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A Future at Risk: Is This It for Youth Services?

In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East examines UNISON’S latest report on youth services and explores how charity and voluntary organisations can support young people who may not feel able to access mainstream youth provision.

Last Friday saw the release of UNISON’s report, A Future at Risk, which paints a pretty bleak picture of youth work and the significant cuts the sector has seen in recent years. But in this climate of doing more with less, how is the youth sector coping and what impact is this having on young people?

UNISON sent out 210 freedom of information requests to local councils, asking for information on what happened to youth services between 2014-2016 and also what the future of local youth services looked like for each local authority. The results of the report are staggering.

Since 2010, total cuts in youth service spending are at an estimated £327m, while approximately 600 youth centres have shut down resulting in the loss of some 3,650 jobs and 139,000 youth places have been axed. The report also suggests there is “more of the same for youth services in the years to come” with further cuts in 2016/17 likely to be “at least £26m”. With the sector seemingly nose-diving out of control since 2012, how is this affecting those who access services, chiefly young people?

As part of A Future at Risk, UNISON reached out to youth work professionals who gave their views on the impact this is having:

  • 80% said they thought young people feel less empowered

  • 71% said it was now harder for young people to stay in formal education

  • 65% said young people were finding it harder to get jobs

  • 77% reported increased mental health issues among young people, and 70% a rise in increased alcohol and substance abuse

  • 83% reported increased crime and anti-social behaviour

  • 91% said cuts were having a particular impact on young people from poorer backgrounds

The report further outlines that over half of the survey respondents said there were “particular problems for young black people, young LGBT people, and young women”. What is slightly disappointing from this research is that it does not appear that young people or service users have been asked for their feedback at all, or if they were it wasn’t published. Are youth work professionals more worried about these cuts than those who currently access the support? Yes, youth workers might have ‘the bigger picture’ view but are cuts really impacting the quality of work provided, or are we actually managing to do more with less – a demand levied against us in the wake of massive funding cuts.

The majority of central government funding is going towards the National Citizen Service (NCS), which will receive a projected £1.1billion by 2020. A common misconception from those on the outside is that NCS is a single entity, rather it’s a model delivered by local youth services for which they receive funding. NCS still costs the majority of young people £35-50, depending on the time of the year the young person wishes to complete their course – although subsidies are available depending on background and on the local provider delivering NCS in your area.

Although NCS is doing some great things around the country, there are concerns that young people are slipping through the cracks. Yes, some young people do go on residentials and do increase their confidence and complete projects, but what about the young people who need support in the first place to even contemplate accessing a service like this? Local youth organisations and charities are doing a lot of great work supporting young people to reach their potential. With further cuts expected, these people won’t be able to get to a position where they can access mainstream services and the support they require will simply not exist. There has to be a compromise between supporting a national framework encouraging the inclusion of every young person and funding organisations that work with young people to reach a point where they can take part in these initiatives.

Youth Focus: North East has been working alongside the local NCS delivery in Gateshead and Northumberland to enhance their social action projects by delivering political engagement and positive contribution workshops. Our project – Young Changers NE – is funded by the Ballinger Charitable Trust and enables groups of young people to undertake positive action in their local communities, supported by Youth Focus: North East staff and Young Advocates. We are working with groups of young people aged 13-25 around the North East region and hope to engage with young people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Our work with young people has opened our eyes to how they engage in political issues and how they themselves define politics. We are finding that young people absolutely are political, or have ideas on politics, but they are so disillusioned by the actions in Westminster that they don’t associate politics with what’s happening at a local level on their streets and neighbourhoods. Where they are passionate about an issue, young people don’t know what they could be doing to make positive changes, and that is why we believe equipping young people with the skills and experience of engaging in these issues and aiming for positive changes is important to creating a society with a strong sense of civic responsibility.

In their report, UNISON set out some recommendations for improving the state of local authority youth services including: Government involving and consulting with young people on decisions that affect their services, introducing a statutory duty to provide youth services, fair and full funding for youth services, services saved and kept in-house to council-employed staff, and fair pay to rise in line with the cost of living. These are (mostly) recommendations the sector has been making for years with little to no headway being made.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, said: “It’s youth services which prevent problems happening in the first place by reducing feelings of isolation among young people and helping teenagers to lead positive lives. But they’ve been relentlessly cut and undermined at a time when they are needed more than ever. Youth services are heading for collapse.”

Some would argue they’re not only heading for collapse, but they’re expected to bring their own bulldozers and clean up afterwards.

Jamie Mercer, Youth Focus: North East

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