Knife Angel

Written at the foot of this today, the knife angel is currently being displayed next to MIMA in Middlesbrough.

Knife angel.

Hands pained,

Eyes vacant,
Shoulder broad,
Wings rusted,
Heart hidden,
Head bowed,
Fingers encouraging,
Wrists poised,
Knife angel,
Knife angel,
Knife angel,
Knife angel,
Knife angel,



Could the last remaining youth worker, please give the PM a hand with her knife crime problem?

This week, on Monday Theresa May held a conference in downing street with a number of organisations on the back of a rising panic about knife crime in London, but not just London. What this conversation didnt seem to do was start to address the deep seated issues of poverty, cuts and reductions in youth services that have created an environment where these issues have now got to crisis point. And poverty and austerity have created an angry and lost generation of young people. Understandably.

Schools cannot afford to train or employ staff to tackle knife crime.

The cuts to youth and childrens service have been savage since 2010. Under the austerity measures, it is estimated that over 600 FTE (and so with an extensive number of PT staff, this will be nearer 1000 people) youthworkers have been taken out of youth work orientated roles, on the ‘frontline’ an with a broadly youth work remit. Yes, some have been redistributed to social work, troubled families and to other agenda’d areas in local councils and statutory bodies (as my post here suggested. But savage cuts have taken an extra ordinary number of youthworkers away from the local community, and community practices where they were. Do a search of ‘cuts’ on the Children and young people now website and you will find plenty of evidence, such as this piece, written in February:

Youthworkers have expended energy trying to keep youth centres open, trying to be innovative to keep the semblance of a youth service going, become creative in ascertaining funding, yet at the same time training organisations, colleges and courses have been cut too, as their need has collapsed. There is not then the ‘churn’ of new youthworkers entering the field, as there once was. And the same might be said in the church. The same might be said in the voluntary sector, where there are jobs, but few applicants, at times.

Yet, the social panics about young people, county lines, mental health – and this week (again) knife crime – have come to the politicians attention, and the public at large… just… (even in a Brexit toxic week) and whilst I have written before about the knee jerk reaction for the promotion of youth services on the back of moral panics young people deserve better, in terms of being thought of as creative, energising, innovative, passionate and been subject to austerity policy (rather than to blame) .

We are left with the cumulative scenario, that it is now due to the public sector to deal with a response to knife crime  which is really interesting, as I am sure the policy of education revolved around the ethics of the market is really going to accommodate a space for knife carrying education, or peace and reconciliation, in and amongst a data pressured, outcome driven school system, where PSHE and citizenship have already been slashed. Concerns voiced by teachers and unions in this piece here:

Responding to youth violence through youth work

So ultimately, the axe falls to the teachers in schools.

Because, there isnt the frontline youthworkers left, even though detached youthworkers produced resources into ‘street crime’ responses 10 years ago: The voice of youthworkers and their ability to respond has been so diminished, devalued and restricted.

Where youthworkers had an on the ground perspective of the issues, the interactions with young people on the streets and have heard, seen and witnessed it, the task is for the public sector workers cocooned in institutions- subject to education policy remit (and not specifically for/with young people) . Yes, some youthworkers have been part of the conversation – but realistically – the question has to be asked ;

Would the remaining youth workers left help the prime minister out with her knife crime problem? 

The cart and horse had bolted at the time of the London Riots, government cuts to youth services produced anger and outrage, and yet here we are 7 years later. More cuts, more moral panics, and Theresa the hero holds a conference, yet has over seen the most damaging series of cuts to youth services in their 100 year history. Young people are almost left with little choice. Anything now is reactive, being on the ground in the first place might, just might have brought about more social cohesion and community, more understanding, influence and moral guidance with young people – take that all away and a youth worker is just an informal police officer. My guess is that the police dont want this gig either. Youthwork is not their speciality, neither is it as possible in such an environment. So – would the last remaining youthworkers give Theresa a hand? would you?

And if you do – what are you saying about how this ‘problem’ is caused by, and being complicit to an agenda which places the individual, rather than society at large, and the government for its cuts partly responsible.

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:

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:

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—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:


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