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Les politiques de la jeunesse au Royaume-Uni et en France

Sarah Pickard
Corinne Nativel
Fabienne Portier-Le Cocq

Des politiques axées sur la citoyenneté

Valuing Youth in UK policies: Instrumental construction or improved spaces for young people’s participation?

Valoriser les jeunes dans les politiques britanniques : instrumentalisation ou amélioration des espaces pour la participation des jeunes ?

Linda Milbourne


Recent policy changes in the UK have renewed public and academic interest in the contexts and goals surrounding work with young people. The emphasis on youth action and participation as components of policy discourse associated with citizenship contrasts with policies promoting increased youth supervision but has had limited research attention. This article draws on an empirical study of community-based organisations working with young people between 14 and 19 years old, and asks whether the emphases on localism and youth-led projects mark a transition towards more responsive services and improved spaces for youth. It argues for better understanding of the complexities, including barriers to involving disengaged youth, and highlights powerful institutional dynamics surrounding spaces for voice and activism.

Les récentes mutations des stratégies politiques au Royaume-Uni ont renouvelé l’intérêt du public et des universitaires pour les contextes et les objectifs relatifs au travail avec des jeunes. L’accent sur l’action et la participation des jeunes en tant que composantes du discours de stratégie politique lié à la citoyenneté contraste avec les politiques promouvant plus d’encadrement des jeunes, mais a reçu peu d’attention de la part des chercheurs. L’article s’appuie sur une étude empirique d’organisations travaillant avec des jeunes âgés de quatorze à dix-neuf ans dans les quartiers. Il pose la question de savoir si l’insistance sur le localisme et les projets menés par les jeunes marque une transition vers des services plus à l’écoute des jeunes et une amélioration des espaces qui leurs sont offerts. L’article plaide pour une meilleure compréhension des complexités, y compris des obstacles pour impliquer les jeunes les moins engagés, et met en évidence la puissante dynamique institutionnelle qui caractérise les espaces d’expression et de militantisme juvéniles.

Texte intégral

  • 1 UK policy (Cabinet Office, 2010, as below) has recently shifted terminology from Third Sector to Vo (...)
  • 2 Cabinet Office, 2010, Building the Big Society, London, Cabinet Office. This new policy stresses th (...)
  • 3 Since June 2010, a Coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have jointly formed t (...)

1Over some 20 years, the government of the United Kingdom (UK) has increasingly turned to community sector1 providers to deliver a range of welfare provision, including children and young people’s services. This shift has been striking in socially deprived neighbourhoods, where community organisations have been recognised for expert and flexible practice in encouraging disengaged young people to participate. The Big Society2 agenda framed by the Coalition government3 has accelerated this ‘community turn’ in policy, re-emphasising values associated with active citizenship and schemes mobilising youth participation in voluntary action. However, recent research points to the challenges involved in maintaining creative approaches against constantly changing demands and reduced public funding (Milbourne 2009a).

  • 4 Office of the Third Sector, 2007, The Future Role of the Third Sector in Social and Economic Regene (...)
  • 5 See for example: National Youth Agency, 2010, “Government leaves children’s chiefs to decide ‘savag (...)
  • 6 UNICEF, 2008, “UK Government withdraws reservations to UNCRC”, 22/09/2008, (...)

2Reflecting trends in other countries, community agencies have been charged with building more engaged communities and designing solutions to social problems². Recommended strategies have included increasing community capacity for frontline work with young people, especially those alienated from schools and other services, and promoting increased youth participation and youth-led projects.4 Resulting initiatives, while responding to goals of European social inclusion policies and the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are, however, being systematically cut back as the new government reduces spending in tandem with a rapid retreat from the ideology of the state as service provider. Some £500 million have been withdrawn from youth projects in the new government’s first half year, and the Connexions (careers) advisory service for young people has lost some 50% of its budget.5 This is despite successive UN reviews which have criticised the UK for unjust policy failures in relation to young people: the high numbers of young people in custody; parental violence; the unequal treatment of young asylum seekers; and the negative impact of poverty on young people’s rights and social participation.6

3This chapter examines recent changes in youth policy and practice in the UK, exploring young people’s involvement in projects and services in urban community settings. It focuses initially on three policy areas which frame the chapter: changes in the nature and focus of young people’s services; the growth of community organisations in service delivery and cohesion strategies; and the emphasis on reaching socially excluded young people, now a less explicit feature of government policies. These areas, alongside goals to increase young people’s participation in voluntary action, are components of recent reforms associated with discourse around citizenship and democratic participation.

