The young people’s drop-in centre in the former mining community of Kiveton Park, South Yorkshire, calls itself Just Another Dance Event. Its origins were just that: a group of young people, myself and my colleague John Leaver included, coming together to organise a night-club-style dance event in our local community. The first event was in 1999 when the young people of this former mining community urgently needed positive activities and ways of keeping engaged in the community. Like many neighbouring villages, the local pit had been closed in 1994.
The events grew over time, regularly attracting more than 400 young people. Each event not only created social opportunities for the local young people but ways for them to gain experience in performance and in organising such events. We decided to undertake a consultation exercise among the event users. It showed us that many of the young people who attended wanted to see the development of a youth-led centre that would include regular and consistent activities of this kind.
The group decided to set itself up as a not-for-profit organisation and began the process of developing a young people’s drop-in centre. That was not quite as simple as it sounds. Around that time we faced much opposition from the local parish council. They didn’t want to see the facility developed and at one stage the dance events themselves were closed by the police. The problem was a lack of understanding and a very negative perception of young people. However, the group persevered and worked with the police and council to satisfy them that the project could be of benefit to the whole community. Over the long term this resulted in a strong partnership between Jade and the local police. Now we work together on a number of programmes including the dance events themselves.
The group’s next task was to secure a large shop-front premises on the local high street. We worked with a core group of young people who were known to have been involved in criminal offences. These young people sourced premises, completed funding bids, developed policies, undertook the refurbishment of the shop and developed the facility themselves. Today, the centre engages more than 300 young people every week in a variety of courses and activities. Their involvement has been credited for a large fall in anti-social behavior and youth crime locally.
From this centre, Jade runs services ranging from regular drop-in facilities to training young people in music technology and DJ skills. There are also issue-based courses and discussions on issues such as sexual health and drug and alcohol misuse. We provide services to schools including programmes on gangs, guns and knife crime, after-school provision and qualification-based training for young people who struggle in mainstream education. Some paid-for services help to finance our charitable activities.
The current centre has enabled us to become part of a consortium made up of the Police, area assemblies and various local authority organisations. Its aim is to replicate what we have done in Kiveton Park in other areas where there are similarly high levels of deprivation, or a strong need for our services.
A new lost generation
Back in September 2010, when the spending cuts were announced, the current Coalition Government encouraged councils to ensure that they cut from the top and protected front line services such as youth centres and other projects aimed at supporting those most vulnerable in society. But, despite this, the Government did not put in place any safeguards to ensure that this actually happened. Youth services and support for young people’s education and welfare were among the first services to be cut in boroughs and cities throughout the UK. As a result there has been a rise in youth crime, and a whole generation of young people risks becoming disengaged from society. This has been a huge step backwards for youth work as a whole.
The riots that broke out across the country last year show the importance of ensuring appropriate support, guidance and leadership to young people within our communities. It is vital that they feel part of their community and have a voice in its future if they are to be able to participate fully within society.
The rioting cannot in any way be condoned. But we have to accept that we all have a degree of responsibility for creating a society in which young people would behave in such a way. Record youth unemployment, abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, higher university fees and cuts to services for young people have all had their impact. Most young people have little opportunity to participate in society and few have any chance of upward social mobility. With all this in mind it is hardly surprising that we now see a decline in young people voting; we see higher levels of crime and a generation of young people many of whom are disengaged from mainstream society.
Just Another Dance Event is one of many social enterprise and voluntary sector organisations across the country that work with young people to provide valuable services. But it also has some specific lessons that are useful at this time. Its own origins were in the dark days of the 1990s when unemployment was high and the traditional industries had closed down. Operating in the Rother Valley South Area of Rotherham, Jade gave hope to young people in these former mining communities.
Over the years, the group has seen significant falls in crime rates among the communities in which it works along with dramatically increased aspirations and opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is a great example of what can be achieved by engaging young people at a grass roots level. Today, groups like Jade are expected to increase their services to fill the gap in government spending. Many organisations and individuals have worked tirelessly for years supporting their communities and those most vulnerable within them. But the excellent work they do relies to a certain extent on funding from and contracts with local authorities. Now these voluntary organisations and social enterprises are stretched to breaking point. Funding and contracts are being lost just as there is greater demand for services.
Cuts to youth services have without doubt had a negative impact on the service organisations such as ours can deliver. More worrying is the impact on the infrastructure of all such services within the UK. Highly skilled and experienced workers are being lost from the profession. Buildings and premises and social facilities are being closed. These are not things that can be easily recovered once the days of austerity are over. If they leave the profession and the voluntary organizations now, the dedicated leaders and youth workers, particularly from deprived backgrounds, will simply disappear. Without some targeted action, there will simply be no Big Society for Government to fall back on.