Why the knife crime concern shouldn’t lead to increased but ‘anxiety motivated’ youth provision- young people deserve better

Moral Panics about young people are not new.

Anxiety makes news, and sells newspapers.

Regarding knife crime in London, it feels like we are in the middle of another one.

Neither is the process that these moral panics become policy affecting and begin the process of some kind of institutional and funding change. A cursory look at the 150 year history of Youth work in the UK, and anxiety has been one of the key motivations for the development or change in youthwork practices.

That cursory glimpse reveals that many anxieties have been perpetrated in order to justify the implementation of state provision for young people or the ‘wider’ communities. Its not that long ago that ‘The Broken Families’ initiative, flying in on the back of fears about ‘broken Britain’ made a huge splash, with colossal funding, and sadly barely a positive impact to its name. So its not just young people who suffer, but they do even in these programmes too. But focusing on young people, their social and conditions relating to poverty spurred the victorian philanthropists of their day to develop Saturday and Sunday education all of which had mixed motives of social help and Spiritual education, and hopes of social mobility chucked in. Other anxiety about young people practices include the development of uniformed organisations ( to help young boys be ready for the war), and anxieties in the early development of youthwork included : social unreliability, young people and criminal activity, and the failure of young women to ‘live up to the feminine ideal’ (From Bernard Davies, History of the Youth Service in England, 1999) Youth work at that time unashamedly targeted the working class boy and the factory girl. As both in different ways threatened the norm.  And provision that attempted to address these fears and anxieties ensued. From Girls clubs that focused on needlework and cookery, to boys clubs that emphasised manliness. Yes, in the late 1900’s, these anxieties drove volunteers to develop clubs and groups with these slightly less than altruistic purposes in mind.

Fast forward 50 years, and the Moral Panic is the lack of attendance at the once popular youth clubs. At least this is one of the motivations for the emergence of detached youthwork, as pioneered by Geotchius and Tash in the last 1950’s, early 1960’s. Coupled again with the fears of young people post war, post subscription and where the employment rate of young people plummeted, as well as education infastructure becoming under the strain of under-investment and a booming population of school age children.

As I mentioned above, the Moral Panic Politics that affects intervention policy is not reserved for the historic. Citizenship in schools was the result of limited under 25’s voting ( when all that was needed was someone who would bring hope to young people and listen to them). Within a narrative of  young people as ‘anti-social’ developed high surveillance of young people, from detached youthwork that required data recording, CCTV cameras, and schools that need lock downs and cameras, everything is about social control and surveillance, based mainly on fears about young people. Or where the majority are inhumanely treated because of the effects of one or two, 300 miles away on a TV programme.  Moral anxiety shapes narratives and creates policy. And barely any of these motivations that have generated youth work provision have created the right approach for provision, or had the desired impact.

The current debate is about whether the demise of youthwork provision in London has led to the increase in knife crime. Because youth work even at its worst is more preventative than interventionalist – and the end of session review doesnt include ‘ did this session stop kids carrying knives’ then it is not going to be easy to say. Causation and Impact is difficult to say. And thats not the point of this piece. Cause is difficult to pin down, and the state reductions may contribute. Though these get the voluntary and faith sectors off the hook. Was no one else prepared to do anything in local communities? i bet they are and are overworked and understretched trying to find funding all the time. However, whether youth services has contributed will be difficult to say, this piece makes the case though: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/cut-youth-services-violent-crime-sure-start-child-tax-credits

The point of this piece, is to say that if we’re going to learn lessons from the past, then we need to say that young people in the UK currently deserve more and better than being subjected to anxiety motivated provision. Even if that anxiety is very real, as i can imagine it will be where life and death is at stake in the knife crime context. Whether youth services had an impact might depend on a number of factors.

But please can the result of the conversations not be that this anxiety is the key motivation for new provision, funding or policies about youth work provision. Whilst there may be need for short term interventions. We need policies that are shaped less by anxiety, than opportunity, shaped less by fear and more about developing young peoples abilities. Young people have far more to give this world, than be tarnished by a targetted programme, more than what education can squeeze out of them, more than be a number on a data sheet.

I am no expert in knife crime, and i dont attempt to be. But if youth services are to be re-ignited across the UK, then can they be done not with anxiety in mind, however difficult that might be given that its often default position. Youth workers often have to ‘respect the individual’ young person yet mine the conversation had with them for its data. How respectful is this? but thats what anxiety driven practices do. They target and try and force the issue. And young people are the pawns in the impact and outcome agenda.

Good youthwork takes time. Good youthwork is about respecting and listening to young people. Good youthwork gives young people a voice, and empowers them to activism. Its not anxious ridden. ‘Young people are not at risk – they need to be thought of at promise’ (Cormac Russell, here: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/taking-strengths-based-approach-young-people-moving-risk-promise-part-1/).

Can we create youthwork provision, practices that encourage the promise of young people? Rather than anxiously try and be the thing that stops them getting into trouble?

Can we resign anxiety driven youth provision to the past? (And whilst we’re at it, the technology fears and ‘loneliness of young people’ might be in the same category. might.., )

I only hope so. I fear though, knee jerk is on its way. Young people yes, even young people who carry knives, deserve better.

Anxiety might make and shape news, should it shape policies and provision for young people?


From Bernard Davies, History of the Youth Service in England, 1999 from http://www.youthworkwales.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/History-of-the-Youth-Service-in-England—volume1.pdf accessed 10/4/18

Young, Kerry, The art of Youth Work, 1999, p11

Goetchius, Tash – Working with the Unnattached, 1967

Various articles on the impact of The broken Families programme are on the Guardian website, and Children and Youth Now website. One is here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jul/18/louise-casey-troubled-families-problem


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