4Secondly, the chapter outlines two empirical studies, undertaken in deprived urban localities of England, between 2006 and 2008. The views of young people aged between 14 and 19 years, and representatives of community-based projects are examined discussing themes related to instrumentalism, fairness and participation. In discussing the data, the chapter explores the space for participatory development in recent youth projects, especially for disengaged young people.

5Focusing on the detail of small case projects, gaps and contradictions between policy aims and their outcomes are identified together with the difficulties of enacting policies which involve engaging others. The chapter highlights some positive outcomes and barriers to active participation and questions whether schemes intended to lead to greater influence from young people are genuinely valuing their ideas and approaches. It concludes by considering the diminishing political spaces for young people in the future.

Public policy changes: youth and community-based services

6Since New Labour came to power in 1997, redressing child poverty; promoting parenting and youth education; and targeting disengaged young people, especially those outside education, training and work, have figured among numerous social inclusion programmes, closely reflecting European policies (Colley et al. 2007). There has been criticism of instrumental and hegemonic approaches implied in such programmes (Levitas 2005), together with the tendency to attribute blame for failures to excluded individuals and groups (Milbourne 2009b). These analyses offer valuable insights into difficulties that youth and community-based groups experience in delivering projects to meet the demands of a risk-averse, performance-driven environment, which often treats young people, rather than institutions, as deficient. The contradictory strands of youth policies are thus constraining features on the possibilities for young people’s engagement.

  • 7 2004 saw the beginning of a series of policies related to children and young people which both safe (...)

7The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prompted worldwide activity around fair and inclusive treatment for young people but it is only since 20047 that UK policy reforms have signalled a more positive, youth-led agenda, including the establishment of youth parliaments, school and youth councils and youth mayors – alongside pro-active citizenship curriculum in schools. In parallel, multiple initiatives in community-based youth centres have stressed young people’s active participation, alongside resources earmarked for youth-led activities.

  • 8 Russell Commission, 2004, A National Framework for Youth Action and Engagement, London, Stationery (...)
  • 9 DCSF, 2008 (ibid: 2).

8The evidence on youth as agents of their own destinies and in shaping services has been more encouraging in the UK than in some other parts of Europe. For example, there has been little involvement of young people in deciding criteria for the use or distribution of decentralised youth development funds in France (Loncle et al. 2008). From the 2004 Russell Commission, with a focus on engaging young people in voluntary action; to ‘Youth Matters’, which heralded the Youth Funds for decision by young people’s fora; to ‘Aiming High for Young People’ in 2008,8 UK policies can arguably be described as advancing progressive goals in increasing young people’s engagement in voluntary, political and service activities. “Empowering young people to increase their influence” and “removing barriers to… local opportunities”9 have been persistent policy themes since 2004.

9However, this is a partial picture, and regulation and supervision of young people in every context of their lives have increased over successive generations (Brown 1998; Jeffs, Smith 2002; Wood, Hine 2009). This is often linked to the negative characterisation of groups of young people, fuelled by media hyperbole about growing youth disorder, poor parenting and failures by schools and other agencies. Deferred access to economic independence and declining employment opportunities (France 2008) have added to young people’s frustrations, especially when they have limited expectations of schooling. Recent extension of the compulsory schooling age and use of school exclusion continue trends visible in the late 1990s’ truancy sweeps, the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act, tagging and curfews, and rising use of custodial youth justice over some 10 years (Solomon, Garside 2008; Muncie 2009). Such trends contribute to disempowering young people, exacerbating dissatisfaction with adult institutions.

10Alongside fear and restraint of unruly youth, stereotypes of vulnerable young people needing protection from risks persist, perpetuating policy tensions. Protecting young people morphs into protecting society from them, and in both cases promotes greater surveillance. Paradoxically, young people have also gained greater autonomy through access to individualised forms of communication with peers and technologically constructed social worlds (Piauchaud 2008). Thus, contradictions are embedded within policies and developments affecting youth and their positioning in society, leading to ambiguity in how young people understand their freedoms and different perceptions of justice in enacting policy. Consequently, altruistic aims in extending spaces and opportunities for involving young people are coupled with interventions which monitor and constrain their behaviour in a range of settings. Such interventions problematise alternative behaviours, exerting pressure on young people and professionals to conform to prescribed practices and outcomes (Griffin 2006).

  • 10 See for example, Ball, Stephen, 1997, Policy Sociology and Critical Social Research, in British Edu (...)

