In many counties, particularly the rural shires, youth work has been the poor relation - first to be cut and last to be valued. But not in West Sussex, where Ofsted's usually phlegmatic inspectors delved into their dictionaries for superlatives and awarded the service the highest grades ever. Quality of service was good or better in 76 per cent of sessions observed, while fewer than 3 per cent were judged to be less than satisfactory.
It was all very gratifying but came as no surprise to the head of the service, Tim Caley. He attributes the success to a combination of excellent management and unstinting support from elected members.
"The service has been kept together because members have always supported it and the voluntary sector has been strong," he says. "I guess there's a certain old-fashioned, Victorian, philanthropic approach to this kind of provision. It's not about the community safety agenda or keeping kids off the streets. It's about looking after your own people. There's a tradition among rural town and parish councils of providing things for their youngsters - which is still alive."
There are four information shops for young people, he explains, - "but they wouldn't know that the people they are talking to are youth workers."
One of the strengths of the service is its mosaic-like quality. West Sussex has detached youth workers, youth centres, a youth bus, school-based and outreach work. "I think it's important that we have a variety of delivery points," says Mr Caley.
In nearby Billingshurst, alarge purple bus pulls up outside some industrial units. Three teenagers are waiting to hop aboard, but there are no tickets, no bad-tempered bus driver. They settle down inside to socialise. This is the West Sussex youth bus.
"There's nothing to do in Billingshurst," says 13-year-old Kim Fielder. "There is a youth wing at the school, but it's for a different age group and it costs a lot."
The bus is here partly because a local skate park has been the focus of complaints by local residents. "Drunks go down there and cause fights," says Kim. "It's not us."
Youth workers will assess the problem and approach the local council, which is under pressure to scrap the skateboard facility.
On the bus, there are magazines, coffee and tea making facilities, even a sound system. This is an important focal point, a place to meet. "It's pretty cool, actually," says Kim.