The All Party Parliamentary Group released its review of youth work this week. Having taken evidence from across the UK, they conclude that local authorities have been forced, by austerity, to cut services for young people by nearly £0.5bn each year. This is a 62% cut since 2011. 

And the cuts fall squarely on open access and universal services – to you and me that means youth clubs and activities. Bristol and South Gloucestershire mirror the national picture, with the two local authorities cutting their investment since 2010 by about 40% and 60% respectively.  Local authorities have, understandably, focussed their diminishing resources on the most hard to reach. In fact, our Head of Bristol Youth Services Kate Gough, wrote about it in our last blog. As a result, youth services have often been forced into becoming social services ‘lite’, offering support and guidance to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people.   

Whilst youth workers have always supported the most vulnerable, we have done so in their communities and where they are. This might mean chatting whilst cooking a pizza, building teamwork skills playing football, or learning to express yourself by making music. The youth club is one of the best places for young people to build confidence and make new friends. 

This was brought home to me when I visited one of our projects in the Dings, close to Barton Hill, where a vulnerable and shy young person came for the first time with her youth worker. It was nerve wracking for her, but she simultaneously took her first steps towards making new friends and developing her self-confidence, and first steps away from isolation and potential mental health problems. 

Our challenges

The report highlights that we are losing these services at the rate of 150 youth clubs each year (between 2012-16).  Rural areas have been effected more severely than urban. We know many young people in South Glos and other rural areas can’t get to what remains because transport is either expensive or non-existent. The report notes that, whilst Parish Councils and charities like Creative Youth Network have picked up the pieces, the service is highly dependent on short term funding and volunteers.

It highlights too that there are real challenges with the workforce. Fewer and fewer people are training as youth workers, and fewer and fewer universities are offering courses. This is a sign of a skilled trade in decline just when we need it most. The pressures facing young people through school and social media are growing and young people’s mental health is suffering. At the very sharp end, vulnerable young people are becoming more and more isolated and, at the worst, drawn towards gangs, violence and exploitation.

The report notes that government spending on young people is now being focussed almost entirely on the National Citizen Service (NCS), purely for those aged 16 over the summer and autumn holidays. While it’s a good programme, the focus of almost £200m a year on NCS in now way compensates for a similar loss in income for universal services offering activities, youth clubs and support for all 11-19 year olds. 

Belatedly, the government is waking up to the problems they have created, but until we return to investing in these universal services at the place and point of need, young people will continue to slip through the net.