11As research on the policy process attests,10 reconciling apparently conflicting strategies in policy is hard, and the dynamics of policy implementation rarely conform to rational planning assumptions or linear processes. The different social actors involved and often, poor co-ordination between different policy fields, be they youth work, education, citizenship or youth justice, open countless possibilities for unpredictable outcomes in delivery.

  • 11 DfES, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps. Nottingham, Department for Education and Skills: a key polic (...)

12Policies such as ‘Youth Matters’11 prioritise laudable aims of inclusiveness, and increased voice and influence for young people, alongside reducing inequalities; and positive examples of youth projects are well publicised. However, research suggests that the scope for locally diverse approaches to designing services is limited by centrally driven planning and performance priorities (Powell, Dowling 2006), including government health and education targets for tackling ‘NEETS’. Cross-sector co-ordinating bodies, in this case, Children and Young People’s Trusts, were charged with delivering short-term targets and strategies, defined top-down. Similarly, guidelines for youth schemes emphasise structured activities to secure young people’s participation, often stipulated through quantifiable indicators. This targeted approach seems unlikely to change in the national citizen schemes proposed by the new government to enlist young people in ‘volunteer’ service which may yet contain compulsory elements.

13Creating space for young people to develop and manage projects may involve contesting or resisting official strategies; and depends, not only on community support, but on flexible local and national decision-making bodies willing to respect and legitimise youth knowledge and experience. Without this, young people’s models of services and action may readily be reshaped to match external professional agendas in similar ways to those identified in other community projects (Milbourne 2009a, 2009b).

Citizenship and participation: valuing alternative voices?

  • 12 Ministry of Justice. 2007, Governance of Britain, London, The Stationery Office.
  • 13 Beacon areas have been identified by government as demonstrating successful pilot schemes – see DfE (...)
  • 14 “V-inspired” launched in 2006, gained renewed government funding in 2009 to promote youth volunteer (...)

14In the UK and internationally, youth participation strategies have been closely allied with discourses on citizenship, democratic participation and social inclusion (Tisdall et al. 2006). Policies, including Governance of Britain12 (2007) and now the Big Society agenda emphasise community-oriented strategies to increase active citizenship. Youth mayors and youth councils deciding on youth funds in Beacon local authority areas13 have been well publicised while “V” and Participation Works14 websites depict optimistic examples of volunteering and participation: young people becoming (good) citizens.

15Viewing citizenship as a more active process than is often read from policy (Lockyer et al. 2004) offers a framework for exploring ideas of participation and the empirical material which follows. Young people’s participation can be conceptualised as gaining access to individual rights to services and facilities but this is a somewhat limited, individualistic model, which merely secures inclusion in existing adult institutions. A second model concerns young people’s political participation and civic engagement and addresses concerns about voting and the wider democratic deficit. Youth and School Councils, organised conventionally to mirror local and national government structures, illustrate recent strategies aimed at tackling democratic renewal (Whitty, Wisby 2007). However, in a study concerned with diversity, Marsh et al. (2007) show that strategies which mirror existing systems and fail to challenge structures and institutions, perpetuate exclusion of minority ethnic young people.

16A third model focuses on community and civil engagement, reflecting participation as communitarian action (Etzioni 1995) promoting inclusion and improved community cohesion. This model encompasses a range of recent initiatives concerned with youth volunteering and participation in community ventures. Lister et al. (2005), exploring ways that young people construct and understand citizenship, conclude that young people often regard themselves as lacking citizenship or non-citizens, because acts like voting and employment are the province of adults in society. This is despite undertaking informal activities, such as helping friends and neighbours, which may be considered valuable social participation.

  • 15 DCSF, 2008, Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities, London, Depa (...)

17Barnes et al. (2007: 31) argue that “institutional resistance effectively limits meaningful exchange” and prevents “transformation of local outcomes” obstructing individual and organisational change processes. Moreover, policy discourse around youth participation15 emphasises inclusion rather than institutional change: by participating, individual young people will gain skills and knowledge to enter employment and existing social institutions. As Barnes and Morris (2008) show, instrumental strategies that seek to adapt young people to fit mainstream services concentrate on deficits of the excluded, not the barriers of the services that exclude.

18A question which this research raises then is the extent to which young people’s participation can be transformative, overcoming existing barriers to engagement through involvement, not only in individual, socially inclusive activities, but also in forms of action and learning which have a wider impact for changes to existing institutions. If community-based and youth-led projects can create wider developmental aims, can they be understood as sites of constructive resistance, where a more radical collective habitus (Bourdieu 1992) is feasible? Alternatively, are recent youth projects simply creating new sites and forms of young people’s accommodation and adaption to normative models of social and political institutions?

