No surprises perhaps – though lots to agonise over – but a new Unison report provides updated evidence on nearly ten years of decimation of local Youth Services. Two previous reports had revealed that between 2010 and 2016 budgets were reduced by a total of £387 million and that, between 2012 and 2016, 3652 youth work jobs had been lost, 603 centres closed and nearly 139,900 places for young people removed.
No doubt because there is now so little left to cut, the latest numbers are much smaller. Responses from 101 local authorities indicate that Youth Service budgets fell by £4 million in 2016-17, by £6 million in 2017-18 and by a predicted £3 million in the current financial year, lifting the total loss since 2010-11 to £400 million. Additional evidence on the size and extent of the cuts came in a YMCA report in May which put the reduction in spending on Youth Services by English and Welsh councils at between 2010/11 and 2016/17 at £750 million.
These figures need to be set alongside the £634 million of government funding between 2014/15 and 2017-18 for the National Citizens Service – a ‘scheme’ which managed to reach just 12 per cent of a target group limited anyway to just 15 and 17 year olds.
Gathering and reporting the evidence of the cuts is of course vital. So too, however, are the arguments used to explain why they shouldn’t happen. Here the picture is more ambiguous as even those advocating for open access youth work framed as informal education find themselves negotiating testing tactical dilemmas in what is still an overwhelmingly ‘austerity’ environment.
The latest Unison paper, for example, in its first lines, emphasises that Youth Services are ‘crucial to communities’, not least because they provide ways of ‘building trusting and supportive relationships with young people’. It however feels it necessary to justify the work initially as helping to develop in young people some individualised up-by-their-bootstrap traits such as ‘confidence and resilience’ and to ensure they ‘can play a positive role in society’. The paper then highlights how Youth Services ‘also prevent a variety of problems occurring further down the line’, thereby ‘sav(ing) other parts of the public sector and the wider economy large amounts of money’. Specifically listed as targets for such youth work interventions are ‘help with employment, training and education, potential mental health issues …prevent(ing) alcohol and substance abuse, as well as crime and anti-social behaviour’.
Any or all of these important ‘outcomes’ may of course be achieved in youth work settings through work with individuals made explicitly with such preventative aims in mind. Within those settings too, however, any impacts are at least as likely to be the product of the processes required to build those ‘trusting and supportive relationships’, with intentions framed in much broader personal and collective developmental terms. Moreover, because any such gains end up as ‘absences’ – as behaviours or actions that don’t occur because of the positive developmental opportunities offered the young person – they may well remain unevidenced and so unrecorded.
Though apparently abstract, these questions have some very practical and indeed political implications. What if, for example, we do get a Labour government which then follows through on its commitment to ‘creating a quality youth service for all young people … protected by statute’. At a time of a crisis over knife crime and of young people’s worryingly high levels of mental health problems, how will under-pressure local councillors receiving this new ‘sustainable funding’ prioritise its use? To reinstate locally based open access youth work facilities – both building-based and outreach – focused on unlabelled young people who engage by choice? Or to create or extend services which start from deficit definitions of young people needing ‘preventative’ interventions or even treatment?
Even when – if – the battle for resources is won, the struggle is unlikely to be over for a youth work which starts with and from how the young people who actually engage choose to define their interests, aspirations and concerns.
By Bernard Davies
Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in February 2019