YOUTH workers throughout England will know today if the system that has set their pay and conditions for 30 years is to be scrapped.
Local councils signed up to the Joint Negotiating Committee - which has set national terms and conditions for Youth Service workers - will decide whether or not to pull out.
Many councils want the committee disbanded and local agreements introduced. Others, including the largest, Birmingham, want it to continue.
Whatever the outcome, the service faces even greater turmoil and fragmentation under Government plans for post-16 reforms, signalled in the recent White Paper, Learning to Succeed.
Plans for a new youth support service would strip local authorities of control over such work and merge it with careers. Leaders of the National Youth Agency and Community and Youth Workers Union have accused the Government of "cherry-picking". Many in the Careers Service are not confident it will work.
Ministers insist the new service will offer "comprehensive advice and action", and more effective means of getting the 160,000 disaffected young people - such as teenage parents, drug addicts and those involved in crime - back into further education.
Plans to abandon the national committee have provoked universal hostility among Youth Service staff, who said they were not consulted. Far from wanting sweeping deregulation, they have campaigned for the firm legislative structure pledged by Labour before the 1997 general election.
Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers' Union, said repeated promises were made to secure the service by legislation.
David Blunkett made specific reference to the Youth Service when he addressed the Confederation of British Industry annual conference this year. He undertook to "tackle the barriers discouraging young people from taking part in further education after they have left full-time schooling".
Last October, George Mudie, then minister of education, regretted the "decades of neglect and under-funding" and promised a "renaissance" for the service.
The post-16 White Paper, " The Education and Training of Young People", has raised serious concerns. It calls for personal advisers (mentors and "youth brokers") for all young people over 13 and lists "the Careers Service, parts of the Youth Service and a range of other agencies". It does not mention any change in legislative status.
Mr Blunkett wants to draw the advisers from a wide range of occupations but Mr Nicholls fears that such a policy could result in a superficial service. He wants many more advisers in colleges and all educational institutions who have been trained on programmes endorsed by the national committee.
He fears that Mr Blunkett has under-estimated the complexity of the job. "Mentors are supposed to be signposts, but children pass signposts pretty quickly."
Tom Wylie, director of the National Youth Agency, said young people must choose to unddertake personal and social education. Any suggestion of "conscription" would be ineffective and would not entice them back into formal education, he warned.
In its response to the White Paper the agency said the Youth Service was already working with "the kind of curriculum, methods of learning and assessment which FE colleges and others need to offer if they are to work successfully with those young people who do not participate." It maintains that legislative and financial security is necessary if this expertise is to be sustained.
Mr Nicholls pointed to recent research by British Telecom, which showed that employers looked first for a sense of confidence and the ability to communicate. These are considered essential to the development of vocational skills - and reflect the approach developed by the Youth Service.
The agency said the Youth Service had suffered from a lack of sustained support. Government funds have been cut for the fifth successive year, meaning it has lost pound;250 million since 1995. Moreover, local education authorities' duty to support their schools has further squeezed funds in some areas. In 1996-97, 35 per cent of authorities spent less than 1 per cent of their education budget on the Youth Service.
The service has always had a precarious existence. Partnerships between the state and voluntary groups to promote personal and social education for young people began in 1939, but it has never been clearly defined in law.
Authorities have simply been required to make "adequate provision" and have interpreted this very broadly. Neither Labour nor Conservative governments were willing to commit themselves to a permanent structure.
Governments have repeatedly used reviews to limit the youth service. From the Albermarle Report of 1960 to the Thompson Report of 1982, reviews reflected concern about youth problems, from "Teddy Boys" to unemployment and drugs.
Although expansion followed the Albemarle review, the political and economic crises of the late '60s and '70s led to funding cuts as governments wanted quick and visible results on politically high-profile issues.
Margaret Thatcher, on becoming education secretary in 1970, cut the building programme and abolished the Youth Service Development Council. In 1984, Sir Keith Joseph, then education secretary, shelved modest proposals for a stronger legislative framework put forward in the Thompson Report.
It left Youth Service programmes vulnerable. Many were swept aside in the wake of high-powered but often short-lived central government engines of change such as the Manpower Services Commission.
Successive private members' Bills and amendments to other legislation supported by MPs from all sides of the House attempted to secure the existence of the service, but all failed.
The vulnerability of the service was clearly demonstrated in 1992 when Warwickshire took pound;1.7m out of its pound;2.1m youth budget and passed responsibility for what was left to schools, parish councils and voluntary agencies. The authority was taken to court by Doug Nicholls' union for breach of statutory duties, but the judge decided that these duties were not sufficiently clearly defined in law for a case to be made.
Failure to define such terms and give the service a statutary basis will mean more wasted years, the youth agency warned.
YOUTH SERVICE MILESTONES 1939 circular 1486 recognised the partnership between local authorities and voluntary groups.
1944 Education Act required LEAs to make "adequate provision" for Youth Service.
1950s Growing concerns about the state of the nation's youth.
1960 Albemarle Report recognises importance of the Youth Service.
1961 Joint Negotiating Committee set up.
1966 pound;500 million public spending deflation package.
1976 Sterling crisis. IMF loan led to spending cuts. PM James Callaghan launched "Great Education Debate".
1982 Thompson report recommended security for the service.
1988 Education Act established local management of schools.
1992 CYWU takes Warwickshire to court.
1998 Youth Service audit. Social exclusion unit established.
1999 Learning to Succeed White Paper released.