While reporting an upturn, Ofsted has found a lack of consistently good youth services in England, with councils coming under fire for failing to integrate them into children’s services. Nina Jacobs reports
The quality of England’s youth services has been subject to fresh scrutiny with the publication of an Ofsted report giving an overview of the sector last week.
While the research’s findings reveal an overall gradual upturn, it concludes there is a need for considerable improvement in one in five of the services inspected.
Notably, it casts a spotlight on the stark contrast between the strongest and weakest youth services. It also says a “significant minority” of local authorities are failing to ensure the proper integration of youth services into the new children’s services structure brought in by the Children Act 2004.
Of the 33 youth services visited by Ofsted in 2005-6, fewer than half were judged to be good or better. Of these 15, Doncaster was the only local authority judged to be outstanding. A further 11 were judged to be adequate and the remaining seven were described as inadequate.
Ofsted says the figures paint an improving picture of the standard of youth service provision of the 31 services inspected in 2004-5, only six were judged to be good or outstanding and eight inadequate.
However, it seems youth services are still being held back by some local authorities failing to give them sufficient priority and a lack of leadership both locally and nationally.
Inspectors found that strong leadership was a key factor in bringing about improvement and that the most successful services have a clear vision and match resources to needs effectively.
Mark Blake, head of policy at the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, says the situation is compounded in local authorities where there is a lack of focus and direction at a senior level.
He says: “Youth services in several local authorities do not have the senior strategic support and positioning they should have. We need to see more strong leadership and also a greater lead from central government in terms of its expectations.”
Despite significant numbers of youth services being inadequate councils are not seen as willing enough to engage with voluntary organisations by some within the sector.
David Chater, head of policy at young people’s charity Rainer, says many councils are still wary of forming partnerships with voluntary organisations.
He says: “I think authorities are just running to keep pace with the changes surrounding children’s trusts. They are not outsourcing to other agencies because of the impact it could have on their structure.”
Craig Jones, director of 4Childrens‘s Make Space campaign, which is working to try and get a network of youth clubs developed across England, says that he is “not surprised” by the report’s findings and that youth services remain “patchy” across England.
Jones says local authorities need to draw up clear lines of responsibility, involve elected members and find robust ways to pool budgets.
“At the moment it’s all too disparate. We should be providing services from 0 to 19 – there needs to be a continuum of support from the start,” he says.
Ofsted recognises this issue in its report. It identifies struggling authorities as those failing to include youth services within new and emerging children’s services structures.
It advises councils to ensure elected members, senior officers and other decision-makers understand the educational role of youth work, the quality of the youth work provision and its potential contribution to young people’s lives.
Youth services should also look to build upon the managerial and relevant experience of youth services officers and engage them in key strategic developments.
Jones believes local authorities who fail to integrate youth services into children’s services are not doing so because the benefits have been insufficiently proven.
He says: “Some local authorities are just not doing as much as others. I think the government should provide models of delivery – we need more of a strategic steer from central government.”
Lack of funding is still an important barrier to the successful provision of youth services, campaigners say. Recommendations from the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury, which will feed into the 2007 comprehensive spending review and this year’s budget, are expected to advocate increased funding of activities for young people.
Jones says the government needs to commit large amounts of money to local authorities and that the comprehensive spending review “is a chance to make it happen”.
The Ofsted report draws attention to areas which experienced “tangible improvements” in provision when councils increased their youth service budget. Such services were able to provide attractive, accessible venues and specialist equipment for young people.
It found that resources and quality are closely linked and inspectors say some local authorities still expect too much of youth services without providing sufficient funding.
In some areas, this is resulting in already limited resources being spread even more thinly and too many youth service managers devising curriculum plans without consulting staff and young people.
Blake believes youth services need to shake off their traditional “Cinderella” image.
He says: “There have been low levels of funding and it is always the youth services which seem to get clobbered when there is a round of cuts.”
Chater agrees: “Youth services have come under pressure because the overall budget [of local authorities] is under pressure.”
Both Blake and Chater feel Ofsted’s findings come at a time when issues confronting youth services are high on the political agenda. They cite Unicef’s global study on childhood – which was also published last week – as helping to ignite further debate about the future of the nation’s youth.
Chater, however, feels discussion on youth services and young people continues to be too critical. Given a recent Mori survey which found about 70 per cent of media coverage about young people had a negative tone, perhaps this is another area with plenty of room for improvement.
Four hours’ fun
Since January, local authorities have been expected to secure access to four hours of “positive activities” a week for young people – a proposal originally included in the 2005 green paper Youth Matters.
Government funding worth £4.5m for both 2006-7 and 2007-8 has been pledged for councils to develop and publicise activities, including youth clubs and sports facilities.
It is too early to tell to what extent local authorities have implemented this new duty and if it will make a difference. Craig Jones of 4Children, says his organisation has carried out research among London councils who are producing very clear plans. “The duty needs to be implemented through youth advisory groups. Local kids in Bristol don’t want what kids in Wakefield want,” he says. Jones feels young people need structured positive activities – which are shown to produce the best outcomes – but they also need to be “fun, attractive and popular”.
Rainer’s David Chater agrees it is still early days in terms of the legislation’s implementation but feels it will struggle to reach all types of young people. “Groups with higher support needs – such as homelessness or drug abuse – will be the hardest to engage in the new duty to provide these positive activities,” he says.
Building on the Best: Overview of Local Authority Youth Services 2005/06