MPs and the Youth Minister – are they on the same page?

appg report

Thank you to our steering group member, Bernard Davies, for the following guest post on the recent important developments in policy as it relates to youth work: the recent release of the APPG report, and the ministerial announcement regarding a ‘youth charter’.

Local authority Youth Services and the youth work practice they can provide have this month attracted some much-needed policy attention. Perhaps most significant – and encouraging – was the appearance of the final report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs (APPG) on ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’. The product of a year-long inquiry co-ordinated by the National Youth Agency (NYA), this was informed by contributions from young people and a range of local and national statutory and voluntary organisations.

Rather less uplifting was the announcement by Mims Davies, the ‘youth minister’ in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), of plans to develop a ‘Youth Charter’. Davies’s answers to a series of MPs’ Parliamentary questions also offered some additional insights into government thinking on youth policies more broadly.

From MPs’ encouragement …

Coming as it does from a cross-party group of MPs, the APPG report offers some grounds for optimism that more supportive messages about youth work might finally be getting through to top policy-makers. It for example starts from a recognition that, as a result of what it calls ‘structural shifts’, a breakdown has occurred in the ‘contract’ with young people for providing ‘greater opportunities and a better quality of life than their parents and grandparents’. It also acknowledges that, in response to this failure, ‘numerous respondents (to the inquiry) made the case for a national youth policy and a long-term strategy for youth services’. This, the report proposes, should be driven by a Cabinet Minister located in the Department of Education.

The report also records a ‘clear message’ that ‘youth work remains an important element of the support wanted and needed by young people today’ and so as having a ‘key role’ within what it calls ‘the eco-system of Services for Young People’. It explicitly defines this practice as ‘non-formal education that focuses on the personal and social development of participants’, achieved by ‘provid(ing) peer group activities and trusted relationships’.

Key specific recommendations from the inquiry include:

  • ‘Greater investment in youth work’, particularly in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, to include an ‘objective assessment’ of the National Citizens Service (NCS) and its contribution.
  • The creation of a ‘national body for youth work’ to oversee the implementation of revised statutory guidance.
  • The need for this guidance to lay down ‘a minimum and protected level of youth service’ to be ‘discharged’ by an identified ‘lead role’ in each local authority.
  • The development of an overall ‘workforce strategy covering trainees and volunteers as well as ‘professional youth workers’.
  • A ‘standardised and national system for evaluating … youth services and quality of youth work provision’, to be carried out by ‘Ofsted or other agency’ and – particularly significantly from a youth work perspective – to include ‘self-evaluation and “light touch” inspection’.

The report also provides a range tables and charts which, with appropriate cautions, details the evidence on expenditure on youth work and services for young people just prior to and then under austerity.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there were however limits to how far this grouping of MPs could liberate itself from the constraints – both of thought and action – which over the past decade have been so damaging to youth work and local authority Youth Services. While acknowledging ‘inequalities where they were referred to in the submitted evidence’, its own conception of ‘the structural’ could not extend to including ‘markers of disadvantaged relating to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity’ (or indeed class) because these were viewed as ‘not within the scope of this report’.

Moreover, for one of the vice chairs of the Group at least, individualised qualities such as ‘character, resilience and life skills’ continue to be a high priority focus for dedicated if apparently decontextualised development; ‘social action’ as currently conceived is seen as a taken-for-granted form of youth work; and ‘business’ remains an assumed source of support for youth work programmes.

Reservations (at the very least) are also in order on some other elements of the report. Its consideration of the statutory guidance, for example, gives no critical attention to the stipulation which since 2010 has provided the cover for so many local authorities to cut or even wind up their Youth Services – that they need only to secure a local youth work offer ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Given the serious doubts many within the wider educational field have about Ofsted and its often negative impacts on their work, the suggestion that it take responsibility for putting new youth work inspection arrangements in place is, understandably, unlikely to get unqualified bottom-up endorsement. And despite the references to self- and light-touch evaluation, an appendix setting out a complex, multi-coloured ‘Theory of Change’ chart comprising six rows and nine columns again risks handing over the evaluation processes to those looking for ‘measured’ individualised and often short-term outcomes.

…to Ministerial rhetoric?

Even allowing for these reservations, the APPG document offers some grounds for optimism that the political tide for youth work might just be turning. How far such alternative thinking has penetrated government circles, however, remains much less clear.

In response to an APPG member’s question, for example, the most that Davies could offer was the one-off rhetorical comment that the report was ‘excellent’. She then went on to seek credit for the government’s increase in spending on public services over the next year from £45.1 to £46.4 billion and more specifically for her own Department’s allocation of £195 million to ‘youth programmes’ covering ‘sport, digital and culture’. To help deal with what – using typically evasive ministerial language – she called local authorities’ ‘challenging funding landscape’, she also announced £90 million for youth employment programmes, to be distributed via a new ‘Youth Futures Fund’. This however turned out not to be new government funding but money to be taken from ‘dormant bank accounts’. Davies also referred to another of the government’s ‘gesture policies’ – the Youth Endowment Fund and the £200 million allocated by the Home Office ‘to support programmes and communities working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence’.

In replying to one question, apparently of-the-cuff Davies found herself offering her (and the government’s?) understanding of youth work: a ‘youth space’ where young people could meet ‘on a Friday evening away from the rain with some high speed internet and with a chance to hang around with friends away from parents’. These were the kinds of spaces which, she said, the government was looking to fund in the future, though without indicating how much money would be available to pay for this provision, where it would come from – or where these same young people might go on the other six evenings of the week.

Davies made three other (apparent) commitments with (potentially) considerable significance for youth work. One – though without detail – was a restatement of the intention to review the statutory guidance for Youth Services. The second, expressed in terms which, even for insiders, was highly mystifying, was ‘to review specific youth work qualifications due to expire in 2020 and to make sure that the youth work training curriculum is right’. Inaccurate in its prediction of these qualifications expiry, this, it transpired, was intended as a government promise to follow through on that APPG recommendation for a renewed workforce strategy.

It was the third of the commitments, however, which emerged as most high profile: to work over the coming months with youth sector organisations and with young people on a Youth Charter ‘to develop a vision for young people over the next generation and beyond’. This would

…reaffirm Government’s commitment to give young people a strong voice on the issues they care about such a combating serious violence and knife crime, addressing mental and physical health challenges and concerns about the environment and climate change. 

Responding to knife crime as a motivation for the initiative emerged again in the link the DCMS made in its press release on the proposed Charter with the Prime Minister’s Serious Youth Violence Summit held the previous week.

The youth organisations to be involved in the Charter’s development include UK Youth, the Scouts and Girlguiding, the NYA, NCS, the youth ‘social action’ programme Step Up To Serve, the Prince’s Trust and the youth-led British Youth Council. In welcoming the announcement, the latter insisted that, to achieve the Charter,

‘we must put young people at the front and centre of joined-up service design and delivery’ and – echoing a key recommendation of the APPG report – ensure their ‘access to high-quality and universally available non-formal education and development opportunities’.

One inescapable reality remains however: that we have a government which is still highly resistant to letting go of its austerity policies – not least because of its embrace still of anti-state, pro-market ideas and their central place in the provision of public services. If therefore the outcome is to contribute to a genuine reinstatement of self-chosen forms of youth work – of those ‘universally available non-formal education and development opportunities’ – it will surely be a test of how far some at least of the organisations involved in the Youth Charter planning have themselves broken free of these neo-liberal ways of seeing and responding to the world.

Bernard Davies, 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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