Youth Work: Policy context

The last decade was not good for youth work. The statistics are well known: since 2010, hundreds of youth clubs have been closed; thousands of youth work jobs lost; and more than 100,000 places for young people scrapped – the result of a 75 per cent reduction in council youth work budgets.

Service providers in Coventry & Warwickshire join forces to deliver youth provision where it is most needed. Picture: YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire
Service providers in Coventry & Warwickshire join forces to deliver youth provision where it is most needed. Picture: YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire

Analysis by the Commons home affairs committee published last year found that councils spent nearly £1bn less in real terms on youth services in 2018/19 than they did in 2010. Operating on dramatically reduced resources has not only seen councils slim down their youth work provision, but increasingly focus what little they have on interventions targeted at young people most in need of support. This has resulted in the amount spent on universal services – provision that is open to all young people – fall from 55 to 43 per cent of the total youth work budget since 2011 (see Bernard Davies expert view). Over the same period, spending on targeted provision has risen from 37 to 57 per cent of the overall budget (see graphics). The shift has raised concerns among some youth work experts that targeted provision is seen as a short-term fix for a range of social problems rather than investing in long-term relationships with young people through informal education (see ADCS view).

Short-term funding

The spending changes, which are the result of a fall in funding from central government and financial pressures elsewhere in children’s services, have seen some youth charities close and others change how they operate, with increased emphasis on bidding for short-term pots of money from central and local government targeted at tackling specific issues. Few youth sector experts seem optimistic this trend will end following the Conservatives’ recent election win.

However, the last few years has seen youth work ascend the government policy agenda in response to rising concerns over levels of serious youth violence linked to street gangs and organised crime. This in turn has led to an increase in the amount of central government funding pledged for youth groups and services on the ground. A number of recent parliamentary inquiries have highlighted the link between rising youth violence and cuts to provision for young people. Last year’s home affairs committee inquiry on serious youth violence heard that there had been a reduction in safe spaces for young people to congregate, and to protect them from those who groom them to join gangs. Dr Carlene Firmin said that “the loss of youth services around the country” had resulted in “young people congregating in a range of public spaces where they are exposed to violence”, without access to “any sort of support from youth workers or any other kind of active community guardians who can keep them safe”.

Analysis last year by the Children’s Commissioner for England concluded that 30,000 children are members of street gangs while more than 300,000 know someone involved in a gang. Meanwhile, recent research by Goldsmiths, University of London looked at the methods used by criminal gangs to recruit and exploit young people and the vital role community-based youth workers can play in helping someone leave that life and prevent others from joining it (see research evidence).

Tackling serious violence

In response, the government has announced a series of new youth initiatives aimed at tackling serious violence, including the Early Intervention Youth Fund, the Youth Endowment Fund and the Supporting Families Against Youth Crime Fund, which will be invested in community-backed projects in 21 areas to help families who are vulnerable to the effects of knife crime. The home affairs committee estimates that these announcements amount to around £40m per year in additional funding for youth projects, which councils and community groups can bid for. They conclude however that the amount is “considerably smaller-scale than the youth services that have been cut” although some areas are using it to develop effective interventions with young people at risk of getting involved in violent crime (see Northampton practice example).

Last autumn, the Chancellor pledged the government would provide £500m over five years to build 60 new youth centres across the country, refurbish around 360 existing youth facilities, and provide more than 100 mobile units for harder to reach areas through the creation of a new Youth Investment Fund. It also pledged to develop a 10-year vision for young people, “on the issues they care about such as combating serious violence and knife crime, addressing mental and physical health challenges and concerns about the environment and climate change”.

In addition to investing in youth work infrastructure, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is carrying out a review into statutory guidance on services for young people, the consultation on which closed last December. It is expected to provide clarity on the government’s expectations for a local youth offer, including the value of youth work delivered by trained practitioners.

Last July, the government announced it will provide £500,000 to fund bursaries for 400 students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay to undertake youth work qualifications. Development of a youth workforce service was a key recommendation of last year’s all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs inquiry into the impact of youth work. To this end, the National Youth Agency is developing a strategy and carrying out its own review of youth work qualifications (see research evidence). Such measures are urgently needed as latest figures show a two-thirds fall in the number of people taking youth work degree courses and Level 2 and 3 support worker qualifications since 2010, with just a quarter of the workforce holding youth work qualifications now (see YMCA expert view).

Evolution of degree courses

Another trend has seen youth workers increasingly taking roles outside of traditional youth work settings, such as housing programmes, in the NHS and social care teams. Youth work degrees are evolving to reflect this, with modules covering social care, health and social enterprise for example.

The need for youth workers to engage young people on the street and where they socialise has been highlighted by experts as key to tackling levels of violence. Other experts, such as Pete Harris, former chair of the Federation of Detached Youth Work, say youth workers need to engage young people more in the digital space if they are to understand the role social media plays in stoking conflict.

Meanwhile, new forms of youth provision are opening up opportunities for youth workers to expand their reach into communities. The network of youth zones, with its state-of-the-art facilities, is growing, as are the number of youth mutuals that have been created to run youth provision on behalf of councils (see Knowsley expert view, above). Both approaches look set to expand further in the coming decade.

