Posts Tagged 'ESRC'

Valuing young people, valuing grassroots youth work

Tania and Louise

Louise Doherty and Tania de St Croix

Young people say that more youth centres would make them safer. Looking back on research for ‘Grassroots youth work: Policy, passion and resistance in practice’, Tania de St Croix and Louise Doherty argue for a renewed policy commitment to youth work as a youth-centred educational practice – one where the focus is on young people themselves, not on short-term results and pre-defined outcomes (in relation to knife crime or anything else).

When the Youth Violence Commission asked young people “If there was one thing you could change that you think would make young people safer, what would it be?”, the most popular response was the provision of more local youth centres and activities. This wish sits starkly against a backdrop of relentless cuts, closures and redundancies in the youth work sector, with council spending cut from £650 million in 2010/11 to £390 million in 2016/17 (LGA, 2018). It would be simplistic to claim that youth clubs prevent knife crime, which is rooted in a grossly unequal society and the vilification and marginalisation of working class and minority ethnic young people. Yet it has never been clearer that young people need to know they are valued; they need adults they can trust, who will challenge and support them; and they need spaces where they can build positive peer and community relations and a feeling of belonging.

There are tentative signs of a rekindling of interest in youth work amongst policy makers in England (youth policy in the UK is devolved across the four Nations). In August 2018, the Civil Society Strategy recognised “the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have, especially for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage”. In October 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs recommended reinvestment in youth work as an educational process (not as a way of ‘fixing problems’). Meanwhile, the Labour Party have pledged to reinvest in youth services and ring-fence local budgets.

Yet, as researchers who are also experienced and qualified youth workers, we are cautious about this renewed interest in our sector. This is partly because a meaningful policy and funding commitment is yet to emerge; it is also because of a tension at the heart of youth work and its place in policy. Too often, youth work as a response to ‘crisis’ has formalised the nature of our practice, removing the elements that young people most value – its engagement with them on their own terms rather than because they are seen as ‘at risk’ or ‘risky’.

The study underpinning the book Grassroots youth work found that the threat to youth work came both from cuts and a longer legacy of neoliberal market imperatives and surveillance cultures shaping public and voluntary services. The part-time and volunteer youth workers in the study were heavily constrained by funding attached to predefined outcomes and bureaucratic monitoring systems. Crime prevention projects that required them to work alongside the police, or to identify young people ‘at risk of involvement in crime’, were particularly problematic and counter-productive, because they brought youth workers into the realm of surveillance and ‘the establishment’ in young people’s eyes. ‘Proving’ (rather than critically reflecting on) their work wasted money and effort, as they were compelled to focus on meeting immediate targets at the expense of professional judgements and long-term face-to-face practice.

Despite these challenges, the study found evidence of the survival and thriving of grassroots approaches to youth work, based on informal learning through conversations, activities and relationships, chosen by young people in their leisure time. Since the book was written, however, the cuts have continued apace; many of the workers interviewed have lost their jobs and several of their organisations have closed. The confidence of the sector has been undermined by insecurity, leading to professional migration to other fields of labour. We are now in an even more challenging and precarious situation than we were when the book was published in 2016.

Any reinvestment – whilst welcome – must recognise that youth work’s very existence as an educational and professional endeavour has been eroded. Courses for the training of professional youth and community workers have been dismantled across the country, as universities (themselves acting on market pressures) have closed courses or redirected students towards social work and targeted interventions. Staff and managers with decades of experience have been made redundant or accepted early retirement, often feeling burnt out, disillusioned and let down; many are reluctant to return. Those who remain are employed on increasingly precarious contracts, rarely on union-negotiated terms and conditions. And youth work buildings once in community ownership have been sold off to address council and voluntary sector deficits.

We don’t want these negatives to over-shadow the passion and commitment of youth workers and volunteers, operating in extremely challenging circumstances; one of the reasons for writing the book in the first place was to recognise challenges while celebrating youth work. Yet we want to emphasise that policy support for youth work must aim to rebuild the confidence and competence of the sector. It must also avoid demanding short-term results, and recognise the nature and value of youth work as a skilled practice that operates on young people’s terms, whoever they are and whatever issues they want to bring.

We are currently in the first year of a new three-year research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which investigates the evaluation of youth work. We are looking at how a new emphasis on ‘impact’ is shaping the everyday practice and overall provision of services; how evaluation and accountability processes are experienced on the ground; and how these mechanisms might look if they were rooted in the needs and perspectives of young people and youth workers in their local contexts. Whilst the early stages of the fieldwork are hopeful in terms of identifying youth work organisations that have survived, the shape of renewed policy interest in youth work remains unformed. Our research seeks to interact with youth workers and young people to support what could be a renaissance of the practice at a time when youth work is needed more than ever.

Grassroots youth work [FC] 4webGrassroots Youth Work by Tania De St Croix is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.19.

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Is the new impact agenda the excuse you’ve been waiting for to use your research to make a difference?

