The Youth Sector Needs Pragmatists

The youth sector has suffered massively at the hand of severe cuts. Local authorities throughout the UK, lacking directive or guidance from central Government, have enacted approximately half a billion pounds worth of reductions. Hundreds of youth clubs and other local services have been pared back to such a degree that the statutory youth service is all but reduced to a skeleton provision in some of the most deprived areas of the U.K. Those that are aware know only to well what a false economy these cuts are, a reduced local youth service will inevitably lead to all sorts of expensive repercussions.

Without a universal, open access youth service to support young people, particularly those most vulnerable, it will only be a matter of time before we see an increase in criminal activity, a rise in drug use, more STIs, teenage pregnancies, alcohol related anti-social behaviour, and even more youth unemployment and under-employment.

While these are demonstrably serious issues for young people and communities, it is also clear these issues will cost local authorities, governments and ultimately tax payers dearly, and it would be inherently more sensible to mitigate these financial and societal costs by investing upfront for robust preventative services.

However we have a Government who are committed to a liberal agenda of small government and austerity, a principled position they are clearly not going to be swayed from.

Youth service professionals broadly fall into two main camps of how to deal with this crisis.

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1. Proudly committed to process over and above outcome. Protest loudly, decry the government, argue the case for dramatic increases and ring fencing of public spending, yearn back to a time of well funded universal, statutory commissioned and centrally supported youth provisions.

This camp is mostly represented through In Defense of Youth Work andChoose Youth.

2. Acknowledge the current situation is unlikely to change, work across sectors to build partnerships, find new approaches and ways of protecting existing services, and seek to develop new provisions where they are most needed.

These organisations include UK Youth, Ambition, Onside Youth Zones, many uniformed youth services and other voluntary sector providers.

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Despite, many of those in the former camp being skeptical of the latter, only one will have any success in effecting any kind of progression.

Three of the most significant and ambitious national youth organisations, UK Youth, Ambition and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services(NCVYS), have led on a sector wide consultation on the priorities for the sector. The findings of which were recently announced at an event in the presence of over 100 youth organisations and representatives.

There were ultimately 6 clear asks that came from the consultation:

  1. Develop cross sector alliances to support agreed outcomes for young people
  2. Articulate the youth offer in a clear concise way that incorporates a shared vision for young people
  3. Demonstrate the positive impact of non formal education on young lives
  4. Identify which key player(s) will provide sector leadership and shape policy going forward
  5. Develop new business models to ensure the sector is sustainable
  6. Access new forms of funding

As a consequence there have been numerous difficult conversations and brave choices made. The most telling is for NCVYS and Ambition to begin merger talks, with an intention to work more collaboratively with UK Youth through a Chair’s Taskforce, a collective impact approach, and an objective to define the sector more clearly through a vision for a ‘Social Development Journey’.

I was shocked, when almost immediately upon this progress and solution focused approach being shared, In Defense of Youth Work Coordinator Tony Taylor, took the opportunity to call these organisations, and in turn the personnel within them, “unprincipled pragmatists”. This kind of attack from within the sector only harms and diminishes the sector as a whole.

Being called a pragmatist I have no issue with. That pragmatism has seen UK Youth source and cascade £3.3 million into the sector last year alone; that pragmatism has built dozens of IT Hubs in youth clubs throughout the UK; that pragmatism has created the opportunity for thousands of young people to lead on community based social action initiatives; that pragmatism has seen 20,000 young people in the past 12 months engage in outdoor pursuits at Avon Tyrell; that pragmatism has engaged hundreds of disaffected and impoverished young people through The Big Music Project; that pragmatism has seen Onside generate £60 million plus to build and fund 10 state of the art youth provisions (with an aim to build dozens more); that pragmatism has led to developing a growing and compelling body of evidence on the impact of youth work; and that pragmatism has opened the doors for conversations with policy makers on how they can best provide support for the sector by helping to understand and define our purpose and value.

