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Mixed welcome for Connexions

Under the new Learning and Skills Act, the youth services will play a more central role in education and training for post-16s. Martin Whittaker investigates what the changes will mean for all those involved

IN Sheffield, youth and careers services are considering a merger as part of the imminent shake-up of advice and guidance for young people.

A close partnership already exists between the two services in South Yorkshire - one of the 16 pilot areas in England set to launch Connexions, the Government's new youth support service, from April this year.

The emerging youth support system is complex. It involves four local authorities and two private careers companies working across an area about to come under the eye of the local branch of the new Learning and Skills Council.

But unlike other areas where Connexions is regarded as being led by the careers service, South Yorkshire views its partnerships as equal.

Geoff Eagle, principal youth adviser for Rotherham who is heading the pilot, is upbeat: "It's very positive," he said. "We're working very much in partnership with careers services.

"Youth services don't appear to have the same high level of involvement in all areas as we do in South Yorkshire. All our four youth services are involved and committed."

He believes this commitment comes from a tradition of the services working together. And as one of the poorest areas in the UK, South Yorkshire has many 13 to 19-year-olds needing support.

"There's a recognition that the youth services play a key role in working with those people," he says.

This upbeat approach to the changes in youth support has not been shared by England's community and youth services generally.

Youth workers are sceptical aboutthe creation of a network of personal advisers who will reach out to excluded and disaffected youngsters. They see it as the re-branding of a role they have filled for decades.

Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, believes the Government's vision was unclear from the start (see story, right).

"I remain to be persuaded that Connexions will have the broad scope, the adequacy of funding and democratic accountability at a local level which will make it an appropriate base for all of what's currently called youth work," he says.

There is still much uncertainty about where Connexions will leave the field of youth work, fuelled by the fact that ministers have allowed the system to be determined locally.

So, while a merger betwen careers and youth services is considered in Sheffield, different models are emerging in other pilot areas.

While this lack of prescriptiveness has been broadly welcomed, it has brought confusion for the youth service and has led to careers companies dominating the development of Connexions. The fear is that the new organisation will end up a glorified careers service.

According to the National Youth Agency, there is also concern about how some areas of youth work will be funded under the new system, particularly personal and social development work with disaffected teenagers.

Many colleges and other training providers are involved in this work, so will funding come from the local learning and skills councils, or from local Connexions partnerships?

"Connexions unit officials and government ministers are talking about personal and social development being part of Connexions," said an NYA insider. "But who delivers and who funds? Those issues are at the moment largely unanswered."

Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union, sees the changes as depleting an already severely depleted and under-funded youth service.

"People are being seconded in or contracted in and their generic roles are not being replaced," he said. "Often it's to be personal advisers or to help plan the new Connexions service itself.

"It's taken 40 years to establish youth work as a profession. They're now running personal adviser courses - 150 hours' training and they're expecting them to go into the field to work with some of the most difficult kids."

He is sceptical that the new personal advisers will be able to engage young people, and believes they will merely end up referring them to those with the experience.

"I know that the most tortured, vulnerable young people are completely transformed by youth work intervention. But if we've gone because we've all become Connexions, then who will be left to refer young people to?" The message is not gloom and doom in every corner of the youth service. In West Sussex, the service is embracing Connexions, says Tim Caley, community and youth officer. "Talk to youth services and they get defensive about all this, and I think that's wrong.

"We need to see it in a positive light and we have something to contribute," he said.

"All the people I talk to are desperate to get youth workers involved. They know how hard it is to get to kids who have dropped out of school and hang around street corners."

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