The Future of Statutory Youth Work

1 October 2009 — 16 Comments


Last week I was at the Rank Foundation annual business conference on the theme of The Changing Experience of Young People. One of the guest speakers was Tony Jeffs, lecturer and author of many youth work texts. He gave an entertaining and controversial talk regarding the history of youth work practice in the UK and the current state of the work. In it, he likened the statutory youth sector to an old oak tree that is dying from the inside out! This may not be a pleasant read for those of you in the statutory youth sector, but I thought it interesting enough to share with you all. If you disagree, then please post your thoughts in the comments.

Some of the signs that he gave to justify this position that the youth service is dying, included the way many local councils are contracting out their youth services, the shift in job role to ‘support’ and ‘advice’ work – something entirely different to traditional youth work roles, plus the simple fact that key youth work policy documents like the Government’s Aiming High for Young People doesn’t even mention the term youth work!

He argued that this change reflected the Government’s loss of faith in association and groupwork. Instead networks and peer groups of young people are viewed as a negative, damaging influence that must be controlled. This thinking has been influenced by researchers like Terrie E. Moffitt who claimed it is possible to predict which young children would be lifelong perpetrators of criminal or antisocial behaviour, and Wade Osgood whose studies in the US suggested that those in poverty can have a corrupting and destructive influence on each other. The solution, therefore has been to focus on individuals at the expense of association and meaningful interactions.

Given the current economic crisis and the postponement of public spending cuts until after the election, Tony predicted that over the next few years Government funded youth work would bare the brunt of these soaring costs and would see most of their budgets gone. He suggests that this will decimate the statutory youth sector and leave youth work in difficult position nationally.

The hope, he suggests, is that voluntary agencies will once again have the space to grow and flourish in local settings as they once did. These organisations will become the ‘youth service’ for the majority of the UK, running creative and localised activities that meet the needs of their communities.

So what do you think of this prediction? True, possible, or very unlikely?

Photo credit: Nine/06/249 by //lucylu


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

16 responses to The Future of Statutory Youth Work

  1. I reckon it would be worth posting a link to this on the Critically Challenging Collective Blog. I am going to go anonymous here but I would consider the view of statutory youth work as being an oak tree dying from the inside out as perfectly valid.

    I would believe that youth work needs to return to its roots of voluntary participation and away from the drive to professionalism and social control which is distorting its practise.

  2. Thanks anonymous! I also have a tendency to agree with Tony's summary, although I do hope that certain aspects of the statutory sector can survive.

  3. I've listened to Tony on a number of occasions, sometimes agreeing sometimes disagreeing but he is always entertaining. Unfortunately assessing a locally managed, locally determined service, like youth work, on the basis of national policies, guidance and 'hype' is like judging the taste of an orange from it's description on Wikipedia. The demise of 'statutory youth sector' provision has been heralded for years, so nothing new there, then! There is no doubt that the present government has pathologised the state of our nations young people and not seen the benefits of constructive association; they've focused on the few – the 'criminal', the 'users' the 'pregnant' the NEET (or should we really just call them the unemployed) and ignored the many – the 'clever', the 'achieving', the 'kind', the 'volunteers', the 'participants', the 'ordinary'! But, the DCLG place survey consistently reports that adults and young people see 'places to go' and 'things to do' as important and necessary in each of our communities. When did Tony last try to close a local youth centre or provision? The communities do not take this lying down and have fought me on a number of occasions and won! A member of the Wiltshire Assembly of Youth spoke eloquently against me in a local market town when I was seeking to reduce provision and got the backing of the Town Council and the local communities.
    This oak tree is not dying from the inside at all, it is though often being treated with a poison, externally; a poison that implies anyone can do it; a poison that implies the professional approach of youth work is not real or relevant; a poison that stems from the negativity and destructive discourse that many in the business seem to enjoy and revel in! Youth work is about voluntary participation but it is also about adopting a professional relationship within that participation that puts the needs and wants of the whole young person at the heart of it!

  4. Hi David, thanks for taking time to comment. I agree with you that the argument about the demise of the statutory youth sector is nothing new! I also totally agree that local communities have a strong impact on the provision of youth services in their areas and love the example that you gave where a young person managed to stop the reduction of youth provision.

    I also can't argue about the professional approach to youth work. I do not want to imply that anyone can do it, nor that youth work is not real or relevant, but I don't see that supporting or endorsing local voluntary organisations imply either of those things. As an example, I have recently graduated with a 'professional' youth work qualification and am a big advocate of training and education in the work. I happen to work for a voluntary org.

    I suppose my question in response is, if spending cuts do cripple local services so that the statutory sector can't provide them anymore, what is stopping the voluntary sector running a professional service to stand in the gap?