Research in community-based youth projects

19This chapter draws on two discrete studies of youth projects in community settings. The first, in 2006-2007, involved a short, intensive study of non-profit organisations providing services for children and young people, commissioned by a large local authority (Area A). The second (2007-2010) considered changes in young people’s services in local authority (Area B), focusing on community-based youth projects and participation schemes. Both studies were situated in socially deprived urban areas in England, with diverse, multi-ethnic populations, and each area has benefited from recent community initiatives, with new agencies emerging. All young people involved were between 14 and 19 years old.

  • 16 All names of people and organisations are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants.

20The studies employed qualitative methods and aimed to explore young people’s views and experiences. The first involved 50 interviews in community organisations, and additional interviews and discussion groups with young people and local service managers, including Youth, Early Years, Connexions and Teenage Pregnancy services. After an initial mapping exercise, the second study focused on 8 projects, conducting interviews, observations and discussion groups with workers and some 20 young people.16 Documents, local plans, meeting records and reporting information have contributed to the research.

21The studies used qualitative coding methods (Glaser 1992) employing perspectives of critical social research (Harvey 1990) to examine the data and question the effects of policies in specific localities. Comparative analysis of data gathered from different locations and participants is used as a strategy to improve integrity and depth of findings (Glaser 1992). While the studies involve limited time periods, comparing two studies has added to insights on how recent policies have affected spaces for young people’s participation.

22In what follows, examples are organised thematically. It is not possible within this chapter to do justice to the diversity of organisations and complexity of responses; and other aspects, including the changing community environment are discussed elsewhere (Milbourne 2009a).

Involving young people at community level

23Local government and community-based workers identified tensions and difficulties arising from recent policy developments, alongside positive outcomes. In Area B, Andrea, a youth project co-ordinator, highlighted projects including: a youth health drop-in centre; a mobile multi-media bus; and the Youth Council’s work as “really positive steps forward” enabled by recent Youth Funds. However, she contrasted these with valuable projects which had closed through lack of funding, and the increasing dependence on community providers, as local government services were lost. In parallel, she saw her professional youth work skills progressively devalued as her role changed to one of, “managing and monitoring project funding.”

24In Area A, examples are drawn from youth, education and advice projects, including work with young people out of school, a mediation project and a youth centre. Workers commonly included a mix of professional backgrounds, including youth work, special needs teaching, youth justice and arts.

25In Area B, examples are from three youth-led projects. The Youth Council (YC) involves 20-30 young people (aged 14-19) with a core group who meets several evenings a week, focusing on varied tasks and responsibilities. These include: resolving criteria and decisions for allocating Youth Funds; disseminating information on their work and other youth facilities; developing strategy for the Children and Young People’s Trust (C&YPT); providing peer training, mentoring and advice; and researching and running events to attract new members. The formal Youth Council meets monthly but members are not elected. YC members are supported by a youth participation worker and use community centre space. The YC strategy includes aspirations of attracting hard-to-reach young people, those outside the reach of many services and institutions, and making participation fun not just hard work.

26A second project involved young people on a large housing estate, researching young Asians’ use of local facilities. The third project from which data is drawn is a youth-led project, supported by a consortium of four community organisations, to establish MediaBus. Launched in 2009, the bus is equipped with a music studio, IT suite, coffee bar and spaces for advisory services and training. In 2010, there were four workers, 20 young volunteers and trainee counsellors.

Learning and incentives through participation: some positive outcomes

27Many young people described benefits from involvement in projects more broadly than individual accreditation or skills. Daniella, aged 14, with a positive identity as a learner, identified both individual and wider gains. After a year’s YC membership, she sometimes spent four evenings a week in YC task groups, including deciding criteria for allocating Youth Funds, training youth groups for bids, arranging presentations and feedback to applicants. While it had helped her with skills, such as public speaking, CV writing and research, she most valued her growth in self-confidence from working collectively with other YC members.

28Ferekher, aged 17, a YC member for two years, explained that he became involved because he, “didn’t have much to do”. He described incentives, such as induction and a team-building residential, stressing that, “it was cool too”. Ebo, aged 18, a YC member for three years, felt motivated because, “as YC we have status. We get views from area youth forums, different clubs, we make decisions. Funding’s important too, gives you ways to make changes”. He contrasted this with ways that young people used negative reputations for “getting into bad stuff because you got no status otherwise”, aptly illustrating the adoption of alternative sub-cultures to acquire values of belonging.

