Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

Youth policy – a review and challenge

paper chainThis week, Helen Hibbert from Partnership for Young London shines the spotlight on youth policy and the key issues facing today’s young people.

I’ve recently been asked to look at the world of youth policy and to provide a stimulating challenge that will contribute to the development of a children and young people’s manifesto; so I thought I’d use this blog post to rehearse some of those issues that will get people thinking and arguing.

The ethos of youth work and those working with young people through informal education is to have an assets model: that is, to look at the positive and build from there. This has been framed very simply and neatly by one London local authority as the “I can… I am…” approach. Indeed, the rarely-referred to but fundamental government policy, Positive for Youth, is based on the premise of an assets model, with youth engagement and personal and social development at its heart. And yet – perhaps unsurprisingly – the stories that make the headlines in relation to youth policy consistently focus on the negatives. And what negatives!

“If we lined up Britain’s unemployed young people, the job queue would stretch from London to Middlesbrough. Worryingly, more than 100,000 of these have faced unemployment for more than two years, with many fearing they will be permanently excluded from the world of work.”

This quotation from Martina Milburn of The Prince’s Trust is a startlingly graphic representation of a persistent issue that lies at the heart of youth policy and ties into the worlds of education and work. Youth (un)employment is the biggest issue facing young people and the whole of the UK at this moment; it is addressed by policies from DfE, Cabinet Office and DWP among others, and yet it shows no signs of diminishing.

Finding a solution

There is no simple solution, and the tendency to suggest that more apprenticeships will solve the problem is simplistic and naïve. No doubt more, and better supported, apprenticeships that allow young people to progress within the workforce will show benefits; but without long term job prospects beyond those qualifications, better understanding from employers of the benefits of taking on apprentices, and better preparation for young people to enable them to make a success of their courses, frustration will remain on all sides.

The measures brought into provide support for those furthest removed from the labour market have had mixed success, with the Youth Contract failing to provide access to work for all those who need most help, and even alleged “cherry-picking” and “targeting low-hanging fruit” failing to harvest sufficient results, some young people remain as far as ever from the life-changing move into the world of paid employment, with all the concomitant benefits of self-esteem, confidence and other personal development factors that lead to success in adult life.

portraitMoreover, the introduction of the Raising the Participation Age (RPA) initiative could be masking a huge influx of young people into the labour market further down the line. There is a lot to be said for RPA – greater awareness of where young people are and what they need to help them progress; a broader, more interesting, more flexible set of curricula for young people to access; a much clearer focus on what young people want and need, rather than on what providers are prepared to put on. Given that it is legislation without mandating, there is no compulsion to force young people to conform; the idea is that the offer to young people should be compelling, not the legislation.

The challenge will come when those young people come out into the labour market, better prepared and focused on success; how will those for whom Youth Contract is failing fare against even greater competition? And how will any of them cope with the apparently entrenched predilection of employers for older workers over younger ones? London in particular is the place where age discrimination against young potential employees is greatest. This blog isn’t the arena for a detailed analysis of the labour market and the factors that work against young people; but this is a serious issue that has got to be faced by government now and in the future.

Underlying issues

Perhaps the two biggest issues that underlie young people’s capacity to engage in any educational or employment activities are housing and health, particularly mental health – without either of which young people continue to be socially excluded. These are not exclusive to young people, of course, but they play a significant part in providing a solid base from which young people can develop confidently and successfully. Housing policy presents clear challenges for young people, both in their own right and as part of their families; poor quality housing affects daily life, while the prospect of living securely in a place of their own is an increasingly a receding dream.

When Positive for Youth was introduced in 2010, at PYL we contributed to the consultation, based on what our members told us were the key issues to address. The abiding message in my memory was “youth poverty” – allied to but still distinct from child poverty, in that adolescents face additional challenges – and it covered not only the basic features of daily life but poverty of experience, without which the world is a depressing place.

The government’s response to young people’s engagement in society has been the National Citizen Service, which has been a controversial programme in relation to the amount of resources that have gone into it, its relation to existing youth engagement programmes, and the way in which the drive for national expansion of the programme has not, until now, been subject to consultation (there is consultation currently on the next round of commissioning – but not on the programme itself). While conforming in theory to youth-led, youth engagement principles, and aspiring to tackle poverty of experience, it has received mixed reception, and will certainly be a topic that continues to divide opinion.

Helen Hibbert – Partnership for Young London

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