As a fan of Charles Dickens, I must complement you on the name you’ve chosen for this conference. Hard Times and Great Expectations are not only two of the finest Victorian novels but - as is often the case with Dickens’s work - aspects of them continue to resonate with contemporary concerns, even though they were written more than 150 years ago.
And if you don’t mind, I’d like to go on to suggest a third Dickens title - Our Mutual Friend - which I think evokes well ideals such as partnership, empowerment and trust: ideals that underpin the kind of relationships we need to engage in more, whether our work is based in Westminster, local government or a community-based organisation.
Society needs to engage young people
And when we think about these principles - partnership, empowerment and trust - it seems to me that they have special relevance with regard to the way we work with young people.
Because too often, I think, society treats young people as merely passive recipients of what adults are able to give them. Although it’s done with the best intentions.
As parents, educators and politicians we give children information, we provide them with leisure activities - computer games, youth clubs, drama groups, football teams - we steer them towards certain universities and training courses.
Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves of what the pioneering American educator Robert Shaffer said:
We should think of young people as candles to be lit, not empty bottles to be filled.
And we have to remember that young people today are so much more vocal - and powerful - than ever we were, thanks to the technology at their disposal.
Our globalised digital world is one in which they are right at home, and light years from the teenage experiences of anyone now over the age of 35.
So, if a group of young people can launch a successful Facebook campaign to stop a multinational clothes chain using sweatshop labour, how can we expect them to remain inert while we continue telling them what to do?
Of course, young people won’t always like what we say to them, and we won’t always like what they say to us. That is the nature of dialogue and free speech, and of teenagers.
But just as any good business listens to and takes account of its customers and employees when making decisions, so those of us in public life need to listen more and take real account of what young people tell us about the kind of society they want.
It’s an approach which is key to this Government’s thinking about all of its relationships - which we believe should be based on mutual respect and two-way dialogue, not a one-way channel of diktats and prescriptive ring-fences dished out from the people in charge.
We could do a lot worse than follow the example of one of the UK’s most creative and successful companies - John Lewis - which doesn’t have ‘employees’. Only partners. We want, we need, young people to be active citizens - our partners in society.
Young people as partners
By partnership, I mean we need to engage in a full dialogue with young people. To give them real opportunities to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
We must channel the energy, enthusiasm and idealism that are the hallmarks of youth, to benefit young people themselves as well as the rest of society.
The vast majority of young people, we know, are positive, responsible citizens who are keen to make a difference where they live.
We want to give them a chance to develop skills and experience so that they can be involved in real decision-making at national, local and community levels.
And, of course, one step on the road to achieving this is through the National Citizen Service programme. It’s been a long time in our vision and a long time in the planning and it’s set to become a reality this summer.
We hope and believe National Citizen Service will become a valued rite of passage into adulthood that all 16-year-olds will want to complete. The kind of skills and experience they will build, such as leadership, working as part of a team and using initiative will be an important part of their personal development.
For many teenagers, we hope their summer of service will be remembered by them as one of the transformative periods in their lives: introducing them to friends they would never otherwise have met; helping them to discover talents they never realised they had; developing a spirit of community and belonging and national identity.
We currently have 12 groups of organisations who will be working with 11,000 young people to deliver National Citizen Service this summer - and we want many more youth organisations to get involved over the next few years.
Because there are real opportunities here not only for young people themselves, but also for the many groups who work with them.
It’s interesting to reflect that, out of the hundreds of interested parties bidding to run National Citizen Service programmes this year, the winning bids were almost all made up of small groups who had pooled their different expertise to form federations or partnerships.
And we see this way of working as a blueprint for the future of youth services as a whole. Because sharing resources, interacting with partners, isn’t only more creative. It makes much more economical sense, particularly in these financially straitened times.