29Support from organisational workers was important in sustaining motivation. Akeisha, on the youth-led steering group for MediaBus, outlined time-consuming processes of meeting, project planning and developing funding bids. She explained, “I mean, first out, we didn’t know how hard it’d be, there’s a lot of persuading, and we needed help how to present things, feel confident when mostly people don’t listen to young people”. This support was crucial in overcoming barriers, especially when many of this group lacked self-esteem and had erratic social and educational histories.

30Sometimes key individuals or specific activities made a difference in young people’s willingness to commit, when they had previously rejected schooling or other institutions. Most community-based workers stressed the importance of maintaining a culture responsive to young people, which meant shedding assumptions about professional roles (and setting targets to one side). While language differed, this view of flexible, informal, cross-disciplinary work was common to longstanding community workers and recent youth participation workers.

Trust and respect: mixed outcomes

31Trust emerged as a significant theme underlying young people’s willingness to participate: young people trusting adults; adult power-holders trusting young people; and promoting wider trust in young people’s abilities.

32Raj, aged 16 (Area A), out of school for over a year, explained that having his views respected was crucial in responding more positively in a community education project: “school or social workers never trusted me like I could achieve something… so that’s a first, them asking what do I think” (Raj’s emphasis). Many young people identified a culture in which they were respected and listened to as key reasons for engaging in projects. However, trusting adult institutions, when many prior experiences involved rejection, was difficult. Kwame, aged 17, involved in the MediaBus project, described young people’s mistrust in schemes which replicated experiences of meaningless activities, saying, “It’s hard to trust it’s not just a con, make sure we’re busy so we can’t cause trouble”.

33Temi, aged 19, a YC member for five years, studying youth work at university, also discussed the mistrust with which some C&YPT members viewed the YC. “Some of them are on board with it but some not at all… They think we’re too young, can’t see why we have this role. Like we bring an idea, they’ll listen but it’s discounted. Has it put us off? No, but it’s demotivating”. Amara, aged 17, a MediaBus steering group member, contributed similar insights into why young people might withhold commitment, emphasising differential power. She described meetings “where it felt they [adults] weren’t listening or… some people could put their ideas across better, so that’s what people heard, what they chose”. Amara’s portrayal of how some discourse and styles were privileged over others reflects criticisms made of local government consultations with youth in Area A, where plans identified them as collaborators in defining the future shape of services. However, project workers argued that less articulate and less accessible young people had not been involved. Despite the policy focus on using local knowledge and experience to develop services, young people’s knowledge was given little legitimacy, undermining their trust in the process and responsibilities of participation.

Difficulties of participation: limited rewards

34Examples above illustrate the importance of building a culture which respects young people’s ideas for maintaining their involvement. Kim (Area A), running an education project for disengaged young people stressed the value of “carrots rather than sticks” in encouraging participation. She explained that they would ignore punitive pressures on them to attend and remain absent unless they saw something “to connect with”.

  • 17 DfES, 2004, Every Child Matters: Change for Children, London, Department for Education and Skills.

35A youth participation worker (Area B) contrasted the “amazing amounts of time young people contribute” with the lack of funds available for social events, ironically pointing to “enjoyment” as one of five key goals in the policy agenda17. Temi underlined the need to balance work and fun to attract hard-to-reach young people. “When it comes to events they [CY&PT] want more work-based, training and skills. Sometimes it seems more about ticking their boxes. To attract new people and for YC members to stay involved even, there has to be a social side too”. Michael, also a YC member, working as a peer counsellor across youth clubs, expanded this view: “We need somet’ing with music or talent shows… to reach lots of people. Now, funding for social is hard going, even though it’s about achieving our strategy”.

36Employment related priorities and individual skills meet short-term targets but obscure understanding of how longer-term cultural change towards participation of marginal young people might be achieved. As Temi stated, the limited comprehension of adult bodies could be demotivating, and the recent cuts in youth resources coupled with emphasis on structured programmes, even more so.

37Research carried out by young people on a large, predominantly Asian housing estate in Area B gained 150 responses and found that existing youth facilities were limited and unattractive to most young people. They reported that neither they nor existing community organisations “are in a strong enough position” to pursue recommendations from the study but no action had otherwise resulted. The young researchers appreciated their learning from this research but aspirations identified initially, such as “making a difference” and “creating change” in their area (Hajera and Sabia, aged 17) remain unmet. Like earlier examples, this project raises questions about definitions of positive activities and the rewards and expectations implied when young people are asked to engage in these.

