Funding cuts are demolishing vital services for young people. To protect them, we need real leadership, more collaboration and efficient spending

Young people at youth club

At a youth centre in south London, where staff and volunteers run a daily after-school homework club, young people turn off their phones and focus on their studies in a safe, supportive and fun environment.

Like many youth organisations nationwide, the centre provides a space for young people to do positive things together, outside of school and family. Staff tell us that the young people they work with are as interested in the state of the world as any of us, but their everyday concerns tend to be more practical: doing well at school, getting a job or a place at university.

There is a clear link between the kind of society we aspire to be and the chances we offer to our next generation of voters, citizens, employees and parents. Dame Louise Casey’s recent review of opportunity and integration recognised this, and drew particular attention to the success of programmes offering young people positive activities outside of school and within their communities. London mayor Sadiq Khan has similarly said that we need to focus on “prioritising places and spaces where people can come together in communities”.

Alongside this positivity, however, reports show the profound reduction in services for young people resulting from funding cuts. With huge pressures on all local authority budgets, these cuts won’t be reversed.

Yet the Early Intervention Foundation estimates that the cost to London of what it calls “late intervention” – in terms of school exclusions and absence, youth economic inactivity, substance misuse, crime and antisocial behaviour and other issues – was £2.4bn in 2014-15. So a little more investment in holistic youth support services could lead to potentially huge savings.

So how do we sustainably fund youth work? There are no easy answers but there are areas we need to prioritise:

Less targeting

The focus on funding “targeted” work – while important – has reduced the capacity of some organisations to deliver open access or preventative services. This is frustrating: we have focused on targeted work with gangs for 10 years, yet young people are still involved in youth violence. Something has to change. The Youth Investment Fund, with its explicit focus on services that are open to all young people, is a welcome start – more funding needs to go this way.

More efficient spending

In 2016, the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper announced plans to fund some schools to extend their provision of access activities and programmes that would help young people develop skills employers value, such as confidence, leadership and resilience. Instead of funding schools, however, this might have been better achieved by funding existing youth organisations to work in partnership with schools. Similarly, the government’s commitment to expanding the National Citizens Service could be improved if the funding was supplemented by additional resources for year-round activities, delivered in communities over the long-term, and not just for a particular age group.

Better collaboration

As funding sources become ever scarcer, organisations working with young people may be tempted to compete and present their offerings as unique. We need to recognise that young people have diverse needs, and that they want to choose and shape services themselves. In some local authority areas, new models of capacity support for youth organisations are emerging through co-ops, mutuals or voluntary sector-led foundations; in other areas, new youth centres are being developed through regeneration planning. And in London more than 100 service providers, funders and other agencies have created a shared Vision for Young Londoners, making a public commitment to collaboration. These initiatives – and the new investments they might encourage – are welcome.

Real leadership

Local authorities need to work out – with local stakeholders and young people – the best way to ensure that high quality services are available. Government funding needs to strengthen partnerships, and the Office for Civil Society (OCS) must take a lead to ensure that the needs of young people outside of school are reflected in health, crime and education policy. The OCS are currently working on a youth policy statement, and the mayor of London and other regional leaders will be seeking to make good on their promises. These are real opportunities to set the expected standard and guarantee that national and regional government funding supports a consistent strategy.

There are reasons for optimism, and encouraging signs that youth work is valued and people want to support it. It is still not clear that funding will follow the rhetoric, however. If it really is important to give young people the opportunity to lead, shape and strengthen our communities, then let’s stop talking about it and invest in it.

This blog was first published by the Guardian Social Care Network – read more here.