Wednesday, 21 February 2024
Wednesday, 21 February 2024

Don Macdonald writes, are young people getting a raw deal?

I was a youth worker and youth work manager for over twenty-five years, but now I can’t play footie anymore and don’t like modern pop music, in other words, I’m past it. But I still worry about the state of youth services and of young people themselves.

The pandemic badly disrupted children and young people’s education and also their mental health. Record numbers of children and young people are being identified as having a probable mental health problem, namely one in six children aged five to 16 in July 2021, an enormous increase from 2017. 

According to the charity Young Minds, referrals for emergency mental health support have soared. Also, suicide was the leading cause of death for males and females aged 5 to 34, while almost half of 17-19 year-olds with a diagnosable mental health disorder had self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, which was even higher for young women. 

I believe there must be a link between this increase in stress and the monumental cuts in youth services over the last decade. Research by the YMCA revealed that between 2010 and 2020 more than 4,500 youth work jobs were cut and 760 youth centres were closed in England and Wales. 

More recent research by the YMCA revealed that funding cuts for youth services in England and Wales have continued, now reaching £1.1bn (a real-terms fall of 74% since 2010/11).

Many people still wrongly assume that youth services are just youth clubs and youth centres. But a host of innovative services have been introduced including adventure playgrounds, Summer Universities, and street youth work to name just a few.

The YMCA research covered ‘open-access services, including leisure, cultural, sporting and enrichment activities often based around youth centres; and more targeted provision for vulnerable young people, including teenage pregnancy advice, youth justice teams, and drug and alcohol misuse services.’

By historical standards, unemployment levels for young people currently remain low. The unemployment rate for 16-24-year-olds was 10.4% in April-June 2022. It is down from 12.3% pre-pandemic. This of course could change if the economy falls into recession. 

In addition, the number of apprenticeships has not reached target levels while the quality of training for apprentices has been criticised

New problems have surfaced to bother such as cyberbullying, which is believed to affect as many as 1 in 10 children. Children who are bullied are around twice as likely to have contemplated suicide as those who are not bullied. 

There are signs that crime and violence among young people have started to grow again. Crime rates are still lower than pre-Covid-19 levels but have increased since the pandemic ended. Certain groups, namely boys and young people from certain ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the justice system with around 30% of young people being arrested from Black, Asian and mixed ethnic backgrounds in 2020/21, despite accounting for only 18% of the population. Despite falling numbers, stop and search by the police also shows a similar orientation.

The number of children in custody in England and Wales is expected to double by 2024, according to a report. The NAO report said in 2021, more than half (53%) of children in custody were from minority ethnic groups, up from less than a third (32%) 10 years earlier, while the proportion of black children increased from 18% to 29% over the same period. The report said that after a long-term decline, the number of children in custody is expected to rise rapidly as a direct result of increased police recruitment, moves to tackle the court backlog caused by Covid and tougher sentencing after the passing of new laws.

My old boss, who was head of the National Children’s Bureau, used to say slightly flippantly that most young men would stop offending when they settled down and started a family, but that of course is impossible if you have a hard drug habit or a long criminal record and no money. 

The situation could worsen with the cost of living rise, which will increase the problems faced by families and young people while (as of 13th Sept) the Government has still announced no specific support for the voluntary sector on soaring fuel prices.

My conclusion is that with no statutory requirements for the government to fund youth services, I have to think that is one major reason that councils are cutting spending on youth services, along with the fact that young people do not have the vote.

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