Let's give the young a break

Tom Wylie says a concerted political will to improve youth opportunities is long overdue. The political parties are now composing their lyrics to capture the youth vote. Individual melodies - such as Labour's scheme of citizens' service - may prove catchy. But we still await the arrival of a full harmony across the range of youth policy.

These are not easy times in which to grow up. For many young people the normal transitions to adult life have been fractured. The overall balance sheet for the young suggests that the "terms of trade" have moved sharply against them over the past 20 years with a sharp reduction in their wages, benefits and grants. Services that provide directly for the young, including education, have not increased their share of national resources.

Young people's positive achievements are often taken for granted while the media focus on negative behaviour. The young have borne the major costs of structural changes in the economy. But the costs have not fallen evenly: gaps widen between the successful and unsuccessful - in education, jobs, health and crime. Contradictions in policies are evident, for example, in housing, social security and criminal justice systems. We are creating a population of the socially-excluded young, often operating in dysfunctional adolescent peer groups.

We need to advance the agenda now for shaping the lives of the young. There are three priorities for action: First, the central task for education, training and youth work is to blend academic, vocational and social competencies, to respond better to the learning needs of young adults by developing their IT skills, their ability to speak cogently and those deeper competencies of self-reliance and flexibility.

Finding employment is not simply a matter of having vocational skills, it can include a willingness to deploy social skills and to face new settings with equanimity. Restoring the educational aspirations of adolescents who have dropped out of schooling may only be possible through their interests and hobbies - we need to take these and move beyond them.

Second, many major social programmes affect young people. But not all individuals or groups are well-served even by such universal provision as schooling. The Office for Standards in Education has, belatedly, identified the differential achievements of some ethnic-minority groups (and, worse still, the appalling outcomes for most young people in the care of the state). Urgent action is needed on programmes which will secure and strengthen social inclusion. These could include study support especially for those at risk of school failure; activities which discourage young people from crime; programmes which provide effective training for the most disadvantaged, or promote healthy living; projects which bring together housing and employment for young people. All of these exist: they should be replicated and moved away from hand-to-mouth funding.

Third, at the most straightforward, parliamentary, level some 20 per cent of young voters were not registered and more than 2 million didn't vote at the last general election. But a concern for the health of our democracy lies deeper. Services, especially youth services, need to be fully responsive to those they seek to serve. A society which does not engage all its citizens in democratic processes risks that some will choose other ways of having their voices heard.

"Rock the vote" - the music industry's campaign - may produce a greater measure of registration and voting by the young but genuine involvement lies deeper. It needs empowerment through being informed; through the conscious development of social skills; through voluntary action and youth councils.

It is not clear if the Citizen's Charter is still alive and well. Even if it is not, the development of a specific charter for young people could offer a way of encapsulating goals and targets across a range of services. The components of a charter should include: * equal access to relevant education and training; * effective social education towards full citizenship; * reliable assistance in gaining employment and housing; * a safe, warm, well-equipped meeting place for young people within a bus ride giving an opportunity to participate in drama, music, sport and voluntary action; * a coherent set of benefits and grants; * a chance to make decisions about the local youth project and a say on other services through a youth forum or council; * a key worker to give support in a crisis.

Youth services have always been a partnership between voluntary organisations and the state. Local authorities still provide directly for young people, but no less important roles lie in the setting of standards; innovative project work; evaluation and co-ordination. Taking the strategic view to ensure that needs are met across local authority departments is especially crucial post-16 where we have seen a marked atomisation of education and training provision. A number of local authorities are now engaged in reviewing their youth strategy. Youth work should be re-engineered to ensure that its facilities are open when young people want to use them.

Some youth work lacks relevance to the changing concerns and interests of young people and is often seen as rather low-level recreational provision or therapeutic conversations carried out in shabby premises. It needs to address the important educational agenda outlined previously, to encourage young people to be both critical and creative in response to the world around them. We need a good deal more arts work, video and music-making and desk-top publishing to offer opportunities for self-expression, group work and social education.

The voices of young people must be directly heard at local, regional and national level, in the structures of their own organisations, and through youth councils and forums. A committee charged with cross departmental policy for young people would give the basis for co-ordinated development across a local authority.

The current legal bases for youth work are inadequate and need to be replaced. Local authorities should be given explicit and unequivocal powers and a duty to secure the provision of sufficient youth services within their areas in partnership with the voluntary youth work.

Central government has retreated from a coherent youth policy, from offering leadership to youth work. Initiatives it has taken have been sporadic. At the least it needs: to establish a closer alignment of the key national policies which affect young people; to enable youth work to go into production with its innovative practice and not just offer a set of prototypes; above all, it needs to provide consistent investment in human capital. It must stop the present, persistent attrition - and in some places deep wounds - in youth service provision which have resulted from its funding polices.

Current government arrangements provide no mechanism by which the needs and interests of young people can be identified, still less protected, when legislative or administrative action by different departments is proposed. The formal links between departments having responsibilities for issues which directly affect young people are limited: inter-departmental consultation is inadequate: ministerial leadership weak and joint action is virtually non-existent.

Yet the needs of young people are multi-faceted. Governmental co-ordination in other areas (for example, drugs) has shown that effective action can be promoted when there is a focus of responsibility and, as required, a designated unit with dedicated personnel. When legislation is planned, consideration should always be given to the possible impact on young people and civil servants required to include youth affairs assessments in documentation.

Voluntary organisations and local authorities can do much in their own areas but the essential conditions for progress towards a coherent national policy serving all our young people are that government should place a duty on local authorities to secure a sufficient youth service in partnership with voluntary bodies; that there should be sufficient and consistent funding; that there should be both political will and ministerial co-ordination in Whitehall. This is an agenda for the millennial generation.

Tom Wylie is chief executive of the National Youth Agency

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