Thursday, 5 January 2017

What type of youth service does Wales want?

(Pic : University of Wales Trinity St David)

Youth services play a valuable role in boosting the confidence and skills of young people, particularly those from backgrounds where making the wrong choice is often an attractive option.

Most youth services are run by local authorities and dedicated youth workers, but like many "low-hanging fruit" parts of the public sector they've become victims of cuts, with youth service budgets cut by 25% over the last four years.

Just before the Christmas recess, the Assembly's Children & Young People Committee published their inquiry report into youth work (pdf).

The 10 recommendations can be summarised as:
  • The Welsh Government should review its National Strategy and run a new consultation to take in the views of young people, and address concerns from within the sector that their (sector) views are being ignored.
  • A new national model of youth work should be introduced, covering both statutory and voluntary services. The Welsh Government should report back to the Committee within 6 months of the report's publication.
  • The Welsh Government should also report back within 6 months on the Minister for Lifelong Learning's commitment to universal open access youth service provision in English and Welsh.
  • An "accountability framework" should be developed to monitor local authority spending on youth services, and should include sanctions if outcomes aren't delivered.
  • The Welsh Government should explore the continuation of Erasmus+ funding post-Brexit.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure the youth work sector plays a role in the development of the new National Curriculum.

What do Welsh youth services look like today?

As mentioned, the budget allocated by local authorities for youth services had been cut by 25% over the last four years, which is some circumstances "seriously restricts" access to youth services or even renders them non-existent. Any suggestion from local authorities that they've been able to maintain such services is "patently false".

In 2015-16 alone, 148 (of 805) full-time youth workers were lost, and £6million cut from budgets. Services are shifting from the desired universal, open access youth service to a more targeted one – aimed particularly at young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

This means some groups – the disabled, refugees, travellers – are being disproportionately affected by cuts, while Urdd Gobaith Cymru say Welsh-medium youth services are provided inconsistently, partly explained by a lack of Welsh-speaking youth workers despite high demand (25% of young people in the predominantly anglophone Vale of Glamorgan are said to like to access Welsh language services, for example).

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), told the Committee he was still committed to a universal, open access youth service available in English and Welsh. He was, however, supportive of the targeted approach - but finding a balance between targeted and open-access services was "challenging".

The Welsh Government's Role

Despite the existence of the National Youth Work Strategy 2014-2018 (pdf), there's a lack of leadership and vision from the Welsh Government, with a feeling it's "fragmented and unclear on the direction of travel". YMCA say there's a lack of coherence and long-term vision, while Wrexham Council believe the Welsh Government needs to build consensus between local youth services and Third Sector bodies.

The strategy is welcomed in principle, but due to the scale of the changes made in light of austerity, it was time for a review, with some witnesses believing the strategy is impossible to deliver in its current form.

There was support for the Welsh Government introducing a legal duty to provide youth services, and determine who's responsible for delivering them. The Children's Commissioner also called for the youth workforce to play a more active role in developing policy, with criticism from such bodies of the Welsh Government's lack of engagement.

The Minister believes the Welsh Government's role is to lead and exchange best practice. He rejected claims of a lack of leadership, believing the strategy is, in itself, a sign they're taking it seriously - alongside an extra £2.7million in funding. He committed to undertaking a review of the strategy and associated guidance – though he brushed aside complaints about lack of engagement, saying no organisation who gave evidence to the inquiry had contacted him since he was appointed.

The Future of Youth Services in Wales

There were calls to establish a new national body to: co-ordinate the voluntary and statutory duties, offer strategic leadership and come up with creating solutions to the problems youth work faces.

Various organisations are unconvinced the vision of a universal, open access service is deliverable without the money to do it. The biggest concern is the difference between the amount of money given to local authorities to provide youth services and the amount of money they spend; money spent on schemes like Flying Start and Communities First is often categorised as "youth services" to make the books look better. Subsequently, there were calls for youth service funding to be ring-fenced.

Youth services are also often delivered or developed without input from young people. Organisations were disappointed that the value of youth work isn't being taken into consideration with regard the new National Curriculum too.

From April 2017, some youth workers will need to be registered with the Education Workforce Council, but Unison believe youth workers won't get the same value from professional registration as teachers.

The Minister didn't want to "nationalise" youth services by tying them to a national strategy, so differences between local authorities were inevitable. However, he'll be considering the delivery model further this year, including addressing differences in reported spending between councils.

The Committee believe he'll have to take a "radical approach" to deliver the vision, throwing their support behind some sort of national model and expressing concerns over the "lack of accountability" for use of funds by local councils.


This inquiry posed serious questions to both the Minister and Welsh Government generally.

I never had any experience of youth services, barely knew they existed and still don't entirely understand what they do - but they're clearly important for young people who are at risk of going off the rails. For a relatively small outlay in the grand scheme of things – about £37million across Wales – it prevents bigger costs in the future by reducing crime, steering young people away from poor lifestyle choices and welfare dependency.

Another key message here is, "Don't vote, don't get". Young people don't vote, young people don't get.

Politics is about popularity first and foremost and, in a democracy, parties will always play to demographics that win them votes i.e older age groups (because they actually vote). Services important to them will be maintained and parties will do more to court their vote by offering extras on top; it's why we have things like free TV licences for the over-75s, free bus passes for the over-60s and policies designed to maintain or push up house prices.

Who pays for them? The young do, both directly (taxes, welfare changes) and indirectly (cuts to youth services, high housing costs).

I'm on the fence when it comes to a Youth Parliament, but this report underlines one of the better arguments in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 (The X-Factor).


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