What will we do with the young?

The Government is understood to believe that youth workers have an important role, and an audit of their work is on the cards. Yet according to one report, youth workers are seen as doing little more than "holding hands and offering sympathy". After a situation where the last government dispossessed, disenfranchised and demoralised the young and those who worked to support them, it is good that we are in a position to take stock.

But there appears to be still an agenda of old right-wing schemes which penalise feckless, drug-crazed, sex-mad youth for not making a meaningful contribution to society.

Those of us involved in youth work cannot be absolved from blame. For too long we have been prepared to accept whatever governments threw at us, accepting policies to control young people and not empower them. We accepted short-term funding for projects only to find them closed down when the political climate changed. We accepted with open arms money from wherever it came - urban aid, the National Lottery and now Scotland against Drugs.

So, yes, we do need an audit of youth work, and I challenge politicians and youth workers to think the unthinkable. Work for change in tune with young people, and not against them, to provide a more creative agenda for youth work.

I took retirement recently after 36 years in youth work and, as a freelance, I am trying a new approach. Here are some ideas for debate.

* Listen to young people. Harness their massive energy, commitment, loyalty, intelligence and creativity to create a national network of youth projects which offer young people real power and control of their own organisations.

* Target the right groups. An age range of 12 to 25 is too diverse. We need to separate youth work from work with children. It is not right to deny children their childhood by offering them an inappropriate youth programme. Youth work needs to be more innovative and less about social control.

A recent conference to recruit 14 to 25-year-olds for a youth council illustrates the point. The participants had to get their parents to sign a permission slip to attend. In Scotland, people go to university as young as 16. They can join the students' union with its bars, committees and hundreds of activities all controlled by young people. Most youth club members cannot even decide on their own programmes, let alone how the club is managed.

* Question who is best suited to deliver high-quality youth work. Was it a mistake to make it the almost exclusive domain of education departments, with more difficult areas often tackled by either social work or the voluntary sector? In my experience the rules that govern how educationists meet their statutory duties to children are often too cumbersome for the needs of those beyond school age.

* Invest in young people. Margaret Thatcher attacked teachers, so they withdrew their support for a massive voluntary network of sport and after-school activities. It has taken 10 years for funds and goodwill to be available again. Providing healthy alternative challenges through sport, music and the other arts and travel would be a much better public investment than in combating alcohol and drugs misuse.

* Call in the professionals. There has been professional training for youth and community workers since 1961. Yet there is a lack of definition of what a professional youth worker does. This gives credence to the notion of amateurs just standing around holding young people's hands and sympathising. I believe that youth workers are highly skilled and there are hundreds of examples of good practice around the country, but workers in the field are not professional in publicising their efforts.

* Information and counselling services empower young people. They act as a network, collect examples of good practice and support both young people and those who work with them.

A region the size of Strathclyde was big enough to fund youth activities, but the smaller units created in 1995 cannot afford to. Thousands of young people put trust in a service which worked with them to deal with abuse, exploitation, bullying, homelessness, racism, sexism and the range of health and moral problems that face young people. We need serious money put back into a network that operates nationally.

Max Cruickshank is a youth consultant and trainer.

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