Exclusion in the language of volunteering?

38Our research suggests that more able and articulate young people are more likely to volunteer, recognising the advantages for their future careers (see also Brooks 2007). How young people understand the language of volunteering, however, and whether the label and associated perceptions deter less advantaged young people, need further inquiry.

39Krisann, a 19 year-old YC member, distinguished her YC activities from volunteering. She felt schools encouraged pupils to volunteer but this rarely involved choosing how to engage or working collectively. “I don’t think we see ourselves as volunteers… the YC, it’s like what you’ve chosen to do, not what’s good for you”.

40A MediaBus member introduced Chaz, an ex gang member, as “rude boy turned volunteering champion” because of his speeches to national audiences. Despite the label, Chaz echoed Krisann’s view, stressing the unlikelihood of more marginal young people being attracted to volunteering. The negative connotations associated with volunteering highlight a need to adopt a more youth-friendly label to avoid perpetuating some young people’s exclusion from youth action. The recently proposed national citizen service, which intends all school leavers to take part in residential activities, offers little advance in youth-friendly language or opportunity to create broader youth-led activities.

Exclusion, inclusion and representation

41Area A had elected a Youth Mayor and Youth Council representatives via Schools Councils, youth fora and clubs. However, in several small youth projects, young people were either unaware of these structures or felt distanced from those elected. Young people in Area B argued for a more fluid Youth Council membership, suggesting that elections favoured the self-assured, discouraging others who lacked confidence or did not belong to a recognised youth forum. Josh, a YC member, aged 19, outlined what he described as a “vexed question” of representation, with C&YP Trust members periodically advocating formal elections as in other areas:

It’s been a big discussion all my time here… and this proposal now with representatives from each school, the organised clubs… four from hard-to-reach groups… that excludes people… and we’ve more chance to reach people not involved, than if we limit numbers, have elections. We concentrate on letting people know what we’re doing… and most say they prefer our way, it’s more about inclusion.

42In the same discussion, others questioned how hard-to-reach groups could form an electorate and which groups would be represented. Ebo asked: “one single mum, one disabled, one…minority ethnic, should we have 90, one for each language in our area?” Using conventional representative models may not be apt for such contexts, and public bodies need to be open to alternatives to avoid further marginalising those least likely to participate. Even where purposes and actions aim for inclusivity, power embedded in such processes means that diverse issues and voices may still be excluded.

Power and influence

43Hasan, aged 19, another experienced YC member, questioned the limits of young people’s decision-making power, underlining insecurities for projects.

What we see is more [money] for one thing but it’s taken from something else. So there’s two problems, we have to rethink criteria for funding. Then people leading projects, they’re anxious for next year…And it kind of undercuts our influence so who’s really deciding like?

44Temi and Michael’s comments above identified constraints on young people’s broader aspirations for youth-led projects because of the emphasis on meeting targets related to training and employment skills. As more structured schemes and reduced budgets impact, young people’s influence seems likely to be restricted further.

45Paul, a youth centre worker in Area A illustrated how the imposition of nationally driven performance targets inhibited developmental youth and community work. “New gangs, if you like, appear… But what we’re faced with is competing for funding, that’s the bottom line… so we monitor membership and attendance, target activities, when what’s needed is more flexibility but we make the pretence… to survive”. Funding for community delivery of young people’s services is heavily underwritten by non-negotiable, short-term targets, which undermine providers’ flexibility in work with young people. Paul identifies how possible funding loss shifts the culture of their work to focus on attendance and accreditation, when higher risk activities could offer ways to tackle challenging problems. Such pressures mean that centres may concentrate on low-risk young people, able to achieve targets, rather than those outside the reach of most services. In diverse projects, accommodating funders’ or C&YPT requirements for prescribed outcomes was also coupled with resistance to relinquishing flexibility, which comprised crucial space for young people’s shaping of activities.


Valuing youth in community-based activities?

46Our research findings offer mixed messages. Significant developments in youth-led activities are enabling perceptive and capable young people from diverse backgrounds to gain valuable skills. They are researching and running projects, managing decision-making processes, educating peers and sharing skills with others. They are also designing activities to involve less advantaged peers, in some cases those with negative histories of institutional engagement. However, it is often articulate and able young people who gain most from schemes intended to promote participation. As Brooks (2007) found in school-based projects, such young people are more likely to recognise the benefits for their future Curriculum Vitae.

