Young people find their election voice

By Ben Durbin

Friday 3 April 2015

Last night was the night that the voice of young people finally broke through into the election campaign.  After education’s absence from last week’s interviews with Cameron and Miliband, it was especially edifying to see a young politics student asking the opening question (on the budget deficit), and at once establishing his own credentials as a future leader (on twitter at least!)…

It was the fourth and final question from the audience that really opened up the floodgates though: what will you do for young people?  This provoked a flurry of responses from the seven party leaders, touching on a wide range of topics, including school placesfree schoolsfunding, and tuition fees.

But underlying many of the responses was a common thread: preparing young people for work.  This is understandable, and quite right. Over 16 per cent of 16-24 year olds are currently unemployed, a figure that – whilst falling – is still far too high.  When it came to suggesting solutions, apprenticeship played their usual starring role.  This is all well and good, but I’d like to highlight some areas for further attention.

Firstly, in the comments made there was an occasional hint that out-of-date prejudices persist regarding the sorts of opportunities or types of young people for whom vocational education is suited.  Not all apprenticeships are in plumbing or construction: indeed, in 2013/14 over 30 per cent of completed apprenticeships were in Business, Administration and Law, and a further 23 per cent were in Health, Public Services and Care.  Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive, but as my colleague Tami McCrone has argued, it is essential that we change society’s attitudes to vocational education as a valuable and viable option for a wide variety of young people.

Secondly, apprenticeships are not the only way in which young people can gain work experience and ultimately make a successful transition to employment.  As part of NFER’s education to employment research programme, in the past couple of weeks we have published two important studies exploring innovative approaches to providing 16-19 year olds work experience; and how schools, colleges and businesses can work together to improve young people’s preparation for work.  One of the themes throughout this research is the dedication required from leaders willing to develop and sustain meaningful partnerships, and to overcome the barriers between businesses and education, to the benefit of young people.  I’m hoping that the insights from our research will help to make this easier in future.

Thirdly, effective careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) is critical.  It helps each young person make the right choices for them, ensuring they remain engaged rather than overwhelmed, underwhelmed or simply de-motivated by the future options available to them.  For some young people it also helps to provide the motivation to persevere with their education today.  In the current environment where responsibility has been devolved to individual schools, we need fresh thinking on how to ensure consistently high quality provision.  We also need a more coherent approach across institutions that puts the interests of young people first (this new Foundation Code for high quality CEIAG sets a great example).

To conclude, I’d like to suggest one final note of caution.  The premise of last night’s discussion seemed to be that education exists to prepare young people for work.  This is understandable in the circumstances, and is of course one of its most important purposes.  But let’s not lose sight of a wider vision for education, empowering young people as active, fulfilled members of society, enjoying science and the arts, and developing a life-long love of learning, regardless of the economic benefits it brings.  One of the leaders last night spoke out firmly against creating an ‘exam factory’ system. Should we be equally wary of creating a ‘worker factory’ system in its place?