It’s a tough time to be young. Since 2010, young people have taken quite a battering from policies and cuts which have narrowed their opportunities and limited their prospects of becoming active, fulfilled members of society.
All this in a context of continuing high youth unemployment with even graduates facing difficulty finding work. This is perhaps the best educated and most skilled generation ever but many politicians persist in blaming their lack of work on their lack of skills; blaming the victims of the recession for its consequences, as if better “skills” in themselves are enough to create jobs. The fact is the economy is not currently providing enough employment for new entrants. Even the much vaunted apprenticeship programme relies on jobs being available.
Young people are running up an accelerating down escalator. Everything they achieve seems to be devalued almost as soon as they’ve achieved it and they feel they have to run faster and faster to keep up. They see the value of the qualifications they take shrink before their very eyes: 5 good GCSE’s? Not enough. Going to college? Not enough. 3 A levels? Not enough. Going to university? Not enough. Only a full English Bacc, getting into a selective sixth form, achieving A and A* grades in facilitating subjects and a place at a Russell group university really cuts it these days.
Financial support has been withdrawn from this whole generation on a massive scale:
- The abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which was such a lifeline for many 16-18 year olds in education.
- The prospect of future debt and lower disposable income just when it is most needed as a result of increased university tuition fees.
- The massive cut in tutorial and enrichment funding for all 16-18 year olds in education and the proposed 17.5% cut in funding for full time18 year olds in education targeting the most aspirational and hard working students.
The funding of 16-18 year olds is stuck between the ring fencing of funding for 5-16 education at one end and the move towards more reliance on loans post-18 at the other. These young people are caught in the middle; vulnerable to cuts with no alternative sources of funding.
Wherever they look, young people are reminded of competition, selection, new institutional and qualification hierarchies and narrow definitions of excellence and quality. These factors tend to legitimise greater inequalities and far from spurring more young people to greater success they are more likely to depress aspiration.
We should avoid buying into this logic of despair. There are alternatives, but are they being articulated? The draft education manifesto of our major opposition party currently opens with the following: “For Britain to succeed in the 21st Century we must earn our way in the world and win the race to the top with a high skill, high wage economy.” Is this limited economic definition the best expression we can come up with of the purpose and value of education in our society? I do hope not – for everyone’s sake.
We need a plan to restore young people’s role in society and we need policies to inspire them to play their part in helping us to get out of the mess we’re in. We need to show confidence in all young people and invest in a new deal for the young based on a broad vision of the possibilities of education, training and work.
This is a great generation we should be looking to for hope and change, but it is at risk of becoming a disillusioned demographic. Any party which claims to be thinking of our future and investing in our people needs to offer young people a serious stake in our economy, our politics and our culture.