The Youth Sector – Bernard Davies questions the trajectory

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‘Charting a new course for Youth Services: some questions about the trajectory’?

If ever youth workers and the organisations that support and serve them needed to pull together, then now is that time. I for one have therefore welcomed the Youth Sector Collaboration Consultation initiated last October by NCVYS, UK Youth and Ambition and was pleased that IDYW was able to have two representatives at the open consultation event in London in November.

However the paper released by the three organisations outlining the consultations’ findings and a proposed set of actions for me raises a number of difficult questions. Some are about the final stages of the process – a two-day by-invitation event with the title ‘Changing the Trajectory – Charting a New Course for Youth Services’. This brought together thirty people from all the high profile national and some local voluntary youth organisations plus government and local authority representatives, academics, funders and the Centre for Youth Impact, with young people’s ‘voice’ represented by BYC and NUS. Significantly however no-one was invited from the somewhat maverick Woodcraft Folk, nor from the Institute of Youth Work, nor indeed from the youth work trade unions.   

Questions also now need to be asked, I believe, about the actual proposals, starting with the paper’s bold opening statement: ‘Government and the youth sector are united in their aim to improve outcomes for young people’. United 100%? On all possible, even likely, outcomes? Such as under-25s’ threatened loss of housing benefit? And the votelessness of 16 and 17 year olds in the coming European referendum? To say nothing of, between 2012 and 2014, the ‘outcome’ of 41,000 fewer youth club places – and rising? Is there nowhere within this claimed consensus for some of these ‘leadership organisations’ at least to take on the role of critical friend to ‘government’ – to advocate openly on behalf of all those young people now living very precarious lives, whose futures look no less precarious and who already been labelled ‘the lost generation’?

And then, for so many organisations whose history is inseparable from the history of youth work, there is the question: so where in this statement is the youth work? The paper manages two passing mentions. One, in a throw-back to the Victorian origins of many of the organisations involved, is to youth workers (together with ‘commission trainers’ and teachers) to ‘share and create character related materials for every school in the country’; the other to ‘youth work training for new forms of delivery organisation’.

What we get instead are frequent and often unexplained references to ‘non-formal education’; to ‘social development’; to the government’s failing apprenticeships scheme; to ‘social action’ (exemplified at one point as ‘working as a team to refurbish a Nursing Home’); and, as if this is or could be a substitute for all those lost local and open access youth club places, to the National Citizens Service. All underpinned by assumptions about the need for ‘new business models’ to shape those new delivery organisations and for ‘metrics’ which demonstrate outcomes overwhelmingly starting from the presumption that, within an environment taken overall to be benign, it is just the individual young person who needs to be ‘developed’.

At this stage I pose these questions on the premise that the query which headed the UK Youth blog on the findings paper: ‘Where Next for the Youth Sector?’ is a genuinely open one intended to prompt further debate on the crucial issues the consultation has raised. In this spirit I also look forward to IDYW collectively contributing further by offering its own positive vision for ‘charting a new course for youth services’ and in particular for that distinctive and, by young people, much needed practice we know as youth work.  

Bernard Davies,  January 2016


  1. Where next for the Youth sector? I currently feel there is no “where next” for the organic transformational universally accessed work that I have known and loved for the past 15 years. As the local authority service in which I work crumbles around me it’s hard to maintain positivity, not for myself but the hundreds of young people that I see in the small rural area that I work and who I’m going to have to tell that their club is closing (some have been coming for over 7 years!).
    We are constantly presented with information about how young people’s life styles are changing, only this morning more and more young people are spending time on the Internet, as a result of this I believe, the emotional resilience of young people is at a low and I can’t see it getting better unless they have access to skilled help to improve their skills in dealing with life.
    We are pushed more and more into targeted delivery for a few which I have no problem with and have seen the results skilled interventions can bring. But the essence of our work that universal provision in which young people can be themselves, be challenged in a safe environment and learn new skills in an informal environment achieving things and being part of something the never thought the could is so valuable, why can’t the policy makers and the Government value of it?
    Where next for youth work? I really don’t know. 😢

  2. Bernard hits the nail on the head ( as usual ) . It is disturbing that supposed national ‘leadership’ bodies have so identified themselves with the current ( or indeed any ) government’s goals for young people .All the more so in view of the devastation to youth services and youthwork since 2010 . Happily, not everywhere in the UK is so callous about its young or so careless about youthwork . Have a look at Wales . An explicit, published government strategy for youthwork 2014-18 which balances open access and ‘targeted work ; current consultations about the greater role that youthwork can play alongside ,but not subsumed by , other youth-oriented services ; an education workforce council aiming to register and promote the professional development of youthworkers in parity with teachers… .. Time for the English -and its national youth ‘leaders’ -to lift their eyes from the Whitehall bubble .

  3. You’re right too Tom in that, there are places that value the type of work that respects young people like humans and not targets, like valued future adults and not a seam of society awaiting a cure. It’s easy to get despondent when faced with the neo-liberal entity that working with the young has become in England. What Bernard describes is, in my thinking, a manifestation of a ‘working with Youth’ industry that includes schooling, apprenticeships, schemes, higher education et al that uses young people as the raw material with which to create outcomes that commissioners buy in from some free-marketised nirvana. Let us hope that Ireland with it’s new youth strategy, Wales with its balanced approach and Scotland with its practical ways can show how investing in walking alongside younger humans can co-produce more social justice in the long run. Either that or we all emigrate or bring back the Dane Geld!

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