Whatever happened to the Youth Service? Bernard Davies critically reflects.

Bernard chats with Malcolm Ball at the 2015 Conference
Bernard chats with Malcolm Ball at the 2015 Conference

This week we are posting two intertwined and perhaps controversial pieces, born of the IDYW Seminar, ‘Creating a Vision’ held on June 22 in Manchester. In the first Bernard Davies, youth work’s leading historian, reflects critically on the development and demise of the Youth Service.

What follows is a write-up of an input made at the Birmingham University/IDYW practitioner seminar, ‘Creating a vision of “public money” and youth work’, held last month in Manchester. Its aim was to offer a critical look at the development of the local authority Youth Service since its creation, as context for the debate which Ian McGimpsey prompted at the event on ‘public money’, what exactly this might mean and whether and how it might act as an alternative route to funding for open access youth work.

Within its argument Bernard notes:

As early as 1980 I thus found myself pointing to limiting organisational features affecting youth work which included:

  • A trend ‘to incorporate youth work even more tightly into the burgeoning local government structures’ which, ‘far from releasing (its) imagination, flair and dynamism, ensured that it was even more subject to the often stifling controls of local bureaucracy and corporate management’.
  • Staff (who) were being cast in the role of local authority officials’.
  • ‘… a greater stress on accountability – not just for money but also for philosophies, purposes and methods’ – with the result that youth work was in danger of being ‘set in a rigid pattern of quite formalised programmes’
  • ‘… expensive buildings requiring maintenance, protection and heating as well as staffing’ which not only ate up substantial amounts of the (often reducing) funding available but limited youth work’s capacity to move with young people as they changed their ‘territory’ or to develop alternative approaches and methodologies as their needs and expectations changed.
  • Even then, policy shifts which, if they were to get financial support, left voluntary organisations ‘dependent on a number of restrictive conditions’.1

He concludes:

None of this is of course to dismiss local authority Youth Services as total failures. Close examination of youth work’s situation immediately pre-Albemarle has shown that without the Committee’s often, for its time, imaginative and relatively radical prescriptions, state-sponsored youth work could easily have withered away altogether. In part at least Ministry civil servants were prompted to set up the Committee by their conclusion that leisure-time provision for young people which was wholly or largely dependent on the voluntary sector as then constituted was unlikely to appeal to the ‘new’ 1960s teenage generation1 – a view which, in its own typically tactful way, Albemarle itself confirmed.2 Moreover, given the ‘social democratic consensus’ that existed at the time, it was taken as a given across the political spectrum that, if youth work was not just to survive but to develop further, the state needed to intervene in decisive ways.3

What such arguments do not consider however is the appropriateness for this somewhat maverick field of practice of the form of statutory intervention which came out of Albemarle and the structures it generated. In the context of the growing vacuum opened up by the Coalition’s destructive policies, questions for youth work specifically which in the past have been missed or even avoided need now therefore to be faced head on. Such as:

  • How and where have local authority Youth Service structures impeded rather than supported and liberated what is distinctive about the way youth workers practise?
  • How can those structures be rethought and redesigned so that in particular more bottom-up influences (from both young people and front-line workers) can help shape what happens, and how?
  • How can and should funding be made available and distributed for that distinctive practice?
  • What processes can be devised to account for the use of these resources which are congruent with that practice?

This is very far from an exhaustive list – so please add your own questions to it.


In the present crisis, criticising what we don’t like about what has happened and what’s happening now is much the easiest part of the struggle to defend youth work. The much harder task is to focus on possible positive strategies (however long-term) for creating alternatives. This is certainly why I hope the debate on the notion of ‘public’ funding for youth work introduced by Ian McGimpsey at the Manchester event will continue.

I have to admit however that, pie-in-the-sky though it may seem at this dire neo-liberal, anti-statist moment which has all but killed off the Youth Service, I’m not yet ready to give up completely on the notion of state funding for youth work. I see it as important at least to explore whether different forms of and routes to this which ‘fit’ with the practice can be re-imagined. This is a search in which I hope IDYW will be involved in the coming months – and to which I will try to contribute.

READ IN FULL with references at Whatever Happened to the Youth Service?

Ian McGimpsey’s thoughts on public money will appear on Friday.


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