Article: A Statutory Youth Service proposal: multi-professionally located to build on the past yet equipped for the future

First Published: 15th April 2019 | Author: Naomi Robinson and Tim Howell | Tags: , , , , , ,

In the context of political momentum for a statutory youth service, Naomi Robinson and Tim Howell argue for re-imagining community-based practice built on Sure Start buildings and delivery models, with a commitment to political education through a process curriculum and praxis.

Statutory Youth Services: Why Now?

Youth work is a holistic pedagogical approach to transforming the lives of young people (NYA, 2018). Trusting and effective relationships are crucial to creating that ‘teachable moment’ when working with at-risk young people (NPC Associates, 2017). Youth workers in A&E departments for charity Redthread are making extraordinary progress in tackling youth violence where ‘forging a relationship is everything’ (Symonds, 2017). Practitioners are delivering targeted work through a diverse range of multi-professional contexts to be able to make sense of this “powerful relational work which is so crucial to the identity of the profession” (Hampson and Howell, 2018).


Austerity at its worst has left young people socially isolated, mentally ill and disempowered by their adult peers (Unison, 2016). The claim to making youth work a protected statutory service is growing momentum. The draft Civil Society Strategy (Cabinet Office, 2018) praises the transformational impact of youth work on working with the most disadvantaged young people (NYA, 2018a). However, the Youth Violence Commission (2018) goes one step further suggesting a statutory youth service is an essential preventative measure to tackle youth violence and gangs.


With such momentum and cross-party support (APPG on Youth Affairs, 2018), sufficient thought must be given to what form a statutory youth service could take to build on existing infrastructure (Davies, 2018), rather than propose a rebuilding programme on the scale of Albemarle (Ministry of Education, 1960). Maybe repurposing the 1000 closed Sure Start buildings could be the answer (Sylva and Sammons, 2018). This paper proposes a statutory youth service based on embedding lifelong informal education to avoid gaps in transition between life stages and public services, extending the reach of the Sure Start initiative through family community hubs. This offer would be a process curriculum with political education and praxis at its heart. It would be OFSTED inspected, measuring the quality of inputs rather than outputs with local organisation determined by local youth panels making decisions on local priorities.


Sure Start – The Final Breath

The Sure Start vision was to create a unified service offering advice and support, prevent isolation and ultimately reduce the gaps between rich and poor children (Rigby, 2017). The impact is difficult to evaluate due to the density of objectives intended, therefore should not be construed as a single intervention (Sammons, 2015). Bouchal and Norris (2014) suggest that the overly ambitious aims of the proposed agenda subsequently became drowned out by the competing priorities of high risk and high visibility cases, resulting in the nurturing and welfare components becoming sacrificed for quantifiable successes. Sure Start has been commended as a service that effectively engaged families as a powerful vehicle to produce multiple outcomes, creating early preventative solutions whereby the need for outside protective agencies were decreased (Parkes and Bailey, 2018). A nationally led impetus to reinvent centres into community hubs for all, would represent a logical and natural progression of early help practice that has supported many families with diverse complex needs (APPG on Children’s Centres, 2016).


Historically, once children out-grow the Sure Start offer, they are vulnerable to falling through the gaps of reduced services (Unison, 2016). As young people, they are confined to long waiting lists, exclusions, and deprivation whilst professionals are ever more pressured to prioritise the “problem” rather than consider them as resourceful and active agents in their own lives (Hadi and Johanson, 2018). In an age of austerity, the intersectionality of marginalised groups compounds the oppression for those without the tools to fight the system and amplifies inequalities where some groups can access what they are entitled to and some do not, which is why austerity has had such a disproportional impact on the most disadvantaged (Warwick-Booth, 2019). Services for children and young people are often seen as separate entities that rarely consolidate, however an alternative approach that fostered visibility, inclusion and participation would offer a space where adults and young people could engage with social, cultural, political and economic issues as equal citizens (Moss and Petrie, 1997).


