From education to employment

Beyond Promises: The Importance of Youth Work in Post-Election Policies 

Jacob Diggle Exclusive

The party manifestos are now out for the public to consider in the run-up to the General Election on Thursday, July 4, writes Jacob Diggle, UK Youth chief impact officer. We have seen a range of commitments from across the political parties, but what does this mean for young people and for the professionals who support them? 

The Importance of Youth Work

Whoever walks into 10 Downing Street has a daunting task ahead. They have to find a way to deliver their promises, despite challenging economic conditions and heavy strain on public services. The list of problems is long and the list of proven solutions is too short. 

Fortunately, youth workers are an untapped resource to help solve the problems facing young people: improving their mental health and well-being; enhancing skills and employment prospects; and reducing crime and anti-social behaviour.  

Robust evidence shows youth work reduces pressure on public services in the short term and that young people who receive youth work become happier, healthier and wealthier adults compared with those who do not receive support. Youth work is life-changing, and even lifesaving.  

Return on Investment on Youth Work: £1 has between £3.20 – £6.40 return!

We have also shown youth work is already saving billions for the taxpayer. UK Youth’s economic research demonstrates that for every £1 invested in youth work, the return on investment for the government is between £3.20 and £6.40 – a high or very high return on investment according to the Government’s own measures.

In this election period, UK Youth has been urging all political parties to: 

  1. Deliver the long-term leadership and investment needed to unlock youth work for all young people; 
  2. Prioritise youth workers as essential roles – alongside teachers, social workers, and therapists – for implementing effective policies for young people; 
  3. Listen to young people by embedding youth voice into policy-making.  

The new Government has a real opportunity and responsibility to make a difference for young people. 

The outside of a polling station.
Voters go to the polls on Thursday, July 4.

What do the Manifestos say?

We are pleased many of the party manifestos recognise the essential role of youth workers and the importance of raising up young people’s voices.  

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and SNP have all committed to extending the right to vote in all elections to 16 and 17-year-olds. This is a welcome sign of trust and respect for young people. 

More specific to youth services, Labour has proposed a new ‘Young Futures’ programme with a network of hubs reaching every community. These hubs will have youth workers, mental health support workers, and careers advisers on hand to support young people’s mental health and avoid them being drawn into crime. The Labour Party has also pledged to fund youth workers and mentors in A&E units and pupil referral units to offer young people “a pathway out of violence”. 

The Green Party has pledged to ensure local authorities are properly funded to deliver youth services, including investing in the youth workers who play a key role in keeping young people safe. The Greens have also pledged to bring youth workers, rather than police officers, to work with pupils in schools. 

The Conservative Party has pledged to open ‘early support hubs’ to support the mental health of those aged 11-25 in every local community by 2030. The Conservatives are also looking to introduce national service for 18-year-olds, as well as continue to support programmes that encourage disadvantaged children and young people to access green spaces.  

The Liberal Democrats have committed to addressing the underfunding and neglect of children’s mental health services, youth services and youth justice services. They have also promised to invest in a youth offer that is ‘genuinely engaging’ and able to reach more young people.  

The Reform Party has made commitments on tackling youth crime through “high-intensity training camps” for young offenders, as well as integrating mental health services within job seeking pathways. 

Plaid Cymru’s manifesto does not specifically recognise the role of youth work but it does acknowledge the charity sector’s role in delivering public services and pledge more secure funding, with multi-year settlements.  

The Scottish National Party has not made specific promises relating to youth work. However, it has proposed an EU-wide youth mobility scheme and wants to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK law. 

Missed Opportunities?

There are many positives to take from these manifesto pledges. However, there are some clear challenges and oversights. Overall, the scale of ambition and investment proposed does not match the scale of young people’s needs.  

No party has presented a joined-up view of their offer for young people, nor demonstrated how they will avoid the fragmentation and duplication of policy making that affects young people across government. 

While a number of manifestos make commitments to expand access to youth work, no party has clearly explained how they will successfully implement these promises. For example, there is no discussion of how parties will overcome severe workforce shortages. 

We have particular concerns about the Reform Party’s pledge to introduce high-intensity training camps for young offenders. These bootcamp-style methods have been proven to be actively harmful for young people, rather than achieving intended outcomes.

The Conservative Party’s National Service proposal has received the most media attention.  We can get caught up in debating the specifics of mandatory participation or the merits of various programmes, but whether it is National Service, or the NCS year of service, or gap years, or internships, or apprenticeships, the reality is different things work for different people and that is okay. 

Many countries have successful National Service programmes, but they have built infrastructure around the experience, ensuring it is an integrated stage in a young person’s life. The core issue we face is the lack of sustained investment to supporting youth development. 

The Next Government’s Impact

The success of any of these commitments will depend on how much the new Government understands and acknowledges the role of youth work in supporting young people. Youth work is a solution and needs to be recognised as such, rather than being considered a problem to fix. 

Whether the issue is the school attendance crisis, youth unemployment, escalating mental health needs, or knife crime, the new Government needs to champion the role of youth workers in providing the essential linking mechanism to connect young people with the services they need through tailored individual support and dedicated partnership activity.

The youth sector does not exist on its own, nor does it have monopoly over access to, and care for, young people. The Government has a role to play in facilitating the development of partnerships between formal and non-formal education, alongside the different sectors that young people interact with – such as mental health, criminal justice, employment, and more.  

Our young people deserve a wide and exciting youth offer consisting of preventative activities, not just the necessary crisis and immediate support interventions.  

Successful implementation of any of these policy commitments will require upstream efforts to bring in new cohorts of youth workers and invest in the leadership skills of the existing workforce.  

And lastly, it is fundamental that young people are involved in the design of services and provision. Enabling youth voice is not just about giving democratic power to 16 and 17-year-olds to use their vote, it is also about embedding the views and opinions of young people into policy that is going to impact them. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t require significant financial benefit to achieve.  

If you already care about young people developing the skills they need to thrive in their lives, reducing the impact of crime and violence on young people, or young people having the tools and support they need to promote good mental health; then you do not need to care about youth work on top of this.

Youth work is an integral and fundamental mechanism for solving these problems for young people. If the Government enables youth work, they are enabling outcomes for employability, for mental health, and for reduction in violence. It is about time the Government recognises this and strives to make real change for the next generation.

By Jacob Diggle, chief impact officer at UK Youth

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