The Labour Party’s Vision for Open Youth Work

The In Defence of Youth Work founding Open Letter of 2008 was a direct and critical response to New Labour’s infatuation with the instrumental agenda of neoliberalism. Whatever our mistakes we have not been soft on either ‘Old’ or ‘New’ Labour. In this context the recently published Labour Party report puts us on the back foot. Born of a serious dialogue with the field it compels us to be magnanimous. As, hopefully, a catalyst to debate Bernard Davies, the author, most recently of ‘Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’ offers his initial thoughts.

A Labour Party vision for open youth work 

One of the prompts for the title of ‘Streetworker’s’ post earlier this month – ‘A new dawn of optimism for youth work?’ – was the appearance of Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services. Though this was never going to hit the news headlines – and though at this moment it is not exactly guaranteed that Labour will form the next government! – for youth workers it offers some welcome encouragement, not least by endorsing key features of their practice.


Some ambiguities and evasions in the analysis and proposals certainly need to be acknowledged and unpicked – see later.  Overall, however, the paper represents a serious and well researched attempt by a political party to lay out a central government-led strategy for how, in England, open youth work provision might be re-thought and reinstated within regional, national and even international contexts. Albeit carefully masked, it even at one point distances itself from some of Labour’s own past policies in this area when it suggests that defining ‘… youth work … as a “positive activity” in legislation … demonstrates a failure to recognise (it) as a distinct educational practice’. 

One of the paper’s key starting points is a perspective on ‘the condition of youth’ which, in the words of Jeremy Corbyn’s Foreword, acknowledges that ‘life for young people in Britain today is … worse in many ways than it was for the previous generation’. In urging that we break with ‘a tendency to look at young people in negative terms’, the paper then points out that the vast majority … ‘do not end up in trouble with the law’. Rather than services therefore being defined as just ‘a method of “fixing a problem”’, it expects them to recognise ‘the agency young people have as a group to be empowered’ and to help ‘realise their full potential and live successfully in their communities’. For achieving such aims, it argues that young people have been deprived of vital forms of skilled support by the loss over the last decade of 1450 youth workers, 750 youth centres and over 20 higher education qualifying courses resulting from a real-terms annual cut of £1 billion (73 per cent) on youth services since 2010.

More positively – and long-overdue in a statement such as this – is the paper’s location of youth work as ‘just one aspect of a wider youth policy agenda’ and its affirmation of some of the practice’s core defining features. It thus asserts in unusually unambiguous terms that:

  • ‘The main purpose of youth services will be to provide non-formal education that supports the personal, social and political development of all young people…’
  • ‘Provision will be based on relationships of trust between young people and trained youth workers; and voluntary participation will apply across all levels’.
  • ‘Youth work as a practice is inherently democratic and so the interaction must be negotiated with young people from the outset’.
  • This practice ‘will take place in a range of contexts and settings in which young people choose to be…’

On the state structures and forms of supporting infrastructure needed to provide and develop this practice it also makes some significant commitments – for example: 

  • ‘Appoint(ing) a Minister for Children and Young People responsible for the national youth service (to) sit within the Department for Education supporting the Secretary of State; and consider(ing) establishing a cabinet sub-committee for children and young people’.  
  • Develop(ing) ‘youth work facilities and practices … as a provision in their own right rather than within the formal educational settings of school and college’. 
  • ‘Youth services remain(ing) independent and complementary to other services such as formal education, social services and the NHS’.    
  • Through the youth service, ‘address(ing) social inequalities … including discrimination and racial disparities…’
  • ‘Support(ing) groups with specific identities, such as LGBT+ people, young people with special needs, young women, or specific religious communities’.
  • ‘Develop(ing) a national youth workforce development strategy’ and requiring local authorities to ‘work with local partner organisations to establish a local workforce development plan’ whose aims would include working towards ‘a full-time equivalent of part-time staff split 30:70 for new “Youth Work Leaders” and “Youth Work Assistants”’ and establishing ‘a nationwide youth work apprenticeship scheme’.
  • Giving local authorities a statutory responsibility to ‘provide ‘back of house’ support for smaller partner voluntary organisations’. 

In other important ways, too, the paper is clearer-sighted than many other recent such policy documents. Recognising that the present legislation setting out local authorities’ statutory duties ‘… includes a get-out clause: that the youth work activities were to be provided only “so far as reasonably practicable”’, it advocates for new legislation ‘that clearly defines a base level of (youth work) sufficiency’. It also explicitly criticises the competitive commissioning-out of services for having ‘weakened the infrastructure and potential of collaborative approaches to service planning and delivery’.     

… dilemmas…

Though no doubt more controversially, the paper also seeks ways through two of the dilemmas with which youth work has long struggled:

  • How to evaluate its practice in ways which, while credible with funders, are congruent with its core young person-led approaches and processes.
  • How to ensure that its proposed ‘registration’ of youth workers and creation of a ‘licence to practice’ recognise and actively support the huge face-to-face contributions made by volunteers.  

Evaluating open youth work 

At the national level a key Labour starting point is its wider commitment to replacing OFSTED with ‘a new inspectorate for education as part of (its proposed) National Education Service’. For youth work this will mean ‘reintroduce(ing) a specialist core of inspections … to report on … delivery … organised by the national body for youth work’ (which, it is later made clear, means the National Youth Agency). These could involve both ‘regular ‘health checks and … intervening where there is a major problem or a “deep dive” is needed’. 

