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:
- NCVYS, UK Youth and LEAP Confronting Conflict recently co-hosted a conference on collaboration
- The NYA have proposed and run a consultation for an Institute for Youth Work, the findings of which were presented to the Education Training Standards Committee and will now be taken to the next stage of development
- The Catalyst Consortium, (The Young Foundation, NCVYS, NYA and Social Enterprise UK), are working together to strengthen the youth sector market, equip the sector to work in partnership with government, and coordinate a skills development strategy for the youth sector’s workforce
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.