In December 2002, the government said youth work offered “particular ways of learning, characterised by processes which encourage personal and social development and reflect wider social issues” and that money allocated for it must not be spent on general activities with no youth work content.(1)
Two-and-a-half years on and the government has published the youth green paper Youth Matters setting out a vision for the development of services for young people over the next five years.(2)
The paper outlines integrated youth support services, led by local authorities through children’s trusts, with responsibility for planning and commissioning the full range of services for teenagers.
Through the green paper’s proposals, the government wants to achieve four key things: more young people engaged in positive activities; more young people volunteering and getting involved in their communities; better information, advice and guidance for young people; and better and more personalised intensive support for those young people who need it.
Education secretary Ruth Kelly hailed the long-awaited paper as a “major step” towards making a significant difference to the lives of young people and the communities in which they live. But will it preserve and strengthen the essence of youth work? And will it really improve services and outcomes for all young people?
On the plus side, the document does mention reinvigorating youth work and acknowledges that youth services can make “a crucial contribution” to meeting young people’s needs.
But it does little to directly link its numerous references to “positive activities” – including a promise to clarify the duty on local authorities to provide them – to the values or curriculum framework that underpin youth work.
Early responses to this apparent anomaly vary. Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, is unperturbed. “I don’t buy this line that all they are promising is activities. Those of us that are involved in the paper’s development processes will have higher ambitions than simply getting activities.”
He plans to insist that the positive activities flagged up throughout the paper are grounded in a curriculum about social education, values, and a notion of citizenship. He adds that you only need to look at the young people who carried out the London bombings, at least one of whom was repeatedly described as a keen cricketer, to realise that being involved in sports and positive activities is not enough on its own.
But Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers’ Union, remains concerned about the paper’s proposals.
“We are still bereft of a duty for youth work and youth service,” Nicholls argues. “We are not giving local authorities a duty to provide the only service that young people choose to be involved with, providing the only workers that are motivating young people into building constructive relationships.
“Activities don’t exist in a vacuum. You need youth workers to motivate the young people who most need this provision. You could have all the activities in the world but that’s not going to change the culture or predicament of many of the most vulnerable young people in society.”
His concern for the future of the youth service in the absence of a specific new duty on local authorities to provide one is understandable – particularly given the service’s history of under-funding. Even when the government announced in 2002 a 5.9% investment for local authorities to spend on youth and community services in 2003-4, the CYWU calculates that youth services only received £305.7m of the £513m promised.
Malcolm Rittman, youth officer for Hampshire Council, agrees that the paper is disappointing in its failure to clarify for local authorities the level and adequacy of youth service they are required to deliver. He believes the paper is coming from a social inclusion agenda, focusing on supporting young people without really thinking about taking them on a journey of development.
“There is a recreational agenda in the paper – and that to me is not youth work. Youth work is really focusing on young people’s personal development. At times it will be about using sport to do that. But the sport is not the end.”
But Rittman remains upbeat. “The paper provides a real key for encouraging services to genuinely start working together for teenagers. We have to grab the essence of this and move it beyond the recreational agenda to the personal development agenda. And I think we can do that.”
The Local Government Association welcomes youth work being brought under children’s and young people’s trusts and the development of integrated youth support services. But Wylie believes plans for these integrated services, and the targeted youth support teams within them, are not persuasive and are “very under-developed”.
“The paper speaks better to the extreme end than what I observe to be the normal vulnerabilities of some young people as they are growing up,” he says. “Of course there are people at the extreme end who are obviously in need of help, and they do need intensive personalised support and a lead professional. But this paper doesn’t deal enough with the generality of the young person who may be having a few problems or a bit of turbulence in their lives.”
Rittman agrees that the paper is unclear how integrated youth support services will be organised and who will be involved. But he believes their targeted youth support teams, focused on prevention and early intervention, could be strong teams providing they genuinely bring together different professionals who maintain their specialisms.
While obvious concerns remain – not least around the absence of any new funding before 2008 – the excitement across the sector at the paper’s potential is palpable. The process to ensure that the potential is realised must now begin.
As UK Youth Parliament co-chairperson Ashley Sweetland puts it: “This is a fantastic opportunity to put youth issues on the agenda. At ministerial level, there does seem to be quite a lot energy and commitment. So let’s make sure that resources can never be said to have held this back.”
(1)Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, DfES, Dec 2002
(2) Youth Matters, DfES, July 2005
Empowerment and Delivery
To deliver the goal of getting more young people into positive activities – which the paper links directly to making them “less likely to drift into trouble, cause a nuisance or commit a crime” – the government is proposing a new set of national standards for the activities that all young people would be able to access in their free time.
This would include access to: two hours of sport a week, two hours of other constructive activities a week, opportunities to volunteer, a wide range of other recreational or cultural experiences, and a range of safe places in which to spend time.
The government also wants young people to help shape the services on offer to them through the creation of an opportunity fund in each area to be spent on projects that young people want, and through the introduction of opportunity cards.
Opportunity cards would provide discounts on a range of things to do and places to go. The government proposes giving every teenager an initial £12 credit, and further monthly top-ups for 13- to 16-year-olds in receipt of free school meals. Young people and their relatives could also top up the cards.
However, plans to reward good behaviour with additional top-ups and punish “unacceptable and antisocial behaviours” by withholding subsidies and suspending or withdrawing cards have been met with widespread scepticism.
Andrew Simmons, chief executive of the Hertfordshire Connexions Partnership, predicts difficulties will arise not least because of cross-boundary issues as young people move between localities.
He has concerns about the “carrot and stick” approach and questions whether you could legally prevent a young person using the money their gran had given them for positive activities by suspending their card.
Withdrawing monthly subsidies that only disadvantaged children were entitled to in the first place would also raise questions around equality, Simmons warns.
From positive activities to positive futures
Bexley Positive Futures is a football-based social inclusion programme in south-east London. It is delivered by Charlton Athletic Community Scheme in partnership with the local safety neighbourhood police teams, the Metropolitan police, the local youth service and youth offending team, Connexions, and the community safety partnership council.
It is part of the Home Office-run Positive Futures scheme, a national sport-based social inclusion programme with 108 projects in deprived areas of England and Wales.
Bexley officer Marc Leckie explains that Connexions staff, youth workers and police community support officers come along to football training sessions to be on hand before and after to talk to young people, get to know them and offer advice. “We target areas where provision is low, where there are no real facilities or nothing open and running late at night,” Leckie says. “We take the staff to them.”
There is also a focus on personal development. To date, Bexley Positive Futures has helped over 30 young people qualify as a level one assistant football coach.
One of those, 16-year-old Steve Aarons, explains how he got to know Marc through football then asked him to help him get onto coaching training.
“I did a week’s trial on a voluntary basis to make sure I was reliable. I turned up on time every day. So Marc said he had known me for ages and could trust me and got me onto my coaching course. He really has helped me. I’ve been talking to him recently about doing my level 2 once I turn 17, and eventually I hope to become a fully-qualified coach.”