Sharon Wright and Peter Dwyer, researching the impacts of Universal Credit since 2013 as part of the collaborative ESRC Welfare Conditionality project, reflect on their recent experience of contributing to the Universal Credit debate, to argue that impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.

Dr. Sharon Wright

Prof. Peter Dwyer

The news that research impact will account for a quarter of a unit’s score for the REF2021 research excellence rankings has piqued the interest of cash-hungry University leaders across the country.

With the most significant and far reaching impacts bringing in around £324k, pressure is building for academics to strike into uncharted knowledge-exchange territory to secure elusive high-earning 4* impact case studies.

But if the thought of money as a motivator leaves you cold – and the more familiar competing pressures of teaching, administration and research offer space for little else – is there an alternative way of looking at the new drive for impact?

“Impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.”

In October 2017, Universal Credit (UC) hit the headlines with public outrage at claimants unable to afford to eat and at risk of losing their homes because of the built-in delay of 6 weeks for the first payment.

One of the greatest injustices is that Universal Credit was sold to the electorate as a reform aimed at simplifying the system and making work pay, and as such, it was originally welcomed widely. However, design flaws are being exposed as contributing to rising foodbank use, homelessness and destitution.

House of Commons

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, has been resistant to calls for urgent action to restore UC in line with its original policy aims. On 18th October 2017, a unanimous group of opposition MPs won the landmark House of Commons vote, 299 to zero, to ‘pause and fix’ the Universal Credit roll-out.

Decisive to the vote and the ongoing debate, were SNP MP Neil Gray’s authoritative parliamentary speeches, which used cutting edge research evidence, including our article on ‘Ubiquitous Conditionality’, alongside the experiences of his constituents to substantiate compelling arguments for reform:

“The Government should review the cuts to the work allowances, which are acting as a disincentive to work and making work pay less; review the cuts to housing benefit, which are driving up rent arrears […]; and review the cuts to employment support, which are denying help to those who need it most, and they should fully review and then scrap the disgusting sanctioning policy, which could have cost the life of my constituent, Mr Moran, and has cost the lives of others. That was the subject of an excellent paper by Sharon Wright of Glasgow University and Peter Dwyer of the University of York in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.” Read the full transcript of the debate here. 

How did we achieve this impact? Sharon met with Neil Gray on a panel discussing ‘Rethinking Poverty’ at the SNP Conference in Glasgow. Following this, she watched a clip of Neil’s first Universal Credit speech and let him know that our research published in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (including the article that was featured in a free collection at the time) backed up several of the points he had made. Via Twitter and email, Sharon sent Neil a link to our recent blog and responded to a follow-up query with additional research evidence. Neil then used the evidence in his subsequent speeches and said:

“Academic and well researched evidence on the impact of
Universal Credit is crucial for persuading government to
change its mind and fix the system as it is being rolled out.

Neil Gray

Sharon’s research and input has been invaluable for me in
setting out the case that I have in the House of Commons.
The government can try to dismiss or ignore political debate,
but personal testimony and independent academia is harder
to ignore.

I hope Sharon and others will continue to look at issues like
the social security ‘reforms’ so that government policy can
be effectively challenged and hopefully overturned, to help
people who desperately need that support.”

As an impact activity, the process was quick, easy and direct. The result was Neil’s exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.

“…exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.”

The focus throughout was straight-forwardly on the issues that matter. For us as academics, the current importance placed on impact activities offers legitimacy to carve out the necessary time to do exactly what we have always wanted to do – proactively engage with policy makers, in a policy field where robust evidence has gone against the grain of dominant political preferences, to use research to make a difference.


Universal Credit, ubiquitous conditionality and its implications for social citizenship from The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, is FREE to read on Ingenta until 31 December 2017.

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Image: UK Parliament, ‘House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen’s Speech‘ Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

Get social care right and the NHS will benefit

How can we improve access to and quality of social care? Catherine Needham, co-author of Micro-enterprise and personalisation, discusses how micro-enterprises and micro providers could improve care services. 


Catherine Needham

At a time when the Red Cross is warning of a ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ in the NHS, there is a growing recognition that pressure on NHS services will not be alleviated unless we get social care right.

Social care services support frail older people and people with disabilities. They are run by local government and have borne the brunt of the local authority cuts in recent years, with around 26 per cent fewer people now getting help than did in the past.

Many care providers have gone bust due to downward pressures on fees and in many parts of the country it is very hard to recruit trained staff to work in care when the pay rates are higher at the local supermarket.

“It is very hard to recruit trained staff to work in care when the pay rates are higher at the local supermarket.”

Together these pressures contribute to older people being stuck in hospitals, unable to be discharged into the community because the support is not available to them.

Fixing social care

Getting social care right is not a quick fix. Access to good quality, affordable care for people with disabilities and older people is a challenging issue.

Continue reading ‘Get social care right and the NHS will benefit’

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