Youth Policy: social change or social control?

Youth Policy: social change or social control?
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THE LAST EIGHT YEARS have seen the decimation of local authority youth services across England and Wales. The near 50% cut of central government funding to local authorities has seen non-statutory youth work virtually disappear.

This has coincided with an attack on young people’s living standards, benefits and rights. The youth uprisings in English cities in 2011 were an expression of the impact of this situation and should have been a wake-up call to government. Unfortunately the opposite is true. All the indicators shows more  young  people subject to low wages, zero-hours contracts, benefit cuts and sanctions, the housing crisis, and discriminatory treatment in the criminal justice system with disproportionate numbers of black and minority ethnic young people in custody. Young people also face high death rates resulting from knife and gun attacks, institutional racism in both public and private sectors, scrapping of Educational Maintenance  Allowance and a huge rise in tuition fees. The list goes on…

However the Tories did invest in some youth programmes under the broad heading of Social Action. The Coalition government introduced a plethora of initiatives in which Social Action is named as a key concept. These include the Social Action Funds and the government’s Centre for Social Action. In addition, their version of Social Action is embedded in other programmes such as the National Citizens Service (NCS), the Prince’s Trust and the ‘#iwill’ campaign co-ordinated by Step Up to Serve.

The term ‘Social Action’ has been misappropriated (as was the term ‘Free Schools’) to support an agenda which increases social control and conformity, rather than an emancipatory one based on autonomy, equality and democracy. This colonisation of language by  the  Tories  is what Gramsci explained as cultural hegemony. This is the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society - the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores - so that the ruling class world view becomes the accepted cultural norm. This process of internalising and accepting the dominant view is the way in which the ruling class maintains and justifies its dominance but also wins the active consent of its subjects.

Gramsci’s powerful concept of hegemony influenced the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s, where  oppressed peoples in the national liberation struggles against colonial domination, and groups beginning with women and black people and later the gay and lesbian (LGBT) and disability communities, challenged the dominant societal notions that defined them as inferior. Challenging the dominant and ‘common sense’ ideological views of superiority and inferiority was key to the success of these social movements in changing the world to make it more equal. The current rhetoric about Social Action, in its Conservative incarnation, began in earnest prior to the 2010 election. The Conservative Party’s manifesto promised a new National Citizens Service (NCS) for 16 year-olds. This new service had its roots in a report, Context, Concepts and Considerations, by the Young Adult Trust (itself pulled together in 2006 to devise the new intervention) which outlined a perceived need for marking the transition to adulthood, and identified certain characteristics desirable in a good citizen, to be encouraged through the programme. These were social mixing,  challenge  and positive relationships with wider society, among others.

A key tenet of the programme was a week undertaking ‘Social Action’ which, as the first years of the programme got underway, came to manifest itself as groups of young people undertaking charitable     works,    often     through fundraising, in their communities. Social action had been redefined as volunteering. Criticism that the programme is prescriptive, and based on the agendas of those          with            power       rather       than          a democratic, inclusive and participatory approach,  were  rife,  and a  raft   of new initiatives bolstering its character- building, philanthropic values - allying ‘good citizenship’ with spending time ‘in

the service of others’ - were introduced.

Viewing these programmes through the lens of the historical definition of ‘Social





Action’, however, raises a number of problems. The idea that the most significant benefits of volunteering are to be felt by individual volunteers themselves is in direct opposition to the Social Action principle that collective action, by, with and for a community, can create real benefits for the community as a whole, through creating a greater understanding of shared problems and enacting a collective response to them. Building character through doing good deeds for others may well be valuable and beneficial, but it is not Social Action. It cannot provide the same lasting collective benefits to communities as our version of Social Action sets out to achieve.

Our Social Action was developed in Nottingham in the late 1970s. It was a critical response to the prevailing models of practice in social, youth, youth justice and community development work. What the then prevalent practices had in

common was:

» They  operated  on a deficit model  -

seeing young people as a problem or

as having problems.

» Professionals were in control - doing

things    to,    for    or    on    behalf  of

communities and service users.

» Community members were passive

recipients in the programmes.

» The agents of change were the

professionals - not the community members/service users.


The models that Social Action challenged can be summarised as compensation, prescription, modification or reparation. All these models saw community members in a negative or passive way and not potentially the people to transform the situation as the agents of change. Our Social Action set out to change this by viewing young people as experts in their own lives. Professionals negotiated a new relationship with young people, working alongside and facilitating them to identify and address issues and concerns that were important to them. The focus was on community members addressing root causes and creating social change for themselves. In the process they would empower themselves and their communities and learn new skills and behaviours, which could be used in other areas of their lives.

Central to this was a shift of power in the relationship between adults/ professionals and the people we are paid to work with. Professionals were no longer ‘on top’, but ‘on tap’. This required professionals to develop new skills as facilitators/enablers rather than leaders, because the leadership now comes from young people. In our Social Action, change comes from the inside out and from the bottom upwards, not top down or outside in.

So how does the current range of Social Action programmes measure up to the social change agenda?

What has become the focus is the service and helping of others rather than mutuality and reciprocity. The power is shifting back to managed programmes that process and prescribe, rather than open-ended community development driven by community members. The programmes gestated through current, philanthropy-focused, social policy are lacking an optimism and the radicalism needed for real change, and in their place cautious, traditional values have reasserted themselves. Conservative (with a big and little 'C') ideology is now in the driving seat.

The challenge for an incoming Labour government is how to shape youth policy and programmes that are relevant for today and fit the values of the labour movement. Former Prime Minister Cameron and NCS have created a Royal Charter embedding it on a legal footing, through the National Citizen Service Act 2017, for future governments to fund.

It is important that Labour chooses its own path based on progressive values and ideas. To date in Labour’s youth policy there has rightly been an emphasis on student tuition fees and debt. However it is importantthatanincominggovernment develops a comprehensive strategy that includes all young people.

Urgent action is required to address the exclusion, violence, marginalisation, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism and incarceration experienced by too many of our young people. Young people themselves must be at the heart of creating the necessary social change. Jeremy Corbyn has inspired and won the support of the majority of the younger generation who vote. This support must now be mobilised so that young people are creators, not consumers or cannon

fodder in the political process.

To shape this agenda there needs to be a wide programme of co-production with young people across the diversity of all our communities, about their priorities for youth policy and programmes. This needs to be a comprehensive national Social Action conversation similar to that carried out with disabled people before the last General Election. And it should be combined with taking the views of progressive groups that have attempted to advocate for youth services such as In Defence of Youth Work, Community, Youth and Playworkers in Unite and the Local Government Association  (LGA).  A central demand of these groups is to put the youth service on a statutory footing rather than funding Conservative pet projects.

This process will create a manifesto by and for young people. This manifesto will inspire a wider group of young people to vote Labour because they will feel listened to and have a stake. It will also ensure that young people are a priority and are brought into the mainstream - Social

Action speaks louder than words!

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