Chief can't help getting personal about advisers

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
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

IF he hadn't gone into youth work, Tom Wylie, head of the National Youth Agency, says he might have been a journalist or a lawyer. And he's not sure whether his critical nature is down to his upbringing amid Ulster's sectarianism or his academic training as a historian at university.

"My tutor once told me I now had a historian's mind and was going to have a difficult life," he said. "That 's because I ask: 'What's the problem with what I've been told here? What's missing from this case? What are the flaws in this proposition?'" Tom Wylie sees serious flaws in the Government's proposal for the youth and careers services - its Connexions strategy which will create personal advisers for young people.

"Arguably the personal adviser is the only new idea in the whole operation," he said. "Calling for services to work more closely together is not new. It's the Holy Grail of social policy - how do you produce better co-ordination of effort at a local level?

"Suggesting that you need a new profession is new, but I don't think you do. You've already got thousands of people out there doing this kind of thing. They ought to be helped to do it better."

He points to what is happening to the youth service in Wales. Rather than going down the Connexions route, the National Assembly has voted-in plans to boost the existing youth service. "We would have preferred something like that," he said.

After years of youth work being starved of funding, Wylie had high hopes of this Government. But now he sees Connexions simply as a re-badging of careers work.

"In essence, it was designed at least in the early stages by colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment who knew a good deal about careers work and literally nothing about youth work.

"So, it isn't surprising that when you come to the detail, it's skewed that way. And then at the local level, you have what are in large measure capitalist companies - careers companies. And capitalist companies behave like capitalist companies.

"If there's a market problem, they try to deal with it; if there's a risk of take-over, they try to fend t off; if there's scope for more cash, they try to grab it.

"I'm not surprised that capitalists behave like capitalists. I just wish Labour governments behaved like Labour governments."

Wylie's own upbringing in Belfast helps explain this disenchantment. "My father and mother were Quakers, so I stood just that bit outside the tribes. I came out of all that experience politically, socially and personally really despising sectarianism from any quarter.

"Hence I joined the Labour party, because I wanted to help two or three then Stormont Labour MPs."

After studying history at Queen's University, Belfast, he became a teacher and then moved to England in 1970 as assistant director of the Scout Association in charge of adult leader training.

From the late 1970s Wylie spent 17 years as an HM inspector, eventually becoming head of the inspectorate's youth team and head of the team covering educational disadvantage. He presided over the influential OFSTED report Access and Achievement in Urban Education, which criticised the unchallenging nature of schooling in certain areas.

Wylie looks upon this time as being of great influence in his current role as chief executive of the National Youth Agency.

"I took on a whole clutch of inspectorate issues which were about urban schooling, truancy, provision for ethnic minorities," he said.

"We took the entire system from nursery provision through to adult education. What's it like to grow up here? What kind of educational experience are you likely to get?

"All of that has helped to crystallise a view which I had from my involvement with the Labour party in Belfast."

Politically, he describes himself as a democratic socialist. "I'm into the Hattersley-type analysis of equality and social justice. And the reason I'm in youth work is because I believe that for some young people it is a way of helping towards a more socially just society."

Now aged 55, Tom Wylie's critical historian's mind is still working overtime. And he has a reputation for speaking that mind, especially when he's defending the corner for effective youth work.

He describes himself as a "critical friend" of Government. "There is a Quaker phrase which is 'speak truth to power'.

"I try to do that, but it's not always necessarily the wisest thing to do."

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