47The positive examples demonstrate valuable advances in constructive spaces open to young people individually and through co-operative, educative processes, involving civil, civic and political participation. They mark significant achievements after a long period of attrition in informal youth provision in urban areas. However, such developments take time and may well be short-lived as funding cuts already result in loss of youth projects; to be replaced, if at all, by more structured and targeted schemes.

48Despite progress, conflicting strategies evident in youth policy are visible in our findings: some advance active participation and independence, others restrict actions and behaviours. Considered through local experiences, the rhetoric of empowering young people and their experiences of how their actions are valued are at variance. Young people continue to be treated as others in the dominant settings of adult institutions, remaining outsiders while powerful agencies determine the contextual rules. The top-down instrumentality of frameworks surrounding participation schemes generates disillusionment among young people in the goals of participation.

49Young people and community workers are asked to trust powerful institutions which respond by discounting their ideas and producing insecurity through continually changing arrangements. Raising hopes, as portrayed by the youth research project, without commitment to action or change, and the recent withdrawal of development grants before projects have been completed, undermine young people’s influence and aspirations. Community-based, youth-led development work is fragile, and individual risks high, in a discontinuous funding environment over which youth have little control.

50Young people’s voluntary actions in constructing and leading projects, engaging and supporting their peers and participating in political processes are undervalued and much underestimated (Hutin 2008). Moreover, the language of volunteering, a strong (and continuing) component of government youth strategy, carries negative connotations for many. In contrast, youth action and activism, viewed more positively by young people, convey more challenging social messages. Area B’s young people had constructed alternative approaches to organising their YC but repeatedly had to resist pressures to adopt formally elected representatives, despite logical argument for a fairer, more inclusive model. By creating spaces for counter-agency, their alternatives challenged dominant institutional models, threatening the comfort of local government actors.

Cultures of participation: whose reality counts?

51Pressure to meet short-term, nationally driven targets narrows the vision of local co-ordinating bodies. In contrast, young people offered a more expansive view of longer-term development towards a culture of participation, drawing on direct knowledge and experience. What counts as legitimate knowledge is at issue here, that informed by the everyday lived experiences of young people and community workers; or that embedded in the discourse of institutional management. Local, grassroots knowledge is often discounted in decision-making processes despite recent emphases on local engagement (see also Barnes et al. 2007).

52The more activities are specified, the less they are open to local diversity. Government bodies can be formally responsive to different groups, while normative cultures constrain creative models of delivery. Top-down planning, funding and monitoring mechanisms conflict with the bottom up participatory model implied in youth-led approaches, curbing youth influence. Local and regional bodies risk ticking the boxes, as Temi describes, through short-lived, high-profile schemes but missing the point of young people’s participation. Delimiting the terms of their participation has damaging consequences for attracting and sustaining involvement from disengaged young people.

53Shifts in professional and organisational cultures are not short-term ventures and successfully reaching disengaged young people may require recognition and adoption of alternative models. Community agencies discussed here have struggled for some time to sustain cultures of practice that engage young people in negotiating approaches. The emphasis on education and employment targets and structured volunteer tasks restricts such participatory practices. Little in this research suggests that an impoverished curriculum of youth activities, focused on individualised, work-related skills, will attract disengaged youth, though it may provoke resistance in a time of limited employment opportunities.

Generating fairer spaces for constructive participation?

54Young people’s aspirations in reaching disengaged groups and improving local facilities are not fundamentally distinct from earlier government rhetoric. However, the methods for achieving these goals and their potential as broader educative processes for developing critical social engagement, not only “something for the CV” (Brooks 2007), pose challenges to adult-led institutions and normative concepts of the position of youth in society. Young people are prompting changes in social relations, which rarely advance without dissent or conflict. By finding ways of generating alternatives within limited autonomies, community agencies and youth-led projects are engaging with the tensions and possibilities of participatory education, with its related value for wider social participation and change.

55Through young people gaining an awareness of using their collective participation to construct changes in their own and others’ worlds, our findings suggest potential for creating fora from which less powerful groups can gain power. Such processes contribute to change in surrounding conditions but create tensions since they challenge models and space in existing institutions, problematising professional and managerial practices and powers. Despite instrumentality embedded in policy and strategy, outcomes are unpredictable and enacting policy reveals spaces for subverting and accommodating narrow goals.

