Resuscitating the Youth Service : Revisiting a Troubled Birth in the West Riding of Yorkshire

youth organisations

Amidst the welcome ferment created by the tabling of the Early Days Motion 488 it is illuminating and sobering to look back upon the early days of state sponsored youth work. In particular it is revealing to examine the fluctuating nature of the relationship between voluntary youth organisations and the increasingly powerful local authorities. In this context we are fortunate to see in the latest edition of Youth & Policy, an article by Helen Jones,

‘The voluntary organisation forms … a unique feature of the British way of life’: One voluntary organisation’s response to the birth of the Youth Service


With the future of the UK’s statutory Youth Service in doubt, this article looks back to the days of its birth. After the Second World War, some people were critical about the idea of direct state involvement and its possible association with the indoctrination of impressionable young people. However, in the West Riding of Yorkshire (WRY), the Education Authority saw the arrival of state provision as signalling an end to the need for voluntary organisations in youth work. The West Riding Association (WRA) and the Leeds Association of Girls’ and Mixed Clubs (LAGC) fought to continue their work with voluntary sector clubs where young people played a leading role in planning and organising their programmes. The Associations’ archives show the struggle leading up to their eventual amalgamation in 1950, in the face of the almost total removal of funding.

The piece’s opening paragraph sets the tone.

In light of the ongoing demise of state sponsored youth work, it seems timely to revisit its birth over sixty years ago. At the time, some voluntary organisations responded rather equivocally and not without suspicion to the arrival of the Youth Service and to the increasing power wielded by the statutory sector. Although the growth in funding for work with young people was welcomed, the involvement of the state was greeted with wariness and youth work became contested territory. The status quo, which had evolved since the nineteenth century, was changed virtually overnight. This article looks at the period immediately after the Second World War through a case study of the situation faced by the West Riding Association of Girls’ and Mixed Clubs (WRA) and the Leeds Association of Girls’ and Mixed Clubs (LAGC).

Later on there is a fascinating quote resonant with today’s clash between the dominant behavioural skills and outcomes agenda and our Campaign’s committment to a process-led approach, ‘an association and conversation without guarantees’.

‘So long as our concern is with the welfare of the individual club member and not with simplifying the administration of the youth service, so long as we can see the value in small clubs – which might be inefficient economically but efficient from an educational standpoint – so long as we view the teaching of skills and the development of aptitudes as being secondary to the job of showing people how to work, play and live together, then the voluntary organisation has a vital part to play.’ (West Riding Association, 1951).

As Helen notes, valuing ‘association’ above focus on individual development is a contest still being played out in youth work sixty years later.

She concludes,

Misgivings concerning the notion of direct state involvement in youth provision sixty years ago, and fears that a statutory service was too close to one where participation was compulsory, largely have been forgotten. Visionary belief in the potential of a generous range of cradle-to-grave state provision was pitted against traditional adherence to voluntary provision. At a time of anger about the scale of financial cuts, and nostalgia for the days of a state funded Youth Service, it is salutary to find that its birth was met with suspicion from some of those involved in youth work.

There is much more to chew over within the piece, not least the voluntary organisations’ emphasis on young people’s participation, a view not shared by the early local education authority officers!

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