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Youth service is still a postcode lottery

Cities offer more provision to young people than rural areas, says inspection agency. Andrew Mourant reports

Access to youth services in Wales remains a postcode lottery, with young people in rural areas missing out on provision available in towns and cities.

The patchy provision has been revealed by inspection agency Estyn, which has examined how young people's partnerships (YPPs) operate. These were set up in each local authority area in 2002 to co-ordinate youth support services and manage funding.

Based on findings from Rhondda Cynon Taf, Torfaen and Carmarthenshire, Estyn says some collaborations do run smoothly. When staff from health, social care and youth work co-operate, young people get the right specialist support.

Things work well, at least in densely-populated areas, for the young homeless, those within the youth justice system, and those needing counselling and mental health services. But isolated valley communities and rural areas are often excluded from provision.

Estyn also identified gaps in support services for young people with disabilities, for Welsh speakers (it is hard to find and keep bilingual staff), and minority groups.

Specific support for people needing financial guidance and legal advice is "almost non-existent". Support to young people leaving care is generally good but meagre for other groups in need.

Despite a shrinking stock of public housing and dearer private accommodation, helping those in crisis to get a roof over their head or to learn independent living skills rarely features on the YPP agenda. Where successful youth work boosts demand for provision, it can be hard to find specialist qualified workers. There are shortages, for instance, in drop-in counselling and mental health.

Meanwhile, finding sufficient cash to pay for services "is still a problem for managers". Extreme variations of funding persist, with core spending for each 13 to 19-year-old being six times higher in Powys than in Ceredigion.

And the poor quality of many youth service buildings "gives young people the wrong message about their worth to the local community".

A recurring theme of Estyn's findings is poor communication within partnerships. Too often leaders, managers and operational staff remain unsure about the YPP's precise role, and informal information-sharing networks reduce the impact of their work.Some partners rarely attend meetings. Important youth support services, including schools and colleges, are unrepresented and ill-informed. Some partnerships do not know what qualifications young people have.

Links with the voluntary sector are variable - many partners feel inadequately consulted or included in decision-making. That goes for young people too: despite good intentions, they rarely influence decisions or exercise governance over services.

Estyn wants YPPs to help all staff to learn from each other, urging a breakdown of cultural and organisational barriers. In some areas principal youth officers are not YPP members, a situation described as "barmy" by Wales Youth Agency acting chief executive John Rose.

"There's a range of problems with partnerships, such as who are they, what are they and what can they bring to the table?" he said. "I don't think enough time was given to explaining the issues and their parameters - for people to say this is what my organisation does or doesn't do."

John Killick, Torfaen's head of social inclusion and YPP co-ordinator, says his partnership has taken Estyn's criticisms philosophically despite receiving grade 4s (indicating shortcomings in some important areas) for quality assurance and resources.

"The partners were already working towards quality assurance rather than it being imposed on them. As for resources and buildings, we know a lot are poor but we think we've been making the best use of them." Torfaen is now working on an action plan. "We hope we can help other YPPs to learn from what we've been through," said Mr Killick.

An Assembly government spokesperson said: "Extending Entitlement was developed in recognition of the fact that youth support services in Wales were patchy, and we believe much progress has been made."

Factfile: who gets what

* The Welsh Assembly Government's Extending Entitlement was a UK first in moving to statutory provision of youth services.

* It promised that young people would be listened to.

* It required all 22 local education authorities to develop a partnership of agencies which provided services for children and young people from birth up to 25.

* Local councils received money to build up partnerships and audit existing provision.

* Priorities have been training more youth workers, increasing support to the voluntary sector, and developing an information data bank.

* Young People's Partnerships co-ordinate, plan and develop youth support services for the 11-25s.

* Representatives come from health groups, voluntary organisations, schools and colleges, statutory youth services, careers advice bodies, youth offending teams and others.

* Each young person's partnership has a management team which oversees the delivery of services, many of which are paid for by the Children and Youth Support Fund (Cymorth).

* Funding for 2005-6 has been set at pound;51 million.

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