‘Tackling knife crime’: A dilemma for youth work?

Youth club Guardian
Image from the recent Guardian article on youth clubs deterring knife crime

A guest post from our steering group member, Bernard Davies.

After a decade of, at best, passing mention, youth work cuts are suddenly getting some dedicated media attention. Early in March, for example, Channel 4 News flashed up figures – almost certainly lifted straight from the Unison’s research findings since 2012 – which detailed the cuts to Youth Service budgets, the number of youth clubs closed and how many ‘young people’s places’ have been lost. Capturing the mood more starkly, a Guardian ‘cartoon’ the next day depicted three disconsolate hoodies outside a closed and shuttered ‘Youth Community Centre’, menacingly loomed over by a tall figure in a hooded black cloak.


The main prompt for this sudden interest in the demise of ‘youth services’ was made explicit a few days later by the Guardian’s social affairs correspondent. After visiting a youth club in Acton (leader: long-time IDYW activist Colin Brent), he concluded that a key factor in heading off a threatened gang fight during the evening had been the club’s ‘strict rules banning knives and other weapons’.


Given its often devastating consequences, this focus on ‘knife crime’ clearly can’t just be dismissed as the latest media-stirred moral panic about ‘youth’. Nor, however – damaging though such cuts have been – can it be explained away simply as the consequence of the loss over the last decade of 21,000 police officers, including 7,000 neighbourhood officers. As, twice in three days, Channel 4 News interviewees explicitly pointed out, such developments have underlying ‘structural causes’, with systemic failures in the education system particularly identified. These have been evidenced most specifically by, between 2013-14 and 2016-17, the 56 per cent rise in schools’ permanent exclusions of ‘difficult’ students (who, it turns out, are disproportionately ‘BME’), and – often, it seems, to protect schools’ OFSTED gradings – the ‘off-rolling’ of many they label ‘low achieving’.


It is in this context that the potential of the local youth club has suddenly been (re)discovered. Not, as the IDYW ‘cornerstones’ insist, as a form of education which starts from the interests and concerns young people themselves bring to their voluntary encounters with youth workers; but most often as a way of keeping them off the streets and distracting them in their leisure time.


My own reaction to these arguments has in the past been deeply suspicious – indeed resistant. Why should policy-makers be allowed to redefine our practice in such simplistically preventative ways, focusing not on young people’s potential but on their defects? If new money did start to flow downwards to the local state, how could we guarantee that local power-holders wouldn’t just divert it into assumed forms of ‘child-saving’ – into provision which rather than being positively developmental in its aspirations was just anti-this and anti-that?


And yet, on the back of current popular – indeed, populist – reactions to the knife crime ‘epidemic’, I’ve found myself asking: may this kind of response now be too hard-line, too principled – not pragmatic enough for the current moment? Do we completely reject the possibility of a possible link between an increase in ‘anti-social behaviour’ amongst young people and the fact (and it is a fact) that hundreds of thousands of them no longer have a chance to cross paths with a youth worker or take up the developmental opportunities this could open up?


Certainly some of the reactions by some In Defence’s supporters on its Facebook page have seemed to assume it’s OK – even necessary – to make that connection. And in its submission to the Labour Party’s consultation on ‘Building a statutory Youth Service’, IDYW itself did point out that one of its own ‘starting points’ is that:

The informed focus on young people’s needs flowing from open access provision is more effective than imposed, targeted work in reaching ‘vulnerable’ youth.

Reluctantly, hesitantly, even nervously, all this therefore leads me to ask whether this is the moment to confront and debate some possible pragmatic dilemmas we need to negotiate. Such as:

  • If the rise in knife crime were to become one – perhaps a main – rationale for putting some state money back into local ‘youth work’, should we, can we – how can we – manoeuvre to take it and run in educationally-focused open-access youth work directions?
  • More specifically, should we then not be systematically seeking out and presenting the evidence on how youth work’s open access, young person-centred, process-led approaches enable it to engage with many of those so-called ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ young people who the targeted services are keen – but often fail – to reach?
  • And, further: to develop the skills needed for just that kind of manoeuvring, how can we tap into the field experience which (as illustrated by the Guardian article) is already out there, including that of some of the newer ‘enterprises’ which have struggled to keep open access youth work alive?


If the tide does ever turn, we will surely need to be better prepared for it tactically as well as strategically.


Bernard Davies

Revised April  2019


Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England is published by Palgrave MacMillan  


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