Is your youth club any good?

Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, says that some youth service work is 'absolutely awful'. Sarah Cassidy visits the Wirral to see how it should be done
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The Independent Online

By the time she was 13, Anna was homeless and had a chronic drink and drug problem. After furious rows with her parents, she ended up sleeping on the floors of older and unsuitable friends, who led her into a shadowy world of alcohol and drugs. When she fell out with them, she was reduced to sleeping on the streets at night and drinking in the park during the day. With prospects this bleak, it seemed unlikely that Anna would live to see her 14th birthday.

By the time she was 13, Anna was homeless and had a chronic drink and drug problem. After furious rows with her parents, she ended up sleeping on the floors of older and unsuitable friends, who led her into a shadowy world of alcohol and drugs. When she fell out with them, she was reduced to sleeping on the streets at night and drinking in the park during the day. With prospects this bleak, it seemed unlikely that Anna would live to see her 14th birthday.

But today, Anna, now 18, has turned her life around thanks to the intervention of a crisis youth service called Response, which is run by Wirral, her local council. She works as a learning mentor for Wirral's youth service, going into schools to help other young people learn from her experiences. In addition, she has completed a social work course and is about to become a full-time care worker. "At 13 I was a wreck," she says. "I was hanging around with a much older crowd and got involved with a lot of things that I shouldn't have done. Response found me somewhere to live and came and visited me in hospital when I was in detox. They have completely changed my life."

Many young people, even ones who have had better starts in life than Anna, are dabbling with risky activities that could put them on a slippery slope to addiction or crime. It is 9pm on the last day of the school term and Chloe, 14, would normally be sitting in the park by now, boozing with her friends. While the girls get drunk on alcopops or vodka, the boys take drugs - cannabis, ecstasy, or whatever is the latest narcotic vital to maintain their hard-man image.

With up to 80 teenagers gathering every night in the park in Wallasey, on the banks of the Mersey, local people soon became too afraid to use the green space themselves for fear of the gangs of youngsters hanging around. The situation is far from unique. Up and down the country, youth teams are trying to help troubled youngsters while providing activities that are suitable for all young people. In Wirral, a youth centre and many excellent clubs give young people from all social backgrounds something worthwhile to do. The Government will shortly be building on the good work of youth teams such as Wirral's with a new Green Paper.

At the same time it will also spell out reforms for councils that it believes are underachieving. Reforms include a shake-up of funding meant for youth work to stop councils siphoning money into other services, and more involvement of young people in developing the services they themselves use.

Youth services are vitally important, says the minister for children, Margaret Hodge. Schools cannot be expected to solve every problem when teenagers spend 60 per cent of their waking hours out of school. But her view of some youth service provision is far from rosy. Youngsters would be far better off watching TV than attending some youth clubs, she says.

Mrs Hodge has been strongly influenced by the research findings of Leon Feinstein from the University of London's Institute of Education. His ongoing study of children born in 1970 found that those who attended unstructured youth clubs were more at risk of turning to crime, drink or drugs than young people from identical backgrounds who had never attended a youth club.

Hodge believes that there are commonsense reasons for this. "When young people who are pretty disengaged and have a chaotic lifestyle are thrown together with similar people without a purpose, they may just bounce off each other and become more likely to get into trouble."

She argues that a funding shake-up is needed to ensure that money intended for youth work is not spent elsewhere. "Government put about £500m into this," she says. "The local education authorities only spent 60 per cent. The rest has gone into other council services. Where you have a poor youth club, young people simply don't turn up. And that's part of our £500m gone." Moreover, the minister claims that there is a lot of variable quality.

The Green Paper will ensure that young people are always involved in the development of any services aimed at them. Ministers were shocked by a recent survey of young people in Southwark, south London, which found that 53 per cent simply did not like the youth facilities on offer while 10 per cent said there was nothing provided. But not everyone agrees with Hodge. The National Youth Agency is alarmed by her reliance on research dating to the Eighties, and fears that the Government could use it to punish a service unfairly that is doing excellent work today.

Back in Wirral, Maureen McDaid, the head of the youth service, agrees that young people must have the chance to take part in structured activities, but argues that just allowing them a place in which to relax can also be beneficial. "A good youth club is somewhere that provides a menu of provision," she says."Sometimes, that will involve somewhere where young people are just chilling out - and that's all right. If we become overly formalised, there's a danger that we will scare young people off."

Not all young people want to go to clubs, she explains. They prefer somewhere simply to meet their peers. Some clubs are looking at setting up youth shelters in parks, which will be designated safe places for youngsters to meet.

In Wallasey, young people like Chloe and her friends now have a safer place to go. Three nights a week, youth workers take a minibus up to the edge of the park and open its doors for any young people to board the bus and chat.

Called Contact-a-bus, the scheme tries to engage young people in worthwhile activities and make them realise some of the dangers of experimenting with drink, drugs and sex. "It's better than being out in the cold," says Chloe. "You feel a bit shady in the park, like some sort of tramp."

The workers behind the scheme hope to win residents over and establish a youth club in the park's community centre to give the drinkers somewhere else to go and some worthwhile activities to do.

But Hodge insists that although much youth service work is good, some is "absolutely awful". A bad youth club is one where there is an empty room, she says. "It's a place where they say they do outreach. It is probably an empty community hall with a battered old Ping-Pong table in the corner - and no kids."

It is that culture of bleakness and neglect that she hopes to tackle. Hodge argues that to do so could help the UK to escape the vicious circle of demonising young people, whereby everyone thinks they are going to behave badly, so they do.

The names of all the young people have been changed

s.cassidy@independent.co.uk

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