A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead

Greenwich Council has sub-contracted their universal youth provision to Charlton Athletic Football Club, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is moving towards a social enterprise model, the National Citizenship Service along with the Positive for Youth initiative is dominating the lion’s share of central government’s youth agenda and funding, countless organisations are scraping around for any kind of money they can find to merely survive, the government refuses to intervene in local authorities’ levels of funding for their youth provisions, and there are calls for organisational mergers by the Department for Education.

It’s obvious the youth sector is changing, rapidly, and as funding dramatically decreases the desperate need for innovation and collaboration increases. If we’re not careful the nation’s youth provision will become even more fragmented, with a proliferation of different delivery models, fierce competition for pots of money, limited communication between the voluntary sector and what’s left of the public sector provision, an over reliance on volunteering, and the status and professionalism of the sector increasingly eroded.

There’s no doubt about it, this is an difficult time for the sector I love and to which I have dedicated the vast majority of my career. It’s vital therefore to be open and frank about the challenges ahead, creating clarity and a shared understanding of the issues that must be dealt with for the sector to survive.

So, in no particular order here are my top 10 challenges for the youth service over the following 12 months, both voluntary and public:

1. Youth work being perceived as a low status profession, both internally by practitioners and local authorities and externally by the general public, the media and politicians.

2. A lack of understanding amongst policy makers, communities and the general public of what youth workers do, what youth work is and it’s impact.

3. An over emphasis amongst youth professionals on skills and knowledge development of young people, (a hangover from the last two decades), and the need to move youth work towards a focus on developing mindsets, character, attitude and capabilities, with associated funding opportunities and commissioning (see London Youth’s Hunch: A vision for youth in post austerity Britain).

4. Massively reduced funding opportunities resulting in a fight for survival by service providers, leading to:

  • Increasing competition amongst similar organisations for the same pots of money
  • Fragmenting and diluting the youth service, as youth provisions become less needs-led and more focussed on covering core organisational costs
  • Creating an over reliance on short-term project based grants
  • Reducing the opportunity for innovation and needs responsive project development
  • Sponsorship and support for workforce development, training and qualifications becoming less of a priority, further de-professionalising the service
  • Creating an over reliance upon volunteers

5. Lack of understanding and willingness to forge partnerships and collaborations between service providers.

This is an issue which is currently being addressed by numerous organisations already, but the focus of these partnerships are predominately larger umbrella and representative organisations working to common agendas and outcomes, this approach must leak down to local provisions:

6. A need for youth professionals and organisations to embrace new methods of engagement taking full advantage of the modern mechanisms available to them, by developing and using online and social media approaches to support and empower young people, communicate with each other and share good practice.

7. The need for a coordinated and communal voice representing the needs of the youth sector to policy makers and politicians.

8. The need for robust evaluation and collection of evidence of impact by both youth workers on the front-line, community provisions and leading national bodies.

9. The need to develop mechanisms and frameworks for quantifying the longitudinal impact of youth work, on both individuals and communities. Whether we like it or not the youth sector needs to prove the case for its survival, (see The Young Foundation ‘Frameworks for Outcomes of Young People).

10. The need to create access to new sustainable funding streams, such as effective social enterprise, Community Interest Companies, a mutual model (as outlined by FPM Online), and Social Investment projects (See Social Impact Bonds).

These are without a doubt complex and inter-related issues with no quick fix solutions.  What is needed now more than ever is productive collaboration at all levels of the youth sector, and quickly.  We need to reach universal agreement on what the key issues are and develop robust and future-proofed strategies to best meet these pressing needs.

Without which I genuinely fear that the youth sector will become so eroded that in 20 years time there may well be no structured or coordinated youth provision at all, but merely parochial local initiatives relying on the whims of funders and surviving month to month with volunteers, donations and limited project based grants. This would do a massive disservice to the young people and the communities that the sector serves, with the repercussions being felt for generations to come.


3 thoughts on “A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead

  1. Thank you for this Matt. It is really interesting and I agree that the youth work sector has some real challenges ahead. I have recently completed a piece of research scoping the shape of youth work in the West Midlands. There were some interesting findings which lead me to conclude that collaboration and innovation are vital to the continuation of youth work as we understand it to be and the need for a partnership approach to training and support for youth workers in voluntary and statutory sectors. Such an approach, it is hoped, can help strengthen the identity of youth work in these challenging times. The link to the report is here: http://ccustaffs.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/the-shape-of-youth-work-report.pdf
    Thanks again for sharing your thought on this
    Creative Communities Unit
    Staffordshire University

  2. Hi Matt – Some really perceptive analysis, much of which I agree with, so thanks for that. However, I think there are two greater challenges ahead, especially here in England, that you’ve not mentioned and that will do much to bring stagnation, if not further damage, to the sector. They are the considerable rise in child protection concerns flowing from ‘Jimmy Savile and Others’ and the focus and investment this will engender in children’s social care and, more particularly, the squeeze that a growing ageing population will put on adult social care services and local authority budgets as a consequence.

    The LGA have already identified adult care, health and education as the primary foci for local councils’spending for the fiscal period to 2019/2020 and, just observing local responses here in the North East, it is clear that local authorities are faced with really tough decisions … and are making them! This is, of course, set against a policy backcloth where the Coalition have no real policy or agenda for young people beyond formal schooling [sorry … learning] and a bit of NEET stuff!

    For myself, this does not negate an on-going debate and, preferably, action about an Institute for Youth Work and it does drive a much greater need for partnership and real collaboration. It will be interesting to see if the sector can mend old ways and discover and develop newer, more meaningful practices.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and to Nic too for sharing his research!

    Kind regards


    Board member of the Youth Almighty Youth Project, Sunderland and Chair-designate for the Circle Crew for Change Limited – a youth mutual based in County Durham.

  3. Pingback: A youth sector in crisis with significant challenges ahead « Welcome to Wear Consulting Ltd

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