A new dawn of optimism for youth work?

Choose youth demo

Over the last couple of weeks, Labour has announced their vision for rebuilding youth services, and the Chancellor Sajid Javid announced reinvestment in youth services as part of his supposed ‘support for a post-Brexit future‘. We will discuss Labour’s policy in more detail soon – in the meantime, we want to raise some questions about the government announcement.

Leaving aside whether there is any prospect of post-Brexit any time soon (leave or remain, this month or some other time, presumably the machinations will continue for some time), the government website contains little detail:

The Chancellor announced a new £500m Youth Investment Fund. This investment will help build 60 new youth centres across the country, refurbish around 360 existing youth facilities, and provide over 100 mobile facilities for harder to reach areas. The fund will also support the provision and coordination of high-quality services for young people, and an investment in the youth workforce.

There seems to be an emphasis here on new centres and work on buildings and ‘mobile facilities’. This rings extremely hollow when so many loved and needed centres have been closed altogether or run down over the last decade. Although there is mention of ‘services’ and ‘investment in the youth workforce’, it is unclear whether this would include funding for running costs and decent jobs. As the Institute for Youth Work said,

it is heartening that the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, is recognising the ways that our work “improves social justice” and “changes lives for the better”.  The explicit reference to the development of both new and old youth centres is also very exciting but begs the question – will there be any Youth Workers available to work in them?  The sector will no doubt be grateful for capital funding, but we are still desperate for the revenue funding that would enable Youth Work delivery that avoids having shiny yet empty buildings.

The point about youth work jobs is vital – and is a distinct challenge. So many youth workers have been made redundant over the last decade, and so many courses closed down – people have been shown that youth work (and the education of youth workers) is no longer a viable career. So where are the workers going to come from, and who will train them?

A group of ‘CEOs from across the youth sector’ made a joint statement welcoming the announcement. We would be more cautious in welcoming anything yet but at least we detect some caution or at least contestation in the CEOs’ statement, which is worded in rather muted terms, being (thankfully) less congratulatory than the large youth sector bodies have sometimes been in the past.

For our part, while we want to see funding for youth work, we feel the government announcement is hypocritical. This is a government that has done its best to devastate youth work – reinvestment now is too little, too late, and with no recognition of the damage already done.

We now have all three main political parties making a clear commitment to funding youth work – but these same political parties have overseen decades of marketisation and formalising the informal (through target cultures and short-term deficit-model contracts), followed by (in the case of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) years of cuts. On a broader level the policies of successive governments have created a young precariat and rampant inequalities.

Now youth work appears to be flavour of the month in everyone’s preparations for a general election. This at least shows that the mobilisation by young people, youth workers and allies has begun to have an effect, and that there is perceived to be support for youth clubs across the voting public. But the renewed interest in youth work continues to lean to the preventative rather than educative.

It is also worth noting that – as is common in youth policy – the phrase ‘youth work’ is avoided in the government statement. Perhaps youth work is still seen as too controversial, too ‘narrow’, too unfocused or too professionalised? This investment (in the unlikely even that it materialises, given the chaos in policy-making at the moment) is far from being any guarantee of youth work that is ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’ (as we say in our strapline).

Over ten years on from the open letter that launched In Defence of Youth Work, it is just as important as ever to ask questions about what kind of work with young people is envisaged and incentivised by policy. As youth workers and youth work allies, we will need to continue to be active and vigilant in pursuing educative and open youth work spaces and practices, rather than being seduced into diversionary targeted practices by the promise of funds. Once again we want to reaffirm our commitment to an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, whose cornerstones are:


  • The primacy of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from Youth Work as they so wish, without compulsion or sanction.
  • A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
  • The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
  • A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and -now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’.
  • An insistence upon a democratic practice within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
  • The continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogenous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith remain central. 
  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

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