Rebels and rockers

15th September 1995 at 01:00
Youth and Social Policy: Youth Citizenship and Young Careers. By Bob Coles. UCL Press #163;12.95. - 1 85728 304 X.

Caring for Kids: A Critical Study of Urban School Leavers. By Richard J Altenbaugh, David E Engel and Don T Martin Falmer Press #163;13.95. - 0 7507 01927.

Adolescence: Guiding Youth Through the Perilous Ordeal. By Miller Newton W W Norton $27. -0 393 70194 8.

Youth: Positions and Oppositions. By Shane J Blackman. Avebury #163;35. -1 85628 637 1 .

Although there is a thriving academic industry in studying young people and their problems, most concentrate on one aspect, such as child protection, crime or work. Bob Coles has done something more difficult and more useful: he has considered a wide range of issues, he has developed a theoretical framework in which to consider them, and he has drawn out their implications for social policy.

To start with, there are problems in deciding what we mean by youth and young people. Childhood is nowadays accepted as a state of dependency, although this was not always so in the past. Adults have legal rights and responsibilities. But youth involves not one but a whole series of transitions, of which the most significant are from school to work, and from residence with parents to independent living. Each of these may be quick or slow, simple or complicated, and relatively successful or unsuccessful. Some young people go on to higher education and find choices opening up. Others are less fortunate.

Coles develops the concept of a youth "career" through these various transitions. "Career" in this sense does not necessarily refer to a good outcome - it could lead to destitution or prison, and indeed Coles is particularly interested in how things can go wrong. Given the large number of young people whose future looks anything but bright this is a very relevant approach, and forces us to reconsider current policies and their impact on young people.

The expansion of post-16 education has been one of the success stories of recent years. The single most important factor influencing staying on is, not surprisingly, the success rate in qualifying exams. Those who do not succeed and who leave school find that unskilled jobs have disappeared.Youth training schemes do not necessarily lead to jobs but to the "black magic roundabout" of uncertain part-time or casual work, unemployment and more training schemes. The safety net of Income Support has been removed for 16 and 17 year olds, and those without supporting families can end up on the street.

Changes in family life have also increased the vulnerability of young people. There is evidence to show that those whose parents have separated are more likely to leave home, start partnerships and have children earlier than those brought up in intact families. Such young people - and their children - inevitably have poorer prospects. Bereavement has almost no effect on later performance and behaviour compared to divorce or separation, which means that separation causes the greater psychological trauma and its effects last longer.

Coles also considers other vulnerable groups. Young people in public care have often missed out on education and they need some form of compensatory education which may be hard to provide. They are often obliged to live independently sooner and with less help than those with family support, they do not know their rights and they need protection from abuse. Young people with disabilities and special needs often find themselves economically inactive and dependent in segregated provision when they could work if some support was provided. And while criminal behaviour is a minor and transient phenomenon for most young people involved in it, serious and persistent offenders are generally best assisted out of offending behaviour by community-based schemes. Custody, in whatever form, is both extremely expensive and ineffective in preventing reoffending. The best long term solution is nursery education, which reduces the need for special provision of any kind later at a rate that can be demonstrated statistically.

Coles summarizes his position and his prescription for social policy in the form of a Charter of Rights. It is unfortunate that he does not consider funding methods and implications, without which any document of this kind risks becoming no more than a wish list, but his analysis of the issues is much to be welcomed.

Although the detailed policy context is different, the problems of the USA are very similar, as Caring for Kids shows. This deals with school dropouts in Pittsburgh and make the case, familiar to us, for a curriculum relevant to less able children. The debate now going on in the UK as to providing vocational courses and work experience from age 14 has echoes here, with some young people disaffected by school yet perfectly willing to work and indeed quite able to do so. Others head for a long term career of welfare dependency, which is demoralizing for them, wasteful to society,and expensive for the taxpayer. Apart from a more appropriate curriculum, solutions include a more welcoming school climate, counselling, mentoring, and provision of child care for teenage mothers so that they can return to education. All these cost money, but arguably less than the costs, social as well as financial, of abandoning such young people.

Schools have increasingly found that providing counselling sessions for troubled pupils is both popular and effective. Miller Newton's book on adolescence is in effect a textbook for counsellors. Again it is American, but it does not require much adapting to use here. I was particularly taken with Dr Newton's calm way with sexual disorders, though he is as convincing with less dramatic topics, such as eating disorders and depression. He writes clearly and well, without jargon, and aiming for a practical approach.

Finally, Shane Blackman has done a brilliant piece of work about the sociology of a comprehensive school. Blackman won his way into the pupils' confidence and he has developed the most enchanting terminology to describe what he found. There was a basic division into youth cultural groups and pupil groups. The first of these subdivides into "punk boys, rock-a-billy rebels (girls and boys), rockers (including headbangers and heavy metal girls and boys), soul girls and rude boys." There are delightful stories about all of these, and only the occasional descent into sociological argufying to keep up the academic cred.

Stephen Barber is controller of commissioning for Barnet Community Services.

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