The second question asked by the NYA on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group.
What are the key issues and challenges faced by young people being addressed by current youth service provisions?
‘Have we got a vision of the future that is optimistic and democratic?’ This fundamental question facing society at large is one most keenly felt by young people, for whom life is increasingly precarious. After four decades of the neoliberal emphasis on the self-sufficient individual and the rule of the market young people are to be found in the mire of its contradictions, not least the the consequences of the policy of austerity upon families and communities. The impact of cuts in Public Services have been particularly disproportionate on what we once knew as the Youth Service, The figures of these cuts are now well known, so we don’t need to repeat them here, suffice to say there is a dearth of places for the free association of young people, of spaces to explore and create for themselves collectively visions of their future, to struggle with the issues they experience whether this be lack of meaningful employment, concerns about climate change, dilemmas in their personal and home life, sexual choices, opportunities for arts, music or sport or needing somewhere to live. In short there is a lack of provision, wherein young people explore self-critically the purpose and direction of their lives
Currently, we are all aware of the increase in concern over the mental health of young people – their anxiety,, their loneliness, their failure to be happy or well. The overwhelming political and professional response is to individualise, making the young person responsible for their alleged condition. If the isolation and fragmentation of young people’s lives are not seen as a collective or community issue, the tendency is to move to a case-work deficit model at odds with a young people-centred, process-led youth work. In this context we would argue that present youth services provision is losing its identity, shifting towards behavioural modification programmes, which focus on compliance with rather than criticism of the status quo. Young people need spaces, which are not experienced as being about regulation and surveillance.
The emphasis on conformity is at odds with a commitment to the nurturing of the questioning and informed young citizen, essential to the defence and extension of democracy in these increasingly authoritarian times. We believe that youth work can play a significant part in this struggle for democracy, provided it is granted a level of autonomy, which allows it to be responsive and improvisatory. To take the classic question of young people’s participation impressive work has been done through the mediums of youth councils and parliaments but in many ways these only scratch the surface. As the important PARTiSPACE research argues there is a fundamental flaw in many efforts to get young people to participate – ‘young people are being seen as not knowing or not wanting to participate and therefore needing education. There is little attention paid to structures of inequality and dominance or to young people’s competences and ideas. Rather than through teaching and training, participation is learned by ‘doing’. In our view, youth workers, operating outside of the formal structures of schooling, training, social services and youth justice, can support young people’s self-determination in a distinctive manner and thus enhance the democratic character of society as a whole.