Young, bored and in trouble

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Is youth work being taken seriously? A campaign launched today aims to bolster its value. David Henderson reports.

Boredom remains the number one concern of young people in West Lothian, a survey carried out by the council has discovered. Other concerns centre on jobs and unemployment, drugs and alcohol.

Idleness that leads to mischief is the overriding fear of the adult community, a point underlined by statistics which show young males as the worst offenders. Two years ago the Prince's Trust commissioned a management survey by Coopers Lybrand to investigate the costs to society. It was estimated that every youth crime costs Pounds 2,300.

The trust's conclusions are simple: youth work diverts young people from crime, is cost effective, even if its value is not widely recognised, and channels energies into positive action.

"Thatcher's children" may be different in many ways to their predecessors but some things never change. The point is emphasised in a report published today (Friday) by the Scottish Youth Work Partnership, an umbrella group of local authority, voluntary and professional agencies.

A key recommendation is for a range of neighbourhood provisions to counter the "nothing to do" syndrome.

Pat McMenamin, youth officer at the Scottish Community Education Council and chairman of the partnership, says: "Somewhere to meet their peers is still a big issue. There will be dozens of young people in the nearest McDonald's because it is warm, comfortable, attractive, appealing, has music playing and offers the chance to meet other young people.

"We still have a whole range of youth and community facilities that do not attract young people because they are cold and unattractive and are not places to share aspirations, dreams and what to do with their own lives. There are not enough places to meet outwith the commercial sector."

It matters to young people to be in control of where they meet, Mr McMenamin maintains. Edinburgh City Youth Cafe is one model he would like emulated, because it is run by young people and has its programme determined by them.

Taking Youth Work Seriously, the partnership's report, warns that youth work, which tends to fall under community education services in most councils, is seen as an easy target for cuts.

Estimates by the community education council suggest councils spend around Pounds 50 million on local authority youth work, a figure that may be doubled by voluntary organisations. Around 1.5 per cent of education budgets supports youth work but the numbers are large. Some 500,000 young people are involved, with 90,000 volunteer workers and 2,800 paid staff.

The report observes: "Expenditure on youth work is particularly vulnerable at a time of constraints upon cuts in local government funding. Legislation needs to be amended to ensure that minimum levels of provision are laid down.

"Without a firm funding basis and longer term core funding, youth work providers have to spend too high a percentage of time fund-raising rather than providing the service itself. In Scotland, national voluntary youth organisations have not received an increase in funding for the past five years."

The report, backed by the Association of Directors of Education, is timed to coincide with council budget decisions and in advance of the general election. It calls on local authorities to be given explicit powers to provide "sufficient" youth services. The wish list also includes increased core funding for voluntary organisations like the scouts and guides.

So far, no local authority has scrapped its youth or community education services, although such options will be considered by hard-pressed city councils in the coming financial year. At present, core staff remain in place. Fortunately, no council has yet gone down the same road as Warwickshire County Council south of the border and cut staff to the bone by contracting out youth services to voluntary groups.

But Charlie McConnell, the community education council's chief executive, warns that funding for voluntary organisations has been badly hit this year, along with payments for sessional youth workers. Up to 700 jobs are said to have gone in the voluntary sector.

Alan Blackie, director of education in East Lothian, chairs the council's youth work panel. "There is no doubt," Mr Blackie admits, "that this area of work is vulnerable but we have addressed arguments about value for money. However, when push comes to shove the obligatory bits of the Education Act are the ones that hold sway. You have got to run schools that are as effective as they can be."

The battle for non-statutory services, he argues, has been firmly secured at national level by the early years agenda. What money there is goes to pre-fives and not the youth sector and even that is at risk.

Mr Blackie also warns that while more young people are opting for further and higher education or are being placed on Skillseekers programmes, others are at the margins. "If 40 per cent are in higher education, it means 60 per cent are not." That is the group that is more disfranchised, more the focus of police activity and public criticism.

Mr McConnell echoes this concern: "A lot of youth work is about engaging with kids who are not engaging with other parts of the education system. The way they meet the statutory services is often through social workers or the police. There is a huge inheritance of an alienated generation."

One of the problems for youth work is its disparate nature. "A thousand flowers blooming" is Mr McConnell's description. It is about youth clubs, youth groups, conservation and environmental projects, cafes and information points. Lack of a focus is therefore a problem.

Despite the deep concerns, optimism is always a mark of youth and youth initiatives. Mr Blackie maintains there are various projects on the go to involve young people and a myriad of local groups continue to work away. What they lack is a sure-footed political base. But that seems as far off as ever.

What's good and what's bad

In West Lothian, improved facilities for leisure and recreation were mentioned by 51 per cent of respondents, job opportunities by 23 per cent, education by 14 per cent, transport by 5 per cent.

* The best thing about living in West Lothian was proximity to Edinburgh, Glasgow and the central belt.

* Smaller towns outside Linlithgow, Livingston and Bathgate were more likely to identify lack of facilities and activities as a problem.

* Young people under 18 complained they could not use pubs and clubs and were too old for community centres. Friday and Saturday evenings were a particular problem. Others complained about the cost of venues and difficulty in travelling.

* Gangs and violence were often linked to the use of drink and drugs. Suggested solutions included stricter discipline in schools and more policing.

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