At last we have the long-awaited government Strategy for the Civil Society. It’s not the ‘Youth Statement’ many have longed for, but it is to be welcomed as a Government policy document that both describes youth work as ‘transformational’ and recognises that trained youth workers make a valuable difference. As the national body for youth work the National Youth Agency (NYA) welcomes this progress, after the last eight years when the value of youth work has been diminished in political debate and funding. Now it’s vital that the whole youth sector should use this progress as a call to action. It should not be simply rejected as inadequate but a platform to build on – and quickly – to strengthen the cause of youth work.
When I’m invited to speak publicly, I often reference two causal factors that have led to the dramatic reduction in youth services. First, youth services were no longer subject to Ofsted inspections; and second, when the national audit stopped. There is of course a third factor that made the reduction in youth work swifter – the lack of robustness of clause 508B, the technical statutory regulation that should ensure an adequate youth offer is provided. The lack of clarity in 508B allows services to be reduced, lost or changed into non-youth-work-specific activities.
In the new Civil Society Strategy, the Government has committed to revisiting 508B. It is guaranteed that the NYA will be working hard to press the Government to meaningfully strengthen the guidance. This would be made stronger too by the reinstatement of the national audit, previously carried out by the NYA on behalf of government. However, the NYA agrees with the Local Government Association that the government must not set councils up to fail. Without new resources, directly for youth work and indirectly through properly funded social care and early help, nothing will change. The NYA wants to see quality assurance, standards and ideally formal backing of regulation of youth services to support local delivery.
Through our regular interactions with Government and the Local Government Association, it is clear to me that the new civil society strategy is a first step. To get more money out of the system there must be a clear policy, evidence and political will. We need to take account of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Youth Work Inquiry evidence and findings. Indeed, the very reason why the NYA has invested significant time and resources in to the APPG inquiry is to renew and build a cross-party evidence base to support the argument for more funds. We are racing to complete the process and report just in time for the Government’s Spending Review.
Run by the NYA this all-party inquiry has received over 100 items of written evidence and is carrying out parliamentary hearings and service visits. This rich business case must be listened to, building political consensus nationally and for local delivery. The inquiry findings will be published in the autumn at the NYA Youth Work Summit alongside national and international research to evidence the role and impact of youth work. It is hard to see a sufficient youth work offer, delivered by professionally trained and qualified workers, not being in the final report.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that we have no clarity on the intent or depth of a revised 508B. There is also no indication of any resources to back it up. It is easy to bemoan this, but it’s far more important to roll up our collective sleeves and get engaged. I don’t apologise for welcoming the new strategy. At last, a government minister recognises youth work as being important – better, transformational.
Now, I often hear that there should be a ‘Youth Policy Statement’, but why wait for Government? Let’s move on and get organised. The NYA doesn’t actually want a simple statement we want a ‘Youth Strategy’ led by the sector with young people, embraced by Government and delivered locally. We do see the Civil Society Strategy as a step on the ladder. The NYA has developed a ‘Youth Covenant’ as a national commitment for young people to be safe and secure, and treated fairly; supporting young people in the present and ambitious for the future. This pledge is underpinned by the values, aims and impact of youth work, to guide policy-makers and align services to secure positive outcomes for young people.
Other progress in the Civil Society Strategy is also to be welcomed. Strengthening the voice of young people in decision making is vital and welcome – but it needs to be done well and in partnership with young people in communities. Engagement must represent all young people in terms of their own situations (sounds like youth work) and not a select motivated minority (although all voices are equally valid). We need community-based youth workers to empower and enable young people to have a meaningful voice. Well done to those organisations and colleagues who work tirelessly to amplify young people’s voices – we encourage you to see the strategy’s commitments as permission to go further.
There is a dim light at the end of the tunnel on charity funding and potential for the return of support grants. We continue to ask for more here, and quickly, before so many foundation organisations cease to exist. There is debate on the value of NCS as local authorities and others look to strengthen other areas of the sector when funding is scarce. Yet now is not the time to turn inwards, but to make the case for greater funding for a sufficient youth work offer and the resources to employ youth workers. Now we have political policy, the will to make progress and the cross-party evidence to support it. Every youth worker and sector can now engage in Youth Work Week (5-11 November) to further add to the weight of evidence in for strengthening 508B and resourcing sufficient youth services.
I have read the brilliantly diverse comments on social media platforms about the Civil Society Strategy and the responses from organisations like the NYA. All views have merit and a truth for their authors – some are frankly unhappy with the NYA’s stance, wishing we were firmer and more direct. The reality is that we believe our approach is right to continue making progress – the evidence seems to support this as well. We now have an opportunity to change and strengthen 508B, working closely with the LGA. We all want a world where youth services are plentiful and highly skilled youth workers are recognised as the foundations of communities and young people’s lives. This vision can only hope to be achieved if the sector pulls together, sends a clear and consistent message and delivers accountability. The NYA and friends are not done yet – be constructive, be passionate and be real.