Today, as the Chancellor’s thoughts turn to the Spring Statement, we should reflect on the state of provision for young people in England. 

Another week, another young person murdered in a knife attack.  Another week, more young people’s families turn to food banks.  Another week, more young people are excluded in an education system where head teachers are reduced to cleaning toilets [paywall] in a desperate effort to stretch already stretched budgets further.

Not to worry.  The Youth Sector in England is being swamped with money. Google launch a £600k fund to tackle youth violence, and the government have put in £5m to tackle the same problem recently. Isolation and loneliness amongst young people received a big pot of money last year too. Creative Youth Network even made an application to an Arts Council Fund to promote theatre in schools, championed by the Arts Minister. 

This is good news right? Money is being poured into the places and issues where it is most needed – tackling the important issues of the day and helping young people achieve their potential. On the surface maybe, but you have to look at these announcements in the light of ongoing and cumulative cuts to core funding for youth work, housing charities, arts organisations, education. 

What’s the purpose of core funding? 

That old phrase ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ comes to mind.  If you cut the services that underpin young people’s development and progression from their early years, so problems arise (increases in homelessness, youth violence, hunger, lack of inclusion in the arts).  Into this vacuum has come a centralised process driven by the interest and whim of individuals with the power to distribute money that has been removed through cuts from locally elected decision makers and repatriated to Westminster. 

The minister’s contribution to theatre in schools came straight from his own experience. Youth violence has been a high profile media story – as has loneliness – and so, the money found ‘down the back of the sofa’ in corporate or government circles (often at the end of the financial year) is spent tackling high profile issues.

A classic example is the issue of child hunger. Regular reports of children going hungry before school affect us all – how can this happen in 21st Century Britain?  It is a horrifying problem, all the more anachronistic because you talk to anyone in public health and they will point out that the far bigger crisis is one of childhood obesity. 28% of children between 2-15 are obese – a further 12% are overweight. In their view a crisis that dwarfs childhood hunger. 

Where to invest? 

Youth violence is a problem but youth unemployment is too. Theatre in schools is important, but so too is the lack of creative education. 

Working with young people over the last 25 years, I have noticed that ‘initiatives’ tend to come thick and fast when government’s run out of ideas and vision. This lack of strategic approach means each department becomes a law unto itself, promoting and funding what it feels is best in a piecemeal and incoherent way. This is true of all governments, although the current situation is compounded by Brexit which is sucking creativity and energy away from what will make a real difference to our young people and communities. 

Whilst it is easy to argue for more money, the solution is as complex and nuanced as the issues themselves.  Better use of existing funding is as important as consistent and coherent core funding so youth organisations can tackle issues early and consistently to avoid simply targeting the symptoms of lost lives. Youth homelessness, gang culture, isolation or obesity will often have their roots in the same issues. 

Among the solutions is ongoing mentoring, youth work, support when it’s needed, opportunities and activities to enable young people to avoid becoming caught up in the problems. Only by spending money wisely, preventatively and strategically on the underlying causes rather than on headline or pet issues can we hope to have a lasting impact on the young people we serve. 

Later this year at our AGM young people will be talking about the importance of places and people to their well-being. We’ll be inviting as many people as possible to come and join the conversation, and explore why place and relationships matter to young people – I hope many of you will join us.