David Cameron had barely settled into life at Number 10 when the staunchly Conservative Norfolk County Council turned its back on our youth services. Centres closed their doors, youth workers lost their jobs and young people faced their first blow in what would become a decade-long offensive against them and the infrastructure they relied upon.
This approach demonstrated the Tories’ contempt for the professional youth sector, which boasts a history rooted in social justice, as well as for the rights of young people. They represented everything wrong with the tactic that says ‘if they can’t or don’t vote, they just don’t matter.’
Research recently released by the YMCA found that at least 30% of local authorities across the country have followed in Norfolk’s footsteps, slashing their youth service budgets by at least 80% and closing 750 youth centres. Meanwhile, cuts have come thick and fast to every element of society that working-class young people relied upon, from their local bus route to mental health services.
With the number of young people and families falling into poverty on the rise, more and more young people feel the pressure to get out to work before they have even finished school so they can help their parents put food on the table. When people ask how youth service cuts could be linked to a rise in knife crime, this is one of the starkest examples – with no services to pick up young people and poverty on the rise we have created the perfect storm.
Soon after our youth service cuts in Norfolk, Cameron’s government announced its replacement, the National Citizen Service (NCS). If you scratch the surface – a glossy £3 million advertising campaign – you will find that the NCS is an expensive and largely ineffective programme rooted in the neoliberal policies of the coalition years.
It is based on a four-week programme, limited to 16-17 year olds, which focuses on two residential trips away. This culminates in what is described as ‘social action,’ but in reality often amounts to little more than taking part in a litter pick-up or painting a community wall.
This is not the support that the vast majority of young people are in desperate need of, and it is fairly evident that the programme lacks any of the characteristics that makes youth work so powerful. Of course, NCS success stories do exist, but the credit for those examples lies with those maintaining a youth work focus and re-aligning the programme to the needs of young people.
For years, youth services have tried to redress the power inequality facing under-18s in our society, seeking to maintain a delicate balance between young people, public services and the community. With the loss of the youth service, like so many other public services, it should be no surprise that generational and class tensions are reaching breaking point. Absence of a holistic, universal youth service it is being felt across the country.
Youth workers perform a rare and dynamic role in our society. They create safe supportive spaces free from judgement or pressure. They are educators, mental health supporters, role models and facilitators of opportunities, youth voice and community cohesion. They are organisers of change, champions of equality and one of the greatest, sometimes only, ally a young person has.
Labour’s ‘Only Young Once’ policy commits to rebuilding the youth service with long term, secure funding – something that young people and the sector haven’t seen for at least 12 years. But this isn’t just about much-needed funding, its also about how we create a youth service that puts young people first and learns the lessons of the past.
Rather than focusing on young people labelled ‘at risk’ or ‘lacking’ in some way, it will offer a universal, non-formal, education for all, ending the current postcode lottery by legislating minimum spend per local authority. This will be underpinned by a clear commitment to address social inequality and discrimination.
One of the stand-out commitments of Labour’s policy is to democratic governance, allowing young people to regain control over their lives by placing them on an equal footing with decision-makers over the shaping of their service.
Labour must champion this, with all marginalised groups in society, making democratic participation an integral part of society and the way services are shaped. That is one of the most effective ways to empower people and ensure that the system works for them from day one.
The transition into adulthood is a defining stage of our lives, our early years shape who we go on to be in adulthood and the impact we have on those around us. It is a time where we should be able to explore our identity, be creative and, most importantly, make mistakes. Having the freedom to learn and explore with the right support makes this point in life memorable and meaningful in the greatest possible way.
After a decade of systematic failure, we owe it to young people to give them the best possible start in life and to reinvigorate youth services. This will only be achieved when we rebuild trust and respect for young people and the place they have in society. Only Young Once is a first step on this journey.