Optimism creeps back;Community and youth;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Justina Hart opens a four-page special report with a look at new partnerships between colleges and community groups

COMMUNITY and youth workers in England are "cautiously pessimistic" about receiving long-awaited funding and statutory status under plans for post-16 reorganisation unveiled in this week's White Paper.

The Government is exhorting colleges to work in partnership with voluntary, community and youth groups. but leaders in these fields still believe that the very existence of their services could be in jeopardy. They have long argued that the Government is on the brink of losing the "glue" in its lifelong learning and social inclusion strategies. They remain pessimistic, but optimism is creeping back following the White paper.

Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, agrees with ministers that better partnerships between colleges and youth-work services are desperately needed. NYA's commitment has been demonstrated through initiatives such as its booklet, Youth Work in Colleges (produced by the Further Education Development Agency), focusing on how the sectors can work more closely together. Wylie is adamant, however, that developing new partnerships will not be as straightforward as the Government is suggesting.

"I think FE can play a powerful role in boosting young people's capacity. But it's not realistic to throw money at colleges and tell them to go out and get the great unwashed. A lot of young people have to be helped through a gateway into that process."

Wylie believes that the government needs to support community-based services which establish "genuinely street-based programmes", and thereby encourage young people into formal learning. He believes the Government's message to colleges is double-edged. "They're told to be more accessible, but even if colleges had a brilliant record on outreach programmes, they couldn't pull youngsters out of isolation without the in-place support of the youth services."

He is equally worried that major government proposals will be not be fine-tuned enough in terms of funding. Many housing estates, for example, are too far-flung and problematic for colleges to reach, he added.

Youth workers share his views that they are co-operating and producing good work, but this is happening on an increasingly ad hoc basis because of financial cuts. Staff feel they have unjustly been left out of the funding picture, and it seems doubly unfair to expect them suddenly to work with their "richer" cousins in FE. If you discount the fact that youth and community workers' national pay structure obliges them to foster creative partnerships, on current evidence, the only incentive for the sectors to work together is a shared commitment to lifelong learning.

Doug Nicholls, general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union, agrees with Tom Wylie. In May, he said he was still optimistic that the youth service in England would soon be better resourced and valued, but he now feels it is ironic that a bright spotlight is being shone on the service.

"This is a really bizarre moment. Every agency wants to get community workers on board because they've begun to recognise the importance of our skills in the lifelong learning and social inclusion framework. But in terms of decent, strategic funding, we've been studiously ignored. Unless the Government gives us a statutory base and doubles our resourcing, we'll be the first part of education to disappear."

Nicholls says that government neglect means that even long-established partnerships set up by the youth service are starting to fall apart. While he would welcome overtures from FE colleges - currently one of the least established areas of partnership - links are unlikely to amount to much because of the present crisis.

"Any partnerships are welcome because the needs are so great; it's just that it's practically impossible. There are now more government initiatives and more potential partners than there are community and youth workers in many areas of the country."

Community and youth work, which have a similar ethos of engaging local people, are not even closely aligned any more, said Kevin Sweeney, who represents the CYWU on the Community Work Standards Board, set up to validate the learning that community groups do. Encouraging the services to work together would be a useful starting point, he said.

"Local authorities and agencies tend to be more into youth, so the community side gets left out. We're about giving groups confidence. For instance, we work with working-class mums who are brilliant at chairing groups, but everyone else still sees them just as women from housing estates."

The community sector does more work with colleges than the youth sector but, again, provision is patchy. The Open College Network is used to link people in at a local level, and the sector has good relationships with several colleges that run courses in the community.

"We're about learning by doing, about key skills and soft skills, which is what employers want. But there's no real recognition of this work, especially in the most disadvantaged areas," said Sweeney.

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