In nearly any other general election, an analysis of election promises on youth services would have been a very short document indeed. It is unprecedented to see youth service reinvestment promised in manifestos across the political spectrum, as is the case this year. Before comparing the promises made, we need to first look at the context that has brought us to this unusual situation.
Where are youth services in 2019?
A decade of cuts has resulted in experienced staff being made redundant, courses closed and buildings sold off. The disproportionate effects of austerity on youth work were exacerbated by weak statutory guidance that requires local authorities to provide youth services only where “reasonably practical”, making youth work – particularly in its universal or open-access forms – an easy target in the context of heavily reduced local government funding. Previously, New Labour had invested substantially in youth services, but their performance targets directed resources towards time-limited targeted projects rather than open access youth work leading to weakened provision in that area.
Why are youth services now attracting support? First, because youth work has been kept on the agenda through campaigns by young people and supporters, alongside pockets of continuing excellent practice. Second, because of wider public support in reaction to the loss of facilities alongside the huge challenges facing young people from austerity, poverty, violence and exploitation. The correlation between youth service cuts and knife crime statistics, while not necessarily causal, tells a stark story in which young people’s lives appear not to be valued. As economic policy turns towards investment, youth services are a relatively low-cost response to growing public demand.
This context brings challenges. Firstly, youth work works best when it is youth-centred and informal, responding to diverse needs rather than focusing on knife crime or any other single issue. Knee jerk investment requiring quick results on specific indicators may be short-lived, as the multiple issues affecting young people have complex causes and will not be addressed by youth work alone. Secondly, rebuilding youth services after a decade’s decay requires a thoughtful strategy to rebuild confidence, skills and knowledge at grassroots and strategic levels, particularly in the area of open access youth work.
Youth work works best when it is youth-centred and informal, responding to diverse needs rather than focusing on knife crime or any other single issue. Knee jerk investment requiring quick results on specific indicators may be short-lived...and will not be addressed by youth work alone. – Dr Tania de St Croix
Manifesto pledges on youth services
So what are the policy commitments on youth services put forward by the parties? I set them out here in order of detail and depth.
The Labour manifesto guarantees access to high quality, local youth work for every young person via a professionally staffed National Youth Service, pledging £1.1 billion to return spending to 2010 levels. A separate “Youth Manifesto” locates youth work within a wider agenda: reducing the voting age to 16; reinstating the Education Maintenance Allowance and free university tuition; and guaranteeing access to school counsellors.
Investment in youth work is explored comprehensively in Labour’s “Only Young Once”, which is based on extensive consultation with the sector, evident in Labour’s understanding of youth work as informal education based on trusting relationships. Labour also acknowledges the challenging context (including the limitations of previous Labour policy), pledging to develop a national youth workforce strategy and new legislation requiring local authorities to provide youth work for all.
Like the Labour Party, the Green Party’s manifesto commitment to youth work is rooted in engagement with the sector. Also like Labour, the Green Party’s support for youth services takes place in the context of a wider policy agenda for youth engagement including votes at 16, a Minister for Future Generations, and a Youth Select Committee with powers to hold Government to account. The youth sector will be disappointed, however, that investment in youth services and centres is framed only in terms of helping “turn at-risk children away from crime” rather than as a holistic approach to work educationally with young people on their own diverse and complex concerns and needs.
The Liberal Democrats pledge to invest in youth services via a £500 million ringfenced youth services fund to local authorities, as part of a public health approach to youth violence that identifies and treats risk factors. They also plan to reduce the voting age to 16. While the youth sector will be delighted to see ringfenced investment, support for training, and a recognition of the need to “repair the damage done”, they’ll be disappointed that youth work is framed as crime prevention rather than informal education.
The Conservative manifesto promises £500 million new investment in youth clubs and services for young people, alongside continued backing for the National Citizen Service (controversial in the sector) and other structured youth projects such as the Youth Futures Foundation which will invest £90 million to improve employment outcomes for young people. However, the Conservatives have much to do to regain trust in the sector in the context of a decade of cuts, particularly as many of their other policies are opposed by the majority of young people, eg Brexit and maintaining the voting age at 18.
After an extremely challenging decade, it is a testament to youth work’s campaigners and advocates that the four largest UK-wide parties have now committed to reinvesting in youth services. The effectiveness of their proposals will depend both on promises being met, and on a thoughtful engagement with the sector on the challenges of rebuilding a youth service that meets the needs of young people:
Dr Tania de St Croix Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth and Childhood and Principal Investigator on an ESRC-funded project: Rethinking Impact, Evaluation and Accountability in Youth Work, at King's College London.