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There are stark educational and employment inequalities between and within generations. Learning and Work Institute’s new Youth Commission aims to find answers.

It’s just over two years since Theresa May became Prime Minister, committing on entering Downing Street to tackling burning injustices. There is perhaps no clearer burning injustice than the divides in young people’s education and career prospects:

  • One in ten young people are not in education, employment or training (NEET). A staggering 70% of care leavers spend at least a full year NEET by age 19
  • People’s chances of doing well at school are more dependent on family background than in many other countries
  • Attainment of literacy and numeracy – the fundamental building blocks of life and work – is weaker than in comparator countries, with larger inequalities between demographic groups
  • Growth in the proportion of young people gaining GCSE and A-Level equivalent qualifications by age 19 has stalled in recent years
  • 50% of young people participate in higher education, in line with international comparators but with a greater focus on full time degrees at age 18 and less chance to learn throughout your life

Of course there’s lots of good news too. Young people today are more likely to leave education with good qualifications, and most young people go on to find work and forge careers. The injustice is that the chances of doing this are far too dependent on a young person’s background. Wherever you look the biggest shortfall is the availability of high quality vocational and technical education routes.

It’s like a game of snakes and ladders, where the ladders are only open to half the population.

At Learning and Work Institute we’ve established a new Youth Commission, guided by politicians, policymakers, young people and those working in Further Education, to try to find the answers. Running for one year, we’ll look at how best to widen and improve education and employment prospects for 16-24 year olds in England.

Our first report sets out some of the challenges. It also reports new polling, showing that concern about the next generation’s prospects is widespread but that young people themselves are optimistic: 46% of those aged 25 and over thought young people would do worse than previous generation, compared to just 26% of 16-24 year olds.

The polling also shows a significant minority of people who think their education did not prepare them well for the world of work. This was particularly the case for those in lower socioeconomic groups and those currently out of work. This is the sort of divide we need to heal.

We also gave people a number of different policies and asked them to choose which would make the biggest difference for young people. Reassuringly (for me at least) grammar schools are not a big priority for any group. Cutting university fees is a bigger priority for higher socioeconomic groups; lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to argue for more opportunities throughout life. Greater experience of the world of work is overwhelmingly the most popular policy option for younger age groups.

At the moment, our politics is divided. And our polling shows some divides in the solutions preferred by different age groups and socioeconomic groups. But what struck me most is the relative unity in agreeing there is a challenge to be tackled.

There’s a political prize to be gained by the party best able to convince they ‘get it’ – whether it’s the Government’s T-Levels and apprenticeships, or Labour’s National Education Service. But more importantly, it’s essential to our future prosperity and fairness.

A last reflection. There are some big policy challenges here. But this is also about delivery by schools, colleges, providers and charities. And how employers engage in supporting education and giving opportunities to young people. There’s some great examples up and down the country – we need to make those business as usual rather than exceptions that prove the rule.

How do we do that? What role do Local Authorities and civic society have? What more can business leaders do?

These are big questions - and this is a big challenge. We certainly can’t be accused of a lack of ambition! But these are questions we need to answer, and that our polling suggests people want tackling.

Stephen Evans

Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute

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