Thinking critically about youth work cuts and knife crime

Choose youth demo

Last month, analysis of local authority figures revealed that “areas suffering the largest cuts to spending on young people have seen bigger increases in knife crime”. Many of us will (quite understandably) use these figures to argue all the more strongly for youth work. But perhaps we need to think a little about how we use them.

First of all, we need to be careful with statistics – we don’t know whether these figures demonstrate causation, correlation, or both, or what the nature of this causation or correlation might be. If it is causation, it could perhaps be that involvement in youth work, by engaging young people in their peer groups and showing care and relationships, plays some kind of preventative role in relation to knife crime and other violence. We know that some young people and youth workers have life experience that suggests this is true for some, even if it might not be possible to prove statistically on a wider scale. On the other hand, if it is correlation, perhaps (let’s say) both knife crime and youth work cuts are influenced by similar complex combinations of factors such as poverty, inequalities, prejudice and a lack of value placed in young people’s lives.

However we interpret the statistics, there is clearly a dilemma here in relation to defending youth work. As Bernard Davies recently wrote on this site, justifying youth clubs on the basis of preventing knife crime is deeply problematic:

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?

See also Bernard’s letter to the Guardian in response to the recent statistics.

In a similar vein, Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty argue in a recent blog that, in the context of knife tragedies,

it has never been clearer that young people need to know they are valued; they need adults they can trust, who will challenge and support them; and they need spaces where they can build positive peer and community relations and a feeling of belonging.

Yet like Bernard Davies, they resist the idea of youth work being funded as crime prevention; drawing on Tania’s research for her book Grassroots youth work they argue that,

… the threat to youth work came both from cuts and a longer legacy of neoliberal market imperatives and surveillance cultures shaping public and voluntary services. The part-time and volunteer youth workers in the study were heavily constrained by funding attached to predefined outcomes and bureaucratic monitoring systems. Crime prevention projects that required them to work alongside the police, or to identify young people ‘at risk of involvement in crime’, were particularly problematic and counter-productive, because they brought youth workers into the realm of surveillance and ‘the establishment’ in young people’s eyes. ‘Proving’ (rather than critically reflecting on) their work wasted money and effort, as they were compelled to focus on meeting immediate targets at the expense of professional judgments and long-term face-to-face practice.

None of this suggests that as youth workers we shouldn’t talk about knife tragedies and how deeply this context affects our work in myriad ways. We recommend this article in GQ by journalist and youth worker Ciaran Thaper, which includes thoughtful perspectives of young people and youth workers as they engage in policy debates, including the APPG on Knife Crime, even as their own lives and clubs are affected by knife tragedies. The piece is well worth reading in full. We will finish with Ciaran’s rousing words:

It should not be that difficult to guide and inspire young people to lead fulfilling lives, no matter what background they are from, especially if they are not afforded the privilege of automatic financial and emotional stability in their family home. But by removing the spaces, specialists and funding needed to make this happen, the current government — I do not say this lightly — is killing off young urban British life as we know it, in an unnecessary ideological war. It has to end.


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