THE establishment by the Government of a children's and young people's unit in the Department for Education and Employment with a pound;450 million budget and a dedicated minister, is the best education news for a long time.
It is a serious attempt to co-ordinate a national youth policy as advocated by teachers for years. It brings us into line with the rest of the world in ministerial responsibilities for young people's issues.
But this new unit will focus on five to 13-year-olds. As it is being formed, the long-established youth service unit in the DFEE, which has supported education-related provision outside schools for 13 to 21-year-olds, looks set to be moved to the Connexions unit in Sheffield, which has an employment-targeted post-16 focus. This represents a peculiarly English disease in youth policy.
One benefit of devolution has been that in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, youth and community work have been recognised as key to the lifelong learning and social exclusion agendas.
There is a genuine appreciation that, to extend entitlement, the years of decline for non-school and college-based education must be reversed. Developments outside England recognise the need to enhance complementary professions working with young people.
Most important, there is a recognition that policy must be based on the notion of extending entitlements to young people who will be re-engaged only if the professionals they contact guide, rather than police, their participation.
The thrust of policy in England, though taking place inside a potentially more coherent structure in the long term, is to melt down links between local authorities and the voluntary sector known as the Youth Service. In the process, the essential on-compulsory engagement of young people in socially inclusive learning, and the flexible, personable youth work method, are being lost.
Connexions will raid youth-service coffers and transfer youth workers into inter-disciplinary teams. Elements of Connexions pilots contradict successful youth work methods and will not impress young people.
With assemblies and parliaments separately joining up policies, postcode inequality is exacerbated. Audits reveal huge youth service disparities from one council to another. This is why the recent policy statement from the UK Youth Work Alliance, From Rhetoric to Reality, is so important.
It calls for a straightforward infrastructure and a national set of entitlements. It also shows why the Government should review the 360 responses to its initial consultations on Connexions.
I estimate 340 called for a statutory, publicly-funded Youth Service as the cornerstone of local delivery to young people. More attention should also be given to stemming youth workers' fear of the personal adviser system. While youth work contemplates a minimum three-year qualification programme, job adverts for the multi-disciplinary personal advisers need no qualification, or mere top-up courses.
Perhaps the biggest boost will come from young people themselves. I sense new interest in participation and democracy. We have a UK Youth Parliament, a Europe-wide youth policy, hundreds of new local youth councils, more support for lowering the age of majority to 16, more trade union concern for young people, and a week of "democracy" activities led by the Youth Service. I hope that during this Youth Work Week the Government will listen. That would be truly democratic.
Doug Nicholls is general secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union