I’ll be a pragmatist all day long if it means that even one more young person can have access to the support and guidance they need. But “unprincipled”….NO, never! Because pragmatism and moral principles absolutely need not be mutually exclusive, and in fact my pragmatism is wholly informed by my principles.

I have been in the youth sector for over 25 years, I’ve been poorly paid, and under-appreciated, I’ve walked the streets late at night as a detached youth worker, I managed run down youth clubs on a shoestring, I’ve worked 70 hour weeks because I was needed to, and now I dedicate my time, skills and expertise in trying to create as much impact as possible nationwide for as many young people as possible. My UK Youth colleagues are some of the most diligent, dedicated people I’ve ever sat side-by-side with, who work exceptionally hard, not for their own progression or career, but for their love of youth work, to do something worthwhile, something important.

It will be the pragmatists who will ultimately effect change, will salvage whatever is possible of the current sector, and the ones working towards a youth sector to be proud of in the future. Because, here’s the thing, young people don’t care who pays for their local youth club, or apprenticeship scheme, or sexual health advice service, or sports hall, all they care about is that it is there, that they can access it when they want it, and that there is a trusted adult available to give them help and support when they need it most.

I will call the government to account when I think they are wrong, I will voice my concerns and I will make plain my disapproval of stringent and short-sighted cuts, but I will not bang my head against a brick wall trying to change their minds and in turn ostracise myself from those that bear the most influence. I will sit down, I will talk, I will collaborate, I will seek common ground and I will compromise when needed, because that is how I can ensure we protect and create the very best open access and targeted intervention opportunities for young people.

A part of my pragmatism would like to see these two camps work together, because, despite appearances, we are not actually that far apart. We all agree that universal open access youth work is vital, we all agree that the rapid cuts are massively damaging, we all agree that early intervention and prevention is essential, and we all agree that something needs to be done. So, as sector we now have a fundamental decision to make.

It’s undoubtedly a privileged position to adopt the high moral ground, and it’s comfortable to argue for a turning back of the clock, but in whose interest? Will this approach in actuality create any opportunities or benefits to young people in today’s society? I think not! And while it may be challenging to embrace change, scary to take risks, complicated when reaching out to new partners and negotiating with those with alternate agenda, it will be this practical approach that will, in the end, make a very real difference to the lives of individual young people and communities.

Ultimately there is a stark choice facing all youth professionals of which approach to take and organisations with which to align; stay stubborn and stand still or innovate and progress? I know which I choose…every single time.

Written by Matt Lent – Director of Partnerships and Policy, UK Youth

Author: UK Youth

UK Youth is the largest national body for the youth sector, who via our member networks and partners, deliver a wide range of informal educational opportunities for young people aged 9-25 years, living in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

5 thoughts on “The Youth Sector Needs Pragmatists”

  1. Matt – I was a a touch taken aback to see you describe a quick comment on Facebook as me ‘taking the opportunity’ to attack the people working within UK Youth/NCVYS/AMBITION as ‘unprincipled pragmatists’. In fact I suggested that the organisations as organisations are not critically reflective and that in my opinion the Youth Briefing is unprincipled in its pragmatism. However, given it was just a comment, I said I’d explain myself further. In hindsight I’m happy to withdraw this sweeping assertion, given it has obviously touched a raw nerve, and I’ll explain my concerns further in a post on our blog this week. As it is we’ve already posted two pieces on the Briefing, one by Bernard Davies, which question the trajectory of the Briefing – and

    I won’t get into a competition about who’s done what in their time in youth work, except to say pragmatism, sometimes well-founded, sometimes mistaken, sometimes utterly necessary, has been the name of the game. There’s never been a shortage of pragmatism. There has sometimes been a shortage of courage and imagination. By and large I’ve fallen short perhaps on both counts.

