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Open Youth Work in Wales and England – Two sides of the same coin?.

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At first glance, the very term ‘Professional open youth work’ used in the context of youth work delivery in Wales, would perhaps create something of a contradiction in the reflective thinking of practitioners.

Such reflection would revolve around the ongoing political debate between those in Wales that embrace the growing shift away from informal open youth work towards more formal, targeted and integrated youth work (which in the context of POYWE we might refer to as professional ‘closed’ youth work). On the other side of the debate are those who seek to protect the rights of young people to engage in what is known across the UK as open-access youth work.

For youth workers in Wales, the 21st century began with the excitement of a newly devolved Welsh Assembly Government furnished with power to determine different youth policies to those across the border in England (Government of Wales Act, 1998). The arrival of the youth service-friendly and open youth work centric policy, Extending Entitlement (Welsh Assembly Government, 2000), meant that Welsh practitioners would not see their youth work delivery ‘transformed’ into the emergent ‘young people as a deficit’ model that developed under the ‘Connexions’ initiative in England within the Transforming Youth Work Policy (DES, 2002).

What’s in a name?
‘Connexions’ certainly transformed state funded youth work in England in contrast to the more holistic, entitlement-based and rights based agenda of youth work in Wales. The professional identity and traditional youth work role of state funded work being involved in both targeted and open access youth work was further divided by the introduction of a range of new titles for youth workers such as ‘Personal Advisers’, ‘Youth Support Workers’ or the strangely named ‘Youth Brokers’ (Jeffs & Smith, 2001). A whole new dialogue also entered the open access youth work environment with introduction of terms such as ‘surveillance’, ‘monitoring’, and ‘case management’ (Smith, 2007), terms which for open youth work practitioners were the very antithesis of their values and principles. Indeed, reacting to the concern amongst practitioners around the perceived threat to traditional, open youth work, Davies (1999) went a step further and predicted that it might in fact herald the ending of youth services in England.

That prediction has almost proved Davies to be a somewhat prophetic visionary as recent youth work policies (or lack thereof) have failed to protect the youth service and its workforce. The reduction in capacity to deliver open access youth work is well documented and researched. Unison reported more than 9 out of 10 youth workers (90%) saying that their local authority had reduced spending on services such as open-access youth centres, outreach support and advice for young people (Unison, 2016). This has led to further reducing of the ‘open youth work’ identity as workers are redeployed in more formal and targeted professional settings like health, education, social services, housing, youth justice, employment and family support

Across the border in Wales, it is now little different, with the same austerity drive impacting on the 22 local authorities who face increased difficulties in maintaining even the most essential statutory services such as health, education, and social services.

So, the aforementioned excitement surrounding the positive vision for youth services within Extending Entitlement (2000) is now more subdued in Wales as we have seen policy since then shift to the less ambitiously titled, National Strategy for Youth Work in Wales (Welsh Government, 2014). Whilst the policy contains some placatory rhetoric about the importance of open access youth work being available to everyone it does not hide the fact that one of the key outcomes desired for youth work is to reduce the numbers of young people not engaged in education, training and employment.

The reduction in capacity to deliver open access youth work is well documented and researched.

The realities in practice do not evidence the ‘entitlement to all’ promise contained in the strategy

The realities in practice do not evidence the ‘entitlement to all’ promise contained in the strategy and this is borne out by a recent audit for youth services in Wales which showed that only 16% of the population of 11-25yr olds in Wales are in contact with local authority youth services (Statistical First, 2017). We therefore seem in Wales to have moved from the idea of Extending Entitlement (2000) to what could now be argued as ‘reducing entitlement’ or as Williamson (2007, p215) more eloquently observed, Extending Entitlement (2000) ‘rose on a tide of vision and expectation and has descended into a morass of competing and confusing structures, lacking direction and arguably in a vacuum’..

It is worth noting that in the context of available funding and resources, the majority of government funding available to support youth work in Wales is allocated via a Revenue Support Grant (RSG). The difficulty for protecting open access youth work lies in the fact that the RSG is an open funding stream meaning that money is not specifically allocated to youth work. Therefore, it is up to each of the local authorities to designate how the funding is spent depending on local needs and priorities. With the benefits of open access youth work already widely misunderstood by most politicians it is no surprise therefore that any funding directed towards youth services (including its workforce) is prioritised to political goals around youth unemployment services, youth offending services and formal education structures.

The debate moving forward in Wales will potentially see a ‘division of labour’ between the voluntary sector and the statutory sector. Providing quality open access provision has long been the preserve of the voluntary sector and with the luxury of a degree of independence from the pressures of policy and targets, the sector is in a position to protect open youth work and partner with local authorities to avoid duplication and competition. This leaves the statutory sector equally well placed to continue delivery under the integrated services model emerging in Wales and actively contribute to the policy areas indicated in the current strategy.

With 22 local authorities each delivering their own ‘local’ version of youth work it is perhaps inevitable that any sense of such a unified vision and robust defence for open access youth work will be in short supply at national level. Rays of light amidst the gloom include the establishment of a Youth Parliament later this year (2018), a professional registration scheme now operating for qualified youth workers (April, 2017), and a ministerial review of Extending Entitlement and the National Strategy for Youth Work.

Sadly, open-youth work provision for young people in Wales has become a postcode lottery dependent on the various whims and priorities of local authority chief officers. So who will challenge this? Active political change networks amongst youth workers in Wales seem to be in even shorter supply than any national vision from its political leaders. So, we must live in hope that the ongoing national campaigning of UK-wide organisations like In Defence of Youth Work (IDYW) will indeed prompt a reversal of the fortunes of open youth work in Wales.

by Mick Conroy (2018)

Mick Conroy is current Course Leader of BA (Hons) JNC Professional Youth Work Degree at University of South Wales.

Photos youth work in Wales © University of South Wales


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