Spot On



Spot On England

The current condition of professional open youth work in England
Struggling for survival in a neo-liberal world

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Locating an article on the state of youth work within the global ideology of neo-liberalism may seem to some rather over-blown. After all what we are considering here is a form of educational practice which, at least in England, has always existed on the margins of educational provision.
The connections, however, are not that hard to trace.

  • On the (unevidenced) assertion that ‘the market’ can self-regulate, powerful for-profit organisations in the UK – not least the banks – have for decades pursued their interests in largely uncontrolled ways.
  • The resultant near total melt-down of the capitalist system in 2007-08 would have led, you might have thought, to a fundamental rethink of those policies. Instead UK governments have used it as cover, not just for destructive ‘austerity’ policies, but for a wider ideological assault on state-funded public services. In September 2015 for example Prime Minister Cameron made clear that, because of ‘a (past) tolerance of state failure’ his government ‘will adopt a “smarter” approach to public services, running the state more like a business’ – all so that ‘we can spend less and deliver more’.1
  • As this free market logic has been increasingly applied to public services, more and more of them in the UK have been contracted out to private businesses, ‘social enterprises’ and ‘independent’ voluntary organisations – largely on the state’s terms.
  • In England, this wider ‘modernisation’ programme for public services has been imposed on local authority Youth Services which have in effect been judged as amongst Cameron’s failures because they’ve failed to provide the statistical ‘outcomes’ demanded by the neo-liberal policy-makers.


1 Neil Puffett, ‘Cameron earmarks children services as priority reform area’, Children and Young People Now, 11 September 2015, available here, accessed 14 September 2015

Major damage was inflicted on state provision for youth work

As the 2010-15 UK Coalition government implemented its ‘austerity’ agenda, particularly through the imposition of huge cuts in financial support for local councils, major damage was inflicted on state provision for youth work. A 2014 survey of 168 UK local authorities by the trade union Unison revealed that between 2012 and 2014:

  • Youth Services had lost at least £60 million of funding;
  • more than 2000 jobs had been lost;
  • around 350 youth centres had been closed as a result of the cuts;
  • 41,000 youth service places for young people had been cut
  • At least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers had been removed.1

Since then it has emerged that 105 local authorities Conservative-led councils have closed over half of their youth centres since 2010 (411 out of 811) – with, apparently, the good news being that Labour-controlled councils closed only a quarter!2

1 Unison: The Damage, August 2014
2 Jack Blanchard, ‘Tory councils shut HALF their youth centres since David Cameron came to power’, Daily Mirror, 4 September 2015, available here, accessed 8 September 2015.

As a result not only has there been a major shift from open access youth work to projects targeted at ‘at risk’ young people who are required to attend. According to a 2014 National Youth Agency report ‘(t)here is no longer a common form of youth service across England’.1

1 NYA, Youth Services in England: Changes and trends in the provision of services, November 2014, available here, accesses 14 September 2015

What the statistics do not make clear are some of the assumptions driving these policies – such as is that the resultant staffing gaps can be filled by volunteers. As enthusiastic as these people may be – and poorer communities are likely anyway to find they don’t exist – this not only fails to take account of an inevitable huge reduction in person-hours available. In comparison with a Service fully staffed with professional workers many of whom will have years of front-line experience, it also ignores the loss of training and skills vital to providing high quality, labour-intensive, open access youth work.

It also ignores the loss of training and skills vital to providing high quality, labour-intensive, open access youth work

Despite Prime Minister Cameron’s high profile ‘big society’ initiative to encourage such volunteering, government policies have also had serious effects on non-governmental organisations generally and youth work ones in particular. Under the Coalition government funding for the wider voluntary sector will have fallen by the equivalent of £1.7 billion between 2010/11 and 2017/1.1 Perhaps as damaging however has been the whittling away of these organisations’ freedom to, independently and strategically, assess need and then make provision on the basis of their own distinctive values and accumulated, often very local, experience. Instead they have been forced increasingly to become private businesses’ subservient sub-contractors, some with questionable ethical records.

1 NCVO, ‘Counting the Cuts: the impact of spending cuts on the voluntary and community sector – 2013 update, available here, accessed 14 September 2015

This rapid run-down of the professional field has also affected the youth work training agencies which historically have sought to act as both the gate-keeper to it and the guardians of its quality standards. The National Youth Agency’s 2014 annual monitoring of courses showed a 46% fall in student numbers between 2007 and 2013 from 1300 to 701; and that, whereas courses all but hit their recruitment targets at the start of the period, by the end this was down to 86%. In the years after the Coalition government came to power, though the number of post-graduate courses increased slightly, the number of undergraduate courses fell by around 15% – from some 38 to 32. The proportion of under 21 year olds being recruited has increased in the ten years since 2004 from under 20% to just over 30%.1

The struggle for state-sponsored Youth Services goes on, with the trade unions as well as other pressure groups continuing to lobby for a new Act of Parliament which would be much clearer in its requirement on local authorities to fund them to an adequate level. However, in light of the result of the 2015 UK general election not only does this seem unlikely to happen. After three decades of neo-liberal policies, it is an approach which in itself begs some difficult but crucial questions. Such as: how effective has the 75-year-old local authority Youth Services model been for sponsoring and funding youth work? And in particular how appropriate has it been over those decades for nurturing and developing a practice which, by definition, has to be able to respond rapidly and sensitively to young people, to their changing interests, to their priority concerns and to their often challenging cultural practices?

1 NYA , ‘Annual Monitoring of Youth and Community Work Programmes Professionally Validated by the NYA 2012/2013’, available here, accessed 11 September 2015

The struggle for state-sponsored Youth Services goes on

Author_Bernard Davis

by Bernard Davis (2015)

Bernard Davis is a qualified youth worker, has been active in the
UK In Defence of Youth Work campaign since it started in 2009.


Photos: Cover ©; all other © Paul Posse


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