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We don't have a monopoly on the young

I WAS invited recently to contribute to a conference on youth disaffection, with particular reference to alienation from "mainstream" politics. As an ageing delinquent myself, I was happy to accept. The conference brought together psychologists, sociologists, educationists, political scientists and youth workers - all with an interest in the causes of youth disaffection. The event provided a useful opportunity to promote inter-agency communication.

There is increasing recognition of the need to draw on, and co-ordinate, different kinds of expertise in attempts to promote the welfare and development of youngsters. This kind of thinking informs policies such as new community schools, support for children looked after in care settings of various kinds and provision for pupils who have been excluded from school.

Inter-agency work, however, is not easy. Teachers (and others) develop a strong sense of professional identity, which is encouraged in their initial training and reinforced through experience. Inter-agency work calls for a degree of openness, self-criticism and adaptability that may challenge many cherished beliefs and values.

The approaches at the conference were markedly different. For psychologists, the focus was on personal identity formation during adolescence, peer group influence and family dynamics. Sociologists were interested in issues of race, gender, sexuality and disability. Educationists drew attention to work which used the idea of children's rights to encourage thinking about participation: the growth of school and college councils was also mentioned.

Political scientists talked about the significance of "single-issue" campaigns (on the environment, animal rights, Third World debt, the decriminalisation of cannabis) and suggested that, while many young people were disenchanted, they were developing new forms of political engagement. Some of the most interesting insights came from youth workers operating in informal settings, often with young people involved in drugs, crime and the illegal economy.

From their perspective, schools were part of the problem, and they argued that, for their clients, disaffection was a learnt process which the structures of schooling helped to promote, despite the best efforts of individual teachers. They doubted whether education for citizenship, a major plank of government policy, would have much effect. They saw an inherent contradiction between the controlling, regulatory role of schooling and its attempts to promote autonomy, critical thinking and civic activism.

They argued for an approach that uses the cultural interests of young people (music, sport, fashion, technology), and the immediate concerns of their neighbourhood, as a way into political questions. They also emphasised the role of dissent and protest as legitimate forms of political expression.

There was no simple resolution of these different approaches but the participants were reminded of the value of perspectives other than their own. We all carry around with us a great deal of baggage which needs to be unpacked from time to time. The major implication for me was in relation to the kind of training appropriate to a range of professions - teachers, social workers, youth workers, the police, psychologists.

Teacher education remains remarkably inward-looking, concentrating too narrowly on topics such as curriculum, assessment and classroom management. If we really want to promote inter-professional understanding, we should be giving more time to courses that bring together people who will go on to work in quite different settings.

Such a programme would not be easy but it would serve to challenge the defensiveness which all professions exhibit. It would also provide new arenas in which to express my late-onset delinquency.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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