It is our ambition that, over time, every 16-year-old will choose to take part in National Citizen Service, and discover for themselves the truth of Gandhi’s words:
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
But we also know that it will take more than a single, radical programme such as this to help us achieve our vision for young people in a Big Society. So NCS is just one element of how we want to get a better deal for young people.
Over the next few years, we want to see youth services transformed, so that all young people can feel prepared for life as adults and able to determine their own future.
We foresee different services being able to pool capital and intellectual resources in imaginative ways to bring about better, smarter ways of working together, for the ultimate benefit of young people.
It won’t be government who will achieve these changes. It will be all of you within the sector who will take on the work and achieve the reforms, with the buy-in of young people themselves. The Government is only the catalyst for change.
So while we are proud, for example, to have secured £134 million of capital funding for 57 Myplace projects for young people, we know our role is simply that of facilitator to the excellent work community groups up and down the country are doing, in Myplace and other youth hubs.
And we need to make sure these groups remain fully engaged so that projects such as Myplace can go from strength to strength and be active hubs at the heart of their community.
Now, as we fine-tune our agenda for reform, we are consulting with young people themselves, as well as with stakeholders, on what the priorities for the youth sector need to be.
Over the next few months, we’ll be holding a youth summit and organising workshops and round table events, so that we can develop a shared vision, and a shared understanding, of the purpose, benefits and role of services for young people.
And when, in spring, we publish our policy document outlining the approach, we will do so confident that it has been scrutinised and validated by our partners - young people, local authority leaders, businesses and charity organisations.
Empowering young people
We want young people to have a sense of optimism about their future. To have high aspirations and a perception of empowerment from knowing they can achieve them.
And there are two other ways in which we can make this happen.
First, we do it through education. Education is a young person’s route to empowerment. It liberates young minds from the constraints of poverty; and it frees them from prejudiced ways of thinking.
Our schools and educational institutions, therefore, are essential if we want to increase social mobility and make sure we bring out the absolute best in young people.
Because one thing that particularly concerns us today is the poverty of aspiration that we too often see in children from poorer backgrounds.
And at the heart of our education reforms is a determination to tackle the chasm that exists between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a disparity not only of wealth, but even more importantly, of aspiration, opportunity and achievement.
At present, the alarming reality is that in any given year, more young people from a single public school will achieve a place at a top university, than from their contemporaries among the poorest 80,000 in the country.
One of the key ways in which we will address this national shame is via the pupil premium - extra funding that amounts to £2.5 billion pounds over the next four years, for the poorest pupils in the country.
Crucially, the money will follow the child to the school they attend. The school will be accountable for working with the student to make sure that extra income is spent on helping to raise their attainment.
Of course, attainment doesn’t necessarily mean attending university, whatever your background. An academic career isn’t the only route to empowerment and there’s much more we’re doing around vocational education as well.
We need to offer young people a real choice about the path they would like to follow in life. We need to give them the freedom to explore their individual talents and interests in a way that will match their hopes for future employment.
Professor Alison Wolf is currently considering how we can strengthen what we offer to 14- to 19-year-olds in terms of vocational education. We look forward to seeing her recommendations when the review is published this spring.
But hand in hand with greater choice, is the need for good, professional advice.
We all appreciate sound guidance when we face a number of options, even if we’re only buying a new smart phone.
Good, impartial careers guidance from a professional informs young people of the options open to them, and helps them to choose the right path for themselves.
For students with fewer aspirations, such guidance can be a crucial motivator and an important factor in increasing social mobility.
So we have been working with colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to reform and streamline the careers service in England for all young people up to the age of 25.
From April next year, a new all-age service will offer informed and independent guidance on ways into education and training, employment and apprenticeships. And we will expect schools to make this available to all students.
Local authorities will continue to be responsible for providing help to vulnerable young people only, to enable their participation in education and training.
But whether an individual decides on an academic, vocational or work-based training path, what matters is that they do continue their education and training beyond the age of 16.
Research shows that for young people not in employment, education or training between the ages of 16 and 18, the outlook is quite bleak.
