22 JULY 1972, Page 33


Trouble with youth

Jef Smith

Suddenly the girl downstairs is adolescent. It was surely only a few weeks ago that she was sitting on the stairs playing with dolls; this summer she is wearing bright red lipstick and cork-wedge shoes. Knees which until recently stuck chubbily from girlish dresses now protrude provocatively below short skirts, and the puppy fat of a twelve year old seems to have regrouped itself overnight into, hey presto, breasts. Ironically it was my wife who first noted these developments but the transformation turned my mind this week to provision for youth. I have been following-up my practical observation with a diligent study of recent writing on the subject. The student of social policy needs to be above all a good reader, and few topics crop up as frequently as youth among those being studied by committees and other thoughtful persons. Youth hangs around every street corner of the literature. It refuses to be dealt with once and for all. Most irritatingly it seems to suffer major changes with each new group that looks at it. Recent reports, it is true, shed some light, notably a typically meretricious study from the Office of Population Studies and Surveys, which though weak on actual proposals has documented most facets of the subject minutely. In another part of the forest, Lord Longford, taking time off from porn, has chaired a committee for the Inner London Education Authority — ILEA of course runs the largest youth service in the country — and almost simultaneously the Stevenson working party presented its report on youth and volunteers in the environment to Peter Walker.

The irony of this thinking is that it occurs against the background of what should from its title have been an authoritative statement, Youth and Community Work in the Seventies, the proposals in 1969 of the Youth Service Development Council. This document, usually called Milson-Fairbairn after the chairmen of the two committees whose reports it combined — more reports, but don't blame me, I'm just saying what happened — was meant to chart the future for the youth service for the next decade, in the definitive tradition of Albemarle for the 'sixties. One of Mrs Thatcher's first acts at the DES, however, was to disband the Youth Service Development Council and announce that she did not accept its suggestions. To some extent this occurred because the Council's thinking had been closely related to the programme of the previous government — Denis Howell, the junior minister, was actually its chairman — but it was a part of the general tidying up of the fringe of councils, committees and corporations that the Heath Government undertook when it assumed power. The rejection of MilsonFairbairn left something of a vacuum as to the future of the youth service.

It may be simple for the middle-aged to think they recognise a young person when they see one but it is less easy to define precisely when young people cease to be young, or for that matter — to return to my neighbour's offspring — when children start to be youth. As a result there has been interminable debate about age limits. Taking the whole range of societies, clubs and similar groups, the OPCS survey demonstrates that participation drops steadily through teenage years, and much more rapidly for girls than for boys. This could be said to indicate that provision is failing to meet the needs of late adolescents, or that eighteen, nineteen and twenty year olds are inherently less interested in grouptype services. One solution to the dilemma would be to remove the age limits altogether and redefine the constituency of the youth service as the whole community. Milson-Fairbairn took this course and in spite of Mrs Thatcher's lack of enthusiasm Lord Longford's committee suggests a similar line for London by linking youth work with the wider field of adult education.

Organisationally the youth service falls within the remit of local educational committees and this is certainly a responsibility that could be questioned. Youth leaders complain of poor career prospects in the professional shadow of teachers, and young people complain about the didactic tone of many activities and the subtly pervasive atmosphere of hated school seeping through into leisure hours. It is far from sure that youth would get a better deal under the new social services departments the emphasis of whose work is still firmly on dealing with social casualties in one-to-one situations.

Oddly enough Seebohm had little to say on the subject. "We realised we had no chapter on youth," a member of that comimttee confessed to me recently, "but it was then too late to write it.' The development of group and community work, however, is taking social workers firmly in the direction of the more flexible youth service provision and already some progressive departments are experimenting with the use of unattached youth workers in long-term preventive roles and with clubs, holiday schemes and adventure weekends for delinquents and others. Certainly the transfer of responsibility for youth from education to social service departments should be considered within the next few years when the latter are more firmly established. Meanwhile the initiative for a large part of the work lies with voluntary and religious organisations who still control many of the more traditional clubs. These efforts of course amount to a sort of subsidy to a state service, but the quality of their work is uneven, and much of it is based on archaic principles and methods. Uniforms still abound, promises are made to Queen and country, programmes have an air of para-military outdoor heartiness which is not much to the taste of contemporary adolescents.

It is much easier to pose questions about the youth service than to answer them. The situation is changing so rapidly — one of today's major problems, the management of pop festivals, simply did not exist a few years ago — that there is much to be said for not laying down a detailed blueprint. Mrs Thatcher's refusal to say where she thinks the youth service should be going is perhaps a rather honest admission that she shares the general bewilderment.