    As for IDYW being in a time warp I can only think you don’t follow seriously our humble efforts. In a couple of weeks Bernard is leading a debate – Beyond the local authority Youth Service: Can the state fund open access youth work, and if so how? Our national conference will be entitled Re-Imagining Youth Work. Our work on Story-Telling as a way of scrutinising our practice has been picked up in Europe and beyond.

    To return to principle and pragmatism, to philosophy and politics and not at all to some moral high ground we do not think it is possible to discuss either the present or the future without engaging with, without at least acknowledging, the insidious impact of neo-liberal economics and ideology upon youth work across at least the last 20 years. On this issue the Briefing hides its head in the sand.

    Let the debate continue.


  2. Hi Tony. Thank you for your response. You may be right, being called ‘unprincipled’ may well have touched a nerve. I have spent my whole career (life) trying to do what I see as best for young people, as have many of my friends and colleagues. While we clearly have different opinions and approaches I do feel the inflammatory language used, often directed towards leading youth sector organisations and individuals, is extremely unhelpful. I/we were accused or ‘profiteering’ last night on Twitter, (that couldn’t be further from the truth).

    I’m not convinced that IDYW really understands what we are trying to achieve for young people and the sector, and that must in part be our responsibility to create clarity. And in turn, maybe I don’t fully understand what you are trying to achieve. But my instinct is that we are genuinely not actually as far apart as it may initially seem, we are simply focusing our energies on different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, solutions.

    In regards to whether the briefing hides its ‘head in the sand’ in regards to the cuts and their impact, this was not the focus of that piece of work, but rather a chance to look forward to positive solutions, which was the broad focus of the consultation. I myself however have spoken and written publicly many times about the damaging effect of the Govt agenda, including in the above post, but not every document or briefing needs to refer to this. In many ways I’d much rather my time and energies went into innovation and developing viable opportunities for young people and the sector.

    I look forward to continuing our debate in person, and please do feel free to extend invites to UK Youth to join in with your debates and conferences. Let’s ensure we work towards an open and generous dialogue.


  3. Matt – and thanks for yours. Clearly there are moments when we may not be understanding each other. My reference to the impact of neo-liberalism upon youth work refers principally to way in which it has shifted the purpose and content of practice and not to the cuts in provision. I’ll be saying something about this in a future post on the IDYW blog so I’ll leave it for now.

    As for inflammatory language I’ve looked back quickly across the last couple of year’s posts on our blog and struggle to see anything fitting that description.

    Of course it would be positive to have a constructive dialogue and in person is always more forgiving. Distance might be a problem though!


  4. I don’t want to enter into the ‘camp’ debate, however is does concern me when those advocating youth practice revert to tacit negative constructions of youth in order to justify, or defend, its existence:

    “Without a universal, open access youth service to support young people, particularly those most vulnerable, it will only be a matter of time before we see an increase in criminal activity, a rise in drug use, more STIs, teenage pregnancies, alcohol related anti-social behaviour, and even more youth unemployment and under-employment.”

    Surely youth work policymakers, and youth workers themselves, should be concerned with challenging notions of youth as potential danger and a source of fear rather than feeling forced to sell their services as some kind of ‘rivers of blood’ prophylactic. Let’s make sure that ‘youth’ is not the casualty in our defence or our pragmatism.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Gavin,

    Thank you for your comment, and I think that’s fair enough. It certainly wasn’t my intention to fear-monger or demonize, and at the same time we as a sector do need to stand up and be clear what it is we are for, as this is unclear to many, and early intervention and preventative work is, and should be, an essential element of our remit.

    Without a rigorous service a significant number of young people (although by no means all) will be left without the support they would benefit from in order to be able to make positive choices for themselves and others, which may in turn lead to the individual and societal issues I highlighted.

    There are of course countless case studies of young people having engaged in youth service provisions and as a consequence have had opportunity and support to build a ‘positive’ life for themselves. It’s vital that we refer to these stories and qualitative research to support our case, as well as drawing attention to the consequence of service decline.



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