Being NEET at this age is associated with problems later in life, such as unemployment, poor health and depression. At the end of 2009, almost 10 per cent of our 16- to 18-year-olds were classified as NEET. And yesterday’s figures on youth unemployment are also cause for concern.
So I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say this is a tragedy for young people themselves, and a loss on a huge scale to society.
In the recent spending review, we committed to raising the participation age to 17 by 2013, and to 18 by 2015, thus helping all 16- and 17-year-olds gain the skills and qualifications they need for a successful transition to university or skilled employment.
Educational reform is one way in which we are able to empower young people and raise aspiration. The second approach is by putting the right policies in place within the wider social context.
We place enormous value on the pastoral role that schools play in young people’s lives. But we recognise that teachers by themselves can’t give young people everything they need in the way of pastoral care.
Growing up is fraught with anxiety - even those teenagers lucky enough to have the most perfect childhood aren’t immune at times from painful feelings of social inadequacy, from fear and loathing of their changing bodies - or from that excruciating embarrassment known as parents.
Parents and teachers need a supportive society to help them guide young people through the difficult terrain of adolescence.
But sadly, far from being supported, parents often feel our culture conspires against them. From a very young age, children are bombarded with dodgy marketing messages and even dodgier merchandise.
Our independent review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, commissioned last month, will make specific recommendations on what we can do to tackle these issues when it reports back in May.
Our Department is also working closely with other government departments, to provide sustained and integrated support for young people through improved schooling, health and youth employment programmes.
Targeting resources at the most vulnerable - EIG
The role of wider society is especially important when we think about children who don’t have the good fortune to be born within a stable and loving family.
Who live in areas of great deprivation, or who are vulnerable perhaps because they have a disability, or are at risk of taking the wrong track, for example through involvement in crime, risky sexual behaviour or substance misuse.
When money is really tight we’ve got to focus financial support on the young men and women who need it most.
And we have to measure success by outcomes achieved, not by numbers participating.
To this end, we’re currently exploring Payment by Results models, as part of the one-pot-fund we’re calling the Early Intervention Grant.
As its name suggests, the Early Intervention Grant is intended to fund services that deal with potential problems by getting in there early on - preventing early risks from escalating into something much more expensive and problematic later on.
And it’s intended to help all young people and families who become vulnerable in some way - including teenagers.
We are keenly aware of the financial challenges that local authorities face in the coming year. We are sympathetic. But we won’t tell local authorities what to do. Those days are gone. We believe that local spending and local priorities are best decided by local people.
The Early Intervention Grant is one step on the road to greater autonomy for local communities. It’s also a step towards a more strategic role for local government.
Changing role of LAs
Instead of being providers, local authorities will increasingly become commissioners of services, responding to local need.
We expect to see much greater involvement by voluntary, community and private enterprises in the running of our public services. Smarter partnerships - in particular between local authorities and youth agencies.
The Localism Bill will help create a level playing field, giving organisations the right to challenge local authorities for the right to run services, if they can show they can do it better and more cost effectively.
The new, independently run Big Society Bank will use millions of pounds from dormant bank accounts to help fund charities and social enterprise projects. And I want to see high quality youth focused projects at the front of the queue for these funds.
And a cabinet office consultation paper on Commissioning sets out how Government will further support the creation and expansion of mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises. These results will all feed into a Public Service Reform white paper to be published in a few months time.
Youth services stand to benefit enormously from these reforms - but it’s going to be a challenging and choppy ride. Unlike most other sectors, provision for young people has never been properly modernised. And unfortunately, this is why they have always had to rely heavily on central government grants, and why the pain is felt at the sharp end, when money is tight.
So we need to grasp the nettle now to make youth sector services more sustainable, more viable, more varied and more young person-led.
Times are hard, but I am confident that if we seize this opportunity, in four or five years time we will come through better and stronger than ever, our services transformed and expectations fulfilled.