Much closer to direct practice and its possible evaluation, however, is the paper’s explicit recognition that 

…quantitative measures in order to measure ‘efficiency’ may … not (be) appropriate for universal provision – the heart of youth work – where young people engage through a non-formal setting and there is no predetermined outcome

After acknowledging that there is not a quick or clear solution to change the overarching culture of evidence and evaluation within youth work’, the paper makes a commitment to providing ‘strategic leadership for moving towards gathering stronger, more effective evidence of youth work that focuses on the long term’.

Though the dilemma here is thus far from resolved, hope is offered here that its more complex ramifications might be addressed with greater insight into and sympathy for what a practice like youth work requires than many policy-makers have brought to it in the recent past.   

‘Registering youth workers and creating a ‘licence to practice’

Clearly a response to demands over many years from a key ally – the Unite/CYWU union – the paper commits Labour to giving youth workers ‘a legally recognised title … only available to those with approved qualifications and experience …’ to be protected by Parliamentary statute. In doing this, however, it has had to confront two contradictory pressures. One: that, in contrast to titles such as ‘social worker’ and ‘teacher’, the title ‘youth worker’ is widely attached in often unaccountable and inappropriate ways to anyone working (or claiming to work) with young people; the other: that by potentially defining youth work practice as an exclusive ‘professional’ occupation made up of paid staff, its long history and continuing tradition of volunteers doing most of the face-to-face practice will be ignored or devalued. 

Here, the paper is fully upfront about its struggle:

… we recognise that there is a fundamental tension between the desire for recognition and support for professionalisation amongst many in the youth sector, and the risk of placing undue barriers in the way of volunteers and youth workers who do not have formal or validated qualifications. 

Here too, therefore, the paper at least recognises the dilemma in a way which some one-dimensional responses in the past have not. It also goes on to make practical proposals for dealing with it – such as: 

… we will establish a working group with the sector on how this will be achieved, with further consultation with the sector. 

voluntary youth workers (will be given) … the opportunity to become participants in the scheme at an appropriate level. 

a set of criteria for Youth Work Volunteers and Youth Leaders (will be established) so that they … would be recognised in any national register. 

… and ambiguities – and evasions?

Within what is overall a searching analysis of and reassuring set of proposals for a future for open youth work, inevitably perhaps some issues remain unaddressed and even perhaps evaded. 

A very specific (and significant) one here is: so what future for the NCS under a Labour government? In a very bland way, alongside ‘sports clubs, art and drama groups, social enterprises, after school clubs (and) uniformed youth groups…’, the scheme is at one point simply listed as one of the ‘activities and opportunities … not traditionally considered part of the statutory youth sector’. We are also told (twice) that the ‘statutory youth service … (will) support National Citizens Service (NCS) accredited youth social action…’ What is not promised is the root-and-branch investigation which is now vital – and again long overdue – into the effectiveness and value-for-money of a programme which, according to the government’s own figures, has been absorbing 94 percent (some £634 million) of its ‘youth services’ funding and whose recruitment targets – which anyway it has consistently failed to meet – fall well short of what in the past was assumed for the multi-session youth work facilities based in young people’s own communities.

A second much more basic set of questions concern the central and local state structures routes through which the planned national policies would be implemented and the funding for them allocated. The vision here is explicit and necessarily ambitious. It is committed for example to ‘empowering our communities to create a youth service that is delivered and directed locally, and not dictated from Whitehall’ – with local authorities encouraged to see in-house delivery as ‘the preferred option’. The approach will be one of ‘collaborative partnerships at local, regional, national and international level… (with) the content, direction and success criteria … negotiated between young people and those working with them…’ Indeed, recognising that ‘… the highest form of youth participation is co-management, co-decision and co-delivery with other professionals and elected representatives’, young people and their organisations will have ‘a statutory right to be consulted on the development of local youth service plans and any changes to them…’. 

Given that the vehicles for implementing these devolved power-sharing approaches and policies will be state institutions whose power structures can be very self-serving, inflexible and disconnected from the grassroots action, the devil in all of this could however turn out to be in the detail of the actual delivery. To get the promised ‘sustainable funding’, for example, local authorities will have the task of setting up and facilitating new Local Youth Partnerships (LYPs) which will have an overall strategic (though not direct delivery) role as well as developmental, coordinating and additional fund-raising responsibilities. However, incorporating a wide range of diverse and potentially competing interests, their membership will be made up of, but not be limited to

…: the local authority, youth workers, voluntary organisations, unions, local schools, police, social services, Clinical Commissioning Groups, Housing Associations, faith groups, uniformed groups, football clubs and sports organisations, the corporate sector and funder representation. 

To access funding from a new ring-fenced Youth Services Fund, LYPs will also need to ‘submit local plans to the national body for youth work and funding agency which itself will be working to its own ‘distribution formula’. 

The big challenge here will be to set up and then operate these structures and procedures in ways which do not again trap youth work into complex, top-down controlling bureaucratic procedures which divert it from its distinctive ways of working with young people.

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