Sure Start’s demise was further antagonised by the suspension of any national guidance or Ofsted inspections since 2013, resulting in centres becoming less and less visible (Sylva and Sammons, 2018). Whilst arguably youth work’s political activism roots is an uncomfortable bedfellow for a statutory service, working with government is clearly an important part of the solution. The duty to cooperate from the Children Act 2004, has been embodied in many social policies from the Team around the Child (CWDC, 2009) to Troubled Families (DCLG, 2017). Sure Start received high praise for its innovative multi-agency approach to meeting shared goals (Aubrey and Dahl, 2005). Being receptive to explore opportunities outside of the conventional job role through collaborative working has proven that an integrated, secure and well-trained workforce has a much stronger response than those that work in silo (Weinberger, Pickstone and Hanton, 2005). A service in every community that can offer children, young people and families services in health, education and care alongside a gateway to more specialised targeted support would promote reflective practitioners committed to a sustainable and progressive future (Beatty, 2011).


Government Partnerships

The role of central and local government is key, and effective partnership working with a clear set of minimum standards should be communicated, instilling the right mix of open access and targeted interventions (NYA, 2012). Baker (1998) argues that any classification of difference is defined and managed by the state, therefore suggesting categorisation is a contradiction when dealing with the human interests of people. This ends up in policy-informed evidence, as decision-makers jump from one moral panic to the next rather than a robust inclusive needs analysis and thought through response (Bradford and Cullen, 2012), with political education notable in its absence in the draft National Occupational Standards for the sector (CLD Standards Council Scotland, 2019).


It can be debated whether there is a role for community spaces being reborn or whether society (particularly young people) have become conditioned to the concept of individualism – alone together rather than a segment of a whole (Turkle, 2015). An emphasis on a value first practice, founded on social pedagogy, could create a powerful catalyst for creative belonging, shared dialogues and meaning making between young people and their adult peers (Korczak, 2007; Hadi and Johanson, 2018; Petrie, 2011). This is not to trivialise the expectation of dilemmas in negotiating shared practice across multiple professional teams. Professionals should rather be encouraged to embrace and investigate what is similar, unclear or ambiguous within organisations. Thus, creating a standard of practice that is seamless and fluid, to reflect the cohesive values to be imparted with young people (Anning, et al, 2006; Atkinson et al; 2002).


Cohen (2010) suggests that when individuals are denied critical debate outside of their own prejudices and beliefs, epistemic closure is a reality, making it challenging to nurture social interaction and community cohesion. Nicholls (2012) argues that youth work in its transparent, value driven presence should seek to enlighten, educate, develop and emancipate. Any offer proposed must consider the expressed views of young people, their families and the communities they live in, alongside demographic and professional analysis (NYA, 2012). The core values of youth work should be integrated in to a professional and innovative approach building on proven skills, knowledge and understanding (Merton, 2009). Decision-making processes would be derived from concerns and interests of the young people, mirroring respectful and trusting professional relationships (IDYW, 2009). The heritage of young people’s panels making such decisions in Aim Higher (DCFS, 2007) should be replicated. This would involve local authority responsibility coordinating local panels of young people deciding on local priorities (APPG Youth Affairs, 2019), the location of youth workers, and the commissioning of services. The end result would build on local successes and could include local authority, private and charitable providers.


This will be founded on the concept of critical reflectiveness, encouraging young people  to inquire and engage with opportunities that may have previously been denied. This would need to work on the assumption that youth workers act as enablers – the investment of a youth premium would ensure that the most disadvantaged have the means to be included in positive activities or programmes of choice (NYA, 2014). The activities offered would be consistent for all young people who attend the hub. The contrast being, activities would now act as an equaliser, rather than an indicator of class or social status, whereby passions, capabilities and aspirations could be achieved.


Kashdan (2009) argues that it is only once we stop resisting our cravings for certainty and find the courage to question authority, can we be rewarded with new possibilities. Readings (1997) encourages practitioners to oppose the finalisation of a closed case as the marker of success but emphasises the importance of continuous discussion and revisiting of issues, if true meaning making is to occur. This can be just as important with a young person who displays no socially constructed deficiencies (Nicholls, 2012). Provided with the tools to consider whether they can safely deviate from ideological influences that have created the illusion of contentment, what more could they achieve? An ability to construct a deep understanding of praxis, supports young people in creating their own interpretations of meaning making (Readings, 1997).