  5. Having once been a volunteer for many years I would accept that I lacked training that may have supported my work. I read assiduously and attended courses as often as able but had no formal qualifications. My professional career included some time running my own business and managing staff. When I moved to statutory youth work my status became that of a trainee regardless of my experience. I am now studying for the professional qualification but I recently saw a very young trainee fail because they were not sufficiently supported nor had the experience to cope with the post – yet as far as the statutory service was concerned they were more qualified due to NVQs and being further ahead on the same degree course.

    I guess what I am trying to say is – the idea that professional is better can lead in my view to an even greater poison of distrusting or disregarding efforts by those in a voluntary sector who have not the time or the resources to commit to such training. Nor do they have the political direction that forces them to ignore the realities of what young people or communities really want but instead seek to create social change that is dictated by the current administration.

  6. A great point 'anonymous', and far more articulate than my attempt! 😉

    Training and professional development are vitally important, but do not in themselves make youth work 'professional'.

  7. Jon – I hope it came across clearly that I am not saying anything negative about the voluntary sector and like you believe that there are excellent examples out there of quality in what is termed the statutory and the voluntary sector. We've got to move to the position that there is actually only one youth work sector, one part of it delivered by those volunteers and/or voluntary organisation staff (some of whom are remunerated at the same rate as LA staff) and a different part of the same sector provided by Local Authorities. The perceived argument (and difference) between voluntary and statutory is spurious. I want those working with young people to have the skills, attitudes and knowledge to provide the best possible service – this is achieved through some form of training/learning and requires both theory and practice. What I do not believe is that somehow 'anyone who has been young or has children' knows “how to do it” safely, effectively and achieve the best quality of delivery I know, that in this blog, you're not saying that, but I can assure you I've heard it often in the field.!

  8. Anonymous – as far as I am concerned, in your first paragraph, you are describing 'bad practice' by the organisation – and I would describe it as such whether it was a local authority or a voluntary organisation that failed to offer the appropraite support to any 'trainee'. I am a little confused by your comments in the second paragraph – once agian it seems to suggest this difference/argument between voluntary organisations and local authorities. Jon has declared that he has undertaken accredited training/learning – gaining the skills, knowledge and attitudes through both theory and practice and can legitimately claim the term 'professional' youth worker. This is not an argument about voluntary organisations versus local authorities. Your description therefore of the 'poison of distrust/disregarding' is not a valid argument, I would suggest. If you are suggesting that without training/learning all practice is equally valid, then I must disagree. I hope that Jon will too.
    I do though sometimes despair of the suggestion that it is only one part of the youth work sector that is “without political direction” – all organisations have, at their root, a direction that can be understood to be political, whether this is influenced by e.g. Christian, Islamic, Humanist or even royalist convictions. Whilst I am a public servant, I too, have convictions and an ethical position which I try to ensure guides the work I do with young people. Implicit in your response is a suggestion that I have neither of these, and this does sadden me!

  9. Hi David
    I have pondered my response for a while because I wanted to be clear in what I was trying to say. I also have to remember that my appreciation of the difference between professional and voluntary workers is coloured by my own experiences.
    It would seem from my experience that often the professional is in post for a year or two, maybe three. During that time they can be a whirl-wind bringing in new contacts, creating opportunities, able to use community buildings at reduced costs and all resourced by a multitude of agencies. I stepped on to one committee after the professional had established a club, promised all sorts of funding, and then moved on because their employers had a change in focus. Things limped on for 18 months and the committee worked hard asking for help but for whatever reason it never came. Having lived in the same town all my life and being involved as a volunteer for a number of years I have seen this pattern repeated.
    On the other hand I have been involved peripherally with some of the local scout troops that are popular and always have a waiting list. It would seem to be a feature of these groups that some of the leaders and committee members have been involved for decades. Yet they always struggle to find resources, funding for buildings is in short supply, but they manage to provide weekend and residential activities in abundance.
    I appreciate that the professional worker has a great deal of training to support their practise, that they also have to respond to the needs of a wide community, but there does appear to be a big gap between statutory professional and voluntary sectors.
    I agree that training is essential for all involved with working with young people but at what level should that training be pitched?
    Take for example the church that wants to run a youth club and some members volunteer to take it on. In my parish they would certainly get CRB checks, they will be encouraged to attend child protection, first aid and food hygiene training – the diocese provides all of these and others at a reasonable cost. But for the volunteers they need to balance the needs of their family and work life against attending courses and although I am sure they will do their best they will never attain the status of 'professional'. At the same time they will struggle for funding, suitable space, and resources in much the same way as any other group. It wouldn't surprise me to find them still running the youth club in 20 years time with the children of former members.
    Then you get the centre manager working for the statutory sector. Generally their building maintenance costs are covered. They have funding for some sessional staff and are expected to do so much face-to-face work. Their focus will be on working with the young people who come to the centre or to encourage and reach other young people to take part in activities that they and other agencies are creating. They will be meeting with the police, PCTs, council staff, councillors, other youth workers, Youth Offending etc etc. When it comes to obtaining funding they will know numerous sources they could potentially apply to (no guarantees they will get it) and sometimes they will be offered funding for specific targetted work out of the blue. This centre manager – like many others – will be over-stretched in terms of paperwork, be constantly looking for more workers and volunteers, and if they're any good will have a thriving centre with a pot of money in their management committee accounts. Yet when that person goes everything will wind down very quickly because there never seems to be sufficient capacity for the local team to cover the centre.
    I know I have painted two extremes but both represent things I have seen happen more than once.
    I wouldn't want to suggest that without training/learning all practise is equally valid. Clearly the volunteers in the case outlined at the church youth club would not know how to cope with some of the many issues that will be present at the youth centre. At the same time I would not go as far to say that the volunteer club are not doing youth work. On the face of it they lack the training and qualifications in the youth work field but it is probable that they will bring their experiences of raising families and from different areas of employment which will inform their practise.
    Having started this long ramble by saying I wanted to be clear I can see that I have failed miserably in the attempt. I remember hearing someone say that “scouts don't do youth work” on the basis that as they don't have any valid training their practise is not equal to professional youth work. Within that statement lies my antipathy to the idea that being 'professional' automatically means that all other practise is invalid.

