Children are unhappy enough without cuts to youth services

British children are among the saddest. Niall Carson/PA Wire

It was reported last week that spending on youth services is down by one third, with some budgets cut by 78%. The cuts to youth service budgets have been called “disproportionate” by Tim Loughton, the former Conservative children’s minister and potentially damaging for young people’s well being by Fiona Black, chief executive of the National Youth Agency.

Growing up today can be tough. Alongside economic woes, young people’s subjective well-being is significantly lower in the UK than in other comparable countries. They are generally less happy, less content and less positive about their future than in other countries. British children are less likely to participate in active and creative pursuits with families struggling to find the time and resources to provide their children with new experiences.

The Children’s Society found that indicators of low well-being increase dramatically with age – doubling from the age of ten to the age of 15 and that children who have low levels of happiness are much less likely to enjoy being at home with their family; feel safe when with their friends; like the way they look; and feel positive about their future.

Youth services have a long and interesting history, having first emerged in the UK through the work of churches and organisations such as the newly established Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1844. By the 1960s, concern with the social and moral character of young people led to the expansion of state youth work, with an emerging professional workforce and local authority youth services. Between the 1960s and the late 1990s, much of this youth work sat between being an educational service and a leisure one – seeking to develop young people outside of the formal school curriculum.

During the new Labour years (1997-2010) various reforms led to a greater focus on addressing the problems presented or faced by young people. Youth workers found themselves engaged in preventative work as well as playing a key role in the provision of advice and information to young people.

Paying attention

Youth services, through qualified youth workers, use informal education to contribute to young people’s personal, social and educational development. Young people value youth workers first because they are trusted adults. A youth worker acts as a “role model” to young people and as a “critical friend” is able to respect and relate to young people but with clear professional values and boundaries that guide interventions.

Services have been shown to make a valuable contribution to the lives of young people, especially when they are facing particular difficulties. The Education Select Committee found:

There is little doubt that good youth services can have a transformational effect on young people’s lives and can play a vital role both in supporting vulnerable young people.

Youth work helps young people to be healthier through the promotion of better lifestyles through prevention. It helps young people to stay safe through more prevention programmes and the promotion of resilience and decision-making skills. Youth work often provides the only positive opportunity for learning as well as increasing the opportunities for young people to make a positive contribution to their communities.

In the context of the challenges young people face growing up today together with the evidence of low subjective well-being, it may be time to think afresh about how the government can support them better. To start with, central government needs to provide a much clearer legal expectation on local authorities to ensure the delivery of youth services – this will guard against them being able to make swift and damaging funding cuts.

It will, in turn, allow local authorities to deliver and commission youth work that is relevant to the local young population. Involving young people in the process is key: they should have a greater say about what is needed in their local communities and how they can play an active role in responding to this need.

Youth service cuts will never attract the same press or public interest as those faced by other high-profile and valued public services. Yet, if we are truly concerned about what kind of environment we want young people to grow up in, then arguing for a better youth work deal for young people is one step in the right direction.

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