Statutory Guidance on youth voice and influence in local youth services (the Education Act 1996, 507b) has just been updated and published (Sept 23) by the Gov’s DCMS Youth Directorate. The original legislation is not just the statutory basis for the provision of local youth services in England, but where the law says that youth views ‘must’ be heard in shaping them. Does the latest guidance go far enough? James Cathcart reviews the implications for the #youthvoice movement and calls for a debate about the opportunities in the run up to a General Election 2024.

The relevant section on local youthvoice was inserted into the The Education Act in  2006, when the Children’s Minister, which then included responsibility for youth service was at the Department for Education.  It states that Local Authorities ‘must take steps to ascertain the views’ of young people and to ‘secure that the views [of young people] are taken into account on: current provision, the need for additional activities and facilities, and access [to them]’’.  The Act also makes provision for the Government of the day to produce guidance to elaborate on this, hence this update.

2023 Guidance LINK

This has happened twice before: in 2007/8 [Link] shortly after the Act was passed, and then in 2012 [Link] when a new coalition Government came into power. These updates reflect the Government of the day’s priorities. This version followed stakeholder consultation by the DCMS Youth Directorate (since 2019)  including young people and young representatives currently working with councils in a variety of ways – youth councils/forums and local youth parliaments. This intended to take account of  existing practice, the changing nature of society and role of ‘youth services/youth work’ within it, but they couldn’t amend the legislation itself.

What difference will the refreshed guidance make and does it take into account the fact that many councils now consult their local youth councils on wide range of topics, not just youth work services. However it does remind everyone its a ‘must’, something  which has been in the legislation itself 2006. This is an opportunity to give #youthvoice a higher priority. Or will the decade of considerable funding cuts to youth services, combined with the fact that councils have considerable flexibility in how they go ‘consult’ young people herald little change? This depends not only on resources but on the lack of national Government follow up to record who is doing what, evaluation of impact and feedback to young people and holding local authorities to account. Whilst the 2012 guidance asked for ‘annual reports’ to monitor, this appears to now have been dropped in the new guidance. The situation wasn’t helped when responsibility for youth services transferred twice in subsequent years, to the Cabinet Office and then to DCMS) and there was little interest in the new departments for reviewing the impact of youthvoice when the focus for youth policy became the National Citizen Service.

The new guidance has been accompanied by additional support and guidance from the youth sector itself, partly the consequence of a closer working relationship between officials and sector, reminiscent of the partnership that existing when this legislation was crafted and guidance issued. For example the National Youth Agency have responded to the new guidance by helpfully published a toolkit aimed at decision-makers and providers in local authorities on ‘How to Fulfil Your Statutory Duty under Section 507B” which includes a youth engagement checklist.

The increasing popular Lundy model of participation is regularly recommended and is recognised by the DCMS. Young Voices Heard has been researching and collating old and new youth voice models, guidance and tools on its website and the Centre for Youth Voice has published recently commissioned toolkits and research.

This guidance is more aligned with the original 2007/8 guidance and vision of the original legislators, than its two-page revision issued in 2012 although the later was notable for both referencing the Article 12 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requirement that children and young people’s views were heard and taken into account, and boosted the profile of youthvoice and influence with accompanying funding to national support (British Youth Council/UK Youth Parliament – 2012 onwards), but its call on local authorities to empower young people to inspect and report annually on the quality and accessibility of provision was perhaps over-ambitious (and now appears to also have been omitted) in the context of cuts to youth services as a whole. It’s something of a testament to the resilience of stakeholders and supporters, locally, regionally, and nationally, that despite cuts, many local council areas retained and developed their youth voice vehicles. Many of the ‘youth councils’ who were being consulted found themselves, not only under threat, but finding their voice to campaign against the cuts.

Local #YouthVoice practice and expectations have moved on..

