Dragon Slayer

Frances Rickford meets Althea Efunshile, the head of the
government’s children and young people’s unit, who is determined to
change society’s attitude to young people.

Most young people, as we know from newspapers, are truants,
criminals, drug dealers and neglectful mums. They hang around on
street corners mugging old ladies and harassing law-abiding
citizens, smash their empty beer bottles in the playgrounds and
listen to horrible music through leaking personal stereos.

Although the Prime Minister and home secretary may recognise
aspects of this stereotype in their own teenagers, for the woman
appointed to head the government’s children and young people’s unit
it is a dragon to be slain. Althea Efunshile, herself the mother of
two teenagers, sees herself as an advocate for young people, and
also a conduit to bring young people’s views and experience to the
heart of government.

Efunshile points out, for example, that children and young
people are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the
perpetrators with more than one in three children aged between 12
and 15 assaulted each year.

“I see a key part of my job as getting the perspective of young
people up there, and valued. They get an unfairly bad press, and
although I acknowledge that there are real problems, we do need to
see young people as individuals who can contribute something that
is valuable. The stereotypes are powerful, but when you ask people
about the teenagers they know personally, they describe
well-intentioned, likeable people with a sense of moral
responsibility for their families.”

The CYPU’s remit is based on the recommendations of a social
exclusion unit policy action team (PAT) report on young people. As
well as its policy recommendations the PAT identified four
strategic issues: designing policies around the needs of young
people; prevention; co-ordination and leadership; and continually
improving services by sharing knowledge of “what works”.

The unit’s job is to take these issues forward. It is charged
with developing an over-arching strategy for all children up to the
age of 19, and also for administering the £450 million
children’s fund – about a third of its work in Efunshile’s

One of the unit’s main functions is to break down the barriers
between Whitehall departments around policies and services for
children and young people, and it is a cross-departmental body
itself. Home Office minister Paul Boateng has day-to-day
responsibility for its running, but it is located in the Department
for Education and Employment, with secretary of state David
Blunkett accountable to parliament for the unit’s work. The unit
also answers to a cabinet committee chaired by chancellor Gordon
Brown and is steered by a group of senior officials from all the
departments which affect children and young people. Its 34 staff
are drawn from across government departments and the voluntary
sector, says Efunshile.

“Bringing people together so they can talk to each other is a
pretty good start to joined-up policy-making. We get a
cross-fertilisation, not only of thinking but also of styles. And
if we want ownership in the departments, they have to feel they are
part of the thinking and planning.”

Among the unit’s early jobs will be to set up a young people’s
advisory forum of children aged between 10 and 17 to advise
Boateng. Ongoing consultation with, and input from, young people is
also expected by the CYPU from the local partnerships administering
the children’s fund.

The government was emphatic from the outset that it wanted the
voluntary sector rather than social services or local government to
lead on the children’s fund, but in the end the unit had to call on
chief executives to get the ball rolling locally and in many places
it is social services-led partnerships around children’s services
plans which are drawing up children’s fund proposals.

Efunshile sees local authorities’ “leadership from the side” on
the children’s fund as a logical extension of their changing role
in communities. “Local government’s role is very important but it
is not any longer about delivering services – it is more about
community leadership. They need to work hard to involve communities
in evolving their own solutions to their problems. Our concern is
not so much what the partnership is, as who is on it.” CC

– PAT report on young people on www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/seu/index/publishe.htm

Curriculum Vitae

– Executive director for education and culture, London Borough
of Lewisham

– Assistant director of education responsible for youth and
community service, London Borough of Merton

– Education officer responsible for youth and community
services, London Borough of Harrow

– Area youth officer, Buckinghamshire County Council

– Director of community education centre in Paddington for
African Caribbean young people, run by Westminster Community
Relations Council

– Secondary school teacher in Brent

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