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New agenda sets focus on youth;FE Focus;Interview;George Mudie

The lifelong learning minister sees universities and colleges at the centre of social regeneration. Ian Nash met him

LIFELONG learning minister George Mudie's model institution is a school that his own local education authority was once determined to demolish.

On most weekday evenings, up to 2,000 young people and adults attend the Leeds Second Chance School for vocational and recreational courses - their first stepping stone on the return to learn. But in the late 1980s, the cash-strapped education authority was determined to close what was then a hard-to-fill secondary school.

"I had a real shouting match," he said in an interview with The TES this week. "I told them: 'As long as you heat it, secure it, light it and clean it, we will fill it'."

A similarly blighted primary school is now what he describes as "a one-stop centre" for youth activities. "I have another agenda for these estates - to provide a place for youngsters who are targeted by drug-pushers, who have nowhere else to go and who don't want to go home."

Such establishments are a melting pot of ideas and the ground where the multitude of adult, careers and youth services come together to provide a route back to lifelong learning for the disaffected. And, since it is the young who are most vulnerable, it is the youth service which must be primed with greatest urgency to respond nationally, he said.

This autumn will see a renaissance for the youth service, with considerable, though as yet undecided, sums of money from the next round of the Government's comprehensive spending review. It is part of a huge programme of social and educational change to be unveiled over the coming months.

The entire careers service will be told to refocus its efforts, to provide new-style brokering services, acting as intermediaries between learners and employers. Grants for 16-year-olds (or Education Maintenance Allowances) will be piloted in deprived areas.

New national training and education targets will be set. But where the Tories merely endorsed those crafted by the CBI and TUC seven years ago, the Government will rest its political credibility on reaching those targets.

Mr Mudie said that universities and colleges will play a central role in the hoped-for social and economic regeneration. "When they say they will widen participation I will say to them: 'tell me how you are going to do it'."

He will expect FE colleges to provide education for new youth services. They could use the forthcoming youth initiative to attract prospective students from previously excluded and disaffected groups back in to learning. His goal is to give young people the skills, competences and confidence needed for "employability", not just for a job within short-term market needs but the adaptability to meet unpredictable change and the willingness to become lifelong learners.

For a typical way in which a college might become involved in the youth initiatives, he again cites the experience in his Leeds constituency, where he was originally council leader - and mover and shaker on youth issues. "One of the colleges involved in the one-stop youth centre provides training in disco video editing. They would be silly not to. They come in, build a relationship with the youngsters and provide the first step for them back to college. It works."

The forthcoming youth service and careers company reforms are part of the wider Government Social Exclusion Unit agenda. The task is enormous, as indicated by the unit's forthcoming "Zero Status" report on the numbers of young people who are not earning or learning.

Of 600,000 17-year-olds, more than 90,000 are reckoned to be in this excluded group. They include teenage mothers, young people caring for elderly relatives, those working in the black economy, young offenders and the demotivated. Educational under-achievement is not the reason: almost a quarter of zero status individuals have at least five high-grade GCSE passes.

Mr Mudie identifies a deeper alienation among young people, particularly in the inner cities. He wants well-targeted youth centres and youth opportunities provided by those who understand youth. "We must make places attractive for them to go into."

Decades of neglect and under-funding of the youth service had exacerbated the problems, he said. "The answer is not merely to erect buildings and offer ping-pong", but to utilise accommodation where it is most fitting, such as in the Leeds experience.

The recommendations for youth service expansion and reform will go out for consultation by the New Year and will call for greater action and expenditure by education authorities and support for voluntary agencies, with new Government cash, probably on matched funding, and strict guidelines on expenditure and accountability.

Initially, measures will be limited to those which do not require legislation. "Youth workers say they want a statutory framework but we cannot wait that long." He wants action to follow rapidly from results to a consultation paper. Consultations on the reform of the careers service will follow also probably by the end of the year.

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