56Community and youth-led projects have both marginal and potentially radical status; as young people perceived, endorsement from formal adult bodies spelled survival for their activities. However, accountability frameworks exert pressures towards greater formalisation and for youth groups to become what they are not, or may not wish to be. Powerful institutional arrangements induce integration and adaption, constraining different ideas and models of action. The maintenance of negotiable space within which young people can exercise greater control will depend on youth-led projects and community workers pursuing models which resist, as well as accommodate, unproblematised youth strategies. One of the questions opened by devolving Big Government power to Big Society localism is the extent to which the burden of targets and monitoring for youth and community projects will diminish. However, many recent targets have been driven by central government, and as providers diversify, deregulating use of public funds seems unlikely.

57By opening new youth spaces, participatory work with young people, suggests possibilities for a radical habitus, an ethos where they can develop projects which promote change, as well as remedy institutional failings. However, if the space is colonised by young people with the most advantages, new strategies will do little to redress the barriers to participation of those currently excluded. Similarly, if the space is over-structured or destroyed, as new government strategies take effect, these possibilities will be curtailed.

58Recent policy promoting youth engagement and empowerment has been encompassed in wider citizenship, cohesion and participation strategies. However, without the flexibility and willingness to risk adopting alternative approaches, adult institutions and policymakers alike are guilty of institutional bad faith (Bourdieu 1999). Rather than valuing youth, strategies can be read as instrumental in promoting hegemonic inclusion. The project of youth-led, community-based projects transforming previous failures to engage and include alienated young people remains hollow if young people’s influence and activities are safely circumscribed. Youth currently seen as threats will continue to be pressed into unproblematised structures and activities while community agencies will continue to grapple with intractable problems. Young people seeking change will remain (albeit somewhat more articulate) outsiders. Youth participation strategies have opened doors to change and youth voices have attracted notice. However, the status quo remains unmoved.


1 UK policy (Cabinet Office, 2010, as below) has recently shifted terminology from Third Sector to Voluntary and Community Sector or Charity Sector within the overall frame of Civil Society. The terms Third Sector, Non-Government Organisations and Non-profits are more frequently used internationally.

2 Cabinet Office, 2010, Building the Big Society, London, Cabinet Office. This new policy stresses the need to increase reliance on community resources and lessen dependence on government structures and funding.

3 Since June 2010, a Coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have jointly formed the UK government though lack of an overall party gaining a majority in the 2010 general election.

4 Office of the Third Sector, 2007, The Future Role of the Third Sector in Social and Economic Regeneration, London, Cabinet Office, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008, Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities, London, DCSF.

5 See for example: National Youth Agency, 2010, “Government leaves children’s chiefs to decide ‘savage’ cuts.” 15 June,
ByDiscipline/Education/1009790/; “NYA response to Comprehensive Spending Review” 20/09/2010,

6 UNICEF, 2008, “UK Government withdraws reservations to UNCRC”, 22/09/2008,

7 2004 saw the beginning of a series of policies related to children and young people which both safeguarded their rights and sought to advance active roles in decisions about their lives and services.

8 Russell Commission, 2004, A National Framework for Youth Action and Engagement, London, Stationery Office; DfES, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps, Nottingham, Department for Education and Skills; DCSF, 2008, Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities (Implementation Plan), London, Department for Children Schools and Families.

9 DCSF, 2008 (ibid: 2).

10 See for example, Ball, Stephen, 1997, Policy Sociology and Critical Social Research, in British Educational Research Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 257-274; Barnes, Marion, Prior, David, 2009, Subversive Citizens: Power, agency and resistance in public services, Bristol, Policy Press.

11 DfES, 2006, Youth Matters: Next Steps. Nottingham, Department for Education and Skills: a key policy which moved strategies on young people’s participation and empowerment forward.

12 Ministry of Justice. 2007, Governance of Britain, London, The Stationery Office.

13 Beacon areas have been identified by government as demonstrating successful pilot schemes – see DfES, 2007, Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities, London, Department for Education and Skills.

14 “V-inspired” launched in 2006, gained renewed government funding in 2009 to promote youth volunteering, though several ongoing schemes have recently been cut: see; ’Participation Works’ is a collaboration of agencies committed to youth participation which together launched an online information site in 2005:

15 DCSF, 2008, Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities, London, Department for Children Schools and Families.

16 All names of people and organisations are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants.

17 DfES, 2004, Every Child Matters: Change for Children, London, Department for Education and Skills.


Senior lecturer and programme director for Youth, Voluntary and Community Sector Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. She previously worked at King’s College London, focusing on social policy and education in relation to socially excluded young people. Linda has over 20 years’ of professional and practical experience in public and community organisations. Her recent research includes case studies of transitions in the community sector, concentrating on services for young people; and a study of the effects of youth and community policies, with a particular focus on youth engagement and participation.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012

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