The few weeks since Gordon Brown moved into Number 10 have signalled a more positive approach to children and young people than under Tony Blair’s reign. The Respect Taskforce has moved from the Home Office to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the long-awaited 10-year youth services strategy has been published, calling for young people to be “valued” and “viewed positively”, rather than be seen as a problem to be solved.
The strategy commits to transforming opportunities for young people in England by improving their public image, increasing their take-up of high-quality activities such as sport, the arts and volunteering, and giving them more influence over services. It builds on the 2005 youth green paper Youth Matters, which pledged to develop integrated youth support services led by councils through children’s trusts by 2008.
According to Andy Driver, national youth work convenor for trade union Unite, the strategy is a refreshing change. He believes the government – in its new guise – is putting young people and their needs at the centre of the policy agenda.
“We welcome a shift to a more positive agenda of treating young people as positive members of society and a strategy seeking to reduce the labelling and negative media images of some young people,” he says.
Mark Blake, head of policy at the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, adds that the decision to move the Respect agenda out of the Home Office and into the DCSF reflects the strategy’s – and the new cabinet’s – more positive and inclusive approach to young people. “We want to see how this is translated into policy and hope to see a shift focusing on early intervention.”
Announcing the strategy, children’s minister Beverley Hughes emphasised that key to its success was the need to engage with disadvantaged young people. To this end, the strategy makes many references to efforts and investment to be targeted at engaging these hard-to-reach children.
In particular, it states that more money will be pumped into the Youth Opportunity Fund in more deprived areas to increase the involvement of disadvantaged young people. Programmes that provide personal services to the most disengaged young people, such as the Positive Activities for Young People, will be expanded and made available year-round, while money will be spent on expanding voluntary organisations with a good record of working with local authorities to support marginalised young people to influence services.
But Julia Margo, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, remains concerned by the tendency for those young people who would benefit the most from services to be engaged the least. “It’s not cool to go to drama club after school, but it is to smoke on the street corner.”
One way to tackle this, she says, would be for the government to insist that every child does at least an hour a week of constructive after-school activities. However, Hughes has dismissed forcing young people to engage as a “wrongheaded” approach, adding that young people need to feel a sense of ownership over the sort of activities they do.
Blake says “formal meeting structures with bureaucratic bodies” is the wrong way to try to interest young people. “We have to go out to the housing scheme for young people and the children’s homes to get to them,” he says, adding that youth workers have the professionalism, skills and experience of engaging with young people and their communities to facilitate this.
He wants to see the DSCF create a labour market plan for the youth work sector detailing the contribution they make, claiming this would boost implementation of the strategy. “We want to see one qualified youth worker per 400 young people, aged 13-19, in a local authority area.”
The government has pledged an extra £184m for the years 2008-11 to deliver the strategy, alongside £495m of continued funding. But Blake questions whether this will be enough to transform services in the way the strategy envisages.
Driver agrees, claiming the strategy should have been accompanied with a minimum level of funding for local authorities to spend on youth services. Under section six of the Education and Inspection Act 2006, local authorities have a strategic role to provide “positive activities for young people”. But Driver says councils can interpret this differently and, in times of budgets cuts, youth services often feel the squeeze first.
But Caroline Abrahams, the Local Government Association’s programme director for children and young people, defends the government’s decision not to opt for ring-fenced funding for youth services. She says that, as soon as funding is parcelled up in a particular way, councils “lose the opportunity to react flexibly”.
She also believes that working towards giving young people control over 25% of spending on youth activities and facilities by 2018 is not ambitious enough for many local authorities, and says the LGA wants to work with councils to achieve this goal early.
As far as young people – and the prime minister – are concerned, the earlier the better.
Secrets to success
For activities for young people to be successful, they should:
● Have some level of facilitation by a trusted adult or older peer, plus a goal and purpose.
● Be attractive to young people and inclusive.
● Not treat teenagers as problems.
● Involve young people, and their parents, in design and delivery.
● Provide supervision in a safe environment.
● Be fully accessible.
● Address young people’s needs holistically.
● Be faith- and culturally sensitive.
● Offer targeted services within a framework of universal provision to reduce stigma.
● Keep young people interested and involved as they mature.
● Be creative.
● Be adequately resourced.
Information on young people
The 10-year youth services strategy: Key proposals
● Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities
● Youth Matters
Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale
This article appeared in the 16 August issue under the headline “The early shift”