The history of youth work in the UK is complex and contradictory. Lacking a definitive policy home of its own, youth work has always existed in a policy environment that appears resolute to shift, squeeze and restructure the profession in diverging and contradictory ways (Bright 2015). Youth work was founded by a mixture of philanthropic, social action and Christian voluntary organisations with agendas to ‘do good’ and provide young people with social, emotional, political and spiritual support. It was in 1939 that these activities became formally institutionalised in policy, The Service of Youth (Board of Education 1939) set out an intention to offer activities for young people that sought to enhance leisure-time learning. Little further work to organise youth services took place until after World War Two, and a subsequent ‘sense of post-war mutuality embodied the state’s commitment to public services’ (Bradford 2015: 26) served as the catalyst for the formation of a committee chaired by Countess Albermarle to report on how youth services might support young people in times of ‘changing social and industrial conditions’ (Ministry of Education 1960: 1). The Albermarle Report recommended the expansion and professionalisation of youth services predicated
upon the identification and management of the problem of youth through: ‘association, training and challenge of the right kind’ (Ministry of Education 1960: 52). The report heralded a ‘golden age’ for youth work and the following 20 years saw significant expenditure for rapid expansion in services to youth, training initiatives for the workforce and a growth in the formally developed body of professional knowledge underpinning the profession. The arrival of Thatcherism and the New Right brought a re-politicising of welfare policy, a drive towards individual responsibility and a weakening of support for collectivised provision (Bradford 2012). Reassigned as a non-essential service, in contrast to social work, criminal justice, schools and further education, seen as higher priorities, youth services took the brunt of cuts to funding and therefore services. The trend was undisrupted by the coming to power of New Labour in 1997, which introduced what it termed Third Way politics, which sought to trouble previous political and ideological dualisms: ‘capital versus labour, conservative versus radical, left versus right, state versus the individual’ (Sercombe 2015: 43). However, in essence, for youth work what transpired was a re-envisioning of neoliberal approaches introduced by the previous Conservative government. Since then, like other public services, for example schools and hospitals, youth work has become increasingly subjected to quasi-market measures of accountability, there are pressures to work only with those deemed most ‘at risk’ or ‘in need’. Youth workers are expected to quantify the impact they make on the lives of young people through an emphasis on recorded outcomes (which demonstrate acquisition of a ‘soft skill’ for example increased confidence), and accredited outcomes (a standardised outcome which is externally validated, for example, GCSEs or Duke of Edinburgh Awards), and youth services became accountable to Ofsted (Tyler 2009). While in the past youth work has taken place in dedicated spaces and predominantly within statutory youth and/or social services, today youth workers can be found within broader multi-agency teams and partnerships with differing and often conflicting agendas. Cuts to services, and competition for funding of youth activities has led to an increased focus on targeted support for particular groups of young people such as Looked After Children (LAC), young parents, young offenders and young carers. In addition, there is often a requirement for youth workers to evidence their contribution to policy agendas in local authorities such as the reduction in NEETs (young people identified as not in employment, education and training), crime prevention, health initiatives, and employability (Wood, Westwood and Thompson 2015). These conditions have far reaching effects on the nature of the work that can be delivered and many youth workers struggle with the tension between such conditions and efforts to maintain the core values of youth work. Therefore it is vital that students undertaking placements in youth and community work settings be aware of the principles that underpin youth work approaches and how they may contribute to this, often within contexts that make fidelity to this approach challenging.