We're getting old waiting on youth promises;Community and youth;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Scarcely a week passes without an announcement of a new government initiative involving young people. Examples include teenage pregnancies (fewer), educational achievement (more), drug misuse (less), and the continuing drive to extend access in education and training especially for 16-18 year olds.

But as the Government turns national policy into local action, does it have an impact on disadvantaged neighbourhoods? Can we rely on big institutions, such as further education colleges, to reach out and work effectively with the less biddable young? Will the post-16 White Paper this week really give youth and community workers the status they deserve?

Recent research studies and developmental projects run by the National Youth Agency, some as part of our Young Adult Learners Partnership, have demonstrated that imaginative youth work, suitably engineered and resourced, can do all of that and more.

The agency is moving forward rapidly, with the field's enthusiastic support, to identify National Occupational Standards as the basis for selection, training and appraisal of youth workers.

These will help to raise the quality of work. But many youth service ideas are not put into practice because long-term resourcing is not there to sustain them.

This is hardly surprising when youth service spending in local authorities has gone down 25 per cent in the past decade. When average spending per head is only pound;57 a year, it puts the squabbles between school sixth forms and FE colleges into the shade. The result is patch provision.

In the worst local authorities there is one youth worker to every 4,900 young people. Even in the best it is 1:266. So, while a good deal of youth work does need to cut to the chase, to be more differentiated and progressive in how it helps to move young people on, it is hard to adopt more effective practice with such funding ratios.

Many local authorities, under the new regime of "Best Value" are clearer about their own role in strategic leadership and planning. They are finding appropriate provision in the voluntary sector and are involving young people in defining, governing and producing services.

Youth services still need to focus more on the key transition processes in young people's lives - from school to FE, and working life, and from living at home to living independently.

But what of the Government's role? Only rarely in the history of education policy has youth work been taken forward strategically through a positive act of policy. The last such moment, around 1960, is moving out of living memory. So it is little wonder that the long years of national policy drift have resulted in local services for young people which vary from the excellent to the poor.

Latterly, youth services have been taken down a boulevard of broken dates, waiting for government proposals. Youth workers have waited for the next Social Exclusion Unit Report and waited for the post-16 education and training review. They can be forgiven for wondering whether the promised land of better youth services is just fantasy.

So the National Youth Agency, with the Local Government Association, has decided not to wait any longer for the Department for Education and Employment. Last week we have launched Modern Services for Young People - a comprehensive set of proposals for local and national action to rebuild these services. The basis for their modernisation is a national policy framework. This framework needs to clarify expectations of local authorities. It will require them to take defined actions to put in place high quality work and join up their responses to need.

There has to be an enhanced and long-term funding stream for youth work. The target for local authority education budgets is pound;500m a year, or 2 per cent.

The White Paper makes many promises. Will it result in action?

Taken together, local and national action will create the framework to ensure consistent, national policies and their successful adaptation to local contexts. More importantly, it will make a real difference to the lives of the young.

Youth work, at its best, seizes the changing enthusiasms of the young and turns them to advantage and into achievement.

Tom Wylie is the director of the National Youth Agency

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