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
WALES is taking a different route to England by building on its existing youth service.
The key word in Wales is now "entitlement", said Brian Williams, head of the Wales Youth Agency. "It's the word England has always shied away from in its youth service," he says. "The legislation is weak - it uses the word adequate."
The National Assembly has voted unanimously for a new statutory entitlement to youth support services and the creation of 300 new youth workers.
And as youth services in England prepare for the Government's new Connexions strategy, they regard what is happening in Wales with a certain longing.
Wales is set to join Scotland and Northern Ireland in having a statutory duty to provide services for young people. Wales has taken this route through a combination of factors, including devolution and some good luck.
When the Connexions idea was first launched, devolved Wales was able to step back and take a long hard look at it. Senior youth work figures also had an ally in Alun Michael, then Wales's First Secretary - himself a former youth worker.
Michael took a direct interest in the emerging Connexions strategy, and set up a think tank to develop a system of youth support for Wales. Young people's groups across Wales were consulted and the ensuing report was called Extending Entitlement. Underlying this report was the key principle that all young people in Wales should be entitled to quality, accessible support services.
This means improving the quality of existing services and making them more responsive to young people, and filling gaps in existing youth services to make them available to all, said the report.
"Support means not only counselling and guidance, but also opportunities for personal development through challenging activities, sport, the arts, volunteering and getting involved in local decisions," it said.
Understandably, when Extending Entitlement received the backing of the National Assembly - the first unanimous vote of the Assembly's existence - Wales's youth service was elated. As in England, the servic has long regarded itself as undervalued and under-funded.
"We're absolutely delighted," said Brian Williams, of the Wales Youth Agency. "We felt that in Wales we needed a more holistic approach, so that we could connect those who were most disengaged with opportunities for them in the future.
"It's the old theory where you don't just save somebody by giving them food, heat, light and water and a roof over their head. That still isn't living - it's just existence.
"We need to move them along so that they become engaged with society, so that they have opportunities, they can accept challenges and experience, and they then succeed.
"But we felt that really Connexions was going to be the roof over people's heads and little else. It would save them, but not connect them with other things."
He said one area of concern is that there has so far been no connection between the Extending Entitlement initiative and the development of the Council for Education and Training in Wales - the new post-16 education body.
"We're anxious that there must be a connection between the two because the youth service provides learning opportunities for young people. They must have a role in planning the post-16 learning agenda."
The Wales Youth Agency is also in partnership with the Open College Network in South Wales to form an alternative curriculum for disaffected youngsters.
The partnership is developing a "cyber college" online to reach youngsters in rural areas.
Anne Bowen, of Open College Network South Wales, said OCN accreditation is now accepted by youth workers in Wales as being a valuable way of helping young people back into education.
And it means an increasing role for further education colleges in helping disaffected youngsters.
"All communities are not very far from their FE college, and the idea is that it will open progression routes because OCN accreditation is used by the FE colleges as well," said Anne Bowen. "So the young person goes along to the college and says: 'Look, I've got two credits from making a youth club video, and I've decided I want to do the media course you've got on a Friday.' "This is the way we hope it will work with FE colleges. They are good at recognising this stuff because they understand the system."