Youth Contract scheme must get the right results

Ravi Chandiramani
Monday, March 5, 2012

The government's attempt to get the most vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds into education, training or work as part of its Youth Contract is welcome, although not before time.

It is accepted that a failure to help young people "disengaged" from society will store up problems for decades for themselves and society at large. The payment-by-results model proposed appears reasonable; payments to providers will be staggered across three phases based on their ability to keep young people in training or employment.

The programme, of course, comes against the backdrop of youth service cuts and the decimation of Connexions. Support and guidance for vulnerable young people is becoming harder to come by. However, the programme has its share of potential hazards. First, it is essential that providers work with young people to establish their interests and identify suitable opportunities, rather than shunt them on to any course or placement that is available and bag the initial payment. The danger would be that young people drop out, feel let down and become more alienated than they were before.

Second, as is the case with payment-by-results contracts in general, providers are likely to gravitate towards the "low-hanging fruit", helping those who require less effort and leaving those with the most entrenched problems by the wayside. This is inevitable with a flat payment structure, but could be avoided in a system with added incentives to engage the very hardest to reach, whose problems and drain on the public purse will otherwise go unchecked.

Third, the eventual winners could be large prime contractors rather than the smaller local organisations delivering the work on the ground or, most important of all, the young people themselves. The danger here is that large firms will cream off hefty management fees and starve small providers at the coalface into competing with each other to be sub-contracted by accepting the lowest possible margins.

That serves only to threaten the sustainability of the very organisations that have the expertise to engage with these young people and reward those companies whose expertise is essentially contract management.

These are pitfalls that must be avoided. Otherwise, what seems a well-intentioned programme will end up being a missed opportunity and a huge waste of public money.


Courage and honesty in adversity

Haringey and Doncaster councils would not make it on to a list of the most desired places to work in recent years. Both attracted nationwide notoriety at the end of the last decade over their record in keeping children safe.

Former children’s services director Peter Lewis tells of his three-year experience at Haringey, while Doncaster’s incumbent Chris Pratt outlines the steps it has taken to turn things around.

Both identify a culture of honesty and openness as fundamental to restore morale and confidence in making decisions about children at risk. Under intense pressure and a pernicious media spotlight, this takes a special kind of courage – from both managers and those who safeguard on the frontline.

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