  10. Before I depart this topic I would not want to suggest that you are not an ethical worker. I take the point that political direction can be understood to be a variety of positions taken because of particular convictions.
    What concerns me most about the statutory sector is that the direction for the whole sector is often taken at a more regional or national level.
    I once took part in a training activity where in small groups we chose 10 words that identified what we felt were the most important definitions of what a youth worker should be. These small groups were then combined so that they doubled in size – where there were eight groups there were now four. The larger groups now debated their separate lists of 10 words to come up with 5 that represented their agreements of what were important to them. Eventually, the whole group met and then 3 words were chosen to represent a consensus.
    This episode, for me, captured the essence of the democratic process in how priorities set. Everyone was consulted but ultimately a lot of things were left out of the concensus that was reached. It was possible that for one of the original small groups the final choices did not match anything that they had chosen – but we had got to a consensus!
    From my perspective this is what happens when plans are set at regional or national level. For example, knife crime may be a big issue nationally but does it matter as much at a particular local level? Yet funding and plans are set for statutory sector workers to achieve based on expectations that sometimes ignore the local dimension.
    Maybe it's just me – and just how I perceive it – but I am sure you can appreciate why it concerns me.

  11. Thanks for clarifying David. I didn't think you were being particularly negative about the voluntary sector, but I do often hear people who assume we are not professional in our work. You are totally right of course – just because someone has children or been around them, does not mean that they can do youth work effectively. Personally I think it is more about the character of the worker than any qualification.

  12. There's much to draw out in these responses, but I will try to be concise! It seems that we all agree on quite a lot.

    With regard to practice, I do believe that there are many untrained (read: “unprofessional”) yet excellent workers out there in their communities impacting young lives for the better. However, I would always advocate training – not for the qualification or recognition – but for the opportunities and widening of horizons that occurs through education. In contrast, there are some well trained professional workers whose attitude and practice is shocking. This is not a voluntary/statutory divide, but an attitudinal quality in the worker/agency.

    With regard to political direction, I must agree with David that we all have our own bias or agenda. I don't have issue with this as long as we recognise what those bias are.

  13. Jon, I literally just wrote over a thousand word rant in response to this before realising how long it was so here are some bullet points instead:

    . I believe youth work is in transit towards state adoption in the same way teaching and social work were previously.

    . Unlike many I believe professionalisation is a good thing—I wouldn't trust a someone to do surgery on me simply because they had my best interests at heart and had previously put a plaster on someone. However, I would trust a trained doctor who didn't really care for me. (It would, obviously be nice to have both.)

    . I agree that if youth work is to be reduced, professionalised & specialised under the state then this will leave a large gap which will probably be filled by the voluntary sector (which I'm happy with as I work in it!).

    . However, I see this voluntary sector being filled with 2 politically motivated groups: those tied to monetary factors as their funding is linked to outcomes (and they will probably still require professionally trained employees) or the groups who are self funded who will have their own political agenda and set their own employment standards.

    I'm not sure what this will mean for the counter-culture nature of youth work (questioning norms, standing up for children's rights, etc) but the fact is that youth work is evolving and we can't look back—it's changed already. As you pointed out in a recent post youth work is now equated to “fixing” young people, perhaps a new entity needs to grow up in the place that youth work filled before it became defined?

  14. Hi Roger,

    I'm glad you posted the abbreviated version! 😉

    As with many of these debates, I can see that it is not a simple 'either, or' scenario…

    1) Yes, youth work is in transit (although I don't like the general direction).

    2) I like the push towards training that professionalisation brings, but like I said above, qualifications don't make someone professional (or any good at the work)!

    4) I'm not so sure the voluntary sector can easily be divided into those two categories (although they are both valid)! I see a far greater creative scope in the sector.

    5) Good question about the critical counter-culture nature of our work. It has and is changing. Is there a new field of work appearing or do we simply need to return to the roots of our work?

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