Stung by alarming rates of youth unemployment, the number of NEETs and still on the back foot over last summer’s riots; the Coalition government has published a ‘strategy’ document aimed at increasing participation rates of 16-24 year olds in education, training and employment.
Building Engagement, Building Futures contains few surprises. It reiterates government rhetoric that the way to improve participation in education is by increasing school autonomy, expanding the number of academies and free schools; but also by creating university technical colleges and studio schools – so helping to raise the attainment of pupils who might otherwise have disengaged from traditional schooling. It emphasises government commitment to increased attainment in English and maths and it reaffirms intentions to give teachers more power to deal with poor behaviour, so preventing it from impacting on young people’s education.
Continuing with New Labour’s proposals to raise the participation age to 17 and then 18; for those over 16 it promises further improvements in vocational learning and more apprenticeships. Building Engagement argues that new proposals for bursaries will be more cost-effective than the previous EMA. It also reaffirms Coalition proposals for the new ‘youth contract’ providing subsidised employment and new work experience opportunities and to simplify the benefit system through introducing a Universal Credit. We should have serious reservations about the education reforms and the youth contract. We must also ask questions whether any of the initiatives can work, based on the level of funding that’s being committed. The key problem with Building Engagement however, is its overall perspective.
The opening lines of chapter 1 argue that the ‘the majority of young people succeed in education and make a positive transition to adult life and the world of work…’ In other words, the failure of the NEETs needs to be contrasted with the success of the rest of young people ‘more than 96% of 16 year olds and 87% of 17 year olds were participating in education or work-based learning at the end of 2010 – more than ever before’. The reality however is that more and more young people are facing a crisis of transition. As well as those officially labelled as NEETs, thousands of those who have worked hard, passed their exams and in many cases, progressed into higher education now find they have a mountain of debt and are also working in jobs which neither match their aspirations nor reflect their level of education; that is assuming they have proper employment at all. Rather than increasing skill levels and improving their chances of social mobility, as Building Engagement implies, remaining in education for a prolonged period, has been a pragmatic response to the absence of other alternatives.
The increase in university tuition fees, Michael Gove’s policies to make academic education more exclusive (and more selective?) and the pruning of existing vocational and applied education in favour of non-existent apprenticeships can only result in education becoming more unequal. It will also increase the likelihood that many of those in the ‘squeezed middle’ – not just the NEETs, will be worse off than their parents. Rather than a minority of young people needing additional help to compensate for poor levels of basic skills, the most highly schooled generation of young people is finding it is ‘overqualified and underemployed’. In the absence of any serious plan B for the economy, education faces a crisis of legitimacy.