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Patient wait for ministers to act;Interview;Ian Nash;FE Focus

As delegates gathered for the Community and Youth Workers Union conference, general secretary Doug Nicholls spoke to Ian Nash about their expectations

LIFELONG learning minister George Mudie addresses the largest annual gathering of community and youth workers today - and they expect some straight answers.

When he met a delegation recently from their union, he said he appreciated that they were the "vital interface" with the young people that politicians wanted rescued from social exclusion.

This, says Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union is a perception which many in the Government's Social Exclusion Unit share.

"Without youth workers there is no transmission belt for a complex variety of core government youth and social policy objectives."

Mr Mudie also noted how patient the sector had been - an observation with which Mr Nicholls readily agrees. "Fortunately, youth work has not been wracked by some of the terrible scandals of related professions.

"Inspection reports have consistently praised our work and we have quietly adapted to new working practices. Yet we have waited two years for the appearance of a four-times delayed Green Paper on the youth service."

High standards were maintained while the lack of firm statutory footing made the service an easy target for education cuts - pound;250 million over five years. "The Government argues that it allocates the cash on the basis of what local education authorities spent the previous year. LEAs argue they have to raid this kitty because education spending generally is so low. And so the blame goes on, while desperately needy young people alienated from education, civil society and the labour market suffer.

"Demands have been placed on youth workers to be involved in more initiatives including drugs prevention, behavioural support, guiding offenders. So yes we have been patient."

But patience is running out. The National Youth Agency has called a conference in June to debate the Green Paper - if it appears. And if it does not, it will bring together well-rehearsed arguments of what the service requires.

In addition, delegates gathering at CYWU's conference in Derby are more determined than ever that this year their pay levels will be restored thereby stopping the recruitment and retention problems that have emerged this year.

An initial CYWU survey of 69 LEAs has shown a drop of 5,246 (25 per cent) in youth work posts between 1992 and 1998.

Many of the problems appear to be peculiarly English, said Mr Nicholls. With devolution, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, youth and community education is playing a more central role in the lifelong learning and social inclusion agendas, gaining an equal place alongside schools, colleges and universities.

In Northern Ireland millions of pounds have gone into the service through the peace dividend to promote education programmes for social unity. "Government backing for the central role of our work in the new assemblies and parliaments makes Westminster's current slow pace seem very old fashioned," he said.

"In Northern Ireland, a root-and-branch review engaged the whole service in consultation and has suggested a Minister for Youth, stronger professionalisation of the service, longer-term planning and a role for youth workers in assisting the development of the Civic Forum."

The role of youth workers in Britain's most troubled communities has been one of the most unsung contributions to peace and reconciliation, he said.

"In Wales, a doubling of training budgets for youth workers and increased funding to the Wales Youth Agency reflects Labour's interest in involving young people in the assembly. It also sets a baseline to determine what a sufficiently-funded youth service should look like."

Meanwhile, a Scottish Office circular recommends that "local authorities should produce community learning plans to address the needs of their communities and make a key contribution to the Government's objectives for social inclusion, lifelong learning and active citizenship."

Very significant numbers of young people, adult learners and community activists build relationships with their youth and community workers, he said. "They choose to because these staff have the good humour and understated professional expertise to foster a love of learning, a sense of pride and the self-esteem essential to enter wider opportunities."

He points to a recent government audit which revealed that every pound;1 spent generated an additional pound;8 in voluntary contributions. "If we do not invest, another generation will ignore the rhetoric. A lifelong learning framework without essential glue to secure it to its foundations will take a tumble. I remain patient and optimistic that England will catch up soon."

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