In recent weeks there has been a fantastic upswing around programmes and ideas to support struggling young people find engaging education and employment opportunities. And there’s been a neat connection to digital technology in the mix too.
For me, it’s a particularly exciting time. I’ve been ruminating on and sandboxing ideas and iterations over the last twelve months, and with the Spark+Mettle team and co-creators, we have come up with some findings that might be useful for others who are now attempting to support young people fulfill their potential both online and in the real world.
I wanted to put down some thoughts I’ve had on routes forward for supporting young people that have surfaced after a number of news stories on latest the research and policy strategies circulated in the UK last week.
A quick note on our approach to our work.
In many ways, Spark+Mettle is an intersection, a joint, a broker between two or more different groups or approaches or spaces. When it comes to how we work, this connecting holds true. We work in a spirit of praxis: taking findings from the worlds of academia, research, theory and policy and applying them to our programme structure, delivery and evaluation. This is our process. And this means that although our core mission and vision is steadfast (that we want to help people flourish, especially young people; that we want the UK to be happier, more cohesive, and egalitarian), we acknowledge that our approach to achieving this is not fixed, but adaptive and responsive to the changeable circumstances young people find themselves in.
Four key routes to providing support for young people
1. Help get the foot in the door where families have no access
An interesting blog post from Miles Corak, a professor at the Univeristy of Ottawa, highlights the importance of the inheritance of employers in Canada and Denmark—even in these socially mobile countries up to 40% of young men have worked for employers that their fathers also worked for. “[Our research] raises the importance of recognizing that child outcomes are related not just to the quality of the early years, but also to the structure of labour markets, and the resources parents have—through information, networks, or direct control of the hiring process—to influence the final transition children make in becoming self-sufficient and successful adults.”
What then for the young in the UK whose parents are either unemployed, or employed in jobs that the young themselves do not want to follow? More youth organisations need to find ways of brokering relationships with employers. There are some exciting examples already that work within the school system (such as Future First). But for those young people who are not in school? We do what we can but we are a small potato. A very small potato.
2. Provide enriching, extra-curricular support for all young people.
There are many chasms of opportunity between the young who have easy lives in the UK and those who do not. Arts organisations have long supported young people and provided inspirational projects to those who can’t afford to attend expensive after-school activities. With funding draining away from state schools, teachers are left with even less to provide high quality support to all young people. I agree with the Deputy Prime minister when he suggested last week that universities should take students from less privileged backgrounds with lower A-levels. Tim Hands, chair elect of the Headmasters and Headmistress’ Conference, did not. In fact, he accused Nick Clegg of “old-style communist creation of a closed market” and suggested that such an approach is tantamount to “capping the achievements” of privately-educated students.
He is wrong. With just 7% of all students at independent schools, the country should not revolve around nor hinge on their achievements. We need to build strong partnerships between arts groups, schools and other youth organisations, online and offline, so that the vast majority of young people in the UK are able to access enriching, extra-curricular programmes.
3. Enable the development of soft skills and social skills
A key piece that emerged from the Work Foundation’s ‘Lost in Transition’ report last week is that there is urgent need to support the development of soft and social skills in young people who are about to enter the jobs market. The report highlighted the growing number of “customer-facing” occupations. It also highlighted the fact that no experience of paid work creates a substantive barrier to finding more work. For young people to get their foot on the first rung of the jobs ladder, they need to be equipped with the soft and social skills beforehand. And although explicit soft skills coaching is a good way forward, it is often exposure to a number of different (supportive) social and professional settings, and the gradual realisation of how to respond to them successfully, that can lay strong foundations for individuals’ personal development.
4. Inform about emerging employment trends, growing occupations etc, entrepreneurship
All young people should know which sectors are growing and which are in decline so that they can begin to make informed choices. So share the knowledge. According to ‘Lost in Transition’, the growing sectors include:
- associate professional
- service (but not administrative or secretarial)
It’s also important that young people know what their rights are, about internships (it is illegal for organisations not to pay regular workers). And about other employee rights too. In fact, the Beecroft report published last week was a useful reminder of employee rights, principally because it included “a bonfire” of many of the traditional ones. Among these was the suggestion that it should be easier for micro-businesses to fire people at will.
A final note on social mobility:
Last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced a set of ‘social trackers’ to measure fairness in society, to monitor the impact of the Government’s policies to tackle social mobility every year. It’s an interesting idea and one that may just begin to hold the government to account more quickly and with greater effect. But who knows.
In my mind, the routes mentioned above and Spark+Mettle’s whole approach tries to veer away from improved social mobility as the ultimate goal. It’s a fine line to distinguish, and I often find myself using the phrase ‘social mobility’ as shorthand for the sort of work that we do, because if I start harping on about egalitarianism and pride I end up on a soap box, talking mostly at myself. But I think it’s important to stress it here because a lot of the routes suggested could be seen as ways of plugging the social capital gap or middle-class ‘upskilling’ for the less privileged. That is not what I intended.
For there to be any sort of sustained, systemic social change in this country, if ever there comes a time when we become less precious about class and more open to flexible, non-hierarchical structures, right now we need to create spaces that encourage diverse groups of people to meet, interact and learn from each other—online as well as offline.
This should be happening in schools, but the fracturing of the education system means that the differences between rich and poor, privileged and not, are widening further still. This should be happening in universities, but the ghosts of school ties linger still, especially amongst Russell Group universities. Those, like Tim Hands, who suggest that allowing less privileged young people to enter universities with lower results is tantamount to capping the achievements of the privately-educated, are wrong. By the time young people sit for their exams, there have been close on eighteen years of discrepancies between the privileged and the not: discrepancies that can ring through the exams. It’s not unlike challenging two kids to get to the examination room starting off at different points. One has to walk through sunny meadows, with a clearly marked map, food on demand, and a host of people to give advice, guidance and support. The other must wade through mud, in fog, with few people to direct them to where they need to go.
People can’t flourish in mud.
I believe that good youth initiatives should not be about helping young people to become more socially mobile or supporting a few ‘exceptional’ young people get a leg up on the social ladder. Instead I’m keen on getting rid of the idea of the ladder altogether. We need to think about success in new, lateral ways. Why should success only be measured in terms of strength of academic achievements, or distance travelled when climbing up out of the working class? Why not measure success instead in terms of level of pride about who they are, what they do, where they are from? Forget exam results, sod the colour of their collar. Screw social mobility.
People can’t flourish in a vacuum. I want to find ways of bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to listen to the ideas of others as well as to share their own, to offer opportunities for insight and experience, and to do all this in a spirit of openness and curiosity rather than rigidity and conformity. That’s what we’re trying to do through Spark+Mettle, albeit on a teeny-tiny scale. And if others are doing this too, then I am thrilled. Let’s forge on.