Act now or audit will be an autopsy

Doug Nicholls argues that awell-funded youth service is vital if Labour's pledges to young people are to be kept successfully

Tony Blair spoke at the Labour party conference of the inspiring growth in self-esteem he had seen in one beneficiary of the New Deal. He had glimpsed the raised spirits that youth workers bring about among the 600,000 young people who use local authority youth services every week.

As I travel the country observing the work of youth workers, I am continually staggered by their ability to transform young people, raise educational standards and encourage awareness of human solidarity - an awareness that ultimately best prevents crime.

I have seen professionals work with those youngsters who appear as the unknown statistics - the young people so disconnected from any social and communal responsibility that the sociologists can't get them on their graphs - and within hardly any time motivate them into empowered, articulate, skilful, responsible citizens.

Ministers from several departments are beginning to realise youth workers relate to the young in a unique way, helping make the increasingly long and foggy journey from childhood to adulthood without accidents as no other educationists or welfare staff can.

In fact George Mudie, the new minister responsible for lifelong learning, sees us as "the vital interface". He knows youth workers create positive personal and social education experiences and that the contribution this process makes to a range of social inclusion strategies is immense.

Youth and community workers will be the first to bring agencies from police to health trusts together to co-ordinate delivery. Frequently the youth worker is the only educationist a young person trusts sufficiently to explore their life choices.

An essential feature of the Government's educational and economic strategy has been its focus on young people. Re-including the young in civil society is the dominant social policy objective. Given this, it is odd that, despite renewed recognition, so far the Government has not boosted the service that provides the expert educationists most committed to this agenda, and most able to bring coherence to the new youth policies.

The recent DFEE audit of the youth service demonstrates both the appalling neglect and the huge potential of this service. If we can make its legislative underpinning equal to schools' and increase its resource base by Pounds 200 million, we will not only be able to cement together a group of Government youth policies and save money, we will reconnect a generation with the social world and give it a love of lifelong learning.

Youth volunteering, behavioural support units, youth offender teams, New Deal gateways, New Start projects, excluded-pupil support teams - all of these essential new projects cry out for youth-work skills.

What is more, youth workers are crying out to help. But as the audit reveals, the service is threadbare. Some local authorities face requests for youth service involvement in new Government initiatives 10 times greater than their existing staffing establishment. Some have one worker left for every 5, 000 young people. None has a decent level of provision. In real terms they can spend little more than they did in the Sixties.

We are promised a consultation paper on the service by the end of the year in England. This will be too little too late. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, (where youth and community workers have played such a great role behind the agreements for peace and reconciliation), are far further down the line of positioning the youth service centrally.

We need now an unequivocal commitment by the Government to enhance the role of the service in legal and resource terms. An immediate signal to local authorities from the DFEE that part of the Pounds 19 billion for education must be spent on the highly value-added youth service, must also be given.

The youth service originated in the best of 19th-century faith, hope and charity. Mrs Thatcher reduced it to dependence on grant, trust and the Lottery. This Government needs to reward its most potent ally in the communities and immediately announce new state legislation and funding.

This would just give us a level playing field on which to kick off. It would also implement Labour policy, shared with all those in education.

An effective profession, too modest sometimes for its own good, will require an autopsy not an audit unless immediate attention is paid this year. As reforms that brought elementary education and then later comprehensive education developed the culture of Britain beyond all recognition, so a reform in favour of the youth service would, at such low cost, transform the system.

Doug Nicholls is general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union

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