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Union rebels at youth plan

Concerns about 'compulsory' tone of government proposals.

Andrew Mourant and Nicola Porter report

Plans to make youth workers liaise more closely with schools will undermine the voluntary nature of their work with young people, policy-makers have been warned.

Youth workers are unhappy about being expected to reinforce compulsory school attendance, and to "monitor truancy, illicit sexual behaviour, drug misuse and criminal activity" according to the Community and Youth Workers'

Union (CYWU).

In a manifesto for change, it says: "If youth workers are expected to be ancillary to teachers and trainers then this ceases to be youth work. It must remain open to exploring sub-cultures that challenge conventional lifestyles."

The union's manifesto also calls for better funding of "impoverished" services in Wales and for all youth workers to receive proper training and support. The report was published following a rally by youth workers in Cardiff last weekend against plans to merge the Wales Youth Agency with the Assembly government's training and education department.

The government is currently consulting on how the new departmental team will work, and how it will deliver Extending Entitlement, the Assembly's policy for 11 to 25-year-olds.

In her foreword to the consultation document, education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson insists youth work should take centre stage.

"Youth workers' approach is an important element in helping our young people to gain new experiences and opportunities which can lead to enhanced learning, and where appropriate to recognised achievement," says the former youth worker.

At last week's meeting of the Assembly's education committee, Ms Davidson said more links must be made between youth workers and teachers for a joined-up approach to 14-19 education.

An extra pound;3.5 million has been earmarked for youth initiatives by the Assembly government this year (2005-6), with plans to increase the current pound;8.5m budget to pound;39m by 2007-8. By then, most of the expenditure (pound;32.5m) will be on supporting reforms of the 14-19 curriculum.

The reforms envisage a wider range of vocational and work-based courses for young people, with learning coaches to help them with choosing courses and study skills, and other staff to help with domestic or personal crises that hinder their education.

But according to the CYWU, youth workers are dismayed by what they see as interference by civil servants. They also oppose the emphasis on young people learning skills for employment, and social-inclusion policies based on getting young people to conform. The CYWU wants more flexible criteria for appreciating the role of informal learning.

"Youth work is too frequently valued only if based on targets and accreditation systems, and youth workers are seen as serving schools as learning coaches," says its manifesto. Such perceptions undermine its role."

The manifesto calls for local autonomy and for more and better-paid and trained youth workers. Almost half of the full-timers in Wales are unqualified, compared with 10 per cent in England.

The CYWU claims funding for services in Wales is the lowest in the UK, and more staff should be recruited to bring ratios up to one worker per 400 young people aged 13-19. Rates in Wales currently range from one to 433 in Monmouthshire to one to 3,182 in Ceredigion.

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