The world of ‘youth voice and influence’ has developed considerably since then and indeed since local youth councils were first recorded in England in the 1930s and 40s. They have since evolved as part of youth services or community services. They’ve had a range of purposes and varied in popularity across the decades. Standards and good practice have periodically supported by a range of civic society national and local stakeholders, networks, and resources with something of a resurgence of awareness, shared learning, and activity in recent years. Much of the recent interest  has been stimulated by young leaders sharing their views on the process, when they have at last been given the space to set the agenda and not just react to adult-led consultations. So, it not surprising that many local authorities, supported by some excellent regional (Youth Focus/Regional Youth Work Units/Combined Authorities) as well as the national networks, have refined their model beyond the expectation of consultation and participation and this guidance, and to broaden their agenda beyond Education Acts definition of youth service activities, to other policy areas such as climate change. This is recognition of the proposition that listening to the views, concerns, and perspectives of young people, and then acting on them, is in and of itself, a youth service. It gives agency, place and wellbeing to young people at a time when society is waking up to the need to better look after the health and well-being of new generation facing considerable challenges such as post Covid impact, Cost of Living crisis, and Climate change.

What Next? In the run up to the next General Election there is an opportunity to inform and influence the agenda for the next 10 years and ‘youthvoice and influence’ needs to on that agenda, with young leaders given space to heard. This guidance has been reminded us that youth participation locally is a ‘must’ and not an optional ‘add on’, but the guidance continues to give considerable discretion to local authorities on ‘how’ they go about it and not much interest in follow up or research on impact. I would like to see new (or amended) legislation to introduce a range of reforms which facilitates national leadership on youth policy and recognises the benefit to society of giving young people a seat at the table – not just for their personal development, but for the greater good and benefit to society and local communities.

A week after the statutory guidance was published a subgroup of the Nation Youth Services Advisory Board published a Roadmap to a National Youth Strategy, endorsed by 20 of its members perhaps with an eye on the next General Election. Priority number 4, ‘Youth Participation’ highlights that 1.  too often decisions are made on behalf of young people rather than giving them a seat at the table, and 2. Youth participation is seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must’ and calls on Government to sufficiently resource inclusive youth participation and meaningful engagement in shaping national policies and co-design of services.

The current team in DCMS Youth Directorate, despite the high turnover of Ministers, deserve credit for making efforts to consult widely on youth participation, and responded through its recent youth engagement grant funding for a more inclusive ‘youthvoice at the table’ structure under a broader Youth Parliament model which is to be independently evaluated. So this ‘Roadmap’ may be directed more towards a new Government in 2024 and is certainly a basis for dialogue with a united sector.

“How will a new Government respond ? I would go further in calling for a prioritisation of youth policy and youth voice across all areas going forward, not just youth services I’ll be producing and updating version of the Young Voices Heard’s election manifesto of reforms in the coming months to contribute to this debate but here are a couple of new ideas to join my previous calls for a cabinet level Youth Minister.” James Cathcart

Youth Representation on Government Department Boards.

Young people are increasing represented in governance and decision-making, either through seats on boards of charities, or through advisory panels, interview panels and grant-decisions making. This is frequently decision-making not just consultation before decisions are made.  Government departments have Boards. Perhaps, rather than just consulting young people, young leaders should be represented on these boards, bringing user experience of youth voice, participation and influence to bear on the strategic decisions made how best to govern – which might lead to greater cooperation between departments if supported by other reforms…

Youth Directorate/ Secretariat to coordination Departments?  The Culture Sec (at DCMS which has been leading on youth service policy announcements, including this new guidance) when announcing recently (Oct 23) some new funding for youth services under the Tory governments National Youth Guarantee, made the point that responsibility for supporting and resourcing it was shared with several other departments.

Someone should take be given the responsibility of leading and coordinating other departments. The option are are DCMS role is made more senior and not shared with other all responsibilities like Sport; Back to where it used to be at Education, where the Education Act started and where officials still collect data on youth services; Or a new Youth Minister with a voice in Cabinet, with the Youth Directorate back in the Cabinet Office?

This will provide a focus for scrutiny and accountability in parliament, civil society stakeholders and from youth leaders themselves.  Perhaps an independent (or semi-autonomous) Youth Commissioner, with a youthled governance board to question and review its effectiveness on an annual basis.

Local Youth Voice has been a must in legislation (albeit local on only focused on youth services)  for some time, but its time its a must in practice, locally and nationally too which might not only require reform, but legislation to make it stick.

James Cathcart, Director of Young Voices Heard


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