Pigs fly above Westminster as austerity ends and youth work is reborn?

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Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash

As the ‘end of austerity’ budget was debated in parliament today, some of us were amongst supporters of youth work gathering in nearby Portcullis House at the heart of Westminster. We were there to hear the results of an All-Party Parliamentary Group inquiry in youth work, as part of the National Youth Agency’s first national conference in several years. Labour and Conservative APPG group members alike were fulsome in their praise of youth work, while shadow Chancellor John McDonnell popped in later to express his support for a renewed youth service funded through taxation. Wow!

We need to read the APPG report in full and mull over the events of the day, and will be sure to reflect further in future posts, so do write and let us know what you think – we are happy to publish varied responses. For now, we want to share the summary of the inquiry’s findings, and some initial reactions. The APPG inquiry (organised with support from the National Youth Agency) received over 100 submissions, including our own – which is here if you want to read it: APPGResponse(Final)

Between the APPG findings and responses, the McDonnell speech, the renewed energy from NYA, and various other interesting contributions and discussions, there was a general air of optimism in the room, which we were at times swept up in. One of the welcome and striking aspects was the collective emphasis on youth work as an educational relationship with young people. Even if perhaps too often this relationship was portrayed as primarily preventative (of knife crime and the like), rather than one that happens on young people’s terms and in solidarity with their attempts to become who they want to be, in a world in which they actively engage. In all, it was a positive day, as further movement towards a collective attempt to re-imagine and re-visit youth work as an educational relationship.

More to follow but we do think it’s important to raise a few tentative challenges and questions in relation to the summary of the report’s recommendations…

  • In the context of seeing youth work as education, it was good to see consensus around the need to place responsibility for youth work in the Department for Education (indeed, this came out clearly from our own ‘Is the Tide Turning?’ discussions last year). However, we do need to ensure that this is not simplistically translated as ‘placing youth workers in schools and colleges’. Youth work itself is educational; that’s the point. We want to see a widening of ‘what counts’ as education and a valuing of informal education (including in youth clubs, in community venues and on the streets) – rather than a co-option of youth work into formal educational settings.
  • It’s ‘interesting’ to see a renewed faith in audits and inspections; this needs further debate. How can we ensure bottom-up accountability, i.e. a democratic check that there is good youth work provision in local communities for young people, rather than a top-down imposition of targets, benchmarks and a ‘curriculum’? (In this regard, Cllr Antoinette Bramble from the Local Government Association made the strong point that if youth work is to be treated as a statutory service, through the reintroduction of Ofsted and audits and the like, then first it needs to be given statutory funding.)
  • There is too little recognition that youth work services have been decimated – both in their grassroots delivery (in many areas) and in terms of infrastructure (e.g.  professional courses closing down, regional and national youth umbrella groups closing or becoming corporate and incorporated, the loss of countless experienced youth workers and the sale of buildings…)? We are not starting from scratch here; rather, we are starting from extreme demoralisation, loss of trust, and loss of facilities. We can rebuild youth work, and there is lots to be excited about, but the challenges need to be taken seriously.
  • Similarly, while it is good to see an emphasis on youth work training and education, and workforce development, we need to take seriously the scale of challenge given universities’ market-driven race to close their youth work courses.
  • Clearly, none of this can or should float free of the extreme challenges facing young people in their everyday lives – housing, unemployment and poor employment, physical and mental health, discrimination and inequality, test-obsessed schooling, expensive and commodified higher education, removal and reduction of living benefits…the list is endless. Austerity has not ended for most people in their everyday lives. Unsurprisingly, as this is an All-Party report, it fudges these issues.

John McDonnell should get an honourable mention here for recognising the scale of the decimation of services – saying we are at a ‘tipping point’ – while emphasising the importance of the hugely challenging context for young people, praising young people courageous enough to go on strike despite being in precarious employment situations, and promising to fund youth services properly through fair taxation. While we have never been – and will never be – party political, and we will remain wary and critical, it is tempting to pinch ourselves when we hear such encouraging words from a prominent mainstream politician.

While we are somewhat swept up in the optimistic mood, we need to remember that APPG reports are only advisory – there is no compulsion on the current government to take any notice, and perhaps little likelihood of them doing so. For youth workers, young people, lecturers and students facing incredibly challenging and worrying situations today, reports and debates in the corridors of Westminster probably feel a long way from the everyday reality. Yet the report and the event will hopefully raise the profile of youth work in the longer term.

Leigh Middleton from NYA will be presenting a summary of the report at our Youth Work Week dialogue event in Birmingham on Friday – and the main business of our day will be to discuss collaboratively the theme of youth work week ‘What is youth work?’ Book your space if you haven’t already.

Do let us know what you think of the APPG report, or of McDonnell’s speech if you were there to see it. We believe that responses to the report are welcome before it is published in full in December. We see it as a work in progress and hope to respond. You can share your thoughts here in the comments, on our facebook page, or by emailing us with any feedback you’d like us to publish. The summary findings of the inquiry are below, and the report is here.

i. Youth work is a distinct educational
process, which supports the personal and
social development of young people. It
needs to be recognised as such and we
recommend it is better placed within the
Department for Education.

ii. As we enter the next Comprehensive
Spending Review and an ‘end to austerity’
we wish to see greater investment and
commitment to support for youth
services. We recommend that
Government undertakes a review of
spending on youth services, beginning by
reinstating the local authority audit
previously funded by Government and
carried out by NYA.

iii. To secure investment there needs to be a
greater understanding of the role of youth
work and impact of youth services. We
call on the statutory and voluntary sector
to form a compact with young people for
a clear policy statement and guidance
recognises the benefits of youth work.

iv. We welcome the Government’s
commitment to review the statutory duty
and we call on the youth sector and other
bodies to fully engage in the consultation
on the statutory duty. We recommend
clear guidance on what is sufficient
provision under the duty.

v. Just as a local authority no longer
necessarily directly runs schools in its
area, it nonetheless has to plan for
sufficient school places. We recommend
there is a lead role for the local authority
to ensure access to sufficient, quality
youth work provision in an area.

vi. Over the last decade, open-access or
universal youth services have been
especially hard hit, with the notable
exception of the National Citizen Service,
which provides a great experience for 16-
and 17-year-olds but it is a time-limited
programme and just one part of a broad
youth offer to support year-round
provision that meets the needs of young
people locally. We call for clear guidance
and investment in a base-line for local
youth services that also allows an ‘ecosystem’
of youth work provision to
flourish in a community.

vii. A coherent workforce strategy needs to
be developed for the totality of the
children’s workforce and renewed
national standards for youth work by
2020. We recommend all those
supporting youth work adhere to national
occupational standards and a curriculum
for youth work training.

viii. With youth work recognised as
‘education’ in its open access provision
and in supporting vulnerable young
people in its targeted provision, we
recommend the reinstatement of the role
of Ofsted as a driver for the quality of
youth work and services.

2 comments

  1. My usual pedantic self must comment on the in my view misuse of the word decimate. People use it to describe what they think of as big demolition. Strictly speaking it means reduce by 10%. The Youth Service has been destroyed folks. Not decimated. Where is there a Youth Service in England with a Principal Youth Service Officer, a Training Officer and a decent cohort of JNC Qualified full time workers working with a good gang of part timers and a legion of volunteers on the basis of open access and social education? There isn’t. The Youth Service has been destroyed, only fragments are left. As John McDonnell also said the worse the situation we inherit the more radical our policies must be.

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