Youth agency choice is positively creative

Biddy Passmore

Things are looking up for the National Youth Agency, the embattled quango that seems to have been fighting for survival since it was set up four years ago.

In June the Government announced that it was to keep all its functions and most of its money, although it will lose its quango status and become the responsibility of the local authorities. This week came the news that it has landed HM inspector Tom Wylie as its next director, by all accounts the strongest candidate in a strong field.

"Very bright, very sharp, very good on paper and very funny," was one admirer's description. But perhaps, given the agency's past and current position, Mr Wylie's most vital asset is the "political nous" also generally ascribed to him.

Now what would tempt a very senior HMI - currently in charge of the Office for Standards in Education's curriculum and assessment work - to leave his highly paid job for the uncertain world of the youth agency? There is perhaps a hint of implied criticism in his comment that he wants to "build new partnerships so that more young people can have an effective youth service and I want to play a part in an agency creatively designed to meet those purposes". Not very creative, OFSTED.

But above all he is eager to get back to his roots in the youth service. Not many know so much about both the theory and practice of working with young people.

Born 50 years ago in Belfast and educated at Queen's University, Mr Wylie taught in Belfast schools before coming to England in 1970 as assistant director of the Scout Association in charge of adult leader training. He then set up INSTEP, the body responsible for in-service training for youth and community workers. In 1979 he joined the inspectorate where, after spells in the Midlands and on Merseyside, he became head of the youth team and then of the team covering educational disadvantage.

His most notable achievement as an inspector was the publication of the OFSTED report, Access and Achievement in Urban Education. It received widespread publicity for its criticism of the unchallenging nature of the schooling in seven suburban areas - and for its clear contention that such schools could not simply be left to help themselves.

"Most schools in these disadvantaged areas do not have within themselves the capacity for sustainable renewal," Mr Wylie wrote in the commentary at the end of the report. "The rising tide of national educational change is not lifting these boats."

When Mr Wylie takes over at the National Youth Agency next January, his style will be different from that of Janet Paraskeva, the forthright former director who was head-hunted by the National Lottery Charities Board earlier in the summer. Described as "not one to pour oil on troubled waters", Ms Paraskeva said what she felt - which was rather more than a cost-cutting Government wanted to hear from the director of a quango. Her support for the cause of legalising cannabis also caused problems with the Establishment, although generally accepted as common sense within the youth service.

Mr Wylie, who was once Ms Paraskeva's boss when she was a member of the HMI youth team, also holds strong views. But insiders say he will be more tactful in expressing them and be keener to take people with him.

And the agency will now be at a further remove from the Government. Funded on the same basis as the National Foundation for Educational Research, by "top-slicing" a sum off the central Government grant to local authorities, it will now be answerable to them. The local authorities are almost happy with the outcome, as long as the sum allocated by the centre continues to be adequate. Mr Wylie, ever positive, sees the change in status as "a little counter-trend against centralisation, which gives youth work higher emphasis". We shall see.

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