Youth services have been decimated but they are needed now more than ever

Over the past decade, every region in England has faced cuts to youth services of at least 60%.

These vital services are designed to support young people most in need, those who face the sharpest edge of health inequalities, and have the fewest opportunities to succeed. The cuts have meant fewer services, fewer young people able to access those still running, and those young people who can attend are supervised by fewer staff, working fewer hours.

Community organisations also have the knowledge and skills to support young people to access opportunities to thrive. Funding cuts have meant many voluntary and community projects have been forced to close or reduce their services. The Avenues is one of the many projects funded through the Trust’s Active Communities programme using money raised through The Health Lottery, who are delivering vital services for young people.

People’s Health Trust’s Media and Communications Officer, Holly Beattie, spoke to Ffion Chambers from The Avenues in West London about the sustainability of youth services and the impact they have.

Ffion Chambers got involved in youth work to inspire and encourage young people to learn new skills and access new opportunities. Being able to attend a safe space that is designed especially for young people to have fun, socialise and engage in new hobbies has been essential.

“There are a lot of expectations placed on young people and they are facing lots of new and unique challenges. In the past four years young people have witnessed the tragedy of Grenfell, the murder of George Floyd and the discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve lived through a global pandemic and with the added pressure of exams and the normal hormone changes, that’s a lot for someone in their early teens to process,” explained Ffion.

Having access to youth services for people in areas already experiencing the highest levels of disadvantage can help tackle the social and economic factors which contribute to health inequalities and reduced life expectancy. At The Avenues, young people can build vital social connections, gain important skills which lead to job opportunities and explore ways to tackle issues such as discrimination and oppression.

Discussing the importance of maintaining youth services, Ffion said:

“The way to make a fairer, greener and more equal world is by inspiring the next generation to care about these issues and give them opportunities to thrive. The impact of face to face youth work in physical spaces is really important. Those who choose to engage report that they feel more confident and happy in their own skin, they feel safe, listened to and respected.”

As well as creating a strong foundation for young people to grow, youth projects are essential in having a more immediate impact on issues such as mental health, welfare and youth violence.

The Avenues operates within the City of Westminster, where youth services have been cut by 91% since 2014. In 2019, the APPG on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction linked cuts to youth services with rising knife crime in some areas including Westminster. The pandemic has meant that access to youth services has decreased even further as restrictions have meant many were unable to fully operate for the past 18 months.

Discussing the new challenges presented during COVID-19, Ffion said:

“Young people have showed huge maturity and resilience during the pandemic and we really need to give them credit for that. We also need to realise the impact this has had on young people in so many different ways. The easing of restrictions isn’t the end but the beginning of tackling these new challenges. The number of mental health disclosures and need for support has increased. We need decision makers to champion the important role youth services play in supporting young people with a huge range of different needs.

“We know that youth work has a positive impact on young people but it can often be overlooked. We all need to play our part and collaborate to solve the challenges young people are facing, but the youth work sector needs to be at the table leading these discussions because this sector works closest with the young people themselves.”

The Queen’s Speech which set out the government’s legislative programme for the next parliamentary term was an opportunity for these issues to be addressed and prioritised. We welcome the increased funding for skills and jobs development for young people but it is not enough to return funding to its 2010 levels and address the increased needs of young people following COVID-19.

People’s Health Trust are also calling for greater investment in mental health support, targeted at those experiencing the highest levels of disadvantage. Consultation with community groups is a key aspect of understanding the support needed and delivering these services. We need to hear from the voices of people facing disadvantage, especially from groups who are marginalised by society, whose needs are so often missing from policymaking.