ADCS VIEW We need clearer national policy for role and funding of youth work

By Rachel Dickinson, ADCS president 2019/20 and executive director for people at Barnsley Council

The Civil Society Strategy recognises that youth work can have a transformational impact on young people’s lives but we have not yet seen a clear vision or strategy for youth services. Without a clear policy statement, one that recognises the wider benefits of youth work to both the individual and society, it remains adrift from wider children’s services, particularly education and schools.

There are many misconceptions about youth work among the public and, I fear, among our politicians and their policymakers. Youth work is rooted in the principles of building trusting relationships, improving wellbeing and promoting personal resilience. Sadly, the reach and scale of these services has been restricted by a decade of budget cuts in many areas meaning school-based facilities, mobile units and dedicated neighbourhood youth centres have been lost. However, the community and voluntary sectors, including faith groups, continue to step into the space left by statutory services.

Youth workers make a valuable contribution to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people at risk of poor outcomes, or harm, by signposting them to information and support. Increasingly they are also engaged in targeted interventions in neighbourhoods experiencing high levels of antisocial behaviour, for example, or working with specific groups like unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Detached youth work lends itself to efforts to identify and disrupt sexual and/or criminal exploitation by targeting known hotspots.

The need to recruit and retain the best staff to support children, young people and their families, is more pronounced than ever yet the number of degree-level youth work courses has fallen significantly in recent years. The youth work bursary and the development of a new suite of youth work apprenticeships led by the National Youth Agency are bright spots on the horizon.

The new government has pledged a significant investment in youth services over the course of the next parliament. This is welcome news, but it is important that we get real bang for our buck. The National Citizenship Service (NCS), a four-week programme aimed at 16- and 17-year-olds, currently accounts for around 95 per cent of the government’s youth services budget. The NCS is now part of the wider youth services offer and participant feedback is positive. However, there is more that could be done to ensure NCS contracts dovetail with local youth services and providers reach out to the groups that could benefit the most.

The need to self-fund some costs can be a barrier to some, and more could be done to help children in care and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities engage with the programme. All children and young people deserve the chance to access good quality youth services, year round, not just in the summer months.


Protecting ‘open’ youth work

By Bernard Davies, author of Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England

The term “youth work” has come to be used increasingly to describe almost any kind of “work with young people”. Which is why, in seeking to defend this practice, it has become ever more necessary to talk about youth work that is “open” to all young people who choose to engage; and “open” to the interests and concerns of those young people substantially shaping its informal educational aims and outcomes.

As well as providing young people with social arenas in which to relax and enjoy themselves, open-access networks are recognised for their potential to prompt and support collective as well as individual learning and for helping tip some balances of power a little more in young people’s favour.

This practice, which emphasises skills in listening, conversing, empathising and questioning, is unlikely to get much validation from the new government. The most that youth work can expect in the next five years are more of the policies which have characterised the past decade: small amounts of time-limited money largely targeted on the “at-risk and the risky” and requiring divisive forms of competitive bidding.

Trends in training and skills

By Lisa Carroll, director of youth work and fundraising, YMCA Coventry & Warwickshire

As a result of cuts, many young people are missing out on opportunities outside of the school setting to engage in positive activities that support their learning and development.

For youth workers, this has led to a changing work landscape. Many move regularly from job to job as funding streams change, developing skills in all areas of youth work.

There is less of a focus on everyone having a JNC (joint negotiating committee) qualification, to a noticeable shift towards requiring the Level 2 and 3 youth work qualifications. This has created more opportunities for workplace supported qualifications, where people can work and learn simultaneously.

Providers now work in partnership with other agencies to deliver complementary youth services in local areas and combine resources to train workers to the required level. This collaborative approach is likely to continue as we unite experience and resources to ensure that the best youth services possible are available to those who need them.

Our challenge is to evolve with the changing landscape, embracing the changes, while continuing to deliver services to young people that need it most.

Mutuals’ time is coming

By Paul Oginsky, chief executive, Knowsley Youth Mutual

The mutual model is built on the concept of community ownership. At its best, this will draw on the thoughts and experience of more people diminishing the likelihood of mistakes.

Regardless of the type of organisation providing a service, good youth work is good youth work. Grant makers and governments would be more effective if they focussed on the quality of the service being provided rather than an organisation’s legal status.

Despite having a Conservative government for a decade, there has not been a dramatic growth in mutuals. A sprinkling of youth services have spun out of local government and become mutuals, but these pioneers have survived rather than flourished.

I expect to see a growth in mutual organisations over the next five years, due to the government having a large majority. As more spring up we may see them merging with each other and perhaps taking over charities and “for profit” organisations.

Mutuals are not more or less effective than other types of organisations – what they have is a legal structure which can deliver great services within a culture of collective ownership.

Click here for more in CYP Now's Youth Work Special Report


  • Responding to youth violence through youth work, National Youth Agency, December 2019
  • Serious youth violence inquiry, home affairs committee, July 2019; and government response
  • APPG for youth affairs inquiry into youth work, April 2019
  • Keeping kids safe, Children’s Commissioner for England, February 2019
  • Civil Society Strategy, DCMS, July 2018

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