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Not a time to quango?

A handover of power offers English regions a chance to tackle youth disaffection and underachievement, says Anne Weinstock

The Government is devolving power to the English regions through regional development agencies. They start work next year and their brief from the Government is to help raise standards in education and training and tackle social exclusion and deprivation. Just another quango - or a real chance for change?

Almost one in five households have no adult in work: children are growing up unaware that adults - other than perhaps their teacher - work. Learning and earning has to become the expectation rather than the exception for all children in the 21st century.

The Government wants RDAs to make a powerful contribution to the challenges of education, training and employability. The skills agenda has to be high on the list of priorities. When someone without qualifications is twice as likely to be unemployed as someone with qualifications, the RDAs will have to decide what they can do about it, where other agencies have failed.

The skills agenda has to be the primary focus: those 30,000 leaving school without qualifications, the 533,000 people under 25 who are economically inactive (and not in full-time education and training), and those who are long-term unemployed or in a cycle of poorly paid temporary jobs interspersed with spells of unemployment.

For some there will be a basic skills agenda, working on literacy, numeracy and employability skills. For others it will involve retraining in skill shortage areas, a locally-determined agenda customised to the needs and future plans of businesses in the region, as well to companies which can be attracted in to create jobs.

What is the point in training even one of the 500,000 single parents if her child (and it usually is a single mum) can't go to a local after-school club? Why train young people with special needs to fill vacancies if they also need, say, supported housing and training in independent living skills, which if they are not provided, will result in them dropping out?

Why must the system penalise those on training programmes by making them pay their travel fares to employer placements and thus making them little or no better off than those on the dole? Those on the outside will say "but look at the long-term benefits of working", but young people can't always see long-term goals.

The disaffected, those in care, those from dysfunctional families, those in trouble with the police, those with statements, are voting with their feet at the irrelevance of the school curriculum and inequity of the exam system. They don't expect to get jobs when they leave school and don't see education and training as relevant. They don't need another quango to tell them they haven't got the skills necessary for today's labour market.

Or do they? Can RDAs succeed where others have failed? RDAs will be in a unique position to produce holistic, joined-up solutions to the problems of social exclusion from within a regional context. Under their influence will be TECs, education action zones, careers service, colleges... An enviable position from which to translate the rhetoric of integrated solutions to practical realities, not least because RDAs will be directed by local people with first-hand knowledge of local strengths and weaknesses and a personal interest in the region.

At present, there's a plethora of initiatives dealing with the same people with the same postcodes. Many agencies are dealing with the same family.

A holistic approach, by piloting the concept of a social inclusion zone, would encompass elements of all zones together to provide whole family support. It would include: training in parenting skills, basic and vocational training for parents as appropriate; family support for those with young children; training in independent living skills for young people leaving care and those moving towards accommodation of their own; help in finding training and employment.

The Government is playing its part with national initiatives such as the literacy hour, literacy and numeracy summer schools, the University for Industry and so on. Is it now the turn of the new RDAs to be radical? Let them be innovative: give them the powers to create social inclusion zones incorporating successful elements from other action zones. Let them tackle social inclusion from a local viewpoint with local input and local businesses supporting them. Let them change the school curriculum locally to fit local needs. Let them show that partnership and joined up thinking are more than buzzwords - they can really make a difference to the lives of the socially excluded.

Let the RDAs be the vehicle for ensuring that the many rather than the few realise their full potential and contribute to the social and economic life of the communities in which we all live.

Anne Weinstock is chief executive of Rathbone CI, a charity which helps people with special educational or training needs. She is also a member of the Government's skills taskforce

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