Since the government’s formation in 2010, the Coalition’s policies have served to widen the gap between education and employment. The trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA and even proposals by the Tories for a blanket scrap of JSA and housing benefit for under-25s has shown how the government is working against the interests of Britain’s young people.
Meanwhile, youth unemployment figures remain stubbornly high at 958,000, according to the most recent figures. This is why the transition from school to post-16, to training, apprenticeships, education and university is so vital. Policy needs to focus therefore on how we successfully prevent the post-16 slip into NEET categorisation.
A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the academic path to forging a career, but often alternative routes for ‘the forgotten 50%’ have been sidelined. According to YouGov polling only 1 in 5 young people believe that an apprenticeship will lead to a well-respected career and less than half have heard of the National Apprenticeship Service. Many are under the impression that apprenticeships only serve to supply employers with cheap labour.
A ‘leave it to others’ approach to these issues will not do. A Labour government would boost apprenticeship opportunities by assisting SME’s in taking on new apprentices and through the ‘one UK apprentice for every foreign worker’ scheme. High quality vocational provision is needed to better the chances of the 20% of 18-24 year olds and 38% of 16-18 year olds who are jobless.
The education-employment gap also ties into what Ed Miliband described last year as Predistribution; the ability to give people the chance to earn their way out of disadvantage and to link this with both fair tax and the Living Wage.
At the centre of this we have to look at the transformation of part time into full time work highlighted by the current employment statistics. There are still a too many part time workers seeking full time work but unable to secure more working hours. Many young people are currently in this position, of having a badly paid job with routine activity, but are restricted in terms of moving onto the ladder of progression in that job or into new opportunities.
We should at least be able to say to a young person starting out in life: “take this uninspiring and badly paid employment and we will help you grow your talent, and develop your earning power and your creative spirit, so that you can really achieve to your full potential.”
Indeed, social mobility is a key part of the inspiration we need within our education system. That involves a return to something akin to a careers programme, offering genuine independent advice and transforming the expectations of young people by giving them new experiences.
A crucial aspect of achieving social mobility within our education system is by reinstating the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which was first introduced back in 1999 when I was Education Secretary. EMA, which provided a maximum of £30 per week, supported young people still in education with the cost of transport, books and college equipment. It offered genuine fairness for students who, through no fault of their own, find themselves hampered by the most deep seated disadvantage in their lives.
Since the Coalition scrapped the Allowance, Tristram Hunt, the current Shadow Education Secretary confirmed it will be re-introduced if the 2015 election sees a Labour majority. This is one of the positive steps that can be taken towards a more equal and fair educational landscape.
However, within the last few years, young people have not only been disproportionately hit by the recession but also by Coalition policy. A Labour government, come 2015 would serve to change that.
By David Blunkett MP