The CYPN headline says it all, UK Youth sets out plans to attract investment in sector. Neoliberal to the core UK Youth, positioning itself to be the voice of the youth sector, argues in its State of the membership 2018 that ‘the sector needs to diversify how it is funded and work more closely with the private sector to ensure it can provide a long-term sustainable service amid cuts in local authority spending’. The report goes on to express its desire ‘to see social entrepreneurial approaches, including social investment, embedded in the sector and is particularly keen to see the formation of long-term partnerships between youth groups and businesses’.
In the first of our responses, ahead of this Friday’s In Defence of Youth Work conference, Bernard Davies expresses sharply his concern about UK Youth’s direction of travel.
The future for youth work – as seen by UK Youth
In only two or three years the world of the ‘traditional’ national voluntary youth organisation has changed beyond recognition. It was in November 2012 that a senior DfE official told a conference whose organisers included UK Youth and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS) that, at a time when the sector was expected increasingly ‘to do more with less’, it needed to consider mergers as a way of protecting itself. Whether as a direct response or not, in 2015 Ambition – once the National Association of Boys Clubs – merged with the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services. Then in March 2016, after absorbing NCVYS, in September last year Ambition itself became a ‘subsidiary’ of – that is, it merged into – UK Youth. whose own many previous titles had included the National Association of Youth Clubs.
These high level decisions were not always welcomed by these organisations’ grassroots. In part as a reaction to the 2012 decision by Ambition – by then known as Clubs for Young People – to adopt its new PR-friendly title, a new and independent National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs emerged. This is now providing a range of national sporting, arts and other events as well as infrastructure support for ‘1000 youth clubs in the most deprived communities’ and for over twenty county associations. To fill a perceived gap left by NCVYS’s disappearance, moves are also now detectable to create a new national network for the many local and regional councils of voluntary youth service which are still operating.
UK Youth has now published ‘an overview of its membership data as a merged organisation’, based on a careful sampling of the 230 organisations now directly affiliated to it. When partners’ figures in Scotland, Ireland and Wales are added, these cater for approximately four million young people across the UK. Drawing on the government’s own returns and on two Unison reports, its analysis is set starkly in the wider, especially financial, national contexts: the 41 per cent reduction in ‘universal spending’ between 2010-15 and 2017-18; the loss between 2012 and 2016 of over 3600 post, mostly part-timers; and evidence that ‘at local authority level, the most deprived areas have seen the greatest cuts’. With provision now increasingly dependent on volunteers, UK Youth’s conclusion is that ‘the youth sector has transitioned from a largely statutory provision to a largely voluntary sector-led service’.
In response to this devastation, in its penultimate paragraph, the report slips in a suggestion that, in order ‘to take full advantage of existing finance’, one possibility to be ‘explored’ is ‘redirecting reduced NCS funding (circa £400 million). Overall, however, such expectations of the state are noticeable mainly by their absence. So too is any analysis of the deeper structural causes of the current crisis for open access youth work, and indeed even more importantly for today’s younger generation. That ‘ideologies’ are shaping these policies is mentioned, as part of ‘the political make-up … of councils’ which has driven ‘the restructuring of statutory youth services’. The comment, however, appears in passing and without any critical explanation of what those ideologies are or how and why they have been so damaging both for a practice like youth work and for young people.
This uncritical stance on the dominant ideas of our times and the power relations underpinning them is signalled on the first page of the UK Youth paper by the inclusion. without comment, of a boxed quote from the minister currently holding the ‘youth’ brief as part of her role as Minister for Sport and Civil Society. In this, as at points elsewhere in the report, youth work in the shape of the youth club – ‘for many young people … their only safe place’ – is immediately conflated with the ‘youth services’ through which they get ‘access (to) mental health services, citizenship education, social mixing and training’. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that another of the factors driving that ‘re-structuring of statutory youth services’ – what are evasively called ‘overall financial challenges in local authorities’ – are never explained as stemming from the minister’s own and previous governments’ policies which, under the cloak of ‘austerity’, have been designed to get the state out of as many public services as possible. Indeed the government seems to garner at least implied praise for what I can only call forms of ‘gesture’ funding in support of the character-building, resilience-developing outcomes on which it insists: £50 million here for cadet forces, £40 million there for young people’s ‘social action’, another £16 million for a Youth Engagement Fund based on ‘social investment funds’ and ‘payment by results’.
Nor does the UK Youth paper address in any direct way how such policies have affected the lives of young people. It notes for example that ‘only 13 per cent of young people in former industrial areas and 14 per cent in remote rural coldspots progress to university compared with 27 per cent in hotspots’. These blockages, however, conceived in the report as ‘challenges of adolescence’, apparently result simply from the ‘lack of aspiration to peer pressures or issues at home’. None of these, of course, are insignificant matters for young people themselves. What they do not do, however, is explain the glaring educational inequalities spelt out earlier. As a result, for tackling the problems of its members, the youth club, as well as providing that safe space, ends up confined it to ‘enabling young people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives’ and ‘empowering young people to make a positive contribution to their community’.
So how, positively, is UK Youth planning to deal with this ‘new context’? Certainly not, it seems, by starting from the proposition that the up to one million young people who have used or tried youth work facilities in the past are citizens now and so entitled to a fair slice of the collective cake. For UK Youth, the answer largely remains ‘to embed social entrepreneurial approaches and secure additional income for the sector, for example through supporting access to social investment opportunities’. (Though these are to include ‘collaborative work with … the private sector’, UK Youth gives no indication of what ethical risks tests it thinks should be applied here).
Even as – post-Carillion and the rest – the neo-liberal shibboleths come under renewed searching scrutiny, this paper makes clear that these remain deeply and uncritically embedded in the thinking of our youth sector ‘leaders’. Still not apparently worth any serious consideration, therefore, is an alternative possibility: that the state – albeit in re-imagined more bottom-up forms – might and indeed should again find and allocate resources for open access, informal educational facilities which its young citizens can use by choice in their leisure time.