I’ve written before about my concerns of an increasingly fragmented youth sector. Local authorities, under growing central pressure to save money, are ‘casually’ slicing through their youth service funding. Even before Gove’s comments of the 23rd January, addressed in this blog, the government were refusing to intervene in local authorities’ levels of funding for youth provisions, leaving the service to rapidly dwindle and forced to seek new strategies and structures in a bid to survive.
Social enterprise, sub-contracting, payment by results social investment, project based grant applications, community fundraising, mass redundancies, service decimation, formation of Community Interest Companies and reliance upon volunteers and untrained part-time staff. These are just some of the approaches being taken by previously publicly funded youth services, and the result of all this experimentation is a severe lack of continuity, and an inability to best identify and meet the needs of the young people that they are trying to support.
Add to this the changing face of the voluntary youth sector, including reduced staffing, short-term/one-off initiatives, surviving on project based grants and struggling to create new income streams, and it is clear that the youth service has become unrecognisable to where is was just a few short years ago.
One of the best things that has come out of these drastic funding cuts has been a new unity and collaboration amongst the voluntary sector organisations. For example, recently a Big Lottery grant was realised for the youth sector, for which a number of key organisations came together to decide which organisation was best placed to carry out the project and how they could best work together to meet the identified needs of the target group. Similarly NCVYS, UK Youth and LEAP Confronting Conflict have merged their annual conferences and AGMs, last year exploring the themes of collaboration .
And most recently 26 youth sector organisations came together to express their concern at the Secretary of State for Education’s apparently flippant remarks to the Education Select Committee hearing in which he stated that youth policy was not a concern for central Government and should be developed and handled entirely by local authorities. Michael Gove has, in one fell swoop, effectively managed to undermine the groundwork and ethos for change established in the post 2011 riots and DfE led initiative Positive for Youth, pledging cross-Government support for young people. Headed by NCVYS these leading organisations agreed and signed a letter for the attention of Gove demanding further explanation, (so far none has been forth-coming).
These concerns should have been noted on the day Michael Gove came into his office and immediately changed the name of the department from ‘Children, Schools and Families’ to simply ‘Education’. In the select committee hearing, when asked directly, he made extremely clear that his only focus is formal education, stating that his top concern was that “every child arrives at and spends their time in school fulfilled, happy and learning”. Add to this his well known disdain for the youth service and youth workers more specifically, (he hasn’t visited a single youth project during his 2 and half years in office and he was once known to remark that youth work qualifications have little to no value), this abandonment of responsibility should not really came as any shock.
Dismissing the fact that hindsight is 20/20, it is still somewhat of a surprise that an apparently intelligent man cannot see how formal and informal education are inextricably linked, able to complement and support each other when enabled to do so, which demonstrably requires local and national continuity, provided and informed by central policy and guidance.
With the youth service being so underfunded and becoming so fragmented there is now in fact a greater than ever need for central government to take more, not less, of a leading role. Yes local authorities are best placed to decide on local priorities and how best to meet them, but central government has a clear role and duty of care to ensure local authorities appropriately invest in services, identify and promote best practice, and monitor service providers.
It’s not even something that would cost much money, all the signatories of the letter are really asking for is a policy framework to minimise complexity and confusion, and to maximise the effective use of limited resources, encouraging collaboration amongst service providers. As well as an education policy that considers and values non-formal education as complementary to formal education, with a clear guidance to local authorities that they need to maintain quality youth services with appropriate investment.
I therefore urge everyone (especially youth organisation leaders) to read, sign, re-post, forward and tweet the joint open letter, placing the Secretary of State and the Department under as much pressure as possible to reconsider their priorities for the youth service at this time of it’s greatest need.