Community and Praxis – The Renewal of the Process Curriculum


Engagement therefore must represent all young people and not a select minority; it should be derived from the voice of young people and be subject to their starting point (NYA, 2018b). A youth panel, created by a democratic process, led and operated by young people,  should be woven into each centre, where the skills and experiences of young people should be considered as a valuable tool in addressing needs and interest (Davies, 2017). Korczak (2007) reiterates the importance of seeing young people as significant in the now rather than the future of tomorrow. This makes the concept of capturing outcomes a difficult task if the emphasis is on the pre-destined. Supporting young people to explore issues in their everyday lives through shared experiences and conversation can inspire alternative responses to events ahead (Ord, 2016; Young, 2006).


The new service should capture  the experience of a young person through their own narratives as the best method of measuring impact (not outcomes) supported by OFSTED guidelines and inspection of inputs alongside youth inspectors. Thus any significant changes are defined by the young person, retaining authenticity of a process approach to youth work. However, practitioners should ensure these guidelines do not substitute the ethical wisdom and moral reasoning associated with the complexities and ambivalence of people’s lives (Schwandt, 1996). The lack of evidence can often cause the impact of youth work to go unrecognised; however best practice could be replicated and shared if the quality of interventions was given more priority than the symptom of need (Jay, 2014; Melvin, 2017). Dahlberg et al (1999) imply that the notion of quality merely seeks to judge the conformity of pre–determined norms, displacing politics and ethics with techniques of control. Davies (2013) argues the intrinsic incompatibilities between providing a human service and monetary value are too vast to be overlooked. The intrusion of targets and quality performance indicators are not consistent with youth work values or are relevant to the lives of young people (Nicholls, 2012; Taylor, 2017, de St Croix, 2018), championing an individualist culture founded on deficits and blame (Ball, 2012; Hampson and Howell, 2017; Davies, 2013).  However, while it is rare that targets or outcomes can be completely avoided or ignored, it is frustrating they offer little in the way of identification of long-term impact and praxis (Melvin, 2017).


Ewen (1972) stipulates that youth work therefore needs to offer more than a distraction to contain young people, before they accept their position in a compliant, hegemonic society. The notion of “community” can evoke both nostalgic and romanticised visions of democracy and mutuality but is established on historical and ideological contexts embodied by political strategies (Bauman, 2001; O’Carroll, 2002; Meade et al; 2016). Rather than seeking targeted results the value of youth work should be measured in terms of reductions of cost to the public purse, looking at key themes such as crime or improved rates of employment. Volunteers of all ages could also represent levels of engagement and produce an integrated support system for users of the hub, with a view to promote intergenerational relationships and secure long-term sustainability. Unlike fixed product schemes such as NCS, the focus would be the immediate needs of the young person. Rather than fixating on the skills and attitudes they were going to acquire, it would build on their present strength’s offering nothing more than intrinsic satisfaction (Davies, 2017; Mills and Waite, 2017).


Therefore, civic participation needs restoring, with young people as active members of society rather than individual consumers of a service (Putnam, 2000; Beck, 1992; Smith, 2003). We must move away from the fragility of youth work funding which demands compliance to the stipulations of bids, with resources often being allocated towards programmes that are most amenable to measurement and monetisation (de St Croix, 2018).



Local youth panels need to decide where to locate their professionally qualified youth workers, according to local need. This could be schools, colleges, youth centres, multi-agency teams or by using redundant Sure Start centres. However a return to the romanticised open access youth club model is part of the problem not the solution. Readings (1997) concludes that the evaluation of services as a social question, rather than a device for measurement, would ensure the values and priorities of young people and their families are captured  through new methods of solidarity and cohesion. Perhaps therefore the question is not how we can produce a statutory service that can fix all that is deemed wrong in society, but rather how can these issues help us diversify and explore new possibilities of theory and practice (Moss and Petrie, 2002).

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Last Updated: 23 April 2019


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Naomi Robinson is a Youth Worker for Transform Training. Tim Howell is a youth work and community development Lecturer in the Department of Social and Community Studies at University of Derby.