Claire Tyler writes…We need to invest in all our young people

When it comes to the big debates on education, invariably the focus is on schools and universities. It’s all about academic success, exam league tables and access to higher education. On the rare occasions that the focus isn’t on institutions, it’s on apprenticeships. The attention governments of all hues have paid to these flagship policies have obscured one very important fact: the majority of young people—53%—do not follow the ‘traditional’ academic route into work.

Not so the Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility which has just published its report “Overlooked and left behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people”. Our bald conclusion is that young people not pursuing the traditional path are getting a raw deal. Consider the fact that there are some 3 million people in further education colleges on a government budget of £4 million, while the 2 million people in higher education enjoy a budget of some £30 billion—nearly 8 times as much. Or consider the fact that schools and colleges receive between £500 to £1,200 less in funding per student for those aged 16 and above.

As a member of the Select Committee on Social Mobility, over the last year I’ve heard first hand from policy makers, educators, employers, civic organisations and most importantly of all young people themselves, about the challenges faced by our country’s young people. The Committee recognised the value of apprenticeships for young people and the economy but pointed out that only 6% of 16 to 18 year olds do one. The vast majority of apprenticeships are started by people over 19. Many others leave school or college and face a bewildering and incoherent set of options with little help or support to guide them through this morass, leading to high levels of drop out. There is no centralized, UCAS-like system to guide these young people into jobs with the possibility of upward mobility. Instead, they (and the employers who hire them) must face a constantly shifting, incoherent and poorly-funded system of vocational qualifications that is consistently given short shrift in favour of A-levels and university degrees.

We have made a raft of recommendations to the Government that they could implement in this Parliament to help young people who don’t go to university or undertake an apprenticeship to make a successful transition to work. Key among them is the urgent need to reduce the unfairness in funding between academic and vocational routes into work.

Rather than the national curriculum stopping at age 16, the report recommends that it should instead end at 14 to enable a new 14-19 transition stage to be developed so that young people can experience a mix of vocational and academic options more tailored to their interests, which can help them to make better informed choices later on. Importantly, this transition stage must include a gold standard in independent careers guidance which moves responsibility away from schools and colleges. We also need to ensure all young people have access to high-quality work experience including social action opportunities. This is something which most employers want but which the current system does not easily facilitate.

In the past three decades, we have had 61 Secretaries of State responsible for skills and employment policy, compared to 18 for schools policy and 16 for higher education. That says it all really in terms of priorities and how seriously the issue is taken. The constant churn of policy and ministers accountable for supporting this overlooked majority mean that an already complicated system has been made worse.

I encourage you to read the report because the current system isn’t just unfair on the individual young person, often leading to a life time of missed opportunities. It also damages the UK’s economy and limits our collective human capital. Investing in our young people today has significant long-term economic and social value tomorrow, but only if we get the system right for ALL.

The full report can be found here.

* Claire Tyler, Baroness Tyler of Enfield, has been in the House of Lords since 2011, taking an active role in the areas of health and social care, welfare reform, social mobility, well-being, children and family policy, machinery of government and the voluntary sector. She is the Liberal Democrat member of the Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, and co-chair of the APPG on Social Mobility

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