding smaller organisations from bidding for money.
Third, we should resist the idea of ‘value for money’ of services on the basis of the reduced future cost of young people to the state. This principle of ‘social investment’ does not relate to the educational or democratic value of the service to young people, and could even subvert such value much as the market has in the past. Further, the means of establishing these relationships between the service and longer term outcomes are dubious. Finally, the contracts associated with ‘statutory funding’ provided through social investment intermediaries fail the autonomy principle just as badly as the quasi-market.